Milongas, Malbec and Messi: the ultimate guide to backpacking Argentina
Argentina is the eighth largest nation on the face of the earth, and it squeezes an awful lot inside its ample borders. Cities, wetlands, deserts, mountains, jungles, beaches, glaciers, vineyards, ski fields… Argentina is as diverse as it is enormous, which is exactly what makes this slab of South America such an enticing destination. The sheer scale of the country makes planning a trip a little daunting, so we’ve got the lowdown on everything you need to know about backpacking Argentina.
Jump straight to:
- The best time to visit Argentina
- Visa for Argentina
- Where to go in Argentina
- Argentina budget
- Where to stay in Argentina
- Travelling around Argentina
- Backpacking Argentina itinerary
- Argentina food
- Argentina culture
- Argentina travel advice
Best time to visit Argentina
Argentina covers about 2.8 million square kilometres — roughly the size of France, Turkey, Japan and Nigeria sticky-taped together — and all that terrain is a nightmare for the weatherman. When one end of Argentina is sweltering, the other is shivering, or one place is parched while the other is pouring. While the weather in Argentina is as diverse as the country itself, spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) are generally the most pleasant times of year to visit, wedged between the winter hibernation and the hot and sticky crowds during summer.
The mighty Iguazú Falls bordering Brazil and Paraguay are hot and wet year-round, with wild thunderstorms and 30-plus temperatures in summer (January and February) before drier and cooler conditions roll in mid-year (May to July). The towering waterfalls roar their loudest with all that rainfall around Christmas, if you can stand the heat. Same deal with the vast Iberá Wetlands nearby.
The other side of Argentina is a similar story, with scorching and rain-soaked summers making way for comfortable, bone-dry winters. Sitting at the foothills of the Andes not far from the border with Chile and Bolivia, far-flung provinces like Salta and Jujuy are at their best in June and July, when the arid red landscapes resemble something out of the Wild West, and frosty nights thaw out to 20-degree daytime tops.
Buenos Aires weather is spared from the dramatic peaks and troughs other parts of Argentina experience, with four mild, conventional and positively pleasant seasons. Imagine Sydney, or a slightly wetter San Diego.
Summers can be steamy in the city — that’s why so many porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) escape to the beaches of Mar del Plata five hours’ drive south, or Punta del Este over the Rio de La Plata in Uruguay — but spring and autumn are perfect, especially when the jacarandas add a splash of lilac to the Avenida Nueve de Julio when the weather warms up in November. Even in the depths of winter (June and July), top temps never dip below 15 degrees — perfect weather for nestling into one of the Argentine capital’s famous steakhouses (parrillas), nightclubs (boliches) or tango halls (milongas).
The climate is similar in Córdoba and Rosario — Argentina’s second and third largest cities, located in the centre of the country — while Mendoza is a little hotter over Christmas, hitting 30 most days. South America’s wine-making mecca comes alive during harvest season each autumn, when Mendoza’s vineyards glow hues of gold, orange and red in the shadow of the Andes.
Cooler climes make Patagonia the most time-sensitive destination in Argentina — rock up during the summer peak and you might face a ‘no vacancy’ sign hanging in the hostel window, come back a couple of months later and it’s been replaced by ‘closed for winter’. But if you’re planning a long backpacking trip through South America, the snow-capped tip of the continent is a good alternative to sweating it up in the city during summer.
The weather in this brutally cold part of the world is more unpredictable than a Game of Thrones wedding, but planning your trip between November to March will give you the best chance of good conditions to explore Tierra del Fuego. The days are warm(ish), the nights are gentle, and the sun lingers long into the night. Between Easter and October though, expect plenty of hostels, bars and restaurants to shut down for the season.
Past the windswept beaches of the Atlantic Coast lies the Península Valdés, one place that heats up during the cooler months. A pod of southern right whales cruise into the bay each June to mate, sticking around until December with all the elephant seals, dolphins, sea lions, penguins and other sea birds that flock here.
Perched on the eastern edge of the Andes, Argentina’s Lake District is another winter hotspot. While the glacial lakes and volcanic peaks of the Nahuel Huapi and Lanín national parks are better tackled during summer, the Andean ski resorts’ season kicks off in June when the snow settles around Bariloche. Too late? No worries. You’ve got the wildflowers that blanket the Lake District each spring to look forward to in the sunshine.
Argentina weather can be volatile. Argentina events, on the other hand, run like clockwork. On top of Easter, Christmas and New Year’s, the country observes a crowded calendar of national holidays, including Independence Day on July 9th when massive crowds flood the Plaza de Mayo with a sea of sky blue and white in front of the Casa Rosada.
Outside the capital, Carnival fever grips the country each February. The biggest — and most Brazilian — Carnival takes place in Gualeguaychu, three hours’ north of Buenos Aires. In Mendoza each March, the Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia marks the grape harvest season in wine country, and further south in Bariloche, the Fiesta de la Nieve brings the party to the snow.
Córdoba is more than 11,000 kilometres from the beerhalls of Munich, but the tiny village of Villa General Belgrano throws an almighty Oktoberfest that Bavaria itself would be proud of. And back in Buenos Aires, the capital embraces Argentina’s national dance with the Festival de Tango every August before painting the town rainbow for November’s Pride parade.
The most colourful parties of all are held at Argentina’s canchas — or football stadiums — which are packed to the rafters with screaming hinchas (fans) between early August and late May, with a mid-season break over December and January. Witnessing a match at Boca’s La Bombonera or River’s El Monumental is a bucket-list experience for any self-respecting football fan, so don’t rock up in June or July and wonder why these revered sporting cathedrals are so silent.
Polo is another Argentine sporting curiosity that enjoys its time in the sun each spring, when the world’s premier polo players congregate in Buenos Aires to compete in the Abierto Argentino and other major tournaments between October and December. The national rugby team — Los Pumas — tackle Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on home soil between August and October, while the Argentina Open brings tennis to Buenos Aires every February.
Visa for Argentina
Argentina visa requirements
Argentina’s visa requirements are pain-free for most travellers… phew! Passport-holders of 80-plus countries don’t require a visa for tourist stays of up to 90 days. That means citizens of the European Union (and yes, that includes the UK — let’s not open the Brexit can of worms just yet), Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United States, plus virtually all Latin American and Caribbean nations can simply rock up with a passport valid for six months and get a 90-day stamp.
One asterisk on that: if you’re arriving by air, you may need to provide proof of onward travel. Argentine officials rarely ask, but your airline might — they don’t want to fly you straight home if Argentina knocks you back, so do your homework. Land and sea borders should be straightforward, even if customs checks might be a little more thorough than what you’re used to elsewhere.
Some great news for Aussies, Americans and Canadians — Argentina has torn up the reciprocity fees that used to greet you like a slap in the face when you jumped off the plane. For US citizens, this arrival tax was as much as US$160, which buys an awful lot of bottles of Quilmes in Argentine pesos.
If your country doesn’t appear on the visa-free list but does feature on this one, you can apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation visa (AVE) for US$50 so long as you have a a B2 tourist visa issued by the US or a category C visa issued by the EU Schengen Zone with three months validity.
And if you’ve fallen so deeply in love with Argentina that you can’t drag yourself away after three months, there are two ways to extend your stay. One is to leave the country for a day or two — the simplest option being the 75-minute ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia in Uruguay, a nation that also offers visa-free entry to pretty much all the passport-holders Argentina does — then grab a fresh 90-day stamp upon return.
The other is to brush up on your Spanish by navigating your way through the maze-like Dirección Nacional de Migraciones website, where you can apply to extend your visit by 90 days for a small fee. Mind-numbing bureaucracy or a quick trip to an exciting new country… your choice.
A date with the Migraciones website is also on the cards for visitors planning to work, study or live in Argentina, who must also possess an appetite for months of tedious paperwork with an infamously cumbersome government agency. ¡Buena suerte!
Argentina visa UK
From the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas) to David Beckham’s red card at the 1998 World Cup, Argentina and England have shared a tense relationship in the recent past. But if you’re frantically Googling ‘Argentina visa UK’ trying to figure out if your British passport will be welcome when you land in Buenos Aires, fear not — UK passport-holders can enter Argentina visa-free for up to 90 days.
Where to go in Argentina
When drawing up a list of Argentina highlights, you need to ask yourself what you’re into. Wine or wildlife? Glaciers or gauchos? Stumbling out of a Buenos Aires boliche at 6am or setting your alarm for that time to climb Mount Fitz Roy? Argentina is a huge country with experiences that suit every type of backpacker, and these are the main stops where you should book a hostel.
Buenos Aires is the biggest, brightest and most brilliant stop on this list of Argentina highlights. The capital of the country and one of the Americas’ most vibrant metropoles, this must-see city is an intoxicating cocktail of culture, chaos, colour and craziness that every backpacker needs to taste for themselves.
Sun-kissed parks in every barrio. Cosmopolitan cafes spilling out onto every street corner. Late-night milongas playing sultry tango music and world-class nightclubs pumping into the wee hours of the morning. Parisian architecture and a sophisticated arts and theatre scene to match. Some of South America’s chicest shopping as well as the continent’s wildest football stadiums. The attractions go on, and on, and on.
Wondering where to go in Buenos Aires? The Argentine capital is a humming hive of different barrios, or neighbourhoods. The towering Obelisco marks the middle of Microcentro in the heart of the city, bordered by the narrow cobbled streets of rustic San Telmo to the south and the gentrified former docks of Puerto Madero to the east. Trendy Palermo and upscale Recoleta are where to go in Buenos Aires’ fashionable north, and don’t skip a trip to the colourful homes of La Boca in the city’s south, either.
Rosario is another one of the largest cities in Argentina, renowned for its style and sophisticated Italian streak. Perched on the Paraná River three hours’ drive north-west of the capital, this city of one million residents doesn’t attract as many backpackers as other Argentina highlights. But Rosario is well worth a visit for history buffs — there’s the hulking monument to the Argentine flag that was first hoisted here in 1812, the compelling Museo Histórico Provincial museum, and the birthplace of revered revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (yep, that dude on all those T-shirts).
The colonial-era Spanish architecture of the historic Jesuit Block makes you feel like you’re standing in Europe, but Córdoba is actually Argentina’s second city. And although the buildings might be 400 years old, hundreds of thousands of university students create a young party vibe that backpackers love.
Named the Cultural Capital of the Americas in 2006, Córdoba boasts a lively film and arts industry, loads of cutting-edge designers and avant-garde markets, and a pulsating nightlife that rivals Buenos Aires… almost. And the place comes alive every September when Villa General Belgrano hosts the Fiesta Nacional de la Cerveza — the National Beer Festival, or Argentina’s answer to Oktoberfest. Cheers to that.
Sitting in the geographical centre of Argentina among the Sierras Chicas mountains, Córdoba is also surrounded by trickling streams and gentle hills like the serene Agua de Oro, the plain of the Humid Pampa and the indigenous paintings of Cerro Colorado.
You’ll find another one of the largest cities in Argentina parked right in the middle of wine country. Mendoza — not far from the Chilean border in the shadow of the snow-capped Andes — is the biggest wine-producing region in South America, bottling some of the finest (and cheapest) Malbec you’ll ever have the pleasure of drinking out of a plastic cup in the hostel common room.
If your hangover isn’t too bad, hop on a bike to explore the dozens of bodegas (wineries) dotted around Mendoza as well as neighbouring Maipú, or book a bus tour if you plan on getting so sozzled that cycling is out of the question. And the city itself is a lovely place to knock back a couple of glasses of the local specialty, especially at the bars and restaurants that pop up on the wide boulevards leading to the Plaza de Independencia.
Mendoza is also a great base to conquer the Andes, including Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas — head to Confluencia base camp for jaw-dropping views, just don’t try to stuff too many wine bottles in your backpack. The quaint town of Lujan de Cuyo and the grape-growing Uco Valley are other Argentina highlights.
Mar del Plata
Looking for Argentina beaches? Look no further. This town on the Atlantic Coast south of Buenos Aires is the country’s hottest surf spot and porteños’ favourite place to spend a lazy beach break. Argentina beaches won’t knock your socks off if you’re used to the sparkling strips of sand in Australia, California or the Mediterranean, but millions flock to Mar del Plata every summer for some sun, sand and cerveza. The city gets extremely busy in December and January, but the crowds create atmosphere that rivals the nightlife you’ll get used to in the capital.
Argentina highlights don’t get any bigger than Iguazú… literally. Stretching 2.7 kilometres long and soaring more than 60 metres high, these 275 roaring falls make up the largest waterfall system on earth, forming the natural border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The tumbling water roars louder than any football stadium in Argentina — and that’s saying something. They don’t call the river Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) for nothing.
Dodge the coatis (South American racoons) on the walking trails snaking between Iguazú’s dramatic lookouts, then take a boat tour to get splashed by the cascades. Puerto Iguazú is the town you stay in on the Argentine side of the chasm, then there’s Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil — it’s worth popping over the border if you don’t need a Brazilian visa.
En route to Iguazú lies a huge freshwater reservoir linked to the falls, brimming with wildlife, jungle and gaucho cowboy culture. Covering about as much territory as Slovenia or Fiji, these mammoth marshlands house Argentina’s richest array of wildlife — alligators, jaguars, deer, anacondas, anteaters, monkeys, capybara rodents, you name it. And unlike the fields crawling with critters, the Iberá Wetlands aren’t overrun with backpackers yet, so you’ll feel like you’ve got the entire place to yourself.
Welcome to a little slice of Switzerland plonked in Patagonia. With its wooden cottages, deep blue lakes and snow-sprinkled peaks, San Carlos de Bariloche — usually just called Bariloche — is a charming launchpad to the alpine wonders that surround it, gazing over the tranquil waters of Lago Nahuel Huapi in Argentina’s peaceful Lake District.
Lace up your hiking boots over summer to tackle Bariloche’s pristine forests, then while much of Patagonia shuts down over winter, the region’s ski resorts like the massive Cerro Catedral open for business. The chilled-out town of El Bolsón is also worth a stop thanks to spectacular treks like the one to the Cabeza del Indio rock formation.
Over on the eastern edge of northern Patagonia, Puerto Madryn is a wildlife-watching wonderland that every David Attenborough wannabe needs to check out. This small beach town is the gateway to the Península Valdés, a nature reserve protecting thousands of sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, rheas, Magellanic penguins and other sea birds along 400 kilometres of Atlantic coast. It might be a little frosty for a swim but winter is still the best time to visit, when pods of southern right whales use the sheltered waters of Puerto Madryn to breed and give birth to their calves.
The Perito Moreno Glacier keeps a steady stream of backpackers trekking further south, where there are plenty of quality hostels in El Calafate. This tiny tourist town on the banks of Lago Argentino has been transformed by visitors flocking to the Los Glaciares National Park, home to one of the iconic Argentina highlights.
Thirty kilometres long, five kilometres wide and 60 metres high, Moreno is a dizzyingly large river of ice. But the highlight is when huge chunks of ice crack away from the glacier then crash into the water, producing a thunderous splash that feels like the special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster unfolding before your eyes and ears.
Flanked on all sides by mesmerising frost-bitten scenery, there’s more to see around El Calafate than just these awe-inspiring ice blocks. Kayak the Canal Upsala, gawk at more glaciers on a cruise of Lago Viedma, or head to hiking mecca El Chaltén, a hippie village that swells with mountain climbers each summer preparing to take on the jaw-dropping Mount Fitz Roy as well as stacks of nearby treks.
Ushuaia — teetering on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego — used to be a penal colony because it was so isolated, but now earns its place on any list of Argentina highlights due to its status as the world’s southernmost city. The town itself isn’t exactly easy on the eye, but everything around it is starkly beautiful — the end-of-the-earth vibe is what makes Ushuaia so special.
Sandwiched between the Martial mountain range to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south, this city is where Antarctic cruises set off from. But even if you’re not making that epic adventure all the way to Antarctica, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago provides a little entree. Hike Glacier Martial and Cerro Castor, stroll the frosty forests of the Tierra del Fuego National Park, check out the archaeological ruins of the millennia-old indigenous Yaghan people, and live out your own personal sequel to Happy Feet on the penguin-peppered Isla Martillo.
Salta and Jujuy
It’s easy to forget Argentina’s rugged north-west corner when you’re drafting your backpacking trip. But if you’re planning a visit to Bolivia’s much-Instagrammed Uyuni salt flats or Chile’s otherworldly Atacama Desert, you’d be crazy to skip the Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy along the way.
This distant nook of Argentina is a buffet of landscapes that look like they’ve been pinched from another planet. The bone-dry Valles Calchaquíes, the gushing rapids of Río Juramento, the jagged peaks of the Serranía de Hornocal in the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley, the barren Salinas Grandes salt flats, the dazzling Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours), and the dusty towns of Cafayate, Humahuaca, Purmamarca and Tilcara.
The city of Salta — a melting pot of indigenous influences, gaucho touches and grandiose colonial-era buildings — is a great place to base yourself for day trips out to the surrounding terrain, while San Salvador de Jujuy is the capital of the neighbouring province, another nice town to launch your north-west adventure from.
The Argentine peso is about as stable as a three-legged chair. One US dollar bought roughly three pesos — represented by the $ symbol — 10 years ago, about $6 five years ago, and around $45 at the time of writing, although that could be anything by the time you’re reading this.
The peso halved in value last year alone — one USD was worth $20 in January but $40 by Christmas — and the government has released a stack of new banknotes to keep up with inflation, adding $200, $500 and $1000 bills on top of the existing $100, $50, $20, $10 and $5.
ATMs (cajeros automáticos) are everywhere, but they’re a frustrating ordeal. Not all international cards work, so carry a back-up or two just in case. Many ATMs run out of cash, especially in touristy areas or small towns during high season. And withdrawal limits can be bafflingly low — around US$100 — with monster fees added on top. Banelco machines offer larger amounts — look for the maroon B logo.
Credit cards are widely accepted, and some spots even take US dollars or traveller’s cheques, but you’ll need cash for kiosks and smaller purchases. Carry crisp bills if you want to exchange money at a casa de cambio (change house), and examine the watermark on larger notes to sniff out any counterfeits. Stores can be a little funny about breaking big bills for this reason.
Tipping 10-15% at restaurants is customary — just remember that ‘gracias’ means ‘you keep it’, whereas ‘cambio, por favor’ means ‘gimme my change, thanks amigo’.
Travel costs in Argentina
Rampant inflation means Argentina’s not quite as cheap as you might expect it to be, especially when haggling isn’t a part of the culture like it is in other parts of Latin America, but it’s still an affordable backpacking destination. The rough rule of thumb for your Argentina daily budget? About US$50 or AR$2250 a day, depending on where you sit on the backpacker/flashpacker scale and whether you’re travelling during the summer rush.
A dorm bed in a highly-rated hostel sets you back around US$10 (AR$450) — sometimes a little more in Buenos Aires or remote areas like Patagonia during high season. A nice meal in a decent restaurant costs a similar amount, which seems like a bargain — you can demolish a steak and a glass of vino and still receive change from a 500-peso note, which sure beats another pot of instant noodles in the hostel kitchen.
Wine is another good-value buy — you can pick up a quality bottle of Mendoza Malbec from the supermarket for US$5 (AR$225) or a little more in a bar, while beers cost about US$1 (AR$45) at the supermarket and US$2-3 (AR$90-130) in a bar. A 50-peso bill is enough for a street snack like a choripan or an empanada, too.
Entry to museums like MALBA (AR$170/US$4) and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (AR$200/US$5) is reasonable, as is transport in Buenos Aires compared to other major cities. A Subte (subway/metro) journey costs AR$11.40 to AR$19 (less than US$0.50), depending on how many trips you take on your SUBE card in the month, while a taxi ride from Palermo to the city centre is about AR$200-250 (US$5-6).
The cost of transport between cities, though, punches a hole in your daily budget. Domestic flights often carry whopping price tags, but buses aren’t dirt cheap either — a ticket from Buenos Aires to Rosario (4.5 hours) is AR$600 (US$13), to Mendoza (18 hours) is AR$1250 (US$28), or to Iguazú (18 hours) is AR$2600 (US$58).
So if you’re planning to spend the night in a hostel, pop out to a museum and polish off a couple of empanadas for lunch, save some room for a steak and a glass of wine for dinner, then catch a taxi back to your dorm, you’re looking at US$40 or AR$1800 for the day. Save an extra couple of bucks for a special tour or your next bus and US$50 is a sensible amount for your Argentina daily budget.
You might have heard about the ‘blue market’ for US dollars from people who’ve visited Argentina in the past, but it’s pretty much useless now. Restrictions on trading foreign currency meant you could get almost twice as many pesos for your green back from illegal currency changers called arbolitos (little trees) on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires a few years ago — worth the risk to double your money, in many traveller’s eyes. But after recent law changes, the blue market rate is hardly any better than what you get out of the ATM or at an official change house these days, so you should feel no temptation to tango with these shady characters.
Where to stay in Argentina
You can stretch your savings a little further by staying at some of the many awesome hostels in Argentina. The average price of a dorm bed is about US$10 (AR$45) — perhaps a little more for hostels in Buenos Aires — which is just another reason why Argentina is such a great backpacking destination. From the Iguazú heat to the Patagonian frost, these are the best hostels in Argentina.
You can’t begin talking about hostels in Buenos Aires anywhere other than Milhouse, a pair of party hostels whose reputation spans the globe. Choose from Milhouse Hostel Hipo on Hipólito Yrigoyen and Milhouse Hostel Avenue on Avenida de Mayo — both smack bang in the middle of the city centre, and both boasting lively backpacker bars that pump long into the morning.
Other top-rated hostels in Buenos Aires include boutique HOSCAR-winning property América del Sur and the ultra-modern Circus Hostel in the charming San Telmo neighbourhood, Recoleta’s friendly Benita Hostel, and the bohemian digital nomad hotspot Selina Palermo.
If you’re looking for more some intimate hostels in Buenos Aires, book a private room at the rustic-chic ChillHouse or the 140-year-old Telmotango Hostel Suite bed and breakfast, which both offer a selection of good value single, double, twin and three-bed private rooms.
Hostel Lagares is a small property located in the historic centre of Mendoza, and its rooftop terrace is decked out with a parrilla so backpackers can enjoy a traditional Argentine asado with a bottle (or three) of Mendoza’s famous Malbec.
Hostels in Bariloche can be a little pricey, but some of them are worth every peso. Hospedaje Penthouse 1004 and Green House Hostel both gaze out over the lake, Hostel Alchalay is full of new friends, La Justina is a cosy cabin and Periko’s Youth Hostel is a dependable downtown choice.
Tangoinn Club Iguazu-Party Luxury Hostel offers a legendary pool and party atmosphere, while the family-run Tucan Hostel might provide a better night’s sleep before you explore Iguazú’s awe-inspiring waterfalls. Ambay Suites & Dorms and Casa Yaguarete B&B are other chilled-out choices.
Home to the Glaciar Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, El Calafate is your launchpad to some of Patagonia’s most mesmerising landscapes. And there’s a selection of superb hostels to choose from, including another América del Sur property, Schilling Patagonia Travellers, Folk Hostel and Patagonia Republic Hostel — all rated at least a nine out of 10 by Hostelworld guests.
Hostels in El Calafate are more expensive in the busy summer months of January and February, so try to book your bed in advance.
On the other side of Patagonia, Rio Gallegos is a popular pitstop between El Calafate and Ushuaia. Hostels in Rio Gallegos are limited, although Hysteria La Posada earns solid reviews for its squeaky clean facilities.
Argentina’s second city has a stack of cool properties to choose from. Alvear Hostel, 531 Hostel and Aldea Hostel are three of the buzziest backpacker joints, while Onas Hostel & Suites feels more like a fancy hotel than a budget bed.
Onas Hostel & Suites
The north-west corner of Argentina should appear on every backpacker’s Argentina itinerary, and the vibrant Prisamata hostel, plus the cosy All Norte are good places to stay if you do plan on venturing into these otherworldly landscapes en route to Bolivia.
On top of these major backpacking destinations, Hostelworld also offers properties that cover every patch of this vast country. Discover all of our hostels in Argentina!
Travelling around Argentina
Argentina’s public transport is another reason why this slice of South America is such a great backpacking destination. Planes, trains, buses, ferries and a small army of taxis form an extensive network of public transport across Argentina, helping you explore every inch of the country.
If you’re flying in from abroad, you’ll almost certainly arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini in Buenos Aires, always known simply as Ezeiza. Local buses into the city take forever — seriously, two hours, and ain’t nobody got time for that — but Manuel Tienda León shuttle buses (AR$400/US$9) or private taxis called remises (AR$1200/US$27) are much quicker.
Flying in and out of Argentina might be the only time you’ll visit Ezeiza — most domestic flights use Aeroparque Internacional Jorge Newbery closer to the centre of the capital. Aerolíneas Argentinas, LATAM, Andes and LADE all operate domestic flights, but with so few airports and minimum prices set by the government, most tickets fall outside of a backpacker’s budget, especially during the summer high season.
Buses (micros), on the other hand, are a backpacker’s best friend. They’re super comfy, mega frequent, and relatively affordable. Long-distance buses usually only have three seats per row instead of the usual four, which is positively luxurious. The ejecutivo (executive) and coche cama (sleeper) classes are the top of the tree, with huge reclining seats like business class on a plane, followed by semi-cama (half-bed) and común (common), both also fine.
Security is good, bags are tagged and stored securely underneath, and meals are often included with snacks and drinks sold on board. The only downside is the brutal air con — don’t forget a jumper (or a ski jacket). The comfortable conditions make the overnight bus an attractive option for saving a few pesos on accommodation, although hostels in Argentina are excellent and inexpensive.
There are dozens of dependable operators, and price depends on the level of luxury you feel like treating yourself to. For the 18-hour trip from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, for instance, you’re paying AR$1250 (US$28) for the semi-cama, AR$2700 (US$60) for the cama, and AR$3000 (US$67) for ejecutivo.
The beating heart of the bus system is Retiro station in Buenos Aires — this place is Disneyland for public transport in Argentina. But rather than navigating the maze of different companies covering a galaxy of routes, use a comparison site like Omnilineas to book your trip.
Despite the extensive bus system, some places — particularly in Patagonia — are only accessible via private vehicles, especially outside the height of high season (January and February). You need to be at least 21 years old and hold a valid driver’s license to hire a car, but be warned: the quality of roads is patchy, and the standard of driver can be even worse.
Argentina used to boast a train network to rival anywhere in Europe… but we’re about 70 years too late to enjoy it. The three main routes left are Buenos Aires (Constitución station) to Mar del Plata (6.5 hours, AR$660/US$15 or AR$795/US$18 for first class), Buenos Aires (Retiro) to Córdoba (19 hours overnight, AR$500/US$11 or AR$1750/US$39 for a bed), and Buenos Aires (Retiro) to Rosario (6.5 hours, AR$300/US$7). Check out all the routes here.
The Tren Patagónico routes from Bariloche to Viedma and Tren a las Nubes soaring around Salta at an altitude in excess of 4000m are spectacular but touristy, with the price tag to match. And Greater Buenos Aires also has a train network linking the capital with the rest of the province, which you’ll probably only need if you’re planning a day trip to Tigre from Retiro.
There’s not much boat travel within Argentina, but plenty coming in and going out. The ferry from BA’s Buquebus ferry terminal near Retiro sends regular boats to Colonia del Sacramento (75 min) and Montevideo (three hours), a smooth way to tick off another great South American country. Ferries also chug over to Chile from the Lake District as well as Antarctica from Ushuaia, if you’re planning that epic adventure.
A fleet of 40,000 black-and-yellow cabs buzz around Buenos Aires like a swarm of bees — a cheap and convenient way to get around the capital. These registered radio taxis all have digital metres — a 10km, 30-minute journey costs about AR$250 (US$6) in BA, and it’s a similar story in other big cities like Córdoba, Mendoza and Rosario.
Remises (private taxis) are also available, with fixed prices for set journeys like the trip into town from Ezeiza airport. Probably not in the regular backpacker’s price range, though.
Buenos Aires public transport
The capital is the only city in Argentina with a subway system, known as the Subte. It’s the quickest way to get around BA — the trip from Palermo to Nueve de Julio smack bang in the middle of the city takes 13 minutes — but you need a SUBE card to tap on, available from any kiosko (corner store) with a purple SUBE flag. The cost of a trip depends on how many you take in the month, AR$11.40 to AR$19 (less than US$0.50). Services run every couple of minutes between 5.30am and 11.30pm Monday to Saturday, or 8.00am to 10.30pm Sunday.
Above ground, you can’t miss the fleet of no-frills local buses (colectivos) roaring down the street, or the modern Metrobus lines racing down the five main arteries like Avenida Juan B Justo, Avenida Nueve de Julio and the 25 de Mayo expressway. Colectivo lines run all over the city, 365 days a year at infamously infrequent intervals. Again, add credit to your SUBE at a kiosko then tap on.
One handy tool to bookmark is Cómo llego? (‘How do I get there?’), which maps your route from Point A to Point B across BA.
The capital has also introduced the EcoBici bike share scheme to make the most of 200km of dedicated cycleways. These bright yellow wheels are completely free — good for your budget, and even better for the environment.
A similar tap-on card system called Red Bus also exists in Córdoba, Mendoza and Salta, while Rosario’s is called Tarjeta sin contacto. Buses and trolleybuses are the way to get around these smaller cities.
Backpacking Argentina itinerary
Argentina itinerary 1 week
Unless you have your own private jet — and if you do, have you got a spare seat on your next round-the-world adventure? — it’s simply not possible to see every part of Argentina in one week. And if you’ve only got seven days in the country, you’d be crazy not to start in Buenos Aires.
As well as being one of the Americas’ most exciting cities, the capital gives you a glimpse of everything Argentina has to offer — tango, steak, football, culture and non-stop nightlife. You could easily enjoy a whole week just in Buenos Aires — it’s one of those places where you need to immerse yourself in the lifestyle rather than race around ticking off landmarks — but if you’ve only got three days, spend one in the middle, one on the north, and one in the south.
The city centre, Microcentro, is home to most of BA’s famous attractions: Obelisco, Plaza de Mayo, Casa Rosada, Teatro Colón and El Ateneo Grand Splendid book store, as well as the rejuvenated docks of Puerto Madero around the corner. There’s no shortage of charming bars and cafes, but the middle of town also boasts Buenos Aires’ most iconic milongas (tango clubs) — try Maldita and its live orchestra El Atronfe, the intimate El Beso, and La Catedral in nearby Almagro.
Palermo — a stylish assortment of cafes and eateries — and Recoleta — containing the legendary cemetery — are the barrios to go in the north. This part of the capital is where you’ll find Argentina’s top two museums — cutting-edge MALBA and the historic Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes — plus River Plate’s El Monumental stadium a bit further north, if you’re a football hooligan who also dabbles in fine arts. Palermo also boasts BA’s liveliest nightclubs like Niceto and Kika, which don’t warm up until well after midnight.
Stray south to see the cobbled alleys of San Telmo and the colourful houses of La Boca stacked on top of each other, as well as the cancha of Argentina’s other gigantic football club, Boca Juniors, who rock the Bombonera every other Saturday. El Caminito is Boca’s main tourist drag, where steakhouses offering tango shows spill onto the footpath — a little tacky, sure, but a great one-stop shop of porteño culture if you have to drag yourself away from the city after only three days.
So where to next on your Argentina one-week itinerary? You won’t get the chance to see all of the country’s mesmerising landscapes with so little time, and even though Iguazú and Perito Moreno are Argentina’s most jaw-dropping drawcards, it makes more sense to head to the north-east.
Why? Because the terrain is so diverse. You’ll get to see dusty towns, lush wineries, dramatic peaks, cloudy rainforest and barren salt flats all a simple day trip from the city of Salta, which itself is an intoxicating fusion of indigenous influences and Spanish colonial culture with some of Argentina’s best steak to boot.
The plane from BA takes a tick over two hours and the overnight bus takes 20, but you pay for the convenience. Spend your first day seeing Salta’s scenic town square and scaling Cerro San Bernardo before renting a car or booking a tour for three day trips — there’s no shortage of budget-friendly tour operators that cater to backpackers.
Day one takes you to the neighbouring province of Jujuy, with old-world villages like Purmamarca and Tilcara as well as the time-carved Quebrada de Humahuaca valley and the colourful Cerro de los Siete Colores. Surrounded by bodegas, the town of Cafayate is worth a whole day to discover the rocky red landscape and the fruity local Torrontés wines. Mop up other north-east highlights — the Salinas Grandes salt flats, the twisting roads through the cloudy Yungas rainforest, and the wild west cacti that blanket the Valles Calchaquíes — on day three to round off your one-week itinerary in Argentina.
Argentina itinerary 10 days
This 10-day Argentina itinerary starts the same as the seven-day version, but adds three days in Iguazú Falls, the country’s most stirring natural marvel. Direct two-hour flights are available from both Buenos Aires and Salta, and it’s a smart investment to avoid an eternity on the bus and give yourself extra time to explore the humid north-west corner of the country.
Iguazú forms the natural border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and if there’s no visa issues, you should spend one day on the Argentine side and another venturing into Brazil. The two nations provide two perspectives on the UNESCO World Heritage listed wonder — you’ll get up close and personal with the cascades in Argentina, where you can even take a boat tour into the splash zone, while Brazil offers a better panoramic vista over the 275 falls, so that’s where you’ll snap your best Instagram gear.
An Argentina itinerary 10 days in length leaves room for a day in the nearby Iberá Wetlands or a pitstop at the ruined Jesuit missions on the road to Iguazú, but that’s best done with your own car or on an organised tour — public transport would be a squeeze. Failing that, use the extra day to soak up a little more of Buenos Aires.
Argentina itinerary 2 weeks
A fortnight gives you some more time to play with, keeping all the stops that appear above but shuffling them around a little. Begin in Buenos Aires before heading to Iguazú, then flying across to Salta and hugging the Andes down to Mendoza and Bariloche for two nights apiece. Both of those extra journeys — Salta to Mendoza, and Mendoza to Bariloche — take more than 18 hours on the bus but less than two on the plane. So if flights don’t fit into your backpacker’s budget, remember to book the cama ejecutivo class to make those marathon coach trips a little more comfy.
On your first day in Mendoza, recover from your overnight bus. On your second day in Mendoza, recover from your hangover. With the Andes as its backdrop, this grape-growing region pumps out more bottles of wine than anywhere else in South America, so it’s only right that you enjoy a glass or six of world-class Malbec. You could easily fill two days cycling between Mendoza’s many mountainside bodegas, but adventure-lovers might want to put down their glasses momentarily to scale Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas.
You can’t delve into the depths of Patagonia on a whistle-stop two-week stay in Argentina, but Bariloche is an accessible entree to this snow-capped region. The picturesque Lake District has weeks’ supply of breathtaking walking trails, so choose a couple to fill the last two days of this fortnight-long plan. If you’ve got the funds to fly, then you might fit in Antarctic Ushuaia or glacial El Calafate instead of Bariloche on this two-week Argentina itinerary.
Argentina itinerary 1 month
If you can afford to spend one month exploring Argentina, then you can really see the entire country… although you may end up stumbling around like an extra on the Walking Dead if you try to sleep in too many overnight buses instead of Argentina’s many great hostels.
These micros are much more comfortable than coaches in other parts of the world, but distances between destinations in Argentina are so vast that even the most luxurious cama ejecutivo starts to feel cramped after a while. Plane tickets are often way too expensive but even one or two flights — particularly to remote places like Iguazú or Salta in the north or El Calafate and Ushuaia in the south — can drastically cut down the amount of time you spend staring at the road. Naturally though, backpackers will become extremely familiar with the Argentine bus system on this busy 30-day itinerary.
Begin with five days in Buenos Aires, using one of the extra nights for a day trip to riverside Tigre or even on the ferry to Uruguay, and the other to rest your eyes after spending a late night (and early morning) at the boliche. Then break up the long trip to Iguazú with two nights in Rosario, a stylish city packed with history in central Argentina.
After three days in the north-east, fly to Salta for another four in the north-west before staying two nights in Córdoba — the city’s classic colonial centre spiced up by a cool student scene — en route to Mendoza for Malbec, Malbec and more Malbec. If you can afford a flight to Patagonia, happy days. But if you’re a backpacker living off instant noodles and the random ingredients you spot on the shared shelf of the hostel kitchen, then buses it is.
Start with two days in Bariloche then another two in El Calafate, the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the iconic Perito Moreno. This is a huge tick on the bucket list for many travellers and El Calafate is a 3.5 hour flight from Buenos Aires, so if you’re desperate to hear the crack and splash of this mighty glacier but only have limited time in the country, it’s possible to shoehorn it into a shorter itinerary.
A little further north, blissed-out El Chaltén offers more hikes around Mount Fitz Roy than your little legs can handle, and if you’ve got a little bit of leeway in your timetable, pop across the border to check out Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park too.
The bus journey from El Calafate to Ushuaia takes about 16 hours via Rio Gallegos and Chile, but this long and winding road only adds to the feeling that you’re travelling to the end of the earth — and that’s exactly why you should make the effort to trek it to this ultra-isolated town for three nights. Unless you win the lottery, a full-on cruise to Antarctica won’t fit into your budget, but a cruise of the Beagle Channel provides a little sample of the world’s least visited continent. Take your other two days to wander through the pristine Tierra del Fuego National Park and hop on a penguin tour to Isla Martillo.
There are even more wildlife-watching opportunities in Puerto Madryn, if you’ve got the stomach for another 20+ hour slog on a micro with a change in Rio Gallegos. Take two days to spot whales and co. in the Reserva Faunística Península Valdés, an untouched nautical nature reserve on Argentina’s Atlantic Coast.
And at the end of this 30-day whirlwind you’ve well and truly earned a couple of days with your feet up, so book two nights to enjoy the sand of Mar del Plata — another 16 hours north — before the relatively short five-hour trip back to Buenos Aires for your flight out of Argentina. Gee, that’s a busy month.
Like a steaming bowl of locro with a little taste of everything tossed in, Argentine cuisine is a melting pot of flavours from every corner of the globe. Indigenous civilisation and millions of Mediterranean migrants have combined to create a unique menu of dishes covering everything from seafood and sweets to stews and sausages.
Beef lies at the heart of Argentina’s traditional food, of course, and the parrilla (barbecue) brings families and friends (and backpackers!) together. But non-carnivores won’t be left hungry with exquisite empanadas, tasty tamales and delectable desserts on offer. From high-end restaurants to much-loved street snacks, sink your teeth into the best traditional food Argentina dishes up.
A legacy of the legendary gauchos (cowboys) who roamed the countryside in the 18th and 19th Century, no meal means more to Argentina than the beefy barbecues known as asados. Parrillas — the open-flame grills that are commonplace in Argentine homes and apartment blocks, as well as the word used to describe a barbecue restaurant — are the centrepiece of the asado, which refers to the social gathering itself, where attendees polish off half their bodyweight in beef and the other half in bottles of Malbec.
A smorgasbord of meats make up Argentina’s national dish. Expect to find chorizo (sausage), ojo de bife (ribeye), tira de asado (short ribs), bife de chorizo (sirloin), morcilla (blood sausage), chinchulines or chinchus (intestines), mollejas (gizzards) and even llama steak slowly sizzling on the grill, lightly seasoned with salt then slathered in chimichurri when they’re ready. Patagonia takes the parrilla to a grisly new level with their asado a la estaca, where entire lambs, goats or pigs are butterflied over the flames.
You won’t be overwhelmed with vegetarian options at a parrilla, but provoleta is a rare meat-free side dish. These discs of provolone cheese are thrown in a skillet with chilli flakes, oregano and tomatoes then left to melt on the grill before being seasoned with chimichurri and olive oil. Caramelised on the outside, gooey on the inside, and deliciously smoky throughout.
No asado is complete without one crucial ingredient: chimichurri, the green salsa spooned over
all that grilled meat. Named after an Englishman by the name of Jimmy McCurry who came to fight for Argentine independence back in the day (if you believe the local legend), chimichurri is a tangy concoction of garlic, parsley, oregano, onion, olive oil and red wine vinegar that’s sometimes used as a marinade but more often added to the buffet of barbecued beef off the parrilla. And yes, it’s borderline treason to use ketchup instead.
Dulce de leche
Cows are good for more than just their meat in Argentine cuisine, with milk providing the country’s other great culinary obsession. Dulce de leche is caramelised condensed milk — a thick, gooey paste that’s smeared on toast for breakfast, drizzled over cakes and pancakes for merienda (afternoon tea), or slurped straight from the spoon on a cheeky trip to the pantry. And if you’ve been lucky enough to sample this sickly sweet dessert, you’d know there’s no shame whatsoever in diving directly into the jar. Chimbote and Havanna are a couple of the top brands you can find in stores everywhere.
Argentina’s most addictive substance also appears in its favourite snack: alfajores, a layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between two small shortbread cookies. You’ll spot these desserts everywhere from corner kiosks to fancy restaurants, often coated in dark chocolate, white chocolate or shredded coconut.
El Capitan del Espacio — with its little space captain grinning on the shiny golden packaging — is one iconic brand that enjoys a cult following, offering a fruity dulce de membrillo (quince paste) alternative, as well as a super-sized ‘triple’ with three biscuits and two layers of dulce de leche, kind of like a tiny caramel Big Mac. Argentinian snacks don’t get any better than that.
For years, football fans have seen Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero jump off the team bus clutching a thermos in one hand and a steaming cup in the other. No, it’s not some magical elixir that imparts transcendental footballing ability. It’s mate, the national drink of Argentina.
Mate — pronounced ‘mah-tay’, not ‘mayt’ — comes from the indigenous yerba mate plant, whose leaves and twigs are dried and chopped up to form this very bitter tea. The leaves are packed into a hollow gourd and doused with not-quite-boiling water, sucked through the bombilla (straw) with a strainer at the bottom that stops you from copping a gob full of herbs, then refilled from the thermos as you pass it around the circle.
Much like the asado, mate is as much about the social ritual as it is about the thing you’re sticking in your mouth. The cebador is in charge of preparing the mate before passing it clockwise around the circle like a bong, except the only buzz is caffeine. And forget your manners — the word ‘gracias’ doesn’t mean ‘thanks’ in this context, it means ‘I’ve had enough, please stop passing me this cup of hot mud’.
If the taste is too bitter, you can add sugar or honey to the gourd for sweetness. Or try mate cocido instead, where the leaves are brewed like a regular cup of tea before adding milk and sugar.
Every day, the entire nation of Argentina snacks on these little crescent-shaped pockets of meats, vegetables, fruits and whatever else you can stuff inside pastry and stick in the oven. Like a tiny calzone or a Cornish pasty with a Latin streak, empanadas can be savoury — loaded with chicken, beef, veggies, cheese, olives, you name it — or sweet — filled with raisins, jam, sweet potato, cinnamon or dulce de leche, of course.
Almost anything can find its way inside an empanada, but different regions have different specialities. Up north, Salta’s empanadas salteñas are full of potato, egg, chives and llama meat if you’re feeling adventurous. Lard and a single olive are the signatures of wood-fired empanadas sanjuaninas in San Juan. And Córdoba adds sugar and raisins to their ground beef for a sweet twist in empanadas cordobesas.
Known as an escalope to the rest of the world or a schnitty in the rich lexicon of Australia, a milanesa is a thin fillet of beef, chicken, veal or pork coated in breadcrumbs then fried in oil — always plated with mashed potato, and often served with a fried egg or tomato sauce and melted cheese (a la napolitana) on top.
Named after the Italian city of Milan, the milanesa is one of dozens of foods Argentina has imported from the Mediterranean. Here you’ll find thick-crust pizza, plates of fettuccine, tagliatelle, cannelloni and gnocchi (or ñoquis, to use the hispanicised version), and one beloved Italian dessert.
Helado is another Italian classic that Argentina has pinched and proceeded to drown in dulce de leche. You can’t walk down the block in Buenos Aires without stumbling upon on a heladaría (ice cream parlour) during summer, particularly the giant Freddo chain, which boasts 150 locations across the country.
Freddo is the king of the Argentine ice cream scene, and its around-the-clock delivery service is a life-saver. The most popular flavour is dulce de leche (duh), but don’t miss the local favourite sambayón, made of egg yolks, milk, cream, sugar, Marsala wine and whisky.
When you don’t eat dinner until 10pm, you need a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. That’s why Argentines tuck into merienda (afternoon tea) around 5pm, sipping a mate or a café con leche (coffee with milk) with a factura (pastry) to nibble on. Medialunas — extra-buttery croissants dripping with dulce de leche or marmalade — and submarinos con churros — a tall hot chocolate with fried doughnuts — are always a treat.
Chorizo plus pan (bread) equals choripan. That’s the simple equation behind Argentina’s best-loved street food. Another gaucho specialty that’s made its way into the capital, you’ll spot roadside stalls all over Buenos Aires grilling butterflied sausages before whacking them into a crusty white bread roll with a dollop of chimichurri.
Taxi drivers queue around the block for a choripan at lunchtime, and the South American sausage sandwich is your fuel for every trip to the cancha, with dozens of makeshift parrillas feeding famished football fans.
Every 25th of May, Argentines celebrate the anniversary of their nation’s fabled 1810 revolution with a steaming bowl of locro. This meat, bean and vegetable stew began as an Andean peasant dish that just threw together the offcuts of whatever was left over in the kitchen, but now appears on any list of Argentina traditional food.
Carbonada is another casserole from the north of the country that’s perfect for frosty winter nights, combining meat, potatoes, carrots, peppers, corn, apricots and raisins in a hollowed-out pumpkin that’s roasted over the parrilla.
Hot tamales are more than just a terrible cinnamon-flavoured candy — they’re a legit Argentine dish. This Salta specialty is made of shredded meat and corn flower wrapped in a corn husk then boiled, while the Jujuy recipe mixes mince, corn and red peppers. Tamales are almost identical to another staple of north-western Argentina, humitas — a sweet-and-salty concoction of corn, onions and goat’s cheese tied up like a Christmas cracker.
Malbec might well be Argentina’s most famous export since Maradona. The French grape was first planted in the 19th Century and has driven Argentina to become the fifth largest wine producer on the face of the earth, with two-thirds of the country’s vino flowing out of Mendoza.
Sitting in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the differences in altitude around the province provide the microclimates necessary to grow great grapes. Same deal with Salta, Córdoba and San Juan, which produce Bordeaux reds such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot as well as whites like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, not to mention the Malbec that Mendoza is famous for.
This bitter herbal liqueur isn’t a traditional Argentine drink — it was shipped in from Italy in the 19th Century and only became mega-popular after a local TV ad campaign in the 1980s — but these days, Argentina guzzles more than three times as much fernet as the country that invented the stuff.
Fernet-Branca is a behemoth of a brand, building a distillery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires — the only one outside Milan. And its product is rarely thrown down in shots, instead almost exclusively mixed with Coca-Cola — you’ll fit in with the locals when you order a fernet con coca from the bartender at the boliche.
Argentina’s food reflects the country’s culture — a colourful combination of European and South American influences that produce a unique flavour you won’t find anywhere else on earth.
Those millennia-old indigenous societies — particularly the Quechua in the north-west, the Guaraní in the north-east and the Mapuche in the Pampas — still flourish, but Argentina’s urban areas have a distinctly European vibe. Buenos Aires is proud of its reputation as the Paris of South America, while uber-stylish Rosario could be a city transported straight out of Italy.
Argentina’s 44 million people consider themselves a ‘crisol de razas’ — a melting pot of races — that’s mainly made up of European immigrants (Italians, Spanish, French and Germans), as well as more diverse corners of the globe in recent decades.
Spanish colonisation means most of the country is Roman Catholic — the current Pope is Argentine, although perhaps the strongest evidence of Argentina’s Catholicism is that most people live at home with their parents until they get married, which is why so many telos (‘love hotels’) exist. But you’ll also spot Orthodox churches, Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues all over Buenos Aires. In fact, here’s a fun Argentina fact: the capital’s Abasto Mall is home to the only Kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel.
One thing that all Argentines have in common, though, is a relaxed attitude towards time but much more intensity when it comes to expressing themselves — expect the locals to rock up 20 minutes late then gesticulate wildly once they arrive. PDAs are also par for the course. Fair to say ice cream and fernet aren’t the only things they’ve inherited from the Italians.
Porteños carry a reputation for being a bit arrogant — New York, London, Paris, Buenos Aires… name one big city where the residents don’t have the same rap — and Argentines can be blunt, but there’s nothing that can’t be sorted out over a glass of Malbec at an asado. Expect to greet a local — man or woman — with a single kiss on the right cheek, and good luck if you’re precious about personal space.
Argentina’s history is long, tragic and likely to spark an argument, so let’s keep this brief. Spain’s brutal colonisation began in the 16th Century and ended with the May Revolution of 1810, the declaration of independence in 1816, and the eventual federation of the republic in the 1850s and ‘60s.
Controversial populist Juan Perón and his second wife Eva Duarte — she of Evita fame, who died in 1952 — led the country in the 1940s and ‘50s, but Juan’s ill-fated second presidential stint in the 1970s preceded the bloody dictatorship between 1976-83, when the government waged Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) on its own population, capturing at least 30,000 desaparecidos (the disappeared).
Las Madres de la Plaza (the Mothers of the Plaza) bravely demanded justice for their kidnapped family members by protesting in the Plaza de Mayo, and you can still see their banners and graffiti of their iconic white scarves outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace today, as well as weekly Thursday marches. You can also visit ESMA — the naval school where prisoners were secretly tortured by the dictatorship — in the north of the capital.
The dictadura (dictatorship) also provoked war with Britain over the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) in 1982, a touchy subject to this day. And that’s only one topic to dodge discussing with locals — modern Argentine politics is best avoided altogether.
Fusing the Spanish, Slavic and Latin influences of the seedy bars and brothels where it originated, the tango is an emblem of Argentina’s patchwork national identity. Tango emerged from the scruffy ports and suburbs of Buenos Aires in the 19th Century, and exploded in the 1930s thanks to superstar singers like Carlos Gardel, who tragically died in a plane crash aged just 44 in 1935.
The melodies are hypnotic, the dance moves are sensual, and the lyrics are mournful — usually sung in lunfardo, the working-class slang of Argentina. No backpacker can leave the country without visiting a milonga — the dimly-lit dance clubs where tango dancers strut their stuff — as well as the legendary boliches (nightclubs) Buenos Aires is famous for, where Colombian-inspired cumbia tracks bust the speakers.
Argentina fact No.1: Lionel Messi is idolised nowhere near as much here as he is in Europe. In fact, the tiny No.10 is considered by many a ‘pecho frío’ (cold chest), a cutting insult that questions his passion for Argentina’s revered blue-and-white shirt. Diego Maradona, on the other hand, retains god-like status.
Instead of Messi, Argentines’ sporting passion lies with their club sides. Boca Juniors and River Plate are the two Buenos Aires giants, while city rivals San Lorenzo, Independiente and Racing make up the rest of los cinco grandes (the big five). The atmosphere at any match will give you goosebumps, particularly Boca’s bouncing Bombonera.
Argentina fact No.2: the national sport is not actually football, it’s pato. Named the Spanish word for duck because a poor bird used to be used as the ball, pato is a horseback hybrid of basketball and polo that gauchos came up with in the 1600s and continues to represent the culture of the Pampas today.
Spanish is the language Argentina speaks, but not as you probably know it. Argentines use a series of Spanish dialects, including Rioplatense around Buenos Aires, which is seasoned with a sprinkling of French and Italian.
One big difference is that Argentines use vos instead of tú for the pronoun you. Another is the accent on ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds — which turns calle (street) into ‘ca-she’ and mayor (bigger) into ‘ma-shor’ — as well as the lack of a lisp on Zs and soft Cs, unlike in Spain, where a beer (cerveza) is pronounced ‘ther-ve-tha’.
Plenty of words are different — a car is an auto not a coche, a phone is a celular not a móvil, avocados are paltas not aguacates, which is crucial to us millennials — but if you can only remember one, make it the verb coger. In Spain, this means to take or to get — ‘I take the bus’ is ‘cojo el bus’. In Argentina, coger means something a little more vulgar — a four-letter word starting with F, in English — so use tomar (which also means to take) unless you plan on sharing an X-rated conversation with the bus driver.
There’s loads of lively slang that non-natives need to wrap their ears around, too. The most cherished word in Argentina language is boludo, which literally means idiot but is more often employed between friends. Then there’s pibe (lad), mina (woman), pelotudo (a***hole), cheto (fancy), quilombo (literally meaning brothel, figuratively meaning madness), mala leche (literally bad milk, figuratively bad luck), and che — the verbal crutch that gave the Rosario-born Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Guevara his indelible nickname.
Speaking of Che, he’s the star of the Diarios de Motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries), a locally-made film that will get you in the mood for your South American adventure. The golden age of Argentine cinema finished in the mid-20th Century but crime classics Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) and El Secreto De Sus Ojos (The Secret In Their Eyes), as well as acclaimed dictatorship-era drama La Historia Oficial (The Official Story), are must-watch glimpses into Argentina culture.
Argentina travel advice
Is Argentina safe?
Argentina is one of the most secure places to visit in Latin America, but it’s still sensible to ask the question: ‘is Argentina safe?’ Travellers need to use common sense to protect themselves from petty theft. Keep your guard up for all those tired old scams they try all over the world — getting squirted with ketchup, suspiciously friendly locals, fake charity petitions, yadda yadda yadda.
Always keep your eye on your backpack when you’re at the bus station, and hold on to your bags if you’re sitting at a restaurant on the street or strolling through a busy feria (market). Import restrictions mean that pricey foreign electronics like iPhones and Apple laptops are extra valuable in Argentina, so don’t flash them around.
Public transport is generally safe, but always stick to official taxis — unmarked cabs can sweet-talk you inside with promises of a cheap fare before ripping you off at the other end. Muggings are some risk in the big cities, as are ATM kidnappings — if you’re unfortunate enough to get caught up in one, just comply then report the incident to police.
Natural disasters can affect some corners of the country, particularly floods during the rain-soaked summer in the north as well as volcanoes along the Andes, such as the active Copahue on the border with Chile. Freezing winter temperatures can also cause dangerous conditions on the roads, and it’s not much fun to drive anyway — Argentine drivers tend to treat lane markings, traffic lights and road rules as mere suggestions. As a pedestrian, don’t expect vehicles to stop for the green man.
Argentina’s health system is solid — hospitals, pharmacies and dentists are good, sanitation standards are high, and tap water is safe to drink pretty much everywhere. Consider vaccines if you’re worried about dengue fever in the north-east of the country. Free healthcare is available, but the quality is hit and miss, so it’s worth investing in travel insurance that covers a private hospital, as well as your valuables in case anything gets nicked.
Is Buenos Aires safe?
Short answer, yes. Long answer, you should take the same precautions you would when visiting any big city, but yes. Your mum is always going to worry before you head off to South America, but she’s got nothing major to worry about.
Bag-snatching, pick-pocketing and street robberies do happen — the Subte (subway system) and the Retiro bus station are particularly happy hunting grounds for chorros (thieves), so don’t whip out your iPhone or $5000 SLR camera in the middle of a crowd. Stick to yellow-and-black radio taxis, and don’t wander too far off the beaten path in La Boca, where the streets can get very sketchy very fast.
Buenos Aires can’t go a week without a massive strike or some other manifestación (protest) choking the Avenida de Mayo, but steer clear of the police and the protesters and you won’t find yourself in any trouble.
Same advice on a trip to the cancha. There have been almost 100 football-related fatalities over the past decade in Argentina, which is why the government banned away supporters for five years and still bar away fans from matches involving los cinco grandes, including Boca and River. The hinchas don’t have a problem with tourists — they’re more interested in fighting the cops and each other than some curious backpacker — so just keep your wits about you.
Argentina currency can be a problem thanks to the rocky economy. Counterfeit 100-peso bills are all over the place, incorrect change scams are easy to pull off with such large notes, and ATMs often run out of cash in busy areas. Major city retailers, such as your hostel in Buenos Aires, should accept credit cards, but this becomes more difficult outside the capital.
As mentioned in the Argentina budget section earlier, recent changes to currency-trading regulations mean the blue market — which used to provide almost twice as many pesos to the dollar as the official rate out of an ATM or a change house — isn’t as valuable as it once was, and is not worth the risk for backpackers.
This guide barely begins to scratch the surface of all the adventures you’ve got to look forward to in Argentina, from the top of the Mount Fitz Roy to the bottom of one of those bottles of Mendoza red. Now it’s time to pack your backpack, book your hostels in Argentina, and jump into everything this South American gem has to offer.
About the author:
Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.
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