The name “Argentina” elicits a mix of sensations: the flavour of Argentinian barbecue accompanied by a good wine, the intensity of tango, the fervour of football and rugby supporters or political protesters. The immense size of the country (it’s the second-largest in South America and the largest Spanish-speaking nation) means that there’s always something to do, from visiting the Iguazu Falls to exploring the southern reaches of Ushaia.
Argentina travel resources
Argentina is bordered by Chile to the west, Bolivia and Paraguay directly above, and Brazil and Uruguay to the north-east. To the east is Atlantic Ocean and the disputed Falkland Islands, a British territory which many Argentineans would like to name las Islas Malvinas once more.
The most well-known destinations are Mendoza, for its wine; Patagonia for wildlife and wilderness; Buenos Aires for culture and clubbing; and Iguazu Falls for viewing stunning cascades falling dozens of meters. There’s certainly much more: Colonial Salta in the north is a beautiful base from which to explore surrounding regions (like Cafayate and its wineries), and Bariloche is one of the best places for snow sports in all of South America.
People tend to be friendly and easy-going, but you might not know it if you don’t speak Spanish. While tourism operators throughout the country have passable-to-excellent English, it can be harder to find shopkeepers who know what you’re talking about, no matter how loudly and slowly you speak.
City focus: Buenos Aires
Argentina’s capital is known for its European stylings and Latin American flair. It impresses with its food, theatres and dance. It has grand palaces and bright ramshackle apartments, and gothic beauty in its cemeteries to contrast with the stark lines of the famous Obelisk in Avenida 9 de Julio.
There’s great asado (slow-barbecued meat) to drink with Malbec from Mendoza or Cafayate, and savoury pasty-like empanadas to snack on. Indie Travel Podcast Community member Ana Lauren recommends “to save some money and avoid empanada overkill, find yourselves a nice barrio bakery and try their galletitas/bizcochitos de grasa (“fat biscuits”) and their sanguchitos de miga (sandwiches, really, but that how Argentinians pronounce it). They’re made on paper-thin bread with a variety of fillings)”.
Listen to our city guide for Buenos Aires, or find episode 163 in iTunes:
City focus: Salta la linda
Salta is one of the largest cities in northern Argentina, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way as you wander the streets and colonial squares that make up the central city. In fact, all those green spaces provide plenty of spots to wait out the heat of the sun before heading back into your day.
Salteños are passionate about their unique northern identity, and about their prowess at creating staples of the Argentine diet: empanadas, milanesas and medialunas. Our extensive testing can’t prove them wrong. Life here is muy tranquilo, more relaxed than in the capital and running at its own pace.
Getting to and from Argentina
Ferry crossings operate between Buenos Aires and Colonia, Uruguay while coach and car crossings between the two countries are possible further north. There are also land borders with Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia, which are accessible by coach or private car.
Crossing land borders with rental cars in South America can be a regulatory headache, so make sure you work with your rental company and look at third-party reports before you head to the borders.
Staff on some long-distance coaches will collect people’s passports and visas just prior to arrival at the border. Make sure you get your passport back after you’ve gone through the second checkpoint and before you are too far down the road, and check for the right stamps.
Getting around Argentina
Long-distance buses are the most common way to travel between cities. They generally provide excellent comfort, safety and service, with three different classes: regular, semi-cama and cama. The cama service is often similar to a good business class flight with better food, drink and 150°-180° lie-flat seats, while the semi-cama allows you to recline the chair and get a reasonable rest while balancing your budget.
There are extremely limited passenger train services in Argentina, mainly based around commuter traffic in Buenos Aires.
This is going to be changing soon, with the opening of a high-speed rail link between Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Córdoba in 2013.
Car and camper rental
Most international rental chains have offices throughout Argentina, and many smaller competitors offer good service. You generally get what you pay for, and be sure to carefully inspect your rental agreement and insurance papers. Remember to budget for the road tolls you’ll encounter when travelling long distances.
As in the rest of South America, road rules should be considered guidelines. Crossing between borders in a rental vehicle can be tricky; prepare well in advance if you plan to do this, and be aware that it can often be expensive. Consult your rental car dealer for more information.
Cycling and hiking
Cycling as a method of commuting within cities is becoming more and more popular, making it easier for travellers to get around as well. However, it is not common for tour bikes to be seen on the main roads: ensure you plan your route with care.
Hiking is very popular in the many national parks, with infrastructure varying from excellent to questionable. The Torres del Paine is, of course, a stop on every hiker’s itinerary, and the nearby Fitzroy hike, or Laguna Torre and Fitz Roy, is also fantastic.
Several smaller operators compete with the national monopoly, Aerolines Argentinas. The cost of flights is normally much greater than bus transport, and the comfort and reliability of the journey tends to be considerably worse. We’ve often been told: better twenty hours by bus than two hours by Aerolineas.
Top 10 things to do in Argentina
- See the Iguazu Falls. The stunningly powerful Iguazu Falls are the highlight of the North East — however the crafts of the Missiones region are also highly prized: make sure you have time to explore.
- Learn to tango. The most-famous of Argentine dances, the tango, finds its home in the La Boca region of Buenos Aires. There’s cheesy, tourism-driven tango shows all over the place, but also the chance to learn for yourself at dozens of top schools.
- Figure out how “vos” works. Argentine Spanish is a special beast — there’s a strange burr to the elle, chau is a common goodbye, and “you” is vos — with its own unique conjugation.
- Visit a parrilla. Or several. Argentina is not exactly a vegetarian’s paradise, but if you like meat, you’re in luck. Parrilla restaurants specialise in asado, barbecued meat cooked slowly over the coals of a wood fire. Many people have a parrilla at home as well, so if you can get yourself invited over for dinner, you’ll get an even more authentic experience.
- Visit wineries. You need some good wine to go with all that asado… The two top regions are the well-marketed Mendoza and the lesser-known Cafayate. Expect to join a tour or call in advance to book tastings, as things aren’t well set up for much independent travel.
- Send postcards from Ushaia. The southern-most city in the world is down at the bottom of Argentina. Jumping off point for Antarctic cruises, and a chance to explore Argentinean Patagonia.
- See the glaciers of Calafate. Want to see some wild, white wilderness without heading all the way south? The Lake District is home to wondrous lakes and glaciers, and allows for the most beautiful crossing into Chile.
- Ski or snowboard in Bariloche. A short drive from Bariloche is Cerro Catedral, Argentina’s premier snow sports destination. While the northern hemisphere is baking in summer, those that prefer the snow are well served here.
- Hit the shows and shops of Buenos Aires. From the markets at San Telmo to the bookstores of Avenida Corrientes, Buenos Aires is home to huge range of niche shops and boutiques that demand a bit of time (and money) to be spent in them.
- Share mate with someone. It may be more popular in Uruguay, but Argentineans also love their mate — a bitter herb tea drunk with metal straws from special cups. Most often shared with friends then refilled with hot water.
All photos © Craig Martin 2010-2011