Argentina is a very special place. Duh! But really. While its physical location on the map provides the country with that Latin “heat,” mass immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries has spiced up its language and customs with hints of Italian, Spanish and German.
Arriving in Argentina, especially from Canada or the United States, can be a daunting experience. Luckily, you’ve stumbled upon the right blog post. I grew up in Buenos Aires and I recently travelled home with a first timer from New York City (who had a fantastic time) and took notes along the way to write this post.
Disclaimer: While most of these tips apply to the entire country, I am a “Porteña,” so my experience stems from the capital city and my very recent travels to the south (Bariloche and El Camino de los Siete Lagos).
In Argentina, street signs (if available at all) are suggestions. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way. Caution and courage are required when crossing a street. Look both ways, look again, and cross when you feel you have enough time to make it to the other side. If you’re crossing a big avenue, wait for the light to change before you begin. When in doubt, follow a local.
Sidewalks can be compared to rough trails. Tiles are helplessly broken and uneven. Pay attention to your every step to avoid tripping, stepping on dog poo, being sprayed with murky water and falling into uncovered potholes. Other than that, relax and take in the funky patterns and textures.
In North America, people shake hands. In Argentina, people kiss. One kiss only, usually an air-kiss, right cheek to right cheek. You will see people kissing all the time. Friends and families. Coworkers at a restaurant arriving to say hello and kiss the other servers. I once went to the police station and saw an officer get to work and kiss hello all the other uniformed officers behind the counter. This time, I went to the hair salon and had a kiss hello from the person who washed my hair, then from the hair dresser and later from the woman that did my nails. That said, don’t kiss your waiter, your taxi driver or the store attendant. If you are unsure, just wait and see if the other person leans over.
There are several ways to get a taxi in Argentina. You can hail a cab, call a radio taxi or a remis. No driver will ever expect a tip, and the price of your trip will be dictated by the meter. Radio taxis in Buenos Aires, however, will add a fee for picking you up (in December 2015, this was 10-12 pesos).
In Bariloche, calling a remis or private taxi is cheaper than hailing a cab. You can ask your host for a number or if you are at a bar, ask the server to call one for you. And always remember, it’s not your taxi driver that is crazy, all drivers in Argentina are.
The buses, called colectivos are a huge part of the porteño experience. Buses don’t stop at every stop, so if you want to get on you must wave them down. They are usually packed, they drive like maniacs and they will literally eject you when you’ve rang the bell to get out. The network of public transportation in Buenos Aires is excellent. Colectivos will pretty much take you anywhere. But there’s a catch. You either need a Sube card or coins, and Sube cards are for locals only (though in Argentina breaking the rules is never too hard). With a Sube, the price is decent and you can recharge your card at subway stations and select convenience stores. Without a Sube, you will pay at least 7 pesos on the bus, which takes coins only and does not disburse change.
The subway in Buenos Aires is also a great way to get around. Don’t be surprised if kids come by and drop random things on your lap. You can say no right away or simply wait until they return and pick it up, without a word, and either give it back or pay for it.
Travel within the country
Long distances buses, or micros, as they are called in Argentina, can be pretty fabulous. The coche cama are the most comfortable I’ve travelled on. The seats are huge and lean all the way down, while propping up a massive calve/foot rest. From Buenos Aires, you will have to catch your bus in Retiro, which may be one of the ugliest bus stations out there and where you must be very very VERY careful of robbers and pickpockets.
Some distances are very long and if you don’t have the time to cruise by bus, check what Aerolineas Argentinas has to offer out of the city airport in Buenos Aires, Aeroparque Jorge Newbery.
I’m not sure if this dates back to a time when coins were scarce and necessary, or if it has to do with other reasons I’m unaware of, but change is hard to come by in Argentina. Everyone wants it and no one ever has it. Cashiers will do mad math acrobatics in their heads and ask you for amounts you don’t understand, so that in turn they can return your change as a bigger denomination bill. It’s all kosher. Just do the math yourself too and count your change before you leave, just in case.
Eyes on the back of your head
You must grow eyes on the back of your head and keep your backpacks on your front. It’s inevitable that you'll be recognized as a tourist, so stay vigilant and avoid drawing attention to yourself. Don’t wear gold or silver jewellery, don’t take your camera out on empty streets, try to keep your smart phones at the hostel, don’t take your laptops to a coffee shop (even if you are with it the whole time, someone maybe watching outside and follow you to steal it later), and never count money on the street or in public. If you rent a car to drive around the country, never leave anything on or below the seats and if you have stuff in your trunk, avoid opening it when you park (wait until you are about to leave).
You cannot leave without trying medialunas at various places, eating sandwichitos de miga at least once, and gulping down ice cream at Freddo or Persico. If you are too lazy to go get it, you can just get it delivered. I probably don’t need to tell you about asados. And alfajores! I almost forgot! There are many brands so ask a local what their favourite is, or get a homemade one at a coffee shop.
No, it’s not drugs
You will notice people everywhere drinking out of a sort of cup/bowl with a sort of metal straw. They may also have a thermos near by or under their arm. This is mate. It’s a sort of infusion Argentinians drink like they breathe oxygen and share with one another. Some drink it sweet, others bitter. If you’re invited to try and you feel adventurous, go for it! Keep in mind that mate is good for the digestive system (ahem!) and that if you move the straw, you’ll clog it.