We shoulda, coulda, woulda have been more prepared. But as other gobsmacked travelers said to us: we had no clue, why is no one writing online about the everyday challenges of independent travelers in Argentina?
We knew Argentine peso was fluctuating and we did remember well how 20 years ago on our first trip Argentina had just defaulted and peso plummeted. It made for one cheap vacation then! And now again!
Our first stumbling blocks were right at the arrival to the Buenos Aires International airport. After arriving to a new country and picking up our luggage we always head straight to the ATM to get an initial supply of local cash to get us into the country, to pay for taxi/bus/coffee/water.
Darn if we can find an ATM anywhere! After asking around in broken Spanish and getting responses in broken English we finally find two ATMs hidden behind the big McDonald’s. We join a few other befuddled foreigners trying to procure some cash. One of the lost looking American ladies asks us if we could please message her husband, arriving later, that she had lost her iPhone on one or the other of her flights. Poor woman!
We all try withdrawing money from different debit cards with no success. Finally a security guard watching us bemused, explains that we all want too much money. The max withdrawal allowed is $4000. Huh? Let’s get confused even more– the Argentine peso is in fact marked as $. 1 US $ is worth about Argentine $ 64. Well, it actually depends. There are many exchange rates as we learn in the ensuing days. A lousy 55 pesos to a US$ if/when you manage to withdraw some from ATM, 70-75 pesos if locals exchange cash on black market and 82 if you go to Western Union with a transfer through an app. If the teller is savvy enough to know how to do it, which will only happen in a few big tourist areas.
One can feel frustrated, but then feel really bad for the Argentines, who are only allowed to officially exchange US$ 100 in the bank every month. And if they travel outside the country any credit card transaction they make is taxed at additional 30% by their government. Impossible to travel, unless you are filthy rich. Certainly not if you are a retiree with the average retirement of US$ 200 per month.
At the end we don’t manage to withdraw even the minimum at the airport, but we do manage to get an official cab to downtown and we split it with a youngish German couple, paying with cash in a combination of dollars and Euros.
Uber we understand is cheap and plentiful in Buenos Aires. We have the app, it is simple, let’s try it!
Nothing is simple or straightforward in Argentina. The first driver cancels just before pick up. Another comes and explains that he will only take cash as Uber doesn’t pay drivers. A third one we use doesn’t want our cash, because we already paid by app with our credit card, but says he won’t get paid, so we give him cash. It is very small amounts, so we feel ok paying twice. We dig on the Internet and find conflicting information. Uber is banned in Buenos Aires. Uber is not banned, but Argentinian credit cards are banned for Uber use by the government and all Argentines pay cash. International cards work, but drivers cancel pick ups when they see you paying by card, because it takes time and there is a surcharge to receive money.
Finally we find instructions how to switch our payment method in the app to cash
And when we order Uber, we also immediately send a message to the driver that we will pay cash. Nobody cancels on us again. Uber is indeed cheap and plentiful and gets us everywhere. Just for fun we also try the local bus. Very helpfully our Airbnb host left us two Sube cards that you need to use public transport. We top them up in one of the many Kioscos (where you can also purchase the Sube card itself cheaply) with a dollar each and off we go for 20 cents a ride. Clean, air conditioned bus. Some lines are particularly helpful as they have stops in all the main tourist areas.
Forewarned is forearmed. We did read plenty of scary stories about renting a car in Argentina, the scams and the problems. We also remember well how we arrived at the airport with three kids in tow twenty years ago and the rental car they presented us with wouldn’t even fit the people let alone more than one piece of luggage. A real disaster and a good cause for Mom’s nervous breakdown.
We have written about our frustrating experience with Hertz in Bariloche (in our post Blue, Blue Lakes of Patagonia). We have heard of similar experiences from other travelers going across the board of all rental car companies. While in some other parts of the world it often happens that the rental car agency will not have a small size of car upon your arrival, but will then automatically upgrade you to the next category, here it is exactly opposite. Much less acceptable when you have reserved and paid for a larger car and they claim they only have small cars available.
And you can be happy they even have a car. If you think you can wing it by flying in and finding a car at the airport, don’t. We can’t offer much advice on the car rental front, except in Mendoza. Should you find yourself in the wine capital of Argentina, upon recommendation from our Airbnb host we rented a great car from a wonderful small local car rental company Bace Rent a Car company. https://www.bacerentacar.com.ar/index_i.html. firstname.lastname@example.org
Talking of cars and driving, while we hear others complain, we find Argentines quite decent drivers. They generally obey traffic rules, even if some do like to overtake recklessly over a full line before the blind curve or try to mow down people on pedestrian crossings. I guess we have driven in many much much worse countries to be excited about that. We have seen surprisingly few accidents and very few traffic police on the roads.
When thinking of driving in Argentina it is Ruta 40 that immediately jumps to mind. I have seen some epic road photos through the front car window before our trip and imagined the ruta as a grand, albeit lonely road.
It is indeed such in small glorious chunks, but at other times it is hard to believe you are on a road at all. Sometimes it is used by four legged inhabitants.
At times it inexplicably becomes a one lane dirt path, or it gets totally lost in the detours through the many small out of the way towns.
Then there are plenty of dirt roads meant to be dirt roads. Of course if they are there, they are meant to be driven. That is our motto.
And because you will meet the best wildlife on a dirt road.
Lest I come across as an entitled American tourist prick, I must remind you that English is for both of us our second language and no, I am not as arrogant as to expect that the whole world should learn English and yes, I feel a certain obligation to try to communicate in the local language of the country I am visiting. I have never studied Spanish, but because I did learn French in high school and travelled enough in Spanish speaking countries I can understand quite some Spanish and always try to put a few basic words together, even if I am sounding like a two year old.
Still, we are taken aback by how little English is spoken even in the tourist areas and even by young people. We know a lot of school English around the world is really lacking in quality and the teachers are lousy (what do you expect when you train and pay them so badly?)
But, but, … young people around the world all listen to the same international music and watch movies and play video games and use Internet. I do know people around the world that managed to learn a decent conversational English without school and only through big effort and help of all that media.
Just like in Turkey, our last travel destination before South America, and many other places on our travels, we keep coming across young Argentinians (we pick up hitchhikers, whenever possible) that are dying to travel or study or work abroad, yet can not put together a simple sentence in English.
English or no, the good news is that Argentines are warm hearted, friendly, helpful, and welcoming people.
And then there is Argentine Spanish. You might be well aware that Spanish (just like English) is not a universally same spoken language in different parts of the world. There is of course much discourse about which is the purest form of Spanish, but we will not get into this now. Suffice it to say that even though written Spanish is so much easier to pronounce than ridiculously crazy English, there is a particular twist in Argentine Spanish that makes it harder for us to cope. The lovely coffee shop in ask Bolson we enjoyed so much, is called Jauja and actually unexpectedly pronounced Hauha (not dzaudza) and Villa is pronounced vidza (not viya).
Add to this a decent amount of Native Indian (Guaraní, Aymara, Quechua) geographical names and we are struggling, indeed. Try this tongue twister Lake Huechulafquen. Lovely lake underneath a grand volcano, thankfully called simply Lanin.
Our pronunciation makes for some bafflement and entertainment of the locals and difficult names make for some entertaining moments for us as well as we try to remember words by approximation. Pichi Traful becomes Pick a Truffle and so on.
Who hasn’t heard of a juicy Argentinian steak? It can make grown men weep, I heard.
Famous asado is a great memory from our first trip, especially as we were treated to this spectacle of Argentine version of bbq at somebody’s home garden. The huge complicated contraption with chains to lower and lift the grill over the fire would fit well into any medieval castle, in off hours moonlighting as a torture rack. Lamb is also famous in some areas and so is goat.
Just like with New Zealand lamb, there is a certain amount of bemoaning the fact that all the best beef is exported overseas.
It took a little persuasion for us to try lama meat, (oh, they are just so cute), but once we did, we were so impressed by a lama steak, we returned for seconds the next evening. We also enjoyed a stick of lama salama for healthy low fat snacking.
But these days I am leaning more and more towards vegetarian and Mirek is careful to not let his old gout rise up its ugly head. Therefore we were happy to find non meat alternatives with plenty of Italian pasta dishes and some lovely trout in the mountains.
But the fact remains the menus are predominantly colored red with very little green mixed in.
A very familiar, Central European diet, I feel, with lots of meat and potatoes (or perhaps gnocchi or spetzle) heaped high on the plate. A few pieces of rucola or cherry tomatoes are considered more garnish than anything else.
What is most interesting is the lack of salt and pepper on the table. We get an explanation that it is a government health directive, and salt in particular can only be brought to the table if the customer specifically asks for it. That is all fine and well, but then you look at the tables laden with bowls of sugar. At breakfast I observed a young man put four packets of white sugar into a small cup of black coffee, accompanied by a pile of cookies and cakes.
Ah, breakfast!! Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day and alas, Argentine breakfast is sadly a big disappointment. I understand Argentines are a bit like the French and they usually only have a few small croissants (medialunas) and coffee for breakfast. No wonder, since their stomachs must still be full from the very late, rarely started before 11 pm, enormous steak dinner accompanied by bottles of wine or beer.
Unfortunately even the best medialunas are a far cry from crispy, whispy French croissants and the jams being served at breakfast are another sugar overkill. If I can’t have a good Mediterranean or American breakfast, I will quite happily enjoy an assortment of jams and breads. I love different creative home made jams with a dash of ginger or chili pepper perhaps, though nothing beats my sister’s wild raspberry jam! But no matter what interesting fruit the jams are made from here (rosehips, anyone?) they all taste the same – Diabetes Goo!
My second favorite meal of the day is desert and man, I am struggling here, too. Same problem, too much refined sugar that kills any possible patisserie refinement. A typical example of a sugar explosion is beloved dulce de leche, sugar cooked in condensed milk! Good for my waist, bad for my taste buds!
Same goes for well known artisanal Bariloche chocolate, I heard so much about. And even good old desert fall back – ice cream is ruined. We spend a long time collecting the little plastic taster spoons at a well known busy Heladeria Jauja trying the many different fruity ice creams, and finally just had to go with dark chocolate and lemon. What a pity Italians did not manage to transplant their fantastic gelato along with pasta and gnocchi.
If I seem to be harping just a bit too much, the good news is food and drinks are extremely affordable.
Especially coming from the exceedingly expensive San Francisco we cherish the low prices and nowhere more than in (craft) beers
Happy hour at the brewery offers less than US$2 for a great double IPA and fabulous local wines at any time for US$20 for a bottle of top Malbec at a nice restaurant. I have loved Malbec since I first discovered it twenty years back and I am happy to drink lots of it this time around.
As mentioned above coffee is generally drunk with lots of sugar and many places have premixed coffee combos to make cappuccino or latte. You need to clarify that you want your coffee “sin azucar”. Of course in Buenos Aires you can find top notch coffee shops that make excellent cappuccinos and flat whites. We had a nice discussion with a young medical student moonlighting as a barista who told us about how she is educating coffee drinkers, “Try it once without sugar. If you have good quality espresso or cappuccino, correctly made, it will be sweet and creamy and not be bitter at all!”
Airplane Flights and Tickets
We start our two months trip with quite a stack of Internet bought air tickets taking us all over Argentina and into neighboring countries. It is high summer season here and personally I just don’t like the extra stress of winging it when flying. There is enough stress in decisions that have to be made daily: where to sleep and eat, which road to take, which places to visit and which to skip.
Not buying air tickets ahead of time certainly gives you more travel flexibility, but with long distances, it might also sentence you to a 24 bus ride instead of a few hours flight. Or having to buy a last minute expensive fare or getting stuck somewhere extra days paying for accommodation and food.
Buying tickets far in advance brings the risk of changes in flight schedules. Right upon arriving to Argentina we are welcomed by an unpleasant email. our Norwegian flight leaving Argentina for London two months down the line has been cancelled and rescheduled for a day later and thus we loose our Easy Jet connection to the next European flight that we purchased separately. And of course they don’t care and it is our problem to solve. And the only solution is to throw away the Easy Jet tickets and buy new, much more expensive ones. C’est la vie!
At the end of the day we get caught in COVID 19 travel disaster and are buying tickets left and right to get ourselves out of the country. You can read about our last minute escape in our post “I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You”.
We relied on our standard accommodation options Booking.com and Airbnb. For one night accommodations we usually choose a hotel through Booking. Since you don’t have to pay a cleaning fee and booking fee, a one night is generally cheaper in a hotel and you get free breakfast to boot. It is also easier to arrive at night and check in with a receptionist, than waiting for someone to show up with a key to the apartment. Airbnb can be an affordable option if you stay longer and where there is enough competition, like in Buenos Aires, where the prices are kept quite low.
With Booking now encroaching on Airbnb apartments rental, it is sometimes possible to find the same listing on both platforms. Booking will possibly be cheaper as you don’t have to pay a fee as a guest on their platform. And last minute cancellations might be easier and free. Plus you get an aditional Genius discount (10%) and treatment once you have a few bookings under your belt.
Payment is a different sorry. Airbnb is easy, as everything is paid through their app. To our surprise Booking would inform us ahead of time that payment will be handled at the property, or we were told at the property that we have to pay them directly.
We carried quite a large amount of cash, both in US$ and in local currency. If it was inconvenient, it was necessary and/or advantageous. Sometimes hotels did not accept a credit card or the cc machine did not “work”. At other times they wanted a large surcharge for paying by credit card (20-30%) or they offered us a discount for paying cash. Combined with our blue market US $ exchange, paying in pesos made it even cheaper. Sometimes they were happy to accept US $ and calculated them in blue market exchange rate. Always check that you as a foreign tourist are not charged the tourist surcharge. (It is another 21%). Some cities are charging an extra eco tax, but it is a negligible amount.
In tourist areas you could get help from Tourist Information centers. We only relied on this once in El Bolson, where we arrived towards the evening and it was a challenge as their English was very limited and they only have the information about availability in those establishments that they have an arrangement with.
Personally I do like knowing where I will lay my head down in the evening, so I tend to book things ahead of time. As we don’t get local SIM cards in different countries, but rely on our T Mobile international plan, we don’t always have the best of internet service, so it is difficult to look for accommodation on the phone in the car. So I try to choose a place the night before.
Choosing accommodations is a bit more challenging in Argentina because of the many names used for different (or the same?) kinds of lodging. That can be very confusing, and even Argentinians can’t explain what is what. We have come across these different names for places to sleep, besides of course, hotel: parador, hostal, hostel, hospedaje, hosteria,
cabanas & apartamentos.
We have tried all sorts of establishments and had great luck finding lovely places to stay.
At the end it is generally the price that determines the quality. I will address in another post some tricks of how to parse out a good place from descriptions and reviews.
With utmost delight I have to report that Argentina is one of the cleanest countries around. And if I could nominate the cleanest town in Argentina and beyond it would surely be San Martin de los Andes. There is no plastic bottles, wrappers, bags or even cigarettes buttes lying around.
Does that mean you will find a lot of trash cans and recycling systems in place? Not at all. They have adopted a very different approach called:
Take your garbage with you! You will see such signs everywhere in National parks and along tourist routes. It seems to work very well!
If any of you are planing a trip to Argentina when this virus craziness is over, we are always happy to talk travel with anyone. Get in touch!