Ten Things You Should Know Before Going to Argentina

We spent a month in Argentina, and I still have so much more to say about most of the places we visited there (how am I ever going to get to Chile??). I would highly recommend visiting this beautiful country, and I hope that all of you get a chance to experience it! Before you go, here are a few things that you should know.

  1. Take advantage of the Blue Dollar exchange rate
    Of all of the things you should be aware of before heading to Argentina, this is absolutely number one. Here’s the deal. In their desperate quest to acquire US dollars, a more stable currency than their nosediving peso, Argentinians are offering an “informal” exchange rate, known as the Blue rate, that will give you significantly more purchasing power than the legit rate. For example, today the official rate is 8.53 pesos per US dollar, so getting your pesos at the blue rate of 13.38 will let you buy a lot more steak and wine. Technically this is illegal, but changing pesos at the blue dollar rate is one of the easiest laws you’ll ever break. The rates are even published in the Buenos Aires Herald, which should give you an idea of how accepted this practice is. Although everyone recommends heading down to Calle Florida in Buenos Aires to hear the calls of “cambio“, we found a place in Palermo that would change our dollars at a rate very close to the quoted blue dollar price. Let me reiterate – if you’re worried about this being sketchy, don’t. The place we went to could have been any other legitimate casa de cambio – we never had any trouble with fake bills, and the transaction was quick and easy. Bring as many US dollars as you comfortably can, because when you run out and have to go back to the regular exchange rate it will be a major shock to the system. Unfortunately we know this from experience.
  2. Reciprocity is a cruel mistress
    As a Canadian, American, or Australian, you don’t need a visa to get in to Argentina, but before you fly to the country you need to pay a reciprocity fee. You can do it online, just make sure you print out your receipt so that you can prove to your airline that you forked over the cash. We somehow missed this little requirement, and came dangerously close to missing our flight from Lima to Buenos Aires. Instead of frantically trying to navigate the online system through the terrible airport wifi like we did, avoid some serious stress and pay it in advance. Trust me on this one.
  3. Great steak doesn’t need to come with a white tablecloth
    We went to many parillas in Buenos Aires and beyond. Some were fancy and some were more unassuming, and we learned that when it comes to steakhouses, you can’t judge a book by its cover. The best steak we had in Argentina by far was cooked by a guy with a crazy mullet wearing sweatpants. We sat at a plastic table on the sidewalk, and there were absolutely no frills, but the meat was incredible, much better than a lot of the steaks we’d had at more upscale spots. I wish I could let you in on a tried and true secret for figuring out how the steak will taste before you sit down, but I honestly haven’t figured it out. Just try to get some local recommendations and don’t be afraid to try places that look divey. The meat could be life-changing!
  4. There’s no such thing as service with a smile
    While we’re on the subject of restaurants, here’s a warning. Don’t expect the standard of service you’re accustomed to when you go out for dinner in North America. If you go in with low expectations, you won’t be disappointed when your server seems to look past you, deliberately ignoring you even though you’re the only occupied table in the place. If this had just happened once or twice I could chalk it up to the server having a bad day, but the fact that it happened over and over again gives me reason to believe it’s just the way things are. Practicing patience, waving your arms, or yelling señor or señorita as the case may be will serve you well.
  5. Argentina is a big place
    This one may be obvious to most people, but before we came to South America we greatly underestimated the distances between places and the sheer size of each country. Argentina is 2 780 400 km squared, which makes it the eighth largest country in the world (thanks, Wikipedia!), so you can’t exactly hop from one spot to another with ease. We thought that we could just zip over from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, but it turns out that they’re over 1300 kms apart. Not exactly right next door. Budget your time and money accordingly, and be realistic about what you can see in the time that you have.
  6. Don’t be afraid to take the bus!
    As a Canadian whose experience with long distance bus travel was limited to a few cramped Greyhound rides, I was a bit wary of taking the bus in South America. We’d also had a pretty bad overnight bus experience in Spain, where the person in front of Zevi immediately reclined into his lap, which made for some very cramped and uncomfortable hours. We’d heard glowing reviews of Argentinean busses, though, so we took the plunge and were pleasantly surprised! Even the cheapest class provided us with a good night’s sleep and plenty of room to stretch our legs. Not only is bussing cheaper than flying, which is very expensive in Argentina, taking an overnight bus means that you’re not wasting any precious daylight sightseeing hours, and since you spend a lot of the time sleeping you’re at your destination before you know it.
  7. Beware of the siesta
    The siesta is still alive and well. Want proof? Visit any smaller centre in Argentina, and try to do anything between the hours of two and five PM. Few businesses in Buenos Aires seemed to observe the siesta, so we were in for a bit of a shock when tried to go for lunch in Salta at 2, only to realize that everything was closing. It’s not just restaurants that do this – clothing stores, hardware stores, and businesses of all kinds take an afternoon rest. It’s amazing how deserted the streets become during that time. It makes a lot of sense to avoid having to do much in the heat of the day, but it does make things difficult for travellers who’ve lost track of time. Respect the siesta, because if you don’t, you’ll wind up in a small town at 2:00 in the pouring rain with very few options for food or shelter. Yes, that did happen to us.
  8. Mendoza isn’t the only wine region
    If I ask you to tell me where Argentinean wine comes from, you’re going to say Mendoza, unless you’re a lot savvier than we were. Mendoza may be the most famous grape growing region in the country, but it’s not the only one! We visited Cafayate, in Northern Argentina, and found many amazing wines, especially of the lesser-known Torrontes and Tannat varieties. The region’s just starting to gain notoriety, so it’s more laid back and a little rougher around the edges than Mendoza. There’s also some wine produced way down south in Patagonia, although unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to visit that area.
  9. Early dinners are a no-go
    In North America, it’s completely normal for us to sit down to dinner at six. Seven is a very respectable time to head to a restaurant for an evening meal. Try that in Argentina, though, and you’ll get closed signs or very limited menus at every turn. Dinner at nine is early, and it’s not abnormal to eat at 11 or even midnight, especially in Buenos Aires. This generally wasn’t a big deal for us, but we discovered how tough it really was to sit down early when we wanted to have a bite at six before catching an evening bus. We eventually found something, but it wasn’t among our top choices. Just know that if you really want to dine early, your options will be severely limited.
  10. Bring your own salty snacks
    Argentinians love their sweets. Whether it’s dulce de leche, ice cream or medialunas, which are like a sweeter, less buttery croissant, if you have a sweet tooth, this is the place for you. I’m a salty snack lover, so it was a tad disappointing to find only two different kinds of chips between rows and rows of cookies and candies when I was searching for road trip nibbles. Pastries and sugary desserts of all kinds adorn the shelves of bakeries, but you’ll rarely find a cheese bun or a savoury danish among them. I truly do love dulce de leche, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t miss my popcorn and jalapeño chips.

We had an amazing time in Argentina, and I can’t recommend it enough! We didn’t even get close to seeing the whole country in the month we were there (see point number five), so I know that there’s so much that we didn’t even discover about the place. If you’ve been to Argentina, is there anything you’d add to this list?

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