Sprawling all the way from the Bolivian border south to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina is the world’s eighth-largest country and one of the most geographically diverse. It boasts South America’s lowest floodplain and tallest mountain—Aconcagua, at nearly 23,000 feet—and claims one of the continent’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban centers as its capital. Of the more than 40 million people that call Argentina home, three million live in its capital, Buenos Aires—a dense city known for its art and literature that’s nicknamed the “Paris of South America.” The rest of the population are spread across the country’s vast expanses of rolling plains and grasslands.
Europeans seeking silver and gold in the Patagonian hills originally colonized Argentina. (The name “Argentina” actually derives from the Ancient Greek “argentos,” meaning “silver.”)
Following independence from Spain in 1816, Argentina underwent a period of political turmoil. Conflicts between liberals and conservatives regarding the country’s federal system of government rocked the nation.
In the early 20th century, fueled by exports of beef, sheep and silver, Argentina became the richest country in South America, and flashy newcomers in Paris were sometimes said to be “riche comme un argentin,” or "rich as an Argentine.”
Unfortunately, the Argentine economy backslid during the rest of the century as European immigration soared and a military junta replaced the popular government of Juan Perón. The junta, which committed atrocities against its own citizens and led the country into an ill-advised war with Britain over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), fell in 1983.
This gave way to a democratic system that weathered high inflation and several economic crises through the turn of the century. Argentina now boasts a vibrant political culture and tourism industry, and locals are generally eager to talk (and to debate) about their country’s storied history.
Argentina’s culture—from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires to the rustic sheep and cattle ranches of the Patagonian wilderness—varies as widely as its landscape. Porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires call themselves, are famously erudite and literary. Argentine literature has very much made it into the mainstream through worldwide translations of authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. The impact of the 20th-century European immigration wave is apparent; many porteños enjoy nothing more than spending their free time drinking café con leche and reading in one of the capital’s many cafés. Strong communities of filmmakers, musicians and artists, as well as students from the city’s many universities, maintain a thriving intellectual life for the city. Buenos Aires is also famous for its nightclubs, known as boliches, which operate generally from 3:00 a.m. until past sunrise.
Outside the city, the iconic symbol of rural Argentina is the gaucho, the Patagonian cowboy. Gaucho culture famously involves sheep-wrangling, horse-riding and knife-fighting. Gauchos are, unfortunately, in short supply these days, but they still serve as the best representation of the rough Patagonian ethos.
Good to Know
When traveling in Argentina, keep the following in mind:
A 15 percent tip is expected in most sit-down restaurants. For taxi drivers, no tip is necessary, but they work hard and would, of course, appreciate it!
Argentinians, especially porteños, are proud of their cosmopolitan, sophisticated identity. Like Italians, they tend to be loud and animated, using gestures and standing in close proximity during conversation. A handshake is the standard method of greeting a stranger, while friends and acquaintances will exchange kisses on the cheek. Argentinians also tend to have a different sense of personal boundaries than North Americans, so don’t be offended if they comment on your weight or the color of your skin.
Argentina uses European-style plugs. Devices purchased in the United States will require a converter and adapter. These are available for purchase in most touristic locations.
There are not many public bathrooms in Buenos Aires or in the rest of the country. Expect to buy a coffee or a pastry in order to use the bathroom in a restaurant, bar or gas station.
The water in Argentina is safe to drink, but it’s sometimes heavily chlorinated. Some travelers choose to err on the side of caution and drink bottled water in more rural areas.
Argentina’s currency is the Argentine peso. Though the country has undergone serious inflation and several regimes of stringent regulation on currency trading in the last decades, travelers should have no trouble changing money, using ATMs and paying with a credit card in Buenos Aires. In rural areas, paying by card might not be possible, so plan ahead.
When to Visit Argentina
Because Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are reversed: in December and January, it’s hot and dry, while August and July will be cold and rainy. The weather over the holiday season is fantastic for traveling, if a bit hot, but be aware that many porteños will leave the city on vacation over New Years. If you’re looking to enjoy the culture of the capital, you might be disappointed to find it empty!
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● The national sport of Argentina is pato, a cross between polo and basketball that was originally played with a live duck as the ball. This gaucho sport, played on horseback, has fallen out of fashion in favor of the country’s unofficial national sport, soccer.
● Argentinians are famously vain—at least one in thirty have undergone cosmetic surgery (this figure is higher for porteños) and they have the second-highest rate of eating disorders in the world after Japan.
● Pope Francis, the current pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, is Argentine, and once worked as a bar bouncer in Buenos Aires.
● Argentina was the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage, and the first to recognize two men as the legal fathers of a newborn child.
● Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world, and its annual book fair draws more than 500,000 visitors to the city.
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Regions and Cities
Argentina is an enormous country, and towns and cities tend to be spread far apart. (This is especially true in the south.) As such, many visitors to the country see only a small fraction of the sights, but almost all of Argentina merits exploration.
The central province and the epicenter of Argentine culture, Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the “Capital” or “Capital Federal” to distinguish it from the surrounding province that bears the same name.
Buenos Aires City (CABA): The cosmopolitan center of Argentine culture, Buenos Aires is a must-see for lovers of art, literature and theater.
Mar del Plata: Mar del Plata, the second-largest city in Buenos Aires province, is a resort town, and it’s known for its beautiful beaches and decent surfing (if you don’t mind the chilly water!).
Sprawling and mountainous, Northern Argentina is the perfect destination for adventurous travelers looking to get away from the crowds.
Salta: A medium-size city, Salta is known mostly for the massive salt flats just outside its border, which bring flocks of visitors drawn by the impressive vista—and the great photo ops.
Maybe the world’s most famous wilderness, Patagonia occupies a massive stretch of land all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Massive grasslands, whistling winds and wide-open skies give the Patagonian residents a unique sense of freedom and solitude within the majestic expanse.
Bariloche and the Lake District: Bariloche, the largest city in Patagonia, is surrounded by incredible natural landscapes: fish-filled rivers, towering snowcapped mountains and crystal-blue glacial lakes. There’s good fishing in December and skiing in August.
El Calafate: A small town in the south of Patagonia, El Calafate has grown as tourists flock to visit the majestic, electric-blue Perito Moreno Glacier.
For more info, read our full Patagonia Travel Guide.
Worth a Visit
Mendoza: Argentina’s wine-producing region, this charming city is the perfect place to rent a bicycle, to cruise from bodega to bodega and to taste wines in the Argentinian sunshine.
Iguazu Falls: Located on the border with Brazil, this is the world’s largest waterfall system. It’ll awe you with its power and amaze you with its beauty.
El Tigre: This massive delta, only a few hours outside Buenos Aires, has developed into a charming region of rustic waterways and relaxing boat taxis. It’s a popular spot for porteños to visit on the weekend.
Talampaya National Park: Located in the province of La Rioja, this nature preserve is home to stunning rock formations and desert landscapes. It was also the site of some of the most important archeological discoveries of the last century, including the fossils of dinosaurs that have not been found anywhere else in the world.
Things to See and Do
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How to Get to Argentina
A US citizen doesn’t need a visa to enter Argentina for tourism purposes and can stay up to 90 days.
A US citizen needs a passport with at least six months of validity to enter Argentina.
As of August 2016, US citizens no longer need to pay a “reciprocity fee” prior to entering the country, but this is always subject to reversal.
Most travelers will arrive at Ezeiza Airport (EZE), which is located outside of Buenos Aires. A second airport, Jorge Newbery (AEP), serves domestic airlines and offers flights to Bariloche, Salta, El Calafate and other Argentine and South American destinations. Make sure you’re at the right airport! In case you need to transfer between airports, a shuttle bus runs back and forth all day long, but it doesn’t run at night.
Getting Around - Transportation
Argentina is a large county, and it has wide spaces between its various tourist destinations. As such, Argentina travel is often expensive and time consuming. A bus to Bariloche from Buenos Aires, for example, takes 22 hours. A better option, for most travelers, is to take domestic flights through Aerolíneas Argentinas, the national airline, which services most areas of the country. To get off the beaten path, however, you might have to rent a car and commit to some serious driving.
The country’s language is a unique form of Spanish known as “español rioplatense.” Argentinians are famous for speaking with a distinctive accent and using a mystifying collection of slang terms known generally as “lunfardo.” Many Argentinians don’t speak English, but in Buenos Aires, you should have no trouble getting around.
Argentinians will usually greet each other with “buenos días” or “buenas noches,” or simply “buenas.” Instead of the Spanish “que tál,”, Argentinians will ask “como va?” or “todo bien?” meaning, basically, “what’s up.” The correct answer is, of course, “todo bien.” To say goodbye, they prefer “chao” to the more formal “adios.”
Italian heavily influences the Argentinian dialect. For example, while “beer” in Spanish is “cerveza,” most Argentinians, especially young ones, use the Italian “birra” instead. A common exclamation among Argentinians is “Che, boludo!” Both words basically mean “dude,” but the second is a touch cruder.
Food and Drink
No Argentine travel guide would be complete without mentioning the most famous Argentinian food, the asado, or platter of grilled meats. Vegetarians won’t find much to their tastes outside Buenos Aires, but for meat-eaters, the country is a paradise. Adventurous eaters should try morcilla, or Argentinian blood sausage. Buenos Aires is famous for its gelato shops, where the city’s Italian influences can be felt—and tasted!
Food in Argentina: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Though Argentina is not an especially dangerous country, they’ve had their share of economic woes in the last 20 years, and travelers would be wise to avoid flashing their wealth around. In Buenos Aires, it’s best to avoid certain areas at night, such as the Retiro Bus Station, Constitución and especially La Boca. Be advised that imported goods, especially electronics, are much more expensive in Argentina than in other countries and are, therefore, tempting for potential thieves. Most robberies are opportunistic, not violent, so it’s important to be vigilant. Don’t leave your purse on the back of your chair, for example, or leave a computer at a café table when you go to the bathroom.
Protests and strikes are common in Argentina and can be very intense. They rarely turn violent, though. Still, for foreigners, it’s best to keep a safe distance.
Flying into EZE airport, it’s recommended you keep your electronics and valuables in your carry-on luggage. The baggage handlers have been known to steal from bags as they arrive.
The police in Buenos Aires will generally not be helpful, but they’re better than in many other South American countries. Still, if something is stolen from you, it’s probably gone. As such, it’s better to take precautions so the police never have to get involved. In case something does happen, the local emergency numbers are as follows:
- Ambulance: 107
- Firefighters (National Firemen Corps): 100
- Police (Argentine Federal Police): 101
- Tourist Police: (011) 4346-5748 / 0800-999-5000
The water in Argentina is safe to drink, but cautious travelers might choose to purchase bottled water in rural areas.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. Explore all our Argentina tours here, and we hope this guide will be enlightening as you plan your next great adventure!