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Guide To Argentina


Introduction – why visit Argentina

Argentina is the second largest country in South America and the eighth-largest country in the world, with a size of 1,073,500 square miles. It stretches from the sub-tropical north to the icy south at the end of the world, and from the vast plains of the east to the mighty Andes that runs down the western border.

A country rich in culture and tradition, it has been independent for just over 200 years after celebrating its bicentenary in 2010.

Buenos Aires is the capital city, and the metropolitan area is home to just under 13 million people, making it the second largest in South America.

The country is famous for its tango halls, sumptuous steaks and its blend of traditional South American and European culture, which makes it quite unique from many of the other countries in the region.

All of this, combined with its warm and welcoming people, makes it one of the top destinations for a holiday in South America.


The basics

Argentina is located in the southern half of South America, just below Brazil and bordering Chile to the west and Uruguay to the east. Its northern provinces are sub-tropical, and it stretches right down to Tierra del Fuego, near to Antarctica.

The Falkland Islands are off the coast, and these are claimed as Argentinian territory and are known as Las Malvinas.

History

Argentina used to be a Spanish colony, and the colonial period lasted from the early 16th century to the early 18th century. Argentina won its independence in the May Revolution in 1810, and this was followed by various civil wars.

Once things became settled, Argentina grew into a prosperous nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the richest countries in the world, but this period ended with the Great Depression.

Following this, Argentina has experienced many unsettled decades including various military coups, the most recent of which lasted from 1976 until 1983, a period known as the Dirty War.

Since then, Argentina has remained a democracy, but it has suffered from various economic problems.

Climate and geography

Because of its size and length, Argentina experiences a huge range of climates.

Head up to the north in the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, as well as Misiones, where Iguazu Falls is located, and you will experience sub-tropical weather.

In the West, the Andes runs all the way down the length of the country. While in the north west the days can be very hot, the high altitude can make the nights very cold.

In Buenos Aires, summers are hot and winters are mild. January is the hottest month, and many residents of Buenos Aires leave the city and escape to the coastal resorts, the most popular of which is Mar del Plata.

In Buenos Aires, winter temperatures may approach zero degrees, but they rarely drop below that.

In the south, however, the winters are bitterly cold. If you want to visit Patagonia, head to the region in the summer if possible. Then again, you may want to go skiing in the winter, and Bariloche is the most popular resort.

The Culture

Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, has a heavy European influence, more so than many other South American countries.

The European residents are mainly of Spanish and Italian descent. However, there are also many Irish, German and Russian descendants, many of whom immigrated to the country in the 19th century.

Tango is one of the most important cultural activities in the country. The dance originated in Argentina and Uruguay, and tango is still very popular with locals and tourists.

Football is the main sport by a long way, and Argentina has one of the best national teams in the world. The Argentina team reached the final of the 2014 World Cup but lost to Germany, and Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are just two of the greatest players of all time to have come from Argentina.

Food and drink

Dinner is eaten late, as late as nine or ten o'clock, and often around the table as a family. This is one of the biggest cultural differences for people visiting the country, who are used to eating a lot earlier.

Everywhere you go, you will see people drinking 'mate', a drink made from 'yerba' leaves. The ground leaves are put inside a small container, and warm water is then poured into the container from a thermos flask. A metal straw called a 'bombisha' is used to drink the liquid, and then it is refilled and passed to the next person in the group.

Popular food includes steak, pizza, pasta and traditional food from the north of the country like 'locro', a stew made from maize and meat.

Ice cream parlours can be found on every block in the towns and cities, and it is not unusual to see people sitting outside enjoying an ice-cream after midnight any day of the week.


Where to go

Argentina is a vast country, and this makes travelling between the most popular destinations difficult. Flights are the best option if you want to see more than one place, but long-distance coaches are very comfortable and good value.

Here are some of the top tourist destinations that you may want to visit during your time in the country.

Buenos Aires

The vast capital city is almost always included on tourist itineraries, and it is the place you are most likely to arrive when you fly into Argentina.

It is found on the eastern coast of the country and about midway from north to south. The land is very flat, as it is in all of Buenos Aires Province. It enjoys a pleasant climate that changes with the seasons, and apart from the hottest time of year in January and the coldest in July, the weather is pleasant.

When you visit Buenos Aires, top activities include:

  • see a tango show;
  • eat in a traditional 'parrilla', where you will find the famous steaks;
  • watch a football match;
  • become a gaucho for a day by visiting an 'estancia' outside of the city;
  • walk around San Telmo, a historic district of the city;
  • relax in a park;
  • travel to nearby Tigre and explore the delta by boat (read an excellent article on Tigre in The Guardian);
  • enjoy some of the best nightlife in South America at the impressive nightclubs.

Iguazu Falls

A true natural wonder, Iguazu Falls is the vast waterfall in the northernmost point of the country in the province of Misiones on the border with Brazil.

You can visit throughout the year, but the weather here is very hot in the summer. You can go on a weekend tour from Buenos Aires, which is the most popular option, but you would not want to spend more than a few days here because apart from the waterfall there is not much else to see.

There are numerous waterfalls, and the highest one is 82 metres. The best place to go is Devil's Throat to feel the water thundering around you.

Bariloche

Bariloche is another of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, both for locals and foreigners. It is located in Patagonia, and it is primarily known as the top winter sports destination in the country.

However, it is also a popular destination in the summer months, and the lakes, mountains and spectacular scenery attract visitors throughout the year.

Visit the huge chocolate shops and see chocolate being made, try some beer in one of the many microbreweries, and head to the top of the highest mountain in the region, Cerro Catedral, from where you can see majestic condors flying past.

El Calafate

Calafate is the major tourist hub in the south of Patagonia, further south than Bariloche. It is cold here most of the year, and bitterly so in the winter months. Even in the summer it can be quite chilly.

This is the gateway to the lakes and the glaciers, including the famous Perito Moreno glacier, which is a must-see highlight of the region. You can walk along the walkways opposite the wall of the glacier, listening to the ice creak and watching giant pieces crack and fall into the water. You can even cross it on foot on an organised hike.

Salta and Jujuy

Salta and Jujuy are located in the far northwest of the country, and the scenery is completely different from that found elsewhere. Here you will find a more traditional way of life.

Look out for llamas, visit the ‘Cerro de los Siete Colores’ (Hill of the Seven Colours), and take a ride on the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds). You should also try the traditional cuisine of the region.

Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is located at the very southernmost point of the country. Here you can visit Ushuaia, the southernmost city on Earth, which is located a stone's throw from Antarctica. It's cold, windy and barren – but absolutely stunning.


Events

Argentina has many public holidays throughout the year, as well as a number of important annual events. Here are some of the most notable.

Carnival

The carnival season celebrates the beginning of Lent. Although the carnival in Argentina is upstaged by the Brazilian celebrations, which are the biggest in the world, the party is still important here, and there are two public holidays when the main celebrations take place.

Over a few nights, streets are cut off in the capital and groups head out to perform to music, while spectators line the pavements to enjoy the show. This is celebrated all over the country, but the main events are held in Buenos Aires.

Revolution Day

This is one of the most important national days in Argentina, and it is held on May 25th every year to celebrate the May Revolution of 1810.

It is a public holiday, and there are lots of important events attended by government officials. People also typically eat 'locro' and 'churros', a sweet fried snack, and concerts are often held in Plaza de Mayo in the centre of the Buenos Aires.

Independence Day

Argentina celebrates its Independence Day on July 9th every year. This was the day that independence was formally declared in 1810 following the May Revolution.

The winter holidays

The winter holidays take place over a fortnight every July. These are the school holidays, and they are the only holidays outside of the long summer holidays that last two months in January and February. During these two weeks, many people travel around the country to destinations like Bariloche.

The holiday season

January is the main holiday period of the year, and Buenos Aires becomes considerably quieter at this time as everyone escapes to the coast or elsewhere. Before this, however, Christmas and New Year are celebrated.

On both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve in Buenos Aires, get ready for thousands of mini firework displays to take over the city. As soon as midnight strikes, people head out into the streets and set off fireworks in an incredibly dangerous spectacle that is best viewed from a high balcony.

La Rural

This is a historic annual event in Buenos Aires where the country comes to the city. Get ready to see gauchos, horse riding displays and plenty of animals including sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. There are also lots of food stalls and plenty of entertainment over the few weeks that it runs.

The Buenos Aires Tango Festival

You can't escape tango in Buenos Aires, and this festival is the main event in the tango calendar. It is held in August each year, and it consists of a week of festivities all over the city full of classes, shows, competitions and more.


Act like a local

Want to act like a local in Argentina? It's easy! Just follow these tips.

Look for local ‘parrillas’

There are lots of restaurants that cater to tourists in Buenos Aires and other large towns and cities. Unsurprisingly, these tend to have higher prices and the food is not necessarily the best quality.

Instead, ask the locals for their recommendations for a good ‘parrilla’ (grill). They are likely to tell you about a hidden-away restaurant that doesn't even have a name outside, perhaps a building that you would otherwise walk straight past. The locals know where the best steaks are, so go on their recommendation.

Eat ice cream late at night

It does not matter what time of year you visit Argentina, even if it’s in the middle of winter – you will still see people sitting outside ice cream parlours late at night enjoying the ice cream that the country is famous for.

Ice cream is consumed throughout the year, and the parlours stay open late. However, for the best experience, sit outside at midnight in the middle of summer with all the other customers and you will mix right in.

Share a 'mate' in the park

'Mate' is the most popular drink in Argentina (see the description earlier in the guide). If you want to look like a local, head to the park with a 'mate' and a thermos flask filled with hot – but not boiling – water. Then sit around with your group and share it around the circle. Look around you – about half of the people in the park will be doing the same.

Eat and go out very late

Dinner is late in Argentina. Nine o'clock is common, but later is completely normal as well. This is especially so if you head out for a meal in a restaurant. Most restaurants are almost empty at eight o'clock, and it is not uncommon for diners to arrive after 10 p.m. and later.

If you want to go to a nightclub, you should also plan to arrive late and leave in the early hours. Nightclubs don't get busy until well after 2 a.m., and if you arrive at 11 o'clock, you are likely to be the only person there.

Take your time over a coffee

Cafés are found all over Buenos Aires, and there is no need to rush when you sit down at a table. You'll never be told to move along, so sit down, order a 'café con leche' (coffee with milk) or a 'submarino' (hot milk with a stick of chocolate that you melt into the milk) and take your time.

Cafés are places to hold animated discussions, watch football and hold meetings. So sit back, watch and enjoy feeling like a real local.

Kiss everyone in greeting

The standard greeting in Argentina is a single kiss to the left cheek, and this is the same for men and women. There are exceptions in formal circumstances, such as when you go to see a doctor, but with friends a kiss is the way to greet and to part.

Enjoy a 'merienda'

'Merienda' is Argentinian tea time, and it is usually held at about five or six o'clock. It consists of tea, cake, biscuits and 'mate', and it is a great way to keep you going until your late dinner. Enjoy it in a café or in a local's home if you get the chance.

Get invited to an 'asado'

An 'asado' is the name for an Argentinian barbecue, and these are very popular at weekends and holidays. They consist of copious amounts of meat cooked on the grill, so prepare to go home very full up. It's great to know someone who has a 'parrilla' in their home, so try to get invited to an 'asado' if you can.


Useful links

British Embassy in Buenos Aires – details of the British Embassy in case you need to make contact during your time in the country.

Foreign Office Travel Advice – official advice and information from the Foreign Office

BAExpats.org – one of the best forums for expats living in Argentina, and an excellent source of information when planning your visit.

Rough Guide to Argentina – top travel tips and information

Lonely Planet Argentina – more travel tips and info

Wikipedia Climate Guide – find out what the weather will be like in Argentina when planning your trip

The Guardian – section on the latest Argentina travel articles and news