Monday, March 02, 2015

The Argentina Travel Cheat Sheet

So I'm just back from the glorious country of Argentina. Yes Argentina, the home of tango, Malbec, football and steak, but also a land that is at it's heart so much more- a nation with a fierce identity and a tragic political history that reveals itself as a bittersweet triumph of the human virtues of greed, exploration and freedom.

As immortalized in his The Motorcycle Diaries, Che', Argentina's biggest gift to its neighbours, famously found his raison d'etre of helping others during his travel through the country. So here follows my little inspired attempt to help future travellers get the best out of this incredibly beautiful country. For if there's one destination that rewards travellers for rigorous pre-planning and having comprehensive updated knowledge, then this is it. So here are some tips, based on our experience, that are not readily available in guidebooks or online forums, but those that will greatly enhance your trip.
  1. Plan ahead. Seriously I cannot emphasise this enough. A few reasons why: a lot of experiences are only available on certain days of the week (such as Domingo markets); the most reliable tour operators get booked out quickly; and its imp to book domestic flights for the right times so as not to waste days, especially in Patagonia.
  2. Argentina is expensive. Very expensive in fact, especially if you do not follow the money tips below. Years of very high inflation have led to businesses increasing prices rapidly even in dollar terms, so take the guidebook prices with a heavy dose of chimichurri and do your own research directly via websites or your hotel. This will help avoid nasty surprises and you can choose the best places to eat accordingly.
  3. Carry lots of USD cash. Argentina is one country where the traditional money wisdom needs to be thrown out of the door. So leave the credit cards at home and carry USD enough for ALL your expenses, including hotel bills. This is because Argentina has two exchange rates, one the official rate (1 US$ = 8.75 AR$ (pesos)) and the other the unofficial rate, called the blue rate which can range anything from (1 US$ = 10 to 14 pesos). Businesses usually quote 3 rates: a) credit card rate, which is the amount in pesos you will pay if you elect credit card- this is the least economical as you will effectively be converting at the official rate. b) dollar efectivo: the rate you pay if you have USD cash, which will be a discount of 10-25% on the quoted price, and c) the cash rate in pesos, which will be the USD cash rate but converted into pesos at mostly the official rate, but sometimes even at the blue rate! So if you have dollars and convert it to pesos from time to time,  when shopping you can choose to pay either in dollars or pesos depending on the rate offered and get a lot of bargain savings. The country is generally safe, and every hotel has a safe box, so this is the best strategy. If you are too paranoid to do so, or have forgotten to get dollars, despair not. Use Azimo, a brilliant service that allows you to pay pounds/dollars from your UK bank account, and collect an equivalent amount of pesos (at a very good rate of 11.5) from an Argenper branch in town. I have used them and fully recommend their reliability, but with some warnings: a) its only in their fine print that they say that they don't work on weekends b) the Argenper branch near Recoleta is a bit out of the way; c) the branches are only open 11 am-1pm in some cases, d) there is no branch in Palermo, the most popular barrio for tourists and e) you need a passport with you, so don't combine that with a visit to risky La Boca! Hence I advise doing big sums at a time.
  4. Convert your USD cash into pesos NOT at unofficial cambio shops but at restaurants. This was a tip we learnt from experience. Some restaurants quote a rate of 14, so if your bill is AR14 they will ask you to pay AR14 or 1 USD. You can then give them a big, lets say 100USD, note and ask them for the change in pesos, which means they will effectively convert the balance into pesos at the high rate. And given they are reliable, you dont expose yourself to getting fake money, which is a problem at the unofficial shops. 
  5. Master a bit of Spanish. As with any country, it will enhance your experience, but especially in Patagonia it will be a life skill! Will also help to know the numbers when exchanging money- once (11), doce (12), trece (13), catorse (14). 
  6. But wait, Argentines have their own confusing version of Spanish. Hell, they even call it different, Castellano, which is the old formal name the Spanish used for Espanyol. So if you know a bit of the language, be prepared to not understand a word on your first day! It is simple to get around that though- they pronounce the ll as j and not as y (so a street, calle, is pronounced caje) and use vos instead of tu. And they say aqa instead of aqui to mean "here".
  7. Do not leave your shopping to the Ezeiza duty free shops. Like their money, Argentines have parallel official and unofficial economies. So whether it be limited edition Malbecs or their much beloved sweet treats, Dulce de leche or Alfajores, they are best bought locally based on street recommendations. The airport shops are super expensive. For wines find a local chino: shops so called because they are run by Chinese immigrants. 
  8. You can carry as much wine in your hand luggage as you want. Argentina does not have any liquid restrictions when leaving the country! Remember to check your country's allowance though- for the UK it is 4 litres per person (so that's about 5 bottles).
  9. It's a tipping culture. As every waiter will undoubtedly remind you! Standard is 10% so factor that into your budget.
  10. You can redeem the 21% VAT at the airport. When shopping locally, if there is a Global Blue sign and VAT is charged, ask for a receipt. Then arrive early at the airport and get the refund. Worth it only for big purchases.
  11. You can order half portions at restaurants, and you can share. Both are very common practices with locals (as is watering your wine to make it last longer!) so don't feel ashamed to do so- portions are generally generous.
  12. Argentines don't believe in breakfasts. The country likes to eat breakfast like a pauper and dinner like a king, so it is not common for hotels to provide hot substantial breakfasts. If your hotel doesn't provide one, the options outside will be very limited, as cafes open only at 11 am. So choose your hotel carefully if this is important to you!
  13. Don't assume the worst when it comes to food. Argentines are going through a massive vegan revolution, and not only in BsAs (Buenos Aires Verde is probably the best vegan restaurant we have been to in the world) but also in the other tourist regions, there are veg restaurants available.
  14. Keep yourself updated! This info is valid as of 3 March 2015, and things can change quite quickly, so please check that all of the above is still valid during your trip.

Buen suerte & un abrazo!