What I discovered about Argentina
Let’s talk about food (always!!!!!)
Kingdom of slowly, very cooked meat (asado), Argentina is not what I expected. So carnivorous that they could make a fierce Balkan man feel insecure, their appetite for meat is as enormous as their use of GMO in the vegetables they produce. Here, if hungry, people think meat before anything else (if anything else) and vegetables usually end up in your plate more as decoration than actual food to eat…
There’s a very economical reason for that too. Meat is kinda cheaper than vegetables… At least, it is much cheaper than what we would pay for it in Europe. You can therefore carelessly indulge in a full-meat diet and not have to suffer the consequences when looking at your bank statement.
It is also fairly safe to say that the slow food/organic movement, save for the more wealthy neighbourhoods, has not made its way here. What matters is that food looks good and tastes good, not whether chemicals made it so or not.
Drink-wise, well, there is mate. Argentinians are crazy about it, they drink it more than water, at all times of the day, while shopping, walking in the streets or just about any activity you can think of. Mate is a sort of tea that you drink with a metal straw in a special cup that you filled up almost all the way to the top with the tea, hot water is inserted in small quantities at a time so you´ll always see the mate drinker holding a thermos with him/her. It is highly social as you usually pass it around until the thermos is empty.
Mine is bigger than yours… or is it?
Argentina is huge, like 8th-biggest-country-in-the-world huge. You’ll easily spent 20h in a bus trying to get somewhere and after you’d make it to Moscow from London, you’d still be in the bus here trying to reach the edge of the world. Check that world map in your toilets if you don’t believe me, bathe in the reassurance that my previous statement is some ignominous fake news, then go ahead and throw that map in the toilet… Our western-centred map are just that, western-centred. They use the Mercator projection of the world (check this video and prepare to be mindblown) and it makes it look much smaller than it is (and that applies to the whole Latin American and African continents). Flying is therefore the less-budget friendly but way faster way of traveling to places, and the only viable option if you are traveling to Argentina for a couple weeks and want to see some of Patagonia (although the north is really worth it too). For example, just going to the Igazu gigantic waterfalls takes about 18 hours from Buenos Aires (but 2 hours by plane).
Let’s talk culture
However, there seems to be a rather uniform culture across the land, whether you’re in the mountains of Patagonia, on the coast around Buenos Aires or in the wine region around Mendoza. Only the north west, closer to Bolivia has a stronger identity. The reason for that is actually another unexpected thing about Argentina… It doesn’t really have any natives anymore… Think USA and you’ll get a fairly good idea of how it is here. Original Indigenous folks of various tribes make up for less than 10% of the population, plus an extra 10-15% of mixed Spanish/Indians and you get a country where most people come from Europe (Germany, Italy and Spain on top of the list). The newer waves of migrants are Asians, predominently Chinese (and Trump doesn’t like…) so you’ll find Chinese supermarkets and restaurants just like at home.
This means everything in Argentina feels very… well… familiar. Western. Spanish priests and French immigrants brought in wine-making, Germans seem to have inspired a vibrant beer culture (although nobody seems to need the Germans for that anymore, micro-brew is the new hype) and people eat at similar times than Spanish people: that is way too late… European cars are everywhere, places and streets have names of immigrants who “discovered” them or settled there and so you regularly wonder why you’re walking down the avenue “Otto Bermberg” or hiking up to “lake Schmoll” next to the “Swiss Colony”.
This of course leads to a very interesing mix of cultures, like drinking Italian Fernet Branco with American Coca Cola. It also means that you’ll find a pizza place more easily than an empanada fast food joint. Don’t expect a cultural discovery like you would get in more indigeneous Bolivia or Peru but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it!
Gimme, Gimme, Gimme the money!
Economically and socially, Argentina is quite something, no wonder Ernesto Guevara said “Che” (“Hey” in Argentinian) so many times it became his name… In a similar fashion to most of the continent, you better be born in the right family here… Inflation is so high (about 20% per year) it is apparently useless to save money, shops rarely accept credit cards but when they do, it is usually with offers to pay in “up to 18 times without fees”. Salaries are renegociated every 6 months and so is your rent…
Probably the glue that keeps it all together, the public welfare system can be considered generous, education is free and you have a decent access to free medical care as well as state subsidies. It explains why, contrary to neighboring Chile for example, the informal economy is not overgrown, and you don’t see so many people in the streets selling everything and anything. The new government seems intended on applying the same old neoliberal policies that increase inequalities and break solidarity mechanisms everywhere though so this might change rapidly.
In that sense, a tourist only here for a couple weeks would probably miss that aspect of Argentina altogether, feeling like it is a modern, developed nation like the USA or Western Europe. Talking to young locals though, it is definitely a situation that limits their future prospects and encourages short-term decision-making and quite the complicated way to go about life.
Still trying to recover from the financial crisis of the early 2000s and the subsequent IMF-inspired sanctions on the country’s social system, currency controls are high here. Foreign money influx are highly regulated and making a bank transfer from abroad is apparently super complicated and requires quite some paperwork. ATMs also have limits on how much you can withdraw at a time and charge a hefty fee to foreign cardholders. It makes traveling slightly more complicated as walking around with hundreds of dollars or euros in cash is not super safe…
Things are expensive too, and high taxes on imports make anything foreign equal Norwegian prices (aouch indeed). This is apparently changing slowly under the new (neo)liberal government as some of the protectionnist measures of the past seem ridiculous given the lack of national industries to protect (like with computers and phones) but for now, buy your cool e-gadgets in the US or Asia instead. The average Argentinian (wealthy enough to travel ndlr) has therefore developed the habits of bringing home everything and anything they can, from clothing to computers and the likes, because it is a lot cheaper.
Pepper spray or not?
There is no major insecurity in Argentina however, especially compared to Brazil, where simply walking with a recent smartphone is apparently enough to get mugged. Here, while you need to be the proper amount of careful, you shouldn’t have to worry about taxi drivers mugging you, militias kidnapping you or any of this sort of things the continent can sometimes be famous for (do tell that to your parents, it’s a worthy argument to make!
So Argentina is definitely a country full of charms, Patagonia is a wonderful place to get lost in mountains, hike and camp and forget about the world. Wines here are delicious and food is tasty enough (I´m French so that´s a compliment). It´s not a budget holiday and you´ll need a sizeable transport budget to see more than one place but I have enjoyed Argentina very much and I am sure you will too.