Argentina is a trickster. Buenos Aires, the country’s capital, is often described as the Paris of South America. Yet with its Spanish and Italian heritage so deeply entwined in its culture, architecture and cuisine, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re not in Europe. (Case in point: its heladerías, or artisanal ice cream shops, give Italy’s gelaterias a run for their money.)
And since the Spanish-speaking nation shares borders with Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, those countries’ influences also spill across its landscapes, whether the ridges of the Andes Mountains or the thundering waterfalls so large they bear two names in two languages (Iguazú National Park in Argentina, Iguaçu National Park in Brazil), earning World Heritage Site status from UNESCO for both countries.
It’s these unexpected quirks that can be both captivating and confusing to any traveller. Here are seven things to know about Argentina before you go.
For those who can’t bear the waste from bottled water, there’s great news. Tap water in Argentina is safe to drink! Bottled water, however, is ubiquitous in restaurants, but you’ll need to order (and pay for) it.
Tip: If you’re ordering water in Spanish, the phrase “Agua, por favor” won’t necessarily cut it. You’ll be asked if you want “Agua con gas” (sparkling water) or “Agua sin gas” (still water).
2. Cash is king
Credit cards aren’t widely accepted at shops and restaurants in Argentina, or even at hotels. They’ll often reserve your booking with a card, but request payment in cash when you check in or out. To be on the safe side, ask if the establishment takes cards (or look for a sign on the door) before you order in a restaurant, coffee shop or bar.
Tip: When you’re desperate for a drink and run out of pesos, big-name hotel chains can be boons. In wine country we happily sipped negronis and pisco sours at the Park Hyatt Mendoza Hotel, Casino & Spa and saved our dwindling cash reserve for dinner.
3. ATM lines and limits
ATMs are everywhere, especially in larger cities such as Buenos Aires, Salta and Mendoza. And so are lineups of people, which sometimes snake down the street! Why? Because ATMs are often out of cash (really) and withdrawals are currently limited to 2,000 Argentinian pesos per day. When we visited in May 2017, that was the equivalent of about $272 Canadian (we like using this currency converter, which has an app too). That doesn’t go far when you’re paying for hotels, transportation, entertainment and meals. (And yes, there’s also a 93 peso fee for using an international card.)
Tip: To get around the daily limit (but not the fee), use a different ATM card (RBC and Tangerine worked us throughout Argentina) in the same machine, or visit two different banks. Banco de la Nación and Santander banks were our go-tos, as well as any ATM bearing the Link symbol.
4. Cover charge
Similar to what you might experience in Europe, many restaurants and cafes in Argentina have a “cubierto” or cover charge. Often, the amount is clearly printed on the menu, so make sure to factor in this cost if you’re running low on cash and the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards!
Tip: The cover charge is not a tip; it’s for cutlery and napkins. And it’s per person—not per table. A lot of people find this “extra” to be a rip off. However, in some places you’ll get fresh pan (bread) and butter, which is well worth a little extra pesos in our books.
5. When you’re not in Rome…
Argentina often feels like Italy with its top-notch Italian restaurants serving casero (homemade) pastas, especially with familiar words like ragu turning up on some menus. Perfecto! You’ve got this. Not so fast. Unless you’re ordering a dish such as lasagna or cannelloni where the noodles and sauce are baked together, you’ll need to make two decisions. First, pick a noodle (or noqui, aka gnocchi), and then choose a sauce to go with. You’ll be charged individually for each. The upside: more options.
Tip: Mushroom lovers will often be disappointed when ordering dishes with champiñones. In our experience, the mushrooms almost always came from a can, even at higher-end restaurants. Lesson learned.
6. Change and tips
After you’ve stuffed your face with every cut of beef imaginable at parrilla or had your fill of thin crust pizza, it’s customary to take time to relax, even if a postre (dessert) is out of the question. So don’t expect the bill to come anytime soon—unless you ask. It might be tricky to catch your server’s attention (we saw plenty of locals unabashedly waving), but making the hand signal for “signing a cheque” is acceptable and does the trick quite nicely. Or simple ask: “La cuenta, por favor.” Tipping around 10 per cent is standard.
Tip: When your server comes to take the bill and cash, if you want change say, “Cambio, por favor.” Saying “Gracias,” is equivalent to “Keep the change.”
7. On the bus
Buses in Buenos Aires and beyond are cheap, fast and (mostly) efficient. Many in Buenos Aires even run 24 hours. But you’ve got to be quick on your feet. Buses often come to a careening stop with the door flung open while still in motion. Be ready to get on or off—quickly. Even if you know what bus number to take (this interactive map of the public transportation system in Buenos Aires never led us astray, unlike Google Maps) and you’ve managed to locate the right stop, you still need to flag it down.
That’s right: You must wave down the bus. But wait. You’re not done yet. In Buenos Aires (I can’t recall if I did this in Mendoza since we took an express bus) you must tell the driver where you’re going so he can charge you the correct fare. It’s actually a fail-safe way to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. In Buenos Aires, purchase a Subte card (you can use it on buses and the subway), which is reloadable at the kioscos (kiosks) scattered throughout the city.
Tip: Bus drivers seem to think they’re in the Formula 1. So if you’re unsure whether you’re on the right bus, try to confirm the route with the driver before he seals those doors shut and takes off. Otherwise, you’ll end up going for a ride and getting deposited at the next stop (been there!), and might have to backtrack.
8. The air kiss
Male? Female? No matter. In Argentina, greeting each other with a beso or kiss is something you’ll definitely see and likely experience. So be ready—and lean in. Unlike Europe, where some countries go for double or even triple kisses to the cheek, in Argentina, it’s a single air kiss. In fact, there’s not always lip action, rather, pressing right cheek to right cheek. Simple and sweet.
Tip: Kiss hello and goodbye. And if you’re really not comfortable, or find the whole greeting awkward, opt for a formal approach with a handshake. ¡Hasta luego! ¡Chau! Φ