The Paris of South America has been affectionately attributed to Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. And after a few days there, you’ll begin to see how truly beautiful and mesmerizing Argentina can be. With a predominance of second and third generation Italian and Spanish decedents, Argentina isn’t your regular South American cup of tea. Throw Italy, New York, Spain, and France into a blender and you’ll get something consistent with Buenos Aires. Oh, and garnish with Brooklyn.
Whether visiting or moving to Argentina, you’ll eventually have to deal with the matter of: How to Make Friends in Buenos Aires. Though Argentines are known for their friendliness and warm hearts, they can also be a little standoffish to newcomers. This is why, along with great travel and cultural information on how to get around in Argentina, I’ve also laid out some ways to make friends while in Argentina. And you may not expect that a single herb called yerba mate could help you assimilate into Argentine culture. But more on that later.
Argentina is an incredible country that has something to offer everyone. From the tropical rain forests of its far North, the deserts and grasslands of the interior, to the cold and beautiful Southern tip, Argentina is stunning and diverse.
Culture abounds in the cosmopolitan capital city of Buenos Aires (Spanish for fair winds). In the interior, quaint villages and larger cities are replete with Spanish Colonial flavor. With no lack of animal life, mountains, lakes, and rivers, the outdoor enthusiast will appreciate all the possible adventures the country has to offer.
Check your Hemisphere: Preparing for the Weather in Argentina
When deciding to go to Argentina it’s important to know what the weather is going to be upon arrival and beyond. Since Argentina is located in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are opposite those of the Northern Hemisphere. For example, you can leave New York City in the middle of a snowstorm in early January and find yourself in Buenos Aires the next day with a high of 86ºF (30ºC)—and don’t get me started on the insanely humid summers. So make sure you check the weather beforehand.
Argentina is an extremely large country (7th largest in the world) with an Amazon Rainforest to the North, the cold Antarctic-like region of Patagonia to the South, and every possible climate in between.
No matter what season you choose to visit Argentina, if you are going to be traveling within the country, be sure to pack for the change in climates.
Entry Requirements and Vaccinations for Argentina
If you’re a citizen of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, or the United Kingdom, you only need a valid passport to receive a 90 day tourist visa.
Since December 2009, travelers holding US, Canadian, or Australian passports are charged a one-time tax upon entry at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires (valid for 10 years). The amount of the tax is equivalent to what an Argentine pays for a tourist visa to the aforementioned countries. Payable in US Dollars or Argentine Pesos:
US — $131 USD
Canada — $70 USD
Australia — $100 USD
You can avoid this entrance tax by entering Argentina through any other point of entry.
Argentina is generally a safe country to visit in terms of disease, as no vaccines are required for entry. However, caution should be taken when traveling to the tropical destinations. Here is a link to additional information on health in Argentina.
Exchanging Money in Argentina
While in Argentina, you’ll have little trouble accessing an ATM in the big cities or any of the resorts and tourist spots. In some cases, you may be charged a fee from both your bank and the ATM’s bank. Avoid this by finding the same bank you used back home (if possible).
Inflation is a problem and the Argentine government has been limiting capital flow out of the country. As a result, ATMs only give out Argentinian Pesos.
To get the most of your money while exchanging dollars for pesos, make sure to use a reputable bank such as the Bank of Argentina at the airport (EZE) in Buenos Aires. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can obtain an even higher exchange rate on the “blue” market (the black market of Buenos Aires). Though, be careful, as there is no shortage of unscrupulous Exchangers that won’t think twice to rip-off green tourists. In Buenos Aires, Avenue Córdoba, Florida, and 9th Ave have reputable locations.
Even before you go: The Argentine State of Mind
No one knows a country like the people who live there. With that said, the best way to know a country is to know the people that live there. This means that you need to try — and I can’t stress this point enough — to make friends with the locals as soon as possible!
Argentine Culture Equals Yerba Mate
When people think Argentina, terms such as: great beef, Tango, and futbol (soccer) come to mind. While all of these are intricately connected with the country, there is one that is arguably the most important. So important, that is has been declared a National Treasure.
Before the first cows arrived, the first soccer ball was kicked, and el Tango was developed on the streets of Buenos Aires, the native Guarani Indians were consuming what they called the “Drink of the Gods”, known today as yerba mate (pronounced yer-BAH MAH-tay).
Healthy, nutritious, and insanely delicious, this tea-like infusion from the leaves of a South American Holly tree provides vital nutrients, energy, and mental clarity to the drinker. Equally, it acts as a social lubricant, allowing you to connect to anyone it’s shared with—family, friends, and complete strangers (in this case, you are the stranger).
What better way for the traveler to plug themselves deeper into pulse of Argentine society, than by learning to drink and share yerba mate. To avoid confusion and unsightly cultural faux-pas, it is essential that you learn about yerba mate BEFORE you go.
Yerba Mate Vocabulary Term
A working knowledge of Castellano (Spanish) is going to help you, not only with travelling around Argentina, but making friends that are going to show you the Argentina most foreigners never know (focus on the principal verbs such as: tener, comer, venir, salir, hacer, estar, and ir). If you really want to stand out, learn some of the local slang. The book “Che Boludo!” is the best guide.
Mateware: The Tools of Yerba Mate
- El mate: The cup that the infusion is drunk from, often a gourd.
- La bombilla (pronounced bom-BEE-yah): Traditional metal straw, with a filter on one end, that is used to drink the infusion from the gourd.
- La yerba (pronounced yer-BAH): The actual leaves used to brew the infusion.
These three components are also often referred to as “mate”, a singular unit, as in “Vamos a preparar un mate” (Let’s make some mate).
Understanding the Cuts of Yerba Mate
- Las hojas (pronounced OO-has): the leaves of the mate tree.
- Los palos (pronounced PAH-lows): the small twigs that are present in the mate.
- El polvo (pronounced pole-VO): finely ground mate ojas that create a powder
The ratio of these three components vary regionally. Together, they make up the cut of the mate (as described in the yerba mate book, Mateology ). The cut is the composition of the blended proportions of leaves, twigs, and powder ( learn more here). The Argentine Cut of mate, what you will most likely be drinking in Argentina, contains broad cut leaves, relatively small amounts of powder, and small to large twigs.
Additional Yerba Mate Terms
- El Cebador (pronounced say-bah-DOOR): Meaning the Mate Brewer (or Mate Server); this is the person who will regulate the mate ceremony.
- Lavado (pronounced lah-vah-DOH): Once the yerba has lost its flavor, it has become “washed”. Time for some new yerba.
What is a Yerba Mate Ceremony?
The Mate Ceremony (I call it a “Mate Circle”), as Dave “Mate” Askaripour describes in his book Mateology, is the opposite of being in a club. This is an intimate setting for friends and strangers to think, connect, and dissolve barriers as minds and hearts coalesce.
Protocol: How to Host a Mate Circle
The Cebador is the host of the Mate Circle. He or she will be responsible for preparing the mate gourd and serving each member of the Circle. There is a ritual to the whole process.
- The Cebador will drink the first couple of gourds to ensure that he or she is satisfied with the taste and quality of the mate. Considering placement of bombilla, temperature of water, etc.
- The Cebador will fill the gourd with hot water (never boiling water) and pass it to the to his or her right.
- Whomever receives the mate gourd, drinks until an audible suction (slurp! slurp!) is heard, signaling that they have finished their entire gourd of mate. This is considered polite. This person will then hand the gourd back to the Cebador, who will then refill the gourd and pass it to the next person to the right.
Everyone will drink before the Cebador drinks his next gourd. This process will continue until the mate becomes lavado (tasteless). More mate will be prepared or the drinking will stop.
Understanding Yerba Mate Sharing Rules:
- You’ll be sipping on the same metal straw (bombilla) with many other people.
- Do Not move the bombilla around. It’s where it is for a reason (to prevent clogging—learn more here).
- Please REFRAIN from touching the tip of the bombilla with your tongue.
Cultural Cues to Help You Blend into Argentine Culture
Passed down from its strongly-steeped European heritage, most North American and EU travelers are going to have an easy time adjusting to the flow of things in Argentina. Nevertheless, the shamelessly late-night dinners (10:30 PM), intense all-nighters, and generally slower pace of life (think Southern Europe with siestas) might be unusual at first.
The Salutations — Everyone is Kissing Everyone in Argentina
When greeting someone for the first time, the nth time, and when saying your goodbyes, it’s customary to give a single kiss to everyone present. Whether this is exciting or uncomfortable, you’ll soon become acclimated to the custom and appreciate how this friendly greeting instantly dissolves peoples’ facades and barriers.
Control Your Drinking — Don’t Be That Guy or Girl
Although more and more common, public drunkenness isn’t the norm in Argentina. Do your country of origin and yourself a solid and comport yourself well.
Buenos Aires: Gateway to Argentina
Easy to get to, Buenos Aires is a great jumping-off place to begin your travels in Argentina, on to other provinces or neighboring countries. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Buenos Aires became the center of the newly created country of Argentina in 1816. In the 1850’s, large waves of European immigrants flooded Buenos Aires, creating a distinctly European culture and traditions that continue to this day.
Buenos Aires is a huge city with nearly 3 million inhabitants. Divided into 48 barrios (neighborhoods), each one representative of its past and inhabitants. Whether Buenos Aires is your final destination or the first of many, here are some areas of the cities — and methods of transportation — that are a must-see for culture and nightlife:
Transportation — Getting Around in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is home to the the first subway system, “el subte” (subterraneo), as it is known locally, in South America. It’s one of the best ways to get around the city (assuming there isn’t an ongoing strike, which can happen quite frequently).
The bus system (buses are called “colectivos” or “bondis”) is a little more daunting to use, but is manageable with a little effort. There are numerous taxis roaming the streets looking for passengers as well (select only the ones that say “Radio Taxi” and try to pay with exact change to avoid being ripped off).
Either transportation method will get you anywhere in the city.
Fun Neighborhoods in Buenos Aires for Shopping, Nightlife, and Fine Restaurants
This is an upper-middle-class neighborhood nestled between Palermo and Recoleta (some maps include it as part of Recoleta). Many bars, nightclubs, and restaurants line the main strip of Sante Fe. This neighborhood is easy to access on the subway system.
Palermo (Hollywood and Soho)
The trendiest neighborhood with some of the best nightlife in Buenos Aires is filled with Old World charm. The largest barrio in Buenos Aires, it is dissected by the Avenida Juan B. Justo into two main sub-neighborhoods: Palermo Soho and Hollywood.
Palermo Soho is lined with unique cafes, designer boutique clothing stores, a few Mexican spots, chic bars and clubs, and fancy restaurants. The Plaza Serrano (Plaza Cortazar) hosts an excellent street fair during the weekends. You will find some of the highest concentrations of North Americans and Europeans frequenting the bars that encompass the plaza.
Palermo Hollywood is named for its high concentration of TV and film production studios. Not as glamourous by day as Palermo Soho, nights and weekends are packed with moving crowds circulating between restaurants, bars, and clubs (called boliches) on Gorriti street. Some of the biggest clubs and concert venues are located near the railroad tracks.
Quite affluent — and more of an Old Money feel — the beautiful homes and excellent shopping make Belgrano a prime area to take a stroll on its cobblestone streets and through its numerous green spaces. Shopping is great on the Avenida Cabildo where you can find shoes and clothing from chain or smaller independent stores.
There’s an eclectic mixture of bars and restaurants in this area. The Barrio Chino (China Town) is also located here, making Belgrano one of the biggest alternative food destinations in the city. For vegans, vegetarians, and health conscious travelers in Buenos Aires, Barrio China is the spot for tofu, seitan, and other healthy products.
The newest and most modern area of Buenos Aires, the high-rise buildings and well-planned streets will remind you of a modern American city. With Microsoft, IMB, and other tech giants towering into the skyline, the North American influence of the zone is palpable.
Located right by the Nature Reserve (La Reserva Ecologica) on the water, a bridge connects it to the rest of the city. High levels of security (mostly from the several military and naval bases in the area) give the zone a safe feel. And the high priced restaurants and clubs only add to its exclusiveness.
High-end designer shops, incredible historic architecture, and the beautiful Recoleta Cemetery (site of Evita’s grave) surrounded by a high wall, making Recoleta a unique district of the city. The affluence found here is pronounced, with seemingly limitless bars and nightclubs constantly adding to the luxuriousness of Recoleta Village. Parisian style, for a high price. Unfortunately, taxis are the best way to get around this barrio. This is the “Upper East Side” of the city.
Cultural and Traditional Spots in Buenos Aires
Known by some as the “Republic of San Telmo”, this historic neighborhood is lined with cobblestone streets, elegant low rise houses, and the true bohemian culture of the city. One of the contenders for the coveted title of the “Birthplace of the Tango”, (the other being the close-by Boca neighborhood) this neighborhood can boast the famous San Telmo Market that sells traditional wares along with numerous Tango street performers (hint: Plaza Dorrego, located in San Telmo, one of the best areas of the city to get a traditional mate gourd and bombilla).
It has been changing with an influx of wealthier newcomers that’ve led to an outcry of long-standing residents against the “Palermo-fictation” of the storied neighborhood. Plenty of bars hug the streets, representing different waves of immigration over the centuries.
This district contains the imposing Congress building of Argentina. Surrounded by other grand historic buildings, the Plazo del Congreso offers impressive views of the capitol building and 19th Century architecture at its finest. Although it seems a little sketchy at night with lots of homeless people, improved security has brought more tourism and hotels to the blocks surrounding the Plaza Del Congreso. Expect to find many language schools in this area, if you’re seeking to learn Castellano.
Following the Avenida de Mayo from the Plaza del Congreso to its eastern terminus, you’ll find yourself in the Plaza de Mayo, looking at the Casa Rosada (the Argentine equivalent of the White House in the US), home of the Argentinian President.
Just next door to San Telmo is the colorful neighborhood of Boca. A rough, working-class area where, in the past, the majority of the residents worked in the docks and shipyards. The barrio’s two main attractions are the “La Bombonera” soccer stadium of the Boca Juniors soccer team and the Caminito, or ‘Little Street”, which is an artist’s street lined with brightly colored houses often made with corrugated metal sheets. Get your camera ready.
The area has become quite a tourist destination, and because of the dangerous nature of the neighborhood (especially after dark), it’s strongly encouraged to stay within the strict barriers that have been put up by the police. After dark, be sure sure travel by taxi.
This gritty and unapologetically loud and bright neighborhood is truly the “East Village” of Buenos Aires. The high concentration of internet cafes, hostels, and hotels make this the to-go place for those travelers who don’t have their plans or accommodations quite figured out.
I was in that position when I arrived in Buenos Aires and I ended up meeting my future roommates at a hostel in Microcentro. Numerous theaters, including Teatro Colon, are located in the area, making
Microcentro a great place to catch a concert or show.
There are no lack of good shopping places and the plentiful subway lines that run through here make it easy to get to and from anywhere in the city.
Buenos Aires’ Obelisk stands at the intersection of the Avenida Corrientes and the Avenida 9 de Julio, the latter being the world’s widest at seven lanes in each direction and impossible to cross in one attempt.
Famous Soccer Clubs of Argentina
Buenos Aires is home to two world famous soccer clubs: River Plate (CARP) and Boca Juniors (CABJ), known simply as Boca and River. The rivalry of these teams is matched only by that of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in Spain. The matches between the two are known as “Superclásicos”, meaning that every game played between the two is an instant classic.
River’s colors are red and white, Boca’s are blue and yellow—colors that you’ll see all over the city. I remember reading a newspaper article there entitled, “Boca vs. River Increases Heart Attacks”. This just goes to show the insane following that both of these teams have. If you’re able to make one of these superclasicos, it will be something you won’t soon forget.
Fun and Exciting Things to do Outside of Buenos Aires
Argentina is a huge country with plenty to offer, so don’t be afraid to get outside of Buenos Aires, even if it’s for a quick day or weekend excursion. Some time enjoying the surrounding areas will be a relaxing way to take a break from the fast pace of the city.
Visiting Tigre, Buenos Aires
Just north of Buenos Aires on the Rio Plate, Tigre is the most popular day excursion from the capital and is reached easily by train from Retiro station (duration: 1–1.5 hours). A popular vacation and gambling destination in the early 20th century, Tigre is home to many canals and rowing clubs. You can take a ride on a boat or a party boat if you are feeling slightly more festive. Enjoy eating at many of the fine restaurants on the streets facing the water.
There are plenty of interesting museums to see including the National Naval Museum and the world’s only yerba mate museum — El Museo Del Mate — which is a must for anyone looking to understand the history of the national drink of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. There’s also a theme park and casino in Tigre.
Visiting Montevideo and Colonia from Buenos Aires
Located just across the murky water from Buenos Aires is a fellow Rioplatense neighbor, Uruguay. One of the most liberal South American nations, recreational marijuana use was legalized for adults just recently (as of late 2013). Apart from that, Uruguay offers two great day trips from Buenos Aires.
Montevideo is the capital city of Uruguay that offers all of the charm of Buenos Aires but with a much more relaxed pace of life (Uruguay boasts some 3.3 million in the entire country while the center of Buenos Aires itself has nearly 3 million residents). Uruguayans enjoy drinking hot yerba mate as well, so don’t be surprised to see people sipping in the streets. In fact, be surprised if you don’t! (you may no longer be with the living.)
Colonia is a Portuguese colonial town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and has the quaint charm of the older parts of Lisbon. Beautiful cobblestone streets and hotels abound in the city.
Both cities can be reached by ferry from Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires.
Traveling to Punte del Este from Buenos Aires
Famously known as top summer spot for Argentineans, this Uruguayan town has become a new favorite of American and European travelers. Gorgeous beaches combine with great nightlife — that starts well after a late night dinner — to create an unforgettable getaway atmosphere.
Take the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia or Montevideo, then hop a modern bus to Punte del Este. The whole trip will take around 6 hours.
Visiting Iguazu Falls
The biggest waterfalls in South America, Iguazu Falls will not fail to impress you by its power and beauty. December to February, as well as Easter week, is the big tourist season. From Buenos Aires you have a couple of options to get there: The first is by airplane, which is the most expensive way (and quickest). LAN Airlines and Aeriolineas Argentinas offer flights.
The second method is by bus. The trip takes 16–18 hours but is much cheaper than a flight. The buses are comfortable, provide movies and food, and are a great way to see the countryside. Via Bariloche and Andesmar are the best long distance bus companies in Argentina.
As the falls are located on the border of Argentina and Brazil, it will be tempting for travelers to want to explore Brazil. Keep in mind that Americans will have had to obtain a travel visa BEFORE leaving the US in order to cross into Brazil.
Taking a trip to Argentina’s Wine Country, Mendoza
Mendoza is one of Argentina’s largest cities and home of the growing Argentine wine industry. Malbec is the predominant grape of the region. Located in the midwest of the country, between the Pampas and the Andes mountains, this dry, mountainous region is home to numerous vineyards. Take a tour of a winery and enjoy everything that a sophisticated and modern city such as Mendoza has to offer. The area has great opportunities to enjoy nature with hiking, skiing, and whitewater rafting.
Mendoza has strong historical ties to Chile, so don’t be surprised at the differences from Buenos Aires. Even the Spanish spoken mirrors a Chilean accent more than that of Buenos Aires.
Bus is the best option to get from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. Here is a good site to book all your bus trips in Argentina.
Even before you go to Argentina: Revisited
Whether you are in the streets of Buenos Aires, on a ferry to Uruguay, or on a long distance bus ride to Mendoza, one thing is going to remain constant: yerba mate. This traditional drink is going to be your key when introducing yourself, making new friends, and just being an all-around nice person when you offer mate to someone sitting next to you on that long bus ride.
As with all things, the more you prepare for something, the easier it will be for you later on. So learn all you can about this wonderful gateway drink to Argentine culture before you go. Try different types of mate, buy a gourd and bombilla, and learn how to use them.
Learning the customs of country is the ultimate sign of respect and admiration for its people and traditions. And who knows, you may even be able to teach them something about yerba mate.