Trouspinet’s Top Tips and Highlights for Argentina

Wow, what a journey that was! Argentina jumps effortlessly into the list of my top 5 destinations of all time, and for scenery, it would be No. 1. However, this trip required lots of planning, and I also learnt a lot as I was travelling. In this post I list my personal highlights and give some tips for planning (valid as of November 2022).

TROUSPINET’S HIGHLIGHTS

To help you plan your trip, here is my ranking of the places I visited on this trip:

  1. Quebrada de Humahuaca (northwest Argentina)
  2. Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia
  3. Foz Iguazu
  4. Mount Fitzroy, Patagonia
  5. Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia
  6. The drive from Mendoza to Aconcagua
  7. The drive from Salta to Cachi
  8. Puerto Varas and the Chilean Lake District
  9. Buenos Aires
  10. Mendoza’s vineyards
  11. Bariloche and the Argentine Lake District
  12. Salta

I put Bariloche and Salta bottom because there are places in Europe a bit like them, whilst the other places are unique in the world. But I really enjoyed even my lower-ranked locations on this trip – I simply didn’t have a single bad travelling day.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca

TROUSPINET’S TOP TIPS

Be Selective – Distances are huge, as is the choice of places to visit.

Unless you have the time (and endurance) for 12-36 hour bus rides, you will need to fly if you want to see many of the country’s highlights. I went for nearly one month, usually flew between destinations, but still did not have time to see everything I wanted to. After much thought, I regretfully excluded Ushuaia and some of the national parks from my list. You will also have to make some hard choices.  

Perito Moreno Glacier

Check which Internal Flights operate

The main flight operators in Argentina are Aerolineas Argentinas, JetSmart and FlyBondi. Argentine airlines have a bad reputation for reliability and punctuality, but I had no major delays in any of my seven internal flights.

Check when flights go direct from one regional destination to another (eg Salta to Mendoza), without having to go back to Buenos Aires and out again. These flights will save you a lot of time and money, but they don’t operate every day. The popular and very convenient Bariloche-El Calafate flight only operates in the peak tourist season – late November to February.  If you do have to fly back to Buenos Aires, remember it has two airports – the very convenient Aeroparque Newberry (AEP) located in the city, and Ezeiza (EZE), which is a long way out of town. Book ahead for anything In, To or From Patagonia over November – February. The region is hugely and justifiably popular in the southern summer. I went in November – not the peak season – and even then, I heard that the buses from El Calafate to Bariloche were fully booked for several days.

Foz Iguazu

Cut your Costs by 50% using the “Blue Dollar”

Argentina has two exchange rates. The official rate is what you get for foreign currency in a bank, or if you pay by credit card. It is also applied to cash withdrawals by a credit card – which are a very bad idea since local bank fees for these transactions are also very high.

The unofficial exchange rate (or “blue dollar”) is nearly twice as good. You can get the “blue” rate from money changers offering their services on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. Avoid them – they all look shady and are notorious for cheating customers. By far the best way to change money at the unofficial rate is by Western Union money transfer. Set up an account (important – do this in your home country before you leave), transfer money to yourself for pick up as cash in Argentina. You will need your passport and transfer details to collect the cash. It sounds easy, but there are a few complications:

  1. Western Union’s website lists lots of agencies, but many of these are very small and don’t have money. Pick the biggest agencies, which are listed as “C.S” on their site.
  2. Agencies are shut at weekends, except a few in Buenos Aires that open Saturday morning
  3. Expect big queues on Mondays and the first and last days of the month.
  4. There are no facilities in Patagonia.
  5. You will get bulky wads of hundreds of banknotes. Argentina’s most valuable note, the 1000 peso, is worth only 3€ at the unofficial rate. And that’s if they give you 1000 notes – I often received 500s or even 100s.

All of the above means that you will need to plan in advance when and where you will get cash, particularly if you are going to Patagonia.

Monte Fitz Roy

Accommodation – Check the Exchange Rate when you book

I used Booking.com to book hotels. You get quoted a price in US$. Once you have made a booking, contact the hotel to ask if they apply the official exchange rate if you choose to pay in pesos. Most of my hotels agreed to this; only one asked for the blue rate (so I cancelled and booked somewhere else). If you pay like this, you save 50%! More expensive hotels add 20% VAT to their bills, which can you avoid by paying with a foreign credit (but then you get the official exchange rate, so it is still better to pay with cash).

AirBnB is not recommended, because you pay in advance in your own currency. It may have been bad luck, but the one place I booked with them was of very poor quality and seemed more aimed at local tourists.

Torres del Paine

Don’t Rely too much on Guidebooks

Things change quickly in Argentina. Our guidebook claimed to have been reprinted in January 2022, but was hopelessly out of date.

The Road from Mendoza to Aconcagua

Packing

Check average weather conditions and pack accordingly. Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego are cold even in the southern summer and need very warm clothing and waterproofs. Aerolineas Argentinas (but not the other airlines) has a limit of 15kg for checked baggage, so you may also need to pack light and fully use the allowances of 8kg for carry-on baggage and 3kg for a personal item. The 15kg rule is not strictly enforced – we were usually a couple of kilos over, but the check-in staff ignored this.

On the way to Cachi

Learn some (Argentine) Spanish

In touristy areas like Patagonia and parts of Buenos Aires, you can get by with English. But in most other places, few people other than hotel staff spoke a second language. If you already speak some Castilian Spanish, be aware that there are big differences in the pronunciation of “y” and “ll”, and that the second person singular “tu” is replaced by “vos” – with different verb endings. I didn’t find any good books on Argentine Spanish, but I found this website (for intermediate speakers) to be very good- https://argentalk.com

Mount Osorno, Chilean Lake District

That’s all for now. I could write a lot more, but I am worried I will bore my readers. If anyone has a question, please leave a reply at the bottom of this page. Happy Travelling!

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

50 Shades of Red (and Orange, and Green, and Purple)

My next day was spent with getting to the Quebrada to Humahuaca in the far northwest of the country, near the borders with Boliva and Chile – famous for its spectacular coloured rock formations.  I had a couple of hours free in the morning before my flight, which I spent unsuccessfully looking for a Western Union branch that had enough money to pay my second transfer. After that it was a two-hour flight to Salta, and a three hour drive to the small town of Purmamarca. At first the road passed through nondescript, flat, featureless and dry country, with litter strewn by the side of the road. As I approached my destination, it climbed. The weather had become cloudy, but I could still make out the outlines of tall mountains all around me. I arrived at six, to find a town bustling with travellers and full of bars, shops and restaurants serving them; it had a nice, busy atmosphere.  I celebrated my arrival with a beer in a café on the town’s central plaza The clouds had lifted, and I could see that all around the town was surrounded by bright red, brown and green rock formations, promising some interesting exploration over the next two days.

After my beer, I had dinner in a peña – a restaurant where live music is played. The singer asked where everyone was from – the other diners were all from Argentina or other parts of Latin America. Everyone was very interested to meet a bear from London, and I had my photo taken with the singer.  The menu was very reasonably priced and even had a bottle of local red wine for 990 pesos (less than 3€). I was so intrigued that I ordered a bottle, and it turned out to be pretty good. I had a fun evening eating, drinking and listening to the others singing (my Spanish was not good enough to join in).

The next morning my jet lag caused me to wake early, at six. I had a slight headache, which I attributed to the high altitude rather than last night’s wine ;).  I got dressed and set off to explore the town of Purmamarca, hoping to find somewhere for a coffee. Everything was closed and the streets were quiet except for the traders setting up their stalls around the central square.

I abandoned my hunt for breakfast and explored the town instead, with its handsome old church…

……colourful shops

…colourful houses

I walked up a steep hill on the outskirts of the town to a mirador (viewing platform) with a 360 view of the town and the surrounding mountains, which glowed in the morning sun. The scenery resembled an impressionist artists pallets, with many shades of red, orange, green, brown and purple. As the sun rose higher, the colours changed, a transformation that continued for the whole day.

The view from the Mirador

It was now eight, and a finally found a place for a reviving coffee before setting off north to explore the valley. The road was spectacular, running along a deep valley with towering, coloured mountains on either side. My first stop was a set of restored buildings which were one of the staging posts for travellers and mail along the route from Bolivia to Buenos Aires. The complex had a beautiful setting, and in the mid-morning sun the colours of the rocks had evolved again, becoming more subtle than the bright display of the dawn.

Next stop was an upmarket restaurant recommended to me by the Tourist Information Office as having the best coffee in the valley. When I arrived though, they had no electricity and could only make me some tea and a huge jug of lemonade, which helped my headache. This place also had amazing surroundings.

I continued driving north past many different strange and colourful rock formations until I reached the town of Humahuarca, the largest settlement in the region. It was a pleasant place with interesting old architecture, and I stopped to eat in the central plaza. I continued my exploration of the town after lunch and even managed to find a Western Union branch that actually had money!

In the late afternoon I set off to see one of the highlights of the region – the Serrania de Hornocal. I drove along a rough track for about an hour, which rose steeply until at 4350 metres I reached a viewing point for one of the most spectacular natural phenomena I have ever scene – a panorama of brightly coloured mountains shaped liked jagged shark’s teeth. It was quite cold and there was a strong wind. The few human visitors were shivering, but I was comfortable under my fur.

I had hoped to sit and enjoy the view for a long time, watching as the rocks changed colour in the setting sun, but I was unlucky. I had only been there about fifteen minutes when clouds emerged.  The dramatic colours occasionally reappeared when the sun broke through the clouds, but the periods of light got shorter and shorter until the sky and the rocks were both dull grey. I comforted myself that I had arrived just in time to see something that I will remember for ever.

It was a long drive back to Purmamarca, but it was made memorable by yet more wonderful landscapes, now with the colours of the evening sun, which had now re-emerged.

When I arrived the sun had already set. I opted for a quiet dinner this time – it had been a long but inspiring day with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

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