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I went on a trip to Argentina earlier this year and visited Buenos Aires and several cities in Argentine Patagonia. You can read about my experience travelling in Patagonia in the trip reports below.
Patagonia, Part 1: Trip to the End of the World – Ushuaia, Argentina
Patagonia, Part 2: Visiting Argentina’s Thunderous Perito Moreno Glacier
Patagonia, Part 3: Exploring Argentina’s Little Switzerland – Bariloche
I thought it may be helpful to share some tips based on my personal experience travelling in Argentina, the land of Tango, steak and soccer. Here are 7 tips for your first trip to Argentina .
Don’t bling bling
Argentina is going through financial hardship with crazy levels of inflation.
Given this context, there’s a lot of petty crime there. You should avoid flaunting your wealth.
Don’t walk around with your expensive iPhone out. You can definitely take it out to snap photos, just don’t walk around holding it because someone can easily snatch it from your hands. Same applies if you’re dinning at a restaurant at a patio, don’t leave your phone laying on the table for anyone to grab it.
There are no issues with wearing jewellery or accessories, just keep the expensive stuff at home. Thieves are well-trained there and they know if you’re wearing real diamonds or fakes pretty easily.
The one question I got asked frequently when anyone learned that I’m travelling to Argentina is related to safety.
Overall, I found it safe, but of course you have to exercise good judgement. We avoided walking on deserted streets.
When we visited the working-class neighbourhood of La Boca which is one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the capital, we made sure to visit during the day and we stuck to the touristy area of El Caminito.
It’s a good idea to walk with purpose and just be aware of your surroundings, which is a general rule of thumb that applies to a lot places.
When we returned to Buenos Aires from Bariloche, we arrived at around 3:30am at night. We were a bit nervous arriving this late. We grabbed an Uber and found the streets were still packed with cars! It reminded me of my travels in the Middle East.
Although our ride was uneventful, I don’t recommend taking ride share or a cab late at night if you’re a solo female traveller. In this trip I wasn’t travelling alone, but if I was, I would’ve definitely booked an earlier flight to get back during daylight hours.
One thing you have to watch out for is pickpocketing in Buenos Aires. For instance, I noticed many tourists were taking precautions by wearing their backpacks at the front.
There are certain areas that are popular for pickpocketing. For example, if you take the subway or bus or go to the Retiro bus terminal, you really need to keep a close eye on your personal belongings.
The oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, called San Telmo is very popular and is especially crowded on Sundays when they have the Feria de San Telmo or Street Fair. Due to the large crowds, it’s an easy place to be targeted for pickpocketing.
On the other hand, in Patagonia it was a very serene atmosphere. The crime rate there is low and it’s very safe even if you’re a solo female traveller.
Best ways to pay, foreign exchanges and money transfer services
The money situation in Argentina is pretty messy. When I visited in January, the inflation rate was hovering around 70%. At the time of writing this post, the inflation rate shot up to just over 100%!
Due to inflation, there are two different exchange rates. The official rate is called the red rate. Whereas the unofficial rate is the blue rate or blue dollar.
Credit cards – foreign tourist dollars
Before, if you paid by credit card, you would pay the official rate (red rate). This is about double the cost than paying the black-market rate or blue dollar.
However, some changes were announced in November 2022, whereby the Argentinian government wanted to encourage tourists to use their credit cards instead of paying in cash for everything.
Initially this wasn’t working. Then in December I started to see datapoints on the Tripadvisor forum of people reporting that they were getting close to the blue dollar rate when paying by credit card.
The catch is it had to be on a foreign credit card. It also had to be a Visa or a Mastercard. When I arrived, I paid with a Mastercard, and found that I was charged the official rate. Thankfully, four or five days later, I would get a partial credit, bringing the net charge close to the blue dollar rate.
This is definitely a welcome change! Walking around with thousands of pesos in your pockets would not be ideal.
I should note that American Express didn’t work in giving the blue dollar rate, but I had read that they plan to roll it out. I tested it with a small transaction while there and I got charged the official rate, with no credit. Hopefully this will change soon!
Cash is still King
Despite being able to pay with your Visa or Mastercard for many of your purchases, it’s always a good idea to have some cash on hand. For example, when it comes to tipping at restaurants, you’re expected to pay it in cash. The pay terminal doesn’t have an option to add a tip.
When we purchased tours in Bariloche, they charged more for paying by credit card. Some places also offer a discount if you pay by cash. Also, markets prefer you pay by cash. Same goes for cabs.
We found we got a better rate using cash than credit cards, but of course you leave points on the table if you go all cash.
There are many foreign exchange places to get your pesos. Both official and unofficial. One example is Florida Street (Calle Florida). This street has both official and unofficial foreign exchanges.
The unofficial exchange places will usually have someone on the street calling out “cambio cambio!”. I would advise to steer clear of these unofficial exchanges since they can be sketchy. You may end up with counterfeit bills.
Don’t bother bringing your Canadian dollars here. The exchange rate is absolutely appalling.
I highly recommend bringing USD. Another tip is to have $100USD bills and they have to be crisp or in good shape. This is because if you try to exchange a smaller bill, they will give your a lower exchange rate.
If you plan to go to Patagonia after you land in Buenos Aires, I would advise to exchange your money in the capital first. There are more exchanges in BA and they generally have better exchange rates than in Patagonia.
An alternative to foreign exchanges is to use Western Union (WU). You can download the WU app if you don’t already have it before your trip. The advantage of WU is it’s safe and they provide you with the blue rate.
You simply send money to yourself by linking to your bank account or a credit card. If you use a credit card, you would pay a higher fee though. Choose Argentina as the place you want to send money to, select the currency of your bank account/credit card (e.g., Canadian dollars or USD).
Once you enter the Canadian or USD amount you want to exchange, you’ll get the blue rate it exchanges to. Note that the blue rate fluctuates daily. Make sure to select the pickup option and go to one of the WU locations in Argentina and pick up your pesos. You do need to bring your passport with you to show as ID.
WU does give rewards, called “My WU Rewards”, which you can redeem to partially offset the fees you’ll pay for your transfer.
Be aware that WU opens only on weekdays and that WU locations are limited in Patagonia. It’s better to go in the morning as some places run out of bills by the afternoon.
Don’t prepay your hotel
Don’t make my mistake! In Argentina, if you pay with a foreign credit card at the time of check-out you don’t have to pay the tax! I had a couple of my hotel stays prepaid and missed out on the tax savings.
When you go to check-out, they’ll ask you how you’ll pay for your stay. If you tell them with a foreign credit card, they’ll credit the tax charge on your bill. The tax is 21%, so its substantial savings depending on your hotel rate and length of stay.
Another tip is when you arrive in Argentina, check the hotel rate of the hotels you booked. You may find the rates are cheaper when booking in Argentina, rather than in Canada or elsewhere. This is another reason to book a refundable rate. You can cancel and re-book using the lower rate if you cancel far enough in advance.
Best ways to get around
We found the best way to get around in Buenos Aires is via ride shares. They have a ride share company called Cabify. It’s Argentinian and is also available in other South American countries. They also have Uber.
During our trip, we found there are more Cabify drivers, and wait times are usually less. However, with Uber, the cars tended to be in better condition and most Uber drivers used the air conditioner. This is most welcome in the summer months because it gets veryyy humid.
Uber usually cost slightly more than Cabify. If there wasn’t a big difference in price between the two, I preferred going with Uber.
I had read that when you arrive in Argentina, you would need to update the payment method in the Uber app to cash because most drivers didn’t accept credit cards. I didn’t really find this to be the case. Paying by credit card wasn’t an issue.
We also took regular cabs and they were actually cheaper sometimes, because ride shares had surge pricing during rush hour for example. If you take a cab, just make sure the driver has the meter turned on to avoid getting scammed.
If you’re on a tight budget you can take public transport. You buy a travel card called SUBE and you load amounts to it with your credit card. This allows you to use the metro (Subte) and bus when in Buenos Aires. Note that SUBE cards are hard to find, but you can buy them at the airport upon your arrival.
You can also use the SUBE card in Patagonia if you want to get around by bus. Note that ride shares are not available in Patagonia. We just took cabs, although we mostly did a lot of walking since the cities we visited were small.
When exploring the national parks in Patagonia, you can rent a car. Otherwise, you can just sign up for a day tour with a tour company, which is what we did.
Lost in translation
Many of the restaurants only had Spanish menus. Even in cases where they had a bilingual menu with English, sometimes things were lost in translation. For example, the English description would not match with the Spanish.
For this reason, you need to be proactive and inquire about the ingredients when speaking to your waiter if you have any dietary restrictions.
In Buenos Aires, they’re famous for their beef and you won’t have difficulty in finding a steakhouse or restaurant serving different cuts of meat. In Patagonia, make sure to try their tender, roasted or grilled lamb.
No matter where you are in Argentina, you can snack on empanadas that are pastries that look like pizza pockets. They come in different varieties filled with cheese, veggies, beef or lamb. Finally, you cannot leave Argentina without indulging in some sweets like dulce de leche!
In Argentina, they eat dinner late. Just before our arrival to Argentina, I made a reservation at a steakhouse restaurant, called La Cabrera since it had good reviews. I was happy to find a booking available at 6:30PM, since most restaurants don’t open until 8:00PM. When we arrived, there was a massive crowd waiting for the restaurant to open its doors. We thought to ourselves, I guess this place is really popular.
We indulged in high quantities of protein and then we got a surprise when we received our bill. Everything we ordered was discounted by 40%! Apparently, they open early for their Happy Hour.
When I saw Happy Hour, I thought it would be discounted drinks and appetizers like it typically is here in Canada. But in Buenos Aires, at least at this restaurant, Happy Hour meant everything on the menu was discounted.
So, watch out for any restaurants that offer Happy Hour to get great savings on your dinner.
In some countries, you may not know what the customary tip is. Not in Argentina. Many restaurants would stamp the receipt with a 10% tipping suggestion. No guessing required here!
Visit the iconic Café Tortoni for a Tango show
Café Tortoni is one of the most beautiful coffeeshops you will find in Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the oldest café in Argentina, founded in 1858. It has an elegant Tiffany glass ceiling, marble-topped tables, surrounded by beautiful paintings.
It does attract a lot of tourists and the menu is a bit overpriced. Although they have a lunch menu, I would recommend just getting coffee or tea accompanied by a snack or dessert.
This café also has a Tango show you can buy tickets for and it’s very affordable. Many of the Tango shows in Argentina are expensive and they include a dinner. This is a nice alternative, giving you the chance to see a fun Tango show in a historic setting without putting a dent in your wallet.
You can buy the tickets in advance and it’s only available on weekdays. Unfortunately, we had visited the café on a weekend, so we missed the show.
Buenos Aires is an exciting, cosmopolitan city with no shortage of activities. Combining it with a trip to Patagonia was a nice contrast to soak in the stunning nature.
I hope the 7 tips for your first trip to Argentina help you prepare. If you’ve already travelled to Argentina and would like to share your tips, please drop them in the comments below.
Really helpful tips, Dalia, especially about how to manage the red and blue exchange rates.
“They’re infamous for their beef” (sic)? Really? I thought they were famous for their beef rather than bad or evil.
Great catch. Removed the “in” 😄
Great summary! Thanks so much for posting with exact details on how to do my upcoming trip to Argentina right.
Glad you found it helpful. Enjoy your your trip planning!