Although it doesn’t seem so, Argentina (population 40 million) is the same size as India in terms of square miles. It’s the eighth largest country in the world.
Our intention was to see it all in three months. Having now had some experience of the country, that idea sounds so ridiculous. We only really scratched the surface. To do it properly, I’d like to go back, hire a campervan and drive around for 12 months. But the visitor’s visa is only valid for three months per entry, so you’d have to leave the country at various stages to make it possible.
We missed out on Patagonia (where there is also a Lake District), Mendoza (the wine country – although we’re not drinkers), Salta, the Los Glacieres National Park, Bariloche and Calafate, the multi-coloured mountains of Jujuy, not to mention the Valdes Peninsula and the wildlife sanctuary in Puerto Madryn.
Although getting around is relatively easy, it is quite expensive, at least when compared with other South American countries like, say, Ecuador. We took an overnight coach to Cordoba (the second largest city) from Buenos Aires, which was fabulous. Booking was easy. You can do it online with Omnilineas or, as we did, go direct to their offices (Maipu 459 on the 10th floor).
I visited alone the amazing Iguazu Falls, which was a 16-hour coach journey from the capital, but a truly spectacular sight.
But we soon decided that constantly hopping from one place to another while Jamie was pregnant and Zenchai only four-and-a-half wasn’t what we had in mind. So we picked a few locations and pitched our tent, so to speak, for longer periods. That way we felt more settled and like we were living rather than visiting or touring.
Buenos Aires was enjoyable, a real walking city and easy to navigate. Each block is about 100m and the roads run on a grid system, much like in New York. But breathing in the pollution and cigarette smoke (Argentines are big smokers) almost wherever we walked where it was reasonably populated had us eager to move on in the end.
It’s sophisticated by South American standards, very European in its atmosphere and culture. The people are very helpful and friendly. Argentines, I noticed, love public displays of affection. They are big on tattoos also.
Buenos Aires is a city with tree-lined streets, cobbled roads, pastry and grocery shops on practically every corner, graffiti on walls and abandoned classic cars scattered everywhere (much to Zenchai’s delight). It’s home to the tango and yerba mate.
Cordoba, where we went after Capilla Del Monte, is much smaller than the capital: compact by comparison and cleaner (hardly any dog mess on the pavements). There is less to do and see, however. But it’s a shopper’s paradise (I can’t recall being in a place where there are so many shops – and all selling, more or less, the same items).
We rented apartments where we could in Argentina. This was the cheapest option, but only for stays of two weeks or more. We tried first online, but the process was tediously slow. With the bulk of rent required up front (in cash), be prepared to get your money out. And be warned that the banks in Argentina charge for ATM withdrawals and place a limit on the amount you can withdraw. (Talking of banks, be sure not to leave your need for cash until a Sunday afternoon as most banks are dry by then. If you’re desperate, go to an ATM inside a large petrol station).
After getting tired of waiting for rental agencies to reply to emails when we first arrived in Buenos Aires, we tried knocking on doors and this produced almost instant results. We’d recommend you find the area you like and then approach real estate people in the vicinity.
On our return to Buenos Aires in January, we successfully secured an apartment online with www.4rentargentina.com. Again, we had to pay in cash.
Palermo was our favourite neighbourhood. Home to the zoo, Botanical and Japanese Gardens, Palermo is large. If you want to be near the park – or are a jogger* - make sure you search in that area or opt for Recoleta, where there is also the extraordinary Cementerio de la Recoleta. San Telmo, an old district, also has lots to offer and is probably the place to be for museums, antique and old book shops, jewelry and bars. There is also a big food market.
When we were on the road or having short stays, we opted for hostels. Some are cheap and others not so (we happened to get to dusty San Marcos Sierras and Capilla del Monte during peak season). Buenos Aires has a wide selection, but do your homework and read reviews (trip advisor is a good starting point) before booking.
We preferred the hostels we found in Cordoba to Buenos Aires. Hostels are fine if you want a cheap space and to prepare your own meals, but it’s sometimes not ideal for families with small children (although in Cordoba it wasn’t a problem – try Babilonia Hostel and Pewman Che Hostel).
Many hostels can be noisy and sharing bathrooms has its drawbacks when you have a son who’s desperate for the toilet and a pregnant wife. Also, in Argentina the culture is to stay out late – even for kids – so taking an early night often comes at a price.
The positive side to hostels (for families) is that they offer a chance to meet other travellers. And for Zenchai this sometimes included children, which was nice.
Zenchai handled the travelling side well. We looked into internal air flights for ease of getting around, but it was too expensive, particularly for non-residents. As for food, buying from a grocer, as we tended to, was affordable. I could fill a large bag with fruit and veg, to last us several days, for about £15. The same would cost at least double back in England. One evening in Cordoba, I even bought enough veg to make dinner for three and it came to the equivalent of £1.
The variety is better for fruits than vegetables. It didn’t compare in Buenos Aires and Cordoba with what we could get our hands on in Capilla Del Monte - a small town which you can easily cover on foot in a few hours, probably less if you are doing just the centre. Getting there, we took a bus from Cordoba. It takes a lot longer (about four hours) if you are on a bus that stops in every town. The direct one (Sarmiento is the operator) takes around an hour.
Long-distance train networks aren’t reliable in Argentina, but the subway (Subte) in Buenos Aires is excellent and very cheap at 1.10 pesos (20p) per person. It runs from 6.30am-11pm and trains come frequently, even on weekends. To ride the buses is the same cost.
Clothes and shoes etc are expensive, so we didn’t do any shopping of that kind (especially as we’re always trying to travel lightly), except for Zenchai’s Argentina top which I found at a fair price in one of the many shops in the capital city selling football kits.
Eating out could be costly also. It depended where you went. We had some cheap and good meals for under £10 and others, though not so frequently, that came to nearly £30. The food is decent, though unexceptional, at least by vegan standards (I can’t comment on steak houses etc).
In Cordoba, we found several lunchtime vegetarian options which were fine. Eating out at night was more difficult, because of Zenchai’s sleeping times and how Argentine’s prefer to feast late. But, to be honest, we generally found dining out rather disappointing wherever we went last year, regardless of the country. When we look back on our favourite meals, it’s nearly always been those home-cooked and/or with family. You can’t beat it!
Overall, though, we really enjoyed our Argentina experience. It surpassed all expectations. We had a memorable time. I felt really at home and safe in the places we visited and with the people. When travelling with a family, that’s definitely an important factor to consider.
AbramsFamilyWorldTravel Tip: A Note for runners - I wouldn't recommend jogging or running through the city, particularly after 8am. There's too much traffic and pollution and too many traffic lights, not to mention the dog poop on the pavements. Head for the parks. One of the best is Parque 3 de Febrero, also known as The House of Sports. There you can run around 1km path that circles a boating lake. It's safe and you'll be joined by cyclists, roller-bladers and walkers. You can run on the tarmac, grass or gravel.