There’s no denying that Argentina is a culturally rich country. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most evident differences I’ve found in my short time here.
Food: Don’t except to keep up a balanced diet here. While this stands true for most of South America, I’ve found it exceptionally hard to stay somewhat healthy. Milanesas, empanadas, ice cream, papas fritas and dulce de leche line sidewalk stands and menus alike. There’s not too much variation unless you seriously dig for it. Don’t get me wrong: the stuff can be delicious. Fuzzagetta pizza with white onions and cheese paired with a nice piece of faina and ice cold Quilmes. Or every piece of meat you can imagine freshly grilled with a side of chimichuri for dipping. My parents and I took a cooking class with Norma where we made a lentil soup (delicious, just not for hot weather), empanadas, alfajores and learned the art of mate. The variation is much wider than Colombia or Ecuador’s, but just hard on the arteries.
Another difference: Dinner is between 9:30-11:30 p.m. Breakfast isn’t really a thing (see mate below) and a merienda (snack-time) commences around 6-7 p.m. (see mate again) to help hold you over. This eating schedule shift has been quite as an adjustment, as I’m usually in bed by 11. Argentines are social beings and just simply enjoy taking a two or three hour meal. It’s shown me the importance of relationships and how nice it is to simply sit around the table to chat.
Mate: Oh, mate. It’s the most magical cultural thing Argentina has to offer and deserves its own shoutout. The herbal mixture is quite the tradition and comes from the yerba mate plant. Don’t expect to find it in restaurants though, but rather on the streets. Locals carry a thermos and a designated mate cup—authentically made out of gourds. You find people drinking while in parks, driving, walking down the street, waiting in line. I’ve asked at what age you start partaking and no one remembers—it’s always been there. It’s an extremely social act and I’ve been offered the cup while cleaning dishes, at the top of a mountain and while relaxing on a couch. There’s an art to it and a number of unspoken rules that I’ve learned along the way.
- One individual is the mate master who prepares the tea and pours the hot water in the cup before every pass. When you’ve finished your cup and had your turn, always return to said master.
- Don’t say ‘gracias’ every time, just when you’ve had enough and want to stop.
- Drink the entire cup-full. No one sip and done nonsense. You’re in it for the long haul.
- Don’t move the straw around—take it as it is.
- You can have it au natural or dulce (sweet with sugar). The difference is primarily regional, but varies from person to person.
The list goes on, but there’s nothing like taking part in a truly unique and authentic experience with a few locals.
Greeting: If you’re weary of strangers kissing your cheek, Argentina might not be the place for you. I personally love it. Variations range from a cheek hug to a kissing sound to a full on kiss, but the gesture is used as both a hello and goodbye. Old or young, acquantience or best friend, man or woman. It’s a testament to how open, welcoming and friendly Argentines are and makes you feel special every time. Tip? Kiss on the right cheek to avoid any awkward head maneuvering.
Transportation: No more $1/hour bus rides here. And a six hour ride? Psh—that’s nothing! The service and comfort is the trade-off, though. You have your choice between semi-cama, cama and suite for longer trips. (As a backpacker, the cheaper semi-cama is the most economical option that I always opt for.) And be sure to check for a ticket with servicio (food and drink!). Depending on times and companies you may get dinner and breakfast served on board. Public transportation in cities hasn’t been so bad considering I learned from Matt in Buenos Aires, but one thing to note: the importance of purchasing a city-specific sube card wherever you’re at. Busses don’t take cash and you have to tell the driver where you want off before scanning the card.
Politics & History: This normally isn’t a subject I feel so inclined to write about, but Matt has introduced me to a host of fun facts regarding Argentina’s history. Plus, my mom and I watched Evita in our AirBnB during the holidays, so I feel like I should give Madonna a shout out while I’m here. Argentinians haven’t had it easy. Political and economic turbulence seems to be a constant and the recent presidential election is either a great or awful thing, depending on who you talk to. The kidnappings in the 1970s and fight over the Malvinas/Falkland islands in 1982 remain consistent pieces of the architecture, economic and political conversation. Mostly descending from Italian and Spanish immigrants, Argentines seem like they don’t back down from a fight and aren’t afraid to speak their mind.
Language: The Argentine accent is evident after stepping off the plane and takes a while to get used to. In Castellano (Argentine Spanish), double ‘L’s make a ‘SH’ and a ‘Y’ is pronounced as a ‘J.’ The speed is ramped up compared to Colombia or Ecuador, making it even more difficult to understand than normal for a non-speaker. Every country has their slang, but Argentina seems to take it to another level as well. Oh, and you can’t miss the fact that “vos” is used instead of “tu.” Long story short? The Spanish I’ve picked up and the conjugations I learned in Spanish class are thrown out the window. People say that if you end up taking classes here, you’ll be picked out of a lineup faster than the perpetrator.