Discovering Argentina’s Culture: The Gringos Get a Hometown Tour

In a prior post we had indicated that there is no best way to travel. Scratch that. If you get a chance to stay with locals wherever you go, definitely take advantage. There is no better way to get to know a place than to live and breathe like a local with the locals.

Argentina may be the most fascinating culture and people in the world. So getting the opportunity to spend two weeks touring parts of the country with our Argentine friends Esteban and Franco (whom we met in a treehouse in Laos) and their families was the chance of a lifetime.

And we're the four best friends that anyone can have...

And we’re the four best friends that anyone can have…

Here are some of the things we learned about the Argentinian culture from our hometown tour:

Oh man do they like to eat

Everyone who knows anything about Argentina knows they can cook a mean asado (“steak”) and take down copious amounts of red wine. But did you know about the great Italian food, mind-melting chocolate and dulce de leche, delicious ice cream, home-made pastries, Alfajores, Empanadas, and the best spit roasted lamb you’ve ever tasted? Every direction you look there is an irresistible temptation to increase the size of your wasteline. And trust us, it’s all worth it.

Eating empanadas, fried pastries stuffed with a variety of meat, cheese, and veggies

Eating empanadas, fried pastries stuffed with a variety of meat, cheese, and veggies

The average Argentine eats over 200 pounds of meat per year.  Now you know why.

The average Argentine eats over 200 pounds of meat per year. Now you know why.

Don't forget to save room for dessert.  The gelato is tough to beat.

Don’t forget to save room for dessert. The gelato is tough to beat.

Don’t you dare mess with the Mate rituals

Drinking “mate” is like a religion in Argentina. This local tea is shared amongst friends and family at all hours of the day. There are specific rules that need to be followed, like when and how you should prepare and consume the drink. If you have an opportunity to share mate with a local, take advantage! Just pay attention to the rituals and DON’T YOU DARE SCREW IT UP! or else you’ll just have to wait 15 minutes until the next round of mate is prepared…

Studying the art of mate

Studying the art of mate

The Argentines always eat with their mate.  These are cubanitos, pastries stuffed with dulce de leche (milk chocolate goodness)

The Argentines always eat with their mate. These are cubanitos, pastries stuffed with dulce de leche (milk chocolate goodness)

First mate

First mate

Had to include this one

Had to include this one

The proper way to prepare an asado

The Argentines take their sweet time preparing meat. Well, they take their sweet time with everything, but especially with their meat. The “asador” (grillmaster) first prepares a wood fire and uses fully lit wood “coals” to heat the grill and slow cook the asado over several hours. Friends gather several hours beforehand and red wine flows throughout the process. The wood fire and unique cuts (they cut across the rib cage so many cuts have bones) make a properly-prepared Argentine asado a much different (and generally tastier) experience than a typical steak meal. And don’t forget my personal favorite, chorizo, a pork/ beef sausage best served with homemade chimichurri sauce.

Don't forget about the aplauso (applause) for the asador

Also, don’t forget about the aplauso (applause) for the asador

They are the ultimate hosts

From a welcome party complete with banners and balloons…to endless delicious meals…to special private tours, we were treated like royalty for two weeks straight. Esteban and Franco’s parents each insisted we sleep in their master bedrooms during our entire visit despite our repeated attempts to convey that this was not okay. Franco’s father works for the navy and we were even able to go to a military base and sit in a war plane responsible for shooting down two British battleships in the Falkland Islands war.

This was set up as a welcome message on the TV in our room at Esteban's

This was set up as a welcome message on the TV in our room at Esteban’s

Breakfast in bed made by Esteban's mom for us to eat...in her master bedroom

Breakfast in bed made by Esteban’s mom for us to eat…in her master bedroom

Our welcome sign in Bahia

Our welcome sign in Bahia

We were blown away by the level of hospitality we received as guests on the Gringo tour; and also by other locals we got to know along the way. The Argentines take great pride in their ability to entertain friends and do not disappoint.

Alison in a fighter plane that sunk two British battleships in the Falkland Islands war

Alison in a fighter plane that sunk two British battleships in the Falkland Islands war

Futbol match in Bahia Blanca

Futbol match in Bahia Blanca

Watching southern right whales in Puerto Madryn, a really cool experience

Watching southern right whales in Puerto Madryn, a really cool experience

They hate the government for ruining the economy but are eternal optimists that things will improve

If you have an interest in politics and macroeconomics, Argentina may be the most interesting case study you’ll ever come across. Political and economic turmoil over the past century has turned Argentina from one of the richest countries in the world to one struggling to return to its “rightful place” at the big boys table. Despite constant turmoil, any local will tell you that they will eventually dig themselves out of the never-ending economic mess and once again become the great “European” nation stuck in South America.

Alison in front of the Pink House, Argentina's version of the White House.  Probably hasn't been the most popular place in BA in recent years.

Alison in front of the Pink House, Argentina’s version of the White House. Probably hasn’t been the most popular place in BA in recent years.

It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!

There is a running joke that every Argentine keeps US dollars under their mattress, which I actually believe is not far from the truth. Massive inflation, devaluation of the Peso, and the government’s restriction on foreign exchange has led to a lack of trust in the local currency and a black market (more commonly referred to as “blue market”) for US dollars. This blue market stems from the government artificially fixing an exchange rate to the US dollar at stronger than market levels (currently ~$8.50 pesos to $1US) but also heavily restricting the ability for people to exchange money at these rates. As a result, the Peso trades freely on the black market, where locals are willing to pay a premium to buy more stable US dollars and tourists can currently (January 2015) get as much as $13-$14 pesos per dollar by exchanging with “cambios”. The “blue market rate” for US dollars is so widely used that it’s published daily in La Nacion, the local paper in Buenos Aires. There is even a website that updates the blue rate on a real-time basis and a blue rate app.

Friends and family mean everything to them

If you ask a local you don’t know for help or need some assistance from the customer service desk at the airport, you may not immediately be greeted with a big grin and an offer to share mate. But once you get to know an Argentine, they will bend over backwards for you. The people here truly value their friendships and their families over all else and at all costs.

No worries, guys, let’s just relax and enjoy life

There is a very common phrase used in Argentina, “Ya fue,” which basically translates to “it’s over, there’s nothing you can do about it, so get over it.” The Argentine people, who have been waiting to finally make it back to their place as one of the richest countries in the world, have lived through military dictatorships, periods of widespread poverty, a war with Britain, hyperinflation, and rampant corruption all in the last 30-40 years. Who knows if they will ever get back to where they were in the early 20th century, but at this point I think “ya fue” exemplifies the attitude of most Argentines toward the past. They are focused on what’s most important to them now – sharing great food, drink, and pastimes with their loved ones. Why work so hard if your pesos may be worth half as much next month? Why not take some time and have a nice long coffee or mate with a friend? Or cook an asado and enjoy some malbec with family? The tough recent history of Argentina has a silver lining – they’ve learned what it means to enjoy life and value what means the most to them. It’s a lesson I think we can all learn from them.

It's not atypical in Argentina to spend two hours drinking coffee and munching on a few alfajores

It’s not atypical in Argentina to spend two hours drinking coffee and munching on a few alfajores

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2 thoughts on “Discovering Argentina’s Culture: The Gringos Get a Hometown Tour

  1. Pingback: The Best Trekking in Patagonia – El Chalten vs. Torres del Paine | Beaches & Backpacks

  2. Pingback: Top Five Reasons to Avoid Mendoza, Argentina | Beaches & Backpacks

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