A few months ago, I finally checked my fourth continent off the bucket list. Argentina was not only my first trip to South America, but also my first “solo” trip. When I returned, everyone wanted to know how I liked traveling by myself. The truth is, I wasn’t really alone the whole time. I met up with a friend and/or made new friends every day. Within two days in Buenos Aires as a solo traveler, I met people from nine different countries!
I could write a whole blog post on solo travel (and why I think every twenty-something should experience it). My short answer though? I’d definitely do it again – in an English-speaking country. The freedoms and flexibility of doing whatever I wanted was amazing! But, it felt limiting to not fully understand what I was getting into, or what my options were on the menu. That’s not to say you can’t get around Buenos Aires with just English, especially in hostels where you meet people from everywhere. I just personally could have gotten out of my comfort zone even more.
Buenos Aires was my gateway to Patagonia. Many people don’t know that “Patagonia” spans a massive region of mountains, deserts, and coastline shared by Argentina and Chile. Many backpackers trek across the Andes in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile, while world travelers embark on Antarctica cruises from Ushuaia, the Southernmost city of the world known as Fin Del Mundo (the end of the world). To get to either, most international travelers fly through Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I ultimately chose to stay in Argentina for three reasons: 1) time limitations, 2) the activities I wanted to do in Patagonia, and 3) Buenos Aires’ overall reputation. Since I had to fly through Ezeiza International Airport (EZE) which is about an hour outside of Buenos Aires, I sandwiched my trip with a few days to explore the “Paris of South America”. For those interested, my overall 10-day itinerary looked like this:
- overnight flight from DCA to EZE (via ATL, courtesy of Delta Skymiles)
- 2 nights in Buenos Aires (Saturday morning to Monday at the crack of dawn – flight AEP to USH)
- 2 nights in Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego (Monday morning to Wednesday morning – flight USH to FTE)
- 2 nights in in El Calafate (Wednesday midday to Friday morning – bus to El Chalten)
- 2 nights in El Chalten (Friday afternoon to Sunday morning – bus back to El Calafate, flight FTE to AEP)
- a few hours in Buenos Aires (Sunday afternoon, taxi to EZE, flight EZE to DCA via ATL)
If I could do it again, I would add a day in Ushuaia and add a day in El Chalten. I only took 5 days of PTO (by connecting it to our firm Thanksgiving holidays) for a total of 10 days off. This was a “doable” way to see the highlights (in my opinion) of Argentine Patagonia, but definitely not relaxing. This was an adventure, not a vacation!
- choripan: Choripan is essentially a grilled chorizo (sausage) sandwich on a baguette, topped with various veggies and sauces like chimichurri. I thought Argentine gastronomy was mostly overhyped, but choripan was the best thing I ate by far. Veronica and I were too hungry to take a photo of the one we split from La Chiropaneria at the San Telmo market, but I later snapped this one from Chori, near my hostel in Palermo:
I even got a “chori-waffle” in El Chalten – more on that later. I didn’t used to think I liked chorizo, but now I’m on board with chori-anything 🙂
- San Telmo market: Not only amazing choripan, but also my favorite empanadas. The jumble of people waiting for their order to be taken at this cash-only corner stall could hardly be called a “line”. Veronica and I eavesdropped on bits and pieces of chatter in Portuguese, Russian, and English all around us, while we waited and watched empanadas being made. One expat family said they came for these empanadas every week! I devoured my corn and veggie empanadas standing up, before heading off in search of something to drink.
- Argentine steakhouses: I’ve never been much of a carnivore, especially when it comes to steak. The big parilla dinner was more of a check-the-box activity, but we dutifully got to La Carniceria right before opening time (8pm. Yes, prepare to eat dinner late in Argentina!). Clearly nobody waiting in line with us was local; all were equally bewildered by the lack of life inside the building. About ten minutes later, we found out through a mix of broken Spanish and Portuguese that La Carniceria was closed due to a fire the night before 🙁 Not to be deterred from having that quintessential Argentine steak dinner (my last night in the big city, after all), we wandered over to another well-reviewed parilla, Don Julio. Of course, the others in line with us at La Carniceria had the same idea. Hungry and tired, we moved on to the slightly shorter line at La Cabrera in hopes of being seated before 10pm.
La Cabrera actually has two locations down the street from each other. They were taking names from the main location and sending some people down to the other one, which was just as packed. While it was still relatively early by Buenos Aires standards – maybe 9:30pm by the time we got in – I was so hungry that I neither knew nor cared whether the second location would be on par with the original.
The reviews weren’t kidding about the enormous portions! With all the side dishes that came free, we definitely shouldn’t have ordered two different entrees. I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed the sides more than our bacon-wrapped steak and shortribs, though. I also thought it was strange that we were served several different dipping sauces for the steak. Isn’t eating steak with sauce sacrilegious?
This restaurant is known for being on the expensive side for an Argentine steakhouse, but we still each only paid about $20 USD for a huge meal that would have cost twice that in the States. Plus, the waiter poured me a “glass” of Malbec that was probably half the bottle.
- churros: I always smelled the churreria Juan Pedro Caballero before I saw it, which was whenever I walked back to my hostel from being out and about. You can watch churros being shaped, stuffed, and dipped in chocolat and tres leches from the big street-facing window. I knew I had to find some room in my stomach to try them before I left!
I hung around Palermo before flying back to the US, so these churros were the last thing I ate (and spent my pesos on) in Argentina. Inside, there are just a few tables with cheeky murals as the backdrop, and limited standing room. Most people took their orders para llevar (to go), so I brought them back to the hostel to share with anyone that was around.
- coffee: I’d heard that cafe culture was huge in Buenos Aires, especially given the city’s European influence. I was excited to learn that porteños (Buenos Aires natives) most often order cortados (equal amounts espresso and steamed milk) and flat whites (more like a latte but without the foam) – both of which I already love. Hate to say it, though – I wasn’t impressed with any of the very well-reviewed cafes I went to. Of course, I had less than 3 days total in the city so it’s hard to judge, but I had a LOT of caffeine in those three days…
- ice cream: Cafe culture is just one aspect of Buenos Aires that nods to its Italian roots; the ice cream is also a really big deal. I was so full most of the time, it was truly difficult to choose between churros, alfajores, and ice cream for dessert. I had some amazing ice cream from a heladeria in El Chalten (not in Buenos Aires), so I’m sure the many options in Buenos Aires are amazing as well, especially in the perfect summer weather. Check out this Heladeria Heatmap!
- Buenos Aires Free Walking Tour :– I arrived at my hostel in Palermo before the check-in time, so I couldn’t take a nap like I so desperately wanted to. After lounging around in the cute back patio of the hostel for a few minutes, I decided to combat my lack of sleep by joining this free walking tour from Plazs del Congreso. It was gorgeous out – sunny and 75, bright blue skies, palm trees swaying in the wind.
The guide was very informative and spoke perfect English, but with such a big group, we spent a lot of time waiting for crosswalks. I’m normally into history, but was struggling to stay engaged because I mostly wanted to nap! About twenty minutes in, I met a Norwegian girl and a German guy, both traveling alone, who invited me to join them to watch a big futbol match. We slipped out from the tour after tipping the guide, in search of a fun bar back in Palermo.
- San Telmo Market: While the highlight of the market is obviously the food, there is also an outdoor flea market on Sundays. Vendors line the streets with their wares – antiques, trinkets and souvenirs – a more crowded version of the Mercato Centrale in Florence. I highly recommend coming to San Telmo on a Sunday, because not much else is open in Buenos Aires on Sundays!
- El Caminito, La Boca: Caminito means ‘little path’ or ‘little walkway’ in Spanish, but the colorful street in the La Boca barrio (neighborhood) makes up for its size with the vibrant life (aka tourism) it brings to an otherwise sketchy area. People from all over the world flock here to admire the buildings painted in the style of La Boca’s early immigrants from Genoa, Italy.
We wandered through the little alleyway, admiring street artists and exploring the souvenir shops.
Tons of touristy restaurants line the street, luring customers in with the promise of a “tango show” while dining al fresco. We sipped on mediocre coffee and watched one from across the street, having stuffed ourselves at the San Telmo Market earlier. The tango dancers mostly stood around and took photos with the diners. My only regret from my short time in Buenos Aires was not seeing a real tango show!
- Street art: The trendy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires is known for its plentiful street art and graffiti. You can pay for a graffiti tour to learn about the history and artists, but to see amazing murals, you only need to walk 50 meters and open your eyes. My hostel was located on a street that constantly had people outside taking photos, a constant stream of Instagrammers and local youths posing for each other.
For more photos and details on where you can find specific murals they take you to on the Graffiti Tour, check out The Tiny Travelogue.
- El Ateneo Grand Splendid: I rarely visit a new city without wandering into a bookstore or library at some point. Buenos Aires was no exception, but apparently it also has the highest number of bookstores per capita in the world – so it’d be hard not to! The standout is this beautifully preserved former theatre in the affluent Recoleta neighborhood. Grand Splendid opened in 1919 as a theatre where storied tango legends showcased their art. It was then converted into a cinema, and then then a cinema, and now one of the world’s most most opulent bookstores (and the largest in Latin America).
You can sip on a cappuccino while reading a book, on the same stage that tango legends once danced on. The books are mostly in Spanish so I didn’t do too much browsing, but it was still amazing to take in. According to National Geographic, the Grand Splendid is the “world’s most beautiful bookstore“!
- Next time:
Last but not least, I would recommend the highly-rated Malevo Murana hostel for travelers on a budget spending a few nights in Buenos Aires. I imagine if I end up in Buenos Aires however many years later, I would upgrade to a boutique hotel experience… but for the record:
I stayed in a 6-bed dorm for two nights (more like one night, since I had a 4am flight and only slept 2 hours the second night). They have a shuttle service that you can pay extra for, but it took much longer than if I had just grabbed a taxi from Ezeiza. This is one of those things I wouldn’t have thought twice about if I spoke Spanish, but taking the shuttle was one less thing for me to worry about on my first day.
(PROS): There are storage lockers in the room for each guest, and they provide the key. There are also safety deposit boxes behind the front desk for you to keep valuables. The courtyard out back was beautiful to hang out in with a glass of wine and my journal. The location was very convenient, right off Plaza Serrano and walking distance to a ton of bars and restaurants (but not a lot of ATMs that had cash).
I didn’t cook or have breakfast at the hostel either day, but my first night, one of my roommates invited me to share a home-cooked meal with her and some others at the hostel. She made a Brazilian style beef stroganoff (served over rice instead of wide noodles like in the States), which was so delicious I went back for seconds. A Chinese mom on her way to Antarctica (alone!) opened a nice Argentine Bonarda, and we savored on the rooftop of the hostel. It was a lovely way to spend my first evening in a country I knew no one.
(CONS): The bunk beds were so creaky, I felt like I was causing an earthquake each time I stepped down from the top bunk. My sheets were stained. It was relatively expensive to rent a towel. No early check-in.
PRO TIP: Uber is much cheaper than taxis to get around Buenos Aires locally, but do NOT call an Uber to get to EZE International Airport! I had FIVE different Uber drivers cancel on me when they found out I was going to the airport, because it’s about an hour away. Bless the soul of the hostel owner, who gave me Argentine pesos for USD at the exchange rate and then called me a taxi so I could make it to the airport in time! I was having such a relaxing last day in Argentina until the twenty-minutes I spent panicking about getting to the airport with no cash. Lesson learned – don’t get rid of foreign currency until you are literally at your airport gate. You never know.
For having taken 10 flights in 7 days for this trip though, I was mostly lucky in the travel department. During my lengthy layover in Atlanta on my way to Buenos Aires, I checked into the Club at ATL (thanks, Priority Pass) for a bite and some journaling to reflect on my 2018 (it was the day after Thanksgiving, after all). When the lounge attendant saw that I was traveling alone, he let me into the quieter section reserved for specific airline status holders. Then, when I asked him where I could go buy a phone charger, he insisted on giving me an extra cube of his so I didn’t have to spend the money on an overpriced airport purchase! As I so clearly learned on this trip, for every good day there is a bad day and for every negative experience there is a positive one to be thankful for.
Stay tuned for the first of my Patagonia installment – Ushuaia, aka the one where I hung out with PENGUINS!