Top 20 List: Argentina

I crossed the border from Argentina into Brazil about three weeks ago and I still haven’t posted my “Top 20” list for Argentina as promised. Better late than never, I guess. Here’s the list of the top 20 things about Argentina (well, Buenos Aires, really) that I found odd, new, appealing or just plain weird.

#20 – Is that Spanish?
The people of Argentina speak Spanish, but they will call it castellano. The double-L makes a shh sound, and the Y makes a J sound in this dialect. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, Argentines also speak al vesre or al reves (“in reverse”) in al vesre. Confused? Think Pig Latin in which the syllables are swapped. Hotel becomes telo (with the silent “h” dropped); amigo becomes gomía; barrio is rioba; tango would be gotan, etc.
#19 – Wide Streets
If BA ever holds the Olympics, I’m sure “street crossing” will be added as a competitive sport. Unlike much narrower streets in Toronto (University Avenue, for example) it is possible to cross Avenida 9 de Julio (pictured above) on one light.

#18 – Recycling Chaos
The garbage collection system in BA is a mess. Homes and businesses put their garbage in dumpsters that are located on each block, usually taking up a street parking spot. An estimated 10,000 waste pickers or ‘cartoneros’ can be seen roaming the streets, night and day. They place a large tarp on the street, pile the scrap paper on the tarp, then draw the four corners together to form a large sack which they drag to scrap paper brokers or one of 10 cooperatives that have been established as BA strives to reduce it’s waste by 70% by 2017. While a lot of paper goes for recycling, most of the garbage ends up on the street and the bins are left empty. (Photo:

#17 – Delivery
Not many restaurants offer items “to go” but most will happily deliver. Fleets of bikes, scooters and motorcycles are found outside many establishments. Needs some booze? Ice? Ice-cream and dulce de leche? Pizza? A Big Mac? Delivery is just a call away.
#16 – Tire Pressure Monitors
Buses and large commercial vehicles have tire pressure monitoring systems mounted on each wheel. If this is actually a useful safety issue, I wonder why you don’t you see it in other developed countries?

#15 – CFK
I wasn’t in my first Buenos Aires taxi more than two minutes before the driver launched into a discussion about corruption in Argentina. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK) was top of his list. Some countries have very bland Prime Ministers (cough, cough), but not Argentina. The widow de Kirchner has guided the country from one economic disaster to another and yet she still manages to be re-elected. I read that she recently chartered a plane to fly to Indonesia. While that’s not exactly scandalous, the reason she chartered a plane rather than flying in the country’s Presidential Jet was the fear that it might be seized by creditors. That was the fate of the country’s naval vessel ‘Libertad’ when it docked in Ghana a few years ago. (Photo:
#14 – McDonalds store within a store
Separate ice-cream and McCafe (coffee) stations are located in each McDonalds. You can order and pay for your entire meal at the main counter, eat the main course, then take the receipt to the ice cream counter when you are ready for dessert. This way the ice cream doesn’t melt while you’re scarfing down that burger. Both ice-cream and coffee stations often have separate windows opening onto the street so there is no need to come inside and line up if you just want a drink or McFlurry.

#13 – Ford Falcon
You don’t see many late model Fords in Argentina – even though most of the cars on the road are relatively new – but you do see a lot of 1960s era Ford Falcons. I was told by a local that the dictatorship acquired the dies to produce these cars and did so until the 1980s. Some of the cars that appear to be 50 years old are really only 25 years old.
#12 – Magazine Sellers
I don’t know how long it will last, but Argentines still buy magazines and there are numerous kiosks and stores selling nothing but magazines.

#11 – Kiss hello, kiss goodbye
To greet each other, Argentines give a kiss on the cheek. I watched as a group of 10 presumably straight teenage boys met another group of 10 boys outside a movie theatre. Everyone kissed each other before heading inside.
#10 – Eat Meat!
Argentina’s national pastime is surely the asado, or barbecue. The best steaks in BA will set you back about $10 US. At better establishments the waiter will deliver all of your party’s steaks on a platter, then plate them at the table, and in a final grand gesture he will cut into each steak with a spoon to show you that it is done to order. Ever tried to cut a $10 steak with a spoon in North America?

#9 – Love Hotels
With many people living at home until they marry in their 30s, love hotels or “telos” are in great demand. Most are fine, upstanding establishments and not the least bit seedy.
#8 – Los Simpson
The Simpsons is dubbed into different Spanish versions for Latin America and Spain. The guy who voices Homero is great. I’m not sure if I imagined this or not, but the character’s lips appear to move as if the animation has been modified as well.
#7 – Bad Sidewalks
Before visiting the country, I read that every Argentine has a shrink. That is apparently a well-known fact. After two weeks in Buenos Aires, I suspect ankle surgeons do pretty well, too. The city’s sidewalks are atrocious. It looks like each property owner is responsible for the sidewalk in front of his business. There is no consistency whatsoever and knee-deep holes are common. (Photo: Buenos Aires Photoblog)

#6 – Polo
If you believe the tourist brochures, no visit to BA would be complete without a visit to a polo match. One local told me, “Nobody has ever been to a polo match, other than polo players and their trophy wives. Honestly.” I took his word and opted for the horse races instead.
#5 – Mate
It’s a cultural tradition. It’s a social bonding opportunity. It’s also caffeinated and (I suspect) highly addictive. Everyone drinks mate. I found this backgrounder on the web site of a local missionary organization: “They also drink mate (hot water poured over herbs), and they will invite you to drink it with them, but it is against mission rules to drink it since the unfamiliar herbs can make foreigners sick, and it wastes a lot of time.” The “wastes a lot of time” part is exactly why I could get hooked on mate. I’m never going to make it as a missionary.

#4 – Rock Around The Clock
I once returned to my hostel at 3:52 a.m. to find a group gathered in the common area. “Wanna go to a club,” asked the front-desk guy who was rounding up people to celebrate his birthday. He explained that I had time to change as they were going to have a bite to eat at the adjacent churrascaria and try to be at the club by 4:30.
#3 – Cubierto
Check your restaurant bill closely and you’ll find that you have been charged a few pesos for cubierto. This is the price of using a table. In a restaurant. Imagine that! Every sit-down restaurant charges cubierto so just get over it.
#2 – Con Gas or Sin Gas
Restaurants in Buenos Aires rarely offer tap water. Instead you order agua “con gas” (carbonated) or “sin gas” (regular spring water). Don’t expect refills or ice. It’s considered rude to drink straight from the bottle so pour a few ounces in the tiny lipstick smeared glass you will be offered.
#1 – Dulce de leche
There isn’t a dessert in the world that can’t be improved with a dollop of dulce de leche. It looks and tastes a lot like caramel but is a concoction of sweetened-condensed milk, sugar, baking soda and vanilla bean. You’ll need three hours to make a cup of dulce de leche – considerably less to consume it.
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