Distances are immense in Argentina, and you are likely to spend a considerable portion of your budget on travel. Ground transport (mostly bus) is best for giving a true impression of the scale of the country and for appreciating the landscape. However, you may want to cover some big legs, particularly to and around Patagonia, in which case travelling by domestic flights can often save a day or more. The inter-city bus network is extensive but services in remote areas can be poor and infrequent; in these places, it is worth considering car rental. Train services are run-down and limited and not generally a viable method of getting around.
By far the most common and straightforward method of transport in Argentina is the bus (omnibus, bus or micro). There are hundreds of private companies, most of which concentrate on one particular region, although a few, such as TAC and Cruz del Sur, run essentially nationwide.
Many buses are modern, plush Brazilian-built models designed for long-distance travel. Breakdowns do happen, but in general your biggest worry will be what movie the driver has chosen to “entertain” you with (usually subtitled Hollywood action flicks, played with the sound either turned off or at thunderous volume). On longer journeys, snacks and even hot meals are served (included in the ticket price), although these vary considerably in quality and tend towards sweet-toothed tastes. Coche cama, ejecutivo and pullman are the luxury services, with wide, fully reclinable seats; semi-cama services are not far behind in terms of seat comfort. These services usually cost twenty to forty percent more than the común (regular) services, but are well worth the extra, particularly over long distances. On minor routes, you’ll have less choice of buses, though most are decent with plenty of legroom. Many services turn the air conditioning up beyond most people’s levels of endurance; take a sweater on board.
Buying tickets (boletos) is normally a simple on-the-spot matter, but you must plan in advance if travelling in the high season (mid-Dec to Feb) or around long weekends, especially if you’re taking a long-distance bus from Buenos Aires or any other major city to a particularly popular holiday destination. In these cases you should buy your ticket two to three days beforehand; note that prices rise during peak times. Some destinations have both direct (directo or rápido) and slower services that stop at all intermediary points, and though most services call into the bus terminal (terminal de omnibus), this is not always the case: some drop you on the road outside the centre. Similarly, when heading to Buenos Aires, check that the bus goes to Retiro, the central bus terminal.
There’s usually some kind of left-luggage office (guardamaleta or guardaequipaje) at terminals, or, if you have a few hours to kill between connections, the company with whom you have your onward ticket will usually store your pack free of charge, enabling you to look around town unencumbered.
If you are planning to travel a lot by bus, it may be worth investing in a South Pass, which allows unlimited travel in the Southern Cone and Andean countries over a set number of days, though you will have to be clocking up quite a few miles to make it worthwhile, with prices starting at US$80 per trip and a minimum of five trips (011 4724 7878, argentinabybus.com).
Argentina’s most important domestic airport is Buenos Aires’ Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, which has flights to all the country’s provincial capitals and major tourist centres. People who want to get an overview of Argentina’s tremendous variety in a limited time may rely heavily on domestic flights to combat the vast distances involved – what takes twenty or more hours by bus might take only one or two by plane. As a rule, you’ll find prices are the same whether you buy your ticket direct from the airline office or from the plentiful travel agencies in most towns and cities. Availability can be a problem on tourist routes such as those around Patagonia or during the holidays, and if these feature in your itinerary you are advised to book as far in advance as possible. Some deals booked in advance are good value, although non-residents usually pay a considerably higher tariff than Argentines. Domestic departure taxes are always included in the price of the ticket.
Aerolíneas Argentinas (0810 2228 6527, aerolineas.com.ar) is the national flag carrier, with the biggest destination network. The company has faced many problems over the past decade or so and its once excellent reputation has been tarnished, but in many places it will be your only option. Its main rival in Argentina these days is Chilean flag carrier LAN (0810 999 9526, lan.com), which has an Argentine subsidiary (LAN Argentina) operating flights to the country’s major tourist destinations.
The military also provides civilian services – the Air Force’s LADE (0810 810 5233, lade.com.ar) is one of the cheapest methods of travel in the country and flies to isolated, often unexpected places, mostly destinations in Patagonia. However, routings can be convoluted, and you might find a flight stops four or five times between its original departure point and final destination. Timetables change frequently (up to once a month) and services can be cancelled at the last moment if the Air Force needs the plane. That said, it’s worth asking at LADE offices as you travel round just in case they’ve something useful.
Other small airlines in operation are Salta-based Andes (0810 7772 6337, andesonline.com), which connects the city with several destinations, including Buenos Aires and Iguazú, and Sol (0810 444 765, sol.com.ar), a Rosario-based low-cost airline that serves destinations in the centre of the country such as Córdoba and Santa Fe, as well as some coastal and Uruguayan destinations.
One factor to bear in mind is the possible disruption caused by volcanic eruptions in the Andes. Huge clouds of ash billowed out of a Chilean volcano throughout much of 2011, showering grit and dust onto the Lake District and causing havoc farther afield. Bariloche airport was closed for several months while other airports around the country, including both of the capital’s, were repeatedly shut down as a precaution, sometimes for a couple of days at a time.
You are unlikely to want or need a car for your whole stay in Argentina, but you’ll find one pretty indispensable for travelling around some of the more isolated areas of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Northwest, Mendoza or San Juan. If possible, it makes sense to get a group together, not just to keep costs down but also to share the driving, which can be arduous and potentially dangerous, especially on unsealed roads. Approximately thirty percent of roads are paved in Argentina, but some of the less important of these routes are littered with potholes. Unsealed roads can be extremely muddy after rain, and may be impassable, even to 4WDs, after prolonged wet spells. A 4WD is not usually necessary, but can be useful on minor roads in mountainous areas, when you’re likely to encounter snow, or on Ruta 40 in Patagonia. Outside major cities, most accidents (often the most serious ones) occur on unsurfaced gravel roads (ripio).
Altitude can also be a problem in the high Andes – you may need to adjust the fuel intake. One thing worth noting: flashing your lights when driving is a warning to other vehicles not to do something, as opposed to the British system, where it is used to signal concession of right of way. You can be fined for not wearing seatbelts (both in the front and back), although many Argentines display a cavalier disregard of this law.
To rent a car, you need to be over 21 (25 with some agencies) and hold a driver’s licence – an international one is not usually necessary. Bring a credit card and your passport for the deposit. Before you drive off, check that you’ve been given insurance, tax and ownership papers, check carefully for dents and paintwork damage and get hold of a 24hr emergency telephone number. Also, pay close attention to the small print, most notably what you’re liable for in the event of an accident: the list of people with grievances after renting a car and spending considerably more than they intended is a long one. Your insurance will not normally cover you for flipping the car, or smashed windscreens or headlights.
These are relatively high in Argentina, though rates between different agencies can vary considerably. Small, local firms often give very good deals – up to half the price of the global rental names – and it doesn’t necessarily hold that the local branch of an international agency will be up to the standards you expect. The main cities offer the most economical prices, while costs are highest in Patagonia; unlimited mileage deals are usually your best option, as per-kilometre charges can otherwise exceed your daily rental cost many times over. Unfortunately, there are relatively few places in Argentina where you can rent a vehicle and drop it in another specified town without being clobbered with a high relocation fee. Book as early as possible if you’re travelling in high season to popular holiday destinations, as demand usually outstrips supply. It’s fairly straightforward to take a vehicle into Chile but it is essential to have the correct paperwork from the rental firm. Many provide this free of charge, particularly those in towns near the border.
If you plan to do a lot of driving, consider a membership with the Automóvil Club Argentino (ACA), which has a useful emergency breakdown towing and repair service and offers discounts at a series of lodges across the country (many of which are in need of an overhaul). You can join in Buenos Aires at Av del Libertador 1850 (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm; 011 4808 4000, aca.org.ar), or at any of the ACA service stations.
There are two main types of taxi in Argentina: regular urban taxis that you can flag down in the street; and remises, or minicab radio taxis, that you must book by phone or at their central booking booth. Urban taxis are fitted with meters – make sure they use them – and each municipality has its own rates. Remises operate with rates fixed according to the destination and are less expensive than taxis for out-of-town and long-distance trips. Hiring a remise for a day can be the best way to travel around: it can be more economical than renting your own car, plus you save yourself the hassle of driving and you’ll normally get the sights pointed out for you along the way.
In some places, shared taxis (taxis colectivos) also run on fixed routes between towns: they wait at a given collection point, each passenger pays a set fee and the colectivos leave when full (some carry destination signs on their windscreen, others don’t, so always ask around). They often drop you at a place of your choice at the other end, making them a faster and more convenient alternative to buses, often for only marginally more money. Taxis colectivos also drive up and down fixed routes within certain cities: flag one down and pay your share (usually posted on the windscreen).
Boat services in Argentina fall into two broad categories: those that serve as a functional form of transport, and (with some overlap) those that you take to enjoy tourist sights. The two ferry services you are most likely to use are the comfortable ones from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay (also served by the speedier hydrofoil) and the much more spartan Chilean ones that transport foot passengers and vehicles across the Magellan Straits into Tierra del Fuego at Punta Delgada and Porvenir. There are also several practical river crossings throughout the Litoral region, connecting towns such as Concordia with Salto in Uruguay and Goya in Corrientes with Reconquista in Santa Fe, as well as numerous crossings from Misiones to neighbouring Paraguay and Brazil. Tigre, just northwest of the capital, tends towards the pleasure-trips end of the market, and offers boat trips around the Delta and to Isla Martín García.
In Patagonia, most boat trips are designed purely for their scenic value, including ones that give access to the polar scenery of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the alpine Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.
Argentina’s train network, developed through British investment in the late nineteenth century and nationalized by the Perón administration in 1948, collapsed in 1993 when government subsidies were withdrawn. The railways are now in a pitiful state, with very little in the way of long-distance services – just a handful in Buenos Aires Province, which are cheaper than the bus but considerably less savoury. The government has announced a plethora of measures and licences intended to reinvigorate the system and introduce new, modern services, most notably a controversial US$4 billion bullet train connecting Buenos Aires, Rosario and Córdoba, the licence for which has been awarded but which is still on hold indefinitely at the time of writing.
You’re far less likely to want to use Argentine trains as a method of getting around, however, than you are to try one of the country’s tourist trains, where the aim is simply to travel for the fun of it. There are two principal lines: La Trochita, the Old Patagonian Express from Esquel; and the Tren a las Nubes, one of the highest railways in the world, climbing through the mountains from Salta towards the Chilean border.
Most towns with a tourist infrastructure have at least one place that rents out bicycles for half- or full-day visits to sights at very reasonable prices. These excursions can be great fun, but remember to bring spare inner tubes and a pump, especially if you’re cycling off sealed roads, and check that the brakes and seat height are properly adjusted. Dedicated bike paths are rare, though more are appearing all the time, particularly in Buenos Aires. Don’t expect much consideration from other vehicles on the road, though. There are almost no places that rent out motorbikes.
Argentina is also a popular destination for more serious cyclists, and expeditions along routes such as the arduous, partly unsurfaced RN-40 attract mountain-biking devotees who often value physical endurance above the need to see sights (most points of interest off RN-40 lie a good way west along branch roads, which deters most people from visiting more than one or two). Trips such as these need to be planned thoroughly, and should only be attempted by experienced expedition cyclists with top-quality equipment and plenty of spares.
Hitchhiking always involves an element of risk, but it can also be one of the most rewarding ways to travel, especially if you can speak at least elementary conversational Spanish. It is getting trickier to hitchhike, though, in Argentina: some truck drivers are prohibited by company rules from picking you up, others are reluctant, as it often invalidates car insurance, or you become the liability of the driver. And in general, it is not advisable for women travelling on their own to hitchhike, or for anyone to head out of large urban areas by hitchhiking: you’re far better off catching a local bus out to an outlying service station or road checkpoint and trying from there. In the south of the country, hitching is still generally very safe. In places such as Patagonia, where roads are few and traffic sparse, you’ll often find yourself part of a queue, especially in summer. If you do try to hitchhike, always travel with sufficient reserves of water, food, clothes and shelter; you can get stranded for days in some of the more isolated spots.
Top image: Polvorilla viaduct. Train in Salta region. Argentina © Serjio74/Shutterstock