As of August 2011, Argentina is the 8th country by land area (right after India and just before Kazakhstan) and the 31st by population (40.091.359 people according to the provisional results of 2010 census). It's indeed the southermost Latin American country if you are Argentinian, but it's not if you are Chilean. The important thing is it doesn't have direct access to the Pacific Ocean, just to the Atlantic.
(very basic) Geography
Its territory is subdivided into 23 provinces (plus the capital city, Buenos Aires - do not confuse with Buenos Aires Province -), which are like states, but with less autonomy. Somewhat like in Canada.
It is bordered by Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brasil and Uruguay, all of which we call "países hermanos" (brother countries) despite having had quarrels with every single one of them since our independence. But they know we love them.
As one could expect from a country stretching along many parallels (and a couple of meridians), the climate goes from extremely cold in some regions to unbearably hot in others, and from humid to arid.
It's composed of two horizontal light blue stripes sandwiching a white one, which includes a sun with a face. This sun can be likable or creepy, depending on how you look at it.
The official and most widely spoken language is Spanish, but neither the sort you hear in Spain nor the one you find in the north of South America, Central America and Mexico. If you speak one of those you'll be understood, but maybe you'll be giggled at a couple of times if you say certain words. I will not say which ones they are so as not to ruin the surprise.
Several dialects exist across the country, the main ones being the rioplatense (spoken in the capital city and the central-eastern provinces), guaranítico (northeastern provinces), patagónico (spoken in the south, best known as la Patagonia), cuyano (spoken mostly in Mendoza), cordobés and that spoken in the northwestern provinces. The "standard" one (I just say standard because it's the one most people - including me - speak) is rioplatense, but the funniest and coolest one is cordobés, all the way.
There are also many aboriginal languages, but they are rarely heard in urban areas, at least in the central and southern regions of the country.
The first article of the first chapter of our constitution says it's a democratic republic (publicity of government acts, limited periods of office, political parties, division of powers... you know). Anyway, it tends to be highly presidential, and the president sometimes gets superpowers, like flying, seeing through walls and stuff of that sort. Well, not really, in fact they enable him or her to skip congress, which is worse.
The official religion is Catholicism, as stated in the second article of the first chapter of our constitution. But truth be told, few people go to church every Sunday, so we should be called lazy catholics really.
That's not to say it's the only religion, here everyone is entitled to believe in what one wants.
Public education in Argentina is universal, free (as in free shipping) and secular. It comprises four levels: initial, primary, secondary and tertiary. The primary and secondary levels, as well as the last year of the initial level (when kids are 4 or 5 years old) are compulsory. Tertiary (post-secondary) education involves mostly colleges and universities.
Except for terribly expensive institutions for rich kids (and depending on the place), public education in the first three levels tends to be better than private education (at least in every place I've lived in). At the post-secondary level, public universities are the way to go if you want something serious: except for a limited number of cases, private universities are jokes.
Among the largest and most prestigious state universities are the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Universidad Nacional de Rosario and Universidad Nacional de La Plata (just to name a few).
The official sport is pato (which means "duck"). Contrary to what its name may lead you to believe, players ride horses, and not aquatic birds. As with the official religion, almost no one plays it.
The de facto official sport is football (football like in British English, because your feet is what you have to use, unlike in American football). The most popular teams are Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Independiente and San Lorenzo.
Despite its long history and large fanbase, River Plate was demoted to the second division this year after a very bad season, giving birth to one of Argentina's most widespread internet memes: El tano pasman (a man who goes berserk while watching a match - a highly advisable video to watch if you want to get versed in the art of swearing in Argentinian Spanish). After that dozens (if not hundreds) of versions have emerged.
The national football team won its first world cup in 1978 (a quite dubious one, because of the political value it had for the military junta governing the country at the time) and it's second one in Mexico in 1986 (which involved Diego Maradona's two most famous goals, in a match against the English team).
The official currency is the Argentinian Peso (ARS), though in some places you'll be able to pay with American dollars too.
Currently, one peso is worth less than one quarter dollar, about a sixth of an Euro, and a little more than a seventh of a British pound. That's to say our currency's worth is just slightly superior to that of tree leaves. So if you are an American, Canadian or European tourist (or from any other place not as economically screwed as we are) and you avoid tourist traps, your stay will be really cheap.
Coins: 5c, 10c, 25c, 50c and $1. There were also 1c coins, but I haven't seen one in years, so I guess they are extinct.
Bills: $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 (and possibly $500 if the inflation rate keeps going up, seriously).
(un)Important things to know
Boys and Girls
Unlike the stereotypical Mexican macho, Argentinian men, as depicted by tango, are seen as both melancholic chronic moaners and arrogant know-it-alls that will have you had at the first attempt if you don't pay the proper attention. As with all stereotypes, sometimes it applies, and sometimes it doesn't.
Argentinian women are said to be among the world's most beautiful. Almost every country says that about its women, but a short walk around Rosario shows that this statement is well founded.
Coffee and TV
Well, there's not much to say about coffee, I just put that title because I like Blur's song. We tend to drink the regular kind and cortado (coffee with a bit of milk), but you can find of all sorts.
Argentinian TV is currently in a steep decline, the most watched program being Bailando por un Sueño (Dancing for a Dream) - or Dreaming of Dancing, or Dancing while Asleep, I can't tell anymore, it has changed names too many times. The point is it's like a televised strip-club, where jury fights take place every night. You can also find lots of afternoon gossip shows that talk about what happened the night before in Bailando.
Then there's the national version of Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, and every other reality show you can think of.
There used to be really good series, like Los Simuladores, a group of four guys in coats that solved any problem, but it was canceled many years ago.
Public Television used to have some good shows too, but they were replaced by government flattering crap. If someone criticizes the national government in that channel, it means you've misheard.
We typically have four meals during the day:
- Breakfast: right after waking up. Forget about eggs and bacon. Here the most common thing is bizcochos, cookies, toasts with butter, jam or dulce de leche, and maybe cereals. Breakfast drinks are usually hot, and they include coffee, tea, milk, mate and matecocido.
- Lunch: it can start between 12 P.M. and 2:30 P.M. (the later is most common in big cities like Buenos Aires).
- Tea: from 5 P.M. on. It involves the same things as breakfast, but in the afternoon.
- Dinner: it usually starts after 8:30 P.M., being 9:30 P.M. a good time for having it.
Remember the food pyramid for healthy eating? Well, forget about it. Here meat is on the base, and you'll find it everywhere and under every possible form. This country is a vegetarian's nightmare. Steak and milanesas are everyday plates, and you can find parrillas, a kind of restaurant specialized in serving asado (roasted meat), in every city or town.
Vegetables also abound, but the best ones are exported. Some years ago there was a great increase in some vegetables' prices (like that of tomatoes and potatoes), which the government tried to counter with low price and even lower quality products. It was a great failure, because no one likes sprouted potatoes.
Argentina's folk music (folclore) comes in many flavors, the most popular being (among people who listen to it, that is) la chacarera, la vidala, el chamamé (for the accordion lovers out there), la zamba and tango (though not usually considered folclore per se).
What is called Rock Nacional was born in the sixties, but it hardly ressembles anything one could call rock. It was more of a new-wavish thing. Then it kept evolving (becoming more like American rock with a local flavor in fact) and giving birth to influential bands such as Pappo's Blues, Soda Stereo, Hermética, Los Redonditos de Ricota, Sumo, Los Piojos, La Renga and Attaque 77. I'm missing a lot of musicians and bands here, because another whole node could be devoted to it.
Concerning other genres, Illya Kuriaki and the Valderramas was a funk duo very active during the nineties, Miranda! is a whimsical techno/electro pop band born in the early 2000s, and Kevin Johansen (though not technically Argentinian - he was born in Alaska to an American dad and an Argentine mother) is my personal suggestion (his songs Guacamole, El Palomo and Puerto Madero are especially recommended).
About cumbia villera... it seems I've forgotten, let's move on.
In the summer most national tourists (in particular those who live in the central area of the country) flock to Mar del Plata, also known as La Feliz (the happy city), popular for its beaches, active nightlife, seafood and shops. Many other people choose El Partido de la Costa, a series of smaller cities that run along the atlantic coast near Mar del Plata.
The other important tourist destination during summer is Villa Carlos Paz, situated in Córdoba (province), which has lakes and many theaters.
In the winter the hot spot (paradoxically) is San Carlos de Bariloche, both for national and international tourists. It's situated in the western region of the country, right next to Los Andes, so you can expect mountains, mounts, ski tracks and many lakes nearby. Going there in the summer isn't usually a good idea, because temperatures can get quite high (unless you are willing to swim in the aforementioned ice-cold lakes).
All year round national and international favorites include Las Cataratas del Iguazú (Iguazú falls) (shared between Argentina and Brazil), which were recently chosen as one of the world's new natural wonders; La Quebrada de Humahuaca and the north-western region in general; Termas de Río Hondo (hot springs) in Santiago del Estero; El Calafate, in Santa Cruz, home to El Glaciar Perito Moreno; Mendoza, the ultimate destination in Argentina for the wine lovers (and drunks - though drunkards will find more excitement in the beer festival that takes place in Villa General Belgrano, Córdoba province); Ushuaia (don't try to pronounce it using English phonetics), best known as the world's southernmost city; and the great cities of course, particularly Buenos Aires, that has enough stuff to keep you entertained for some time, if not your whole life.
Argentinian cities tend to follow a grid layout made of squares of approximately 100 meters per side called manzanas (apples). These sides are called cuadras, and they are used to measure distance and to give directions. For example, if someone tells you the closest mall is "a cinco cuadras" it means it's 500 meters away.
Some cities were completely planned before being settled, like La Plata, which constitutes a perfect example of symmetry. Its streets are all numbered following a certain logic, and if it wasn't for the growth of its metro area, it would be a big square. They call it La Ciudad de las Diagonales (guess why?).
As for Buenos Aires, it's a nice example of abstract impressionism.
The antithesis of city planning are the villas de emergencia (slums), which started as temporal settlements for the poor who arrived to work in the big cities but ended up as their permanent home. Half-hearted attempts were made by municipal and national governments to urbanize them, but the fact is they keep growing at a steady pace.
Despite its corrupt politicians, mild geographical isolation, high prices (for locals), past military governments and civil uprisings, Argentina still ranks high in the Human Development Index and is a very nice place to live in and to visit. We can walk around the world without disguising where we are from.