Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Bicycle touring in Argentina
My partner and I spent June and July of 2015 (southern hemisphere winter) bicycling across Argentina, west to east, from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.
tl;dr summary: We had a good trip, and we would recommend it and do it again ourselves (with some different preparations and expectations). But travelling independently by bicycle in Argentina was harder than we expected. We worked at preparing, but more knowledge of bicycling conditions in the parts of Argentina where we were going, and different preparations and expectations, would have made for a better trip.
Argentina is not, by any definition, a Third World country. But the density and pattern of settlement, character of the infrastructure, and some of the consequences of the ongoing Argentine national financial crisis mean that you need to prepare for an independent bicycle journey in Argentina -- even in the more densely populated flatlands of the central and eastern pampas -- more the way you would for a bike tour in the Third World:
- Be prepared to share any paved road, even the smallest paved rural road, with heavy (although generally extremely well-behaved) long-distance tandem trucks and at least some buses. If that's not your cup of tea, be prepared to ride mainly on dirt roads. Don't expect shoulders to be paved or rideable, or lanes to be wide enough for motor vehicles to be able to pass a bicyclist within the same lane. Bring tires that can handle the mats of thorns that are a ubiquitous part of the groundcover on and along dirt roads and immediately alongside the travel lanes of paved roads in some areas we passed through.
- The infrastructure for travel and for bicycling in Argentina is generally excellent, but you can't rely on it. There's often no way to be certain whether you will find lodging in a town until you get there, and it can be more than a day's ride between lodging, even on the pampas. Camping, including polite wild camping, is widely practiced and universally accepted. But you need to be prepared to wild camp in locations with no services. At times -- even on the pampas, and not just in mountainous or desert areas or in Patagonia -- you will need to carry enough food and water to ride all day, camp for the night, and ride on the next day before you get to any place where food, water, or fuel for your camp stove are available.
- There are bike shops or general stores in even the smallest towns where some tubes and other spare parts for the sorts of bicycles that are used locally are usually available. But except for certain of the most basic and lowest-quality consumables, you can't count on finding any particular item. It's impossible for you or anyone else, or even a local bike shop, to special order parts, accessories, or anything else by mail from outside Argentina. If what you want isn't already stocked by a dealer or distributor in Argentina, then it's not available in Argentina, period. Bring the most reliable equipment you can, and think carefully about what components and spares to bring in light of what types of bikes and components are in local use.
Most of what we had found about bicycle touring in Argentina, including most of the trip reports on CrazyGuyOnABike.com, related to bicycling in southern and western Argentina: Patagonia and the Andes.
Argentina covers a lot of ground, however, with more diversity of terrain and climate than all but a handful of other countries. We weren't planning an "expedition" through the most thinly-settled deserts, mountains, or areas of most extreme wind, heat, and/or cold. We weren't sure how much of the information we found about bicycle trekking in Patagonia and the Andes would apply to bicycle touring on the pampas, where the terrain is level (except for the Central Sierras west of Córdoba, which we planned from the start to cross by bus), towns are much closer together, and the climate at any season is much milder.
I hope that other people thinking about bicycle travel in Argentina, especially on the pampas and in other parts of the country north of Patagonia and east of the Andes, will find this article useful in deciding whether to take such a trip (which I highly recommend) and in planning and preparing for it.
Even if you aren't a bicycle tourist, you may find parts of this article useful in thinking about how something like the ongoing Argentine financial crisis can affect travel in complex and unexpected ways, and how that might apply to travel in other countries in crisis such as Greece.
To put our experience with this bike trip in context, we had visited Argentina several times, but never before with bicycles. Our first visit was in was in late 2002 (just after the start of the continuing financial crisis), and our last previous visit was in 2007, when we rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for two months and spent another month exploring northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile before heading back east to Brazil and on around the world.
We'd enjoyed our time in Argentina, and wanted to see more and different parts of the country, especially the farming and ranching regions that drive the economy and shape the national identity and culture. There's a lot to explore in Argentina: It's the 8th largest country in the world -- larger than any country in Africa, to put it in some sort of perspective. Without bicycles, we'd seen the places in between the big cities and major tourist destinations only through the windows of planes, trains, and (mostly) buses. We figured that travelling by bicycle would be a great way to get off the tourist track and immerse ourselves in this other Argentina -- and it was. We also thought that having bicycled across the North American grain and livestock belt would give us a good basis for interpreting and comparing what was different about the grasslands and small-town farm and ranch country of Argentina and the USA -- and it did.
We've taken long trips by bicycle on paved roads and off-road paths in North America and Europe, and rented bikes locally in many other parts of the world. A trip by bicycle across the pampas (the flattest and easiest part of Argentina in which to travel) seemed like it would be a relatively easy introduction to bicycle travel outside North America and Europe. We already had some sense of the way things work in Argentina, one of us (my partner) already spoke functional Spanish and we could both read it a bit (it got better during the trip: bicycle travel improved our Spanish more than any of our previous attempts at immersive language learning), and Argentina is one of the wealthiest countries, with some of the best roads and other infrastructure, in South America or anywhere outside the First World.
So how did it go, and what did we find that we hadn't anticipated and that influenced our experience?
(There's a question of terminology that I should clarify before I go further: It's conventional to use the terms "bicycle touring" and "touring bicycle" even when talking about independent bicycle travel that isn't part of any guided or escorted "tour". To confuse matters further, people who are on a supported tour often ride something very different from what is called a "touring bicycle", since on that sort of tour they don't need a bike that can carry all their gear and supplies. I would prefer to talk about "bicycle travel" and "travel bicycles" when I'm talking about unsupported and independent non-tour travel, but if I did so I might not be understood. So while I'll use the conventional language of "bicycle touring" and "touring bicycle", realize that I'm not talking about guided, escorted, or supported bike tours. These are offered in Argentina, and I could imagine signing up for one in some circumstances, but they are much more expensive and offer a very different experience from independent bicycle travel.)
This article isn't intended to describe the general attractions of Argentine as a place to visit, why you would want to go there, or what to see and do. For general information about travel in Argentina, see my friend Wayne Bernhardson's SouthernConeTravel.com blog, apps, and guidebooks.
Your mileage may vary, but here's some of what I experienced and concluded. I'll limit myself to issues of specific concern to touring bicyclists:
- Settlement density and pattern
- Road network
- Road surfaces
- Road and lane widths
- Road shoulders
- Rules and customs of the road
- Bikes on buses
- Paper maps
- Digital maps
- Climate, seasons, and weather
- Business hours, mealtimes, and the siesta
- Local cyclists
- Bicycle tourists
- Money and the Argentine financial crisis
- Customs and import controls
- Bicycle component choices (separate article)
Settlement density and pattern: The Argentine pampas are less densely populated than comparably fertile and intensively cultivated agricultural regions in the Midwest or Great Plains in the USA. Much more of the Argentine rural population is clustered in small towns. So towns are further apart, and there are often no stores, services, food, water, or houses between towns. Since snow is rare on the pampas, there is no motivation to locate a farmhouse near a plowed road, and the main buildings of an "estancia" (farm or ranch) are typically located out of sight of any public road, down a long private drive and often behind a closed gate.
Road network: On the pampas, there's a paved road to almost every town, but rarely more than one paved road in any given direction. Almost any paved road has through long-distance tandem truck and double-decker long-distance bus traffic. "Alternate" roads are generally dirt, and sometimes the only alternative to a busy highway is a jeep track or mountain bike trail. If you want to avoid heavy motor vehicle traffic as much as possible, plan to ride mostly on dirt.
Road surfaces: We'd heard a lot about gravel ("ripio") roads in Patagonia and the Andes, but almost all the roads we encountered on the pampas were either paved ("asfalto" or "pavimento") or dirt ("tierra"). Where roads were paved, they were generally in quite good condition, and would be rideable even on narrow, high-pressure tires (although that wouldn't be my choice for touring). However, all motorists take for granted that they will sometimes have to drive on dirt roads, and bicyclists should be prepared to do likewise. It's perfectly normal, even on a major paved highway, for all traffic to be rerouted onto an unpaved detour or unpaved shoulder around road construction, flooding, or other obstacles. Many streets in small towns are unpaved.
The ACA maps were pretty accurate about which roads were paved and which were unpaved. But we found no reliable source of advance information about the volume of traffic on any road, the condition of any dirt road, or the best route for cycle tourists. People who haven't ridden a particular road on a loaded touring bicycle aren't usually able to assess how well suited that road is for bicycle touring.
Road and lane widths: Most roads, even most national highways, have only two lanes. Lanes are typically too narrow for a motor vehicle (other than a motorcycle) to pass a bicycle without crossing well over the center line into the path of any traffic in the opposite direction.
Road shoulders: We encountered very few paved or rideable shoulders, even on four-lane divided toll roads and even on specific road segments where locals had assured us that there were paved shoulders. The worst places were those where there appeared to be a paved shoulder, so that motorists might expect bicyclists to ride on the shoulder, but that shoulder wasn't really paved or rideable. Along one memorably horrid stretch of RN 7 near the Mendoza-San Luis provincial border (all but unavoidable due to the lack of water or any other services along any alternate parallel route across the band of desert between the pampas and the Andes) the "shoulder" consisted of soft sand and loose gravel patchily covered with a soft, sticky layer of what looked and felt like driveway sealant -- with thorns growing in every gap in the sealant.
Traffic: One of the most significant differences for bicycle travellers between Argentina and the USA is the almost complete absence of freight railroads in Argentina. All agricultural production is transported to the cities for consumption or to ports for export by truck, as is everything brought into rural areas from ports or manufacturing centers. Crossing Nebraska by bicycle, we were passed by several hundred-car freight trains every hour. In Argentina, there might have been only one small freight train a day on the busiest line. Everything that moves by rail in the USA moves by road in Argentina. There are few "autopistas", and so far as I know there is not yet any four-lane highway across Argentina from East to West. There's good bus service to even small towns, which means that there are regular buses, often double-decker buses, even on roads that serve only small towns. Most long-distance traffic moves on two-lane roads. It's rare to be on any paved road without significant heavy truck traffic and at least occasional double-decker buses. The Argentine standard truck is a tandem truck-trailer unit (a truck pulling a trailer the same size as the truck) quite a bit longer than a North American 18-wheel tractor-trailer unit.
Motorists: On the whole, Argentine motorists are some of the most bicycle-friendly I've ever encountered. Argentine culture seems to me to be more social and less individualistic than mainstream gringo US culture, and Argentine drivers seem to approach traffic in a somewhat more collaborative spirit than their counterparts in the USA. Argentine drivers seem to me to negotiate with each other more, and compete less. They seem to relate to bicyclists more or less the same way they relate to operators of any other vehicles. Most traffic consists of commercial vehicles, and most drivers are professionals.
What I observed along our route was that when I rode far enough in from the edge of the road for it to be clear as soon as a motorist saw me that I was riding in the road, and not riding alongside the road or stopped off the road, most motorists -- especially drivers of trucks and buses -- merged all the way into the left lane before overtaking me. If oncoming traffic made that impossible, they slowed down as much as necessary, and waited patiently, a safe distance behind, until they could be sure that there was a sufficient gap in oncoming traffic to merge into the left lane and pass safely. (This should be the norm in every country, of course, but it isn't.)
Since Argentine motorists have rarely if ever seen a paved shoulder, or indeed any road shoulder at all (our informants couldn't even agree on whether there was a word or phrase for this concept in Argentine Spanish), they seem to have no expectation that bicyclists will "keep to the shoulder". They don't expect bicyclists to ride through the thorn bushes alongside the road. Because most lanes are too narrow for a car, much less a bus or truck, to pass a bicyclist within the lane, there's little reason to expect any vehicle including a bicycle to be anywhere other than in the center of the lane. Because most roads have only two lanes, it's perfectly normal for a motorist to have to wait for a break in oncoming traffic before they can pass any slow-moving vehicle: an overloaded and underpowered tandem truck accelerating slowly from a stop, a tractor or agricultural implement, or a bicycle. I don't remember anyone ever tailgating us while waiting to pass, and the only time I remember anyone honking at us angrily was in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic on a city street, when we were moving no more slowly than any other vehicle.
During the daylight hours when we were riding, we saw few signs of drunk driving, and many vehicle safety inspection checkpoints. Even in small towns, parties, dancing, and heavy drinking in Argentina don't appear to start until very late at night -- long after we were off the roads and asleep -- except perhaps on Sundays, when traffic was light anyway.
Rules and customs of the road: I never found any information about what, if any, special rules apply to bicycles sharing roads with motor vehicles in Argentina. In practice, bicycles seemed to be equally welcome on all roads except for certain major river crossings (bridges, tunnels, and causeways) and a few sections of autopista where there is an obvious nearby parallel local road (such as the new four-lane RN9 expressway alongside the old two-lane RN9 between Córdoba and Rosario). We saw other bicyclists, including local recreational riders, riding in the center of the right lane of four-lane divided toll roads. It seemed to be normal. Nobody complained, and nobody on the bus when we overtook such a bicyclist expressed surprise to see them there. We were never hassled by police or at tollbooths. If we asked politely, toll collectors, police, and firefighters invariably allowed us to use their employee toilets and fill our water bottles.
Thorns: Several varieties of thorns ("espinas") were ubiquitous alongside paved roads and on dirt roads in Mendoza and San Luis Province. The worst was a ground cover with dense mats of spiny burrs that often came right to the edge of the pavement, hiding under other grasses. The individual spines were only slightly shorter and softer than North American "goathead" thorns (caltrops), and harder to avoid. Along many stretches of road, it was impossible to wheel our bikes even an inch off the pavement without getting numerous thorns embedded in each tire.
Another sort of high woody shrub with inch-long thorns dominated the vegetation alongside and overhanging many roads, threatening to flay our arms, legs, or panniers if we tried to ride too close to the edge. Road workers clearing brush along the road often leave piles of branches cut from these thorn bushes in the road to warn of potholes or other hazards, the way orange cones would be used in the USA.
Adequate touring tires, whether for paved or unpaved roads, are not available in Argentina at any price. Bring durable thorn-resistant tires. Most people recommend one or another model from the Schwalbe Marathon family of tires for this sort of touring, although I haven't tried them yet.
Lacking tires that can stand up to the omnipresent thorns, almost all local cyclists in some regions of Argentina use tire sealant and/or tire liners. Some use both sealant and liners. "Slime" brand tire sealant, despite being imported and therefore expensive, is stocked by every bike shop, in quantities from a pint (enough for one pair of tubes) to gallon jugs. It was the only product made in the USA that was available in most of those bike shops.
To put "Slime" into Schrader-valve tubes, unscrew and remove the valve core, squirt the recommended amount of Slime into the tube through the valve hole, then screw the valve core back in.
Slime can seal the valve as well as sealing punctures, preventing you from inflating, topping off, or deflating the tube. To clear a Schrader valve fouled by Slime, unscrew the valve core very carefully. If the core doesn't pop out by itself once it's fully unscrewed, you may need to reach in and pull it out carefully with needle-nose pliers. Keep the valve pointed away from people and down at the ground throughout this process, since if there is still some pressure in the tube, the valve core could blow out pretty hard when it finally comes free. Bring a spare Schrader valve core salvaged from a blown or unpatchable tube, in case you lose or damage one while extracting it, and a valve core remover. You can get very inexpensive Schrader valve caps with a valve core remover on the opposite end.
Our rims were drilled out to fit Schrader valves, but we started the trip using Presta-valve tubes with adaptor sleeves (which also serve to reinforce and support the valve stems against bending). Putting Slime in a Presta-valve tube is a complicated process that requires buying a large syringe without a needle at a pharmacy, poking a hole in the tube or enlarging a puncture enough to get the tip of the syringe through the hole, squirting Slime into the tube with the syringe, and then patching the hole. It's a hassle, and I'm not sure what you do if a Presta valve gets fouled with Slime. When we started using Slime, we took the adaptor sleeves out of our rims and switched to Schrader-valve tubes.
Did the Slime work, or even help? We're not sure. We didn't have any more flats after we put Slime in our tubes, but that could be because we had crossed the Central Sierras into a region with far fewer thorns. When we removed those tubes at the end of our trip, we saw no sign of Slime inside the tires to indicate spots where punctures in the tube had been sealed by Slime.
We tried two different varieties of tire liners, a knock-off of the classic "Mr. Tuffy" type (thick, soft, and rubbery, with tapered edges) and a flatter, stiff plastic Slime-brand model. Both were worse than useless: the edges and ends of the liners sliced unpatchable holes in our tubes within a few days.
Dogs: To our surprise as people who don't love dogs, we had no problems with them. Everyone in Argentina has dogs, but they are almost invariably well trained (much better than is the norm in the USA) and either fenced, on leash, or under control. They sometimes barked at us when we passed, but they generally stayed on their own turf even when they weren't leashed or fenced. Only a couple of times did loose dogs chase out into the road after us, and they didn't actually attack us or get close enough to try to bite before they turned back.
Bikes on buses: Argentina has what may be the best long-distance bus system of any country in the world of its size or larger. You can get anywhere by bus, usually pretty comfortably. We rode buses to cross a mountain pass too long and high for us to be confident we could get over in a day and potentially too cold at the top in winter for us to feel safe camping, to avoid riding on an especially high-traffic stretch of road, to get across a major river where bicycles weren't allowed on the crossing, and when we were sick and didn't feel like riding as far as the next lodging. If you're not a purist, you can use buses as your "sag wagon". The only question is whether you will be allowed to take your bike with you on the bus that goes where you want to go.
Often there are multiple bus companies competing on the same route with different types of buses, some of which will take bikes as luggage and some of which won't. So it's important to ask what type of bus is used by each bus company serving the route you are interested in. There are three types of buses in use between towns and cities in Argentina. One type won't take bicycles, one type usually will, and one type -- the most common -- might or might not:
- "Colectivos" in Argentina are city buses or local buses serving rural locations that stop frequently, often anywhere along their route where someone flags them down to get on or asks the driver to stop to let them off. They have no dedicated cargo space, and unlike local buses in some Third and Fourth World countries, they don't usually carry large luggage or bulky cargo. They don't have room for bikes, and in a real emergency you'd probably have better luck hitching a ride in a pickup, SUV, or large truck than talking the driver of a colectivo into letting you try to bring your bike onto the bus.
- Buses with a single level of seating, and space for luggage and cargo under all or most of the passenger compartment (like a typical Greyhound bus in the USA) are relatively uncommon in Argentina but are used on some inter-city bus lines, generally on "milk runs" serving smaller towns or making frequent intermediate stops. Since there is generally more space for luggage and cargo than is needed on buses like this, they will usually let you slide your bicycle on its side, unboxed, into the luggage compartment. Be aware, though, that your bike may slide around or bounce up and down on the metal floor of the cargo compartment. Try to block your bike in with other luggage or cargo, if you can, to minimize banging and scraping, especially over what could be unexpectedly bumpy and/or unpaved roads.
- Most long-distance buses in Argentina, especially on direct routes between larger cities and towns, are double-decker buses with much less space than single-decker buses for luggage and cargo. Note how little of the space on the behind the lower passenger seating level is available for luggage and cargo on this typical double-decker long-distance bus made in Argentina by the Brazilian company Marcopolo. (Marcopolo is one of relatively few Brazilian industrial brands, along with the aircraft manufacturer Embraer, that is a global leader in its sector. Marcopolo has local factories where bus bodies are built in Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Russia, and China, among other countries, in addition to Brazil and Argentina.) You might or might not be allowed to bring your bike with you on a double-decker bus, depending on the driver, how full the limited luggage and cargo space is -- and whether your bike folds or has couplers so that the frame can be split into smaller parts.
Couplers: Having S&S couplers built into our bicycle frames, so that we could quickly and easily separate each bicycle into two smaller sections, proved to be decisive in whether we could bring our bikes with us as luggage on double-decker buses.
We took four double-decker buses, mostly for rides of a couple of hours. In each case, the ticket office initially told us either that we couldn't bring our bikes (unless we boxed them and shipped them as bus freight, which might not go on the same bus as us), or that carriage of bicycles would be at the driver's discretion (and that our tickets wouldn't be refunded if the driver refused to carry our bicycles). In some cases, they only sold us tickets after we explained that our bikes came apart into smaller pieces. Photos on your phone of your bike separated in half, a diagram, gestures, or demonstrating with your bike -- if you are allowed to bring it into the bus station or ticket office -- might help with this.
In each case, the driver and/or baggage handler looked skeptical when we wheeled our bikes, each still in one piece, up to the side of the bus. In each case, they loaded our bikes, or let us load them ourselves (which we preferred), without further question, as soon as they saw them separated in half.
After experiencing what a difference couplers made on this trip, I'm completely sold. I would get couplers fitted on on any new custom steel or titanium touring bike, and would strongly consider having them retrofitted (not difficult per se, but requires removing and reinstalling all the components (including the bottom bracket and headset) in order to cut the frame and braze or weld in the couplers, and then at least some frame paint touch-up) on any bike I was planning to use for an extended independent tour.
Most of the discussion of the value of couplers focuses on the potential savings in airline charges for oversize baggage. But that's just money, and might or might not pay off depending on how much you fly with your bike. Being able to take your bike on buses and trains or in the trunk of an ordinary car that couldn't or wouldn't otherwise carry your bicycle at all is, in my opinion, a more significant benefit. Couplers aren't cheap, but the additional cost is small compared to the cost of any custom bike, and if you have a custom bike that fits you perfectly you'll probably prefer to use it, and not a rental bike, for any long trip.
Moving a bicycle and four panniers, even just from one side of a parked bus to another, is extremely awkward once the frame is split in half. And it wasn't always certain from which platform our bus would depart. The procedure that worked for us was to separate the cable splitters, tape down the cable ends to the frame with small pieces of electrical tape to reduce the chance of snags or kinks, unlock the panniers from the racks (we used Ortlieb cables and tiny padlocks to protect the panniers against snatch-thieves in crowds), and loosen the couplers, leaving them finger tight, on the platform before our bus arrived. That let us wait until we found out on which side the driver wanted us to put our bikes, wheel them alongside the right bus on the proper side, and only then pull the panniers, separate the couplers, and pile all the pieces into the luggage compartment. Try to position vulnerable and projecting parts, especially the rear derailleur, as much out of harm's way as possible. S&S suggests using cut-open tennis balls or some other sort of frame end caps (you'd need four for each bike) to protect the teeth of the open couplers. But be realistic: Your frame will get scratched. And be considerate of other passengers: Try not to take up more of the luggage compartment than necessary with your bike and gear.
Paper maps: The best maps I found for bicycle touring in Argentina are the Automovil Cub Argentino (ACA) series of regional maps at a scale of 1:1,000,000. These "Hojas de Zona" (regional sheets) cover all of Argentina (except the areas claimed by Argentina in Antarctica and the Malvinas/Falkland Islands) on nine sheets.
Although some roads had been paved or upgraded from two to four lanes since the last editions of the relevant sheets, we found these maps generally very accurate in distinguishing between four-lane paved, two-lane paved, gravel, and dirt roads. Most competing gas-station maps only distinguish national, provincial, and local roads, which isn't so useful since some provincial routes are four-lane divided highways while many national routes have only two lanes and some are unpaved.
Outside urban areas, the ACA 1:1,000,000 regional maps show every paved road as well as many gravel and dirt roads including some that are passable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles or mountain bikes. Inquire locally, if possible, before heading off the pavement. Any road that's too small to show up on these maps is unlikely to be suitable for loaded touring bikes.
Inhabited places are classified on these maps by population (helpful for guessing where services might be available), but there's no attempt to indicate directly what services might be available.
You can buy these maps at any ACA office, but you won't always find them all in stock at any one ACA outlet, so pick up whichever ones you think you might want whenever and wherever you get the chance. There's an ACA office in each provincial capital, and a few in other major cities. The ACA is affiliated with the AAA in the USA, and you get a slightly lower member price if you can show your AAA membership card. If you want to get some of these maps in advance for use in planning your trip, Omninap usually has them in stock in the USA for about twice what they cost in Argentina -- not an unreasonable markup for a such a specialized product imported in small quantities.
Digital maps: GSM cellphone coverage in Argentina is generally good, and we were able to use our smartphones, wherever there was coverage, with a T-Mobile USA roaming plan for voice calls (US$0.20 per minute for calls to Argentina or to the USA) and unmetered slow data (included in the monthly base price of our T-Mobile USA plan).
Digital maps were handy in cities and towns in Argentina. However, the places where one most needs to consult a map on the road between towns are often exactly those where there is no cellular coverage, and even where there was voice service, data speeds were often too slow to make effective use of online mapping. Download maps when you can, before you need them, while you are in a place with Wi-Fi, in a format that you can use offline when you have no connection.
Nokia Maps and Open Street Maps generally had more detailed and accurate coverage along our route than Google Maps. Nokia Maps had the best and easiest-to-access accommodation information, although it was neither complete nor reliable -- much less so on both counts than in North America or Europe.
Lodging: No combination of printed and online references and local inquiries enabled us to predict reliably in which small towns we would find accommodations. There were towns with multiple hotels, none of them shown on any map or in any printed or online directory. There were towns where accommodations were listed, but they had all closed or only offered food and not lodging. To our surprise, we found that people in hotels, shops, kioscos, and service stations couldn't reliably tell us whether there was lodging available in the next town down the road.
Once you get to town, look for the "plaza principal", where you can usually find a tourist information office or some sort of municipal office that can tell you where you can stay. If they are closed for the afternoon siesta, ask any passer-by or at any open shop or kiosco.
The word "hotel" is generally used only for relatively upscale accommodations. "Alojamiento" is the most generic term in Argentine Spanish for a place where you can pay to sleep, and includes everything from hotels and hostels to informal rooming houses and people who rent out rooms in their homes (most of whom are not listed on Airbnb.com or anywhere else on the Internet).
Since we didn't want to commit ourselves to how far we would get each day, we rarely reserved accommodations in advance, and almost never more than one night at a time. In towns where there was more than one place to stay, or in places with a lot of empty rooms, prices were quite negotiable. We were travelling in the off season for tourism (local winter), and several times we were the only guests in a hotel or B&B.
Prices of accommodations were generally considerably lower, and service considerably better, in Argentina than in comparable locations in the USA. In small towns, we usually stayed in the best available lodging, and probably averaged about US$50 per night (at the "Blue Dollar" exchange rate) for two people sharing a room with one double bed ("matrimonial").
Bicyclists who aren't prepared to camp may not have much, if any, choice of where to stay. Sometimes the only lodging in an untouristed small town was a dump occupied by mining engineers or other local business travellers. Sometimes the only lodging in a rural area was a luxurious bed-and-breakfast providing romantic country getaways for folks from the nearest city. There is at least one hostel with beds in shared dormitories in any heavily touristed town, but there were neither tourists nor hostels in many of the towns and some of the cities where we stopped for the night.
Most hotels preferred that we not bring our bicycles into our bedroom, although some motels didn't mind. We never had to leave our bicycles outside or anywhere we didn't feel was safe, but it sometimes took some searching and negotiation to find a secure place to store them: a luggage room, the manager's office, a bedroom that couldn't be rented on account of renovations in progress, a conference or meeting room, or some other unused locked space. Motels in Argentina often provide a fenced space for guests to park their vehicles behind a locked gate, but that didn't necessarily mean there was anything inside that enclosure to which to lock bicycles, or any way to prevent them from being carried away over the fence. In some fancier big-city hotels, the bell desk took our bikes and stored them for us -- valet bike parking!
Even along main highways, lodging places were more likely to be located in the town center, rather than along the highway itself or on a "strip" as is more common in the USA. That made it more likely that whatever food and other services were available were within walking distance or a short bike ride of wherever we were staying.
Camping: "Credit-card touring" (staying in hotels and not camping) is likely to be possible only if you ride on the busiest roads, where services are closest together and you can cover longer distances on pavement than on dirt, but motorized traffic is heaviest. Otherwise, you need to be prepared to camp at least some of the time, sometimes unexpectedly. It's not a matter solely of money but also of distances between places with accommodations. We only had to camp twice in two months, but there's no other way (short of putting ourselves and our bikes on a bus), that we could have made it across Argentina without sometimes camping.
Camping is completely normal in Argentina among all classes of people, generally considered safe, and not limited to mountainous or "wilderness" areas. In many towns, there's a municipal campground. If not, there may be a public picnic and barbecue ("parilla") area where in practice you are welcome to set up camp. In one town where we discovered only when we arrived that there was no lodging, the police recommended that we camp in the municipal park, alongside the soccer field. The best feature of this site was that the park had a fence that kept out stray dogs. In another rural spot between far-flung towns, we spent the night at a campground that was nominally closed for the season, but that let us stay when we asked. It's always better to ask permission to camp (and to ask for suggestions of where to do so), but I doubt that police, landowners, or anyone else would hassle you for "wild" camping as long as you don't damage crops or equipment, harass livestock, annoy people in nearby houses, or leave a mess.
Food: The word "restaurante" is generally used only for fairly formal dining places. "Comedor" is the most generic word in Argentine Spanish for a place where cooked food is served. If a bunch of heavy trucks are parked alongside the road at an unmarked building or shade structure, there's a good chance that it's some sort of comedor.
Don't sneer at truck stops or small-town diners. Argentine fast food ("minutas") isn't usually very fast at all, but even the simplest and most common dishes can be very good -- and well suited for cycling, at least to my taste: Steak or sausage sandwiches on fresh crusty bread, chicken-fried streak ("milanesa") with French fries, fresh pasta or gnochi with homemade sauces, and empanadas (pastries stuffed with meat, cheese, and/or vegetables). At lunch, almost every restaurant or comedor has a "menú ejecutivo" (daily special).
Takeout and delivery pizza, pasta, roast-chicken, and barbecue joints are more common than eat-in restaurants in Argentine small towns, and may be open at an earlier hour than sit-down restaurants that almost never open before at least 9 or 9:30 p.m., 10 p.m. or later for more upscale places. If the proprietor of the place where you are staying says there is no restaurant or "comedor" open, they may volunteer to have some food delivered, and to let you use their dishes and utensils and eat in the breakfast room, lounge, or maybe your bedroom.
If you want a picnic lunch, or want food to cook for dinner, buy it early in the day, ideally before you leave the town where you spent the previous night. You may not pass any shops at all during the day, and even if you pass through a town, it might be during the siesta when anywhere to buy food is closed.
A "kiosco" is often the only business in town open during the siesta. Typical kioscos aren't self-service. You have to ask for what you want at the window, which makes it difficult if you don't know what they are likely to have in stock, especially if you don't speak Spanish well. A kiosco will almost always have bottled water and other bottled drinks, sweets, and packaged snack food, but might not have anything to make a more substantial meal.
Almost every gas station has an enclosed air-conditioned cafe and mini-mart with Wi-Fi, an espresso machine, sweets, packaged snack food, often croissants ("medialunas") in the morning, and sometimes small prepackaged sandwiches. But the pastry may run out by noon, and there may be no more substantial food available at a gas station cafe. Anyway, a small town is more likely to have a comedor and some sort of alojamiento than a gas station.
Water: How much water you can carry could be the limiting factor in your ability to travel in Argentina by bicycle. On the pampas, most touring cyclists can probably make it from one town to the next in two days, but not necessarily in one day, especially if you avoid heavy motorized traffic by riding on slower and less direct dirt roads. Think about how much water you need to ride all day, "wild" camp, and ride on for another day, and how you would carry that amount.
Consider getting oversized water bottle cages (such as these from Topeak or Minoura) that hold 1.5-liter bottles twice as large as standard bicycle water bottles, and/or collapsible water bags. Take a test ride with a full load including water, to make sure you have a way to secure your full water supply in a stable and balanced way.
We were told that Argentine hikers and campers use common liquid household bleach to disinfect water, but I'm unwilling to take the risk of bleach spilling or leaking in my luggage. Water purifiers and water purification tablets are unavailable in Argentina. Bring them with you. But they won't solve the problem of how to carry enough water on your bike if there are no water sources along the road, or the only available water is contaminated with agricultural chemicals that a purifier won't remove.
Tap water in cities and large towns is almost always drinkable, but that's not always the case in small towns. It's not impolite to ask if it's safe to drink the local tap water, and we usually got a straightforward yes or no answer.
Fuel: Since we planned to camp no more often than necessary, we carried the smallest model of Trangia alcohol stove and a windscreen improvised from heavy-duty aluminum foil. Alcohol stoves are simpler than gasoline stoves, don't require special pressurized fuel containers, and are allowed in checked airline luggage as long as you have let the residual alcohol evaporate. Butane cartridges aren't generally allowed on airplanes at all, and aren't readily available in Argentina. Gasoline fuel bottles are allowed in checked luggage only after they have been cleaned well enough that they don't smell at all of gasoline. You can carry alcohol in the bottle it comes in, in a standard bicycle water bottle, or in any other plastic bottle or water container.
Alcohol camping stoves can burn many types of alcohol. In the USA, methyl alcohol (sold in gas stations and auto parts stores as gas line anti-freeze, among other sources) or denatured alcohol (sold in hardware stores as paint thinner, among other sources) are the most widely available alcohol fuels for camping stoves. Neither of these forms of alcohol was readily available in Argentina.
Inexpensive alcohol suitable for stove fuel was, however, available in every pharmacy or the pharmacy section of any general store in the form of 96% pure "alcohol etílico". Even quite small towns with no gas station often had some sort of pharmacy. Here's a picture of the most common brand in Argentina to look for on a pharmacy shelf. I assumed that it was somehow denatured for external use only as rubbing alcohol or disinfectant, until I saw that it was labeled not just for "uso medicinal" but also for culinary use as a base for liqueurs, infusions, fruits in alcohol syrup, etc. We were burning the local equivalent of Everclear in our camp stove!
About 2 fluid ounces of alcohol was enough to bring a little less than a quart of water from just above freezing temperature to a full boil, starting with a cold stove. So 500 ml of alcohol, which cost a little less than US$1, was enough to boil almost a gallon or 4 liters of water with our setup.
Toilets: A bidet is a standard bathroom fixture you can expect to find in any hotel or private home, which is very nice if you are one of those cyclists who finds good anal hygiene essential to minimizing saddle sores. Public toilets, unfortunately, rarely have either a bidet or toilet paper. You may want to consider carrying baby wipes and/or a "bidet bottle".
Climate, seasons, and weather: We were in Argentina throughout June and July, which was winter and the dry season.
Frost was common, but the temperature at night rarely got more than a few degrees below freezing. One night when we camped and left our water bottles on our bikes, they were frozen solid in the morning. The air didn't usually warm up much until well after sunrise, which made it hard to get an early start. Afternoon high temperatures during the siesta, when traffic was lightest and riding was best, were typically very pleasant for riding: in the 60s Fahrenheit or upper teens Celsius.
Winds were variable in direction and intensity. To the extent that I could detect any overall prevailing wind direction, my impression is that it was the "pampero" wind from the south (although our single worst day of severe and gusty wind, with gritty dust blowing off the dry fields, was a wind from the north). The pampas are prairie, but they aren't the Patagonia of constant fierce winds.
We had only two days of rain in two winter months, and could have done without fenders (mudguards).
Air quality was generally good. Smoke from open burning of piles of brush cuttings on farms and ranches was a nuisance for parts of a few days, but not a serious or pervasive problem.
Business hours, mealtimes, and the siesta: Hotels often don't start serving breakfast until 8 or 8:30 a.m. Since breakfast is most often small -- coffee, tea, or mate and a couple of miniature croissants ("medialunas") -- you might be tempted to skip the hotel breakfast to get an earlier start. But unless you know that you'll be passing through another town before noon, you probably won't want to leave the town where you spent the night before food stores open in the morning.
If a hotel has a sizable dining room and starts serving breakfast at 6 or 6:30 a.m., that could mean that it's a breakfast stop for passengers on a long-distance overnight bus route.
Shops and offices in Buenos Aires, Rosario, and maybe some other big cities in eastern Argentina are open non-stop from 8 or 9 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m., as in the USA. If you've only been in Buenos Aires, you might not realize that throughout most of the provinces everything closes for several hours for a siesta after lunch. Shops and offices close for lunch and siesta from around noon until 5 p.m. or so, then re-open until 8 or 9 p.m.
The main meal is traditionally eaten at midday. That's good if you don't want to stay up late enough for an Argentine dinner, but bad if you find it hard to ride right after a heavy meal. Most restaurants close after lunch at around 1:30 p.m., and don't re-open for dinner until at least 9 p.m. The only businesses that stay open during the siesta are kioskos, some cafes, and some truck-stop comedors, generally serving only a limited light menu ("afternoon tea") during these hours.
In the winter, if you take a long lunch break, much less a siesta, you miss some of the few warm and daylit hours when you could be riding. Many truck drivers take a siesta in their vehicle by the side of the road after lunch, and few private cars are on the road during the siesta. Traffic is light, and in the winter when it's pleasantly warm in the afternoon the siesta is the best time of day to ride. Argentine sporting cyclists typically get their daily training rides in while their neighbors and co-workers are sleeping in the early afternoon.
Most guesthouses have a phone number posted by the entrance that you can call if you show up during the siesta and need to find out if a room is available. Just be aware that you will probably be waking up the proprietor, and be patient for someone to answer the phone or show up at the door.
Local cyclists: As noted above, most Argentine small towns are compact (but not necessarily small enough to walk everywhere quickly), and the pampas are flat. Automobiles, gasoline, and diesel fuel are all more expensive in Argentina than in neighboring countries. That makes a bicycle an ideal vehicle for local transportation.
In Argentina as in parts of Europe, cycling is a long-established mode of local transportation that has never been entirely displaced by motor vehicles, especially within small towns. As in contemporary China, the bicycle is coming to be seen as the vehicle of the poor peasant. But people of all ages and economic classes and both genders riding bicycles remain a common sight on small-town streets, and there's often some sort of shop or home workshop in even a very small town that services and sells spare parts for these bikes.
The classic Argentine adult bicycle is a department-store model a bit lighter than a contemporary "Dutch" bike, with some of the features of a Japanese "mamachari" and some of those of a classic Chinese "Flying Pigeon" or Indian "Hero". Bikes are valuable enough not to be thrown away, especially in the current financial crisis, and we came across all sorts of older bikes still in use, including bikes previously imported from all over the world and some beautiful old Argentine steel road bikes, with old Argentine components, based on classic Italian designs. But finding parts for any model of bike other than the ones currently for sale in Argentine department stores is a matter of luck.
It's rare to see any sort of cyclist on any road outside a town or metropolitan area. Recreational cycling in Argentina is largely mountain biking or, on the pampas, "rural biking" on mountain bikes on unpaved but generally level farm and ranch roads and trails or across open countryside. Recreational road cycling is less common, although we passed surprisingly many velodromes (this list is incomplete) for track racing.
The WarmShowers.org hospitality network for touring cyclists proved to be a good way to meet local cyclists and get advice about local roads and riding conditions, even when we hadn't planned our stops far enough in advance to try to arrange to stay with Warm Showers members. In several places, especially when we were unsure about the best route onward, we contacted local Warm Showers members after we got to town and found a hotel, and asked if they would like to meet for conversation over mate, coffee, or a meal.
Bicycle tourists: In two months, we met only two other touring bicyclists, both Europeans who had wandered into other parts of Argentina after multi-year bicycle journeys from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Cycle touring on the pampas is so unusual that we were repeatedly featured on local television news in towns we passed through. None of the Warm Showers hosts we met in Argentina had toured themselves.
The only route in Argentina that seems to fire the imagination of Argentine or foreign bicycle tourists is Ruta 40 (the Argentine equivalent of US Route 66 or US 395) along the eastern foot of the Andes between La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia in the northwest and Ushuaia at the southern end of the road network in Tierra del Fuego. "De Ushuaia a La Quiaca" is the Argentine equivalent of "from Land's End to John O'Groats" in Great Britain, or "from sea to shining sea" across the USA and/or Canada. Argentina's Ruta 40 is just about the same length as US 30 and longer than any of the transcontinental US Interstate highways.
The second most obvious route for an Argentine road trip is between Mendoza in the west and Buenos Aires in the east, either as a journey across the widest part of Argentina or as part of a longer trip on the through transcontinental highway between Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile, and São Paulo and Santos or Rio de Janiero, Brazil. We didn't follow the most direct route between Mendoza and Buenos Aires -- we diverged well north through Córdoba and Rosario -- but even at choke points along the main highway where almost any cyclist crossing Argentina would pass through and stop for water, staff at service stations said several weeks or months typically passed between sightings of bicycle tourists. We were told that the few long-distance cyclists seen on this route are mainly Europeans and Brazilians, along with with a few Chileans and fewer Argentines.
Money and the Argentine financial crisis: Life in Argentina, for locals and foreign visitors alike, is affected in many, sometimes unexpected ways by the ongoing national financial crisis that goes back to the devaluation of the Argentine peso and the Argentine government's default on its international debts in late 2001. Without trying to rehash the history of the crisis and its discontents, which would require going back even further, the big picture is that (1) goods and services produced in Argentina are much cheaper for foreign tourists and anyone else with access to foreign currency than they were before 2001, but (2) many imported things that used to be readily available, for a price, are no longer readily or legally available in Argentina at any price. In both these respects, Argentina has become somewhat like a Third World country for foreign visitors, even though it is still much more prosperous than a Third World country.
Part of what makes it a "crisis" rather than merely a "condition", even after 14 years, is the continued uncertainty about Argentina's economic future and its relationship to the rest of the world. Much of what I describe here about financial regulations and practices and their effects could change next week, but it could change back the week after that. One of the interesting things to learn about by travelling in Argentina is how people go on about their lives in the midst of such prolonged uncertainty.
There are significant differences between the financial crises in Argentina and Greece, but if the Greek government defaults on its debts it may face some of the same problems as Argentina.
Any traveller in Argentina, especially an independent traveller who hasn't prepaid for a package tour, needs to learn some of the lessons that ordinary Argentines have been forced to learn: Don't count on banks or ATMs, which could close or block access to your account or run out of cash at any time, without warning. Keep a substantial reserve of cash, preferably mainly in US dollars. Be prepared to make do with whatever goods and services are produced domestically, since all imports depend on government permission and on access to foreign currency or credit that may not be available.
For the last couple of years, there has been a substantial difference between the official valuation of the Argentine peso against foreign currencies and the black market "Dólar Blue" exchange rate. As I write this, you can get 940 pesos for US$100 from an ATM or at a bank or official "casa de cambio" (storefront currency exchange). Or you can get 1,600 pesos -- 70% more -- for a US$100 bill at the Dólar Blue rate.
Some "arbolitos" (freelance money-changers who stand around all day on street corners like "little trees") and other black marketeers will change Euros, Brazilian Reals, or Chilean Pesos, at less favorable rates. But almost all Blue Dollar trading, and the best rates, are for US dollars.
If you are willing to deal with the "parallel market", your stay in Argentina will be cheapest if you bring enough US$100 bills (preferably clean and new) to cover the entire cost of your trip. Bring a small supply of US dollars in other denominations as well, so that you can pay an exact amount in dollars if a hotel, B&B, or shop will take payment in dollars at a favorable rate only if you give exact change.
I was unable to find anywhere in Argentina where I could get cash US dollars from a bank or ATM. If you make a withdrawal or cash advance from an ATM (if your card from a non-Argentine bank works at all) or cash a US-dollar denominated travellers check, it will be paid out in Argentine pesos at the official exchange rate.
There is currently no Argentine note larger than ARS100, which is worth less than US$10. So ordinary Argentines walk around all the time with folded and rubber-banded bundles of hundred-pesos notes too thick to fit in a wallet. You will too. Get used to it. But keep your dollars out of sight, preferably divided up in different places in your panniers, handlebar bag. etc.
Both the USA and Argentina require that you declare whether you are carrying more than US$10,000 in or out of the country. But that's more than you are likely to need for any bicycle tour. If customs inspectors find your stash of dollars and ask why you are carrying so much cash, just tell them you know that at times during the crisis Argentina has suspended all withdrawals from banks and ATMs, without warning, and you want to be sure you aren't stranded without money and unable to pay for your trip.
ATMs in downtown Buenos Aires operated by non-Argentine banks, showing the logos of the same ATM networks as those on our ATM cards from US banks, and specifically labelled and listed on those banks' Web sites as dispensing cash US dollars as well as pesos, would not give us dollars. You can get US dollars from some ATMs in Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, although dollar-dispensing ATMs in border towns often run out of dollars. Depending on where you are in Argentina, and how much longer you plan to be in the country, the cost of a quick trip across the border and back by bus or ferry might be less than what you would gain by replenishing your supply of cash dollars outside Argentina, and then changing those dollars for pesos at the Blue Dollar rate.
How safe is the Dólar Blue? The situation could change at any time without warning, and you'll have to make your own judgment. I don't usually deal with black marketeers, but this was one of the few times in my life when the value (moving up towards double the official rate, which means cutting effective prices and my costs in half) was great enough, and the risk seemed low enough, to make it worthwhile. We kept reading about "crackdowns" on violators of the foreign currency control laws, but my impression was that these were directed at larger businesses more than at retail moneychangers, and at the Blue Dollar "cambios" rather than at their customers. I haven't heard of a foreign tourist in Argentina being arrested for changing money on the black market, although it might have happened and might happen tomorrow. There's no doubt that it's illegal.
How to you find a place to change money at the Blue Dollar rate? "Arbolitos" on streets frequented by foreign tourists are the easiest money-changers to find, but also the most likely to swindle you with slight of hand, counterfeit money, outright robbery, or more elaborate scams.
Expats or anyone with foreign connections may be able to refer you to a Blue Dollar money-changer. Almost any Argentine who wants to travel abroad has to buy dollars at the Blue Dollar rate.
Some currency exchanges and money-transfer (remittance) services advertise the official exchange rate, but will give you the Blue Dollar rate if you simply ask, "Can you give a better rate than that?" Some hotels and B&B's will take payment in dollars at the Blue Dollar rate, if you ask, or can recommend where to change dollars. One hotel called a money-changer to do business with us in the hotel bar, which seemed safer than dealing with a random arbolito on the street.
It's easiest to find someone willing to change Blue Dollars in the largest cities and foreign tourist destinations. Don't count on replenishing your supply of pesos in the provinces, even if you are willing to pay the official rate. Many ATMs in Argentina don't work at all with cards issued by foreign banks, even if you are just trying to get pesos at the official exchange rate. Argentine ATMs often run out of cash pesos, and there have been occasional unexpected freezes or daily caps on ATM withdrawals. Don't ever let your supply of pesos get too low. The ATMs that are most likely to work with foreign bank cards are those located in big cities and operated by foreign, non-Argentine banks.
Customs duty and import controls: In order to conserve foreign currency reserves during the crisis, Argentina has placed numerous restrictions on imports. These include import duties (i.e. taxes) and requirements for importers to obtain government permission or licenses before ordering, paying for, or taking delivery of shipments from abroad. Import duties and the costs of dealing with the licensing bureaucracy and obtaining the necessary import and foreign exchange permits doubles or triples the prices of some categories of imports, including bicycles and most most bicycle components, parts, and accessories.
By raising the prices of certain types of imports, these restrictions have made it profitable to invest in "import-substitution" domestic manufacturing of previously-imported items. Bicycle frames are one notable success story of this sort. But bicycle components are another story. They are heavily dutied, and require import licenses and permits, but require more expensive (and imported) production equipment than frames, and aren't yet being made in Argentina. Local bicycle assemblers can't get enough components to build up their Argentine-made frames, and bike shops can't keep parts in stock for even the most common bikes.
The situation is worst for would-be buyers of niche products that aren't made in Argentina, but that aren't in sufficiently large-scale demand to make it worthwhile for a local distributor to jump through all the regulatory hoops and take the risk of investing in inventory to import and keep them in stock. Products like this aren't available (legally) at any price.
To make matters worse, legitimate importers and distributors of products like this -- including touring bikes and components -- have to compete with all manner of smugglers. It's cheaper to take a shopping trip from Argentina to Chile, Uruguay, or even the USA to buy a bike (if you can bring it back to Argentina as "used" without paying duty) than to buy it in Argentina from someone who's paid the duty to import it legally. As long as this is true -- and currently it is -- there's no demand for these items at the prices a legitimate importer would have to charge. If you want a small specialty item that isn't made in Argentina, you get a friend or family member to buy it for you on their next trip abroad and bring it back for you, or get a foreign visitor to bring it. Or you do without it.
At least one peer-to-peer online service matches up freelance and semi-pro smugglers with customers in Argentina and other countries with high import duties. For a fee, you can hire a stranger to buy something you want from the USA, and bring it with them to Argentina falsely declared at customs as being for their own personal use or a gift, to evade import duties on items imported for sale.
Most of the late-model bikes we saw in Argentina with foreign-made frames and components of the sort that would be sold in a bike shop rather than at Walmart or a department store in the USA turned out to have been purchased abroad and imported duty-free as personal property by private individuals.
To try to prevent this sort of smuggling, the government has cracked down on online mail-order purchases, making it almost impossible to special order anything from abroad for delivery in Argentina. We met one cyclist from Europe, sponsored by the German bicycle tire company Schwalbe, who was told by Schwalbe that he would have to cross the border to Chile in order for Schwalbe to be able to ship him a new set of tires. We saw a few Schwalbe tires (but not touring tires) for sale in a high-end bike shop in Buenos Aires. But it was impossible for a manufacturer abroad, even a well-established one like Schwalbe with a local distributor in Argentina, to ship a special order into Argentina.
As visitors have learned that they can recoup some of the cost of a trip to Argentina by bringing some expensive foreign consumer electronics or other "trade goods" to sell, visitors legitimately bringing similar items for use in the country have come under suspicion as possible smugglers. So many Argentines returning from vacations in the USA, and visitors to Argentina from the USA, were bringing in extra cellphones that the government now forbids you to bring more than one cellphone into Argentina, and requires you to declare it and list the serial number on your landing card.
Clearing customs at the airport in Mendoza with a pair of matching, nearly new, and neatly boxed bicycles, we were delayed for about half an hour of questioning. Were we genuine bicycle tourists who would take our bikes home to the USA with us at the end of our trip? Or were our bikes really intended for sale or delivery to Argentine acquaintances? Were we really planning to bicycle to Buenos Aires? Yes -- here are our airline reservations and tickets home from Ezeiza two months from now. Did we have any friends or family in Argentina? No, we don't know anyone in this country. We're just visiting. The customs inspectors were clearly suspicious, but eventually gave up when we stuck to our story and they couldn't find any evidence to contradict it. It think it would have been easier if our bikes had looked more obviously well-used and/or if we had arrived by bus rather than plane.
Trade between Argentina and Brazil used to be an exception to all of this, but is no longer. Argentina and Brazil are the two most important and founding members of the Mercosur customs union, and trade between them used to be duty free. Brazil is the industrial superpower of South America, and has one of the largest bicycle manufacturing industries in the world. Bicycle tires, tubes, and many other bicycle parts in Argentina used to come primarily from Brazil. But Brazilian products have almost completely disappeared from bike shops in Argentina. The Mercosur treaties are still nominally in effect, but all sorts of obstacles and restrictions have been placed on imports to Argentina of many types of Brazilian goods, including bicycles and related items.
Aluminum and surprisingly many carbon fiber bicycle frames are now being made in Argentina, but no steel bikes at all, not even by small-scale artisanal framebuilders. I was puzzled by this, but eventually I figured out that this is because the extremely specialized thin-walled alloy tubing used for bicycle frames is neither manufactured nor imported into Argentina.
In the follow-up to this article, I'll talk about what this means in terms of my specific recommendations for choices of bicycle components and accessories for independent travel in Argentina, based primarily on what consumables and replacement parts are and aren't readily available.Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 29 September 2015, 14:50 ( 2:50 PM) | TrackBack (0)