Mate, like love, really is all around — and other Argentine surprises

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Argentina, but it still blew my mind

Yerba mate in a gourd. Photo: Edgar Claros Franetovic via Wikimedia commons

Coming to Argentina, I knew only what my brother had told me and what I could glean online. Known internationally for spectacular beef, football, and Messi, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew about alfajores, mate, and the characteristic “shhh” in Argentine Spanish, but I knew little of their cultural roots. 

I would soon discover that Argentina lives up to some of its stereotypes, but others are wrong in all the best ways.

Mate, like love, really is all around

I was not expecting the ubiquity of mate. My internship program told me of its significance, but I thought the tradition might perhaps be exaggerated for visitors. My travels through Argentina shattered this assumption.

As I immersed myself in Argentine society, I realized that mate is genuinely cherished, permeating every aspect of daily life. In parks, plazas, and bustling city streets, groups of friends and family gather in  circles, passing around the mate in the cherished tradition. It’s not just about the mate itself — it’s about the bonds you form and the heartfelt conversations you have as you drink it. 

The more I delved into the world of mate, the more I realized this beloved beverage mirrored the essence of Argentina: vibrant, warm, and deeply rooted in tradition. When I bid the country farewell, I carry with me heartfelt memories, a newfound appreciation for the tradition — and a mate and bombilla (mate straw) of my own. 

Gastronomy is booming 

In recent years, Buenos Aires has emerged as a culinary hotspot, endorsed by the Michelin Guide this July along with the Andean city of Mendoza. Buenos Aires was every bit as diverse and rich as other foodie cities I’ve visited — whether you’re craving sushi or hearty Argentine asado, the capital has it all. 

The culinary revolution in Buenos Aires is characterized by a delightful blend of traditional Argentine flavors and innovative techniques brought in by international chefs. Argentine cuisine is synonymous with its world-renowned beef, and steak aficionados will find themselves in paradise with the city’s iconic parrillas (steakhouses). Palermo is the spot to head to for trendy restaurants, while San Telmo and Belgrano markets, in particular, are filled with stalls offering fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, cured meats, and local delicacies — and it’s not all cow, either.

This brings me onto the myth that all Argentines are carnivores and visitors who aren’t will struggle. 

You don’t have to eat meat

“I hope you like red meat” was the most common response to my plans to travel to Argentina. As someone who’s never understood the love and hype around “a good steak,” I was worried that a summer in Argentina would mean a meager diet of vegetables and bread. While Argentina is undeniably famous for its steaks, you don’t need to be a meat lover to enjoy the food.

In recent years, the city has witnessed a surge in vegetarian and vegan-friendly eateries. In fact, some of my favorite meals in Buenos Aires were at plant-based restaurants. Sacro, for example, offers a fresh plant-based take on the Argentine empanada, made of a striking black activated charcoal pastry, stuffed with mushrooms and olives and served with spicy harissa sauce. 

Welcome, multicultural multilinguals!

As someone whose formal education in Spanish was limited to my university’s “intermediate” course, I was nervous about holding my own in a Spanish-speaking environment. 

To my surprise, my attempts to speak Spanish were almost always met with warm smiles and an effort to bridge the language gap, regardless of where I was in Argentina. People went out of their way to say “hello” or ask to practice their English with me. They had endless questions about why I was there and my experiences in the country. That said, some Spanish skills certainly make things easier. 

If my taxi ride straw poll is anything to go by, while culture wars rage and there’s intense debate about the droves of young people apparently leaving the country, Argentines are also distinctly proud of their home nation. They’re quick to gauge whether you’ve tried asado, dulce de leche, or the many variants of alfajor — and if not, they’re quick to offer their recommendations. 

Coming from the US, where such warm greetings are rarely afforded to foreigners, I was amazed. This welcoming attitude sets Argentina apart from other nations, where multiculturalism is sometimes met with more mixed reactions. 

Never have I been so grateful to be wrong about so many things. I’m grateful to have been entirely wrong about a diet of meager vegetables and bread, even though my wallet may not be. The whole experience left me indebted to Argentina and its people for everything I’ve learned. I’m leaving Argentina equipped not only with a mate, but with a greater understanding of the country, and immense gratitude for the warmth I received on my travels. Like a mate, I hope to pass it on.


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald