The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from One Month in Argentina

by Keith Savage · 52 comments

Salta's Plaza 9 de Julio

It’s hard to believe my month in Argentina has come and gone. Seems like just yesterday I wrote a post thinking through my options, and now I’m writing a post-mortem for the trip.

My month in Salta (with a few days in Buenos Aires) was an intense learning experience filled with many challenges. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the trip: I met incredible people, ate delicious meals, and experienced unique cultural events on a near-daily basis. But this first trip of Traveling Savage will be remembered as the journey that tested my solo travel resolve, mental toughness, and ingenuity, and the one that set the bar and measuring stick by which future trips will be devised and judged.

I’ve distilled a few overarching observations from the month abroad below.

The Good

I can’t speak highly enough of the CouchSurfing community in Salta. Not only are there events happening almost every night, the group is spearheaded by a handful of stalwarts who are supremely friendly and welcoming. By meeting up with these guys, I was able to partake in making empanadas, help out in the kitchen for a massive pizza party, organize an asado, and meet up for drinks at local establishments. Not only was the social contact a crucial antidote for the creeping insanity of isolation (see below), I feel like I also made some really good friends that I hope to see again one day.

Lesson learned: Whether or not you want to actually sleep in someone’s place, there are meet-ups in cities around the world where CouchSurfers simply get together to hang out. While I might be traveling alone and feeling lonely, CouchSurfing is a reliable way to meet open-minded people who would love to chat. CouchSurfers are accustomed to new faces and much of the awkwardness of getting to know people is removed by virtue of CouchSurfing’s transient nature.

The Bad

So guess what? My four years of high school Spanish didn’t exactly cut it in Salta. I know, hard to believe. My Spanish was much better in Spain when Sarah was speaking it. Unfortunately, this language glitch nearly crippled my plans in Salta, where English is not common. I was incapable of having meaningful conversations with the majority of people I met and the lack of communication amplified the isolation I felt from traveling alone. Language is a really basic element of travel, and I’m embarrassed to have overlooked its importance during my preparation. Also bad but unrelated: three pairs of underwear and socks are not enough. I spent an inordinate amount of time doing laundry. Next trip I’m rolling with five of each.

Lesson learned: Had I been vacationing in Argentina or backpacking through, my Spanish skills would have been enough to get by (albeit at a very basic level). However, for the type of travel I’m trying to do, I either need to focus on predominantly English-speaking destinations or do much more legwork ahead of time to ensure I’ll have the ability to communicate where English is not common. I will continue to learn what I can of the language ahead of time, but there comes a time for realism: while there are programs that purport to make you fluent in three months, I’m neither particularly skilled in language learning nor do I enjoy the process.

The Ugly

You’d think that a guy who wrote about the importance of the quest would have a rock-solid quest guiding his travels. And I thought I did. Turns out “soaking up the culture” isn’t a full-time pursuit. Silly me. As a result, I experienced a lot of downtime while in Salta and fought to keep aimlessness at the periphery. It didn’t help that I stuck a bit too stubbornly to my parameter of spending one month in the city of Salta, which, it turns out, is used primarily as a jumping-off point for seeing the sites that orbit it: Cafayate, Cachi, Tilcara, Purmamarca, and Humahuaca among others. I ventured down to Cafayate but spent the remainder of my time within Salta and the neighboring community of San Lorenzo.

Lessons learned: Soaking up culture is a passive function, almost osmosis-like, achieved more from being observant in a place than from any concerted effort. I need to be more purposeful when choosing destinations. Instead of simply going somewhere that will be warm (for example, ahem), I will choose a topic of interest for investigation and let that topic guide me to the related destinations. This will provide the purpose I felt lacking in Salta.

I can’t look back on this trip with any regret; these lessons only come the hard way. My time in Salta provided me with the knowledge I need to perfect subsequent Traveling Savage trips, and I’m chomping at the bit to take these lessons learned and apply them to my future trips. Where am I going next? Stay tuned…

What say you? Are these the rookie mistakes of an inexperienced traveler or the growing pains of a unique travel plan?

KatieNo Gravatar December 5, 2012 at 8:59 AM

Leaving for Buenos Aires in a few days. I can’t wait. My husband speaks a little Spanish and I’m trying to learn the basics just for the fun of it. Should be a great trip.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 5, 2012 at 9:07 AM

Enjoy the city! Have a steak or three while you’re there.

Justin EhreckeNo Gravatar January 7, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Hey man just found your blog through and ironically I’m actually in Salta right now…too bad I didn’t see this post earlier. I am off to Mendoza in about an hour and I would have loved to meet the Couchsurfing community here. Good luck on your next one month adventure!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 8, 2011 at 12:07 AM

Too bad we didn’t cross paths (and you didn’t cross paths with the Salta CS group). There’s always next time. Thanks Justin!

Chuck ClaytonNo Gravatar December 31, 2010 at 11:24 AM

Argentina has a lot to offer. I have been a couple of times, primarily for the Argentine Tango Dancing.
And with all traveling I also like learning about the people, culture and history. Buenos Aires is the epicenter of the Tango dance.

Keith I have read several of your posts on Argentina. Have you ever tried the Tango? It is a blast and a great way to meet wonderful people. However, I warn you it can be addicting!



Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 31, 2010 at 5:22 PM

Hey Chuck, I have not tried Tango. I know many tourists really get into it down in BA, and I even met one who moved their to pursue her Tango passion. I might need a few drinks in me and a Tango-infatuated friend to give it a shot 😉

Anca aNo Gravatar January 10, 2011 at 2:25 AM

Actually Keith, for tango you need a little more than a few drinks unfortunately. I don’t want to dissuade you from trying, quite the contrary. I’ve been learning tango for about 5 years now and I still don’t think I can really do it. And, believe me, without any modesty, I’m a pretty good dancer. I can dance almost anything (including hip-hop). However, tango is really hard and without some basics it’s practically impossible to do it.
But, it is absolutely wanderful – it’s probably one of the most complete dances – it has passion, sensuality, subtlety and challanges you both physically and emotionally. Try it, by any means! BA is a good place to take lessons.
Improving your Spanish is a good idea – Latin America has so much to show.
I admit my travels are targetted travels – like seeing the Mayan sites in Mexico but this can be compbined with local mingling and trying to do what locals do, go where locals go and experience anything that may show up on your way.
Have you been to Mexico?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 10, 2011 at 9:35 AM

Good points all around Anca. I have not been to Mexico, but I have recently been thinking Oaxaca. The food is right up my alley and I think a lot of the Mayan and Aztec history would be of interest to me.

Anca aNo Gravatar January 10, 2011 at 10:36 AM

Honestly, the Mayan sites are amazing! WE haven’t had enough time to go to Oaxaca and I’ve heard and read it is a must, but you must also see Palenque and most definitely Uxmal and Ezna in Youcatan. I’ve started writing about my travel to Mexico but I’m still at the Ciudad de Mexico area (which is also to be seen – the Anthropological national museum is absoutely exceptional and Teotihuacan at 40 km from the city is an impressive site). I’ll keep you posted anyway.

Brooke vs. the WorldNo Gravatar December 24, 2010 at 5:46 AM

The language thing is a big one, and I found that I learned far more by taking a foreign language abroad than I ever did in years of high school and Uni. I was also able to learn about a culture through my teachers who could speak English back to me and tell me about their lives. I don’t know how it would fit into your plan, but perhaps signing up for a language school for a month abroad… in Spain maybe?… would help you discover a place and the culture more?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 31, 2010 at 5:13 PM

Hey Brooke, you give great advice. Language schools would definitely improve language abilities, though I think it needs to be a strong interest of the traveler. I haven’t written this option off by any means.

BudleighSNo Gravatar December 22, 2010 at 6:04 AM

I’d have to agree with Pam and Leigh on this one. Keep an open mind, be ready to make changes in plans, expect and appreciate the unexpected. I’m not sure having a purpose or a plan is for everyone. After many years of travel and occasionally settling down in Latin America (Oaxaca, Boquete, Cuenca) for years at a time, we still love to pack up with no more than the essentials and travel with no real purpose in mind other than the journey itself. “The journey is the destination”. Living in Salta now we feel that we have found a home, but we’ve felt that way before. To us it’s just a good feeling to hit the road with only the least idea of where we are going and why. And we’ve discovered many others that do the same.

As to language, learn what you can before you start, but immersion in the culture is by far the best teacher if you have the time. Find a nice locale and take a week of language lessons from a private tutor who can customize to your needs. After many years down here my Spanish is still far from perfect (plus my hearing is bad!), but the vast majority of Latinos are quite helpful and understanding when it comes to communication, unlike the, well, French for example! You may not be able to discuss metaphysics with a philosophy professor, but heh!

I spent three months in Morocco and Egypt a while back with no advance language preparation and had great misgivings about being able to communicate in Arabic. What a happy surprise to find that nearly everyone speaks English and Spanish as a second language, especially in the north. Hardly ever opened my English/Arabic dictionary phrasebook! Right now I have friends traveling overland from Colombia to Argentina who don’t speak a word of Spanish and they are having a blast! But they have also been world travelers for most of their life and know how to roll with it. So no worries, OK?

I just discovered your blog yesterday through a news feed and really do appreciate your writing and everyone’s insightful comments. Thanks!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 22, 2010 at 9:38 AM

Thanks for sharing your experiences, BudLeigh. Travel for travel’s sake vs. traveling with a mission in mind is a decision that needs to be made according to a person’s style, but also according to the type of trip being taken. Travel for travel’s sake is generally what Sarah and I do on vacation, and we love it. For Traveling Savage, traveling with a mission in mind seems, now, obviously imperative.

Regarding the language, everyone I interacted with was more than friendly despite being generally unable to communicate with each other. I’ll need to take a more critical eye to non-English-speaking destinations and prepare much more in the future. More pragmatism needed.

Glad you’re enjoying the blog!

OlgaNo Gravatar December 20, 2010 at 1:01 AM


I love the recap. As someone who just experienced her first solo trip, I can relate to your bad and ugly’s. I spent a month working from Quebec and though I speak conversational French, I would have liked to get more entrenched in the Quebec culture. My biggest lesson was to plan before leaving to find groups to hang out with in French. I found it difficult to navigate the city and I think I have been spoiled in Austin and the US with the amount of groups/meetups accessible online. I assumed that it would be that easy in Canada as well. I’m not a big fan of planning, but I will do a better job at sourcing these groups before I leave.
Language can be a barrier but as someone who has lived in Holland and Hong Kong, it’s only a slice of traveling. It’s always good to have a staple of words to say. Even if they are funny and strange. I always found that body language, especially while traveling is just as powerful.
I could go on and on, but alas, this is just a comment. Sounds like we need to have a coffee talk soon 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 20, 2010 at 12:14 PM

Hi Olga, I’ve traveled to many countries where English has not been the primary language and everything has been fine/great. I didn’t have any trouble navigating or communicating the basics in Argentina. Where the language problem reared its head was when I wanted to talk in-depth about a topic.

I would love to talk more.

EarlNo Gravatar December 19, 2010 at 4:13 AM

I spent a few years floating around, assuming that just being out on the road was going to magically provide the spark in my life that I was seeking. But eventually, I too realized that simply showing up in a foreign country is not an automatic ticket to fulfillment. And so now, I devise my travel plans around a specific purpose. And even if that purpose is to catch up on work or learn about a particular cuisine, it makes a huge difference in the quality of my experiences.

So consider yourself lucky to have discovered this from the start. It will infinitely enhance all of your future trips for sure!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 19, 2010 at 10:23 AM

Hey Earl, it’s encouraging to hear that. I think purpose is even more important when trying to make a career out of travel writing. Obviously stories need to be ABOUT something. Seems so obvious now, but I am grateful to have learned this early.

LeighNo Gravatar December 18, 2010 at 6:47 AM

Hey Keith,

It’s good to see you learned so much from your first month out. It is too bad you didn’t venture out beyond San Lorenzo and Salta to see those other areas. At least you had a chance to spend a day in Cafayate.

Are these rookie mistakes? Probably. I think much of travel is about being flexible and taking things as they hit you. It’s about learning to take the advice of people you meet and being open, including being ok with not understanding the language and working through that. After all, we didn’t speak Spanish at all when we arrived here two years ago, yet we still had to find a place to live, get around, find a school for Lila and many other things.

Somehow, you figure it out if you allow yourself to figure it out.

I’m glad to know that our introductions and tips to Couchsurfing were a highlight of your trip here. Couchsurfing has been a HUGE part of my travels wherever I go. Because of it and the connections I have made over the last five years as a Couchsurfer, I can literally go anywhere in the world and have something to do, someone to have coffee with, somewhere to stay.

Good luck on your subsequent travels.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 18, 2010 at 4:30 PM

Hey Leigh, thanks again for hosting me – I appreciated it.

LeslieTravelNo Gravatar December 17, 2010 at 12:25 PM

Great post! Thanks for the couch surfing tip– I didn’t realize there were meetups open to people who aren’t actually crashing on a couch. I have to check that out. It does seem like just yesterday you were planning the trip and asking Twitter friends for tips. I believe I suggested a road trip through Salta at the time. I enjoyed visiting Salta, Jujuy, Purmamarca and Cafayate on my RTW trip but can’t picture spending a full month in any one of those places– unless you are studying, working or volunteering to keep you busy. They are relatively small cities and towns.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 17, 2010 at 3:31 PM

Glad to help with the CS info. It’s well worth your time to look into those communities wherever you go. Great people with great tips.

ChristineNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 10:49 PM

I can relate to so much of this! Definitely understand the benefits of the Couchsurfing community and can also relate to having a lot of downtime to soak up the culture. Most of the time you have to be doing things to soak up the culture–it’s not just osmosis! And being surrounded by only Spanish-speakers surely helped out your language skills–I wish that was an option in France! Overall, what a great first trip!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 10:54 PM

Without question my Argentine Spanish improved. Not to the point where I was having conversations, but it did get better. Did you experience some of the same things in France?

It really was a great first trip!

pam || @nerdseyeviewNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 8:24 PM

Traveling with some kind of purpose in mind is great, but I think it’s too bad when we let purpose overwhelm the magic of just seeing what happens. Experiential travel is all about that, letting stuff happen, and if you are too focused on getting to Mt. Doom to throw in the ring, you miss all the fun along the way. I wear my purpose really lightly — I like to find the synagogue, if there is one, because it gives me a weird feeling of tribe even though I’m SO not practicing — I get this immediate connection to a minority population. I like to find the best damn bakery there is and go there repeatedly. And I like to visit supermarkets. This feels purposeful enough, often, and I am grateful for the times when there is nothing to achieve but observation.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 10:50 PM

It seems to be about balance – have some purpose but leave space for serendipity or those minor daily missions that you craft the night before. My troubles stemmed from being too far over in the “everything is wide open” end of the spectrum. Too much of that is no fun.

AudreyNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 9:02 AM

I often surprise people when I say that travel for travel’s sake isn’t enough; there needs to be a purpose, something to ground me and keep me focused. I think that’s akin to when you talk about finding your topic. And that topic may change from destination to destination or it may be the same.

Language issues are difficult to overcome and it gets frustrating not to be able to have the sophistication of conversation you want. Perhaps one idea is if you decide on another location where English isn’t a common language to take language classes and do home stays for your visit. This would accomplish the goal of learning with the immersion with a local family.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 12:49 PM

Exactly, Audrey – travel for travel’s sake isn’t enough, especially when I’m looking at my travels through the lens of business not pleasure or personal growth.

Zablon MukubaNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 7:33 AM

couch surfing is a great way to stay longer in a country. the network of couchsurfing is incredible and very encouraging. its amazing how many people you can meet while couch surfing

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 11:39 AM

Seconded. I knew it would be good, but I couldn’t have predicted how important CouchSurfing would turn out to be to me in Argentina.

Ted NelsonNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 7:20 AM

This is one of the aspects that I love about blogging. Before I blogged I always had these epiphanies that I discovered through meditation after the trip, but I never wrote them down. After a few years I would forget the lessons learned. Now I always reflect on my blog just like you have done in this post. It not only reinforces the lessons I learned, but can also help others.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 11:37 AM

Totally agree, Ted. I wrote these lessons down on scraps of paper as they came to me. I realized their value to my mission quite quickly, and putting them here in the blog will help ensure I don’t forget them.

ShawnNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 5:45 AM

You just need to stay longer in a country, a month really is not that long. Everywhere I have been and nested within the last three years of traveling I always met people that speak english who I become friends with.

I lived in Bulgaria for a year and do know the culture quite well, but nesting for a month would not of revealed the deeper emotional dynamics of the culture.

To comunicate in another language a person needs to live in a country and take classes, and for most people it will take two or three years until they can carry on an in-depth conversation.

You want give yourself at least three months in a country, or even better six months.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 9:06 AM

Real language development takes a lot of time. More time would have undoubtedly yielded deeper connections, but even within my month I met several Argentines who spoke English and became friends of mine. Spending more time to find English-speakers isn’t really the point though.

I need to operate within the parameters of my lifestyle, and that means being gone for around a month at a time.

CandiceNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 10:49 PM

Yeah, one of my greatest life regrets ever is not learning a second language. I’ve studied French since second grade but it didn’t help me at all while in France.

But hey, at least you’ll know for your next big adventure! 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 8:28 AM

I suppose it’s the curse of being North American. In the States we’re taught a second language in high school, but it’s too late at that point and the whole system feels obligatory. As many of the Argentines who spoke some English told me in Salta: “speaking another language is NOT like riding a bicycle. You need to constantly use it.” Maybe that was the case with your French.

AndreaNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 6:22 PM

I really enjoyed this round-up, Keith – I think it’s great that you’re doing these. We’re headed to Salta in May – I’ve heard good things about it; kind of sad we won’t be able to communicate too well there (I just started learning beginner Spanish). Have to comment on the socks underwear thing! Three pairs?? We travel with about 15 – 20 pairs each. =) Thanks also for letting us know about the CouchSurfing meetups – that’s awesome! Really loving your experiment and writing, as usual.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 8:42 AM

Salta, but Argentina in general, turns out to be difficult even for those well-versed in Spanish. Some of the core sounds are different, like the “ll” and “y” sounded like “sh.”

15-20 pairs?! My goodness, I’d have no room left in my bag! I’m packing very light and not checking bags. An additional two pairs will give me some breathing room so I don’t need to do laundry every other day.

GrayNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 6:06 PM

I don’t think I’d categorize these as rookie mistakes…more common than not. But you do have a special style of travel that you’re going for. I like the idea of finding your topic. This may help you plan which destination to visit and what to focus on while you’re there, as well as perhaps enabling you to do some research ahead of time that may help you with conversations. Still, I think your experience in Argentina was valuable; think of it as a “shakedown cruise”.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 8:29 AM

Agreed, I’m very happy to have been to Argentina and learned these lessons. There’s no shortcut on the road to learning them.

KubNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 5:59 PM

I love you, buddy. Let’s chat soon over a pint and talk about anything and everything!


Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 16, 2010 at 8:23 AM

Absolutely – fighting a cold now, but soon.

AndiNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 5:08 PM

The “ugly” doesn’t seem too ugly to me! What did you think about BsAs???

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 5:14 PM

I consider it “ugly” because the time could have been spent more effectively. I was in Buenos Aires for a total of five nights and I really enjoyed the city. I got glimpses of many different neighborhoods with most of my time spent in San Telmo and Barrio Norte/Microcentro.

It’s a unique place and I definitely perceived the blend of European and South American cultures. I would love to go back for a vacation some time.

AkilaNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 4:42 PM

I won’t say that these are “rookie mistakes” but I think they are inevitable parts of learning how to travel for an extended period of time. In comparison to our first two or three months versus now, I think that we have radically changed our travel styles. We like to stay in a place for about a week (or, at most, two weeks) and rarely schedule “downtime,” because we have discovered that we learn the most about places and people when we do the activities that the locals do . . . meaning, that if they are going to X place to scuba dive, then we go to X place to scuba dive. When we started traveling, we picked a lot of beach destinations, thinking that we would enjoy spending time just chilling at the beach. Actually, not so much. We prefer doing, going, and seeing because we are active people. That’s not a bad thing – in fact, it’s probably a good thing – but it means that when we go to the beach, we go there to dive, snorkel, do other sports, or use it as a base to work. We aren’t going there to sunbathe.

It sounds to me that what you are searching for is a topic that you love. I think that is what makes travel most exciting — finding something you love and incorporating it into your travels. For us, we meet the most memorable people, have the best conversations, and learn most about the culture when we immerse ourselves in food. But that’s because we love food. And, I agree with Erin —- I wouldn’t stick to English speaking destinations just because of language difficulties. Even in China, which was insanely difficult to travel in, we had great conversations (or pseudo-conversations) over food or about food.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 5:09 PM

Akila, it’s interesting to note how our travel preferences change. I think many, myself included, have an idealized way of how we think we like to travel, but in the midst of traveling you find different desires.

You make an insightful observation about searching for a topic I love. I think that is one of the realizations I had in Salta. It’s also why I’m very excited to implement it in my upcoming trip.

As I mentioned in my response to Erin, I won’t be eliminating non-English-speaking places outright. But there will need to be more prep-work ahead of time to make those trips successful.

LindaNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 4:39 PM

Hi Keith, I can relate to your post regarding the language barrier and not having an “ear for languages” as some other lucky people seem to have. I spent 7 months travelling in South America. 3 months of that was spent in Bolivia where I lived with a Bolivian family. My spanish is still absolutely rubbish and whilst I could understand words here or there, understanding a full blown conversation was night on impossible for me. The best I could get was to catch the “gist” of the conversation, but often I even had that wrong. Admittedly I hadn’t had any earlier learning experience of the language (and 2 weeks of language classes in Peru don’t cut it) but still, it should have been better. Anyway, I have set up a travel community on Facebook called “When I went travelling to South America”. It would be great if you joined us and shared one of your experiences. The idea is you complete the sentence “When I went travelling to South America…” with an anecdote and add a link to your blog.
Regardless, happy onward travels! Cheers, Linda

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 5:11 PM

Regarding language, I probably just assumed that it would be fine since my previous travels around Europe went well enough. But when you’re on your own and trying to do something that requires extensive conversations with people who live in the place, it’s a much different scenario.

ErinNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 4:01 PM

I have a pretty decent level of Spanish by now but I still find it much harder to make connections with people and have deep conversations than in English. I imagine the language issue will be your biggest barrier, but on the other hand just sticking with English speaking countries would be a shame. We found Benny’s advice on the Fluent in 3 Months blog really helpful.

I agree the couchsurfing group in Salta is lovely!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 4:54 PM

Hey Erin, I’m not unilaterally eliminating non-English-speaking places, but I’ve realized that if I do plan a trip to one I need to have done much more preparation, such as translators or guides, in advance.

WanderingTraderNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 3:53 PM

It was a pleasure to meet you in Argentina my man… have to agree with all your points. Cheers!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 15, 2010 at 4:57 PM

Likewise, we had a good time. I’m sure our paths will cross again.

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