After spending the last two years saving money from my jobs in cafes and libraries in order to afford a semester abroad, I finally arrived in Mendoza, Argentina in August still unsure of whether I would have enough money to make it through the semester. Though, due to the flagging Argentine economy, many things are significantly cheaper here than in the US. I quickly learned how fast the little things can add up. In the interest of helping future students learn from my experiences, here are some tips from a perpetually-broke college student on how to live in Mendoza on the absolute bare minimum, while still experiencing the city and the country to the fullest. While these tips are specific to Mendoza, I imagine most are applicable in some form to other places as well with a bit of adjustment.
The thing that I spent the most money on in my first few weeks in Argentina was the food. This happened in part because the food is significantly cheaper here than in the US, so I felt like I could buy snacks and eat out constantly. Trust me, it adds up. The other problem that many of us experienced is that the host families, while they’re obligated to give us three meals per day, often have a very different diet than we’re used to. When you’re presented with a breakfast of pastries, a lunch of powdered potato puree and chicken nuggets, and a dinner of beef or pizza every day without so much as a vegetable or fruit in sight, it can be very tempting to start sneakily buying your own meals. Don’t do it. You’re already paying for three meals a day, don’t pay twice. Instead, talk to your host family. Most of them truly don’t realize that we’re used to a different diet, and will gladly cook up some acelga (swiss chard), spinach, or broccoli if you ask them. As in any living situation communication is key. It’s better to risk slightly offending your host family while working through a cultural difference than to spend four plus months eating food you hate or paying unnecessarily.
That said, there will be times when you will want to buy your own food. Don’t go to the supermarket! For some reason, everything is more expensive there. Instead, go to a verdulería for fruits and vegetables, a fiabrería for lunch meats, cheese, and bread, and kioskos for candies, cookies, etc. The small cafes in the university are also a great deal, as they are partially subsidized by the free public university system.
Transportation and Travel
While most places in Mendoza are easily walkable, there are a few places that are a bit far or a bit unsafe. Your Redbus card is your best friend. It lets you ride any trolley or bus in the city for 6 pesos (about 30 cents) per trip. The bus system itself is a bit of a mess, but if you’re not in a huge hurry you can get just about anywhere within Mendoza and the outer neighborhoods very cheaply. Learn the routes well and early. The only time they’re not useful is for going out at night, as the busses stop running at around 1am, and don’t start up again until 6am.
Still, don’t succumb to the temptation to take a taxi. They’re expensive and often charge foreigners an extra “gringo fee.” Instead, make local friends! Almost every group of Argentines has one friend with a car whom they unabashedly use any time they want to go clubbing. Argentines also have a remarkable lack of bitterness about being the designated driver, as their drinking culture is different from ours, and it is not at all uncommon to go out dancing sober. That said, always make sure that the driver really is sober, because a small number of Argentines do have a rather lax attitude about drinking and driving. In that case, just take a taxi.
In terms of longer-distance travel, I highly recommend the overnight busses. They’re generally comfortable, clean, and much cheaper than flying, plus you get to watch the stunning landscapes pass outside the window. And you get bragging rights in the unofficial Argentine contest for who has survived the longest bus ride – so far 30 hours straight from Mendoza to El Calafate takes the cake. One area you should splurge – buy the cama (bed) seats. The semicamas are much smaller and less comfortable and make sleeping quite difficult. Once you’re there, most cities have a wealth of hostels for US $8-12 per night. Use hostelworld.com to find the best ones.
Nightlife, Entertainment, and Miscellaneous
As in any place, the nightlife and entertainment can end up being one of the most expensive parts of your trip. For the previa or pre-party, I recommend looking for bars outside of the hopping Aristides area, where drinks are more expensive, or going to happy hours, usually from 7pm-9pm. For the boliches or dance clubs, try to get on a free list. It’s surprisingly easy as just about every Argentine has a boliche or two that will let them and their friends in for free. Ask around. Once you’re there, avoid the temptation to buy more drinks – they’re overpriced, and besides, the Argentines frown upon drunk boliche-going.
As for other miscellaneous forms of entertainment, look for two-for-one deals at the movie theater – they’re often available online. There’s also a free university theater that caters to students and plays interesting local and independent films. Remember that some of the best parts of Mendoza – the plazas, the parks, and the mountains – are free. Take your cue from the locals and don’t be afraid to spend entire afternoons sipping mate with friends in the park.
Finally, go on the IFSA-Butler program trips! Even if you’re not the type of person who likes organized activities, they’re included in the price and they almost always serve really excellent food. Don’t miss out!
Good luck and happy travels.