Tim Leffel Compares and Contrasts the Best Travel Guides for Argentina
You know the scene. You decide to go to some spot on the globe, you make your way to the travel aisle in the bookstore, and then you come face to face with a whole shelf of guidebooks vying to be your trip companion. Or worse, you get to the location, start using that trusty guidebook, and find that it keeps leading you astray.
Choosing a guidebook is not as simple as it used to be, back when Lonely Planet guides were usually the best choice for independent budget travelers and Fodor’s guides were for wealthy retirees. Now Lonely Planet is the biggest guidebook publisher in the world and Fodor’s is trying hard to be more hip and contemporary. If anything is consistent, it’s that nearly all the guidebook publishers have moved away from serving a niche: they seem to be doing their best to please everyone, in all budget ranges, and it’s getting harder to find much opinionated personality anymore.
Part of this is due to maturity of the genre, of it becoming more businesslike. With a few exceptions, guidebooks are now mostly written by less experienced writers, on a “work for hire” contract, with no future stake in the royalties. As the books have become more standardized, writers are updating templates as they go, doing much less actual writing. As pay scales and per diems have gone down, there’s pressure to finish the research quickly in order to make the work pay off financially for the writer.
So how are today’s guides stacking up? I put five Argentina guides to the test for a recent 3-week trip to four provinces, using them to plan ahead and carrying several with me. I traveled at different budget levels at different times because of writing assignments I had, so I was able to test how they performed for backpackers and for vacationers with more money. As a specific test, I paid close attention to how much space they devoted to a tourist site that is not on the main circuit: the northern wine-producing town of Cafayate, near the Quebrada de Cafayate canyon. I also used a separate slim food book to see whether that information added substantially to what was in the guidebooks. What follows is a rundown on the findings.
Like most Lonely Planet guidebooks, these 499 pages of content can best be described as “solid.” If you have used their guides before and liked them, you’ll find this the easiest book to navigate, with maps that are simple to decipher, a good quick reference guide inside the cover, a table of contents right after the pretty opening photos, and a good index. As far as content goes, it didn’t really stand out anywhere, but it did the job. Dining choices are slim, which seems odd in a country where food and wine are so much a part of the experience.
There are three pages on Cafayate, and this is the only book that contains a map of the town. There is a nice spread of photos covering most of the country. Watch for a revised edition: the current one was completed in early 2005 and parts of it are already feeling out of date.
Best for: LP fans who like the format, those who need a good handle on prices, and those who won’t walk two blocks without consulting a map.
This guide works far better for background information than for nuts-and-bolts planning and use. Both my traveling companion and I got so exasperated with the pricing information that we left this one home. Prices are only given in ranges—ranges that are way too wide to be useful—and you have to keep referring to the key to figure out what the symbols mean. You also have to flip through 28 pages before you get to the table of contents. Hotel descriptions are often limited to a sentence or two, which isn’t nearly enough to figure out what the place is like. Cafayate only merits a page and a half in this guide.
Cultural and background information is extensive, however, and in this respect Rough Guide leads the pack by far. This Argentina guide comes in at close to 900 pages, with over 100 pages devoted to the country’s history, music, art, films, and books. This guide also has the most color photos. These factors tip the price up though: this is the only book to list for more than $25.
Best for: upper-low to mid-range travelers who aren’t on a set daily budget and those who want to completely immerse themselves in the culture.
Fodor’s, like most other guidebook publishers, has gravitated to the middle and is trying harder to please a wider demographic range. The change is positive, but this is still a guide for those who are more concerned about their hotel and dinner than they are about striking out on an adventure. What the guides do, they do well, however. This one contains some of the most accurate and helpful restaurant reviews, and it doesn’t shy away from calling a place underwhelming or past its prime. For a guide perceived in the past as stodgy, it also has good rundowns on the current nightlife scene.
At fewer than 400 pages, it’s far from detailed (and has only a page and a half on Cafayate), but it wins the prize for accuracy and timeliness—published in July 2006 and updated each year. A few full-color photos in the middle are a welcome break from the text with occasional not-so-helpful maps seeming like an afterthought.
Best for: travelers with an ample budget who are spending one or two weeks in the most popular areas.
In trying to cram two vast countries with a lot to offer into only 486 pages, the Frommer’s Guide can’t be expected to be more than a quick overview. The information it does offer, however, is surprisingly helpful and it manages to squeeze in two and a half pages on Cafayate. It is by far the most opinionated guide, which is refreshing after spending lots of time with faceless writers who are trying to play it safe.
What it lacks in sightseeing and adventure information it more than makes up for in lengthy reviews with plenty of telling details. It tags some hotel and restaurants as “finds” for instance, and labels others as “overrated,” with a blistering critique. It serves more as a filter to cut through the clutter than as a comprehensive overview.
I didn’t take this one with us, but I found myself copying lots of notes for later, recommendations that turned out to be spot-on. Zero photos, though, and a text-heavy layout with very few maps.
Best for: vacationers who are looking for the kind of enthusiastic picks and pans they would get from a well-traveled friend.
This is the one we kept returning to when making plans and the one we thumbed through the most while actually traveling through the country. It is the only one of the bunch written by one person, a veteran writer who also did earlier editions, and this seems to make a huge difference. It is authoritative and detailed, plus it doesn’t sound like it was written by committee. It had far more nuts-and-bolts information on every place we went, especially when it came to sightseeing. There are close to four pages on Cafayate, for example, including a rundown on local wineries. It also has a noticeable quality lacking in the others: a long-term voice of experience.
This isn’t to say the book is perfect. The Moon map style can be annoying: even though this guide had a lot of maps, the printing of listings on top of them makes the maps busy. There is often a disconnect between what is listed in the text and what is included on the map. The black and white photos throughout aren’t very visually appealing. Overall though, this wins best of show and it’s also the best value—the lowest price of the bunch at $19.95. The accompanying Buenos Aires city guide is also excellent, with far more detail than its competitors.
Best for: those who will spend at least a few weeks in the country, traveling independently, going beyond the main tourist areas.
Some travelers swear by the Footprint guides for South America, but the company seems to be running on autopilot these days. The Argentina guide hasn’t been updated since 2003, the press page on the website hasn’t changed since 2002, and the company did not respond to repeated inquiries about the next edition.
Other travelers like the DK Eyewitness guides, with their colorful photos and detailed interior maps of buildings and museums, but they do not (as of yet) cover Argentina.
One great surprise that really enhanced the trip was the slim book Food and Drink in Argentina by Dereck Foster and Richard Tripp. Whenever we remembered to carry this along to a restaurant, it was extremely valuable. It contains a rundown on what most menu items are in Spanish, describes the beef cut equivalents in terms of what they would be in your own country, and provides very good background on local drink choices. The information in here was far better than what was in any of the guidebooks, and with lots of color photos. Mealtime is almost always a pleasure in Argentina, so this book is well worth the extra cost and minimal weight. It would also be an invaluable resource for anyone moving to the country for work or study.
TIM LEFFEL, is the author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.