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Guidebook Smackdown!

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.

Moon Argentina (Moon Handbooks)

The guidebook 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.

Best for: those who will spend at least a few weeks in the country, traveling independently, going beyond the main tourist areas.

Lonely Planet Argentina

Like most Lonely Planet guidebooks, this 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.

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.

The Rough Guide to Argentina

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 600 pages, with over 50 pages devoted to the country’s history, music, art, films, and books. This guide also has the most color photos.

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 Argentina: with the Wine Country, Uruguay & Chilean Patagonia (Full-color Travel Guide)

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 500 pages,it wins the prize for accuracy and timeliness—updated each year.

Best for: travelers with an ample budget who are spending one or two weeks in the most popular areas.

Frommer's Argentina

The information Frommer's offers is surprisingly helpful. 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.

Other Guides

Some travelers swear by the Argentina Handbook (Footprint Handbooks) guides.

Other travelers like the DK Eyewitness guides, with their colorful photos and detailed interior maps of buildings and museums, but they did not (as of yet) cover Argentina at the time of this writing.

One great surprise that really enhanced the trip was the slim book Food and Drink in Argentina: A Guide for Tourists and Residents 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 The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

World Cheapest Destinations
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