We decided not to go to Brazil on this trip because of both cost and time. It’s a huge country and would easily take a few months to explore. Also, it’s expensive, especially since we would be arriving in Rio de Janiero right around Carnival, one of the most expensive and crowded times of year. Although disappointed, we were happy to find out that Argentina celebrates Carnival as well, although on a bit smaller scale than Rio.
Carnival takes place in a small town about 3 hours north of Buenos Aires called Gualeguaychu (we can’t pronounce it, either). There are smaller street parties in Buenos Aires, but none of the typical costumes and parades that you would see at Carnival. If you want the true Carnival atmosphere, you have to skip town and go to Gualeguaychu. When we booked our tickets to Argentina a few weeks ago, we immediately purchased Carnival tickets online (already, Argentina is more advanced than most of SE Asia!). We hit a major wall in finding lodging, though. Starting with our usual online resources, we couldn’t find anything, so we emailed and called every hostel, hotel, and guesthouse, and found ZERO affordable options (most had 4 night minimums or were absurdly expensive). Out of luck, we resigned ourselves to taking a public bus to Gualeguaychu on Saturday morning and returning on Sunday morning (around 5am) with no place to sleep. Luckily, we decided to wait and figure it out when we got to Argentina.
Flash forward, and the Tuesday before Carnival we had no leads on lodging. I stumbled across a tour operator, Sandra of My BA Travel Guide (speaks awesome English BTW!) on TripAdvisor. She set us up with a tour (in Spanish, for Argentinians) that left Buenos Aires, visited the Gualeguaychu hot springs, took you to Carnival at night, and then took you home when it was over. It meant waking up really early on a Saturday (7 AM, ugh) and getting home really late (8 AM, UGH!) on Sunday, while only getting a few hours of sleep on the bus. But, without lodging options, we booked the tour for 714 pesos/person (between $70 and $100, depending on your rate). This included Carnival tickets, as well as entrance to the hot springs.
Saturday morning, the streets of BA were buzzing as hundreds of people were lined up for buses heading to Carnival. Some were protesters, some just revelers. We found our tour company and headed north. Traffic was horrible, and the trip took two extra hours (5 vs. the normal 3) to get there. We did stop at a McDonalds that was eerily familiar of any interstate exit in the US. We arrived at the hot springs around noon, and were told we had 6 hours there, which was much long than we expected. We found some chairs and relaxed. Unfortunately, these weren’t natural hot springs (more like small swimming pools) nor were they that hot (kind of like bath water). So the swimming wasn’t especially cleansing or relaxing, but we managed to get some food, take a nice walk around the grounds, get a massage (only $15, but pretty poor compared to the ones in Asia), and play a lot of cards. At one point the wind blew a card under the pool deck so Kyle got to spend some time climbing in the dirt to retrieve it!
After the hot springs, we went into the city where the real fun was. We walked along the river to the beach where many of the Argentinians go to party during the day. Sure enough, we saw plenty of drunk revelers carrying coolers back to their hotels, presumably to pass out until the parade started. We had a nice base of hamburgesa completos (cheeseburger with ham and egg), and then arrived at the stadium around 9pm. Our tour included tickets, so we didn’t bother retrieving the ones we booked online weeks ago. We were happy we went with the tour’s tickets because our seats were in the front row on the parade route! If you go to Carnival in Argentina, whether on this tour or not, get front row – it is worth the extra pesos.
Carnival in Argentina has grown considerably in the last five years, and has expanded from 4 weekends to 9, with the first weekend of March (our weekend) being the biggest. On the night we went, there were 3 “schools” (basically dance troupes) performing. The parade actually started on-time (around 10), and each school took about 1.5 hours to perform, with a half-hour intermission between each school. For those without a calculator, that means we finished up around 4 AM!
The performances were simply amazing. There was an announcer who amped up the crowd throughout the night, and everyone remained energetic, dancing and cheering and singing for the entire 6 hours (we did, too, with the help of some Argentinian Red Bull). Each dance troupe has one song they learn, and each parade has a theme. All three troops we saw were great in their own right. The first group had a very catchy song and did the best job involving the crowd. The second group was best overall, and we liked the diversity of their troop members (minorities, older women, etc). The third group had the best costumes and were the most interesting to watch. Each parade was a combination of performers wearing costumes, bands, and massive floats, each having to do with the theme. For instance, the team with the best costumes all had nature-themed items – some were plants, some were animals, some were skeletons, etc. Nearly all of them were very buxom and scantily clad, including the men, and there was no shortage of butts to stare at all night long.
Being in the front row was great. We had people from the crowd try to push down looking for better views, so they often gave us free drinks and were fun. Also, we bonded with other people in our tour so we could chat with them during intermission. In the front row, you are also able to call over parade participants to interact with you, so we could get pictures or dance with the performers through most of the parade. Having this level of interactivity made it way more fun than if you were just in the grandstand.
So, overall, we had a fantastic time. By the end of the night, we were exhausted, and didn’t get much sleep until we returned to the hostel around 8 AM. But, the tour company we worked with was very professional, didn’t waste our time with shopping trips, and got us to and from Gualeguaychu quickly and (mostly) safely. We consider this a must-do if you in Argentina around Carnival – it was a ton of fun!
Here are some other great photos from the evening: