Argentina: A Glimpse of the Land of the Gaucho
I’d been to Brazil back in the 80s, but my experience in South America was fairly limited when I booked a flight for a short trip to Argentina many years later. I knew it was a soccer-mad country and, through my involvement in Rugby Union, I had met a few Argentinians following their national side in the UK on more than one occasion. It was time to see a little of this vast country, although a couple of weeks would only allow me to scratch the surface – so I had to decide on my priorities and make plans accordingly. There would be no time to head south to Patagonia unfortunately…
Taking some time in Buenos Aires was an obvious decision. I also decided to go to two other regions, due West to the Andes and north to the border with Brazil to see arguably the most impressive waterfalls in the world; Iguazu. Niagara gets plenty of publicity because of its location and, while Victoria Falls is impressive, in full flood you are entirely immersed in a wet mist. Neither of these famous sites has the quality of Iguazu.
The flight was fourteen hours from Heathrow and on landing I immediately went to the domestic terminal to take a flight to Mendoza. Mendoza is the heart of the Argentinian wine region, located below the Andes that run as a spine, north to south, down the whole of South America’s Pacific Coastline.
The plan was to hire a car at the airport and travel into the Andes towards Chile. It wasn’t a matter of getting to the snowline, but I wanted to see South America’s highest mountain, Aconcagua, at almost 7,000 metres. It was a great day out, sunny and dry with little traffic on the roads. I booked a simple but clean hotel for a couple of nights with a very early morning flight back to Buenos Aires on the third day. I had read an article a couple of days previously about the best restaurants in the world and wondered how it was at all possible to compile such a list. I still wonder to this day, but my eyes were drawn to the inclusion of 1884, a restaurant in Mendoza – so of course I had to go!
There is plenty to see in Buenos Aires and just as much to do.SS
Dinner in Argentina is generally later in the evening than I would dine, so my choice of 7:30pm for dinner – partly due to my early flight the next day – meant I had the place to myself. I got the guided tour, four courses and a bottle of Malbec for around US$25. The next morning it was still dark as I checked out. I thought I knew the way back to the airport, but I got lost in the one-way system. I pulled into a petrol station for help, and despite the language barrier, a motorcycle policeman said he would guide me the 7 kilometres. I simply followed him and posted the car keys in the letterbox because the office would not open for a couple of hours.
Once again, after landing in Buenos Aires it was straight to the desk for my check-in to fly north to Iguazu Falls. I had treated myself to a ‘’room with a view’’ in the Sheraton, looking directly at the Falls themselves. I couldn’t wait to explore so the unpacking would be later. It was incredible to be able to walk across the rivers in full flood on wooden boardwalks to reach some of the cataracts; there are over 250. I could have almost touched the fast-flowing waters. There were well-signposted paths, allowing tourists to explore the whole of the Argentinian side and boats took passengers right up to the water as it cascaded down.
Iguazu Falls is on the border with Brazil and tourists on the Brazilian side have different views from the one I was getting.
My return flight back to Buenos Aires followed – finally it was actually time to see the City. I booked a flat in Avenida de Mayo, which linked Congress at one end with La Casa Rosada in the Plaza de Mayo on the other. Café Tortoni, famous for the celebrities that have visited over the years and its association with tango, opened in 1858 and is a place for just a coffee if you like. It is on the left on the way down to La Casa. Avenida 9 de Julio bisects Avenida de Mayo and gets its name from Independence Day, 1816; it is the widest avenue in the world at 140 metres with 12 lanes and it took some effort to cross even when the lights were in my favour.
There is plenty to see in Buenos Aires and just as much to do. As well as seeing the main attractions, some fine European-style architecture among others, there is the fine dining, the Sunday market in San Telmo – another district where tango is very important and often performed in the street – and the River Plate that divides Argentina from Uruguay. I booked a crossing for later in the week to Colonia in Uruguay, but not before I’d seen plenty of what the Argentinian capital had to offer. That included such simple things as small roadside bars, usually with a football match live on TV – sport is a universal language.
I was just happy to walk around most of the time. However, I took a taxi to Cementerio de la Recoleta, recently described by CNN as one of the top ten cemeteries in the world, to see the tomb of Eva Peron. She was the second wife of President Juan Peron and packed much into her life before she died of cancer at 33 in 1952.
When I began my crossing to Uruguay, I recalled the Battle of the River Plate, fought out by model ships in Peasholm Park in Scarborough when I was a child. It culminated with the sinking of the German battleship, the Graf Spee, by its own commander in the early months of the Second World War. It had sought shelter in the River Plate, but had been given a deadline to leave.
The small town of Colonia was a lovely place to spend a few hours. The atmosphere was almost village like, and I still remember an old car in a street on a slope that obviously didn’t have any brakes. There were bricks jammed behind two of the wheels.
Back across the River, there was just a little time for a last look at this wonderful cosmopolitan city before the flight home. It was a long way to travel but what an experience! I must try to return some day and see some more.