Argentina

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Traveling from Cordoba to Buenos Aries on an overnight bus, on the last leg of our Argentina journey, I sat with my laptop and produced a frighteningly witty and smart comment to start off this blog entry and wrote for a full page before taking a break, sleeping for a while, and waking back in Buenos Aries.

That was on November 19, 2012. The date today? January 4, 2013. Truth be told, I just lacked any inspiration to write. Not just about the trip, but this whole blogging thing. More on that later, I’m sure.

Visiting Argentina is like living in a history lesson. I doubt that any major town in Argentina lacks a Plaza de Mayo or an Ave 25 Julio. Stop after stop I noticed that the plaza and street names in each town and city were identical to the last. Eventually, through some osmosis process that I can’t explain, those dates, the names of political and historical figures, just become imprinted on your brain and, inevitably, you will turn to Wikipedia to figure out what it all means.

Argentinians clearly respect and pay respect to their forefathers. They celebrate and commemorate dates of historical significance. They do this, town after town, by dedicating street and plaza names to these things. I am not sure, however, that they do the same for their current political leader: Cristina.

I didn’t notice any streets or plaza’s named after her, although her name was prevalent on many of the town’s streets by way of awful graffiti: a social problem that seems to plague Argentina. I have no idea what statement was trying to be made, but given the fact that some 3,000 people marched by our quiet little café on our first day in Buenos Aries with banners, drums, brass instruments, fireworks, and fire crackers, I learned then that Argentinians are not happy.

Protests and strikes continued (though did not really cause us concern) for the rest of our three weeks in Argentina. By not writing about this experience I’ve been able to reflect more on it – and let more news stories develop since our departure. Just last week I read  about continuing protests, looting and even two deaths associated with this unrest. To say that it felt like we were fleeing a country on the brink of civil war on our last day is not, in fact, a big stretch of the truth.

So, Argentina. Let me start by saying that it is the most impoverished country I have visited to date. Of course, I haven’t seen the slums of India or the war-torn countries of Africa (all of which I one-day hope to), but from my personal points of comparison, Argentina has plenty of issues.

We started our journey from the airport into Buenos Aries and were struck by the number of apartments that lined the main streets. They had one, maybe two, small windows, minute balconies and were plain unattractive. We stayed in San Telmo at a cute little hotel called Ayres Portenos Tango Suites. Upon reaching San Telmo the buildings are less featureless and have character and charm. This was our first real assault of graffiti, which became a common theme during our travels.

The first thing noticeable about the graffiti is that there is a lot of it. It’s not all bad. I have some great shots of graffiti covered walls where, clearly, some time and effort went into the street-side works of art. All too often, though, it was just scrawl. Anti or pro-government, anti or pro-union. To be honest, I didn’t care about the content (as I couldn’t read most of it). What concerned me the most was simply the amount of it and the impression it gave of a country where a part of the population do not care about their surroundings (worrying for an environmentalist), and where the rule of law and government is either not willing to, or cannot curb this unrest.

That is not to say that all Argentinians should be painted with the same brush. On the contrary, I couldn’t help but smile as we followed a short little lady along Ave de Mayo as she pulled of sticky post-it note sized “hooker advertisements” from each lamp post she passed and threw them into the trash. There is also some level of organization for street cleaning as we saw teams of lamp-post scrapers and picker-uppers on our final day in Buenos Aries each doing their bit to try and combat the other type of graffiti in Argentina, the posters. Posted to every wall, lamp post and tree imaginable, these political (or otherwise) statements tarnished what could otherwise be a truly stunning city.

Looking past the unrest, the political problems, the lack of order, the graffiti, the copious amounts of litter (again, my reference point is not India), and the crumbling infrastructure, you do begin to realize that Argentina is full of very positive and beautiful things.

Not long after arriving in Buenos Aries we visited La Ventana for a private tango lesson, and after a quick change, headed back there for dinner and a show. La Ventana has two show halls, the main level which I think is the casual tango show room, and the second level hall which has crystal chandeliers, gold trim and a large stage where we watched a lively, truly incredible tango show. To be honest, the food was not impressive. The wine list, as extensive as it was, was just for show. Despite there being several Cabernet Sauvignon’s listed, there were none available. It was Malbec, or Malbec. However, this didn’t really effect the evening as the show was simply that good.

The two other major “must-see’s” in Buenos Aries are the Recoleta Cemetery, situated in a much clearer and well-kept district of the city, and La Boca, at quite the opposite end of the economic scale. We walked to La Boca, on a Sunday along Defensa. The street market in San Telmo along Defensa is the best I’ve ever been to. Hundreds of stalls selling their wears, street performers, a bustling atmosphere, and plenty of fresh orange stands await. The walk was quite safe, although those less confident might wish to take a taxi. It is quite evident that La Boca supports a poorer end of society; stores that are open seem to sell their candy and cigarettes from behind steel bars. I am not sure at night that I would have wanted to make that walk alone.

Once in the tourist area of La Boca, however, the grey buildings become all manner of reds, blues, greens and yellows. One after one you can stroll by café after restaurant after café, each having their own tango show, so much so that you can sit at one table and see three or four different shows quite easily.

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Recoleta is a different experience. It is somber and peaceful, but a perfect and beautiful tribute to the dead buried there. There are countless mausoleums and each have as many as 15 coffins within them where generations of the same family have been laid to rest. Brand new mausoleums stand next to some from the early 1800’s and each is an architectural delight. Beyond Eva Peron’s resting place (which in fact is rather unimpressive) there are so many stories to immerse yourself in. If you can, find an English member of “Friends of Recoleta” at the entrance. Likely they will be handing out maps of the cemetery, and likely they will be your best source of information before you look around.

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Buenos Aries, and the rest of Argentina feel dirty. It feels polluted. Cars from the 1970’s churn out smoke alongside street-side café’s. At least one in two people, it seems, smoke cheap cigarettes. One row in one grocery store might contain only Coca-Cola. Not different varieties of Coca-Cola products, but just Cola. Not diet. Not low calorie. Just a sea of red. The amount of bottled soda consumption in Argentina is astonishing. The number of plastic bottles (or glass bottles) produced is mind blowing. The number found discarded on the streets is just upsetting. If you remember various street and plaza names because you’ve seen them so much, you’ll also remember Coca-Cola. Every restaurant too strapped for cash for its own sign appears to gladly accept the Coca-Cola branding as its own.

Worldwide, bottled soda and bottled water should be phased out. Some alternative has to be found. Well, apart from soda that should just be phased out. Period. I heard just yesterday that Concord, a small town in the U.S.A. has just banned the sale of water in bottles under 1L in size. It’s a start!

The bus journey to Iguazu Falls (Puerto Iguazu) is almost 20 hours on the nose. As most of it was overnight I managed to sleep for the first part of the journey. As the sun rose I was able to see rural Argentina (rural compared to Buenos Aries at least). I was shocked to see the amount of clear-cut stands of trees and saw mills that we passed. True, we traveled a long way so seeing more than one was likely, although even in the short time I counted I saw at least four large mills. Deforestation lives on here.

There are three, perhaps four things, that are worth seeing in Iguazu. The Falls, of course, are breathtaking. They make Niagara look like a leaking tap. While I said this at the time, it’s not exactly what I meant. Niagara Falls, of course, is spectacular in its own right. But, for me, Iguazu is by far the better. The only building visible beyond the miles and miles of rainforest is the Sheraton hotel: and it is not that noticeable. Other than the Falls, there is river, forest, wildlife and, in our case, bright blue sky. Contrast this with the glowing neon lights and “Disneyland” feel to Niagara and what you get in Argentina is remote, peaceful, awe-inspiring. The Falls are the Falls: the centre of attraction. Incredible.

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We had time to visit an animal sanctuary set into the forest on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazu: Guira Oga. It is possible to get an English-guided tour. A loud and bouncy tractor ride took us into the forest for the beginning of our tour where we met Looney, the monkey, (who actually wasn’t in Guira Oga’s care, he was just a local), and a myriad other animals, birds and reptiles. The work that Guira Oga does is privately funded, and it is good work. Try and stop in if you can, and throw a donation at this place. The entrance fee is really quite cheap.

Walking around Puerto Iguazu you can also take in a somewhat mind-blowing view: sitting on the banks of Rio Iguazu and Rio Parana and look to Brazil on your right, and Paraguay on your left. Sitting and trying to imagine the sheer size of these countries and that I was there, looking at all three, was quite amazing. Additionally, you can walk to a market in the centre of town which sells wine, olives, cheeses and meats which all looked and smelled incredible. Our lack of Spanish, and time, meant that we didn’t ultimately stay there to eat.

We thought that breaking up the next 20-hour journey to Salta with a stop in Resistencia would be a great idea. Lonely Planet told us that it was the City of Sculptures, with around 500 in walking distance of the central plaza: ironically, Plaza 25 de Mayo. In fact, the sculptures were either covered in graffiti (imagine Michelangelo’s David with spray painted nipples), or seemed to be the equivalent of two car engines welded together. Perhaps there is more to this place, but we didn’t see it. We did, however, play a lot of Hangman.

Let me pause here to discuss the food.

We were either impressed, or totally unimpressed depending upon where we ate. This also applied to the steaks. Now, living in Calgary, good steak is served as frequently and as commonly as fish n’ chips is served in England. Let me just say, my expectations and points of comparison were high. Generally, the steak did not live up to its billing. We had one or two good steaks, but I tried steak on at least six occasions. Perhaps one four of them I just ‘got unlucky’, but in all cases I was so disappointed that there was a real lack of fresh food (vegetables and fruits) made available. Many dishes simply had a meat and a carb, or a pasta and a sauce.

Speaking of sauces, they were quite bland. I was surprised. I expected a party in my mouth with some of the oils that were served with the copious white bread rolls. However, what looked to be chili peppers, or other types of spices, just fell flat – repeatedly.

What I did enjoy was that there were many local beers that were all quite good. Quilmes was not one of them but Patagonia and Salta are just two of the excellent beers I had as I traveled around. Also, empanadas. Oh, I love empanadas. Just like a Cornish Pasty from back home in England it is delicious inners contained in a small crispy/flaky outer. There were a few bad ones here and there – but those were generally 4 pesos. The better ones, at about 6-8 pesos were excellent. None better than the ones we devoured, and then ordered more of, at Mevi Winery, just outside of Mendoza. I miss them.

After escaping Resistencia we arrived in beautiful Salta. It had a central plaza: Plaza 9 de Julio of all names. I could have spent three days in that Plaza. As small as it was, there were very few cars traveling around it and where many plaza’s in Argentina have roads joining them like a “plus” sign: “+”, this plaza was only joined by roads at the outer corners. A small thing, but it had such a big difference on the aesthetics of the place. Some of the best food we ate in Salta was from New Time, on the south-west corner of the plaza. The plaza has a stunning cathedral on the north side and slightly away from the plaza to the south east is another (more beautiful) church: Iglesia de San Fransisco.

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Also, try to see the Museum or High-Altitude Archeology. It is small, and somewhat expensive for what you get, but to see the preserved remains of three 600-year-old children and read and learn about their stories and fate is quite something. Just as a note, only one child is visible at any one time and they are rotated every several months.

From Salta we took a day-trip to the Salinas Grandes (salt-flats). I had wanted to do this ever since reading WildJunket’s blog (http://www.wildjunket.com/) on this area – so thank you for that! The tour took us over 4,100m above sea-level into the high plateaus of the Andes before reaching our first stop: San Antonio de los Cobres. Other than a stop at the restaurant (where I sampled Llama for the first time – not a fan) and a short period of time to take pictures of the somewhat desolate town (and the somewhat aggressive – in terms of sales tactics – but otherwise pleasant and friendly locals in local garments) this place was merely a stop on the journey onward. Please, if you do want to take photographs of, or with, the locals, ask the locals first, and consider giving a small tip. I got a couple of great photographs, a hug and a kiss from one!

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The Salinas Grandes is a flat plateau of salt with a set of mountain peaks one way, the other way, and every which way you look. For the height, it is incredibly warm. Not only that, the salt seems to double the heat by reflection. But what a surreal place. It is quiet (but for the tourists), it is unlike something you will have ever seen. Rain water in the area either hits the surface and evapourates, or makes its way under the salt, about 6-inches down. Small pools are unearthed (presumably for tourist purposes) and an obligatory salt-bath for your feet is sure to occur. Watch your camera bag and clothes/shoes for salt stains though. Sunglasses are highly recommended for this place.

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After a long day of traveling we also stopped at Purmamarca to see the Hill of Seven Colours. We had very limited time here, it became increasingly cold on the journey there, and we were losing light fast. Needless to say, we didn’t truly experience the Hill, but I suppose that we can say we were there.

The only reason I was happy to move on from Salta was that for the last day and a half it became cold, and for the last couple of hours it had also begun to shower. And, I suppose, we were heading to Mendoza.

Mendoza became my favourite Argentine city. We stayed in a self-catering apartment at Modigliani Suites, and we were so happy that we did. We could make our own healthy breakfast, fresh scrambled eggs, fruit, orange juice. It was a mini-heaven. It was also located in a great spot: walking distance from the bus station (although there is a busy road to cross) and a stone’s throw from Plaza Espana, one of four outer plaza’s that surrounded Plaza Independencia in a pattern resembling a 5 on a die.

We strolled around each of the plaza’s, found that there was a great deal of shopping, many good restaurants (one in particular) and tree-lined streets, a small lake, an Andes mountain backdrop. It was a happening city. The restaurant of choice here should be Restaurant Tomasso Trattoria on Sarmiento. A lasagna there was the meal of my trip. Incidentally, Sylvia’s “meal of the trip” was also from the same restaurant on the same night. We agreed to disagree having tried each other’s’ meal.

Try to visit Mr. Hugo if at all possible. Mr. Hugo is a bicycle rental shop in Maipu. Here you can rent a push-bike for 35 pesos and cycle to your heart’s content sampling wines and beers (and empanadas) as you go. This makes for a great day, although I will add that it is not as romantic as you would think. Rather than cycling past fields of vines and olive trees, generally you take one main road (and other smaller roads) that are noisy and busy (and of course full of cars from the 1970’s spewing smoke). Away from the main road, though, this is a very enjoyable day out.

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I can’t say a lot about Cordoba. We arrived on a Saturday, we left late on a Sunday, and the weekend is not the time to hit this town. Opening hours on museums and galleries were not conducive to a weekend visit, although I can see that this ‘second-City’ has a lot to offer. The architecture is beautiful, the main cathedral immense, and there is a world-heritage site (Church of the Jesuits).

By the time we hit Cordoba, almost three weeks after we had started our journey, I was ready to get back to Buenos Aries, and normal life.

I have mixed feelings about Argentina, and that is probably why I could just not gather my thoughts to get this together. On the one hand it is beautiful, immense, historic, natural and awe-inspiring. On the other it is chaotic, uneasy, tired and in need of change: either at the government level, or at a social level. I took this picture on the day before we were due to fly home and my thought was: “what to do with a problem like Argentina”:

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I don’t know the answer.

What was readily apparent was that with all of the other concerns that the Argentines have (economy, health, education, government) the environment, and environmental concern seemed to be the furthest thing from their minds. Argentina seems primed for a big change.

On the day we left our flight was at 10:00 p.m. We were aware, the night before, that strikes and protests my delay our travel to the airport. Our hotel suggested we leave for the airport in the morning. Then, on that day, they suggested that the best time to get out would be 2:00 p.m. Eating breakfast that morning, we felt as though we were about to escape a country on the edge of civil war. It made me wonder whether the ‘siesta’ would even interrupt that…

– James.

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3 thoughts on “Argentina

  1. Hey! Great plans, good luck with them. I am planning to travel from South to North of South America next year (August), so keep me posted on your travels. I didn’t hear much about Argentina. I know it’s beautiful, friendly and terribly expensive. I used to study Spanish so let me know if you need some help with brushing you on your Spanish :).

    • Hi! Thanks for your kind offer! A few “must-know phrases” might help, but with only two weeks to go I suspect my Spanish is not going to improve before I get there!
      I’m very excited, and expect to be photographing my way around so there will be plenty to show and tell when I’m back! I look forward to hearing about your travels too!

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