Argentina is a vast land: even without the titanic wedge of Antarctica that the authorities like to include in the national territory, it ranks as one of the world’s largest countries. The mainland points down from the Tropic of Capricorn like a massive stalactite, tapering towards the planet’s most southerly extremities. Consequently, the country encompasses a staggering diversity of landscapes, ranging from the hot and humid jungles of the Northeast and the bone-dry highland steppes of the Northwest, via the fertile Pampas and windswept Patagonia, to the end-of-the-world archipelago of Tierra del Fuego.
Argentina is, for the most part, less obviously “exotic” than most of its neighbours to the north, and its inhabitants will readily, and rightly, tell you how great an influence Europe has been on their nation. It was once said that Argentina is actually the most American of all European countries, but even that clever maxim is wide of the mark. It’s a country with a very special character all of its own, distilled into the national ideal of Argentinidad – an elusive identity that the country’s utopian thinkers and practical doers have never really agreed upon.
In terms of identity, there are lots of sweeping generalizations about the people of Argentina, who generally get bad press in the rest of the continent for being loud and arrogant. Though such a characterization isn’t entirely without merit, it’s more the exception than the rule – you’re bound to be wowed by Argentines’ zeal for so many aspects of their own culture and curiosity about the outside world. On this score there is a lot of truth in the clichés – their passions are dominated by football, politics and living life in the fast lane (literally, when it comes to driving) – but not everyone dances the tango, or is obsessed with Evita or gallops around on a horse. The locals will help to make any trip to their country memorable.
There are loads of other reasons to visit Argentina, not least the great metropolis of Buenos Aires, one of the most fascinating of all Latin American capitals. It’s an immensely enjoyable place just to wander about, people-watching, shopping or simply soaking up the unique atmosphere. Its many barrios, or neighbourhoods, are startlingly different – some are decadently old-fashioned, others thrustingly modern – but all of them ooze character. Elsewhere in the country, cities aren’t exactly the main draw, with the exception of beautiful Salta in the Northwest, beguiling Rosario – the birthplace of Che Guevara – and Ushuaia, which, in addition to being the world’s most southerly city, enjoys a fabulous setting on Tierra del Fuego.
The vastness of the land and the varied wildlife inhabiting it are the country’s real attractions outside the capital. In theory, by hopping on a plane or two you could spot howler monkeys and toucans in northern jungles in the morning, then watch the antics of penguins tobogganing into the icy South Atlantic in the afternoon. There are hundreds of bird species – including the Andean Condor and three varieties of flamingo – plus pumas, armadillos, llamas, foxes and tapirs, to be found in the country’s forests, mountainsides and the dizzying heights of the altiplano, or puna. Lush tea plantations and parched salt-flats, palm groves and icebergs, plus the world’s mightiest waterfalls, are just some of the sights that will catch you unawares if you were expecting Argentina to be one big cattle ranch. Dozens of these biosystems are protected by a network of national and provincial parks and reserves.
As for getting around and seeing these wonders, you can generally rely on a well-developed infrastructure inherited from decades of domestic tourism. Thanks in part to an increasing number of boutique hotels, the range and quality of accommodation have improved noticeably in recent years. Among the best are the beautiful ranches known as estancias – or fincas in the north – that have been converted into luxury resorts. In most places, you’ll be able to rely on the services of top-notch tour operators, who will not only show you the sights but also fix you up with all kinds of outdoor adventures: horse-riding, trekking, white-water rafting, kayaking, skiing, hang-gliding, along with more relaxing pursuits such as wine-tasting, bird-watching or photography safaris. Argentina is so huge and varied it’s hard to take in all in one go – don’t be surprised if you find yourself longing to return to explore the areas you didn’t get to see the first time around.Read More
Of all South American countries, superficially, at least, Argentina has the least marked pre-colonial culture. During the nineteenth century in particular, whole indigenous peoples were wiped out by various waves of newcomers, their superior weapons and their deadly diseases. Yet drinking mate – now a quintessentially Argentine custom – was learned from the native peoples, while a good many traditional festivals and prevailing superstitious beliefs were inherited from those who lived on Argentine soil long before the Europeans arrived. Though no Machu Picchu, the pre-Columbian – and mostly pre-Inca – ruins at Quilmes, Tilcara and Shinkal are nevertheless marvellous archeological sites, while fine rock drawings can be admired at accessible locations across the country.
Tango is not only a dance, or even an art form, but it is also a powerful symbol, perhaps what people associate with Argentina more than anything else. Essentially and intrinsically linked to Buenos Aires and its history, it nonetheless has fans all around the country. Rosario and to a lesser extent, Córdoba, the country’s two biggest cities after the capital, have a strong tango culture, complete with milongas (dance halls) and shops to buy the right footwear. And don’t be surprised to find humble folk in some remote village, hundreds of miles from Buenos Aires, listening to a scratchy recording of Carlos Gardel – still the leading figure of tango as song. Perhaps it is because tango depicts the Argentine psyche so well: a unique blend of nostalgia, resignation and passion.
Dulce de leche
Dulce de leche
Dulce de leche, a sticky, sweet goo made by laboriously boiling large quantities of vanilla-flavoured milk and sugar until they almost disappear, is claimed by Argentines as a national invention, although similar concoctions are made in Brazil, France and Italy. Something called manjar is produced in Chile, but Argentines rightly regard it as far inferior. The thick caramel is eaten with a spoon, spread on bread or biscuits, used to fill cakes, biscuits and fritters or dolloped onto other desserts. Some of the best flavours of ice cream are variations on the dulce de leche theme. Although some people still make their own, most people buy it ready-made, in jars. While all Argentines agree that dulce de leche is fabulous, there is no consensus on a particular brand: the divisions between those who favour Havanna and those who would only buy Chimbote run almost as deep as those between supporters of Boca Juniors and River Plate. Foreigners are advised to maintain a diplomatic neutrality on the issue.