The defining feature of northeastern Argentina is water. Dominated by two of the continent’s longest rivers, plus several of the country’s other major waterways, it’s a land of powerful cascades and gushing streams, blue-mirrored lagoons and rippling reservoirs, vast marshes and fertile wetlands. The riverine landscapes of the Litoral (meaning “Shore” or “Coastline”) – a term generally used to refer to the four provinces of Entre Ríos, Corrientes, Misiones and Santa Fe – range from the caramel-coloured maze of the Paraná Delta, just north of Buenos Aires, via the gentle sandy banks of the Río Uruguay and the jungle-edged Río Iguazú to the wide translucent curves of the upper Río Paraná. All of them exude a seductive subtropical beauty enhanced by the unhurried lifestyle of the locals and a warm, humid climate. To Argentines, however, the Litoral above all means two things: mate and chamamé. Litoraleños, as the inhabitants are called, are fanatical consumers of Argentina’s national drink, while the infectiously lively chamamé music is most reliably heard in the highly traditional province of Corrientes.
The Iguazú Falls, shared with Brazil, in the far north of Misiones Province, are the region’s major attraction by a long chalk: Iguazú’s claim to the title of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls has few serious contenders. Running a remote second, in terms of the number of visitors, San Ignacio Miní is one of the best-preserved ruins in the huge Jesuit Mission region – though some may find picking their way through nearby gothically overgrown Loreto and Santa Ana a more magical experience. Less well known than Iguazú and San Ignacio, but increasingly visited as the infrastructure improves, are two of Argentina’s most unusual attractions: the strange and wonderful – but capricious – Saltos del Moconá, the world’s most extensive longitudinal waterfalls; and the Esteros del Iberá, a vast wetland reserve stretching across the centre of Corrientes Province.
Further south, the region’s biggest city, and Argentina’s third largest, is Rosario. It is home to a vibrant cultural life, including its own laidback version of tango, fabulous restaurants and some exquisite late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architecture.
Bordering the Litoral, the Gran Chaco is a vast, little-visited area of flatlands forming the central watershed of South America and lying predominantly in western Paraguay and the far north of Argentina. Varying from brutally desiccated scrub to saturated marshes and boggy lagoons, the main attraction of the Chaco is its wildlife, including hundreds of bird species and all manner of native animals.
Travel around the Litoral is relatively straightforward, with a steady stream of buses heading along the main arteries, the RN-12 and the RN-14, shadowing the Río Paraná and the Río Uruguay respectively. In the Chaco, however, public transport is rather less convenient and, to get the most out of a visit, a guided excursion is strongly advisable. All the region’s major cities also have an airport, mostly with flights only to Buenos Aires.Read More
Along roadsides throughout Argentina you’ll see mysterious shrines of varying sizes, smothered in red flags, red candles, empty bottles and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. These are erected in homage to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, a kind of nineteenth-century gaucho Robin Hood – one of those folkloric figures whose story has some basis in reality yet has undoubtedly been embellished over the years.
Born – perhaps – in 1847 in Corrientes, Antonio Gil refused to fight in that province’s civil war and fled to the mountains, robbing from the rich, helping the poor and healing with his hands. Captured by the police, he claimed that he had deserted from the army as he had been told in a dream by a Guaraní god that brothers shouldn’t fight each other. An unimpressed sergeant took him out to a spot near Mercedes to execute him. Gil told the sergeant that when he returned to town he would find that his son was seriously ill, but as Gil’s blood was innocent it could perform miracles, so the sergeant must pray for his intervention. Unmoved, the sergeant cut Gil’s throat. When he returned to town, he found that the situation was indeed as the gaucho had described, but – after fervent prayer – his son made a miraculous recovery.
The sergeant put up the first shrine to thank him, and Gauchito Gil has since been credited with numerous miracles and honoured with many shrines, all bedecked in the distinctive red flags – which may represent his neck scarf soaked in blood – making the shrine look like the aftermath of a left-wing political demonstration after all the protesters have gone home. The shrine erected near Mercedes, on the place where he was killed, presumably began life as a simple affair, but such is the popularity of Gauchito Gil that the site has mushroomed over time into a vast villa of humble restaurants, makeshift sleeping areas and souvenir stalls; there is even a kind of museum exhibiting the offerings made to the Gauchito, such as football shirts, wedding dresses and children’s bicycles, along with more conventional rosaries. Simpler offerings, often made by passing motorists to ensure a safe journey, include ribbons and candles. January 8 sees Gauchito Gil pilgrims flock to the main shrine from the whole country. There is a close parallel with the folk-saint shrines to the Difunta Correa, whose main pilgrimage site lies near San Juan but is also honoured by smaller versions nationwide.
Mate: more than just a drink
Mate: more than just a drink
The herby leaves used in making mate, Argentina’s national beverage, come from an evergreen tree, Ilex paraguayensis, a member of the holly family that grows in northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil and Paraguay. Its leaves and buds are harvested with machetes in the dry southern winter (June–Aug) and used to make the yerba or mate herb. The preparation process for good yerba is complex and subtle: first comes the zapecado, literally “opening of the eyes”, when the mate leaves are dry-roasted over a fire, to prevent fermentation and keep the leaves green. They are then coarsely ground, bagged and left to mature in dry sheds for nine months to a year, though this is sometimes artificially accelerated to two months or even less. A milling process then results in either coarse caá-guazú “big herb”, or the more refined caá-mini.
The vessel you drink it out of is also called a mate, or matecito, originally a hollowed-out gourd of the climbing species Lagenaria vulgaris, native to the same region. It’s dried, hollowed out and “cured” by macerating yerba mate inside it overnight. These gourds are still used today and come in two basic shapes: the pear-shaped poro, traditionally used for mate sweetened with sugar, and the squat, satsuma-shaped galleta, meant for cimarrón, literally “untamed”, or unsweetened mate. Many mates are works of art, intricately carved or painted, and often made of wood, clay or metal – though connoisseurs claim gourds impart extra flavour to the brew. The bombilla – originally a reed or stick of bamboo – is the other vital piece of equipment. Most are now straw-shaped tubes of silver, aluminium or tin, flattened at the end on which you suck, and with a spoon-shaped protruberance at the other; this is perforated to strain the mate as you drink it. Optional extras include the pava hornillo, a special kettle that keeps the water at the right temperature. A thermos-flask is the modern-day substitute for this kettle, and can be replenished at shops and cafés; “hot water available” signs are a common sight all over Argentina but especially in the Litoral.
Mateine is a gentler stimulant than the closely related caffeine, helping to release muscular energy, pace the heartbeat and aid respiration without any of the side-effects of coffee. In the 1830s it even met with the approval of a wary Charles Darwin, who wrote that it helped him sleep. It’s a tonic and a digestive agent, and by dulling the appetite can help you lose weight. Its laxative, diuretic and sweat-making properties also make it very effective at purging toxins, perfect after excessive asado binges.
If find yourself in a group drinking mate, it’s just as well to know how to avoid gaffes. The cebador – from cebar “to feed” – is the person who makes the mate. After half-filling the matecito with yerba, the cebador thrusts the bombilla into the yerba and trickles very hot – but not boiling – water down the side of the bombilla, to wet the yerba from below. The cebador always tries the mate first – the “fool’s mate” – before refilling and handing it round to each person present, in turn – always with the right hand and clockwise. Each drinker drains the mate through the bombilla, without jiggling it around, sipping gently but not lingering, or sucking too hard, before handing it back to the cebador. Sucking out of the corner of the mouth is also frowned upon. A little more yerba may be added from time to time but there comes a moment when the yerba loses most of its flavour and no longer produces a healthy froth. The matecito is then emptied and the process started afresh. Saying “gracias” means you’ve had enough, and the mate will be passed to someone else when your turn comes round.
Regional food specialities
Regional food specialities
The food you find around Argentina is remarkably homogeneous for such a huge country. However, there are regional variations that reflect the culinary influence of neighbouring nations more than most Argentines realize or care to admit. The most notable of these cross-border gastronomic influences can be found in the northern reaches bordering Paraguay. In the Chaco, northern Corrientes and much of Misiones you will find dishes that are part of the staple diet in Asunción and the rest of Paraguay. Chipas – savoury cheese-flavoured lumps of manioc-flour dough – are extremely popular snacks sold on the street, served in restaurants instead of bread and cooked in people’s homes. Sopa paraguaya is actually not a soup at all, but a hearty maize and cheese dish, said to have been invented during the War of the Triple Alliance, when the beleaguered Paraguayan soldiers needed more sustenance than was provided by their traditional chicken broth, so army cooks thickened it with corn flour. Borí borí, on the other hand, is a soup, made from chicken, with little balls of maize and cheese floating in it. Last but not least, tereré, or cold mate, is hugely popular in Paraguay, but can also be tasted in the borderlands of northeast Argentina, and is wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.