“Any life is made up of a single moment, the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Tango, mountains, lakes, glaciers, whales, waterfalls, cowboy-booted gauchos, rich red wine … Argentina is a medley of contrasts, from the bustling city of Buenos Aires, itself a blend of the traditional and the modern, the poverty-stricken and the wealthy, to vast swathes of overwhelmingly beautiful, empty, landscapes. I grew quite attached to Argentina’s capital during my time there, refreshing my rusty Spanish at a language school in the historic centre and volunteering at an after-school centre in a poor neighbourhood as a kick-off to my South America sabbatical back in 2009-2010.
The strains of tango music seemed to hang everywhere like a heady musical perfume. I was captivated by seeing this dramatically sensual dance performed on the streets. I even took a tango lesson myself (though the less said about that the better!). I drifted round the atmospheric cemetery of Recoleta; explored some of the very different neighbourhoods that make up the city (San Telmo, La Boca, Palermo, Puerta Madero); made new friends; enjoyed late nights at the ‘underground’ tango club La Catedral; savoured the tradition of merienda, a late afternoon coffee break with miniature croissants; brushed up my Spanish and gained a tinge of an Argentinian accent.
After five or six weeks in the city, I was hardly a porteňa (a girl from Buenos Aires) but I felt content and settled, despite my grotty flat and having been robbed at gunpoint. It was time to move on. And when I got out there and saw the majestic natural beauty on offer, the country really got into my blood. My first venture was to the thunderously impressive Iguazu Falls, where unimaginable volumes of water cascade over rocks in the verdant, steamy jungle squatting on the border with Brazil. Here I was mesmerised by El Garganta del Diablo (The Devil´s Throat), a great bowl of rock with tonnes of water pouring and frothing over it in a whole spread of separate falls, with a single crashing sound track. This roiling cauldron heaves its mass unstoppably over the brink of the falls, capturing glowing arcs of rainbows during its descent.
Equally unforgettable is the icily towering splendour of the Perito Moreno near Calafate in the endlessly beautiful Patagonia. Nudging up against the base of the 5km wide nose of this washing powder-advert blue-white glacier, peering up at the icy spires towering 75m into the sky like a frozen cathedral from the gently rocking deck of a tour boat is awe-inspiring. The ice creaks eerily, occasionally building to a crescendo as chunks crack off and crash through the calm surface of the lake. Travelling along the famous ‘Ruta 40’ through striking wind-scoured landscape, you can travel for hours, even days, seeing scarcely any other traffic or signs of human presence. Rustling grasses, the occasional herd of peaceful-looking llamas, lakes a shocking turquoise blue as though they’d been airbrushed with chlorine, and nearly always a jagged backdrop of mountain peaks alluringly bedecked in snow as white as the clouds hanging above. I walked on glaciers in crampons, wending my way gingerly between the deep slashes of crevasses; I hiked up mountains and basked in solitary splendour beneath glorious postcard views; I spent days on buses gazing wide-eyed out of the windows.
Huddling at the southern tip of the South American continent, the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego is shared by Argentina and Chile. Having signed up for the trip of a lifetime to Antarctica, I spent quite a while here waiting for my ship to sail. There was plenty to still my impatience, from beaver dams, treks to remote hilltop lakes with views over the enticingly blue expanse of the Beagle Channel, unique vegetation, to the energetic town of Ushuaia, which likes to bill itself as ‘the end of the world, the beginning of everything’. As the first country I visited on my wonderful South American odyssey, Argentina was certainly the start of a great adventure for me!
Natural highlights: Patagonia (all of it!); Tierra del Fuego; Iguazu Falls; whale watching in Puerto Madryn
Cultural highlights: tango
Food & drink highlights: Malbec; dulce de leche (a very sweet, syrupy spread made from condensed milk – delicious as an ice cream flavour); bife de lomo steak, mini salted medialuna (croissants, or literally, ‘half moons’)
If you liked this, you might be interested in some of my other blog posts on Argentina:
- My impressions of Iguazu Falls
- Some commentary on Buenos Aires
- Some of my opinions on the Argentinian lifestyle
- An account of one of my hikes in Tierra del Fuego
- A glimpse of Antarctica – not part of Argentina, indeed not even a country according to the UN list I’m adhering to for my 100 countries project, but given that Ushuaia was my gateway to Antarctica, it feels relevant to include this link here
- Practicing Spanish, Buenos Aires style
- A glimpse into the tougher side of travelling – being robbed in Buenos Aires
- And some of my ‘travel tips’ on Argentina – with the caveat that these recommendations are several years old now
- Desperately seeking gauchos – my post on the hunt for genuine cowboys
- My introductory post on my 100 Countries Project
- Patrick Richardson’s website, starting with his brief musings on arriving in Argentina from Bolivia
- This Guardian feature on literature about Argentina
- My other 100 countries posts – Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Mexico