After an at times difficult few weeks in Chile, Argentina proved a much more worthwhile country to visit. Though it is one of the world’s biggest countries with plenty to see and do, the chilly southern hemisphere winter rendered the southern half of the country off limits, and thus we decided to limit our exploration to its two biggest attractions: the city of Buenos Aires, home to some twelve million people, and the spectacular Iguazu Falls. Here’s what we got up to.
After a long bus ride through the Andes from Chile, we arrived in Buenos Aires. Unlike many of the other great Latin American cities, there is nothing left over in the city from its colonial era. Its history is a more recent one, with its numerous impressive buildings and monuments originating almost exclusively in the early 20th Century. In fact, though I’ve never actually been, all the grand stone buildings rather reminded me of Washington DC, especially since BA not only has a replica of Washington’s Capitol building but also a huge obelisk in the city centre.
That said, the city is hardly short on modern landmarks either. The most spectacular- and certainly the most innovative- of these is the Florialis Generica, a twenty metre tall steel flower whose huge petals open and close as the sun rises and falls each day. The gentrified port area close to the city centre too is a nice mix of the eras, with glass skyscrapers stood over now dormant shipping cranes.
Strangely enough, some of the most impressive buildings and monuments in Buenos Aires are found in a graveyard. The Recoleta Cemetery is home to some of Buenos Aires’ wealthiest and most ostentatious former citizens, whose graves lie in mausoleums which probably cost more than most Argentinians homes. It was effectively a small city within a city for the dead- and a slightly pointless one given that its residents will never be able to appreciate the opulence of their own surroundings!
On the other hand, our visit to La Boca, the district of Buenos Aires famed for its colourful houses- and of course its football team, Boca Juniors- was something of a disappointment. It was the only place we came across in the city which seemed over saturated with tourists. What must once upon a time have been a charming little neighbourhood had become a victim of its own popularity.
One of the more unusual aspects of Buenos Aires is the size of its roads, many of which are several lanes wide. One, Avenida 9 de Julio, is reputedly one of the widest on the planet, cutting twenty lanes (yes, I counted them) straight through the heart of the city. Merely crossing the road can be a bit of an adventure- if you get your timing wrong and the green lights go on when you’re still stuck in no man’s land, you risk being mowed down by hordes of impatient Argentine motorists. God knows how the elderly and the disabled are supposed to get across in time…
As everyone knows, the Falklands issue is a bit of a thorn in the side of British- Argentine relations, and one which was difficult to escape even several thousand miles away in Buenos Aires. My position on the dispute is quite simple: they’re British and the Argies ought to get the fuck over it (or, to elaborate slightly, the people there are overwhelmingly British and perfectly happy with the status quo, and even if Britain was in the wrong in taking the islands centuries ago, that alone doesn’t justify any sovereignty change today).
Of course, Argentina doesn’t see it that way. Quite a few times in the city we came across murals, banners and the like proclaiming the Malvinas (as they are known in Spanish) to be Argentine. Thankfully though, I wasn’t given the cold shoulder by any Argentinians because of the frosty relations between our respective governments. In fact, we found that the Argentinians we came across were amongst the friendliest people we’d met on the continent so far. But they weren’t all angels, as the following story will prove…
On our second night in Buenos Aires we went to watch River Plate, one of Argentina’s “big two” football teams play city rivals San Lorenzo in the Argentinian league. Accompanying us was a chap we’d met at the hostel named Alex who, clad in an Oxford Law Society jumper and straight from a day playing polo, was by far the poshest person I’d met since leaving university.
Once we were outside the stadium, we looked for somewhere we could buy tickets, but when it became clear that this wouldn’t be possible we resorted to trying our luck with the touts congregated outside. While I’d successfully bought tickets that way before at a game in Turkey, this time I didn’t have the same good feeling. I should’ve trusted my gut instinct- when we reached the gates, we were told the tickets we’d spent fifteen quid each on were fakes.
Thankfully though, we did get revenge of sorts. Contrary to expectations, the man who had sold us our tickets was still at work outside the stadium, so we paid him a visit to ask for a refund. Of course, we had no real hope of retrieving our money, but it was nice to watch the little bastard squirm as we stood around threatening to call the police. When he decided to make a run for it, I was afforded the great satisfaction of being able to chase after him down the street, catch him, and watch as the police arrested him.
Another love of Argentina’s is the Tango (and by that I mean the dance, not the drink, which sadly was not to be found anywhere in the country). On our third evening in Buenos Aires we visited a Tango show, which also gave us the chance to give it a try for ourselves. You might think otherwise given the name of this blog, but this didn’t enthuse me very much. As I’m both shy and clumsy, dancing in public appeals to me about as much as being run over by a tractor (unless I’ve been drinking, of course, in which case my inhibitions go out the window and I can really tear up the dance floor). In the end though it was alright, a bit of a laugh, though sadly my dancing ability couldn’t even match my meager expectations.
I preferred watching the professionals strut their stuff in the show that followed our lesson. While I’m no dance connoisseur, it was impossible not to be impressed by their poise and elegance, as well as their sheer athleticism.
Part of the appeal of the show was that there was a free bar included in the deal. While I showed uncharacteristic restraint in not turning myself into a drunken mess, an Irish bloke from our hostel, perhaps looking to live up to his national stereotype, was keen to make the most of the offer, and had polished off three and a half bottles of wine in barely an hour. You can imagine the consequences. We had great amusement that night watching him trying to get into his bunk bed…
From Buenos Aires we took a bus all the way up north to Puerto Iguazu on the Brazilian border to see the famous Iguazu Falls. The lovely warm climate in this northernmost tip of the country made a nice change after so many weeks of cold evenings- it was weird to think only a week earlier we’d passed a ski resort on the bus from Santiago to Buenos Aires. Don’t let the typical images of Amazon rainforest and Brazilian beaches fool you- whether because of high altitudes or southerly latitudes, some parts of South America can get bloody cold!
The waterfalls, as you’d expect, were a remarkable sight. There were several stretched over quite a large area, though all the largest ones were lined up together to effectively form one huge fall hundreds of metres wide. It was possible to get right up close to the falls and listen to the thunderous roar of the torrent of water, whilst simultaneously being drenched in the vast clouds of spray they produced!
Besides the waterfalls, there was plenty of wildlife to be seen. There were giant lizards slinking around on the rocks, jungle birds hopping around in the trees, masses of colourful butterflies fluttering in confetti-like clouds, and even a lone crocodile lurking in the river above the falls. The one thing most had in common was a big appetite- one of the aforementioned jungle birds, having eyed me intently for minutes, audaciously tried to nick off with some cheese while I was busy making a sandwich, while a pack of hungry coati’s raided my bag when my back was turned.
Sadly, the problem with sites as spectacular as Iguazu is that they attract a lot of people. Not unlike Peru’s Machu Picchu, the spectacle was rather spoilt by the fact we had to share the park with crowds of other visitors. Of course, this won’t necessarily bother everyone as much as it does me. I just don’t like having to weave between bodies to get anywhere, or to have to queue to get the best viewpoints, or for people to tell me to move so they can take a picture. That, and I’m a grumpy antisocial bastard, of course…
Well, not long to go now. After almost eight months in South America, I’m due to fly home in less than three weeks. From here we’ll briefly head to Paraguay- so briefly in fact that by the time I get round to publishing this we’ll probably be long gone!- and then it’s off to Brazil where, if word on the street is anything to go by, we will almost certainly be robbed and/ or murdered. And with that most encouraging of closing statements, I bid you all a fond adios!