Sunday 4 March 2012

Argentina Part II: Buenos Dias in Buenos Aires

Here begins the concluding part of my Argentina adventure. Part one - including wine tours in Mendoza, cycling in the Lake District and face-scoffing in Welsh teahouses - can be found here.

En route to SdlV
Before catching up with the Irish in Buenos Aires we had time for a little diversion en route; something to break up the journey. Sierra de la Ventana fit the bill perfectly: almost exactly halfway between Puerto Madryn and Buenos Aires - a relaxing, remote, summertime retreat for local tourists but still 'off-the-beaten-track' in terms of international visitors. The town itself is largely undeveloped and home to little more than 3000 residents, but a perfect base from which to explore the surrounding environs - long flats of shrubland, fields full of gently swaying crops, and the sudden protrusion of the Sierra de la Ventana mountain range; jagged peaks sprouting up from the plains, reaching heights of 1300m.

Oh dear...
Arriving after yet another prolonged night bus journey, we opted out of the more challenging activities on day one and instead took a relaxed stroll around town, taking time to descansamos at some of the popular swimming holes. My choice to remain on the shore and avoid contact with the scummy-looking water proved to be a wise decision when a particularly absent-minded porteno left her car parked at the top of a hill without administering the all-important handbrake. Cue a gentle creaking of wheels which quickly developed into a thundering of tyres, a lot of screaming, and an impressive SPLASH! Luckily no-one was injured, but as thick globules of oil began to seep into the already filthy pit, I was doubly sure that I'd chosen the right option by staying dry. Not that this perturbed the locals, who continued in gusto - divebombing into the water and paddling around the partly-submerged vehicle.

Cerro de la Ventana
It seemed an awfully long time since I'd last climbed something and while there was nothing in the area that came even close to the scales involved with Huayna Potosi, Cerro de la Ventana (1136m) - reportedly the most-climbed peak in the country - was still irresistibly alluring. Setting out at a needlessly early hour, we arrived at the park gates one hour before they opened. Still, this allowed us to witness a particularly lovely sunrise: the first rays struggling to permeate the mist that was wisping down from the mountaintops, but then shafts of light breaking through; bouncing off the hillsides, backlighting tree leaves a vivid green and turning the grasslands a crisp, honey yellow.

A new day fully-dawned, we set off up the side of the cerro. Not a particularly difficult climb and in no way technical, but tough enough to feel like we'd worked for the wonderful vistas along the way - down over the flatlands below; reminiscent of the Peak District on an unseasonably hot summer day. Our early start also allowed us to be first on top, taking in the view through the window(or ventana)-shaped hole at the summit, with only a handful of curious llamas for company.

With a little more than a week left in what was fast becoming one of my favourite countries, we had little time to lose and set our sights on Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. I'd been exposed to the hype about this 'amazing' city as far back as Central America and hadn't yet met anyone who'd failed to be at least partly seduced by it's charms. It was high time to find out what all the fuss is about....

There's no doubt that Buenos Aires is the most striking and characterful capital city I've visited on this trip. The European influence that I mentioned in the first part of this Argentina blog really comes to the fore here; at first glance the confident porteno residents, with their designer clothes and astonishing excess of silicone enhancements, look like they'd be more at home in Madrid or Milan. But then you notice the shiny, modern, fashion-filled shopping malls, the unnecessarily large number of high-quality restaurants serving up the 'world's best' steaks accompanied by faultless, homegrown red wines, grand buildings sporting impressive colonial and neoclassical architecture, wide green open spaces filled with canoodling couples and sculpted bodies flying past on roller blades. Even the 'neglected' areas - working class neighbourhoods and dockland areas - have undergone recent renovations and hold just as much to attract the tourists. This is when you start to realise that residents of Milan and Madrid might actually aspire to live here, in Buenos Aires.

Time to buy some new shades?
However, the darker side of BA and Argentina's recent history is also on show, simmering just below the surface. Political graffiti is widespread throughout the city and demonstrations frequently fill the main squares. There are two topics that feature prominently in both of these protesting mediums. The 'Guerre Sucia' (Dirty War) is one, occurring during a recent period of military rule (1976-83) when the ruling dictatorship embarked on a zero tolerance clean-up campaign against revolutionary guerillas and their sympathisers. Up to 30,000 people fell victim to state-sponsored brutality without any legal process. The second topic, surprisingly for me, is the Falklands (although I'd likely be shot for calling it that - the islands are most definitely the Malvinas here). Anti-English graffiti and passionate, patriotic rhetoric cover many walls throughout the city. Strange why it's such a big deal right now - in the past the islands have been used in an attempt to stoke patriotism and draw public attention away from more severe domestic problems during times of political crisis. It's possible this is happening again, and the current state of affairs are discussed in more detail in this brief but interesting BBC article.

Whatever the reason, Argentina is the only country I've visited in Latin America where it's preferable to be mistaken for an American, as bad feeling towards the Brits far outweighs that towards the Yanks (the only other place I've experienced anything like this is in the old British colony of Belize).

My rather splendid week of fun and frolics in Buenos Aires was enjoyed in the company of a great cast of characters; old faces and new. Obviously, Davy Brown and the 'Gorditas' were still with me, but we were also reunited with a full contingent of Irish lasses - Ness & Sam again, but also Zoe returning from the wilderness with a strange man in tow (apparently her long term boyfriend, but he looked very much like a local escort to the rest of us...). As if this wasn't sufficient, Remo (the Swiss Stud who joined me for Machu Picchu and Arequipa Canyon exploration in Peru - see this blog) was also in town, and somewhere along the way we picked up a charmingly mouthy Swindon girl called Sophie, and were unable to shake her off for the remainder of the week....

Steak!!! (photo courtesy of here)
Cast list sorted, one of the top priorities in BA was to see what all this Argentinean Steakhouse fuss was about. We took two meat-orientated outings during our time in town; astonishingly succulent and impossibly perfect meat a feature of both occasions, but the meals themselves were enjoyed in slightly different circumstances. The first was a classic BA Steakhouse experience: A rather civilised, conversation-filled evening - not starting until 11pm and lasting until the early hours - fuelled by reasonably-priced but delectably full-bodied, local red wines. The second occasion was an unlimited buffet and, in order to make the most of this, we arrived before 8pm (almost laughably early for an evening meal considering Argentina's late night culture). For £20 per person, the 8 of us present were allowed a bottle of wine each, and then presented with a plate onto which we could pile unlimited amounts of grub from the nearby Salad Bar (completely ignored) and adjoining grill. Not just any grill. A grill that stretched tens of metres around the kitchens in the centre of the restaurant and sizzled with every imaginable cut and type of meat. A completely unnecessary (but still requested) desert was also included in the deal.

As we neared the fifth hour of sitting and stuffing our faces like disgusting, starved pigs, the waiter (who had already made two unsuccessful attempts to slyly remove my plate from the table - "No! I'm not finished yet!") had become increasingly cold with our over-familiar party, but it was the desperate pleading look in his eyes that eventually prompted us to say, "OK, maybe it's time to leave.... we're quite full now anyway". So, out we waddled, taking extra care not to be sick on the pavement outside, feeling slightly ashamed, dirty and gluttonous, but also sated and satisfied that we'd really made the most of the famous BA steak scene.

The pumping, incessant buzz of BA's clubbing nightlife is another legendary, must-experience activity in the part of the world. It takes a couple of days to get used to going out at 2am and being called a lightweight if you return home before 9am - we were the only people in a club for two hours on our first night out because we misjudged just how late the party actually starts - and even longer is required to recover from such excursions. But, we got into the swing of things eventually. To be honest, I got into it a little too much on one night in particular, which resulted in the following two days spent sobbing in the corner of the hostel and vowing not to spend any more money for a week after realising I'd thrown $100 in one night (definitely not in line with my budget!). It was fun, though....

Teatro Colon
Despite the debauched nights, we still managed to make the most of all that BA has to offer during daylight hours too. There are several distinct and different neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, each with something unique to attract residents and tourists alike. The microcentre in the heart of the city is home to some of the most impressive colonial architecture. It's a great place to aimlessly wander on a sunny afternoon, camera in hand, snapping shots of the area's architectural highlights: The imposing, world-renowned opera venue that is the Teatro Colon, the dome-toped Palacio del Congreso (modelled on Washington DC's Capitol Building), the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana, the 18th Century churches and upper class schools that circle the Manzana de las Luces square, the strikingly-phallic Obelisco landmark, and the sickly pink presidential palace, Casa Rosada, to name but a few. The final attraction mentioned here is of particular historical importance as the 'Pink House' balcony was the vantage point from which Evita used to make her legendary, rousing speeches during her husband's (Juan Peron) presidency in the late 1940s.

Casa Rosada
The Perons are possibly the most important figures in recent Argentinean history - politically and socially, individually and as a couple. Still loved and despised in equal measure today, their legacy has lived on in controversial manner. With the help of his charismatic spouse, Juan rose from a lowly government post to take the presidency in 1946 - earning plaudits for his pledges to improve living and working conditions for the poorest demographic. However, accusations of fascist-like leanings - abusing his power, using intimidation techniques and gagging free speech - tainted these accomplishments. Evita became the nation's darling; giving her spellbinding, impassioned speeches from the Casa Rosada balcony, championing labour reform and women's rights. However, with her tragic early death from uterine cancer in 1952 (at the age of 33) and increased criticism of Juan Peron's leadership methods, combined with the country's economic woes, a coup forced the president to flee to Spain. There he remained for 20 years until the military lost it's grip on power, allowing Juan to return and easily regain the presidential post in 1973. His luck was cursed again though, and he passed away less than a year into this third term; leaving a vacuum at the top and a country in chaos. This allowed the military to take control once again, leading to the already discussed 'Dirty War' and one of the darkest periods in this country's troubled history.

Evita memorial
The legacy of Evita is evident at another of BA's big tourist draws - the Recoleta Cemetery. A mini-metropolis for the 'no longer with us', surrounded by stiff, stone walls and located in one of the city's most upmarket areas (there is a saying in Argentina that "it costs more to die than it does to live"). Inside the cemetery reside a roll call of Argentina's elite, moneyed but deceased, and housed in a maze of elaborate mausoleums - shiny, black granite alongside weathered, neglected cement constructions, gaudy statues and a plethora of religious iconography - the general rule being that the bigger and more dramatic your accommodations for the afterlife, the more impact you made and power you held before popping your clogs. Eva Peron is the exception to this rule; remembered solely through a selection of small plaques attached to her families understated tomb. Despite this subtlety she still attracts more visitors and flower-offerings than all of the other memorials combined.

Nearby Palermo is another plush neighbourhood, boasting an abundance of greenery; where you'll find loved-up couples wandering hand-in-hand through the botanical gardens, along tree-lined park pathways and around the central lake, where they're joined by firm-bodied runners, cyclists and roller-bladers. This part of town became our 'hungover hangout'; somewhere we could lounge in the shade and appreciate the aforementioned firm bodies (I've learnt that it's not 'perving' if you claim to be 'people-watching').

Palacio del Congreso
Heading back through Centro to the Southern part of Metropolitan BA, you'll encounter a couple of the 'grittier' working class areas: San Telmo and Boca. 'Gritty' has to be taken within the context of relatively safe Argentina here, though - it's not the same connotation you get with the 'gritty' areas of Guatemala City or Tegucigalpa in Honduras. In fact, unlike those Central American hellholes, it's almost certain that you won't get shot here, just be aware of your belongings and surroundings. Furthermore, these two neighbourhoods are actually the best places to enjoy one of BA's proudest exports first-hand - Tango. San Telmo is the self-proclaimed birthplace of the sizzling, sexy dance performance and Boca is the best place to witness sultry couples putting on free shows outside the numerous restaurants and souvenir shops that line the colourful Caminito (walking street). The Boca Juniors stadium is also a popular pilgrimage spot for footie fanatics.

Our final night in town was spent strolling alongside the waterside in the recently-renovated docklands area of Puerto Madera. Lined with posh restaurants, upmarket clubs and pricey apartments, somewhat reminiscent of walking along London's South Bank on a late summer evening. The perfect ending to our extended nine day stay in this unique capital city; we could easily have stayed for nine weeks.

Iguazu Walkway
Making our way to the Brazilian border, there was still one last 'must-see' before we waved adios to Argentina. Iguazu Falls straddles the boundary with Brazil and is widely-regarded as one of the most spectacular set of waterfalls in the world. There are numerous falls to be found here, all a result of the Rio Iguazu passing over a basalt plateau that splits the water into several different channels (across a 3km stretch of land) before giving way and leaving the agua to hurtle down a 70m drop. The outcome is awesomely staggering in terms of scale and power.

Under the Falls...
Almost a full day is required to properly explore the national park that is home to these enthralling cascadas. Numerous foot trails lead off into the surrounding subtropical rainforest and there's even a miniature-train service to transport visitors to some of the viewing spots most distant from the park entrance. Whichever angle you observe from - looking down from an extended walkway, gazing across the central island reachable only by boat, or gawping via the spray-soaked platform suspended over the frightening ferocity of Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Throat) - the falls never fail to astound, especially on sunny days when a multitude of perfect rainbows appear in the heavy vapour clouds sent back up by the water crashing down.

We splashed out a little extra cash for a boat trip that allowed an even closer look at proceedings. Much closer than expected, in fact, as the skipper took us right under the falling water.... three times in quick succession. If we hadn't yet fully appreciated the almighty forces involved here, we certainly did after spending a few seconds pummeled by nature.

Soaked to the bone, but gurning like little kids on a rollercoaster, it was only a short skip and a jump across the border into what will be, quite unfathomably, my final country of this trip: Brazil. The depressing thought that it's all nearly over was trumped by the excitement of everything that Brazil promises to offer; especially a little something called 'Carnival', that the organisers were kind enough to schedule in synchronisation with my 25th birthday - very thoughtful of them! The final blog should be 'revealing', if nothing else....

Even more pretty pictures below! (click any photo to enlarge):

Sierra de la Ventana lookout

The gang on top of a hill - SdlV

Early morning at the foot of Cerro de la Ventana

Sunrise at the foot of Cerro de la Ventana

Climbing Cerro de la Ventana

Climbing CdlV

Climbing CdlV

Llama Lookout

At the 'Window in the Rock'

Buenos Aires

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery
Time stopped.... In Buenos Aires

Silhouettes at Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Bird

Iguazu Birds

The Gang at Iguazu

Iguazu Falls

About to go under Iguazu Falls

Sprayback! at Iguazu Falls

The Power of Iguazu
Iguazu Falls Rainbow

Iguazu Falls Rainbow