Argentinian Adventure

14 May 2003

Direct flight from Cape Town to Buenos Aires – no changeovers or stops along the way; what a luxury. And on Malaysian Air Services to boot, which means excellent service and understated style, so I’m not complaining. Also, it’s a short trip, a week out and back, just enough time to visit Buenos Aires, pop into one of the estancia ranches for a day and fly to Bariloche to breathe air fresh from the desolate Patagonian landscape.

It is an American Express-sponsored trip (I’m doing an article and shoot for Expressions Magazine), which means it is travel unlike what I am used to. Five star hotel in Buenos Aires, cruising aboard a catamaran, guided tours, ski lodges and the works. The proverbial lap of luxury, but I suppose somebody has to do it…

Grey and grungy when we arrive in BA and I must say that my first impressions are a bit unfavourable. Our guide, Paula, is a honey though and the Hotel Clarige is not bad as far as 5-star joints go. Decide to get rid of the jet lag by hitting the sauna and gym for an hour before tramping down to the docklands where an upmarket waterfront draws tourists like flies. Not my scene though and we decide to rather head into the side streets in search of something slightly more seedy. The Ristorante Pipento does the job and I get stuck into a large Bife steak and a muygrande bottle of Imperial Lager – just the right medicine before heading off to bed.

NOTES:

1. Stretches 5000km from north to south, encompassing everything from the desolate glacierscapes of the “Land of Fire” to the fecund forests around Iguazo Falls in the north against Brazil.

2. Mt. Aconcagua – highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.

3. Traditional cuisine is “bife parilada”, or fire-grilled beef done over the flames of an asado (barbecue).

4. BA: the 9th largest city in the world, a ‘sprawling megalopolis’ with 47 barrios (neighbourhoods). Locals known as “Porteńos” because they arrived by boat (at the port). Not to miss – Centro, San Telmo, La Boca (Little Italy).

5. Damon sailed its gale-swept shores, Shackleton battled the elements upon its desolate landscape and it captured the imagination of writers and artists the world over; this is Patagonia, a vast and untouched territory stretching between the icy Atlantic and the frozen Andean ranges.

6. Bariloche : once thought to be the site of mythical “Enchanted City of the Caesars”, the area was developed as a tourism sport during the late 1800 and gradually developed into a skiing, fishing, trekking and climbing destination of international repute.

7. Patagonia – the word comes from the combined meaning of ‘pata’ (leg or foot) and the ancient Spanish for ‘giant’ (gonia). Thus ‘Big Foot’ because of huge footprints (probably because they were wrapped in animal skin, which the early explorers discovered in the sand along the beaches.

15 May 2003

Body clock fucked, so end up watching TV at 3 in the morning until I drift off to dreamland to the sounds of some Argentinian B-grade movie. Eventually wake up to another grey-sky day, so decide to not go walkabout, but to rather fuel up on the free 5-star breakfast. Good move, because it’s an awesome spread with everything from fresh fruit salad, muesli, yoghurt and freshly-baked bread to the customary bacon and eggs, plus a mustardy meat stew and potato pancakes. I end it all off with carrot cake and duke de leche, a caramel treacle made from boiling milk and sugar.

Constanza picks us up for the city bus tour and, together with a truly Latin-American tangle of tourists from Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Peru, we hit the streets. Past the massive obelisk, on to the pink government house (originally, the colour comes from the ox blood that was mixed into the paint to protect the walls from the humidity caused by the nearby rivers) on Plaza de Mayo. This is very much the political heart/pulse of Buenos Aires’ poteńos community and demonstrations and revolutions which empowered or toppled governments in this south American powerhouse were often centred here. Today however, the square is very much dominated by thousands of pigeons, a cosmopolitan gaggle of tourists, insistent curio sellers and the crush of everyday Argentines going about the everyday business of getting on with life.

We too get on with things, continuing our exploration into the older parts of the city. The barrio of Sant Elmo, with its cobbled streets, turn-of-the-century buildings and tango bars spilling onto the pavement is up first and then its is on to La Boca, or Little Italy. With its overwhelming Italian heritage (apparently Argentinians are 40% of Italian blood), the neighbourhood brims over with continental influence and/but if there is one over-riding passion that shines through, it is soccer. The “bon-bonerō” or candy box shape of the home stadium of La Boca Juniors FC rises above the cramped houses of the barrio and, in its vicinity, everything is yellow and blue. Flags, scarves, football jerseys and banners flutter from street markets and shops, life-size puppets of Maradona guard the doorways and the fanatical gleam of team spirit sparkles within the eyes and hearts of every local. Only the very stupid would venture into La Boca wearing the colours of archrivals Rio del Plata…

Sport makes way for the more gentle attraction of art as the bus moves into Caminito, the creative heart of the Buenos Aires street artists’ community. Visually, this must be the most striking part of the city I have experienced so far. It is Mexican art movie meets Parisienne chic, mixed together in an atmosphere alive with vibrant colours, painting oozing sensuality and pulsating, lilting, stop-start tango rhythm gushing from doorways and strutting street bands. Colourful signage, living statues, street performers, pensive painters and a gamut of vibrant colours blend into an evocative slice-of-life experience without parallel, which detracts (unfairly, I suppose) from the next stops in the suburbs of Recoleta and Palermo. Undeniably beautiful and stylish, this is the playground of the rich and famous and it is undoubtedly where the cream of BA’s society lives. The flavour is undeniably French with residences, apartments and parks reminiscent of upmarket Parisian suburbs. It is here where you will find the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Palais de Glace and the La Recoleta cemetery where the remains of Evita Peron, that enduring icon characterising Argentina’s golden era, has been laid to rest.

I skip the bus ride home, preferring to tramp along the city streets in search of the soul of Buenos Aires. So far I have found the city to be a collection of contradictory elements, but I suppose this is very much what metropolises are all about; in the end, the flashy boutiques on Avenida Alvear, the stalls on Florida and the street galleries of Caminito capture the essence of individuality that contributes to the vibrancy and lust for life of the Argentine people as a whole.

Nothing characterises this lust for life with more intensity than our night-time excursion to La Ventana, one of San Telmo’s landmark tango bars. Expecting little more than your archetypal, sugar-coated tourist trap, I am pleasantly surprised by the pulsating energy of the performance and the barely suppressed sensuality punctuating the explosive, beautiful and emotionally charged dance. A slick caberet vignette flows effortlessly into a brilliantly choreographed display of dancing just short of having sex with your clothes on; then the dancers make way, first for a traditional Argentinian Indian musical ensemble and then for a trio of gaucho accordionists. To me this is the highlight of the evening and I have yet got to see musicians playing their instruments with so much passion, bravado and irrepressible enjoyment. The rapport with each other and with the crowd is awesome and, for the first time on the night, I find myself forgetting about my camera, instead rhythmically clapping to the beat of their stacatto accordion duel.

16 May 2003

To bed well after midnight, so drag myself to breakfast at 9am in order to be ready for the pick-up to the Estancia el Ombu. For the next hour and ½ we bomb through rain on the plains, first passing through the outskirts of BA before reaching the vast pampas landscape. The final stretch to the estancia is along a slippery dirt road slick with ankle-deep mud, but Juan Junior negotiates this with typical Argentinian machismo, depositing us at the imposing homestead. Dating back to 1880, it is a huge, terracotta-tiled old house, draped in ivy and encircled by a veranda big enough to park a truck on. Grey cats, gaucho dogs and weird parrots populate the garden, and Rosa, the housekeeper and Oscar, the gaucho stockman, basically run the estancia in the absence of Eva, the owner, who spends most of her time in the city. This time however she is on hand and welcomes us to her beautiful ranch with a meal of succulent steaks right off the range.

We decide to let the horse riding stand over until the weather (hopefully) clears up and instead squeeze into the front of the truck to join Antonio, the rotund estancia manager, on a trip into San Antonio de Areca, the nearby, local village. It is one of those days which starts off very innocently, with us visiting first the local gaucho museum to learn more about their interesting history and traditions. Characters like Don Segundo and Geraldo Ribeiro were integral to the history, formation and essence of Argentina as a country and even today, they remain as the backbone to the country’s burgeoning agricultural sector. Another sector of great importance are the manufacturing industry and we are lucky to be able to visit the family Draghi’s silversmith, museum and workshop, unarguably the top craftsmen of their type in the country. Their maté cups, ceremonial belts, traditional cuchillo knives and equestrian items take pride of place in private collections around the world, including in those of presidents, kings and queens. Creating the silver and gold artifacts is a painstaking business and we watch as the smiths use minute chisels, shapers and hammers to forge these works of art.

It is around here that things begin to go pear-shaped. Antonio arrives to pick us up from the village square looking like the gato that got the cream, with a suspicious odour of vino tinto hanging about him like a flock of pampas flies. He explains that he is taking us for ‘un copa’, indicating with his hands that it will be a small one and very quick as we have to return to the estancia for supper soon. Antonio’s bar of choice is the Pulperia Las Ganas, and if there is a more authentic drinking hole anywhere else on the South American continent, I’m prepared to eat my sombrero. The ‘small drink’ never materialises and instead the proprietor uncorks a bottle of vino tinto and pops a litre of beer – obviously this is going to be a long evening…

Las Ganas itself is a journey into the previous century, with shelves stretching from floor to ceiling and crammed with trinkets, bottles, tins, jars, stuffed sheep, sombreros, tools, cutlery, crockery and other household items, calendars, magazines and a mish-mash of other surreal objects. Rocco, the proprietor, fishes out a stack of ancient seven singles and then proceeds to crank up a deck-pit and crusty manual gramophone, sending the scratchy sound of tango tunes to echo in the gloomy recesses of Las Ganas. When his arm finally tires he switches on an old valve shortwave radio set and tunes into Russian radio. Somehow another bottle of wine appears, and then another, and slowly but surely my Spanish becomes more and more fluent until, by the time we leave, Rocco and me seem to be able to hold forth a full voice.

Vamos! Hours later, (but?) Antonio seems ready to vacate his bar stool and head back to the estancia and a, by now, very late supper. Al contratio; we lurch off in the bakkie waving goodbye to the Las Ganas lot, only to skew to a stop outside another bar. If Las Ganas captured the spirit of Argentina’s past, our next drinking hole is best described as contemporary Gaucho utilitarian chic – bare walls, plastic chairs, a simple bar counter, an indoor asado (or barbecue), and old photo of Tio Geronimo and scuffed pool table dominating the centre of the room.

By now I am decidedly drunk and have to make a conscious effort to focus my camera. Time to slow down, but this is nigh possible with a crowd of bandito look-alikes plying me with wine. Antonio is in a fine state, sprawling against the bar while a guitarist strums out a collection of pampas ditties. A Lech Walesa look-alike bursts into song, the fire is stoked until the coals glow red, a huge leg of lamb is slammed onto the grill, the vino flows and any return to the estancia seems highly unlikely. That is, until a verbal telephonic broadside from his wife forces Antonio into a semblance of action. With our faces still glistening with lamb fat and with “buenos suerte” (good luck) ringing in our ears, we crawl back along the dirt road to the estancia and to bed.

17 May, 2003

Dolor de cabeza. Pain in the head – this is my latest Spanish phrase. No time for simpatico though, as Rosa has breakfast ready and the horses have been saddled up for a morning ride. With my stomach lined, I feel a lot better and by the time we canter onto the drizzling plains, my babbelas is a thing of the past. I’m riding a huge white gelding and I can sense its need to run, so once we’re out past the corrals, I give him free reign and feel the exuberance as he gallops across the fields. All round, falcons, jade green parrots and plovers wheel, screeching and squawking into the quiet pampas dawn. Hector’s lined face is inscrutable, but there is a twinkle in his eyes and his grand mustache occasionally quivers into a semblance of a smile as he lounges on his horse draped in a voluminous, black poncho.

For an hour and half we canter and gallop across the vast pampas landscape and I revel in the wide open spaces, the sound of the Rio Areco, the crisp morning air, the lowing of herds of Hereford and Angus cattle and the rhythmic squelching of the horses’ hooves as we traverse the marshy grassland mire. Too soon we ride back into the homestead and unsaddle the horses. Silvio is there to pick us up for the transfer to Buenos Aires, but decides to take us on an unscheduled excursion to Lujan to see the impressive, twin-towered basilico dominating the centre of town. “Do not breathe a word of this to my boss” he whispers conspiratorially, ushering us into the opulent, stained glass interior of the splendid Catholic cathedral before whisking us away to the hustle and bustle of the city.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon cruising the Centro streets and walkways, checking out the living statues, leather stalls, outdoor tango shows and the passing parade of tourists and locals constituting the colourful culture of Argentina.

18 May 2003

Early morning flight from BA to San Carlos de Bariloche via Aero-Lineas Argentinas, a small tourist destination approximately 1700km west-southwest of the capital city.

The town itself very much displays the character of a Swiss mountain village, with many of the buildings reminiscent of chalets with their pitched roofs, wooden construction and small balconies. Local stone blocks are also often used in the foundation walls, adding a further rustic quality to Bariloche. Tourism is quite obviously big business here and the streets are crammed with shops selling everything from souvenirs and local handicrafts to technical trekking gear and skiing equipment. Prices are also touristy and a lot more expensive than BA, but still cheaper than SA when compared with items of similar quality. Cashmere, quecha wool garments, fleeces and the like eventually tempt me to part with my pesos and I return to the hotel with a stack of bags and looking like the archetypal tourist.

The rest of the afternoon is reserved for the Circuito Chico, a short excursion around the city limits of Bariloche visiting some of the viewpoints and nearby lakes. Basic bus tour stuff and not very exciting, but at least you get a good idea (as) to the lay of the land. A ski lift at Cerro Viejo transports us to a wonderful lookout point with an eagle eye view across a lake landscape veiled in mist and sleeting rain. Sadly there is no sun, but I am sure that on a clear day the sparkling lakes forested spurs and sheer cliffs would constitute a hauntingly beautiful scene. Today however, a sniping wind drives in sleet across the lakes and the temperature hovers around the zero mark, necessitating hats, gloves scarves, coats and any other possible protection against the Patagonian winter.

The find of the day is a small and cosy little restaurant going by the name of Dias de Zapata and I dig into a piping hot enfrijolada dish in order to banish the cold. A bottle of Lopez fino tinto from the Mendoza region sees me off to dreamland.

19 May 2003

Day dawns rainy and gloomy with a low cloud hanging over Bariloche, leaving me with little hope of getting photographs really capturing the beauty of Patagonia. Despite this, the idea of a catamaran journey across Lake Nahuel Muapi is not an opportunity to be missed, so I dress in my thermals and rain wear to make sure I can handle the worst weather possible. We board the boat (more of a 300-seater ferry than a cat) at a little harbour adjacent to the hotel Llao-llao and, for the first time since getting to Patagonia, I notice a patch of blue sky. As we cruise along the Brazo Blest arm of the lake, the low mist evaporates, most of the clouds lift and the sun pops out to sparkle on the rippling, icy lake. It is as if we are suddenly transported to a different continent – the gloom lifts, the colours shine through and temperature seems to climb a notch or two.

I grab the opportunity to rattle off photograph after photograph, trying to somehow capture the grandiose beauty of the region. All around the jade expanse of Nahuel Huapi, forests of fir and Valdivian vegetation line the lower slopes, occasionally making way for sheer cliffs dropping hundreds of metres into the lake. A few hundred metres above the water surface, the Andean mountains seem to shrug off the Valdivian forest, leaving the bare rock sentinels to peak in desolate and craggy beauty against the powder sky. The highest of these peaks, including Cerro Catedral and the imposing and onomatopoeically named Mt. Tronador (or Thunder Mountain), are completely crowned in snow and stand out in stark relief against the dark, lower slopes. Further away against the hazy Chilean skyline, the Andes Ranges rear up to their full height, piercing into the ominous banks of cloud swirling amongst these vertiginous giants.

Our catamaran, the El Condor, is completely dwarfed by the majesty of the natural surroundings as we negotiate the narrow waterway towards Puerto Blest. Once or twice we see condors wheeling in the sky above us, mere black specks against the wide cyan expanse, while lower down, a flurry of gulls swirl in our wake. At the small hotel (this is all of Puerto Blest), we disembark across the Lake to climb the 700-odd steps past the Cascado los Cántaros (the Singing Falls) to a small mountain lake, Laguna Los Cántaros. Completely surrounded by dense Valdivian forest and lying in the lee of a sheer rock face dusted in a thick layer of snow, it is as if there is a tranquil hush enveloping the lake and the ancient woodland giants surrounding it.

The arrival of the remainder of the tour group spoils the moment though, so I decide to do a detour and walk around the lake rather than take the catamaran back to the hotel. Moss-covered, completely quiet and magnificently wild, the towering trees close around the trail to rake high branches across the sky. Shafts of sunlight occasionally pierce the canopy to highlight the miniscule detail of life on the emerald forest floor, where delicate moss, feathery ferns and swaying reeds ripple in the dappled light. Small arroyos (or mountain streams) tumble from the dense slopes and, where the trail crosses them by way of swaying suspension bridges, you get to peer along these rocky waterways, glimpsing into the verdant lushness of the Patagonian landscape.

I miss most of lunch, but it is well worthwhile and grab a quick bite before boarding the bus to Laguna Frias. This Lake lies between Chile and Argentina and, if this is possible, it is even more beautiful than Nahuel Huapi. With its aquamarine water lying before us, as still as a mirror, the snow-capped peaks of Mount Tronador shimmers in a perfect reflection until the ripples from our passing boat spirits the image away. We get to step onto Chilean soil for a few minutes before returning to El Condor to commence the journey back to Bariloche.

By now it is late afternoon and the Patagonian winter flexes its muscles in all earnest, eventually forcing the rest of the tour group indoors and leaving the whole of the open, upper deck to me. With the last rays of the winter sun beaming in from across the Andes Mountains, the scenery becomes truly magical in the changing light. Swathed in thermals, polar fleece and windproof clothing, I stand at the stern of El Condor and gaze out across our wake rippling away into the vast wilderness of the Patagonian landscape.

20 May 2003

Tuesday dawns miserably – raining, foggy and decidedly icy with the temperature at -2°C. I have only half a day at my disposal and, after a quick breakfast, negotiate the public bus system to Cerro Otto, the closest peak to Bariloche. A cable car lift transports me into the fog and, with photography out of the question, I decide to take one of the many hiking trails back down to the village. It turns out to be an hour-long and very steep walk, but it feels good to be doing some physical exercise and to get a bit of a sweat going for a change.

I pop into the local handicraft sector to buy some lambswool clothing for Cathy and Beth from a beautiful indigenous Indian woman, leaving me just enough time to catch the transfer to the airport for the flight back to Buenos Aires. Paula, as full of life as ever, picks up at the airport and ferries us back to the hotel Claridge for our final night in the Argentinian capital. I spent most of the evening shopping along Florida Avenue, exploring the multitude of stalls and shops in this street that never sleeps.

21 May 2003

Exactly a week in Argentina, but we have had what feels like a month’s worth of experience. Sadly it is also our final day in BA and in the country and I feel as if I will soon have to take leave of a dear old friend. It is raining, so I take Bus 152 to Caminito, the little plaza neighbourhood made famous by the Genoese Italians who historically settled here and a current generation of artists who have transformed the La Boca barrio into a vibrant and colourful milieu. After snapping a few close-up images of the stunning architectural detail, I venture into the olde worlde atmosphere of La Perla Bar to sip on a strong coffee while insinuating myself into the slow flow of La Boca’s street life. Octogenarian bicyclists, carpenters, housewives, tourists, business men on a mission, moodily beautiful girls, dogs eyeing the world from 3rd story balconies, living statues – all coming together in a potpourri with a flavour as strong and unique as a cup of Argentinian maté.

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