My journey through Argentina started in Buenos Aires and ended in Iguazu Falls but the piece de resistance was hiking in breathtakingly beautiful Patagonia.
Argentina is a curious mix of the Old World and New. On one hand Buenos Aires, where a third of the nation’s people live, is very reminiscent of mediterranean Europe with its cobbled alleys, Spanish-style cathedrals, sun-dappled plazas and cafe culture. The crumbling baroque facades and ornate balconies seen on Avenida de Mayo could easily be mistaken for Lisbon or Madrid.
On the other hand its pace of life is very New World. The “portenos” as the locals are called can sometimes come across as brash and lacking in niceties. Its not that they are rude they just tend to be very direct and to-the-point. After all they’ve been hardened by a remarkably turbulent political and economic history replete with military coups, urban guerrilla warfare, hyperinflation, and periods of bankruptcy interspersed with those of remarkable resurgence.
I saw a million peso note stuck on the wall of a bar one day and started a conversation with my young porteno guide to try and understand why wild swings in inflation have always been such a chronic problem in the nation’s history. As far as I could make out the biggest reason was just bad policies by successive governments and the people seem to have developed a sense of weary acceptance about it. One such policy is protectionism – the government places strict restrictions on imports if the foreign companies in question don’t have a manufacturing presence in Argentina. As a result when you go into a supermarket or walk down a high street you rarely see foreign brands whether its chocolates or high fashion. This does mean the country has a very developed industrial base and I couldn’t see signs of extreme poverty that is prevalent in some of its neighbours.
It used to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the air now feels like a mix of faded grandeur and the promise of revival just around the corner laced with perennial cynicism about the ineptitude of the powers-that-be…
Its a huge country with astonishing biodiversity – from the the humid tropical rain forests in the north to the gleaming ice fields and snow capped peaks in the south, from the lush vineyards of Mendoza to the arid rocky desertscape through which the mythic Ruta 40 winds its way. Two weeks are not quite enough but I did my best – choosing to go from Buenos Aires to Patagonia and then to Iguazu Falls. I went in late April which is the beginning of winter there. Turned out to be a great decision because the highlight of my trip was always going to be hiking in Patagonia and for this the weather was perfect – cold but bright and sunny with very little wind and no rain.
Argentina Travel Diary Part 1: Buenos Aires
If you’re in Buenos Aires on a Sunday a good place to start is the antiques market in Plaza Dorrego. Its in the San Telmo neighbourhood one of the most picturesque and “European” parts of the city. Alfresco cafes and bars line all four sides of the square and its a great spot to people watch and to shop – for everything from tango-themed souvenirs, antique jewellery to vintage vinyl records.
From the square I walked down La Defense which on Sundays becomes one long bustling street fair all the way to Plaza De Mayo – the heart of the city. The plaza is huge and framed with beautiful buildings such as the Casa Rosada, Metropolitan Cathedral and Cabildo. This is where the weekly marches of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been held since the late 1970s. It started as a congregation of mothers whose children went missing during the repressive military regime of the late 70s and early 80s – a dark period when thousands of dissidents and left-leaning activists, students and journalists went “missing” in Argentina. There is almost always an encampment of protestors in a section of the square with plenty of signs, flags, posters and politically charged graffiti all around.
From here I walked down the very Parisian boulevard Avenida De Mayo, its buildings an eclectic mixture of architectural styles from Baroque to Gothic to Art Deco. I stopped along the way for a steaming cappuccino at Cafe Tortoni an elegant and storied place with stained glass ceilings and lamps, eye-catching local art on the walls and very charming silver-moustached old waiters.
An essential stop on any tour of Buenos Aires is visiting the colourful alleys of El Caminito in the neighbourhood of La Boca. Its a curious little place which could easily have been just another nondescript shanty town except the houses and walls have been brightly painted, the alleys are littered with statues and graffiti, even the trees are draped with multi-coloured crocheted ponchos! Cafes and restaurants have tables spilling onto the streets where its common to see tango artists accompanied by street musicians. The balconies have strange, slightly grotesque papier-mâché figures leaning over and grinning manically at the passers by below including one of the Pope!
Another stop is the evocative city of the dead – the Cementerio de la Recoleta. Its stone alleys are lined with marble angels their hands folded in prayer as they silently guard the tombs of the richest and most famous of the city’s residents. Some of the mausoleums are so elaborate they can only be described as miniature cathedrals.
Now one of my favourite things to do in a new city is to make a beeline for its art museums and I can happily spend hours wandering through them. I was absolutely delighted with the two I visited in BA – the Museo de Arte Latinamericano de Buenos Aires (or MALBA) and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. I have shared below some of the finest examples from their permanent collections which proudly showcase Latin American art – I especially loved the vivid romantic portraits of gauchos: the Argentinian version of cowboys…
Argentina Travel Diary Part 2: El Calafate
I felt my excitement grow even before my flight had touched down in El Calafate – not surprising as the runway is right beside a picturesque blue lake. Its a small town – its chief attraction being it serves as a convenient base from which to explore Los Glaciares National Park. One way to do this is to take a cruise on the Lago Argentino which lets you get up close and personal with two massive glaciers – the Upsala and the Spegazzini. Another advantage of visiting at this time of year is that sunrise occurs quite late – sometime between half past eight and nine in the morning. This is around the time the day’s hikes and excursions typically begin which provides ample opportunity to capture the vivid pink and purple colours of the morning sky.
The lake is a milky opaque teal colour because of the glacial origins of its water. Its framed by mountains of all variety some made of smooth, chocolate-coloured rocks, some covered with thick forests which were in the midst of changing colour with the season, some covered with a feathery dusting of snow. Icebergs of all shapes and sizes dot the surface of the lake as the boat starts nearing the glaciers.
The Upsala is flat and smooth with zigzagging patterns across it. It literally looks like what it is – a giant frozen river feeding the lake. The Spegazzini is a towering cliff of ice and on one side of it a frozen river pours over the mountains looking rather like a sparkling diamond necklace. The glacier feels like a living breathing thing making the occasional loud crackling sound as if its bones were creaking. When a chunk breaks off and falls into the lake it makes the most tremendous sound like a thunderclap and sends up a huge white flurry of water and ice.
The next day I went to the Perito Moreno glacier where guided expeditions are organised to trek across the ice itself. Before climbing onto the glacier there is a short walk across a curved sandy bay. The view from this bay of the mighty wall of ice stretching across the lake is very dramatic and not one that I will forget in a hurry.
I chose the “Mini-trekking” option as I wasn’t really sure I would be up for the more strenuous “Big Ice” version which is a few hours long. Its a very surreal experience. They strap “crampons” onto your shoes which are studded nails that make walking on ice possible. Somehow I had pictured the top of a glacier as a smooth white field. Its not. Instead the surface is undulating and covered with jagged little hills of ice and bright blue crevasses everywhere. Often we were shuffling along narrow ledges with our guides warning us to look out for circular well-like shafts and as I looked around I kept wondering why people weren’t freaking out at the thought of walking on frozen water! Its a strangely exhilarating experience even though it feels so unnatural. I kept thinking I was going to slither and fall but the crampons are really good and all you need to do is dig them in firmly when you feel unstable. After an hour or so of trekking around on the ice we reached a small plateau where tables were laid out with shots of whiskey and chocolates to reward us.
Its hard when you’re on the glacier to get a sense of its sheer size and even as you walk back through the wooded forest at its side towards the docks you only get a view of its south-eastern flank. I realised this when the bus driving us back to El Calafate stopped at an area of wooden walkways which is the best vantage point to get a full view of Perito Moreno. Thats when the sheer size and immensity of it hit me. The area we’d trekked over was just one tiny portion of this gigantic glittering white mass pouring down from the mountains and ending in a mighty vertical wall of ice on the eerily still blue-green surface of the lake.
Argentina Travel Diary Part 3: El Chalten
I took an early morning bus that started at 6:30 AM from El Calafate to go to El Chalten. The landscape along the drive was mostly flat with rivers meandering across it. It was an exceptionally cold morning with the temperature minus 7 or 8 degrees celsius. I think because the waters were starting to freeze they were letting off clouds of mist. Wisps of these drifted upwards seeming to meet the actual clouds scattered across the slowly lightening pink and mauve skies that created a magical effect.
As the bus neared El Chalten I felt giddy with excitement at the view as the winding road in front of us drew closer and closer to a long range of jagged snow-capped peaks that stretched right across the horizon. El Chalten is called the hiking capital of the country and its a charming little town with barely four blocks of ramshackle little houses that serve as hostels and B&Bs and really just one main “high street”. There are curious little effigies of hikers here and there made of the most inventive scrap materials like one which had a neon toilet brush on its head as a sort of mohawk hairdo! Aficionados of hiking, mountaineering, and climbing flock here from all over the world for the spectacular scenery stretching around it in all directions.
As a hiker there are multiple options available of varying lengths and intensity. The first day I chose to hike towards the Laguna de los Tres although I skipped the last portion of the trail described on some blogs as “vertical murder” instead stopping at the camping ground of Poincenot before turning back. The first portion of the hike is alongside a scenic river valley though the riverbed is nearly dry at this time of the year. Soon after the start I reached the first Mirador (viewpoint) from where I got my first photo opportunity of Mount Fitz Roy. Its also known as Chalten which roughly translated means “smoking mountain” as its almost always shrouded in mist. The day was incredibly bright and clear though and I got great shots of the granite peaks dusted with snow and framed by forests which had turned oxblood red in the winter.
There is a fork on the trail but it doesn’t matter which path you take as both converge some time later. One path goes by the aforementioned Mirador the other one goes by the lovely Laguna Capri. I climbed down to a narrow beach and the lake lay perfectly still in front of me with the Chalten range framing one side of it. It was deafeningly quiet with not a leaf stirring or even a bird chirping anywhere.
The next day I took another trail the one towards Laguna Torre and this was hands down the best hike I’d ever done. Its roughly eight hours there and back and I started at 8 AM just before daybreak. Early on there is a decent climb but I had the sight of the Cerro Torre range bathed in the rising sun’s coral glow to keep me going. Most of the hike after that is relatively easy across a flat valley. An especially magical effect was the way the wine-coloured shrubbery and the golden grassy plains around me were glittering with early morning frost. As the valley narrowed there was a dark swathe in the shadows of the surrounding mountains where I came across a forest of silvery skeletal trees with the ground around them covered with a thin layer of powdery snow. It made for a truly eerie effect like stepping into an enchanted forest.
The last section of the trail went along the pebbly shores of a river and ended after a short climb at Laguna Torre – a small frozen lake framed by the curving giant, Cerro Solo, on one side. The lake is fed by a glacier pouring down the snowy shoulders of the Cerro Torre range – easily recognisable by the four granite needle peaks jutting into the blue skies above. It was a spell binding place and I could have stayed there for hours if not for the need to be back in El Chalten in time for the 6 PM bus back to Calafate. On the ride back the dark silhouettes of all the peaks I had become so familiar with bade me farewell as they retreated silently under a blood orange sky.
Argentina Travel Diary Part 4: Iguazu Falls
My last stop was Puerto Iguazu. Its a small city on the northern border of the country with Brazil and about half an hour away by bus from the famous Waterfalls. The Falls are formed as the river Iguazu rushes over a long curving plateau and I couldn’t help but think about how awestruck the first person to have stumbled across this place must have felt. The National Park is very well designed with walkways that offer multiple vantage points at various heights and angles to view the falls. There is also an island in the middle of the river from where visitors can get a panoramic view. The Upper Circuit of trails goes right across the top of the plateau so you can peer over the edge and see the waters cascading down below. The Lower Circuit runs along the side of a mountain at right angles to the Falls and offers the best photo opportunities especially to capture the elusive glimpses of rainbows arching across them.
The best trail is the one to Devil’s Throat a narrow semi-circular gorge at the far end of the plateau over which thunders an incredibly massive volume of water throwing up such a thick mist that the rest of the falls framing the sides of the ravine as well as the river below are barely visible. Its very hypnotic watching the rushing water here form endless rising and falling patterns.
From Iguazu I made my way back to Buenos Aires to catch the long flight back to London. On my last day in Argentina following a recommendation made by a fellow traveller I made my way to El Ateneo – described by her as the most beautiful bookshop she had ever seen. It used to be an old theatre, a rather lovely one with a cream and gold interior, which had been ingeniously converted into a book store. Rows of book shelves stand where the stalls used to be and there’s a small cafe behind drawn red velvet curtains on the erstwhile stage – the perfect place to have a glass of chilled wine and rest your weary feet.