Welcome to Travels in Argentina

Copyright 2007, Marshall Carter-Tripp

These articles were written while we were living in Buenos Aires between September 2000 and September  2003. Some, but not all, have been previously published in the newsletter of the US Embassy Buenos Aires.

For more current information, go to Trip to Antarctica and May 2007 Trip to Argentina

Argentina! Land of the tango, giant beefsteaks, gauchos, the mythic Evita and the equally mythic Patagonia.  We may think that we know it all about it, even if we have never been there – but these labels for Argentina provide only a fragment of its full complexity.

I had the great good fortune to spend three years in Argentina, living in Buenos Aires but exploring the country – nearly compulsively, as I realized just how extraordinary a place it was.  Before being assigned to Buenos Aires, I knew that I knew very little about Argentina beyond the stereotypic images of “the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere” and the endless pampas, but I did not realize how little I knew.  To my astonishment, I found a huge country, larger than Indonesia, in fact nearly the size of India – with only a fraction of the population.  Much of that was crowded into the city and province of Buenos Aires, leaving about half the 36 million Argentines to share the rest of the space.  And what space!  Argentina covers five climate zones, from the subtropical of the north-eastern provinces bordering Brazil to the frozen tip of the continent in Tierra del Fuego.  Its history includes pre-Inca societies, vigorous Mapuche peoples in the south who were never conquered by the Inca – or the Spanish – and an immigrant culture that closely resembles that of the US (just look in the Buenos Aires phonebook to find last names from virtually every country on earth).  

Outside the population center of Buenos Aires and a few other sizeable cities (Cordoba, Rosario, Mendoza), the land is seemingly empty.  The grasslands or pampas stretch for 800 miles east to west across the main bulge of the country, and the terrain is so flat that excess rains still stand in unmapped lakes, filled with flamingos and other waterbirds, years after they fall.  Here is the greatest concentration of gauchos – though there is nowhere in Argentina without gauchos.  Northeast the great rivers rule – the Paraguay and the Uruguay, coursing down from Brazil and Paraguay.  On the borders of this region are the great falls, the Iguazu – and the land of the Jesuit missions, and the mate and tea plantations.  To the northwest the country rises into the Andes, and the great altiplano that runs south from Peru ends here in Catamarca province, in a sheer wall dropping to flower-filled meadows.  There are parks resembling the great parks of the American west – Canyonlands, Arches – where a visitor peak is reached at 50 a day.  Other parks lie high up in the Andes, where mountain flamingos turn lakes pink, or Inca outposts dot the outskirts of volcanic craters.  This is one of the most exhilerating regions of all, so high up;  going south there are wonderful ski resorts and world-class vineyards, and the Argentine lake country around Bariloche and …..Further south are huge glaciers that you can sail right up to, or walk on.   Along the Atlantic coast the right whales come to birth their calves, and orcas watch offshore for stray seal pups.  Darwin stopped here and the cliffs where he walked are among the most beautiful sites of all.   And far beyond all that, the land ends at Tierra del Fuego, the land of fires, where in summer you only need a light parka when you go out on the Beagle Channel to watch the seals and eat spider crab hauled fresh out of the water and steamed in that same water.  And beyond, Antarctica, beckoning to the fleets of ships now steaming out of Ushuaia to the frozen continent.

And what of Buenos Aires?  Its seashore boasts an array of resort offerings, and small shore towns, endless miles of rich farmland and range land dotted with the great estancias (combination ranches/country estates) – and then the huge conurbation of Buenos Aires, one of the world’s great cities.  Buenos Aires is a mixture of many cultures, stirred into a unique “porteño” blend that combines influences from the four corners of the world with grace and style.  In the spring the city is covered in a purple haze of jacaranda trees, and in all seasons it bursts with cafés and coffee bars – go twice and you’ll be a regular.  Taxi drivers (who don’t expect to be tipped and will try to return anything over the exact fare) will engage you in conversation on just about anything while apparently risking life and limb in the commotion of the city’s traffic – but seemingly never have accidents.  Many subway (Subte) stations are adorned with lavish tile murals, and could be a tourist attraction in themselves.  Yes, there is tango – but Argentine folk music - Ariel Ramirez, Jaime Torres, Mercedes Sosa, Los Chalchaleros and a host of others – can hold its own with tango as world-class music.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.