We’ve had a fantastic three months in Argentina, soaking up the atmosphere in Buenos Aires and enjoying a couple of trips south. At this time of year the city looks very green with its many parks and tree-lined avenues.
Some of the trees are ancient and their branches grow so long they need help.
Buenos Aires oozes culture, from classical music and art galleries to stunning street art and cumbia concerts. We’ve become regulars at El Teatro Colon.
Many performances, galleries and exhibitions are free of charge as the Ministry of Culture believes the Arts belong to everyone. In an interview with a US radio station the former minister of culture said, ‘We consider culture to be a right.’ Hear, hear!
Cafes are also an essential part of the culture here – they’re on virtually every street corner to satisfy the Argentines’ love of coffee. And it’s never just for a quick cup; they like to linger, sometimes for hours. After Argentina won its independence from Spain in the 19th century there were several waves of Italian immigrants who brought their coffee culture with them. In fact, a whopping 62% of the residents of BsAs are of Italian descent, not Spanish.
The staple Argentine breakfast is coffee and medialunas (literally ‘half moons’). These are small croissants, sensibly made of bread rather than pastry so you actually get to eat them rather than have them disintegrate all over the table.
There are more than 50 so-called Notable cafes – officially recognised historic cafes – some dating back to the 1800s. In the ‘old days’ the cafes were frequented by writers, artists, musicians and politicians who met to put the world to rights over a coffee or two. The clientele may be different now but the cafes themselves are virtually unchanged: wood panelling, brass fixtures, marble tops and tango music playing in the background.
We’ve tried a few different Notables in our time here but our favourite is still Cafe Tortoni, the oldest one in Buenos Aires. It’s an elegant and beautifully ornate place dating from 1858.
It was opened by a French immigrant and named after the Parisian cafe of the same name. When we stayed before in BsAs for six months we came here so often that both the doorman and our favourite waiter recognised Jim three years later! The cafe also has very intimate tango shows in the back salon.
The official national drink is maté, a disgusting looking and smelling (with apologies to our Argentine friends) green ‘muck-in-a-cup’. It’s a traditional South American drink, but apparently is also enjoyed in Lebanon and Syria. In Argentina, though, it’s a national obsession. It’s made by an infusion of dried leaves of yerba maté, served in a hollow gourd and drunk through a special metal straw called a bombilla. The end placed into the drink is wider with small holes to let the drink in but keep the leaves out. The locals can’t be without it, even when queueing!
Buenos Aires’ residents are known as Porteños (people of the port) because there are three ports and so many of the city’s inhabitants historically arrived by boat from Europe. The majority of Porteños now live in apartment blocks but that doesn’t stop many of them from owning a dog; there are an estimated one million dogs belonging to a population of 15 million people. The wealthier locals often employ a paseador de perros (dog walker). The profession emerged after the 2001 economic crisis when people were struggling to find new ways to make money. I’ve mentioned the dog walkers in a previous post but have only recently discovered that some are professionally trained. To earn their licence they take a four-month course covering physical education, biology and veterinary science (and, I suspect, spend many hours at the gym building up their arm muscles because of the sheer strength required to control up to 15 dogs). Dog-walkers can be fined by the police for walking more than eight at a time but officers generally turn a blind eye. This chap told us the most he’d seen in a single pack was 25!
Jim went even better on a visit to the Australian embassy one day, counting an incredible 38 in this bunch, albeit with four walkers!
Often the dog walkers are responsible for feeding, grooming and training their charges as well (which begs the question: “What do the owners do, then …?”)
We were impressed by this: a homeless man who sleeps in our local park has been very resourceful in creating a waterproof kennel for his dog.
And this mobile vet tours the dog parks looking for canine clients.
BsAs is a lot cleaner now than we remember it and with a lot less dog poo decorating the pavements, probably because poo bags and bins have appeared in the parks. (Or maybe we’re just staying in a more upmarket area!)
When we left here three years ago we kicked ourselves for not visiting Patagonia, and particularly the Perito Moreno glacier. So last month we flew south for a few days to make amends. We stayed in El Calafate, named after a Patagonian shrub.
The Calafate fruit is delicious (similar to blueberries) and legend has it that anyone who eats the Calafate berry will be certain to return to Patagonia so, with that marvellous marketing ploy in mind, we felt compelled to try some.
The enormous Lake Argentino runs alongside the town and becomes an exquisite turquoise colour at certain times of the day.
But we were here to see a glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier is in Los Glaciares, the largest national park in the country, with 47 major glaciers and many other smaller ones. It includes the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a giant ice cap that is the third largest after Antarctica and Greenland. Due to the size of the ice cap the glaciers start at a height of only 1500m, rather than the usual 2500m in most other parts of the world, making these ones more accessible to tourists.
Then we saw the glacier, and our jaws dropped. It was even bigger than we’d imagined: 60 meters high above the lake and, at 254 sq km (98 sq miles), slightly larger than the city of Buenos Aires! Absolutely stunning.
We took a boat and spent a happy hour cruising back and forth along the face of the glacier. Every so often we would hear what sounded like cannon fire. It was in fact the glacier ‘calving’ – a great sight as the massive chunks of ice crashed into the lake. Though we were never quick enough with the camera, of course …
For the next few hours we wandered the brilliant system of walkways, taking in this wonder of nature from all angles.
The other great attraction in this part of Patagonia lies a good way north of El Calafate so we were up at the crack the next day for the three-hour drive to El Chaltén. This is actually Argentina’s newest town, having been created in 1985. Its purpose was to encourage Argentines to settle here in the hope of ending the long-lasting border dispute with Chile (Argentina and Chile are arch enemies). The town is also known as Argentina’s ‘National Trekking Capital’, and has a bit of a Wild West feel to it.
We only had the one day here so chose to do the four-hour Capri trek up through the forest in the hope of seeing the elusive Mt Fitz Roy, which is usually covered in cloud. It’s named after the captain of HMS Beagle, the boat that brought Charles Darwin to Patagonia. On a rare clear day this is what you see …
But we weren’t here on a rare clear day so this is what we saw …
It was still a fantastic trek though, with plenty of other stunning views.
On the drive back we spotted choique birds (similar to emus), guanacos (taller than llamas and spitters, like camels) and a female Patagonian fox called a zorra. [Interestingly, zorra in Spanish can also mean ‘strumpet’ – a bit unfair on this lovely creature, we thought.]
We were also lucky to see an Andean condor, the largest flying bird in the world with a wingspan of up to three metres. Its lifespan is equally impressive, with some condors making it to 70 and beyond.
So now we’re back in Buenos Aires working our way through a l-o-n-g list of last-minute things to see and do before leaving on Sunday. This includes exploring new neighbourhoods, returning to our favourite restaurants and discovering the wonderful street art the city is famous for.
Our next major destination is Spain. We’d originally intended to fly but then discovered a cruise ship relocating from Buenos Aires to Barcelona. We couldn’t resist.
Buenos Aires has worked its magic again. We love the culture of the city and the passion of the Argentines. They are stoic beyond belief and their capacity to tolerate inconvenience is legendary. They also show enormous respect, patience and kindness to each other – and to us. We often hold up queues while striving to make ourselves understood but there’s never a sigh, tut or roll of the eyes. I hope I can take home at least some of their qualities.
Hasta la Wotnot
Gay and Jim