15 Apr

Argentina - a trip of a lifetime?

Most of us have a dream destination, a country that we may have encountered in film or read about in books that looks stunning, its culture intriguing and its way of life enticing. Somewhere that seems to have it all. For many years, that country for me has been Argentina and, in particular, its capital Buenos Aires. As a teenager, I read the works of Argentina’s greatest writer Jorge Luis Borges and his lucid descriptions of Buenos Aires and surrounding countryside, the Pampas, made the country seem both familiar yet also exotic and alien.

I’ve also heard rave reviews from people who had been to the country, saying it was the best they had been to in their travels around South America and in one very enthusiastic case, his favourite out of his trip around the world. So the land of Eva Peron and Che Guevara had a lot to live up to and this year I finally decided to take that trip of a lifetime.

Long haul flights are rarely fun, and after 20 hours via Madrid my girlfriend and I were keen to get out of the airport and into town. However, the queues in Buenos Aires airport were horrendous and once we had picked up our luggage and gone through passport control, we still had to negotiate customs. THREE hours after landing, we were finally in a cab which we booked in the airport to avoid rip off merchants touting for business outside. The cab was a very welcome surprise, cheap and efficient and we used them a lot over the next few weeks.

Buenos Aires itself is a very attractive city, with wide boulevards and parks and a riverside location, though the Rio Plata is so massive that it seems more like the sea. At the start of the 20th century Argentina was the third richest country in the world and this wealth is clearly shown in a lot of its architecture.

We started off our stay in the most touristy part of town, Recoleta, which has a beautiful and atmospheric cemetery, and some very chic shops. It reminded me a little of Mayfair. We then moved to the more Bohemian zone of San Telmo which is full of good value bars and restaurants. Other areas worth visiting are Palermo, BA’s hipster central and Puerto Madero, the old dock area which has undergone a renaissance in recent years - think Liverpool docks and Canary Wharf. A word of warning, there is a danger of street crime in BA, so don’t flash your cash, jewellery or iPhone. Argentina may look European, but it is most definitely South American and there is a lot of poverty, especially now that a recently elected government has introduced swingeing austerity measures. The area to be most careful in is La Boca, whose picturesque multi-coloured houses are one of the main tourist images of BA. Later in the trip, when we told an Argentinian family who invited us to lunch that we had walked to La Boca, they were horrified -perhaps we should have stuck to cabs!

Argentina’s immense wealth was based on cattle, it still produces the best beef in the world and there is a lot of it on offer at incredibly reasonable prices. An Asado which is a mixture of ribs, sausages and steak of the highest quality, will set you back around £10-12 for two. The same meal in a restaurant in the UK would cost around £100. I think I got through at least two cows throughout the trip. A good bottle of Malbec is also only £6-£8 and the local beer £2 a litre. If you tire of steak, Argentinians also eat freshwater fish, salads and veal escalopes, and a lot of pasta largely thanks to massive Italian immigration at the turn of the century.

You will often see graffiti around the country about Los Ingles (the English) and Las Islas Malvinas. Many Argentinians feel very strongly that the Malvinas, (the Falkland Islands) were stolen and illegally occupied by the British, so better not to bring the subject up in conversation and be diplomatic if it is.

Given this anti-British sentiment though, I never encountered any problems and some parts of BA feel very English. The upmarket suburb of San Isidro has a feel of a rich Victorian suburb including an imposing neo Gothic church, and Tigre reminded me of Richmond in London, though admittedly a Richmond magically transported to a massive tropical river delta with hundreds of miles of waterways.

We also took trips into the Pampas, up to the spectacular Iguazu falls, most definitely my girlfriend’s highlight of the trip, as well as into Brazil and to Montevideo in Uruguay which has its own lazy charm, but Buenos Aires will stay longest in my memory. Jorge Luis Borges described Argentinians as Italians who speak Spanish, dress like the French and think they English - it makes for a fascinating mix.