Argentina & Chile

11th December 2010
I am in Salta, "the beautiful one". The town seems mostly unchanged from fifty years ago, with cobbled streets, white-washed churches and low-rise colonial buildings housing the headquarters of obscure state bodies. Weirdly, those guys who spray silver paint on themselves and pretend to be statues as a form of employment are massively popular here.

As I write this post, Michael, a supremely irritating pinhead German, is boring the new arrivals with a story about world music. I don't know anything about world music and I'd like it to stay that way. The pacing suggests he’s told it many times. The arrival of three Swedish girls seems to have made him even louder and more territorial. I have no trouble visualising him as an SS stormtrooper.

Argentina is well on the backpacker trail, which has meant lots of people travelling in the car with me, notably Bill, Julie, Vanessa, and especially Rebecca and Anders, a couple from Leeds who I kept running into.

The backpackers are predominantly Scandinavian, Dutch, British and Australian. The French and Germans seem to prefer Asia. Patagonia is packed with Israelis, who all other travellers are united in detesting. They are perfectly agreeable when you encounter them individually, but when in a group they become cliquey and almost comically inconsiderate in communal spaces such as dorms or shared kitchens. We have an israeli called Liat staying here in the hostel. She is actually very sweet and doesn't fit the stereotype at all, but I can see the Dutch girls watching her every move, waiting for her to do something rude so they can pounce on it and pick it apart later.

All is well, except that my budget for the trip has now been exceeded by a ludicrous amount. There's a good chance I'll be eating potato peel out of dumpsters by the time I get to America.

Buenos Aires
I spent two weeks in BA, what with messing around in the port and arguing with customs. The first week was not exactly auspicious - the slimy hot dogs down at the docks were a far cry from the fillet steak that my salivating imagination had been hoping for. After I had the car sorted things got considerably better.

They say BA is like Paris, which is total nonsense, except insofar as all big cities are to some extent alike. Still, it’s buzzy and fun with great food and nightlife, especially around Palermo. A gay tourist told me the city has a huge gay scene, and it seems they hosted the 2007 gay world cup. There you have it.

The locals are absolutely paranoid about crime and would have you believe that the whole place boils with criminality and subversion after 8pm. I had no problems but the park near the hostel did feel a bit like the yard at San Quentin. Anyway, I liked BA’s edgy feel, having just left Japan where the last crime was committed in 1912 during the reign of the Emperor Yakitori. The urine smell in the train carriages and graffiti scrawled all over the place actually made me feel quite at home.

An absolute highlight of BA was attending the final of the Copa Suramerica between Independiente (of Buenos Aires) and Goias (of Brazil). We were in the cheap standing area behind one of the goals with the most rabid fans. The atmosphere was absolutely mental.

As we settled in among the shirtless fanatics, we got some odd looks. One shouted over: "Brazil?". "No, England". They laughed their heads off. We quickly felt part of it, jumping up and down with everyone else and joining in the chants, not just looking on like casual visitors.

Every time an Independiente players screwed up, the old man next to me would shake his head and say to me "Not in England". When Goias scored he turned and looked at me with arms wide and a look of absolute outrage. Feeling something was expected of me, I made a despondent groaning noise. He seemed satisfied.

I have to say the quality of the football was pretty terrible - all the best South American players play in Europe - but the atmosphere was incredible. Independiente were 2-0 down from the first leg and battled to a 3-1 win in allotted time to even the scores on aggregate. This was followed by a very nervy period of extra time during which two Goias goals were (questionably) disallowed. We then had penalties at our end, which Independiente won 5-3, sparking carnage in the stands. Independiente have traditionally been a big club in Argentina, but had not won any silverware for 15 years, so the fans went absolutely crazy:

Hundreds of fireworks and flares were going off in the crowd and there was a full scale pitch invasion. People were pulling down the goal posts and digging up bits of the pitch to take home. The next day the local press headline was: "Heartwarming scenes of jubilation at Independiente". In England, it would have been "Riot follows cup win as hooligans shame football".

Puerto Madryn
The drive down the Ruta 3 through the Pampas to Puerto Madryn is a real bore, with no contrast or movement to catch the eye and break up the monotony of the plains. You know how in cartoons clouds sometimes target people individually and follow them around? In the Pampas this actually happens. At other times you can see a mass of black clouds spewing rain and lightning just a few miles away while you bask in the sunshine.

Puerto Madryn is the gatweway to the Peninsula Valdes national park, famous for whale watching and for its huge colonies of magellanic penguins and elephant seals. The whale watching was great – we saw five right whales and several calves, including one albino:

The problem with the seals is that you only get to view them from a fence about 200 yards from the beach. The penguins are inquisitive and waddle all the way up to the car park to take a look at you, but the lazy seals stay down on the beach, barking and flippering around on the pebbles.

Luckily, I spoke to a local who recommended we go to Punta Ninfaz, a spot outside the park where you can climb down to the beach and see the elephant seals up close. This was absolutely great. Far better scenery and wildlife watching than in the park:

I found a ship cemetery outside town where several shipwrecks had been dragged into the shallows. Great for photography, and it was fun to climb up onto the ships and explore the abandoned cabins and the bridge:

The immense landscape of the Patagonian interior encompasses a region about twice the size of France - a vast barren plateau with barely a sign of human habitation. It’s a land of a million shades of grey, as though the colour had been drained out of the landscape by the constant rain. The arid sandy soil is broken by tufts of wiry, faded grass and small thorny bushes. Stumpy trees lean into the wind and grip the exposed rock with their crooked roots. The aridity seems to have a dwarfing effect on the vegetation.

One constant is the wind which howls across the steppe scouring the earth. It attacks every exposed inch of skin and blasts grains of sand into your face with the force of a jet engine.

Occasionally you spot a rhea, guanaco, or fox, but mostly it’s just the dry grasses trembling in the declivities, the condors hanging in the sky and the grey wilderness stretching unbroken to the horizon. Standing behind the car to hide from the tempest and eating a sandwich, it occurred to me that if you dropped dead half a mile from the road, your body would never be found.

I was anticipating a certain expansion of feeling from being out on steppe but instead I felt a sense of alienation. With so little colour, smell or movement to focus on, you start to feel like your senses are slowly decaying. A feeling of antiquity, of strangeness and desolation lies thick and heavy on the landscape. It’s an incredibly solitary and remote place. A roadless expanse of ancient silence and washed out colour. Not hostile, just bleak and implacable.

The population centers are a weird collection of tourist villages, welsh settlements and oil boom towns. The further south you go, the weirder things get. Chatwin describes Ushuaia: "The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. I left as from an unwanted tomb."

Most people fly between the main attractions - Perito Moreno, Torres del Paine and El Chalten. These tiny areas, criss-crossed by walking paths, uglified by yellow gore-tex, stabbed by hiking poles and abraded by vibram boot soles, are not in any way part of the real wilderness.

El Chalten
The area around El Chalten has very good hiking around the icy peaks of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. These pyramidal structures are fronted by a glacier that curves like an apron down to two spectacular lakes - Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre:

I had no hat, so…

The weather is a constant topic of conversation here. In every country travelers have a compulsory topic that you discuss with everyone you meet - in India it's bowel movements and in China it's the most revolting animal bodypart you've been forced to eat. In Patagonia it's the weather.

Since I am not on a tight schedule, I quite enjoyed the occasional bad weather. When it's pissing down with rain with the prospect of more the next day, you are under no pressure to do anything. And can drink all day or eat five steaks with a clear conscience.

El Calafate
There is only one thing to do here - go and see water looking beautiful in the form of the Perito Moreno glacier. The area is characterised by very changeable weather but if you get lucky with a good day it’s an amazing sight - bone-white spears of ice rising out of the blue-green water, sparkling with reflected sunlight and casting jagged shadows over the ice shelf:

It moves a great deal, creaking like a old ship, and in the afternoon vast chunks of ice break off and crash into the water:

Torres del Paine
This is the most famous national park in South America. Personally, I preferred the views at El Chalten, but that may have been because I had better conditions there. The rugged buttress of the Paine massif, shaped live a tern's foot, dominates the landscape. I only did part of the Paine circuit and had awful weather except for one memorable morning at Los Cuernos, where I took one of my favourite pictures of the trip (first in the gallery).

Route 40
The legendary Ruta 40 runs up from Tierra del Fuego, along the inland slope of the Andes to the northern border of the country. Mostly unpaved, it runs for 5000 lonely kilometres through every kind of terrain imaginable. Apart from a chunk which I did by bus after a wee accident in the car, I drove its entire length.

It starts in the sparsely populated south of the Patagonian steppe where every town is "a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading in all directions, apparently to nowhere". After some 2000 kilometres you hit the forested mountains of the Lake District, a beautiful section which lasts for some 500 kms. It’s a shock to suddenly find a road with a proper surface and painted lines.

From here you head up into the highlands around Copahue:

Then it’s up onto a succession of scenic high plateaux and into the volcano country south of Malargue. I strongly recommend the Parque provincial Payuna, which has more volcanic cones than any other region on earth:

Around Mendoza, the massive irrigation system makes for much greener scenery, but the climate is getting drier all the time. You then move into spectacularly unspectacular country - dry, sandy hills and scrubby bushes. It looks rather like a preliminary sketch for a more interesting, finished landscape. I have very good memories of small towns that I stopped in - Barreal, Las Llajas, Londres. Friendly little places in the middle of nowhere with no tourists, no bank and no gas station, where the hours of siesta are holy.

There is very little traffic on this section except the occasional gaucho with his sheep. They have small, muscular sheepdogs that like to chase the car. I read somewhere that their instinct to work sheep is only a refinement of their desire to kill and I noticed them licking their chops as they rounded up the herds.

The lawless gaucho, like the fat estancia landowner or the defiant Indian, is an Argentinian archetype and a core part of the oft-mentioned “Argentinidad”. I came across plenty of them on the way up the Ruta 40, almost always in the same outfit: leather knee-length boots with spurs, jeans, dagger in the small of the back, check shirt and navy beret. They tend to be rather grim-faced but also have a gruff provincial friendliness.

Further north, the land becomes more and more desert-like but for small pockets of greenery around lakes or along river banks, until finally you hit the spectacular canyonlands near Villa Union where undercut domed chambers, tortuous side canyons and amphitheatres have been carved into the monolithic cliffs by old watercourses:

I crossed the path of the Dakkar Rally at Chilecito. Their amusing little route goes from Buenos Aires to Arica in Chile and back. The entire town came out to wave them past. With my wheel being on the right and all my gear they predictably all thought I was with the rally. One guy and his brother chased me for 30 kilometres in their car to tell me I was going the wrong way. They were a bit put out when I told them I was heading north, but perked up considerably when I gave them a couple of beers out of the fridge.

At Cafayate you rejoin the tourist track until Salta, from which the road heads north-west through desolate valleys where indigenous folk eke out an existence as itinerant sheep-shearers, and then into the salt deserts of Atacama, which stretch out into Chile and Bolivia.

The Lake District
This is what I imagine Canada to be like. One negative thing the guide never mentions is the horseflies that appear during the summer in mad biting swarms. I strongly disliked what the Lonely Planet calls the "gnome-in-the-chocolate-box ambience" of Bariloche. I would recommend the area around El Bolson instead.

I spent a wonderful day there doing nothing whatsoever in a hammock. I had a feeling of total peace and contentment, just lying there in the breeze, reading and dozing and watching the camellias swing in the hanging baskets - a perfect confluence of mood and environment:

I celebrated new year’s eve here. Rather than queue for the clubs and mess about in town, I invited a bunch of travellers to an impromptu party on the roof terrace of my hostel. I used to spit on New Year’s Eve as a night out – it’s when the amateurs get involved, embarrassing themselves and getting in the way of professionals like me. I am less snooty now that I have joined the amateur ranks myself. We raised some holy hell and had an excellent night, mercifully free of Reggaton, the Argentinian dance-reggae that pollutes the dancefloors of every club in the country:

With its ruined churches and peeling white walls, Mendoza has the nostalgia of a faded postcard. The centre is rather congested, but the crumbling colonial buildings give the place a kind of mangy nobility.

The countryside around the city is an arcadia of vines, olive trees, and ripening fruit. It's famous for wine, and apparently has more than 1200 wineries, of which I visited three. Most impressive was the showy Bodega Salentein:

Familia Tomasso was the most charming and intimate. The wine was less good there, but the surroundings were delightful and the sommelier was extremely attractive, which always helps. "Are you a member of the family?" I asked. "Not yet," she replied with a wink.

The Goat Festival
One of the weirdest and most fun things I did in Argentina was attending the Chivo (goat) festival in Malargue. It isn't mentioned in any of the guide books, and I came across it completely by accident when I met Oscar "chivo" Hernandez in a restaurant. I was informed that he is the world's foremost expert on roasting goats and that he would be presiding over a simultaneous barbecue of a world record 1025 goats at the festival. I really had no choice but to attend. It was a real local event, with a village beauty pageant, a stunt riding exhibition and a speech by the local priest about declining morals. The BBQ the night before was quite something - goat carcasses lying everywhere on blood-splattered plastic sheets. The scene could hardly have been more gruesome if it had been built in Hollywood as the set for a scene of medieval torture:

Once they got everything set up the next day, it was done very efficiently. All the goats splayed on butterfly frames and hammered into the ground in lines on either side of piles of burning logs.

The world record was broken and the roast goat that I bought - personally recommended by "El Chivo" himself - was sensational:



Send in the clowns – The story of the Argentinian economy
South American governments fit into two molds - the ones that fly the flag of Bolivarian Marxism above a maize-field of clenched peasant fists (Venezuela) and the ones that believe the free market will naturally fill any holes in the social structure with freedom, prosperity and little unicorns (Chile). Argentina has mostly been at the Chilean end of the scale. It would take more time than I have to pick through all of Argentina's shambolic economic history, but suffice to say that about every ten years the whole shebang goes tits-up in dramatic fashion.

During the late 80s Argentina was growing rapidly and became the poster child for the IMF in South America. Unfortunately, it later became apparent that this growth was based on massively expanding international debt and short term boosts to government spending from privatisations of state industries. The whole thing unravelled spectacularly after the 1998 crisis, when the peso, previously pegged to the dollar, fell 70% and unemployment reached 25%.

I'm not saying economic policy makers have an easy job - even the saints of British politics have recently made a hash of things. In economics, even after you know the outcome, it doesn't seem to follow necessarily from what has gone before. Nevertheless, the Argentinians have really gone town with counterproductive reforms – first raising then cutting spending, introducing contradictory debt-restructuring agreements and so on. It’s a bit like Conrad's warship firing blindly into the Congolese jungle. One thing they seem to have learned is that accountability is important. That's why these days, when someone in the government messes up, a thousand nurses get sacked.

Young Argentinian men fit the Latin stereotype, prancing about in tight t-shirts, and sporting hair with ridiculous razored designs and various dyed and gelled sticky-up bits. They even give these hairstyles to their poor children now that 5 year olds need to look cool too.

I heard this joke somewhere - "How does an Argentinian commit suicide? By jumping off his ego". This was certainly in keeping with how I had always pictured Argentines - arrogant, vain, egocentric, hysterical, self-pitying and pretentious. Nothing could be further from the truth. With very few exceptions they are exceptionally friendly and helpful, although it seems to take some foreign women a while to get used to the constant cheek kissing without accusations of sexual assault.

Best/Worst Food
  • A generous dollop of buttered mashed potato, a pinguino of Malbec and a fillet steak so tender it can be cut with a fork. God exists.

  • Mate is a kind of strong and bitter herbal tea, the preparation and consumption of which is an elaborate ritual that is central to Argentinian culture. To be frank, the stuff is foul.

  • Italian food is everywhere in Argentina but is mostly a bit disappointing. The pizzas especially are not great, mainly because the local cheese is terrible. One exception is the ice cream, which is fantastic and every bit as good as the stuff in Italy. Freddo in BA is the most famous place.

  • Ciga la Vaca in Buenos Aires is a famous all-you-can-eat steak place where you can eat thin roast beef, thick roast beef, beef steaks, boiled beef and beef sausages. You get the picture. This is not a country in which you have to pretend to like salad. We waited for an hour to get in, by which time I was absolutely pawing the ground with my hooves. I made friends with the guys at the carvery and soon found myself being force-fed like a Strasbourg goose. Phenomenal.

    Worst Moments
  • Tango: I was finally talked into going by a local in Ezquel. It's not really my bag. No-one smiles and everyone who isn't dancing is making sneaky comments about those who aren't very good. I was sure I would shatter my partner's hip with an accidental body slam. Anyway, it went better than expected. In fact, my first and only appearance on the dancefloor was of such devastating quality that the audience wept blood. Possibly they were laughing. Either way, I went there determined not to enjoy it and I'm pleased to report that I succeeded.

  • Trying to make sense of the ridiculous one way system in Argentinian cities. This is the kind of thing I had to put up with:

  • New Year's day: Miserable day shuffling around like a yawning, bleary-eyed ghost.

  • A few things have gone wrong with the car recently. The driver’s side window fell down into the door. After considerable messing about we got it fixed.

  • The “hot” springs at Copahue. We were forced to go through a full medical check-up before finally being allowed to sit in some filthy lukewarm water for 20 minutes. We stank of sulphur for about a week afterwards. No amount of scrubbing would remove it.

  • A piece of advice - deciding to drive across Patagonia with a broken jack and trusting to luck will result in God kicking you hard in the balls:

    Bloody broken jack. I remember a time when people took pride in the work they subcontracted to Chinese sweatshops. In case you ever have this happen to you, there is a solution. Find a squarish rock c.10 inches high and another c.20 inches high. Drive the blown-out tyre up onto the 10 inch rock and slide the bigger rock under the chassis. Dig under the smaller rock and remove it, leaving the car supported on the larger rock. Let’s just say that this was not my first attempted solution.

  • Aussie girl working behind a hostel bar: "What's in a rum and coke?". It is the end times.

    I am conscious of the fact that I need to enjoy myself as much as possible, since 2011 is apparently the last year before armageddon. We can thank the film industry for keeping us informed about the various different kinds of armageddon that are available to us - armageddon by volcanic super-eruption, armageddon by flesh-eating virus, armageddon by robot extermination.

    Salta is a nice place - the girls are cute, the weather is good, the food is good. I have been moving around alot recently, so I intend to stick around here for a week or so. I don’t usually bother with new Year’s resolutions, preferring to bypass the inevitable relapse and resulting guilt. Some minor resolutions have been made though:

  • Stop using the same password for everything.
  • Always replace the nozzle before driving away from the petrol pump.
  • Stop poisoning myself with my own cooking.
  • Give fortified Sake another chance after the "incident".

    I loved Argentina. The images are vivid in my mind - the great drift of cattle across the pampas, the granite uplift of the Paine massif, the green forests the Andean pre-cordillera, the white ghost of the Perito Moreno glacier and the lunar deserts of the north. I could definitely live here. By that I mean that I feel that I could integrate into the culture, rather than living as an Asian-style expat - subsisting on English food with my maid-dependent bored wife, following British TV, and waiting desperately for the next trip home.

    I will shortly be heading into Bolivia. A series of earthquakes in central Bolivia and northern Argentina has destroyed hundreds of houses and killed dozens. Argentina has raised its danger assessment level from mooo to MOOO. Amid the general panic, I radiate stoic resolve as I heroically fill my auto-fridge with lager. I never thought I would say this, but I feel like I have been eating an excessive amount of meat recently, hence in Bolivia my body will be a Hindu temple.

    Happy new year to all.