Gauchos, Wine and Independence

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June 3rd 2011
Published: June 4th 2011
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This will be our last post from Argentina so, as well as talking about our travels in this part of the country, we will record some of our overall impressions of Argentina. A little arrogant I know, given we have only been here for 4 weeks, but there are memories of Argentina and its people that we wouldn't want to lose.

I noted in an earlier post that Argentinians themselve have told us on a few occasions that their great passions are meat, tango and football. It is clear to us that a couple more need to be on the list.

Yerba mate is the drink of choice throughout the country. It is consumed continually and, as far as we can tell, by people at all levels of society. 'Mate' is also the name of the container. Basically, you place a decent amount of a mix of the herbs into your 'mate' and then add luke warm water. Never have it boiling and never pour the water over the herbs. Just let the flavours seep into the water. Then suck it up through a metal straw sort of thing with a strainer attached to the bottom. This is a 'bombilla'. Then top it up and do it again, and again, and again. The herbs are .yerba' and you can buy different types of mixes. The best we can say for it is that it must be an acquired taste.

Mate is your everyday, walking and driving around drink. For socialising you sit in coffee houses or cafes. The coffee culture here is strong. Shades of Italy or, possibly, Spain. You can sit for hours in a cafe with an empty espresso cup and a small glass of soda water in front of you and you will not be bothered. Unfortunately, the coffee is not really up there with the great stuff we sampled in Colombia but I don't really think that it is about the coffee. More about socialising or, perhaps, just sitting. We walked into a restaurant for a meal in Salta one night. Not early but, for Argentinians, not late either. An oldish bloke was sitting there with his coffee and a paper. We had a meal, drank a bottle of wine. Tarried with the best of them, but he was still there when we left and was not showing any sign of leaving.

Drivers here take hatred of pedestrians to a new level. A driver will swerve to avoid a dog, they will slow down for every speed hump, but they aim for pedestrians. They like to move along quickly too. I will never approach a pedestrian crossing again with confidence.

Argentinians tend to be friendly. Not over the top, but they pay attention to others. Prepared to talk and to try to communicate even when it becomes obvious that your language skills are limited. More people seem to speak English than in most other Latin American countries, but we may have gained this impression because Argentinians seem to be more prepared to have a go at communicating with tourists. As a people they seem to be confident and pretty sure of themselves. We were told by one person that Argentinians don't give a shit. They will do almost anything and try all sorts of things.

A man we met in Puerto Madryn explained that the passion of Argentinians, which in his view comes from the strong Italian influence in the country, is both the best and the worst thing about the country. The passion they bring to everything means that sometimes they succeed spectacularly where they really had no right to do so. At the same time, magnificent failures and stuff ups are common.

More so than any other country in South America that we have visited so far, Argentina has a mixed population. There is a strong French influence, particularly evident in the buildings in some areas of Buenos Aires. I am not sure what proportion of the population traces its roots to France but there is no doubt that a great many trace their roots to Italy, more even than in Australia. Figures that people quoted to us indicate a major migration program from Italy. A number of the guides and others we spoke to were of proud Italian heritage. A couple of towns in the south still use Welsh as their first language although they settled there over 100 years ago. Germans migrated here in numbers both before and after World War 2, 10 per cent of Buenos Aires' population is Jewish and, of course, there is the strong Spanish influence common to much of the continent.

There is not a strong Indigenous influence noticeable, except for the north-west. Some of the tourist towns go to considerable lengths to pretend that Indigenous people are the artisans who supply their goods but their claims, I think, might be suspect. All information that we were able to find indicated that most Indigenous people were killed off long ago, with the exception of some Mapuche who were really based in Chile but had some groups forced across the Andes. The Mapuche were/are a very tough and hard group. They stopped the Incas and then at least dramatically slowed down the Spanish. It is not a long time ago that they finally accepted that the Chilean government had any control over them.

There is a lot to see and do in the north and west of Argentina. We decided to take a route that allowed us to visit San Antonio de Areca, Mendoza, Salta and then up to Humahuaca. This misses some of the recommended places. Iguazu Falls we will come back to through Brazil. It seemed a little out of the way to go up there and then come back. Cordoba we would have liked to visit but we decided on Mendoza instead, just because they make wine there.

It is only an hour an half from
Mendoza fountain and monumentMendoza fountain and monumentMendoza fountain and monument

There is an art gallery underneath/within this monument.
Buenos Aires to San Antonio de Areca. This is one of the homes of gaucho culture and also of a major artist who specialises in caricatures of gauchos. If you decide to go, do so from Thursday to Sunday. Everything is open on those days to cater for day trippers from BA. We didn't know this and I guess our experience suffered. Still it is a pleasant and relaxed little town. It seems to have been prosperous for a long time and has that air of quiet confidence that you get in such places. We had a nice time wandering the streets and, typically for Argentinian towns, well kept parks but we didn't see much more of gaucho culture than a few blokes in all of the gear riding through the streets and plenty of stuff in the tourist shops.

Buses to most places don't come through San Antonio de Areca as a matter of course. If you buy a ticket though they will swing through and pick you up. Our bus, a Chevallier, was to come at 6.30 in the evening. Unusually for an Argentinian bus, it was an hour and half late. We were becoming concerned. A couple of days and one night were OK but more would have been stretching the friendship. The bus had a food stop at 11.30 to eat ravioli in a truck stop. Typical Argentinian time to eat dinner but it did break our sleep.

Mendoza is a very easy town. Great squares and parks, good places to eat and plenty of shops. A nice laid back sort of place. In Mendoza we had a variety of wine tour options. We gave these a lot of thought. Eventually, given that we can't really carry much wine with us, there is a limit to the amount you can reasonably consume in a couple of days and we have been on a lot of wine tours, we decided to do other important things and sample the local tipple on appropriate occasions.

Our priority in Mendoza was the purchase of a new pair of shoes. This might sound like a simple enough task but not so. Argentinian women are always well dressed. You do wonder at times how they get themselves into jeans that tight but that is another story. They apparently like to wear walking shoes that are stylish and attractive. No
Argentinian necessityArgentinian necessityArgentinian necessity

Mate cups. This is just one of the styles and materials available.
knobbly tread, no arch support and generally more for style than for comfort. The purchase of a new pair of shoes is always a little difficult. The need for the right colour and style is not easily overcome and price is always an issue. There are, however, rather a lot of shoe shops in Mendoza. They don't call them 'zapateria' here. Instead, calzados was the term. We visited most within the central area, and some more than once. Eventually, price disappeared as a consideration, style took a hiding, critical need kicked in and we found a pair of shoes and bought them. That was two days well spent.

In the midst of the great shoe search we had some splendid meals. One of note was in a very small cafe that didn't seem to cater much for tourists. I ordered what I was convinced was a steak sandwich. Not a lot later I was presented with the best steak I have eaten in this country, and that means this continent. Just on the rare side of medium/rare, succulent and tender. A side of chips and a little salad. Wonderful and washed down with a nice red. Don't really know
Drums for folkloricoDrums for folkloricoDrums for folklorico

Very tempted to get one except the covering is in cow hide and it would probably cost us much more to get it back into Australia
what happened but I was charged for what I had ordered and there was hardly anyone else in the cafe. Perhaps they were just being nice.

You can well understand why some people come to Mendoza and just stay. It seemed to us to be a liveable place. The wines from the area around here that we had the chance to sample were very agreeable. Perhaps we didn't spend the amounts that you might need for the really excellent stuff but the ones that we did would not be out of place on a good wine list in any restaurant.

Our planned track took us from Mendoza up to Bolivia. Along the way we intended to stop at Salta and one other place, yet to be determined. The bus from Mendoza took us through country that moved from highly productive grapes, vegetable and tree crops, to give way, about half way into the 19 hour trip, to cattle and some grain and then to basic scrub as we came closer to Salta.

Salta is another town set up with an easy Spanish layout, reasonably well kept and organised. The walk from the bus station was under 2
Big cactusBig cactusBig cactus

km. Again the map in the LP was not really up to scratch but the Etrex came through.

The best Museo we have come across for a long while was the Museo Pajcha – Museo de Arte Etnico Americano. This is a private museum developed by an anthropologist in collaboration with an historian who have worked in South America for 35 years. We have never before been in a place where the people have been so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. A relatively small but carefully selected and very well presented exhibition of material from South America dealing particularly with Indigenous peoples. The material was mainly sourced from the Andes through middle to northern Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia and Colombia. The guided tour was very informative and very well worth the entry price and the small fee for the tour. The statues of Christian saints in full Spanish armour carrying weapons and with fierce expressions said something about how they may have been viewed by the locals.

While the Museo Pajcha was a pleasant surprise, the MAAM – the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana – was a disappointment. The MAAM comes highly recommended by the guide books and on
Acting like a localActing like a localActing like a local

in one of the many parks in Mendoza
the net. The prize exhibit here is one of the three mummies of children sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the highest mountains in the Andes. The mummy exhibit was interesting and well presented but we were surprised to find that, apart from a few nice photographs, there was nothing else. We had expectations of an extensive museum presenting material dug up over the years from through the Andes. Nothing.

Salta is famous for folklorico music and 'penya' (spelt this way because I can't get the tilde over the n). We intended to go to a restaurant and see if we could pick up a show but happened upon a concert – free – put on by the Secretary de Turismo in honour of the 25 de Mayo which is a few days away. We saw 4 acts, all very good. The artists had been brought in, as far as we could tell. They were very good for the most part. A trio of young blokes could all sing very well. A drum - essential for musico folklorico here - and 2 guitars and fine voices. The folkloric music I could pass up but they were excellent

Just outside Humahuaca
musicians. This act was followed by two older men who were great singers calling themselves 'Dos Abuellos' (Two Grandfathers). One was a unique drummer, the other simply hammered his guitar. They put on a great show. Picked me out as an amigo and made a bit of a thing about it. The whole crowd looked around and smiled. I looked behind me until he said no, you. I was probably the only other person with a grey beard in town.

The next evening was all for dancing. Lots of people about and a lot having a look at the spanish/gaucho dancing that was underway. The music, well you need to grow up with it I suspect – but the dancing was a lot of fun.

The 25 May 1810 was the day of the beginning of the fight for independence of Argentina. In every town we visited there was at least one street named 25 de Mayo. As it happened we were actually in a bus from Salta on 25 May but thought we might be in time to see the celebrations in Humahuaca.

We had selected Humahuaca as our next stop on the road to Bolivia.
Skateboard championships?Skateboard championships?Skateboard championships?

Sunday afternoon in a park in Mendoza
We realised on our way there that Tilcara may have made a more interesting stop but Humahuaca wasn't at all bad, although the 25 de Mayo celebrations for the area seemed to be in Tilcara.

Humahuaca is not a typical Argentine town of the sort we'd become used to, and has an apparently greater Bolivian influence. We spent a comfortable couple of nights, connected up again with Adam and Klaire and all set off for the border and a month or so in Bolivia. I suppose the main advantage of Humahuaca was that it started the acclimatisation process. It is at 3,000 metres. We have been in the lowlands for a while and need to get ourselves used to the altitude to handle the antiplano and the heights of Bolivia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 44, Displayed: 32


Humahuaca hostel roomHumahuaca hostel room
Humahuaca hostel room

adobe and very pleasant
A discovery in ArgentinaA discovery in Argentina
A discovery in Argentina

Dulce de leche is like caramel condensed milk and appears in standard form for breakfast and on pastries and, in this case, as an alcoholic drink
Bus mealBus meal
Bus meal

A nice change to get hot food served on the bus. Much better food than we've had on a plane for ages

4th June 2011

We'd love to head to Argentina
Another great blog! You adventures are making us want to quit our jobs and hop back on the road. Loved the photo of you acting like a local. Hope you bought some drums and sent them home.

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