Argentina may be slightly off the radar for many. For one, it is bloody miles away. Secondly, it is pricier than other South American countries. When people go backpacking in South America, it seems to be more common to visit Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. Another… as it is such a huge country, many places in Argentina are very difficult to get to (as we were soon to find out).
Before going to Argentina, I was unsure about what to expect. I knew nothing about the country or its culture save for a few stereotypical taglines- the Falklands, Maradona and Messi. Oh, and they were supposed to have good steak. And red wine.
I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that there is actually a lot more to Argentina than my embarrassingly ignorant few snippets of knowledge about the country. After only 10 days there, I would have to say that Argentina is one of the most incredible, beautiful, crazy, and intriguing places I have ever visited.
We started our trip here in the North, with a meticulously planned itinerary. Which of course did not go to plan, as is customary with over planning (especially when you have an over-reliance on weather).
We had scheduled to travel by bus from San Pedro in the North of Chile, across the Andes and into Northern Argentina. The journey was supposed to be spectacular, crossing through deserts, volcanoes and mountains in some of the most stunning and varied scenery possible. ‘Supposed’ is the key word here. Sadly, we never experienced this journey. Google images had to suffice.
Despite our careful arrangements, the weather decided to be extremely uncooperative and snow heavily, to the extent that the Chilean-Argentinian border was closed. Even the best laid out plans are sadly not weather proof.
We then proceeded to spend several hours in a cold bus station in the middle of the desert, waiting and hoping in vain for information that the border would miraculously be re-opened and we could get on our way. Thankfully a café opened after a couple of hours which we enthusiastically ran into, ordering around twenty sandwiches throughout the course of the increasingly depressing day. After around 8 hours, when it became clear that the border would not be re-opening today and probably at least for another four days, we finally admitted defeat. Our destination-Salta, a city in Northern Argentina- appeared to be one of the most difficult places in the entire continent to get to. But 2 days and 3 flights later, we made it….and it was definitely worth it.
The Salta province in Northern Argentina is home to some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Over the course of three days we passed countless vineyards basking in the winter sun, colourful rock formations, green valleys with ribbon like roads snaking through them, and desert-like stretches of land filled with thousands of towering cacti. We were lucky enough to see wild alpacas and condors. Punctured in-between these stunning landscapes were several towns and villages, farms, rivers and, of course, many a football pitch.
This three day tour was the best introductory taste of what Argentina is about. In such a huge country, and on such a limited time scale it is obviously impossible to get a deep understanding of the country. But during our time in the Salta Province, we were able to get a feel at least of the history, values, landscape, industries and the people of this relatively small area.
The predominant industries of the Salta region are agriculture, wine and tourism, which was immediately evident from the rolling fields filled with roaming cows, sheep and goats. We even saw a lone pig wandering round through some of the rock formations (unconfirmed, it could have been a dog). And indeed, the Argentinean steak lived up to its reputation. On our first night we were served an authentic Argentinean asado (barbeque), with a variety of meat accompanied by salads. But (in true M&S style), this was not just any steak and salad. Juicy, succulent cuts with a salty crispy skin and exquisitely crunchy lettuce leaves with a subtle yet tangy vinaigrette…. Ok maybe a career in food writing is not on the cards. But still, the simplicity yet excellence of this dinner was staggering and immediately validated the hype surrounding Argentinean beef.
Another thing that was evident from our short time in Salta was the strong traditions that are still very much alive. Collections of wooden houses were sporadically dotted around the rural countryside, inhabited by people who had lived there for generations. Our tour guide Marcelo informed us that their way of life, centred around agriculture was probably not so different to how it was a hundred years ago. Where ever there were houses, you could be sure to find a small and lonely Church not too far away. Clearly religion is still an important influence for many people here. Amongst these houses and churches, we witnessed a Gaucho ceremony. Gaucho’s, traditional skilled horsemen are a national symbol of Argentina with their origins dating back to Colonial times. Their importance in Argentine culture was evident by the large crowd that had gathered to witness the parade. What was particularly interesting, was that we were the only tourists. Often, ceremonies and events such as these are put on as an ‘authentic re-creation’ for the tourists benefit; but this really did seem to be a continuation of an old tradition that brought the surrounding villages together to celebrate this national symbol.
And then buried in the countryside were a series of towns, villages and cities, Salta itself being the largest in the region. Many of the whitewashed villages were beautifully preserved, with low, colonial-styled houses and stores, along dusty cobbled roads. Cachi was a particularly beautiful town, set against the backdrop of the Andes with plenty of café’s and restaurants surrounding the square and Church.
Although a nightmare to get to, Salta exceeded all expectations and gave us the best impression of Northern Argentinean nature, culture and lifestyles. But one recommendation… don’t try and cross the Chilean-Argentinean border by bus in Winter.