The first thing that comes to mind for me about Argentina is food. Not just any food either, but mouth watering slabs of meat, cooked on open flames. Not gas either, no, large bonfires with the meat splayed out around it. They have their own system of grills, huge stone and brick grills where the wood burns on one side, and as the coals drop down, they are spread under a huge grate with the meat on it. It might be six to eight feel long. On that you will have sizzling chunks of lamb, blood sausage, ribs, and tenderloins. The smell drove me mad, salivating like a hungry beast. Mmmm. No six ounce filets here, when you order a steak it is a huge cut, 1 lb or more, that will fill you’re entire plate. No steak is complete here with out a delicious chimichurri sauce. Chimichurri is used as a marinade as well as a dipping sauce and is basically a mix of oil, onion, garlic, and cilantro. The reason Argentinian beef is the best in the world is because they are large grass fed cattle that range free over the Pampas. No feed lots here. It’s not just the beef though, everything is better; lamb, pork, and chicken too. It’s certainly not a place for vegetarians though, I don’t think I had one salad the entire month I lived here.
All this food making you thirsty, well that’s great, because Argentina also has some of the best wine in the world. At least in my opinion. The city of Mendoza is the wine capital, bottling millions of bottles of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. I don’t think I have ever had a bad bottle of Malbec, and it is my wine of choice for all occasions. The Mendoza region is located in the foothills of the Andes, and is the highest latitude in the world for growing grapes. The city itself is not that great, but get out in the country and see the vineyards. Many people did bike tours that they raved about.
I think the only thing Argentians love more than wine would be Maté, a rather strong super caffeinated tea. Maté is made by pouring hot water on leaves of yerba mate in a gourd. The gourd usually has a silver straw, and everyone shares. Everywhere we went we saw people enjoying this tea, passing it to their buddies, passing it past us, and doing it again. Lonely Planet mentioned that its near impossible to not be invited to have Maté in Argentina, but no one asked Jeff or I. We were desperate to become Maté worthy. As a last ditch effort to get invited to this Argentinian tradition, I actually sketched the girl on a bus who was passing the Maté to her friends, then lifted the book above the seat as I drew, so that they would see it. Finally, success, with a series of giggles, the girls offered me the Maté. Sadly Jeff was never Maté worthy.
Seeing how we are talking about beverages now, why not have a beer in the most Southern brewery in the world, Cervesa Artensenal Beagle, in the most Southern city of world, Ushuaia. The beer was delicious. Ushuaia is a crazy town, best known for a jumping off point to get to Antartica, it has a ton of things to do, and I fell in love with it. We ended up spending a week here, partially because the airport closed down because they did not pay their Canadian contractors, but it was all good. There are so many outdoorsy things you can do here; hiking, glacier climbing, off roading, kayaking, whale watching, penguin watching, and mountain climbing. Jeff and I met the Second Mate for a ship to Antartica who said we might get on as dish washers, not having $6000 dollars to spend as a tourist to go. We came down to the docks that morning with back packs on and wouldn’t you know it, the whole crew showed up.
This part of Argentina is called Tierre del Fuego, Land of Fires, because in the 1800s a European ship was scouting out the way around South America, all the crew could see were thousands of fires from the Indians. The Selk’nam Indians, or Ona, lived here for over 10,000 years and used to go around naked, covered only in seal fat for warmth. Let me tell you, this can be a damn cold place, with winds that cut to the bone, and storms that will come in hard and fast. You need to be damn tough to live here. Sadly most of the Selk’nam were wiped out by European diseases and aggression by the turn of the century.
This was no ordinary ship though, but none other than the HMS Beagle, probably the most famous ship in the world. On the second journey, a young naturalist was on board, named Charles Darwin. It was on this journey, around the tip of Argentina, that he began his research on the Theory of Evolution. The theory did not actually come to him till many decades later, but it was all the things he discovered on this journey, from dinosaur bones to finches beaks, that led him to it. Really exciting stuff.
Oh but there is so much more too. Like the longest road in South America, mostly unpaved, Ruta 40. We did a two day bus trip on this, with very few bathroom stops. The bus is built like a tank, reinforced for rough roads, and a windshield with a metal grill on it. It’s the unwritten law that you have to pick up hitchhikers here, because it’s so desolate and inhospitable. Of course the only guy we picked up turned out to be from Philadelphia, how crazy is that. We stayed in the scariest hotel ever, with a large Russian guy and his grandma running it. The country is amazing here, the Pampas, and I saw a lot of the cattle that would eventually be my steak. You can’t describe how huge the landscape, how sweeping, and how very small you feel when in it. Sadly Ruta 40 is in the process of being completely paved, making it just another road.
More adventure wanted, never fear, because Argentina has it. Mt. Fitzroy, named after the captain of the Beagle, even though he never saw it, looks like a fearsome daggers jutting into the sky. Believe it or not, climbers reach the top, but it’s no stroll in the park like Everest. You need to be a skilled rock climber to reach the top, and even then only one or so makes it a year. We of course, being really skilled, opted for a two day trek at the base, and what a blast it was. We climbed glaciers with ice picks and crampons, road horses through the valleys, and drank plenty of Malbec. The village of El Chatan is mecca for adventurers, and comes with all comforts one needs, Italian Gelato, big steaks, and its own brewery. We even stopped and had a Cuban cigars. We met all kinds of travelers too, many from Germany, who are friends even today.
Buenos Aires is a bustling, very European city slammed right into South America. It has beautiful architecture, large plazas, sweeping avenues, and lots of Parillas. Like most major cities, it has all the designer stores and what nots, but it still does have its own flair. Tango you say, well, this is where the dance started, not that I was about to try that. Jeff and I had some beers on plastic tables outside a magazine store, and ended up drinking with some local cooks. By the end, I was asking in Spanish to one of the guys’ wife why he was not home, which got me yelled at in Spanish back., Then we were whisked away to the best restaurant in town. Little did we know that one our new friends was the sous chef there. Backpacker dirty as we were, we were given one of the best tables in the house, our own Sommelier, and a generous sampling of prosciuttos and artisan cheeses for free. Just so you know though, it is traditional in Argentina to kiss on both cheeks, man or woman. So don’t be shocked.
Don’t cry for Argentina though, because it is really an amazing place. You don’t need Madonna to tell you that. I would say we only scratched the surface of this amazing country, to see it all you would need years.