Mendoza, into Argentina’s wine country

I have a couple of very memorable memories from our first visit to Mendoza a dozen years ago. One is that the city famed as the epicentre of Argentina’s wine industry was still reeling from the economic crash of a few years earlier, and poverty never seemed to be far from view. The other was getting trapped seven floors up on the roof of the Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Mendoza building, which offers views over the city to the Andes in the distance.

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the City Hall early enough for it not to be open, but we spotted a security guard who let us in. Our Spanish was pretty poor in those days, but despite the lack of communication we managed to convince him to let us visit the roof. Deciding to join us, he locked the front door and took us to the roof. The view was fabulous but without shade the Andean sun was relentless. After he’d pointed out all the sights, we made our way back to the roof door. It was then the guard realised he’d left the door key on his desk on the ground floor.

The guard called someone, but forty-five minutes later we were still on the roof and getting desperate. Finally, a man arrived at the entrance and the front door keys were dropped seven floors down so he could get in, retrieve the roof door keys, take the elevator seven floors up and  liberate us. That experience has always made me very fond of Mendoza. The city feels like it hasn’t fully recovered from the economic crash, but this youthful, bustling place has much going for it, including an excellent night life and culinary scene.

We were staying at the B&B Plaza Italia, found on a corner of the leafy Plaza Italia, one of a quartet of pleasant plazas that frame the town’s main Plaza Independencia. The owners, an old Mendoza family, gave us lots of local insight into the best places to visit. Unusually, it was raining, so we postponed exploring the town in favour of a long lunch and wine tasting. A short walk brought us to one of Mendoza’s finest restaurants. The Azafrán has superb food and a bewildering array of wine from vineyards in Luján de Cuyo, Godoy Cruz, Maipú and the Uco Valley.

When we emerged some time later, the sun had replaced the rain so we made our way to the Bodega La Rural in the Maipú district. There’s something odd about vineyards so close to a big city, even one with the towering backdrop of the Andes, but this is prime wine country. Maipu’s rich, mineral soils and grape-friendly microclimate made it one of the first areas in Argentina where vines were cultivated. They’ve been making wine here since the early 1800s.

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural was founded in 1885 by Felipe Rutini. Today, the Rutini brand is one of the most famous in Argentina’s wine industry. The bodega has an interesting museum of wine that is home to 5,000 pieces of winemaking memorabilia. There are short tours but the informative tastings of exceptional wines really makes a visit special. Vineyards sit picturesquely just behind the bodega for added dramatic effect. If you’ve got time, visiting any of the numerous nearby vineyards is easy, and you can rent bikes to cycle between them.

Despite the changeable weather, we reckoned our first day in Mendoza was a success. We made our way back to our B&B where the landlady proudly informed us that she’d secured us a table for dinner at another top Mendoza restaurant, María Antonieta. We probably could have gone for a couple of days without eating after our extravagant lunch, but this was a good opportunity to sample more of Mendoza’s famed culinary delights. One thing is certain, you will not want for good food in this town.

 

Wildlife encounters on the wild Patagonia coast

The tiny Patagonian village of Puerto Pirámides sits at the heart of Peninsula Valdes Nature Reserve, an UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing both land and sea. Famed for the mass of southern right whales that congregate here, and the pods of orcas that have developed a unique seal hunting technique, the area has much more biodiversity than its harsh environment suggests. Populations of elephant seals, sea lions and Magellanic penguins thrive along the protected coastline, not to mention the dozens of varieties of sea birds that also flourish here.

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seal, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seal, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Sea lions, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Sea lions, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Sheep estancias dating back to the 19th century occupy the peninsula’s interior, and there are sheep everywhere, but even in this barren landscape there is a wide variety of extraordinary creatures. We frequently saw groups of guanacos, one of the camelid species endemic to South America. We had only one sighting of the ostrich-like rhea, but did manage to come across a couple of hairy armadillos, known locally as peludo. I’d hoped to spot a mara, a large hare-like relative of the guinea pig, but they remained illusive.

After an exhilarating day of whale watching we were heading to Trelew for an onward flight, but first we did a circuit of the peninsula. The vast empty landscape we drove through to Punta Delgada, on the southern tip of Peninsula Valdes, included the pink salt lake that was once mined commercially. It was a mesmerising landscape. Beneath vertical cliffs a group of sea lions make their home on a Punta Delgada beach. We spent some time walking around the lighthouse and watching the sea lions before heading to Caleta Valdes.

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Caleta Valdes, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Caleta Valdes is the start point for a lagoon formed by a 30 kilometre-long sandbar, it’s a dramatic place to view elephant seals. The male seals are massive, growing up to six metres in length, and are extremely aggressive protecting their harem from rivals. Dominant bulls establish harems of dozens of females, letting out roars of displeasure as they noisily defend their territory. Around the beach there were females giving birth and feeding young pups as seagulls swooped down to fight over the placentas. It was a pulsating mass of activity.

As we watched, a huge male, upset by something, came careering through the mass of females and pups with remarkable speed and massive force. Despite the protestations of the females, it seemed impossible that one or more pups wouldn’t get crushed in the mayhem. Twice we saw pups disappear under the male marauder, miraculously, there were no casualties. Elsewhere we witnessed one cunning male hijack a female as she came out of the water in an attempt to start his own harem, other lone males lurked on patches of sand.

Armadillo, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Armadillo, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Armadillo, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Armadillo, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Elephant seals, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Estancia, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Estancia, Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

Peninsula Valdes, Patagonia, Argentina

We headed north along the gravel road to Punta Norte Reserve where, every March and April, the colonies of sea lions and elephant seals are terrorised by ingenious pods of killer whales. Intentionally beaching themselves in a high risk strategy, the orcas of Peninsula Valdes are unique. Seeing them will have to wait for another trip. Close by is the Estancia San Lorenzo, a working farm but also a hotel and restaurant that has its own colony of Magellanic penguins. We stopped for a delicious asado of lamb before making the seemingly endless journey first to Punta Tombo and then to Trelew.

We decided to drive the nearly 300 km to visit Punta Tombo because it’s home to over 200,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins, the largest colony anywhere on the planet. The endless tedium of the Patagonian landscape had us wondering whether the journey was really worth it. Once we were walking through the nesting penguins (they build burrows in the earth), with sweeping vistas over the ocean and herds of guanacos in the distance, it definitely seemed worthwhile.

We spent our last Patagonian night in the Welsh town of Trelew. In the morning we had time to visit the Welsh village of Gaiman. This region was settled by Welsh nationalists intent on escaping English political and cultural repression to maintain Welsh culture intact. The first wave of 153 colonists arrived in 1865. The group included few farmers and only one person with any medical knowledge, a bit of an oversight if the colony was to survive in a semi-arid climate they’d been mis-sold as an earthly Garden of Eden.

There were many setbacks that almost destroyed the colony, but at the start of the 20th century over 4,000 people of Welsh decent were living in the region. Ironically, later immigration was mainly from Italy and other European countries, the Welsh became a minority and their cultural identity was again threatened. Today, the Welsh language is still spoken, alongside Spanish, there are Protestant churches and Welsh tea shops, and even an annual Eisteddfod festival. It’s quite bizarre.

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

Welsh village of Gaiman, Patagonia, Argentina

A spectacular encounter with whales on Península Valdés

The vast coastline of Argentina, some 4,989 km long, is home to numerous magnificent sights, but none quite so extraordinary as the sight of one of the greatest gatherings of whales anywhere on the planet. Hundreds of Southern Right Whales arrive in the area around Península Valdés, an odd-shaped protrusion on the Patagonia coast, between May and December. They come here to shelter in two natural bays, Golfo San José and Golfo Nuevo, where they calve and raise their young in relative safety away from pods of Orcas that hunt along the coastline.

There are so many whales, and they come so close to the shore, that you can see them from the cliffs overlooking the South Atlantic. Driving to the small village of Puerto Pirámides, the jumping off point for whale watching boat trips, we saw several whales close to shore. We could even see them from the air as we came in to land in Puerto Madryn. This area is a site of global significance for marine mammals – elephant seals, sea lions, orcas and Magellanic penguins to name a few – but it’s the Right Whales that steal the show.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

The joke has been made before, but this bit of Argentina is home to both whales and Wales, or at least the decedents of 19th century Welsh settlers who were lured here in the belief they were going to a verdant paradise. It’s no surprise that there are so many sheep in this part of the country. We stopped briefly in Puerto Madryn to check out some of its Welsh heritage before driving over to Puerto Pirámides, the sleepy former salt port that is now the epicentre of Argentinian whale watching.

We’d booked a couple of nights in a self catering apartment, and were up early on our first morning to go out into Golfo Nuevo in the hope of encountering some whales. Morning is the best time to see the whales at their most active. Their behaviours alter during the day, but in the crisp morning air we saw them breaching, spyhopping and lobtailing. There seemed to be whales everywhere, on a couple of occasions they came close enough to our small boat to be worried we might all end up in the water.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

A couple of hours later we were back on shore utterly exhilarated. The natural world has many wonders, but a leaping whale must rank as one of the most wondrous of all. We decided we’d book a return trip that evening to see the different behaviours the whales display at the end of the day. A few hours to spare, we drove up to a nearby estancia for lunch, which inevitably had to be lamb, before heading back to take the evening trip into the bay.

We sailed into the blue waters as the sun began to set, and we were treated not only to an amazing display of whale activity but vibrant red-orange skies. There’s no breaching at this time of day, but whale tails can be seen appearing out of the water in behaviours known as ‘fluking’ and ‘sailing’. We were in a small boat with only two other people and it felt like we had the entire ocean to ourselves. I could have stayed out on the water all night, but we had a bottle of malbec in the apartment that wasn’t going to drink itself, and this was an experience to celebrate.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

It’s something of a miracle that we are able to witness any of this today, because this species of whale was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century. They gained the name “right” whale, because they were one of the favourite whales for hunting: they swam slowly, stayed close to shore, and floated when killed. The hunting of them began in the 17th century, but escalated sharply in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1830s alone, some 60,000 Right Whales were killed.

All-in-all, it’s believed that 150,000 Right Whales were ‘harvested’ before they were finally protected in 1935. Amazingly, by that time it was estimated that, on the entire planet, only around 300 Right Whales survived. It’s lucky they don’t hold a grudge. It has taken eighty years for their numbers to recover to a global population of around 10,000. If there was ever an advert for the insanity of humanity’s greed and ignorance, the near extinction of the Right Whale is it.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Deep blue in Los Glaciares National Park

Flying into El Calafate, the Patagonian landscape below was a uniform brown, that is, until we spotted an almost luminescent turquoise river snaking its way through the otherwise featureless earth below. A little further on and the river opened up into the blindingly blue Lago Argentino, a vast glacier fed lake that looks like it should be on another planet. It was the glacial source of this extraordinary water that we’d come to see, and especially the Glaciar Perito Moreno – a truly glorious natural wonder.

That tantalising glimpse from the air was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get to El Calafate to arrange our trip to Los Glaciares National Park. This though would have to wait. Our bag arrived exactly last on the conveyor belt at the small airport and, by the time we got outside, we’d missed the last taxi. An hour later, a taxi showed up and we headed into the windswept and bleak streets. El Calafate has the feel of a frontier town, only instead of gold prospectors it’s home to outdoor enthusiasts and determined tourists.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Like a frozen version of the Iguazu Falls, the Perito Moreno Glacier is unmissable. That is more than can be said for El Calafate itself. The surrounding area is beautiful, and it has views towards the Andes, but the downtown is filled with tourist shops and tour agencies. That said, it has some very decent restaurants. Radiating outwards from the compact centre is Patagonia’s version of urban sprawl. Dirt roads and wooden houses, that look like they could be put on the back of a truck and rolled elsewhere should the tourists move on.

Perito Moreno is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world, and is shared with Chile. In an era of global warming it bucks the glacial trend and is slowly advancing rather than retreating. The front of the glacier is literally a wall of ice, reaching a height of around 70m in places. The exquisite azure, sapphire and turquoise colour of the ice is extraordinarily beautiful. Even on a cloudy and drizzly day, the ice illuminated the surrounding landscape. It’s simply stunning.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Beware falling ice, Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Beware falling ice, Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

It looks so peaceful, but it’s pretty noisy near the glacier. The massive bulk of advancing ice creaks, cracks, groans and rumbles as it inches forward into the lake. Then there’s the thunderous sound of vast hunks of ice calving from the blue wall and crashing into the water below. For something that moves at (wait for it) a glacial pace, it is certainly very active. There are several hundred meters of wooden walkways that you can stroll along to get ever-changing views of the ice and mountains.

To get up close and personal with the ice wall you can take a boat from a small harbour on the lake. The boat stays at a safe distance from the ice in case large chunks calve, but you get close enough to see the truly amazing colours of the ice. When ice does calve the waves make the boat bob up and down. The sun was stubbornly stuck behind an impenetrable blanket of low cloud, which obscured the mountains down which the glacier slides. Luckily, as we reached the shore the clouds parted and the luminous glory of the ice was briefly illuminated.

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Lago Argentino, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Friendly dog, Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

Friendly dog, Reserva Laguna Nimez, El Calafate, Argentina

We made our way back to El Calafate utterly uplifted. It is little wonder Los Glaciares National Park has received UNESCO World Heritage status. We went for a drink in town before eating a lamb asado, something of a Patagonian speciality. The next day we’d be flying north, but not before we had the chance to walk around Reserva Laguna Nimez and some of the lake shore. A very friendly dog joined us for the walk, and left again as we got back to the town. I like to think he stuck with us until he was certain we were safe.

At the end of the world in the Land of Fire

Argentina is a country of extraordinary geographic and climatic contrasts. The sheer range of landscapes and temperature zones would be hard to find in almost any other  country on earth. Unless you have a lot of time to travel overland, hopping on one of Aerolineas Argentinas’ internal flights can, in just a few hours, transport you between very different versions of Argentina. You can find yourself in the tropical humidity of Iguazu one day, and in the frigid temperatures of Tierra del Fuego the next. It really is a land of extremes.

Arriving in Ushuaia from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, the snowcapped mountains and vast sweep of the Beagle Channel loudly announce that you’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. The sense of distance and isolation in a place acclaimed as the city at the end of the world is more than cliche. Sit in a bar in downtown Ushuaia sipping a craft beer from the Beagle microbrewery, and you’re closer to the South Pole than you are to Argentina’s most northerly town, La Quiaca, some 5,171 km away on the border with Bolivia.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

European’s first discovered Tierra del Fuego in 1520. Portuguese explorer Fernando Magellan sailed through the Strait of Magellan, which separates the Tierra del Fuego archipelago from the rest of South America, and named it the Land of Fire because of the many fires he saw in native Selk’nam settlements. Numerous European ships would visit over the centuries that followed, including the most famous of all, the HMS Beagle captained by Robert Fitzroy and carrying Charles Darwin.

It was only in the 1870s that Europeans began settling Tierra del Fuego. Surprisingly, it was British missionaries who arrived first, fired by a zeal to convert the Selk’nam. They  started an informal settlement in Ushuaia that would grow into the somewhat informal contemporary city. The missionaries’ arrival was disastrous for the Selk’nam, because hot on their heels came ranchers and gold prospectors. Mutual animosity culminated in what is known as the Selk’nam genocide, when indigenous communities were wiped out. It’s a history worth remembering.

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Sailing the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia itself doesn’t hold too many attractions, but the surrounding countryside is a treasure trove of outdoor activities, on land and water. The climate in this part of the world can be unpredictable and I could imagine a visit in bad weather being a pretty miserable experience. We had a couple of days of decent weather that allowed us to hike in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, and take the ski lift to the Martial Glacier in the mountains behind the town. The panoramas of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel are simply magnificent.

If you’re in Ushuaia, it’s almost obligatory to take a boat trip down the Beagle Channel and recreate something of the original Beagle’s journey. We set out on a full day trip that took us to Martillo Island where a colony of Magellanic penguins are to be found. Snowcapped mountains form the backdrop of the journey, which passes several islands populated by cormorants and sea lions. It was freezing on deck. I was looking forward to seeing the hilarious-looking Magellanic penguins, but hadn’t factored in just how smelly they are en masse. Really, really smelly.

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Magellanic penguins in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Carry on south from the penguin colony and you’ll soon find yourself at Cape Horn, one of the most fearsome stretches of water in the world. Named by a Dutchman, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten, who  departed from the port of Hoorn in 1615 looking for an alternative route to the spice islands of Indonesia. Sailing West he rounded the bottom of South America and named it Cape Horn, or more likely Kaap Hoorn, after his home town. South is the route to Antarctica, but we turned northwards back to Ushuaia.

On dry land, we wandered around town and visited the large Falklands/Malvinas War memorial dedicated to Argentina’s dead. Ushuaia is the home of the Argentinian navy, and it’s from here that the invasion of the Falkland Islands started, and where the doomed cruiser, the General Belgrano, departed from before being sunk with the loss of 323 lives. You see signposts and memorials to the Isla Malvinas almost everywhere you go in Argentina, but they are far more poignant in Ushuaia.

Falklands / Malvinas memorial, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Falklands / Malvinas memorial, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The Kitchen of the World, industrial heritage in Fray Bentos

In the classic 1865 Jules Verne novel, From the Earth to the Moon, meat broth “prepared from the best parts of the ruminants of the Pampas” was served for breakfast to the astronauts on their way to the moon. Made from a new process for concentrated beef extract, it was produced in a factory in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. To a British person of a certain age, the words Fray Bentos conjure memories, not of beef extract or a town in Uruguay, but of corned beef and steak and kidney pie in a tin. Both were ubiquitous during my childhood.

Invented by a German scientist called Justus von Liebig in 1847, the concentrated beef extract was produced by breaking down beef into small pieces before being boiled in liquid. The end product was a highly concentrated beef paste that was supposed to be a nutritious and cheap meat substitute. The problem was that it took around 30 kg of meat to make a single kilogram of the paste. In Europe the process was far from cheap, and this revolutionary new technique for feeding the masses never got off the ground.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Until, that is, someone realised that the process could be economical if it was done in South America. Already a place with many more cows than people, the region had a thriving leather industry. The problem was that cows were killed just for the leather, the rest of the carcass was often wasted. In a world without refrigeration, the meat from the carcasses could now be used by the new process and be shipped around the world in glass pots.

This was traded under a brand name that would go on to become a household name in many parts of the world, Oxo. In 1911, another invention would allow Oxo to be sold in small bouillon cubes, which are still manufactured today, although no longer in the Fray Bentos factory on the banks of the Rio del Plata. In an era of industrial change, Liebig’s meat process changed the world and made a lot of money in the process. London’s Oxo Tower was bought by Liebig’s company in the 1920s as a cold store.

The Liebig Extract of Meat Company began manufacturing in 1865 and soon had a global market. Initially it was German owned and British financed. This led to the odd situation during World War I that the factory provided food to both the British and German armies. That changed between the wars when it became fully British owned as the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay. Anglo, as it was better known, produced around 200 animal and vegetable products, and every day 1,600 cows, 6,400 lambs and hundreds of pigs and turkeys were slaughtered.

El Anglo’s productivity hit an all-time high during World War II. The factory had 5,000 employees from over 50 countries, and cattle were being slaughtered at the alarming rate of 400 per hour to meet demand for corned beef and bouillon cubes. Millions of famed trapezoidal-shaped cans of corned beef were exported to Europe yearly to feed civilians and soldiers alike. They used to say that the only part of the cow Anglo didn’t use was the moo.

The Anglo Meat Packing Plant was more than just a factory, it was an entire community known as the Barrio Anglo. You drive past its English-style cottages on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage industrial complex that was once said to be the “kitchen of the world”. Filled with machinery imported from the industrial cities of England – even the coal to power them was imported from England – it is a glorious reminder of the historic links between Europe and South America.

So important was the factory that it houses Uruguay’s first electricity plant, evidence that the workers and managers of Fray Bentos had electricity long before the citizens of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. Our tour around the plant was guided by two new guides from the local town and was fascinating. One of them even recalled a visit to the plant as a child on a school trip, her overriding memory was of the smell – given the vast scale of slaughter, it’s a surprising place for a school trip.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Corned beef cans, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

The modern tour takes you on the route that tens of millions of doomed cattle, sheep and pigs would have travelled on their one-way journey towards a metal can. It sounds a bit grim, but is an eye-opening place to visit for its international social history. There are original photos of the working factory illustrating the functions of the buildings. You end the tour in the vast slaughter house before visiting the entrance to the even vaster refrigerator building, lined with Portuguese cork for insulation. On a roasting hot day you can still feel the cold coming from inside.

It was absolutely brilliant and, for me, this should be a must see on everyone’s South American itinerary. We loved it so much we lugged a souvenir tin of corned beef around Argentina and then back to the Netherlands. It now sits proudly in the kitchen cupboard.

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Electrical plant, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Refrigerator, Anglo Meat Packing Plant, Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Don’t cry for me Inglaterra, football history in Colonia

They say travel broadens the mind, and there is definitely something mind expanding about people wearing 19th century clothes in a well preserved European colonial town in South America. This is doubly so when they’re dressed as British Redcoats who are marauding and harassing the locals. Either we had arrived in Colonia de Sacramento during a bizarre anti-British protest, or someone was filming a comedic dramatisation of the British capture and swift surrender of Buenos Aires in 1806. It turned out to be the latter and the action ranged all over the historic centre of Colonia.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia’s historic centre isn’t that big, and wherever we went we seemed to bump into actors and extras filming or resting in the shade. We stopped at the corner of the Plaza Mayor and watched a scene being filmed in which a group of British soldiers on horses charged up a street and then menacingly pinned one of the town’s residents against a wall. This scene left us in no doubt, the British were definitely the bad guys, in a vague pantomime villain sort of way. The main British character was wearing an eye patch for goodness sake.

Later, filming moved to the city walls and the original 18th century city gate. A Union Jack flew from a building and a few British soldiers seemed to be making a last stand against overwhelming odds. Not only were we the bad guys, apparently we were also losing. The story of the film is based on real events, and shines a light on the global nature of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, Spain and France were allies (Nelson fought a combined Spanish and French fleet at Trafalgar) at war with Britain. Argentina was still a Spanish colony.

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

The British sought to control the River Plate and trade between Argentina and Europe. In June 1806, a force of around 1,500 British troops arrived from the British Colony in South Africa to seize Buenos Aires from the Spanish. Things went well at first. They captured the city and excited newspaper editors in London reported that Buenos Aires had officially become part of the British Empire. This heady state of affairs came to an abrupt end a mere six weeks later when the British surrendered to Santiago de Liniers, a French officer in the pay of Spain.

This is the backdrop to the film which, imitating the hit song from the musical Evita, is called No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra (Don’t Cry for Me England). The ‘real’ story of the film though is how football (soccer, if you prefer) arrived with the British and became the national sport of Argentina. In the film, the British organise a game between two rival areas of the city to distract the people of Buenos Aires and stop the growing opposition to the British invaders. Another game between the British and Argentinians ends in riots – obviously.

It was fun to watch the filming and to be reassured that the British are routinely made the bad guys in Latin American cinema. Most Hollywood villains seem to be British, so why not? One outcome of this incident, and another failed invasion by the British in 1807, is that it weakened Spain’s hold on Argentina and made independence far more likely. I’m not saying Argentina can thank us for helping them achieve independence, but it’s nice to know that clumsy British empire building had a legacy of sorts.

We spent the day exploring the historic streets of Colonia, it really is a very beautiful place. We walked down ‘the most photographed street in Uruguay’, the Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), a cobbled street that dates from the earliest Portuguese era and which leads to the waterfront. We made our way along the front to the Rambla Colonia Del Sacramento in the newer part of town, before making our way along the string of beaches on the Rambla de las Amèricas.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Bull ring, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Bull ring, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Our goal was one of Colonia’s more unusual sights, a huge derelict bull ring designed in Moorish style and capable of holding 10,000 people. It opened in 1910 and featured some of the most famous bull fighters of the time, including Spain’s Torres brothers, Ricardo and Manual, better known as Bombita Grande and Bombita Chico. It was built by a group of Argentinian and Uruguayan businessmen after Argentina banned bull fighting. Two years after it opened the Uruguayan government also banned the ‘sport’ and the building has been slowly decaying ever since.

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Sunset, Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Across the Mar del Plata to historic Colonia de Sacramento

It’s may only be 50 km by boat from the bustling city streets of modern Buenos Aires, but arriving in Colonia de Sacramento is, almost literally, like arriving in a different era of history. The picturesque old town of cobbled streets and colonial-era houses dates back to 1680, when it was founded by the Portuguese. It still has enough of its original 17th and 18th century stone buildings to feel exactly like the European colonial town stranded on a far flung shore in the New World that it once was. One of the reasons it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

We landed in Colonia de Sacramento, or Colonia as it’s better known, after a week in Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the sudden change of pace. Colonia is not a big place, walking around the entire Barrio Histórico at a leisurely pace is unlikely to take you more than half a day. Once you’ve had lunch it would be reasonable to ask yourself, what now? That though is the wrong approach, because tranquility is one of Colonia’s charms. To call Colonia sleepy would do a disservice to sleep, three relaxing days later and I didn’t want to leave.

If the influx of tourists with every boat that arrives from Buenos Aires and the empty streets at night are anything to go by, most people visit Colonia on a day trip from its more illustrious neighbour across the red-brown waters of the Mar del Plata. A lot of the town is geared towards tourism, but despite a couple of tourist trap restaurants it still feels authentic. Spending a few days here meant we got to enjoy the relaxed pace of life. We also got to eat at Pizzería Don Joaquín (only open in the evenings), surely Latin America’s tastiest pizzeria?

Colonia’s history is the history of European colonial expansion and a global trade in goods that arrived in Europe on ships from many European nations: Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. It brought back strong memories of other Portuguese and Spanish colonial towns I’ve visited in the past – Cidade Velha in Cape Verde, Ibo in Mozambique, El Castillo in Nicaragua, Galle in Sri Lanka, to name just a few – and was another reminder of the extraordinary and brutal history that connects these different places, and which has shaped modern Latin America.

Throughout the 17th century, colonial competition between Portugal, who controlled Brazil, and Spain, who controlled pretty much everything else in South America, often erupted into armed conflict. Modern-day Uruguay was a bitterly contested frontier between the two empires. Built in a strategic position on the Mar del Plata opposite Buenos Aires, Colonia was a direct challenge to Spanish power. Frequently the scene of fighting, possession of the town seesawed between the two counties for 150 years.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Ironically, the fighting and bloodshed on the Mar del Plata was a sideshow to what was happening in Europe, and the two countries swapped colonial possessions in a series of European treaties. All that changed when Argentina became independent from Spain in 1816. The Portuguese Empire seized control of the region only for Brazil to declare independence in 1822. Naturally, Argentina and Brazil went to war for control of the region. Known as the Cisplatine War, three years of fighting ended in stalemate in 1828 with the formation of an independent Uruguay.

This violent history is never far away as you wander Colonia’s peaceful streets today. We were staying on the Plaza Mayor (once the military parade ground) in a converted colonial-era house, now the lovely La Posadita de la Plaza B&B. It was the perfect place from which to explore the historic centre. The Brazilian owner gave us the lowdown on the sights, best cafes, restaurants and bars, not to mention the background on why we kept seeing people wearing 19th century clothes … of which, more later.

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, South America

Mar del Plata, South America

Mar del Plata, South America

Staring into the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls

Long before you see them, the thunderous roar of billions of gallons of water plunging over volcanic cataracts lets you know that you’re approaching Iguazu Falls. Seeing the falls for the first time, the heady mixture of the power of nature and the spell-binding natural beauty of the landscape is more than a little overwhelming. The Iguazu River snakes across Brazil for 1,200 km to reach the cataracts, where it literally drops off the vast plateau it has travelled across to get here. It’s a journey worth making.

The 270 separate falls that make Iguazu the world’s largest set of waterfalls are one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders, and a must see if you’re visiting Argentina. We didn’t have much time to spare and wanted to visit both the Argentinian side and the Brazilian side of the falls. Our flight into Puerto Iguazu arrived in the early afternoon, so although we had a hotel booked in the town, to make the most of our time we went straight to the Parque Nacional Iguazu entrance and dived into our visit.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The weather was incredibly hot and humid, and we were soon regretting our decision to walk from the entrance rather than take the train. We didn’t make that mistake on the way back. The Argentinian side has excellent walking routes that give you a series of extraordinary views over the cascades. We made the fateful decision to explore the upper and lower walking circuits first, crossing by boat to the Isla San Martin, from where you can hike up a steep trail to get spectacular views over the Escondido and San Martin falls. It’s magnificent.

I say ‘fateful decision’ because we’d underestimated how long we’d need to complete the routes, especially when the weather was ferociously hot. Remerging at the station to get the train to the La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat) we were exhausted, running out of time before the park closed for the night and in desperate need of a shower, either that or a cold beer. We decided to head to our hotel instead of going to the La Garganta del Diablo, intending to return the next day after we’d visited the Brazilian side.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Rainbow at Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Our hotel in Puerto Iguazu was a cabana overlooking the river with views to Brazil, a short walk to the Hito Tres Fronteras, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, and marking the confluence of the Iguazu and Paraná rivers. It’s a highly symbolic location. The next day dawned hotter and more humid as we took a taxi across to the Brazilian side of the falls. Inexplicably, our taxi driver convinced us to visit a Parque das Aves, a forested aviary with around 140 species of birds. Excitingly, we got to see a toucan up close and personal.

When we reached the park entrance ominous, dark clouds had blotted out the sun and rolls of thunder could be heard in the distance. Shortly afterwards the heavens opened and we were running to find shelter from the torrential rain. The Brazilian side is much smaller than the Argentinian side, and a little less dramatic, but definitely worth a visit for the different perspective it gives on the falls, particularly La Garganta del Diablo. At least that’s true if it isn’t pouring with rain, although the thunder provided a dramatic soundtrack.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Hito Tres Fronteras, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Hito Tres Fronteras, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The rain was relentless, low cloud and mist from the falls obscured much of the view. We bought a couple of plastic ponchos and saw as much as we could without getting too wet. Eventually we took shelter in a restaurant directly opposite La Garganta del Diablo and tried to dry off. Here we watched amazed, not at the falls but the antics of several coati, the odd-looking South American member of the raccoon family. Leaping onto tables they were absolutely fearless as they stole food.

The rain didn’t seem like it was going to stop any time soon, so we went for lunch in the Brazilian town of Foz do Iguacu before returning to our hotel. We never did get to go to The Devil’s Throat on the Argentinian side, which is a shame, but at least it provides a reason to come back.

Toucan, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Toucan, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Coati, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Coati, Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Existence is misery, Buenos Aires Street Art

Buenos Aires is a veritable smorgasbord of street art. There are hotspots to be found in Palermo, La Boca and San Telmo, but you can find street art, large and small, almost anywhere in the city. There is a vibrant mix of street artists, the majority of whom seem to be home grown with foreign artists added to the mix. The effect on the city is huge, with artworks frequently found covering whole buildings. Given the global nature of street art, and competition between cities, Buenos Aires must be in the street art premier league.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lionel Messi, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

I’ve been fascinated with urban art of the more or less illicit type for years, ever since I moved to Hoxton in London, the former stomping ground of Banksy. While much street art in Buenos Aires definitely falls into political and socio-economic categories, there is also plenty that is purely decorative. Businesses commission works to promote hotels, restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques. It makes for a melting pot of messages and styles, freedom of expression seems paramount.

The city authorities have actively promoted street art in recent years, but even without that support life is made easy for artists as they only need the permission of a buildings owner to create a work. It explains why there are so many massive artworks dotted around. If there is a lot of political work, there is also a lot that is whimsical and surreal, not to mention out-and-out baffling. This is Argentina, so it’s also no surprise to come across the country’s most famous number 10s, Maradona and Messi, adorning walls – especially in La Boca.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Street art has been around in Buenos Aires since the mid-20th century, largely used to promote political parties – as it still is today, occasionally with stencils handed out to political cadres. A decade of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s extinguished free speech and crushed freedom of expression, but there was a slow flourishing in the wake of the overthrow of the junta. Street art in the city came of age in opposition to the financial crash of 2001 which dispossessed millions. The city still seems to be riding that wave today.

The sheer scale of work makes walking through the city an exercise in discovery, where street art reveals itself at almost every turn. There are plenty of companies providing tours to some of the more famous works, but I enjoyed stumbling across pieces of art by chance. Given the transitory nature of an art form designed to have no permanence, randomly exploring a city that has transformed itself into an open air street art gallery seems fitting.

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Street art, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street art, La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina

Buenos Aires Street Art, Argentina