Argentina often feels more like a state of mind than a country. It is an enormous place, a land of extremes that requires some mental gymnastics to truly grasp. Drive from La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, and you’d cover a distance of 4,987 km. On your journey you would encounter just about every climatic zone, from subtropical to subantarctic; you could visit its lowest point of -105m, and its highest of 6,962m; or dip your toe in the ocean along any of its 4,989 km of coastline.
The world’s 8th largest country only has a population of 43 million. A third of whom live in and around the capital. Most of the rest live in a handful of smaller urban areas. There are vast tracts of the country with virtually no people at all. If our experience driving through Patagonia is anything to go by, you’re more likely to encounter sheep than people. You can find some of the continent’s most extraordinary natural wonders amongst these big spaces and, in Buenos Aires, one of world’s great cities and the birth place of Tango. It’s a country like no other.
It’s been a few years since I was last in Argentina, this was my fourth visit, but such is the scale and variety of the country that it’s almost impossible not to find new places to explore, as well as revisiting old haunts. Everything revolves around Buenos Aires, and we spent a week in the city, as well as passing through several times en route to other destinations. The city has changed a lot since my first visit, but it’s a place that always feels welcoming, despite the air pollution and rush hour traffic.
A few days in Mendoza, and few more wine tasting in the nearby Uco Valley, were a good start. The Lake District around Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes were eye-opening with their magnificent Andean scenery. In central Patagonia we came across legendary Welsh communities and an abundance of wildlife, including extraordinary encounters with whales. Further south, the glaciers of El Calafate were breathtaking. Even further south you reach the end of the world in the Land of Fire. The waterfalls of Iguazu leave you short of adjectives.
Uruguay, on the other hand, squeezed between its two giant neighbours of Argentina and Brazil, appears almost like a geographic afterthought. It shares lots of similarities with both, yet being the permanent underdog seems to have helped define a national ‘character’ in defiance of its more famous neighbours. Including a reputation for being laid back to a degree that even Argentinian’s find too much at times. This was our first visit to the country, and we didn’t have much time to spare, but it was an introduction that left us wanting more.
We took the boat from Buenos Aires across the murky brown waters of the Mar del Plata to the World Heritage Site of Colonia de Sacramento. Coming after Argentina’s buzzing capital, we felt like we’d been transported back in time. A feeling helped by the shooting of an historical film while we were in town. People in 19th century period dress kept appearing on the streets and in the squares. A platoon of British ‘Redcoats’ would occasionally ride past on horseback. It was a lot of fun.
As was my main reason for coming to Uruguay, a visit to Fray Bentos. This small town on the banks of the Rio del Plata has played an oversized role in modern world history, all thanks to the immense tinned meat processing and packaging factory that was built here in 1873. It may not sound like much of a tourist attraction, but this is a unique piece of industrial heritage and was rightly recognised as such by UNESCO two years ago.
After leaving Bolivia five years ago, it was good to be back in South America, especially during the northern hemisphere winter. I hope you enjoy the trip…