A Visit to Argentina (2014-07-15/08-11)


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A Visit to Argentina, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Arrival

After a quiet overnight flight from London via Frankfurt to Buenos Aires, I arrived early in the morning of 16 July, not as tired as I had expected. The sky was clear, blue, cool and very pleasant. According to the guidebook money could be changed at one of the terminals, and so it proved, after I had found my way through a labyrinth of temporary constructions around building works. I found a taxi easily and soon was on my way to the centre of the city, while the driver was talking to his office to find out where my hotel was. Later I realised that was perhaps no too surprising as it was situated above a cinema with a modest entrance.

At reception I was informed that they did not have  my reservation, but after e-mails and telephone calls from both him and me to various people around the globe, just as I received confirmation from the organisers of my trip, the hotel managed to find it. So panic over I set out to look at the town for the next day and a half.

Buenos Aires

My first impression of Buenos Aires was one of wide streets, green spaces, well-ordered traffic and interesting public artworks. It is said that the main boulevard Avenida de 9. Julio is the widest street in the world, but I cannot confirm that.

In the middle of it stands an obelisk, on each side of which are inscriptions to remind the reader of some important event in the history of the town. The eastern side shows that the town was founded in 1536, so only 44 years after Columbus set sail.

The Plaza de San Martin is very pleasant with a lot of trees and shade, including a spectacular old rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) called "gomero", whose branches are so heavy that some of them are now supported artificially.

The Plaza de Mayo is at the heart of the political life in the town. Sometimes there are  demonstrations, and ideas begin and spread form there. However, when I was there there was nothing of interest happening, apart from the usual protests about the disappeared. On one side of the square is the Casa Rosada, or more strictly Casa de Gobierno, from the balcony of which all the main historical figures have addressed the people. From the back one can better appreciate its size and grandeur, and also the camera does not shoot into the sun.

The square also has several fountains, and on another side is the cathedral with its Greek appearance. Opposite the Casa Rosada stands the Cabildo showing the Spanish influence. This was used during colonial times as the seat of government.

The artworks in the public spaces are varied and original. For example, Spain donated a monument of Don Quixote to Argentina in 1980 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Buenos Aires. Made by the Spanish sculptor Aurelio Teno, it has ever since its erection attracted criticism and praise in equal measure, both for its relevance, appearance and position. Personally I think it adds interest to the townscape.

The park in front of the Congreso de la Nación contains some statues. One is the only copy in the Americas of Rodin's Thinker, and another pays homage to Alfredo Palacios a well-liked and eccentric senator.

In other places between traffic lanes along the Av. 9-a Julio green spaces are used for flowers and trees, e.g. bottle trees (Ceiba speciosa and other Ceiba sp.) here newly planted, which give the town centre a sense of space and air.

The old docks at Puerte Madero are now four large artificial lakes where now new regions for the rich are springing up. Along the three kilometres of path by the waterside are found coffee bars, and old cranes remind one of its history.

Close by are a number of monument on various subjects, such as tango, or Juan Fangio. The district is unusual in another way. When it was proposed to develop the area, it was decided that all the streets would have the names of women, and Argentina had many strong women during its history, the clearest example of course being Evita Perón. So when a footbridge was constructed across one of the ponds, it was called La Puente de la Mujer (Bridge of the Woman). Also in the picture you can see one of the two ships now used as small museums.

Salta

I joined a group of people to take an excursion, first to the town of Salta in the north west of the country. We met at my hotel and made an easy transfer to the airport for the direct flight. However, the guide told us that there had been a change of hotel, and the new one was further out of twon, so we would see the town centre first.

Because almost all of us wanted to take the Trajno al la Nuboj (Train to the Clouds) they had to buy tickets today, and surprisingly it took two whole hours to do. The following day was to be a very long day sitting in a train, so I decided not to go. In any case I had seen the high Andes in Peru.

Salta is the capital of the province of Salta. When the country of Argentina was founded, it was made clear that Salta had to be part of it, since Salta contained the industry and mineral resources the new country needed. The town sits in the foothills of the Andes, and in the centre is the usual square, but when I was there the green part was being renovated. It was a town of multi-coloured churches – pink cathedral, red and yellow San Francisco, and blue and red Templo de la Candalaria.

Around the square were several museums. One shows the history of the mountains, particularly Llullaillaco a nearby volcano. According to the notices in the archaeological museum, when the first men reached the top of the mountain, they found remains and graves there. (Eh? They could not have been first, then, could they?) Even so, the museum is very interesting, because they have examples of bodies and possessions that had mummified in the dry cold air.

Another museum on the square, the Museo Histórico del Norte (Historical Museum of the North) shows several items from the last three centuries – not very long from a European viewpoint, but I was surprised that the town grew so fast, and soon reached the same level as Spain. Inside it is an attractive courtyard with flowers, even in winter. From the upper storey the whole square behind the fencing.

The church of San Francisco contains the usual catholic very ornamental altar etc. , under a light cupola. The cathedral is even more ornate. The floor of the entrance reminded me of the Dutch artist M. C. Escher.

On Saturday instead of the train journey, I climbed the hill of San Bernardo behind the hotel wher we were staying. It was an easy 40 minute walk mostly up steps. From the top the whole town was visible and one could see how it has spread around the local hills along the valleys. At the base of the hill was a large monument to General Martín de Güemes one of important soldiers fighting against the Spanish rulers in the 1800s.

Between the hotel and the centre I passed another bottle tree with fruit. In the picture you can also see thorns growing along the branches. Also in the central square was the Muzeo de Moderna Arto, which was showing work from local artists, e.g. mural collage with at its base a trompe l'œil mouse, which rather amused me. While I was walking around the square, I noticed some flamboyant gauchos were gathering with their horses. I sat down for a cup of coffee, but soon they left. Unfortunately, I did not know that they were to put on a show, which I just missed.

Afterwards, while randomly wandering about, I discovered the most colourful church in the town, the Templo Iglesia de la Candelaria. It was not referred to in my guidebook, and very little seems to be available on the net, except for the Spanish Wikipedia. However, one of the plaques on the wall gives the name Noe Macchi as the architect and the date 1894. In the late sun, the building appeared showy, with bright blue walls.

In the evening the other returned from their visit to the heights with tales of an accident. The train came off the rails in a tunnel at 4000 metres and apparently it took 7 hours to rescue them and bring them down in a variety of vehicles. Our local guide worked hard and successfully to recover all the money paid to everyone's gratitude. Later we heard that local authorities had retracted the company's license, and that trip would be the last for the foreseeable future.

A Canyon

The following day, Sunday, we set off by bus for a trip to Salinas Grandes, or in other words great salt flats high in the mountains. We began by going through a multi-coloured gorge, the Quebrada de Humahuaca, and stopped to get a good view of the rocks, which are rich in iron, copper, lead, silve and manganese, and which provided the raw materials over a long period for industry in Salta. Also on the way we noticed the strange shapes, which the rocks form.

Bot surprisingly the salt flats are wide long flat dry and white. During the dry season the surface crystals are swept up into small heaps, which can be used industrially. But there are also trenches full of dense water. As the water slowly evaporates, clean white crystals form on the surface until they are too heavy, when they sink to the bottom, from where the pure salt is obtained; that is the way they use to clean it for cooking purposes.

The salt can be hacked into blocks for sale to tourists, or to construct tables. It never rains on the salt, but only on the surrounding hills during the rainy season, when the water runs onto the falts creating a lake a few centimetres deep, but it also carries silt there too.

To get there and return, we had to go over a pass at 4170 metres where we could see the road winding down the hillside.

We spent the night at Huacalera in a hotel that can be recommended. In the morning the sky was clear. Just outside the main entrance were tall cacti and on the grass pets, a few with  young.

Getting on the bus again we went further up the painted valley to Humahuaca, the furthest north we went, where we looked round the small local market. Outside in the street were brightly coloured Andean knitted wares for sale. But the architecture is almost entirely Spanish. On the edge of the village on a small hill stands a monument to national independence. It is impressive, but I do not understand why they put it there.

Returning south under continual blue skies, we paused for lunch at the Tropic of Capricorn, where we ate what the guide had bought in the village, including a local cider.

After another short pause at Maimará, the town of the dead, we came to San Salvador de Jujuy the centre of the district, with a large market. The major sight there is the four statues by Lola Mora, Argentina's most famous sculptor. These four represent Justice, Progress, Peace, and Liberty, and had been intended for the new National Congress building in Buenos Aires in 1906, but at that time, they thought them too risqué. (I will not comment, but let you decide for yourself.) They remained hidden until the province of Jujuy accepted them to be placed around the town hall. Jujuy also commissioned one about Labour and put it elsewhere in the town; I did not see that one. The life of Lola Mora was somewhat tragic and controversial, dying in poverty only a few months after the government finally started to give her a pension.

We went back to Salta for the night.

Cafayate

Before our flight to Iguazu the next day we took a detour to the small town of Cafayate. The first stop was small farm which made and sold goat's cheese, and also had a small cafe for passing travellers.

The second pause was more interesting, the so called Amphitheatre, a large crack through the rockface into a big cave with excellent acoustic properties (avi, 54MB), and where concerts are sometimes held, even though it is far from any town.

Cafayate is the chief town among the vineyards, which usually cultivate Malbec and Cabernet varieties. Of course it has a church and a park with bottle trees, one of which shows the thorns very well. After a wine tasting at one of the wineries, we looked around their small museum.

Then back towards Salta through the valley where some rock formations have been given names, e.g. The Castles.

The evening flight from high Salta to the less high Iguazu passed off with a hitch, so we arrived at the hotel on time.

Iguazu - Argentine

The great waterfalls lie on the river Iguazu, which in the Guarani language means "big water", which at their peak carry more water per second than Niagara, but during a year the total flow is less. Our introduction in the morning at the hotel looked as though we under a waterfall due to the heavy rain. However afterwards it eased off and we set off to the falls. There is a small train to take tourists to the falls, but when we were there, only first stop was in operation; the track to the second further on had been damaged by a landslide during the rainy season, so we cold not reach the main horseshoe cliff known as the Devil's Throat.

From the Argentine side, one looks at the falls from the top, from where almost the whole 2,7 kilometres (video, avi, 39MB) can be seen. There is a path going around the area and some wild animals can be seen, like an agouti. But the substantial number of coatis can be dangerous, because they bite and steal food from one's hand through threats and force.

I don't recognise this bird, so if you do, please let me know. A butterfly found the hand of our guide and remained there for quite a long time.

I wandered about the paths for views towards the falls and into the spray and mist.

Iguazu - Brazile

On Thursday we visited the Brazilian side of the river, from where you can see all the falls, because you are looking upstream towards them, and you can appreciate them even better (also video, avi, 36MB). Many footpaths have been built, and some over the stream at the Devil's Throat, where the spray is so thick (and wet!) that that it is impossible to see the water falling into the deep horseshoe trough.

On Friday we stayed in Argentina to look at some animals which are being protected in a refuge called Güiráoga, which means the house of birds in Guarani. We were taken by tractor and trailer along good paths into the centre of the small forest, where we got out and walked to another stop to be collected for the trip back to the entrance.

The birds are in big cages, and there was the only place I saw them at close quarters. Apart from parrots, we saw toucans and again. Photography was difficult due to the distance to the birds, the wire netting between them and me, and their quick movements, so I apologise for the less than optimal quality.  Many of them I do not recognise, like these, which squawked loudly.

In other cages there were monkeys, or tayra, and elsewhere peccary.

Later, we went to Aripuca whose entrance impressed with its great tree trunks. The name means animal trap; the indigenous people used such a trap to catch animals alive. The pyramid was supported on one side by a short stick, and a small creature would make it fall when it's weight would pull a string. In the small park there sat a house constructed in a similar manner to the trap, but with much larger sticks. Names of the trees from which each of the branches was taken, were glued onto them.

Naturally in such a tourist location chairs and tables etc. were for sale, but how many could carry one home? Certainly not me as we flew back to Buenos Aires for the conference.

Conference

After I registered for the conference on Saturday, I wandered around the town a bit more. The Argentinians are great readers, as attested by the number of bookshops in the streets. One of them is the world famous El Ateneo built inside an old cinema where the stage has become a cafe. Even the outside is attractive.

After the opening ceremony the following morning, I decided to get a photograph of a well-known monument in Buenos Aires. I did not manage it, because on my way there through my simple stupidity, my backpack was stolen. That meant I spent two pleasant hours at a police station, explaining how it happened, and they gave me a certificate so I could claim against my insurance. Luckily I lost nothing important. The worst was that I lost the conference papers including tickets for excursions, etc. But even those did cause any problems as my name ws on the relevant lists. Unfortunately I missed the first talk about Argentina.

One afternoon, we took an excursion to look round the town, starting with the Plaza de Mayo, which I had already seen; however, this time, some of the barriers had been removed giving me a better view of the central monument, and the cathedral. Also, there was a demonstration about the veterans of the South Atlantic war.

More interesting was the later visit to the old quarter of San Telmo with its busy streets, decorated trees, and colourful buildings.

The final stop was at the cemetery at Ricoleta, where the mausolea are placed in streets like houses and the rich attempt to outdo one another. We of course saw the tomb of Evita Duarte – that is obligatory for tourists.

On Wednesday I took a full day excursion to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay directly across the river Plate about an hours journey by a catamaran ferry. The town of 25,000 inhabitants has a long history during which Spain and Portugal were continually exchanging it between themselves, usually violently. Nowadays several people from Buenos Aires live and work there, as it is cheaper and the internet connection is good enough.

After a brief pause on the beach by the river, we saw the old bullring, which is now too dangerous for foreigners to be allowed in (or so they say).

Much of the town has been renovated; for instance the old wall is really a modern reconstruction. In part of the central park can be found the ruined foundations of a watch tower. Elsewhere one can compare the Spanish and Portuguese methods of building streets. The Spanish street has a convex surface, gutters on each side, and footpaths; whereas the Portuguese used only a concave surface and a central drain channel.

El Calafate

After the conference, I joined a group to see something of Patagonia, so on Sunday – at 5:30 in the morning – we took the bus to the airport. But the flight was delayed. On arrival El Calafate greeted us with snow on the ground and temperatures just above zero.

The town sits in the foothills of the Andes and used to survive on sheep until about ten years ago. But now the population has swelled from 7,000 to 22,000 and the harvest consists of tourists coming to look at the glaciers. Our warm comfortable hotel stood away from the town with a regular bus service dedicated to the guests.

In the town is a small park as a reminder of the creation of the region as a National Park. Inside it are a couple of remarkably lifelike statues about days gone by and of the fossil finds and scientific discoveries made by Francisco Moreno, usually known as Perito Moreno, after whom the famous glacier is named. (Perito means Expert).

The Museum of Glaciers is a modern building several kilometres away from the centre of town. The displays are well presented and worth visiting.

The reason for the tourists are the glaciers that flow down into Lake Argentina, The largest lake in the country. On our first good glimpse of it we noticed the thin layer of ice covering pat of the surface. The terrain reminded me of northern Scandinavia.

In the picture the glacier Perito Moreno is the white finger pointing downwards. Sometimes it reaches the opposite shore. When that happens, the water on the left of the picture slowly rises, until the glacier starts to float and eventually breaks up, often spectacularly. However, when I was there, clear water was seen between the end of the glacier and the lake shore. The ice was many shades of blue.

Everywhere on the hillside metal footpaths were there to protect the ground from the innumerable feet which now tramp there. The birds apparently are tame.

Many of the trees in the forest support the false or feathery mistletoe (Misodendrum punctulatum), which is a true parasite on the southern beech.

On Tuesday we set off by ship on the lake to the Glacier Spegazzini, and we soon found ourselves amid the mist and ice. Some of the icebergs were larger than the ship, and we slowly manoeuvred among them. At other times we had a good view of the strata in the rock, and their distorted forms.

In the town, I looked around, but there is little to see apart from the monument to the heroes of the Malvinas.

On Wednesday we flew out of a strangely empty airport to Ushuaia on the southern coast of the island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.

Ushuaia

They call Ushuaia The End of the World, but to me it seems to be a small commercial port with many recognisable shops in the streets. It feels like more than a tourist town, although tourism is an important part of the economy and no factories are obviously visible. Whether it is the most southern port depends on whether you consider the Chilean village of Puerte Williams (population: 2,000) across the Beagle Channel is a real port in the commercial sense. The mountains one sees looking across the Channel are in Chile.

The food speciality in the region is the southern king-crab, whose body may contain up to 300 grams of meat, and which some restaurants put in their windows.

Like many remote places in the world, its modern history started when a distant government wanted to acquire sovereignty over the area, and so set up an artificial activity in order that they could say the land was theirs. Here Argentina decided in 1896 to open a prison, which provided jobs for the few locals until 1910, when the prison was expanded. However, due to reports of abuse, in 1947 Juan Perón transferred the prisoners further north and the building became part of the naval base.

The prisoners worked on building a railway into the forest, which now tourists ride from the modern station. Inside it has a festive feel. The trains also are recently built.

The indigenous Yamana a hundred years ago lived by hunting seals and other marine animals with harpoons having a separable tip – just like the northern Inuits, except that trees are found in the south. Sadly the Yamana have totally died out, and now we have only a dictionary of 30,000 words written by the missionary Thomas Bridges during the 1870-s.

The next day we went to Lago Roca, which spans the boundary between Chile and Argentina. There is a visitor centre nearby with a small museum, but I liked the birds and animals outside. Soon afterwards we stopped at the end of Ruta Nacional 3, or the Panamerican Highway, at Lapataia near to the seaside.

In the afternoon we again boarded a ship and left Ushuaia for a short trip along the Beagle Channel. We stopped close to islands where we could look at cormorants, seals, sealions, and a lighthouse, before returning to the town.

Friday started with a lot of rain after a very windy night, and the bus was waiting to take us to Lago Fagnano by way of the Garibaldi Pass, where one can sometimes see the Lago Escondido or Hidden Lake, perhaps so named due to the common fog at the pass.

The wind was blowing waves up on Lago Fagnano and the beach was deserted, apart from us of course. The old nearby trees were covered in lichen, which the locals call Old Man's Beard and feathery mistletoe.

On the way back over the Garibaldi pass, the hidden lake had been uncovered.

Later I looked around the principal museum in town. Near the main door a statue greeted me glumly, but in the building, which is the old prison, the displays shone under good lights. There were lots of model ships carefully crafted of each real ship that explored and sailed in the southern ocean. Generally, I think that the museum gives a good explanation of the history and exploration across the whole region including Antarctica and the islands.

The cells are useful for displays, but where else would one find a prison with a sign to the exit? One of the wings has been left in the state, it was in before the museum was renovated.

We flew out of Ushuaia after some fresh snow to Buenos Aires, and after one more night there, home.


Andy Pepperdine

2014-10-24


Creative Commons License
A Visit to Argentina, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.