Life in Argentina
Throughout Latin America, Argentines endure a reputation for being cocky. ‘How does an Argentine commit suicide?’ goes the old joke. ‘By jumping off his ego.’ And while you might find a nugget of truth in this stereotype – which applies mainly to porteños (Buenos Aires residents) – you’ll also realize that a warm and gregarious social nature more accurately defines the Argentine psyche. In addition, Argentines are survivors who gracefully persevere through the many ups and downs of their economy with aplomb.
Opinionated, brash and passionate, Argentines are quick to engage in conversation and will talk after dinner or over coffee until the wee hours of the morning. For outsiders, there's charm in their quickness to engage and their human warmth. They are probably the most loquacious of South Americans; in fact, it is rare to find an Argentine without an opinion on any given subject. But they also hold a subtle broodiness to their nature that manifests everywhere from the country's melancholy tangos to its atmospheric literature. This characteristic stems from a cynicism they've acquired as they've watched their country, one of the world’s economic powerhouses during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, descend into a morass of international debt. Argentines are fighters, always working to improve their situation, but every financial recovery feels precarious. They’ve endured military coups and severe government repression, while witnessing their nation plundered by corrupt politicians. But their melancholy is just a part of the picture. Add everything together and you get a society full of people who are fun, fiery and proud. And you’ll come to love them for it.
Although Buenos Aires holds more than one-third of the country’s population, it’s surprisingly unlike the rest of Argentina or, for that matter, much of Latin America. As is the case throughout the country, one’s lifestyle in the capital depends mostly on money. A modern flat rented by a young advertising creative in Buenos Aires’ Las Cañitas neighborhood differs greatly from a family home in one of the city’s impoverished villas (shantytowns), where electricity and clean water are luxuries.
Geography and ethnicity also play important roles. Both of these Buenos Aires homes have little in common with that of an indigenous family living in an adobe house in a desolate valley of the Andean Northwest, where life is eked out through subsistence agriculture and earth goddess Pachamama outshines Evita as a cultural icon. In regions such as the pampas, Mendoza province and Patagonia, a provincial friendliness surrounds a robust, outdoor lifestyle. In Patagonia, many residents feel more affinity for their Chilean counterparts living at the same latitude with ranching traditions than for their brethren living in the capital.
Argentina has a reasonably sized middle class, though it has been shrinking significantly in recent years, and poverty has grown. Nonetheless, compared with much of the region, the country boasts decent public education and access to healthcare and higher education. At the other end of the spectrum, wealthy city dwellers have moved into countries (gated communities) in surprising numbers and live lifestyles more on a par with those of their international counterparts.
One thing that all Argentines have in common is their devotion to family. City executives join family for weekend dinners, and the cafe owner in San Juan meets friends out at the family estancia (ranch) for a Sunday asado (barbecue). Children commonly live with their parents until they’re married, especially within households of limited means.
The Sporting Life
Fútbol (soccer) is an integral part of Argentines’ lives, and on game day you’ll know it by the cheers and yells emanating from shops and cafes. The national team has reached the World Cup final five times and has triumphed twice, in 1978 and 1986. The Argentine team also won Olympic gold twice, at the 2004 and 2008 games. The most popular teams are Boca Juniors and River Plate (there are around two dozen professional teams in Buenos Aires alone) and the fanatical behavior of the country’s barra brava (hooligans) rivals that of their European counterparts. Among the best-known fútbol players are Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, and of course Lionel Messi, who has been voted FIFA's best player of the year five times.
Rugby’s popularity has increased in Argentina ever since Los Pumas, the national team, beat France in the first game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and again in the play-off for third place. The Pumas also made it to the semifinals of the 2015 World Cup, another huge accomplishment given their company in the semifinals – the long-established best teams in the world of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Horse racing, tennis, basketball, golf and boxing are also popular. Argentina has the top polo horses and players in the world, and the Dakar Rally has been taking place partly or mostly in Argentina since 2009.
Pato is Argentina’s traditional sport, played on horseback and mixing elements from both polo and basketball. It was originally played with a duck (a ‘pato’), but now, thankfully, uses a ball encased in leather handles. Despite its long history and tradition, however, relatively few people follow it.
Feature: Social Dos & Don’ts
When it comes to social etiquette in Argentina, knowing a few intricacies will keep you on the right track.
- Greet people you encounter with buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) or buenas noches (good evening).
- In small villages, greet people on the street and when walking into a shop.
- Greet all people in a group individually with a kiss.
- Accept and give besos (kisses) on the cheek.
- Use usted (the formal term for ‘you’) when addressing elders and in formal situations.
- Dress for the occasion; only tourists and athletes wear shorts in Buenos Aires.
- Don’t refer to the Islas Malvinas as the Falkland Islands, and don’t talk to strangers about the Dirty War.
- Don’t suggest that Brazil is better than Argentina at fútbol, or that Pelé is better than Maradona. And don’t refer to fútbol as soccer.
- Don’t show up at bars before midnight, or nightclubs before 3am, or dinner parties right on time (be fashionably late).
- Don’t refer to people from the United States as Americans or americanos; use the term estadounidenses (or even norteamericanos) instead. Most Latin Americans consider themselves ‘American’ (literally from America, whether it be North, Central or South).
Argentina’s workforce is 55% female, and women currently occupy 40% of Argentina’s congressional seats.
Argentines almost always exchange a kiss on the cheek in greeting – even between men. In formal and business situations, though, it is better to go with a handshake.
Sidebar: Hand of God
Jimmy Burns’ Hand of God (1997) is the definitive book about football legend Diego Maradona and makes a great read – even if you’re not a soccer fanatic.
The Sounds of Argentina
A variety of music genres are well represented in Argentina, especially when it comes to the country’s most famous export, the tango. It is notably a rock-n-roll culture, heavily influenced by the rebel tradition put forth in the UK and US, with intense respect for rock's bluesy roots. But the country also grooves to different sounds, be it chamamé in Corrientes, cuarteto in Córdoba or cumbia villera in the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
There’s no better place to dive into tango than through the music of the genre’s most legendary performer, singer Carlos Gardel (1887–1935). A French-Argentine born in Toulouse, his tragic death in a plane crash at the peak of his career sealed his status as a national hero. Many of his tangos, like Volver, Por una Cabeza and Madreselva, have been re-recorded throughout the years by artists from diverse genres and have become national treasures.
Violinist Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra reigned over tango throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Osvaldo Pugliese and Héctor Varela are important bandleaders from the 1940s, but the real giant of the era was bandoneón (small type of accordion) player Aníbal Troilo.
Modern tango is largely dominated by the work of Astor Piazzolla, who moved the tango nuevo (traditional tango music infused with modern elements) genre from the dance halls into the concert halls. Also a master bandoneón player, Piazzolla paved the way for the tango fusion, which emerged in the 1970s and is popularized by neo-tango groups such as Gotan Project, Bajofondo Tango Club and Tanghetto.
While in Buenos Aires, keep an eye out for Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, who put a new twist on traditional tango songs but also perform original creations (check out their award-winning documentary Orquesta Típica, by Nicolas Entel). Other orchestras to watch out for are Orquesta Típica Imperial and El Afronte.
Contemporary influential tango singers include Susana Rinaldi, Daniel Melingo, Adriana Varela and the late Eladia Blásquez.
The folk (folklore or folklórico) music of Argentina takes much of its inspiration from the northwestern Andean region and countries to the north, especially Bolivia and Peru. Its roots are indigenous and colonial Afro-Hispanic, spanning a variety of styles, including chacarera, chamamé and zamba. Tango and European folk have also made their imprint on the genre.
The late Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908–92) was Argentina’s most important folklórico musician of the 20th century. Yupanqui’s music emerged with the nueva canción (‘new song’) movement that swept Latin America in the 1960s. Nueva canción was rooted in folk music and its lyrics often dealt with social and political themes. The genre’s grande dame was Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa (1935–2009) of Tucumán, winner of several Latin Grammy awards. Considered the voice of the voiceless, she brought attention to the struggles of the forgotten throughout the continent. She spent the years of the military dictatorship in exile in Europe. Her best-known recording, Gracias a La Vida, is a tribute to Chilean songstress Violeta Parra.
Another contemporary folklórico musician is accordionist Chango Spasiuk, a virtuoso of Corrientes’ chamamé music. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Horacio Guarany's 2004 album Cantor de Cantores was nominated for a Latin Grammy in the Best Folk Album category.
Mariana Baraj is a singer and percussionist who experiments with Latin America’s traditional folk music as well as elements of jazz, classical music and improvisation. Soledad Pastorutti's first two albums have been Sony’s top sellers in Argentina – ever!
Other big names in folklórica are Eduardo Falú, Víctor Heredia, Los Chalchaleros, and León Gieco (aka 'the Argentine Bob Dylan').
Rock & Pop
Argentina has always been a rock-n-roll culture, unlike many of its Latin American neighbors that favor the tropical beats of salsa and merengue. In this way, the country has been a leader in the region, bringing clever and thrilling rock en español to every corner of Latin America. Its heyday was the 1980s. Musicians such as Charly García, Fito Páez and Luis Alberto Spinetta are rock nacional (Argentine rock) icons. Soda Stereo, Sumo, Los Pericos and Grammy winners Los Fabulosos Cadillacs rocked Argentina throughout the 1980s. Bersuit Vergarabat endures as one of Argentina’s best rock bands, with a musical complexity that is arguably without peer. R&B-influenced Ratones Paranoicos opened for the Rolling Stones in 1995, while La Portuaria – who fuse Latin beats with jazz and R&B – collaborated with David Byrne in 2006.
Other big-name groups are offbeat Babasónicos, punk rockers Attaque 77, fusion rockers Los Piojos, plus Los Redonditos de Ricota, Los Divididos, Catupecu Machu and Gazpacho. Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas are metal-meets-hip-hop, while catchy Miranda! has an electro-pop style. Finally, eclectic Kevin Johansen sings in both English and Spanish.
Born in Córdoba in the early 1940s, cuarteto is Argentina’s original pop music: despised by the middle and upper classes for its arresting rhythm and offbeat musical pattern, as well as its working-class lyrics, it is definitely music from the margins. Although definitively cordobés (from Córdoba), it’s played in working-class bars, dance halls and stadiums throughout the country.
Electrónica & More
Electrónica exploded in Argentina in the 1990s and has taken on various forms in popular music. Heavyweights in DJ-based club and dance music include Aldo Haydar (progressive house), Bad Boy Orange (drum ‘n’ bass), Diego Ro-K ('the Maradona of Argentine DJs') and Gustavo Lamas (blending ambient pop and electro house). Award-winning Hernán Cattáneo has played with Paul Oakenfold and at Burning Man.
Música tropical – a lively, Afro-Latin sound of salsa, merengue and especially cumbia – has swept Argentina in recent years. Originating in Colombia, cumbia combines an infectious dance rhythm with lively melodies, often carried by brass.
One of Buenos Aires’ most interesting music spectacles is La Bomba de Tiempo, a collective of percussionists whose explosive performances are improvisational, tribal and even simulate electronic dance music. Check them out at Ciudad Cultural Konex in Buenos Aires on Monday evenings.
Argentine music has experienced the phenomenon of blending electronic music with more traditional sounds. Onda Vaga's smooth harmonies add a jazzy feel to traditional folklore, while Juana Molina’s ambient-electronic music with a dose of the avant-garde has been compared to Björk’s sound. Finally, there's Chancha Via Circuito, who fuses electronic music with cumbia.
Sidebar: Cumbia Villera
Cumbia villera is a relatively recent musical phenomenon: a fusion of cumbia and gangsta posturing with a punk edge and reggae overtones. Born of Buenos Aires’ shantytowns, its aggressive lyrics deal with marginalization, poverty, drugs, sex and the Argentine economic crisis.
Murga is a form of athletic musical theater composed of actors and percussionists. Primarily performed in Uruguay, murga in Argentina is more heavily focused on dancing than singing. You’re most likely to see this exciting musical art form at Carnaval celebrations.
Literature & Cinema
Argentina has a strong literary heritage, with many contemporary writers using the country's darkest moments as inspiration for their complex and sometimes disturbing novels. Argentina also has a vibrant, evolving film industry. The country has won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (in 1985 and 2009) – the only Latin American country ever to have won the award – and continues to produce excellent directors and movies.
Journalist, poet and politician José Hernández (1831–86) gave rise to the gauchesco literary tradition with his epic poem Martín Fierro (1872), which acknowledged the role of the gauchos in Argentina’s development. Argentine writing only reached an international audience during the 1960s and 1970s, when the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Sabato, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, among many others, were widely translated for the first time.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), the brightest light of Argentine literature, is best known for the complex labyrinthine worlds and sophisticated mind teasers constructing his stories. His early stories, such as Death and the Compass and Streetcorner Man, offer a metaphysical twist on Argentine themes, while his later works – including The Lottery in Babylon, The Circular Ruins and Garden of the Forking Paths – are works of fantasy. Collected Fictions (1999) is a complete set of his stories.
Despite being discovered and influenced by Borges in the 1940s, Julio Cortázar (1914–84) produced writing that was considerably different. His short stories and novels are more anthropological and concern people living seemingly normal lives in a world where the surreal becomes commonplace. Cortázar’s most famous book is Hopscotch.
Another great writer is Ernesto Sabato (1911–2011), whose complex and uncompromising novels have been extremely influential on later Argentine literature. The Tunnel (1948) is Sabato’s engrossing existentialist novella about an obsessed painter and his distorted personal take on reality.
Adolfo Bioy Casares’ (1914–99) sci-fi novella The Invention of Morel (1940) not only gave Alain Resnais the plot for his classic film Last Year at Marienbad, but also introduced the idea of the holodeck decades before Star Trek existed.
The work of the contemporary, post-boom generation of Argentine writers is more reality based, often reflecting the influence of popular culture and directly confronting the political angles of 1970s authoritarian Argentina. One of the most famous post-boom Argentine writers is Manuel Puig (1932–90; author of Kiss of the Spider Woman). In the Argentine tradition, Puig did much of his writing in exile, fleeing Argentina during the Perón years and ultimately settling in Mexico.
Osvaldo Soriano (1943–97), perhaps Argentina’s most popular contemporary novelist, wrote A Funny Dirty Little War (1986) and Winter Quarters (1989). Juan José Saer (1937–2005) penned short stories and complex crime novels, while Rodrigo Fresán (1963–), the youngster of the post-boom generation, wrote the international bestseller The History of Argentina (1991).
The novel Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto (1956) was adapted into a film released in 2017. Other notable contemporary writers include Ricardo Piglia, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Andrés Neuman, César Aira, Oliverio Coelho, Pedro Mairal, Iosi Havilio and Samanta Schweblin.
One of Argentina’s major contributions to cinema is Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story (1985), which deals with the Dirty War. Another well-known international movie is Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Both movies won Oscars.
New Argentine Cinema developed in the 1990s, brought about by economic and political unrest. Films that spearheaded this movement include Martín Rejtman’s Rapado (1992) and Pizza, birra, faso (Pizza, Beer, Cigarettes; 1998) by Adrián Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro.
Pablo Trapero is one of Argentina’s foremost filmmakers. Among his works are award-winning Mundo grúa (Crane World; 1999), the ensemble road movie Familia rodante (Rolling Family; 2004) and Nacido y criado (Born and Bred; 2006), a stark story about a Patagonian man’s fall from grace. His 2010 film noir Carancho played at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 2015 The Clan won the Silver Lion award at the Venice international Film Festival.
Daniel Burman’s films include Esperando al mesías (Waiting for the Messiah; 2000), El abrazo partido (Lost Embrace; 2004) and Derecho de familia (Family Law; 2006). His most recent effort, El misterio de la felicidad (The Mystery of Happiness; 2015), is a warm comedy about love, friendship and happiness. Burman’s other claim to fame is his co-production of Walter Salles’ Che Guevara–inspired The Motorcycle Diaries.
Another director to have made a mark on Argentine cinema is the late Fabián Bielinsky. He left behind a small but powerful body of work that includes his award-winning feature Nueve reinas (Nine Queens; 2000). His last film, the 2005 neo-noir flick El aura, screened at Sundance and was the official Argentine entry for the 2006 Oscars.
Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 debut La Ciénaga (The Swamp) and La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl; 2004) deal with the themes of social decay, the Argentine bourgeoisie and sexuality in the face of Catholic guilt. Her powerful La Mujer sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman; 2008) was showcased at Cannes. Another acclaimed director, Carlos Sorin, bases his dramas – which include Historias Mínimas (Minimal Stories; 2002), Bombón el Perro (Bombón the Dog; 2004), La Ventana (The Window; 2008) and Días de Pesca (Gone Fishing; 2012) – in Patagonia.
Juan José Campanella’s El Hijo de la Novia (Son of the Bride) received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001, while Luna de Avellaneda (Moon of Avellaneda; 2004) is a clever story about a social club and those who try to save it. In 2009 he won the Oscar for best Foreign Language Film with El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes). That same year, Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat's El Hombre de al Lado (The Man Next Door; 2009) won a cinematography award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Other noteworthy films include Lucía Puenzo’s XXY (2007), the tale of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite, and Juan Diego Solanas’ Nordeste (Northeast; 2005), which tackles difficult social issues such as child trafficking; both were screened at Cannes. In 2013 Puenzo directed Wakolda (The German Doctor), the true story of the family who unknowingly lived with Josef Mengele during his exile in South America. Vino para Robar (To Fool a Thief; 2013) is another worthwhile tale of competing thieves. Finally, Damián Szifron's black comedy Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales; 2014) was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
Sidebar: Victoria Ocampo
Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979) was a famous writer, publisher and intellectual who founded Sur, a renowned cultural magazine of the 1930s. You can visit her mansion near Buenos Aires.
Metegol (Underdogs; 2013) is a 3D film directed by Juan José Campanella; it cost US$22 million, making it the most expensive Argentine movie ever produced.
Sidebar: Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film
Argentina’s biggest film event is the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film, held in April. Check out http://festivales.buenosaires.gob.ar/2017/bafici for more information.
Sidebar: Argentina's Forgotten Nazi Past
Operation Finale by director Chris Weitz is a highly anticipated film on the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, due for release in 2018.
The Natural World
Argentina. For anyone raised on National Geographic and adventure stories, the name is loaded with wild images: Magellanic penguins off the Atlantic coast, the windswept of expanses of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the vast grasslands of the pampas, the towering Andes and raging Iguazú Falls. Reaching from the subtropics to the Beagle Channel, the country is simply unmatched in natural wonders.
With a total land area of about 2.8 million sq km, Argentina is the world’s eighth-largest country. It stretches from La Quiaca on the Bolivian border, where summers can be brutally hot, to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, where winters are experienced only by seasoned locals and the nuttiest of travelers. It’s a distance of nearly 3500km, an expanse that encompasses a vast array of environments and terrain.
The Central & Northern Andes
In the extreme north, the Andes are basically the southern extension of the Bolivian altiplano, a thinly populated high plain between 3000m and 4000m in altitude, punctuated by even higher volcanic peaks. Although days can be surprisingly hot, frosts occur almost nightly. The Andean Northwest is also known as the puna.
Further south, in the arid provinces of San Juan and Mendoza, the Andes climb to their highest altitudes, with 6962m Cerro Aconcagua topping out as the highest point in the western hemisphere. Here, the highest peaks lie covered in snow through the winter. Although rainfall on the eastern slopes is inadequate for crops, perennial streams descend from the Andes and provide irrigation water, which has brought prosperity to the wine-producing provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis. Winter in San Juan province is the season of the zonda, a hot, dry wind descending from the Andes that causes dramatic temperature increases.
East of the Andes and the Andean foothills, much of northern Argentina consists of subtropical lowlands. This arid area, known as the Argentine Chaco, is part of the much larger Gran Chaco, an extremely rugged, largely uninhabited region that extends into Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. The Argentine Chaco encompasses the provinces of Chaco, Formosa and Santiago del Estero, the easternmost reaches of Jujuy, Catamarca and Salta provinces, and the northernmost parts of Santa Fe and Córdoba.
The Chaco has a well-defined winter dry season, and summer everywhere in the Chaco is brutally hot. Rainfall decreases as you move east to west. The wet Chaco, which encompasses the eastern parts of Chaco and Formosa provinces, and the northwestern part of Santa Fe, receives more rain than the dry Chaco, which covers central and western Chaco and Formosa provinces, most of Santiago del Estero and parts of Salta.
Also referred to as the Litoral (as in littoral), Mesopotamia is the name for the region of northeast Argentina between the Río Paraná and Río Uruguay. Here the climate is mild and rainfall is heavy in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes, which make up most of Mesopotamia. Hot and humid Misiones province, a politically important province surrounded on three sides by Brazil and Paraguay, contains part of Iguazú Falls, whose waters descend from southern Brazil’s Paraná Plateau. Shallow summer flooding is common throughout Mesopotamia and into the eastern Chaco, but only the immediate river floodplains become inundated in the west.
The Pampas & Atlantic Coast
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Patagonia and stretching nearly to Córdoba and the Central Sierras, the pampas are Argentina’s agricultural heartland. Geographically, this region covers the provinces of Buenos Aires and La Pampa, as well as southern chunks of Santa Fe and Córdoba.
This area can be subdivided into the humid pampas, along the Litoral, and the arid pampas of the western interior and the south. More than a third of the country’s population lives in and around Buenos Aires. Annual rainfall exceeds 900mm, but several hundred kilometers westward it’s less than half that.
The absence of nearly any rises in the land makes some parts of this area vulnerable to flooding from the relatively few, small rivers that cross it. Only the granitic Sierra de Tandil (484m) and the Sierra de la Ventana (1273m), in southwestern Buenos Aires province, and the Sierra de Lihué Calel disrupt the otherwise monotonous terrain.
Along the Atlantic coast, the province of Buenos Aires features the sandy, often dune-backed beaches that attracted the development of seaside resorts. South of Viedma, cliffs begin to appear, but the landscape remains otherwise desolate for its entire stretch south through Patagonia.
Patagonia & the Lake District
Ever-alluring Patagonia is the region of Argentina south of the Río Colorado, which flows southeast from the Andes and passes just north of the city of Neuquén. The Lake District is a subregion of Patagonia. Province-wise, Patagonia consists of Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz. It’s separated from Chilean Patagonia by the Andes.
The Andean cordillera is high enough that Pacific storms drop most of their rain and snow on the Chilean side. In the extreme southern reaches of Patagonia, however, enough snow and ice still accumulate to form the largest southern-hemisphere glaciers outside of Antarctica.
East of the Andean foothills, the cool, arid Patagonian steppes support huge flocks of sheep. For such a southerly location, temperatures are relatively mild, even in winter, when more uniform atmospheric pressure moderates the strong gales that blow most of the year.
Except for urban centers such as Comodoro Rivadavia and Río Gallegos, Patagonia is thinly populated. Tidal ranges along the Atlantic coast are too great for major port facilities. In the valley of the Río Negro and at the outlet of the Río Chubut (near the town of Trelew), people farm and cultivate fruit orchards.
Tierra del Fuego
The world’s southernmost permanently inhabited territory, Tierra del Fuego (‘Land of Fire’) consists of one large island (Isla Grande), unequally divided between Chile and Argentina, and many smaller ones. When Europeans first passed through the Strait of Magellan (which separates Isla Grande from the Patagonian mainland), the fires of the now endangered Yahgan people gave this land its name.
The northern half of Isla Grande, resembling the Patagonian steppes, is devoted to sheep grazing, while its southern half is mountainous and partly covered by forests and glaciers. As in Patagonia, winter conditions are rarely extreme.
With such variances in terrain over great distances, it’s no wonder Argentina boasts a wide range of flora and fauna. Subtropical rainforests, palm savannas, high-altitude deserts and steppes, humid-temperate grasslands, alpine and sub-Antarctic forests and rich coastal areas all support their own special life forms.
Northeast Argentina boasts the country’s most diverse animal life. One of the best areas on the continent to enjoy wildlife is the swampy Esteros del Iberá, in Corrientes province, where animals such as swamp deer, capybaras and caimans, along with many large migratory birds, are common. It’s comparable – arguably even better – than Brazil’s more famous Pantanal.
In the drier northwest the most conspicuous animal is the domestic llama, but its wild cousins, the guanaco and vicuña, can also be seen. Your odds of seeing them are excellent if you travel by road through Parque Nacional Los Cardones to Salta. Their yellow fur is often an extraordinary puff of color against the cactus-studded backdrop. Many migratory birds, including flamingos, inhabit the high saline lakes of the Andean Northwest.
In less densely settled areas, including the arid pampas of La Pampa province, guanacos and foxes are not unusual sights. Many bodies of water, both permanent and seasonal, provide migratory-bird habitats.
Most notable in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the wealth of coastal wildlife ranges from Magellanic penguins, cormorants and gulls to sea lions, fur seals, elephant seals, orcas and whales. Several coastal reserves, from Río Negro province south to Tierra del Fuego, are home to enormous concentrations of wildlife that are one of the region’s greatest visitor attractions. Inland on the Patagonian steppe, as in the northwest, the guanaco is the most conspicuous mammal, but the flightless rhea, resembling the ostrich, runs in flocks across the plains.
When it comes to plant life, the country’s most diverse regions are in northeast Argentina, the Lake District, the Patagonian Andes and the subtropical forests of northwest Argentina.
The high northern Andes are dry and often barren, and vegetation is limited to sparse bunch grasses and low, widely spaced shrubs. In Jujuy and La Rioja provinces, however, huge, vertically branched cardón cacti add a rugged beauty to an otherwise empty landscape. In the Andean precordillera, between the Chaco and the Andes proper, lies a strip of dense, subtropical montane cloud forest known as the Yungas. This area sees heavy summertime rains and is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country.
The wet Chaco is home to grasslands and gallery forests with numerous tree species, including the quebracho colorado and caranday palm. The dry Chaco, although extremely parched, is still thick with vegetation. It hosts taller trees and a dense understory of low-growing spiny trees and shrubs.
In Mesopotamia rainfall is sufficient to support swampy lowland forests and upland savanna. Misiones’ native vegetation is dense subtropical forest, though its upper elevations are studded with araucaria pines.
The once lush native grasses of the Argentine pampas have suffered under grazing pressure and the proliferation of grain farms that produce cash crops such as soy beans. Today very little native vegetation remains, except along watercourses like the Río Paraná.
Most of Patagonia lies in the rain shadow of the Chilean Andes, so the vast steppes of southeastern Argentina resemble the sparse grasslands of the arid Andean highlands. Closer to the border there are pockets of dense Nothofagus (southern beech), Araucaria araucana (aka monkey puzzle trees) and coniferous woodlands that owe their existence to the winter storms that sneak over the cordillera. Northern Tierra del Fuego is a grassy extension of the Patagonian steppe, but the heavy rainfall of the mountainous southern half supports verdant southern-beech forests.
Argentina’s National Parks
Argentina’s national and provincial parks offer a huge variety of environments, from the sweltering tropics of Parque Nacional Iguazú to the crashing glaciers of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to the animal-rich coastal waters of Reserva Faunística Península Valdés.
One of Latin America’s first national-park systems, Argentina’s dates from the turn of the 20th century, when explorer and surveyor Francisco P Moreno donated 75 sq km near Bariloche to the state in return for guarantees that the parcel would be preserved for the enjoyment of all Argentines. In 1934 this area became part of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina's first national park.
Since then the country has established many other parks and reserves, mostly but not exclusively in the Andean region. There are also important provincial parks and reserves, such as Reserva Faunística Península Valdés, which do not fall within the national-park system but deserve attention. Some national parks are more visitor oriented than the provincial parks, but there are exceptions.
Visitors in Buenos Aires can stop at the national parks administration (www.parquesnacionales.gob.ar) for maps and brochures, which are sometimes in short supply in the parks.
Drones are prohibited in the parks.
Treading, with its webbed feet, a very fine line between cute and ugly, the capybara is a sizable semiaquatic beast that you’re bound to encounter in the Esteros del Iberá area. Weighing in at up to 75kg, the carpincho, as it’s known in Spanish, is the world’s largest rodent.
Very much at home both on land and in the water, the gentle and vaguely comical creatures eat aquatic plants and grasses in great quantity. They form small herds, with a dominant male living it up with four to six females. The male can be recognized by a protrusion on its forehead that emits a territory-marking scent. The lovably roly-poly babies are born in spring.
Though protected in the Iberá area, the capybara is farmed and hunted elsewhere for its skin, which makes a soft, flexible leather. The meat is also considered a delicacy in traditional communities.
Sidebar: Río de la Plata Width
At its mouth the Río de la Plata is an amazing 200km wide, making it the widest river in the world – though some consider it more like a river estuary.
Sidebar: Patagotitan Mayorum
The largest dinosaur ever discovered (so far!) is Patagotitan mayorum, uncovered in Chubut province; the herbivore measured a massive 37m long and 6m high, and weighed 85 tons.
Sidebar: Orca Hunting
Península Valdés is one of the few places on earth where killer whales (orcas) have been seen hunting sea lions by beaching themselves. You’d be very lucky to witness this phenomenon, however.
Sidebar: Iguazú Falls
Iguazú Falls consists of more than 275 individual falls that tumble from heights as great as 80m. They stretch for nearly 3km and are arguably the most amazing waterfalls on earth.
The Legend of Che
One of Cuba’s greatest revolutionary heroes, in some ways even eclipsing Fidel Castro himself, was an Argentine. Ernesto Guevara, known by the common Argentine interjection ‘che,’ was born in Rosario in 1928 and spent his first years in Buenos Aires.
In 1932, after Guevara’s doctor recommended a drier climate for his severe asthma, Guevara’s parents moved to the mountain resort of Alta Gracia.
He later studied medicine in the capital and, in 1952, spent six months riding a motorcycle around South America, a journey that opened Guevara’s eyes to the plight of South America’s poor.
After his journey, Guevara traveled to Central America, finally landing in Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro and other exiles. The small group sailed to Cuba on a rickety old yacht and began the revolution that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Unfulfilled by the bureaucratic task of building Cuban socialism, Guevara tried, unsuccessfully, to spread revolution in the Congo, Argentina and finally Bolivia, where he was killed in 1967.
Today Che is known less for his eloquent writings and speeches than for his striking black-and-white portrait as the beret-wearing rebel – an image gracing everything from T-shirts to CD covers – taken by photojournalist Alberto Korda in 1960.
In 1997, on the 30th anniversary of Che’s death, the Argentine government issued a postage stamp honoring Che’s Argentine roots. You can take a look at the stamps and other Che memorabilia by visiting Alta Gracia’s modest Museo Casa de Ernesto Che Guevara.