I recently spent a month in Argentina. It is quite a place; lively, with a rich history. Here are 8 things I learned, exploring the country.
1. ITS NAME MEANS 'SILVER'
The modern history of South America is one of colonisation. From the time that Christopher Columbus stumbled across the 'New World' in the 15th century, Spain, and later Portugal, set their sights on this vast stretch of territory. Their primary motivation was financial; the conquistadors explored South America in the fervent belief that it was rich in mineral wealth, which they wanted to cart back to the Old World.
And they were proved right, as the countries that would later become Brazil, Peru and Colombia were found to be rich in gold and silver. Later arrivals from Spain looked to new areas, to make their fortune. The southern part of the continent – colder, wilder, and less accessible – was, by the 16th century, still largely unexplored.
But exploration was expensive. To help drum up sponsors, wannabe adventurers dubbed this southern area ‘Argentina’, from the Spanish word ‘Argentum’, meaning: silver. They had effectively named a large swathe of unknown territory, ‘The land of silver’, and then hoped that the precious metal would materialise. Investors, easily convinced, came forward, and Spanish explorers and settlers headed south.
While silver was never found in significant quantities in Argentina, the land proved ripe for agriculture, and the name simply stuck.
2. EVERY TOWN HAS A 'SAN MARTIN STREET'
The Spanish ruled Argentina, and most of South America, for 300 years. But by the 19th century their control was slipping.
Spain was no longer the feared global power it had been – overtaken by other European states, primarily England and Germany – and the native population was clamouring for independence. In 1810, revolution erupted. Spain had become bogged down in a vicious war against Napoleonic France, and could spare no military resources to defend their South American colonies. The local military leaders took their chance, the ‘May Revolution’ of 1810 overthrew the local Spanish authorities, and Buenos Aires was declared a free city.
The evolutionary army was commanded by Jose de San Martin, an experienced soldier who had received military training in Spain. San Martin would not only overthrow the Spanish authorities in Argentina, but would lead his troops across the Andes and liberate Chile and Peru as well. Hailed as a hero of South American independence, his memory is commemorated in a number of ways, most notably in the naming of Argentina's streets; every town has at least one 'San Martin Street'.
3. IT HAS THE WORLD'S SOUTHERN MOST CITY
They call Ushuaia ‘Tierra Del Mundo’: The end of the world. And standing on its waterfront, its hard not to believe it; if you go straight out to sea, the next stop is Antarctica, and all on all other sides, a vast, pristine wilderness.
Ushuaia (pronounced 'Uush-way') is a small, curious city, the world’s southern most, with the full time population numbering only in the tens of thousands. Most of it looks like it was knocked together about a week beforehand; the buildings have a ramshackle quality, and there is no public transport and not much infrastructure.
But the main street - yes it IS named ‘San Martin Street’ - would not be out of place in Queenstown, New Zealand. High end, Western fashion brands like ‘Levi’ and ‘Wrangler’ compete with high end, western outdoors brands like ‘Patagonia’ and ‘Columbia’. Well heeled tourists, normally on their way to or from Antarctica, eat Western style burgers and fries at one of the many, lookalike Western style cafes. But all of this fancy development is recent.
Ushuaia started as a military installation, and was later used as a penal colony for political prisoners, the ones the government really wanted to squeeze. Remnants of these earlier, less glamorous, incarnations can be seen everywhere, in the rugged faces of the locals, and the functional, unlovely buildings that dot the back streets.
I stayed at a homestay place here, and my host was a charming local man who had lived in the city since the 70s. His house was on a street that looked like any other suburban, residential street, anywhere in the world; other houses, a paved road, fences and powerlines. He showed me a photo from when he had moved in to the house; it was the only building visible, surrounded by open prairie, with the Andes visible in the background.
4. THERE ARE PUMAS
We were sitting around at the end of the day, swapping hiking stories. My new buddy from that day’s trail, let’s call her Leen, had one that was almost hard to believe; someone that she had met, hiking elsewhere in Patagonia, had a close encounter with a Puma. She showed me the picture (above).
‘They were just sitting there, having lunch or something, and this HUGE cat just came out of the forest. It stood there and looked at them, they got a quick photo, and then it turned and disappeared back into the trees.’
My friend’s friends were lucky; there are thought to be only about 50 wild Pumas left in Patagonia, and they are notoriously shy; their habitat is the remote wilderness around the foot of the Andes, they hunt only at twilight, and they normally stay clear of tracks and campsites.
We spent the rest of the day looking out for them, I will probably be looking out for them EVERY day for the rest of my life, without success.
They are also not the only Big Cats in Argentina. There are at least 8 other species; everything from full size Jaguars, to the elusive Andean Mountain Cat, an unlikely looking hybrid of your everyday housecat, and a fluffy tailed snow leopard.
5. IT HAS THE WORLD's GREATEST ICE CREAM
Although, obviously this one is subjective (for my money, NOTHING beats the ice-cream at ‘Pida Pipo’ in Melbourne). Nevertheless, the icecream, or ‘Helado’, in Argentina is world famous.
Ice cream culture in the country can be traced to waves of Italian migrants, who began arriving in Argentina in large numbers after World War II. The two countries had forged close cultural ties pre-war while they were ruled by their respective dictators, Mussolini and Juan Peron, who were personal friends.
After the war, as a ravaged Italy was rebuilt, many Italians left Europe for a new start elsewhere. A large number made their way to Argentina, attracted by the warm climate and (at the time) robust economy. Italian style ice cream – rich and creamy, with a focus on natural ingredients – came with them, augmented by the high quality of milk that was available locally.
Strolling down a main street in an Argentinian city, a new visitor will be struck by the sheer number of ice cream parlours, or ‘Heladerias’; they are simply everywhere. According to Lonely Planet, ‘Jauja’, in the city of Bariloche, has the country’s best ice cream (pictured; me trying the Hazelnut, and the Boysenberry. Both were ace). And yes, you WILL find 'Jauja' on... San Martin Street!
6. PEOPLE THINK HITLER HID THERE
As well as ice cream, Bariloche is also known for its connection to one of history's most famous conspiracy theories; Adolf Hitler made his way there after World War II, and lived out his life in peaceful obscurity. While this seems highly unlikely, you can sortof see why people think its possible.
The official line is that Hitler committed suicide in his command bunker, underneath the Reichstag in Berlin, as the Allied armies closed in on his position. After his death, his faithful staff burned his body, as Hitler's will instructed. The Russian Army, the first to reach the Fuehrerbunker, discovered his remains but moved them to a secret location before the American and British Armies could examine them. They moved them several more times in the ensuing decades, before destroying them completely in 1970. So there is a certain lack of verification of Hitler's demise.
Meanwhile, other top ranking Nazi’s did manage to escape the end of the Third Reich, and some of these were subsequently located in South America; Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, and Josef Mengele, a doctor who conducted gruesome experiments on Jewish prisoners, both slipped through the Allied net and made it to Buenos Aires.
So why could Hitler not perform the same trick? A fake death, a disguise, and then smuggled out of the country by true believers. People who subscribe to this even claim to know where he spent his final years; a country estate known as 'Inalco', six miles east of Bariloche.
Inalco was built by Enrique García Merou, an Argentinian lawyer who was thought to be a Nazi sympathiser. Supposedly modelled after Hitler's Bavarian chalet 'Berghof', Merou built the residence in an isolated spot, surrounded by rolling countryside. Many locals think Hitler lived here with Eva Braun until his death, of natural causes, in 1962.
In 2017, the Russian government announced that they had discovered Hitler's teeth in the national archives, and would release them for independent examination. These were shown to match x-rays of Hitler's teeth from captured Nazi documents, and so seemed to finally put his escape to South America to rest.
7. CASH IS KING (BUT SCARCE)
Everyone in Argentina wants you to pay with cash. A lot of retailers will actually not accept any other payment method, and even the ones that do accept credit cards will usually offer you a discount if you pay with hard currency.
This cash fixation has led to a global peso shortage. Before I left Australia, I tried my bank and several Currency Exchange places, so I would have a few pesos in my wallet; all of these advised that they had none available. A cashier at one place said, 'Oh yeah, we NEVER have pesos.'
It is not that much easier to get cash while you are in the country. To cope with the perpetual shortage, local ATMs have a very low withdrawal limit; normally 4 000 pesos (about $180 AUD). But many machines were simply out of cash altogether. I spent one dismal afternoon wandering from ATM to ATM, trying to gather 16 000 pesos to pay for my hotel room (I had not noticed when I booked it that is was cash only).
A few factors explain this cash fixation.
Argentina is a country that has known a lot of political upheaval, and social turmoil, and the local population has an inbuilt suspicion of their institutions. Compounding this, everyone in Argentina has a national ID card, with a unique ID number, and this must be recorded every time you pay with a credit card. (foreigners have to show their passport, even for trivial amounts). Local banks also charge comparatively high fees for electronic banking, providing a disincentive for using those services.
But the cash fixation plagues them in a different way. The local banking sector is frequently plagued by ‘runs’ on its banks, as people worry about the security and availability of their own cash reserves.
8. IT HAS THE WORLD's FIERCEST SPORTING RIVALRY
Boca is a suburb in the south of Buenos Aires, stretching alongside the Matanza River. It is a poor area, and outsiders are not welcome. Locals I spoke to were emphatic; I should definitely not go there, under any circumstances. Wandering around by myself would be dangerous, doing this at night would be suicidal.
Boca is also the home of South America’s most famous football club, Boca Juniors. You see their colours, blue and gold, everywhere in the city, and their logo, FABJ, is on the back of every other shirt.
In the north of the city, in the more up market Nunez neighbourhood, are Boca’s great local rivals, the red and white clad River Plate. The rivalry between these two clubs is FIERCE.
While I was in BA the two teams were set to meet in the finals of the Copa Libertadores, the local football championship. The first game of the two leg final series was drawn 2 – 2. Prior to the deciding second game, Boca's team bus was attacked by River Plate supporters, who smashed its windows with rocks, and then turned on the players.
The mob were eventually dispersed by riot police and tear gas, while several Boca players ended up in hospital. The game was postponed for a month, and eventually rescheduled to Spain, when local authorities admitted that they could not guarantee player safety.
River Plate won the rescheduled match, and the title, 3 - 1; in the aftermath of the game, two Boca supporters murdered a River Plate supporter, in Buenos Aires.