The Paris of South America
If Brazil is a coffee-colored confection of Afro, American Indian, and Portugese colonial history — complete with some of the world's wildest places (in every sense of the word) — Argentina is a crazy quilt of mostly Euro-Caucasian heritage, breathtaking Patagonia wilderness, haunting tango, and a deep DNA of gaucho cowboy culture.
Of all the Latin American countries, Argentina is probably the least sentimental about Spain, instead drawing most of its cultural identity from England, France and Italy.
We are told there is not a single bullring in the whole country, and it is said that more first and second-generation Italians live in Argentina than in all of Rome.
Argentines tend to turn up their noses at Brazilians, and many Brazilians will tell you they think Argentines are arrogant snobs.
Brazil is empty of Americans, but you will find plenty of Yankees in Argentina, where reports of bargains have lured them south.
But visitors should be forewarned. Excluding real estate, those incredible deals and steals you have been hearing about are not available to foreign travelers — at least not the big-ticket items like hotels and air fares. If you stay in a hotel or fly, you are out of luck.
The government here is a longstanding opera of the absurd, and source of much dark humor across the land. Incompetence, mismanagement, lack of leadership and corruption abound at an epic scale, and everyone in the country seems resigned to simply ignore it.
One result of all the systemic regulatory blundering is that two economies exist here side–by-side — the dollar and the peso. In one stroke of fractured logic that almost crushed the tourist industry, a law was enacted in 2001 that required non-Argentines to pay in dollars (the same kind of economy we found in Cuba). This means that you can expect to fork up to five times more for travel amenities and services than the Argentine standing next to you at the check-in desk or ticket counter.
That's why it's small comfort when a cab ride costs just $3, or a meal just $17. Nice, but not enough to compensate for the bloated hotel bill and ridiculously expensive domestic airline ticket.
The policy of gouging tourists is bad timing for Argentina, which continues to shoot itself in the foot even as it slides deeper into a recession that's been hamstringing this country for the past 15 years.
Argentines refer to their capitol city of Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America. Like Paris, it is full of parks and boulevards and monuments. But that's as far as the resemblance goes. The better neighborhoods have tree-lined streets, but a few blocks away you are likely to find homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, and in the parks, which on any damp morning can smell like the big cat house at the zoo.
Traffic congestion is less severe and noisy than in the big cities of Brazil, and cabs are cheap. But, as in Brazil, if you chose to walk, you have to keep an eye out for potential pickpockets and snatch thieves. The good news is that here you are less likely to have someone put a gun in your face.
You may also want to beware the advice of your friendly concierge. When we arrive after business hours at our hotel, we set up a meeting for the following morning at a nearby travel agency recommended by the concierge to book a flight the following day to Patagonia.
When we arrive the next morning, the agent books us two one-ways, and makes a point of telling us that in Argentina, booking vwe are delighted to book one-way, but shocked at the price. A later check reveals she was not being candid, and that we had been overcharged by a sizable amount. To unravel the mess, we spend several stressful hours.
• • •
Tango is today largely ignored, even dismissed, by the young, hip and cool. But it is still the national art form, and Argentines know how to strut their passion and pride with elegant machismo and slashing stiletto style.
We wind up one evening in a celebrated late night, Vegas style tourist trap called Mr. Tango, with a live orchestra, mechanical stage, special effects with ringside seats for an extravaganza of blazing tango, heart-crushing music and thunderous singing numbers that take your breath away. Lots of sexy, fast-paced, athletic tango with graceful bodies spinning and legs flying right up until after midnight, then home in a radio cab with the bursting exotic beauty of it all still ringing in our ears.
The next day we meet an Argentine who seems to embody a curious quirk of the volatile national psyche. While we chat over coffee, he confides matter-of-factly that all Argentines have shrinks.
Why is that, we ask.
He says it is because Argentines have a deeply inbred inferiority complex.
And why is that?
Because, he says, with a flourish that almost spills his coffee in his lap, Argentines believe they are incapable of achieving greatness!
We feel like priests hearing confession as our new friend warms to his subject. "As a people," he tells us, "we fret publically and privately that we are doomed to fail. If you don't believe me, just look at our government. It is dysfunctional. It has always been dysfunctional."
Then with a dismissive wave of his hand, he waxes ever warmer. "And look at our national airline, Aerolinas Argentinas! It is only barely functional! We can't fix it! We will never fix it! Too many operational problems. Too many financial problems." We can see he is already feeling better. It must be good to share.
"The worst part is the economy," he laments.
"It has been so bad for so long we don't even know what a good economy looks like!" He thinks about that for a long moment, shaking his head.
"This is typical," he says finally. "We are forever creating problems that we cannot fix."
We feel like we should offer a shrink's helpful word of advice or a priest's consoling pat on the shoulder. But we just end up draining our coffee, shaking hands and saying adios.
So it goes for legions of quietly frustrated Argentines, who seem to view life as they live it: a shared experience of long series of unavoidable calamities, none of them terribly serious, broken only by infrequent moments of relief, always moving to a comfortable rhythm that affords lots of time to listen to music, sip espresso, talk about the clown act that passes for politics, and enjoy the inevitable comforts that flow from a certain knowledge that things probably will never get much better.
Patagonia is nature's cathedral. And we are but motes of dust floating about in the sharp light among mighty massifs and mini seas of blue glacial lakes. Here you can wander out into great sunny silences and long vistas, drop out of sight and time, and witness the gods of nature at their most creative.
Here are the Andes thrusting ancient broken teeth at the immense sky, clouds the size of mountains appearing and disappearing like heavenly magic, and the great western winds caroming down vast gorges, raking sapphire
waters with gusts a mile wide.
Here are forests of strange Jurassic trees so tall even the biggest brontosaurus could not each its lowest branches, and snow frosted peaks that make summer here look cold.
In this profoundly primitive place, the plunging Dow is but the briefest tick of time, scarcely registering on the geologic clock.
Here, all of human history is no more than a cosmic heartbeat.
We come to rest in one of the world's most spectacular settings, a real Shangri La called Llao Llao (sounds like zhow zhow), a remote resort near a provincial Patagonian town called Bariloche. Perched high on the neck of a peninsula, Llao Llao commands a panorama of lakes and mountains on all sides, and all the comforts of home — and then some — beginning with the sleek infinity pool which leads your eye across the waters and straight into the towering ramparts of the Andes.
Since the 1920s, even unsentimental visitors have been known suddenly to experience inexplicable epiphanies here — gripped by a fiery sunset, for example, or mesmerized by a liquid sunrise, or transported by the silver light of an impossibly grand full moon filling the southern skies.
So it is not surprising that today Llao Llao is a mecca for tourists from all over the world who come to see what all the buzz is about, not only in the summers of mythical Patagonian light, but also in the white winters, when skiers arrive to cruise and boogie in the imposing mountains all around.
We quickly discover that we, too, are hopelessly seduced by Llao Llao's ubiquitous, almost unworldly charms. As we watch softening light change and colors blend to lilac, mango and lavender, drink in the balsam- scented mountain air, and contemplate the stillness and great silences, we do not melt or swoon with rapture or experience epiphanies.
But we are somehow humbled, and grateful for the moment, and all the special moments like it that will unfold in the days to come.
• • •
The waters of the rivers and lakes in this far region are among the clearest in the world. In the full of the sun they sometimes shimmer with luminescent turquoise, an incongruous sight — like discovering glimpses of the Bahamas in the deep woods. Surprisingly, the snow-fed streams are not icy, just bracing, so I find myself playing like an otter in a natural river eddy as clear as a swimming pool, glowing with gold and emerald light, every pebble on the bottom visible.
We rent a car and drive deeper into the lake district, part of a vast national park, until the paved road ends and then on over another 30 miles of dirt, through alpine pine stands, past pristine lakes, and down narrow side paths until we can go no further. A short walk takes us to another lake with a white sand beach, no sign of civilization, and tempting aqua waters. Moments later I am beneath the surface, naked and happy.
Our regret when we leave Llao Llao is that we did not make it further south, to glacier country, and beyond, all the way to Tierra Del Fuego and the ends of the world, last stop in South America before Antarctica. But we are running out of time, so we reluctantly turn around and head north again, on our way to yet another natural wonder, Iguaca Falls.
Shared by Argentina and Brazil, Iguacu Falls is everything you have read and heard about — all thundering whitewater and billowing mist, a raging tempest of Mother Nature unleashed in all her untamed, exuberant glory.
The Devil's Gorge is a canyon-sized chasm of mighty rushing waters that converge in an enormous explosive flume of five million gallons a second, sending hundreds of tons of river into thin air and crashing into the cataracts three hundred feet below, ripping the wet air with the unnerving sound of a never-ending train wreck.
We can only gape in awestruck wonder at the raw power, unblinking and relentless — a constant battle between water and rock that moves the lip of the falls back about half an inch every year.
But even here signs of global weather change are beginning to show. For the last 60 years, this lush jungle region has suffered two droughts, the last in 2005, when the falls all but dried up, and the Devil's Gorge slowed to a pathetic trickle. The other 30 or so falls disappeared entirely.
When tourism was first starting here back in the 1930s, enterprising locals began offering rides in rowboats on the upper Iguacu River that would approach the edge of the falls, offering visitors the thrill of a lifetime. For a while, this was a moneymaker – until one day, a self-appointed guide was unable to get enough headway against the current, which pitched him and his seven paying German passengers over the brink to their untimely deaths.
A wiser way to experience the thrill of the falls is to approach them from the bottom. Today, we are racing upriver against class-3 rapids towards the falls in a powerful excursion boat, which takes us directly into the booming whiteout under the edge of cascade, where all we can do is laugh out loud as the torrent descends in a crescendo, leaving us drenched and breathless.
By foot, the experience is almost as dramatic, with networks of catwalks that lead through the rain forest to the base of the falls on the Argentine side, and span the top with a long catwalk extending all the way out to the very tip of the precipice overlooking mighty Devil's Gorge. On the morning we arrive at the overlook, a tropical thunderstorm passes close by, punctuating the roar and lacing the sky with lightning, as close to heaven and hell in one place as we can ever expect to be.
Late in the day, sinking sun carves rainbows in the mist, and black sparrows spiral in thermals rising out of the abyss. Hours later, the scene morphs as moonlight seems to transform mist rising from the falls to steam rising from a volcano.
While the Argentina side gets you closer and wetter, with catwalks running along the top and bottom of individual cataracts, the Brazilian side offers a more complete panorama of all the falls. We venture out on a spectacular Brazilian vantage point half way down the Devil's Gorge and swept by a constant warm, wet wind. Here you gape up at the great white wall and down into a thundering maelstrom so loud you can't hear your own voice.
The surrounding rain forest is not people friendly, so visitors tend to mind the warning signs stick to the catwalks. Coral snakes, vipers and rattlesnakes slither well camoflaged in the dense vegetation, which is also home to more forgiving creatures such as coatis (cousins to raccoons), peccaries (wild pigs), deer, and the elusive jaguar, a shy predator that usually keeps its distance – with the unfortunate exception of an incident in 1977, in which a jaguar killed the infant son of a park ranger.
Here you will also find ants as big as hornets and the three-inch golden orb spider, whose spinning silk is the strongest natural material known to man. Strand for strand, it is many times stronger than steel. Scientists are studying ways to duplicate the golden orb's silk, which is similar to Kevlar and suitable for military use as ballistic vest material, and other applications. The orb's web is so strong, that in addition to large insects, it also catches birds, bats and frogs. Like the black widow, the golden orb has a taste for her own kind. After mating, she promptly dispatches the hapless male and sucks him dry.
While the entire area looks wild, until the 1930s, virgin rainforest here was aggressively exploited for lumber. Workers felled millions of ancient hardwood giants, leaving the second growth you see today. The original forest had trees hundreds of feet high and very little ground cover, because the canopy blocked most of the sunlight. A hundred years ago, you could still walk for miles on end under the treetops across open ground. But the second growth produced a different landscape, with low trees, plenty of sunlight and undergrowth so thick with bamboo, thorny vines and underbrush running riot that it's impossible to move without a machete, or see more than a few feet ahead.
As early as 1607, Jesuit missionaries had pushed their way through almost a thousand miles of tropical and subtropical wilderness alive with snakes and mosquitoes to eventually set up 30 missions in the Iguacu region. History records the first European "discovery" of the falls by Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1542, a milestone viewed with indulgence and bemusement by local tribes, whose ancestors have been here for countless generations.
After two deliciously wet and noisy days we head south again, and back in time.
Next week: Part II.
Mr. Toogood of Darien is an author and former television journalist. His latest book is "The Articulate Executive in Action — How The Best Leaders Get Things Done."