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Argentinian Road Trip

Amal Chehayeb

Had anyone told me a year ago that I should plan a trip to the South American continent, I would have smiled smugly and thought to myself, “You really don't know me that well. What I need to know about Argentina, I have seen in Madonna's musical Evita; as for Brazil, well, I have seen enough pictures of it to satisfy my curiosity. ” As it turned out, it was I who didn't know me at all. Due to an unforeseen turn of events, a trip that I had planned with my daughter to Europe was cancelled, and in its stead we opted for South America, as we wanted to escape the Canadian deep freeze.

January 25th saw us land in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. After a slight confusion at the airport, our transfer finally arrived and we were soon to get our first Argentine treat: erratic and lawless driving through the city. By the time we arrived at the Hotel Reconquista in the center of Buenos Aires, we were slightly green with motion sickness, nausea and shock, but we were welcomed with the warm smiles of friendly staff, which was ready to make our stay as comfortable and as pleasant as possible.

The city of Buenos Aires is divided into 47 neighborhoods, or barrios, each one carrying its very own character. The Recoleta barrio boasts French-style buildings and antique mansions that have been converted to embassies. La Boca, on the other hand, is a feast for the eyes with its small and colourful attached homes, its tango dancers, and its famous Boca soccer stadium. And, of course, the downtown area is the hub of shopping, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs.

The La Boca barri © Amal Chehayeb

We were struck first by the striking physical appearance of the people of Buenos Aires. At first we noticed their modest dress. No midriffs revealing pierced belly buttons, no outrageous Hip-Hop styles exposing designer underwear, no outlandish body piercing and tattoos. Instead, simple, comfortable chic clothing adorning trim figures. Obesity does not seem to be an epidemic on this continent. Women wear very little make-up, if any, and handsome, clean-shaven men wearing casual chic clothing or business suits hustle down the busy streets of the city. I later learned that women dabble with make-up for special evenings out and that the natural beauty of the people may be a result of intermarriage between different races, including early European immigrants.

Our second stop in Argentina was the city of Bariloche, located in a western region of the country known as Patagonia. This is where deep blue lakes meet towering mountains, creating a scenic world of wonder. Doubts as to the existence of a divine maker are dismissed as one stands on top of the lookout to take in the span of beauty displayed. This area brings to mind the magnificence of the Canadian Rockies, as well as the majestic pines of British Columbia. Although skiers from around the world frequent this tourist area, its summers draw just as many vacationers.

Bariloche © Amal Chehayeb

Patagonia is also well known for its gastronomical wealth. The famous parrilla is served in the finer restaurants. This spit-roasted lamb is simply delicious, as is the beef of Argentina – not to mention the fresh produce and herbs used in the local dishes. In the parks, groups of young adults on a summer break relax in a circle on the grass and pass around the mate gourd. This special tea is as popular with the youth as it is with the older generations. A hulled-out gourd that has gone through a drying process is filled with loose yerba tea. Hot water is poured inside the gourd and the resulting elixir is sipped through a metal straw, or bombilla,. One can often find a hot water dispenser machine placed especially for a mate thermos right next to a Coke dispenser. The water in these dispensers is heated to a specific, just-below-boiling point that is suitable for the mate drink.

The mate gourd © Amal Chehayeb

From San Carlos de Bariloche, we made a somewhat perilous drive to the city of Neuquèn, situated about five hours east of Bariloche. The road signs posting speed limits no higher than 80 km per hour were dutifully ignored by all, and at times our driver exceeded twice that speed, overtaking a couple of police cruisers, who just as dutifully ignored his infractions. As we drove out, the terrain began to change drastically. The lush green terrain was soon replaced with arid land and unique plateaus that are reminiscent of the Alberta Badlands around Drumheller. This land, called the Ischigualasto Formation, was once a haven for dinosaurs but is now exploited for its rich natural gas and oil deposits; its also bountiful in cattle ranches and farmland.

Ischigualasto Formation © Amal Chehayeb

In Mar Del Plata, our last Argentine stop, we indulged in seafood, Quilmes (the national beer), and sun worship, as this is one of the best beach resorts in the eastern region of Argentina. We absorbed the sunrays and the humidity along with the local vacationers. Mar Del Plata – only a few hundred kilometers south of Buenos Aires – is the hot spot for Argentine nationals. It does not draw a very big crowd of international tourists, and that fact keeps the cost of living moderately low. The beaches are jam-packed with sunbathers, food stalls and vendors selling their wares, all of which amounts to a feast of sights, sounds, and smells that keep the senses satisfied.

Argentina is a shopper's paradise. The exchange rate, the inexpensive retail market, the delicious food, and the excellent service in the hospitality sector make this county an ideal holiday destination. Spanish is, of course, the language spoken everywhere, but many residents are fluent in English and some are well versed in Portuguese, as well. Most of the tourists are Argentine nationals and visitors from neighbouring Brazil, Peru and Chile; only a handful is European and American. The authenticity of Argentine culture, however, remains intact, something that makes this destination inviting.

By the time we arrived back at the airport in Buenos Aires, we had become expert at keeping our stomachs from churning and quite blasé about driving in a country that demands constant vigilance. That is of course, until we arrived in Brazil… but that's another story.

Amal Chehayeb is a teacher by trade and a world wanderer by nature. She currently resides in Wetaskiwin, Alberta.