Michael Buerk on the passion of Argentina
Source: UK Telegraph
By: Michael Buerk
Philip Larkin missed the point. Sure, parents ---- you up. But if you want to be royally screwed over, en masse, generation after generation, politics works best every time. Take Argentina. But for a national weakness for putting self-glorifying Ruritanian birdbrains into the Presidential Palace, it might well be the richest country on Earth.
It nearly happened. When the British effectively ran the place, built the railways, the ports, the meat-packing plants, it was already one of the world's four wealthiest nations. But the boom of the late 19th century sucked in millions of poor Italian immigrants who invented the tango and thought politics should be broadly similar: a substitute for sex, performed on the streets, brainless, showy, exciting, doomed.
If only they had gone more for dull worthiness – Attlee, say, rather than Evita – their country would be the southern hemisphere's United States. But it wouldn't be anything like as much fun to visit. Argentina has to be one of the most underrated travel destinations.
It has everything, or as close to everything as makes no difference. From the subtropical rainforests of the north, Argentina reaches down more than 2,000 miles (think Edinburgh to Lagos) to the glaciers that poke their fingers at Cape Horn, a snowball's throw from Antarctica. The pampas, where everything grows, stretches west from the endless Atlantic coast to the high Andes; real cowboy country where the estancias make Montana ranches look like a Rutland gymkhana. And real cowboys; Wyatt Earp's a mincing pantywaist compared with the average gaucho. The three that rode with Charles Darwin would cut their rump steaks from the backsides of living animals and eat them raw. No wonder he was so crippled with indigestion that it took him 25 years to come up with his theory of evolution.
At the heart of it all is Buenos Aires, one of the world's most exciting cities. I was there for months during the Falklands War, reporting for the BBC. They were praying for me in our local church. If only they had known how close I had come to eating myself to death – those steaks are huge – they would have prayed even harder.
It is an intensely Anglophile country, and was even then. The upper crust didn't want to argue about the sovereignty of the Falklands (any more than they would want to argue now about oil drilling); they wanted to know where in Jermyn Street to order their cavalry twills. The hundreds of thousands of descamisados (literally, "shirtless ones") who packed the Plaza de Mayo screaming for Mrs Thatcher's blood would break off when they saw the BBC logo on the camera to make sure they had got the lyrics to Hard Day's Night exactly right. The city's biggest department store was called Harrods, the poshest club was (and is) the Hurlingham and the most popular film during the war was Chariots of Fire.
The veterans of the Malvinas, portly and grey-haired now, camp out in the Plaza de Mayo, still begging for better pensions. Porteños (the locals' name for themselves) call them "the whiners". The memorial to the 700 or so Argentine dead is prominent enough, but it is just a list of names and the eternal flame has long since gone out. It faces the great clock, built by the British a century ago (with a movement copied from Big Ben). The locals still call it the English Tower, even though it was officially renamed after the conflict. The cause still rankles, but the war is an embarrassment.
There's poverty in the suburbs but, at its heart, Buenos Aires is a grand city, laid out in the days when its wealth and its future seemed unlimited. The world's widest avenues, finest opera house, most opulent fin de siècle town houses, and – my idea of heaven – Italian restaurants cooking the world's most wonderful meat. (Try La Brigada, where they cut the tenderloin with spoons. And don't order "Baby Beef" looking for a light meal; it weighs in at just short of a kilo.)
It's an old-fashioned European city, with a café society oddly short of dark faces. The original natives, and the African slaves, were wiped out or pushed out. The most prominent of the country's remaining blacks (70 or so, it is said) was arrested at the airport recently because officials thought her Argentine passport must be a forgery.
The city is full of grand monuments, mostly to the chancers who snatched independence when Spain had its back turned, bowing the knee to Napoleon. They are as extravagantly memorialised in death as they were spurned in life; nearly all of them died in exile.
Argentina's real heroes can be seen, stuffed, in the colourful old dock area, La Boca. Life-size models stare at you from the shops and down from the balconies. There are just three of them, and a tawdry trio they are. Eva Duarte Peron, of course, the actress who slept her way to the bottom of the movie business and into the life of a crypto-fascist colonel on the make; a long-dead tango warbler called Carlos Gardel; and Maradona, the squat footballer with the hand of God and the soul corroded by cocaine. Two of them died young; the third is still trying.
Death is a big thing in Argentina. La Recoleta cemetery is worth the trip in itself. It's an entire suburb of gloriously overblown mausolea; a gentleman's club for the dead, even harder to get into than the Garrick. Evita is there, in the Duarte family tomb. Her father's relatives famously said they wouldn't be seen dead with her; now she's banged up with them for all eternity. There's a new museum to Evita that's worth seeing, with a pinch of salt.
Tango was invented in the brothels of La Boca, and looks like it. It began as strictly-come-shagging, pornography with fancy footwork, and still seems barely decent. You can see the locals doing it on the first floor of the Confiteria Ideal, the young(ish) panting, possibly with passion, the oldies leaning on each other like fallen tree trunks. For tango as street theatre, go to La Defensa at weekends or Avenida Florida most afternoons, ready to throw your pesos into a trilby. The best of the many tango shows these days is Gala Tango, where you get a decent meal with top-class dirty dancing, and some extraordinary gaucho turns thrown in.
There's plenty of choice for places to stay, though you need to watch out for grand hotels whose grandeur does not extend above the ground floor. We tried three places. The Sofitel was the favourite: stylish, efficient and quiet – but right where you want to be, in BA's Mayfair. We liked the Legado Mítico, a more modish boutique hotel in the trendy boho district of Palermo. The collectors' item was the modestly named Faena Hotel and Universe. It's a converted granary in the redeveloped waterfront district of Puerto Madero that you will either love or loathe. It's been designed to within an inch of its life by Philippe Starck, all blood-red, 21st-century baroque and far too fashionable to have a front door, reception desk or lobby. The "experience managers" are good, the experience – well – either stimulatingly original or overpriced and overwrought. Google it and you will see that those who thought it the best hotel they had ever stayed in are perfectly balanced by those who thought it the worst. I wouldn't have missed it for the world or, indeed, the universe.
Outside the capital, the biggest attraction is the Iguaçú Falls, two hours' flying time north, on the border with Brazil. It's one of the natural wonders of the world, where the huge Iguaçú river hurls itself over a two-mile fault in the Earth's crust. It makes a Manneken Pis of most rivals ("Poor Niagara," Eleanor Roosevelt said when she first saw it), though it is shaded by Victoria Falls, which are slightly higher, but narrower and currently quarantined by tyranny.
To stand, getting soaked, on one of the observation decks over the Devil's Throat, watching the swifts dive through the rushing curtains of water, and squadrons of bright, green parrots wheeling like Spitfires through the mist, is a marvellous experience.
We really did Iguaçú Falls: from in front, from behind, from Brazil, from Argentina, from underneath in a rigid inflatable boat, and from above, in a helicopter – and never for a moment lost a sense of wonder. The Falls draw a million visitors a year. Soon, according to the forecasts, it will be five million. The Argentines are clearing more than a thousand acres of virgin rainforest to make way for a dozen new hotels and, unforgivably, a golf course. The Loi Suites is the only one open so far, architecturally stylish, friendly, but still finding its feet.
You have to see the Falls from both sides. Brazil has the shock-and-awe panorama, Argentina the heart-stopping pathways over the cataracts. First, head straight from the airport across the border to the Brazilian side and the only decent hotel inside the park, the Hotel das Cataratas. It used to be a state-run dump, but the government has leased it to Orient-Express, which is doing it up and getting a professional grip on the place. It's elegant and well run now – expensive (on the margins, nearly £10 for a glass of wine in the bar, very expensive) – but worth it for its USP. Before nine in the morning and after five in the evening, you have Iguaçú Falls to yourself. Priceless.
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Then go back across the border to the Posada Puerto Bemberg, a lodge in the rainforest. It is a 45-minute drive from the Argentine side of the Falls but worth it for the peace and quiet; for the amount of thought that has gone into making things simple; for the hospitality and perfect manners of the family, heirs to a brewing fortune; and for sundowners over the Parana river. A good place to reflect that you have seen only a corner of Argentina, a world in one country, and you will have to come back.
There's no substitute for a travel company that really knows Argentina. I travelled with Cazenove and Loyd (020 7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com), whose local guides were the best I have had anywhere.
A seven-night trip costs from £2,365 per person. This includes two nights at the Sofitel and one night at the Legado Mítico in Buenos Aires, two nights at Hotel das Cataratas and two nights at Puerto Bemberg, Iguaçu, all with breakfast. The price is based on two sharing and includes return international flight in economy with British Airways, internal flights and transfers.
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