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february 14, 2005 -> argentina observations 

* Argentina began the 20th century as the 6th wealthiest country in the world.  Argentines used to vacation in the USA because it was so cheap.  Buenos Aires is truly a European city – with neoclassical and art nouveau facades, tree-lined avenues, and outdoor cafes – and its nickname “The Paris of the South” feels appropriate.  And Argentina itself is European; a nation built by Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants.  Unlike Africanized Brazil or the indigenous/mestizo countries of the Andes and Central America, Argentina is mostly white (many of the indigenous people were massacred in the late 19th century.)  Though seen as arrogant by its neighbors, there is little doubt that Argentina is the classiest and most sophisticated South American country. 

* But rich old Argentina has endured decades of hard times.  Today, it is not even the richest country in South America.  Both Uruguay and Chile have higher GDPs per capita.  A few months ago, Argentina restructured US$102 billion in debt (wiping off 70% of the principal and interest), following the largest-ever default by a sovereign nation.  In 2002, the Argentine peso was devalued by 30% - abandoning the 10-year 1:1 dollar peg, which had brought triple-digit annual inflation under control - unemployment soared to 20%, and the economy contracted more than 10%.  Since the initial devaluation, the currency has plummeted to nearly 3 pesos to the dollar – a 300% devaluation.  And this financial crisis is only the latest disaster to strike this proud nation.  In its near 200-year history as an independent nation it has known caudillos (regional barons), dictators, demagogues, embarrassing wars, state-sponsored terrorism, pervasive corruption and economic collapse.  As Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul once wrote (well before 2002): 

“The failure of Argentina, so rich, so underpopulated, twenty-three million people in a million square miles, is one of the mysteries of our time.” 

* Everyone in South America likes to make fun of the Argentines.  When talking with Brazilians and Chileans in particular, I got the sense that they were quietly pleased with Argentina's latest economic collapse.  Gabriela (our Brazilian friend) told us that Argentines used to be known in Brazil as the ‘damedos' (give me two) because they were always so arrogant when they came as tourists.  “How much is this?  Oh, so cheap! Damedos!”  Another popular joke is: 

Q: How does an Argentine commit suicide?

A: He throws himself off his own ego. 

We were told a story (not sure if it was true) that after Brazil beat Argentina in a particularly important football (soccer) match, the Brazilian phone company encouraged its users to call random numbers in Buenos Aires (for free!) to taunt them.

* Argentina is an incredible country.  It stretches more than 5000 kilometers from north to south, an inverted triangle that takes up almost the entire southern cone of South America.  This vast space includes deserts, wetlands, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands (the pampas), and the awesome Andes mountains.  Cruises to Antarctica leave from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.  Aconcagua (6,962 m/ 22,841 ft) is the Western Hemisphere's highest mountain - shared between Argentina and Chile.  Argentina also shares Iguazu Falls with Brazil, although it definitely got the better half.  We ended up spending more than a month in Argentina, and did not even visit its long Atlantic coastline.  Argentina boasts an incredible variety of outdoor activities (skiing, hiking, kayaking, fishing etc.,) and its resort towns are almost always clean and stylish – like little Aspens, complete with great restaurants, bars, and excellent souvenirs.  Chile may be richer than Argentina today, but its tourist towns cannot compare with those of Argentina. 

* One of Argentina's earliest export “cash cows” was beef, and the country remains a carnivore's dream.  Where else on the planet can you have a huge, delicious steak, French fries, drink and desert for less than US$4?  Rodrigo kept trying to convince me that the whole beef thing was a tourist myth, but I didn't believe it for a second.  From Ushuaia to Salta, every second restaurant is a parrilla (meat house), with butterflied beasts roasting over hot coals and being tended by the always male parrillador.  And what better to go with a thick steak a punto (rare) than a tasty bottle of Argentine red wine?  It wasn't so long ago that Argentine wine was barely fit for drinking.  Older Argentines still cut the wine with soda water, though the product can certainly stand on its own today.  Like many tourists to Argentina, we found ourselves enjoying a bottle a night, and probably more in Mendoza – the center of the Argentine viticulture. 

* Beware of “vegetarian” dishes in Argentina, which almost always include ham.  Order a vegetarian pizza and you are likely to find a layer of ham slices hidden beneath the cheese.  Pasta “primavera” (typically vegetarian) arrives with bacon bits and cubes of ham, and even chicken sandwiches usually have a few layers of ham thrown in for good measure.  We theorized that this tendency to “hide the ham” may have something to do with Buenos Aires' large Jewish population (the largest outside Israel and New York.)  If you don't know that the ham is there, perhaps you aren't really breaking the rules. 

* Argentines are crazy about dulce de leche, a creamy caramel that is used on just about everything.  It is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and is sold in supermarkets in enormous plastic packets.  (Some stores have whole aisles dedicated to dulce de leche.)  But the best way to enjoy dulce de leche is in an alfajore, a unique Argentine “cookie,” and the best alfajores are produced by Havanna.  Our favorite consisted of two graham-cracker cookies sandwiching a great glop of dulce de leche, with the whole thing dipped in milk chocolate.  How Argentines keep so skinny while eating all those alfajores is another mystery. 

* While the quality of food and drink in Argentina is very high, dining in Argentina can be a frustrating experience.  Few restaurants open before 8:00 or 8:30 pm, and they do not fill up with customers until 10:30 or 11:00 pm.  It is common for Argentine families to arrive at 11:00 pm, eat huge meat meals and leave well after midnight.  Nothing is open on Sunday, and many restaurants do not open at all for lunch.