I’ve always maintained no one should form a strong opinion of a place until they’ve been there for a considerable amount of time. A weekend in Berlin, in my opinion, just isn’t enough to declare it a great or terrible city. Reading back on my posts over the last two months, I’ve noticed that there has been a fair amount of negativity surrounding Argentina. The food, the people, the weather, the nationalism. Having now completed an additional and final two weeks here, I realise that I myself am guilty of being too quick to judge.
Argentina is far more complicated than meets the eye. On the surface it is proud nation, with a strong self-made culture different from the colonial hangups I’ve seen in other South American countries. As I mentioned before, the people are more northern European than I first expected. Although economists may call Argentina a developing country, the cities and infrastructure are pretty developed in my opinion and the country works remarkably well for its colossal size and small population.
Underneath that surface, however, there is a lot of social and political tension. A mixture of frustration of what is and what could be for South America’s largest Spanish speaking economy. Political commentary shows, appealing to every demographic, run almost 24/7 on the nation’s impressive selection of TV channels. Scandals are rife, protests are extremely commonplace, and in an election year, colleagues, friends and families are divided over whether or not they are a ‘Peronista’.
Deeper still and you start to see the devisions in society typical in my experience of Latin America. Argentina is not like Brazil, Colombia or Chile. You don’t immediately see stark differences between rich and poor from street to street. It’s a bit more developed than that, I imagine similar to how most of Europe was post war. Barrios separate the rich from the poor. While the poor live a life not so different from the poorest on the continent, the rich live lives that rival rich Americans and Europeans, with access to every luxury. They socialise with each other, watching Polo or playing Rugby, and eat in extremely trendy cafes and restaurants where a sandwich costs more than the average weekly wage of their neighbours. In some ways I understand a country has to go through this gentrification, but the gap between what the poor live with and how the rich live is fairly grotesque to outright obscene.
Trying to understand where people get their money from here almost feels like playing with fire, it’s almost always better not to ask. If you’re lucky enough to find an honest Argentinian they’re likely to tell you that their parents of grandparents spent their lives screwing over those less fortunate than them. Or they were “rich” when their grandparents came over from Italy or Germany. That’s when I start to feel uneasy and stop asking. I realise there are a multitude of reasons why someone can have money and I wouldn’t begrudge it of anyone, but I, perhaps ignorantly, still feel quite uneasy about post-war migration of those with questionable morals. It’s not our generations’ fault, so on those occasions we’ve just laughed it off and carried on our conversation.
But it’s not all negative. These divisions in society were perhaps the least destructive, or at least the most progressive, in a continent where the difference between rich and poor can be extremely stark. Here the corners blur a little bit better as the middle class grows more rapidly than anywhere else in this part of the world. I suppose it’s just a process that every country has to go through at some point.
While I was a little dismayed by the constant references to the Falkland Islands wherever I’ve gone, the people themselves couldn’t have been more friendly. English is not so widespread, which gave me the opportunity to learn and speak a little more Spanish. Language rarely prevented any communication as, like the Italians, there is a lot of non-verbal language in Argentina. People are passionate about their city, their country and politics, and it can be heard almost everywhere you are.
Politics and of course ‘parilla’. Barbecued meat. Meat dominates Argentina, so much so, the people are blinded by anything that isn’t meat. To serve a meal without meat, is not a meal. To criticise beef, is to commit a sin. As a vegetarian, I have never found it so difficult to eat in a country as Argentina. The taxes on imported goods meant buying vegetarian alternatives or diverse ranges of foods often found in supermarkets around the world was almost impossible. Of course, as I often had a kitchen, I was able to buy vegetables from the supermarket and cook, but proteins, other than eggs, were extremely difficult to find. It cannot be overstated how important meat is socially, it is the basis of every conversation which isn’t about politics and the backdrop to every conversation which is.
Despite this difficulty, I eventually grew to enjoy the rhythm of life in Argentina. The small brunch cafes offering tostada and jam, the coffee culture, the well groomed parks, the thousands of dogs, the happiness of strangers, the afternoon naps. Buenos Aires as a city works pretty well, the metro is efficient and you can find pretty much anything you want. Internet is fairly good too and accommodation is very affordable, meaning you can get pretty great apartments for a good price (especially if you’re earning the pound). There are also a lot of meet ups for internationals, which made making friends and contacts really easy – it’s not a lonely city like many are – and restaurants, bars, even coffee houses are open way after bed time.
The weather is also a big help. You can change between climates relatively easily, from tropical in the north to polar in the south. You can ski in the west and hike the east. Internal flights are a lot less hassle than they are in Europe, and much cheaper too, especially if you’re a resident. It’d be quite easy to lose yourself in this sparsely populated massive country on the other side of the world.
In the last week or so, I would even say I could imagine myself being able to live here a year. Having foreign money means I would be able to afford an apartment I could only dream about back home in a city that has almost everything I could want (I’ll have to import food). I do feel a very long way away from home though, but I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to going back to the UK tomorrow. I feel like there is still so much more of Argentina I haven’t yet discovered – Salta, Bariloche, Ushuaia, the Welsh towns in Patagonia. I’ll probably just have to come back some day, next time replacing my computer with my walking boots.
I’ve been told by several people in Argentina that Uruguay is basically another province, “but just don’t tell them that”. Considering there are several ferries every hour departing Buenos Aires across the river to Montevideo and Colonia every day, it certainly doesn’t feel a whole lot different.
Here’s everything I knew about Uruguay before today. Flying over it, I can safely say it’s very green. It has or had a president who lived on his own farm and legalised marijuana. I was once told by a professor at university that Uruguay and Paraguay are so economically insignificant that they really needn’t be drawn on a map. A tad unfair, perhaps.
Colonia was only an hour and half away from Buenos Aires on a fast ferry. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, I didn’t want to miss it out on the opportunity to take a day trip over the river.
Colonia itself is very quaint. At times I felt like I was in St Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life all the way back home in Wales. The stone wall buildings and focus on farming are very similar. The weather isn’t too different either, with wind coming in off shore and four seasons every hour. I can’t really say much about the place because there wasn’t really much to do. Enjoy a drink, have some lunch, then go home. The more I think about, the more it really does feel like St Fagan’s.
Unfortunately I won’t have time this trip to visit the capital, Montevideo, but Colonia was a good taster of a more slow-paced and seemingly happier area of the world (apparently Uruguayans are among the happiest in the world). I would like to return some day to Uruguay to see more, but it’s unlikely a Brit would go to just Uruguay on holiday. Will have to see if I return to Argentina in the future…
I don’t really know where to start. The sun? The beaches? The Sugarloaf, Christ the Redeemer, Tijuca Forest? What about how good looking the people are or how wonderful the food is? Maybe I should start with the rooftop infinity pools or the views of jurassic islands or my first helicopter ride. I literally cannot imagine a place more beautiful on Earth than Rio. From favela grime to Leblon riches, Rio packs more into one city than anywhere else I’ve been on Earth and now I’m beginning to worry that everywhere else will seem mundane.
I was anxious coming here on my own. Christ the Redeemer has been on my life list since longer than I can remember, but I wanted to experience it with someone, rather than being alone. Rio is also known as one of the most dangerous cities on Earth, so I didn’t really know what to expect. My Brazilian friends told me it wouldn’t disappoint. And it hasn’t.
Before arriving last week I originally had only planned four nights in the city. I booked a hotel right on the beach using my hotels.com credit. My room overlooked the ocean, and the hotel had two pools. Despite being the middle of winter, Rio was a cool 30c degrees – ideal for sunbathing. I’ve ended up staying over a week.
On my first day I walked the length of Copacabana beach. While I’d later learn it was all part of some image-obsessed culture among the rich, when I first saw how many extremely good looking people there were playing sports, sipping cocktails and sunbathing I couldn’t help but feel extremely inadequate (and also quite lucky to see them :p). As you work your way up the coast from Copacabana to Ipanema to Leblon the beach huts get a lot more expensive, as do the clientele it seems.
The next morning I got up early to go up the Sugarloaf, where you can pretty much see the entire archipelago and coast of Rio de Janeiro. It is gobsmackingly beautiful. No one will blame me for initially wondering how they managed to build on such varied terrain, but quite quickly I realised they did so illegally and out of desperation, without planning permission and with zero guarantee of safety. Favelas litter Rio’s landscape, in corners you’d never even think possible.
On my way down the mountain I noticed a helipad. Over the next few days of sunbathing, it’s all I could think about.
By Tuesday, it was clear I didn’t want to leave Rio just yet. Buenos Aires was far… and cold… and the food… So I moved my flight and extended my trip. A friend I’d made in Curitiba wanted to visit me in Rio and go sightseeing together. I was happy to have some friendly company and excited to get to see Christ together with someone – exactly how I wanted. Thiago also convinced me to take the helicopter ride. It didn’t take much.
Riding in a helicopter has been on my life list since I built one in Lego Technic, so you can imagine how excited I was. We fly up and around the peninsular and then over to Christ the Redeemer to do a 360 turn around. The view was out of this world and I was so excited I’m not sure if any of my photos came out well. I’m not sure if I’ll be in a hurry to do it again in another city, but I’m so glad I can say I have now.
The next day we got the tourist bus up to Christ the Redeemer. It was heaving with people all vying to take the best selfie. It got a bit vicious. This disappointed me a little and it was a bit ironic that such narcissism was happening right under Christ’s gaze, but that’s life in 2015. The statue itself is impressive, but the view he gets is more so. I challenge anyone to find somewhere that feels more ‘on top of the world’ than here. If the only reason you come to Rio is to go up the Redeemer, it’s worth it.
Safety. I feel like I should mention this. To be honest I didn’t feel unsafe, especially around the more touristy beaches. There was a restaurant near my five star hotel which looked more like a mafia hangout than somewhere you’d want to eat pizza. A line of scantly dressed girls sat at the front, vying for you to choose them over your dessert. Not pleasant. Other than that, walking around day or night didn’t feel any more dangerous than any other big city.
The same cannot be said for downtown. There we no tourists around and the sights in the guide book looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie than somewhere you’d take your family. On asking a taxi driver to take us to one area, he asked if we were joking. Add this to someone getting shot dead in a favela just behind my hotel while I was gorging on my chocolate covered waffles and it all does feel a bit wrong.
Despite its problems, Rio is an incredible city. What it lacks in history, it makes up for it in natural beauty. The culture here, what it means to be a ‘Carioca’, is pretty strong too, even if I interpret that as being a little bit superficial (ok, a lot superficial). Still, I would happily return, if only for a beach and nice hotel holiday.