Meat, grilled on a “parrilla”, or braai grid, forms a very important part of Argentine cuisine. And you need a beefy vehicle to explore this vast country, where gauchos on horseback tend to vast herds of cattle. We chose the Toyota Fortuner as our steed for an Argentine adventure…
Text: Johann van Loggerenberg Photography: Jannie Herbst
Argentina! Why Argentina as the destination for an SA motoring adventure mag? we hear you cry. Well, don’t cry for us… No wait, this is getting corny. Back to the start.
Argentina, as a country, has always captivated us. Diverse; friendly, beautiful people; affordable; as much first world/third world as southern Africa can be; vegetation and landscapes similar to ours and vivid proof of the breaking-up-of-Godwanaland theory; 800g Tbones; a tumultuous history; fascinating Evita Péron; a fearless national rugby team – all tugging at the heartstrings of a South African with a bent for travelling…
So when an opportunity arose to combine business with a little pleasure, and to do an article with a difference, we grabbed it with both hands. There we were on an Air Malaysia flight from Jozi to BA (Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, old chap) touching down late afternoon after an earlymorning departure – thanks to a reversal of clocks over five westerly time zones.
After checking in and freshening up – not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – we trot into a parrilla restaurant close to our hotel, greeted by beef and pork carcasses stacked around glowing coals in the entrance hall. We’re looked upon rather strangely, as it is “only” half past eight on a Sunday evening. For Argentines this is more or less lunch time. The locals arrive for supper around eleven.
Being at 01h30 on our SA body clocks, though, all we want is a good meal… and some good wine. We find the local Malbec from the Mendoza wine-growing region rich and fruity – the perfect partner for the juicy 800g T-bone, which fills the plate.
Argentines consume 68kg of beef per capita in a year, down from 90kg in the 90s and 200kg 100 years earlier. Their slimness speaks volumes for Atkinson’s diet…
The following day starts with a tour of “the Paris of Latin America” in a large bus, with the tour guide rolling her r’s like a Malmesbury local: “This is Rgrrecoleta, where Evita Pegrron is entombed.”
The La Recoleta cemetery in the middle of one of Buenos Aires’ most up-market burroughs is quite spooky. There are cats everywhere – fat, skinny, playful, jittery, content, aloof – guarding the vaults. The deceased aren’t buried. The coffins are placed in mausoleums and the smell of embalming fluid is overwhelming in places. Famous people entombed here include presidents, scientists and leaders of industry. We find Eva Péron’s last resting place – in the Duarte family vault – but have to wait for other tourists to move on before we can take a pic.
There is a large craft market here over weekends, with bric-a-brac on offer that you won’t find at South Africa’s Rosebank rooftop market.
We see the Centro (the city centre), and the up-market Palermo and Florida Street shopping areas, with names like Hugo Boss, Louis Viton, Armani, Tommy Hillfiger, Gucci, Prada…
In complete contrast is La Boca, where Argentina’s most famous soccer son, Maradonna, still reigns supreme in shops around the La Bombonera soccer stadium, in the form of various mementos, including soccer shirts, bearing his name.
This is the neighbourhood early immigrants – mostly Italians – chose to build their houses from corrugated iron and wood, many brightly painted and offering good photo opportunities. There are souvenirs galore, but the neighbourhood is a little seedy and you don’t want to hang about at night.
We stop off at Plaza de Mayo, surrounded by the Casa Rosada, which is the seat of the national government – the square where just about every Argentine civil war and uprising had its roots.
For lunch we join Andres Storey, an Argentine World Rugby Classic player who did his part for the Pumas against the Springboks in this series last year, and whom we met when we stayed at Buffalo Hills near Plettenberg Bay for the recent VW Touareg shoot.
We meet in Puerto Madero – BA’s version of the V&A Waterfront – in a restaurant in what was a redbrick warehouse before this harbour was closed in 1898. The area was restored in the 90s and now comprises up-market restaurants, luxury apartments and offices.
The menu is a jumble of Spanish – tira de asado, vacio, bife ancho, cuadril, lomo, bife angosta – various cuts of beef ranging from ribs to rump to flank. Andy – as everyone calls him – orders four different cuts and we share, everyone getting a bit of each. The ribs win the taste contest.
Next on the itinerary is collecting a Toyota Fortuner from Toyota Argentina’s Buenos Aires office, followed by a nerve-racking trip back to the hotel. You drive on the “wrong” side of the road, taxi drivers straddle the lines, turning four lanes into three, drift from one side of the road to the other for no apparent reason, and drive at breakneck speeds. At the many intersections where there aren’t traffic lights or stop signs, the rule is to yield to the right – except when the vehicle from the left is a speeding bus.
A split second here is the time between the light turning green and the guy behind hooting…
Andy, being his own boss owning various businesses and it being school holidays, agrees to be our tour guide for the trip up-country. So he, his wife Carolina, their two young boys and their Golden Retriever join us on the road to the Esteros del Iberá – a huge reserve of swamps and floating islands, and more specifically the Estancia Rincon del Socorro – a farm lodge some 800km from the capital.
A two-lane highway takes us from BA north across the confluence of the mighty Rio Paraná and Rio Uruguay rivers, going single-lane past the turn-off to Fray Bentos and on to Gualeguaychú – “a tongue-twister ending in a sneeze” one scribe wrote. Just past the town of Mercedes, an 80km sand road leads to our final destination.
Once across the long bridges spanning the Rio Paraná and Rio Uruguay, the scenery is very similar to that in the Barberspan area in the old western Transvaal (North-West Province) – pan-like flat, water-rich and dotted with farmsteads surrounded by bluegum trees. There are cattle everywhere – Shorthorn, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus, and cross-breeds such as the Holando-Argentino, derived from the Netherlands’ Holstein breed and well adapted to local conditions.
For every car there are 10 trucks – this being the main road from the ports of Buenos Aires to the Mercosur countries – Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
They don’t even need our “this truck may not travel in the emergency lane” or more crude “geel streep se ma” stickers some of our trucks sport nowadays – there isn’t an emergency lane to pull on to. Well, there is, but the tar’s so thin that it will disintegrate when trucks drive on it, so huge humps every 30m discourage off-the-road manoeuvres.
So, to overtake you hang back waiting for the solid line to end, only to find that you were the only one heeding the road markings and are being overtaken by two trucks and five cars, most of which you’ve just overtaken at great risk in the responsive but left-hand-drive Fortuner…
Familiar with the roads and conditions, a low-flying Andy disappears into the distance, but we catch up again at a roadside stall where the Storey family is having a snack – a large cheese and fresh bread spread on the tail of their double-cab bakkie.
We pass the resort town of Colon, which lies on the banks of the Uruguay River and boasts sandy beaches, and continue to Concordia, known as the Capital Nacional de la Citricultura. As the name suggests, it’s in the heart of Argentina’s orange-growing region, and parked all along the road are buses that bring orange pickers to their place of work.
On the way we pass the Parque Nacional El Palmar, an 85-sq-km park established in the 60s to preserve the yatay palm, which once covered vast areas of this Entré Rios province, and also Uruguay and southern Brazil. It’s a magnificent sight, with some trees 20m high and said to be more than 300 years old.
The Fortuner is the 3-litre diesel, and we stop to refuel. It being a frugal engine, and with diesel at R3,35 per litre, it’s not too painful…
We stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant frequented by truckers and locals and enjoy wonderful fare – spinach ravioli with succulent pieces of pork – preceded by the local fast food, empanadas – pasties filled with mince, or just about any other filling you can think of.
The farther north we travel after lunch the more Indian the features of the people become, in contrast to the European looks of the BA inhabitants. It is particularly noticeable in the laid-back town of Mercedes, with its dusty streets and mopeds travelling three up.
A bit out of town we turn off on a badly rutted sand road, or “camino ripio”, with the comfortable and luxurious Fortuner riding the bumps well, and 80km beyond find Estancia Rincón del Socorro. This is a 12 000ha former cattle ranch on the edge of the Iberá wetlands that has been made into a nature reserve.
We’re met by our hosts, Leslie and Valeria Cook, and shown to our rooms in the tastefully renovated buildings. The main house on the estancia, “El Casco”, built in 1896 by the founder of the ranch, has been transformed into what is today the hosteria.
Built in the classic Spanish estancia style, the house has been completely renovated, although the original architectural lines have been retained.
The restoration of the building required two years of exacting work, using the same wood of this region for the windows and doors.
We see our first capybara – a large rodent the size of a pig – at the “laguna” close by. The lake is also home to alligators and 30 bird species.
The Esteros is best travelled by boat, much like Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but we drive up to the large Laguna Iberá – the closest you can get by road.
This is cattle country, with large estancias, or ranches. Farms with more than 5000 head of cattle are not uncommon.
We turn into a farm where gauchos, Latin America’s version of the American cowboys, are busy dipping the cattle against ticks. The sights and sounds overwhelm the senses. Gauchos bringing cattle from the lands and herding them into the kraals, men and boys herding 15 to 20 of them into holding pens before chasing them through the dipping trough with sticks and loud cries of “holliholli- holli-holli” – probably gaucho-speak for “move your rump”.
The wet animals go into one of two cement-floored pens where the dip running off the shivering beasts on this icy cold morning collects and runs back into the trough. It’s a well-oiled process. As soon as one drip-drying area is full the gate shuts that entrance and opens the one next door. When both are full, the exit gate to the first one opens to let them out. The six gauchos dip more than 500 cattle in three hours.
A young black-haired gaucho with the bluest of eyes is assigned to the parrilla – a well-used grid, where huge slabs of fresh meat are placed over the coals at an angle of about 45 degrees. Makes sense – the fat runs away from the coals, and there’s no black smoke to sully the taste…
We follow the same road back to Buenos Aires the following morning, lunch on cheese and bread, and arrive in time for the obligatory, but very entertaining, tango show. Beforehand we are given lessons – and find it not only takes two to tango but requires hours and days and years of practice, too.
The Fortuner goes back to Toyota Argentina with 2000km more on the clock, having done an excellent job on a variety of road surfaces, and we board Air Malaysia flight MH202.
We find Argentina everything we thought it to be – perhaps more expensive now for SA tourists than a couple of years ago.
It’s easy to feel at home there.