Argentina—From the Andes to the Rio de la Plata

The customs station on the Argentine side of the Andes crossing that took me from Santiago in Chile to Mendoza wasn’t unbearably cold, for all that it was winter and the roof’s insulation was fraying and falling away in multiple places. More importantly, it was efficient, moving an entire coach, its passengers, and their luggage through and out in about an hour. However, our trip was already delayed, and that combined with a couple of police stops further down the road, meant that I only got to see the first part of the trip in daylight.

The Argentine side of the Andes is notably different from the Chilean side. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the geological forces that heaved up the mountains, as the Pacific is ground under the continental plate. But part of it is probably due to water and ice as well: most of South America’s rivers flow east from the Andes, and the rivers and glaciers there have alternately left massive deposits of sediment on valley floors and carved narrow channels through them. All around are vast sweeps of red gravel and great stacks of sedimentary rock heaved up and tilted, creating bands of cream, grey, and red that colour the mountains.

The Argentinian side of the Andes as dusk comes in.

Unfortunately, the best sights of the descent were lost in the dusk.

There’s no railroad that runs through the mountains on this route, though there must have been one once. Our bus ran parallel to an old single-line track that was still intact in many places, but broken up or buried under landslides in others. Perhaps it might get remade some day, and if so it would be well worth riding, but for now I suspect that the tunnel that took us across the highest part of the crossing has been stolen away and will not be given back.

In darkness I arrived in Mendoza, capital of Argentina’s wine region. Sadly, my stay was as short as it could be. I stepped across the street from the bus station into the spartan Hotel Bari and rested my eyes for as long as the sound of cars and barking dogs* outside would allow. Once up and showered, I had a breakfast of tea, cereal, and pastry smeared with dulche de leche, then headed back to the bus station. This time my Chevallier bus was completely on time and not completely full, so I got to sit back and relax as the winter sun shone down and we drove east, first to San Martin and San Luis, but eventually to Córdoba, where I would be able to actually explore a bit before the train to Buenos Aires. No wifi on this bus, despite what the sticker on the door promised, but the USB plugs provided power and the seat reclined, so I was able to rest and write and even watch a little Umbrella Academy as the miles flew by.

Sugar-soaked pastries for sale in Argentina.

Living on these would be pleasant, but probably brief.

After a brief stop in a bus station along the route, where I was able to refuel with pastries and coke, the bus trip brought us ever closer to an escarpment running north-south, some distance southwest of Córdoba itself. The view they provided was spectacular, rising as they did from the flat plains of north-central Argentina, but the setting sun beat us there, and sunset had come and gone by the time we crossed over. In darkness we passed by several smaller towns before we came at last to Córdoba itself, entering town from the west and driving through the centre before pulling into the Terminal de Ómnibus about ten minutes behind schedule. After a short delay to grab my bags, the Casa Urbana Hotel was only a short walk around the corner and proved a step up from my Mendoza lodgings. It was late though, so after grabbing some meatstuffs and starch at the La Herredura buffet nearby, I settled in for sleep and a day of exploring to come.

The corner of Córdoba I’d arrived in wasn’t the most prepossessing. Bus stations rarely inhabit the best part of town, and it took the dilapidated Estación Córdoba railway station nearby to make the bus terminal look good. Once again, it was clear that Argentina had once had an impressive rail network but had long since let it go to seed, to the point where there are only two trains per week between the country’s two biggest cities, even though the land between them is almost perfectly flat and open.

Estación Cordoba in Cordoba, Argentina.

Looks impressive, but it’s mostly a hollow shell, part of which is used for events.

That was a concern for the following day though, so I went exploring around the streets to the north of the Casa Urbana, eventually making my way to the Plaza San Martin, the heart of the city. My Lonely Planet guide hadn’t been much help in giving me an idea of what Córdoba had to offer, so I took advantage of a waiting open-top tour bus and climbed on board for an hour-and-a-half spin around the city’s highlights. I’d recommend it to any new visitor, though Argentina’s winter, while dry, can be cold in the mornings and proved chillier than any of my time spent in Chile. Not quite enough to make me put on my gloves, but enough to make me think about it.

Dropped off by the bus where it had started, I found myself essentially replicating its path on foot throughout the afternoon, with a few variations. A black-bun burger in the Black Pan restaurant before exploring malls and the Museum of the Natural Sciences, with its tiered exhibits of Argentina in the present and the distant past of megafauna before the Great Biotic Interchange and the arrival of humans upset the applecart of South America’s biosphere.

Three skeletons of South American megafauna.

Yes, these megafauna are particularly charismatic, even if they’re dead.

My wandering eventually took me to the Parque de las Tejas, a broad green space filled with activities for kids and athletes in the southern half of the city. I spent a pleasant hour wandering its winter-parched fields and avenues before the long stairway that acts as the park’s ceremonial entrance deposited me not far from my hotel. Having spent the better part of the afternoon just walking, I decided that a rest might be in order, and I retreated to the Casa Urbana, where all the staff were focused on the Argentina-Chile third-place game in the Copa America. In my room I watched it too as I updated my notes and charged my phone.

I did manage to venture out again after dark, this time across town to the Antares Córdoba bar, where a couple of cheap pints of craft beer were more than enough for this traveller’s underfed stomach. I solved the underfed problem with some ice cream next door and some provisions from the supermarket across the road from the Casa Urbana, but the combination of beer and ice cream was enough to send me to sleep before too long.

Cordoba’s town hall as seen from the nearby bridge.

All of this lights up in rainbow colours at night.

Of my last day in Córdoba, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. I packed and checked out after an Argentinian breakfast of toast smeared with dulce de leche and fruit, then went for an extended walk to use up the hours between checking out and my train journey. My loop this time was a smaller version of the day before, and this time in the opposite direction, but it took in part of the colourful Juniors district too, including a bust that looked rather too much like Peter Cushing in Star Wars for comfort, and a brief revisitation of the Parque de las Tejas. With more time, I’d say there’s much more to be found in Córdoba, but my time was up, and I grabbed my bag at around 1330 before heading down to Estación Córdoba.

I wasn’t the only person taking the journey, as the neglected grandeur of the old station featured a long queue, albeit one that shuffled on pretty smoothly. Soon enough I was seated in Seat 61, and after a brief snooze we were off. The initial part of the journey saw us crawl through some of the poorer outskirts of the city, with kids throwing stones at the train more than once, but soon enough we were out and into the countryside. Not accelerating though. This is a slow service—I calculated the speed at 32km/h at one point by timing the distance between kilometre markers on the road running parallel.

The train from Cordoba to Argentina.
The start of a 19-hour roll through day and night.

Still, the land remained resolutely flat throughout. We passed grain fields and wetlands, as well as through the backyards of several small towns, and even as far as the horizon there hadn’t been much sign of a rise in the land. It reminded me of the American Midwest, with its level crossings and isolated towns. As we cruised on slowly, the sun began to set, and I used up some of my limited battery (no USB connections here) continuing my viewing of the Umbrella Academy and writing up my notes.

I’d tried, when booking, to get a first-class seat, but things didn’t work out that way, so the one I had was in standard class. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, though with no reclining, there was a limit to how good my sleep was going to be. I kept on scribbling and watching as the darkness came in (the little girl beside me showed some interest in the Umbrella Academy, so I had to turn the screen away at some of the more violent bits), but after the lights were turned out at 2200, it was time to hunt for sleep. In this I was successful, more or less, though my neck didn’t thank me for the sleeping positions I chose.

The interior of Estación Retiro in Buenos Aires.
The European-style interior of Retiro.

With dawn came wakefulness, and the lights came back on around 0800. We crawled into Buenos Aires some time around 1015, a little behind schedule but not too much. Estación Retiro is one of those grand old cavernous spaces, with signs here and there of the expense that went into making it, but rather more signs of neglect (albeit less than in Córdoba—the rail lines around the capital are clearly better looked after and more used). As water and trail mix** do not a solid meal make, I grabbed a slice of pizza for breakfast in the station before going in search of my hotel.

Of course, walking out of the hotel and spotting a tall tower all alone in the middle of a green square, the Torre Monumental, was always going to distract me. What was I meant to do? Ignore it? No. I went straight to that sucker and bought a ticket to the top, enjoying the views of the city and the Rio de la Plata in the morning sun. My need to climb tall things having been satisfied, I finally descended and shortly thereafter found the Bisonte Palace hotel, my lodging place for the next few days. It was still a bit early for check in though, so I ditched my main bag and went off to get a feel for Buenos Aires.

Torre Monumental in Argentina.
Known as the English Tower before that unfortunate business with Las Malvinas.

Like most larger cities in South America, there’s a lot that’s relatable for Europeans. We’re all infected by the 20th century American virus, and Europe’s earlier colonial efforts have had plenty of effects. (That Torre Monumental was until the Falklands War known as the Tower of the English.) The Avenue 9 de Julio cuts through the heart of the city like the Champs-Élysées, and is named after Argentina’s Independence Day (coincidentally the day after I arrived). A little way downhill and to the east is a Docklands area that would be pretty familiar to Dublin visitors, though at a larger scale and with far taller buildings for the nearby financial institutions.

One thing that is entirely Buenos Aires’ own is the Costanera Sur, a wetlands park that flanks the city on the east, providing access to and views over the massive Río de la Plata estuary (only debatably a river in its own right, it’s the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers as they reach the sea). As it was winter when I visited and roamed around, there weren’t too many birds to be seen in the protected lagoons within the park, though I did spot some large, predatory-looking waders that I’d be fascinated to learn more about. Thankfully, I didn’t spot any snakes or alligators, despite warnings to alternately keep an eye out for them or not feed them. Which may amount to the same thing in some cases.

A path in the Costanera Sur park in Buenos Aires.
The Costanera Sur is a lovely place to walk, even in the dead of winter.

As I was tired, I didn’t do much more exploring beyond having a look round the locality of my hotel in order to secure some proper food and bottled water. Uniquely for this section of the trip, I have three whole days in this city before I have to depart, and with Independence Day set for the second of those days, I have good reason to be rested and ready to enjoy it. Also, what’s with the lack of Natural History museums in Buenos Aires? Don’t they have a lot of fascinating dinosaurs here? Sigh.

So, my timing in general wasn’t the greatest for Buenos Aires. The Monday I arrived saw most of the city closed or only half-heartedly open, and Independence Day the day after was much the same. If anything, the city was even more shut down as people took advantage of the public holiday. I tried and failed to get the hotel to do my laundry for me, and eventually spent part of the morning doing a loop around the centre of the city, exploring down the Florida shopping street, across to the obelisk in the centre of Av. 9 de Julio and the massive topiary “BA” that people were queuing to get their picture taken in front of, and beyond to the theatre district on the other side. Interesting but not highly active. Luckily, I had an appointment for the afternoon.

The Puerto Madero docks in Buenos Aires.
They even have a Caltrava bridge, the copycats!

A friend of mine from my old Masters course in Dublin settled in Buenos Aires a few months ago, and I met him at Retiro Station at around 1400. Together we rambled southwards as far as Plaza de Mayo, with its pink-coloured Casa de Rosada, as he told me stories of his own travels across South America (far more extensive than mine), then eastwards across Puerto Madero, the Dublin Docklands-alike, to the edge of the Costanera park, where we sat down and had some very tasty Choripan Completo sandwiches, washed down with Coke.

In a straight line west from the Plaza de Mayo is the Plaza del Congreso, where we headed once fed. Once again there were signs of protestors, and of cops keeping their distance, but the main attraction was the architecture. I’m no expert, but some of the buildings are absolutely gorgeous, with tall, narrow domes and baroque decorations across their facades. The influences are a complete mix of European styles, including French, German, Italian, and classical, and simply walking along any of the old neighbourhoods would be a treat for any architecture fan.

A street view of a building in Buenos Aires.
Just one of a huge variety of fascinating buildings in Buenos Aires.

For us, we followed the Av. Entre Ríos until we found ourselves surrounded by bookstores. There we dropped into the El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a former theatre converted into a bookstore and now featuring three or more floors of bookshelves arranged around the central hall. We’d made a serious loop around the city though, and the sun was setting, so food and drink were again an issue, so we headed back to the vicinity of my hotel. The On Tap craft beer bar was closed due to the holiday, but the Natacha cafe nearby could at least provide more straightforward refreshment. The rest of the evening was lost in The Temple Bar (!) just a few doors down, where slightly underwhelming beers mixed well enough with solid burgers and a subdued atmosphere (Argentines generally start eating and drinking later than us Irish) until it was time to part.

My last full day in Buenos Aires was the first day I got to see the city alive, crowded with people and traffic. It was also a day of walking a loop, the largest yet. First to Florida for medialunas and black tea in the Florida Garden cafe, then south along Av. Leandro Niceforo Alem, where I ran into a phalanx of cops in riot gear lurking near a crowd of protestors beating drums to a dance rhythm. I passed them all by and started my museum visiting at the Museo de la Casa Rosada, in the cellars of the presidential palace, where I experienced a run through the history of the presidency and a fascinating mural chamber in the company of a gaggle of schoolkids.

A painting of Juan and Eva Peron.
You can’t get too far from the Perons in Buenos Aires.

I dropped into the cathedral on the other side of Plaza de Mayo, but then I headed further south along Calle Defensa, under flyovers until I reached the Museo de Arte Moderno, which highlighted the fact that although pre-Colombian art was cut short, there are still art movements very much indigenous to this continent. In particular there were excellent exhibits from Max Gómez Canle, who mixes natural landscapes with unnatural intrusions to fascinating effect, and Flavia da Rin, who makes herself the subject of her art, altering her face and form to various effects.

After passing the fascinating San Telmo galeria market, the southernmost extent of my wanderings came at the Parque Leandro and the Museo Histórico Nacional, where I went through another run at the history of Argentina and South America at large, this time focusing on the revolutionary era and all leading to the sword of José de San Martín himself, guarded by a soldier in historic garb. (Many countries in South America have their own revolutionary hero: in Chile it’s Bernardo O’Higgins, in Argentina San Martín, and in Uruguay José Gervasio Artigas.)

The sword of Jose de San Martin, hero of Argentina.
The sword of San Martin, which is surrounded by the swords of his contemporaries and followers.

The time had come to turn the loop though, so I headed west along Av. Caseros, all the way to an overpass that provided shelter to some of Buenos Aires’ many homeless. Beyond this was the Plaza Constitucion railway station, another reminder of the railway glories that Argentina once had. From there I turned north, first along Calle Salta and then along Av. Entre Ríos again, this time all the way north to the Recoleta cemetery.

Recoleta is one of the city’s most upmarket neighbourhoods, and the cemetery is where anyone who is anyone in Argentina is buried. Lanes lined with mausoleums intersect across this space, with some of the shrines still well tended while others have long since started to crumble. Almost all of them have been designed to within an inch of their lives, for what’s the point in being dead if you can’t still outdo your neighbours? This was also the first place in South America that I came across any free-roaming cats. As in Ancient Egypt, they still act as guardians of the dead.

The mausoleums in Recoleta cemetery.
Mausoleums of all kinds, in varying states of repair.

I’d walked my feet off at this stage though, so it was time to close the loop. South along Av. Alvear with its ultra-swanky shops and hotels, to the French Embassy on Av. 9 de Julio. As a bonus, not only was I able to rest in the hotel for a while, I also bought some fridge magnets, got my ferry ticket printed for the next day, and picked up the laundry I’d left at a nearby laundrette that morning. All told, my most productive day in the city by a distance.

For my last evening, the plan had been to go for a steak dinner with my college friend, but it turned out that he couldn’t make it, so I headed out on my own later in the evening to Parrilla Pena, an old-school grill, where I was served enough steak and chips to put me into a meat coma. I struggled through a dessert of flan/creme caramel and dulce de leche, then staggered back to the hotel. Plans for a nightcap in On Tap were set to one side as I settled for an early night to get started on the hard work of digestion.

A dinner of steak and chips with Argentinian wine to go with it.
This took a long time to finish, but the Mendoza wine paired well with it.

That was mostly it for Buenos Aires and Argentina. The next morning I was up early to purchase provisions and pack, then check out and stroll the ten minutes distance down to the ferry terminal. Buquebus do regular services across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, and I was taking the noon boat to Colonia. A quick passage through immigration and a short wait in the boarding lounge, then shuffling onto the ferry itself (paying a little extra for business class gets you a glass of sparkling wine and a comfy seat on the upper deck). Then the ferry itself took off into the mists wreathing the massive river and the country where I’d spent most of the past week was consigned to memory and these notes.


*Stray dogs are a fact of life in Chile and Argentina. Less so the further east you go, it seems though.

**I’m convinced that trail mix exists mostly to convince you that you’re not really that hungry. Or that almost anything else is actually edible.

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