Argentina is a territory that defies a single definition. It has the power to amaze or exasperate, but it is never less than fascinating.
From the sub-tropical jungles and steamy falls of Iguazu to the frozen Antarctic waste of Tierra del Fuego, that one territory can contain so much diversity defies belief. This diversity is reflected in the enigmatic but colourful Argentine people. They define the fiery Latin American temperament - fiercely patriotic as they are history tells of more than one occasion when hell-bent self-destruction of their country was imminent. And this split personality seems to run through every aspect of their lives - the romance of Evita sits alongside the swaggering machismo of the gaucho cowboys, and the daily siesta is still adhered to while life around it moves at a blinding pace.
However, strange as it may seem at first, after a few days it all seems to make sense. Why sleep at night when you can sleep during the day and party all night? It's not all tango either, visit Buenos Aires and you'll find a city capable of rivalling any other in the world for the range and variety of entertainment on offer.
But to come here just to sample city life, no matter how unique a city Buenos Aires is don't miss out on the rest of the country. In its northern reaches and the far-south Argentina has two of the world's greatest natural wonders - the Iguazu falls, larger than Niagara, and the Moreno Glacier, one of the world's few growing ice-fields. In between there is a veritable wealth of history mingled with nature. The colonial towns of early Spanish rule remain relatively untouched, while in the shadow of the Andes, high on the puna, you can find a way of life that pre-dates even these centuries-old invaders.
Argentina has its problems but, while it's wrong to dismiss them, few people let it affect their outlook on life. It all goes towards understanding the country's immeasurable romanticism, where a street kid from Buenos Aires can become the world's greatest footballer, and throw it all away again, and an actress can capture the heart of a nation. Come and fall in love for yourself.
Although most accounts of Argentine history begin with the arrival of the Europeans and the subsequent Spanish colonisation of the territory, there were at least two significant cultures here before the conquistadors. To the north-west of the region, on the high Andean plateau, were the Diaguita. A predominantly agricultural society they cultivated maize and cattle. Further east Argentina was ruled by the Guarani, a sophisticated civilisation of semi-agricultural village dwellers.
The rest of the nation was the province of various semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and isolated pockets of people. The first Europeans arrived with Spanish explorer Juan Diaz de Solis in 1516. Although Solis died the same year, he lasted long enough to claim the land for Spain. Ten years later Cabot visited and pushed his way into the interior of the country via the Parana River. He established a fort near to current day Rosario and explored the upper reaches of the river as far as Paraguay.
Buenos Aires was established in 1580 despite native resistance, but Argentina remained a colonial backwater. The Spanish were more interested in the wealth of Peru, and the king was so little enamoured of Argentina that he granted the Jesuits the massive territory in the north-east where they established their missions, the bold social experiment that elevated the Guarani to become the most sophisticated civilisation on the planet.
Meanwhile capital Buenos Aires was rapidly becoming a den of hardy mercenaries. Denied legitimate trade it became a thriving centre for smugglers to and from the Americas. When Spain fell under French rule in 1806 the British occupied the port but were ousted almost immediately by a citizens' army. Ostentatiously this force opposed the French on the side of the deposed Spanish King Ferdinand, but it soon became apparent that the Argentinians cared for neither France nor Spain. In 1816 the country was declared independent and General San Martin's army crossed the Andes, where it sacked Lima, throwing off the colonial yoke on both sides of the mountains.
The 19th century was characterised by political posturing from the country's two political factions and a short civil war following Buenos Aires' desire for independence. There were also several skirmishes and border disputes with neighbouring countries, most notably the War of the Triple Alliance, when Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay combined forces against Paraguay, which had infringed on Argentinian borders. This was also the age of the grand cattle estates (estancias) on the Pampas - that employed the free-roaming gauchos, the cowboys that define the Argentinian way of life.
The country remained neutral during World War One and was enjoying one of its more prosperous times when the global depression of the late 1920s and 1930s hit the economy hard. Unemployment led to social unrest and the rise of right wing influences. Although President Ortez managed to keep corruption at bay and declared neutrality in World War Two the influence of German agents and domestic right wing factions was strong. Several top-level power changes occurred, but, it was only in March of 1945, months before the war's end, that Argentina declared war on the Axis countries.
Post-war a new political party came to the fore. The Peronistas were led by the former military colonel, Juan Domingo Peron - an instrumental figure in the political movements of the war years. Married to ex-actress Eva Duarte he was immensely popular with the people, although not as popular as his charismatic and beautiful wife who the people christened "Evita". Peron instigated a five-year plan of economic expansion and threw out German influences established in the war years garnering popularity.
Peron soon began to lose favour though. Firstly he instituted a constitutional change that would allow him to run for the presidency for a second term in 1952. This was also the year of his wife's death, and as the country was plunged into an emotional depression by the loss of their icon, Peron's shortcomings as an economist were becoming apparent. He instituted another five-year plan, this time with an emphasis on agriculture rather than industry. However, with the cost of living rising uncontrollably the people were losing faith; in many cases literally, as Peron also alienated the Church by instituting several reforms against the basic tenets of Catholicism.
In 1955 Civil War broke out as the Navy and Air Force attempted a military coup. The Army put the rebellion down, but a few months later itself took part in a second coup. Peron resigned and fled after just three days of conflict. From the 1960s a succession of presidents fostered better trade relations with the rest of the world, but even in exile Peron had considerable influence. The Peronistas were eventually voted into power once more by a landslide in 1973 under Campora. Peron returned from exile in Spain and Campora resigned the presidency in his favour.
Almost immediately the country dissolved into uproar, and riots broke out in Buenos Aires. Peron died in 1975 and his third wife was installed in his place. Her inept rule resulted in the military once more seizing power as the country degenerated under rising living costs and imminent economic collapse. Leader Lieutenant General Videla soon controlled the situation through force and a reign of terror characterised by a programme of disappearances. In 1982 General Galitieri came to power and united the country temporarily by invading the "Malvinas" - the Great Britain owned Falkland Islands. Britain swiftly recaptured the islands and Galitieri was replaced by General Bignone.
Some national pride was restored in 1986, when the country won the football World Cup in Mexico, but the economy was still very fragile and by the 1990s under President Menem Argentina was under a programme of austerity. Reconsolidating its massive national debt and selling off national companies it was able to just about remain solvent.
The new millennium has seen deeper problems for Argentina. Defaulting on a repayment of its USD140billion debt at the end of 2001 the country was plunged into political, social and economical crisis. Rioters took to the streets of Buenos Aires and the entire government resigned as unemployment shot up and the cost of living soared. Following Nestor Carlos Kirchner's election as president in May 2003, however, inflation has stabilised and the unemployment rate has fallen. Argentina still has many economic difficulties to grapple with, but is at least currently on a fairly even keel and faces pivotal Presidential elections in 2007.
Everyone will tell you that Argentine culture is the sum of a massive and varied influx of Europeans, but if that's so it's certainly become much more than the sum of its parts.
In its staunch Catholicism and outlook on life it is distinctly European, and few places seem to value Siesta as much as Argentina.
The Argentines are also hopelessly romantic. There are few countries on earth that can claim the same history as this territory however, which fell in love with its own president's wife and remained enamoured even after the nation began to fall to pieces under his leadership.
The other over-riding passion of the nation is football, almost displacing religion in people's priorities on occasion. Perhaps the greatest exponent of this particular sport sums up the country better than any other. A kid from the streets of Buenos Aires, Maradona was the finest player of football that ever graced the world stage, through the 1980s he turned soccer into an art form, and is revered more highly than anyone in Argentina today. Yet Maradona, as well as being the finest player in the world was also the most vicious perpetrator of the worst side of the game. He persistently cheated, complained and fouled, and in the final stages of his career was found to be using drugs. But this matters not to the Argentine people. They value beauty above all else and can forgive any number of flaws if the person committing them has charisma and charm - forgiving Maradona's transgressions as merely a precocious cheek that comes with prodigious talent.
The culture is also extremely machismo, with the epitome being the swaggering Gaucho cowboy, with his knife tucked into his broad belt. What would be considered offensive in many countries is seen as merely boyishness here, although at the same time something of a matriarchal society persists with the eldest female often being the most deferred to person in family groups.
Dos and Don'ts
Feel comfortable smoking in almost any public place. In some bars there is a division between smokers and non-smokers, but these norms are not socially nor legally respected.
Chat to your hosts. They adore speaking with foreigners about soccer, family and just about anything else. They also love to hear foreign accents speaking Spanish, a source of seemingly endless amusement.
|Do not take regular taxis in the street. Call to ask for a "radio taxi" or to a "remise". There are plenty of these companies in Buenos Aires. In the provinces, you can trust a little bit more in common cabs.
Do not ask for help or for directions to anyone in the street. You can be "betrayed" by your accent in Spanish or just by speaking English and thieves can identify you as a possible victim.
Don't buy or use drugs in Argentina. Penalties for doing so are extremely harsh and may involve imprisonment. Failing that you will certainly be deported and banned from re-entering the country.
Don't be over-formal when greeting. People generally kiss one cheek (even between men) or they shake hands if there is a business relation between both persons or if there is a big age difference between them. Women are almost always kissed on one cheek.