From the northern jungle, along the foothills of the mighty Andes Mountains and the endless plains down to the icy ‘Land of Fire’, Argentina is a country of contradictions – many worlds in one, both in terms of its nature and its people.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Adobe Stock, Unsplash, @travelbuenasaires and Shutterstock

From the northern jungle, along the foothills of the mighty Andes Mountains and the endless plains down to the icy ‘Land of Fire’, Argentina is a country of contradictions – many worlds in one, both in terms of its nature and its people.

Words Michel Cruz, Photography Adobe Stock, Unsplash, @travelbuenasaires and Shutterstock

Distant from the world’s northern epicentre, Argentina is a land we sometimes forget about, then rediscover and marvel at. It comes to us through bursts of passion, be it football, dance, or the economic and political upheavals that are also an integral part of its history, only to sink back into isolation. This is not how life is experienced from within this fiery country, but how we tend to see it from afar, as something of a Spanish-Italian mix at the bottom part of South America.

But Argentina is big, almost as big as India (more than five times the size of Spain), with almost half of its population living in the massive ‘Paris of the South’, Buenos Aires, followed by sparsely populated endless expanses that reach to the very south, where the continent’s glaciers almost touch Antarctica. A country this large could never be uniform, and Argentina is the sum of distinct landscapes and cultural regions. To most who make the long journey here, touchdown is in its lively capital of over 15 million inhabitants.

Buenos Aires is the focal point of the nation, its fast-beating economic, cultural and political heart, and the place where the contrasts begin, including fierce rivalries between football clubs, social classes, and the political ideologies they represent. The Porteños, as inhabitants of this huge agglomeration are known, reflect the predominantly Spanish-Italian ancestry and cultural influence on the capital through their speech, which is like Spanish spoken with the accent and sing-song melody of Italian.

Though Argentina is primarily Spanish-Italian in population and culture, this is a melting-pot of nationalities, with larger concentrations of indigenous Amerindian and mixed Mestizo people in the rural Chaco, Andes and Patagonian regions, where they contributed to the famous Gaucho cowboy culture. Buenos Aires itself was like the New York of South America, welcoming in a multitude of European and Middle Eastern immigrants from the mid-19th to latter 20th centuries.

As a result, Argentina’s population includes descendants of English, Welsh, French, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Croat immigrants, as well as Oriental Asians, Christian and to a lesser extent Muslim Arabs, and Afro-Argentineans, followed by more recent migrants from countries such as Bolivia and Paraguay. But this is a country that is not so much divided along racial-ethnic as upon political-economic lines, and this along with a poor distribution of wealth has contributed to a great deal of instability.

Huge Wealth And Potential

With so much in the way of natural resources and human creativity, Argentina is a land of great wealth and a potential that it somehow fails to realise. But it wasn’t always so – for the first half of the 20th century this was one of the richest nations in the world, so what went wrong?

The southern part of the Americas was one of the last regions colonised by the Spanish. With its sparse population and lack of indigenous empires and obvious riches, it originally held little interest for them, in spite of the legend of silver mountains that led Genovese explorers in service to the Spanish crown to give Argentina its Italian-based name – Argentina, land of silver. For much of its history, this was largely an agricultural frontier land where a Spanish upper class suppressed the indigenous population, but then it all changed.

The abundance of good agricultural land held the same promise to millions of European settlers that the USA did, and so millions of Spaniards, Italians but also others came, transforming this typical South American colony into the Mediterranean version of the United States. Buenos Aires grew into a huge port and industrial city, a replica of the USA but with the elegant avenues and cafés of Paris, and by the late 19th century Argentina was industrialising and had grown rich on agricultural exports.

This expanded further during the 20th century, when grand new monuments, parks and palaces sprung up in the capital, including the widest avenue in the world, 9 de Julio. During World War Two, the country became the largest food exporter in the world, emerging into the 1950s with tremendous potential for the future.

And then it began to fall apart. Not unlike neighbours such as Brazil, a period of political instability reappeared that was reminiscent of the many civil wars and conflicts of the 19th century, and Argentina became a land of extremes.

Far left fought with far right, the richer became richer and the poor poorer, the result of a closed social and economic system where prosperity was restricted, not earned, and the middle classes gradually began to disappear. Juan and Eva Peron were national heroes that divided opinion, as always, and by the 1970s even populist leaders of this kind gave way to a military dictatorship that began a period of suppression known as the ‘Dirty War’.

Thousands were arrested, imprisoned or disappeared, a black period in the history of Argentina that culminated in the Falklands War of 1982. What was meant to alleviate political pressure at home ended in military defeat and the end of the dictatorship, as the junta leaders had not counted on Margaret Thatcher sending a task force to the other end of the world to recapture the distant British islands inhabited by 2,000 of its descendants.

Since then, democracy has nominally returned to Argentina, but mired with corruption and continued political and economic instability in a country where periods of extreme growth and recession do nothing to alleviate a very poor distribution of wealth. Not surprisingly, the nation continues to be polarised in many ways, with Boca Juniors representing the socialist workers’ movement just as River Plate stands for the more conservative middle and upper classes.

A Passionate People

The two find themselves in the national football team, which has the unique ability to unite a nation passionate about the sport and always believing in glory. Where the 1978 world cup title of Mario Kempes and brothers might have felt somewhat forced, the glorious campaign of Maradona, Valdano and others during the 1986 world cup in Mexico set the record entirely straight, even more so than last year’s title win led by Lionel Messi. In Argentina, however, football is a life and death matter but even so only one of many passions.

In its harbour, sailors and immigrants brought the culture, food and music of especially the Mediterranean to these shores, giving birth to the iconically Argentinian tango, whose roots lay in the harbours of Italy, Spain and southern France. They also brought mostly Italian pastas and desserts into the national diet, yet for much of Argentina’s culture one has to leave the capital and search in the vast interior. This is where its cattle and sheep rearing gaucho culture was born, and with it the meat barbecue cuisine that we know and love Argentina for.

Visit these parts and you’ll notice a change in the way the Spanish language is used. In fact, there are four main dialects in the country, and outside of Buenos Aires they begin to sound more Spanish, South American or even Andalusian. This land is so vast that it cannot all be taken in during one visit, unless you plan to stay for months. There is so much variety to see and experience, from the famous waterfalls of Iguazu and the Chaco wetlands of the north to the mighty Andes Mountains and their more native culture, the vast pampas plains that never seem to end, and of course the icy southern tip of Argentina where you have to remind yourself that you’re in South America, not Norway.

Southern Patagonia and the island of Tierra del Fuego are home to spectacular national parks with beautiful mountains, lakes, forests and glaciers – a nature lover’s paradise. But it’s not just countryside that you’ll find outside of Buenos Aires. There are large cities such as Rosario and Córdoba, as well as coastal resorts and cities like Bahia Blanca and Mar del Plata, not to mention a beautiful region dedicated to the cultivation of another of Argentina’s great exports: wine.

To truly explore, experience and understand this fascinating country, you should taste a bit of it all.