SIZZLING SOUTH AMERICA Part I

You haven’t really travelled until you’ve taken on South America. The continent is home to astounding natural and cultural wonders, including the snowcapped peaks of the Andes, thousands of kilometers of magnificent white-sand beaches, captivating colonial towns and indigenous villages, and the Amazon rainforest – home to more plant and animal species than anywhere else on earth.

The challenge is deciding where to begin. With so much choice, it’s as though the continent was built for travel; a place that excites, thrills and challenges

You can sweat yourself dizzy on an Amazon canoe ride before ending the day caiman-watching on a black-water lagoon. Brave a white-knuckle bus ride down Peruvian slopes and be astounded by endless Andean vistas. Endure Patagonia’s wind-driven rain while chasing life-affirming sunsets or simply lose yourself in the break-neck chaos of Buenos Aires or Salvador.

South America however is not just about breathtaking sights – its stunning soundtrack is sure to leave your feet a-tapping long after you’re back in the day job. Sensuous Samba spices up the sandy streets of Brazilian beach towns, Argentine folk music trickles out of truck radios in the pampas and the jolting rhythm of cumbia makes those Andean bus rides even more absurd.

However, when it comes to experiencing this incredible land the real reward is undoubtedly the South American spirit. The entire continent approaches life with the enthusiasm of an old-fashioned road trip: windows down and stereo blaring. South America is a continent that engulfs you and changes you – your state of mind, your outlook on life. As soon as you step foot on South American soil, the transformation begins.

Argentina, one of the most – visited destinations in South America, is cultural and scenic pot pourri. Arriving in Buenos Aires is like jumping aboard a moving train. A mosaic of drab apartment blocks and haphazard architecture whizzes by as you shoot along the freeway toward the center of the city. Then the street life appears – the cafes, the purple jacaranda flowers draped over the sidewalks and porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) in stylish clothing walking purposefully past the newspaper stands, candy kiosks and handsome early-20th-century stone facades. And it’s not just Buenos Aires that’s a stunner – Córdoba, Mendoza and Bariloche each have their unique personalities and attractions, and are all worthy of your visit. Tango is possibly Argentina’s greatest contribution to the outside world, a steamy dance that’s been described as ‘making love in the vertical position.’ In Buenos Aires especially, you’ll find endless venues for perfecting your tango moves, from dance salons to milongas (dance events) to atmospheric cafes. You can satisfy that carnal craving for juicy steaks which isn’t hard to do in the land that has perfected grilling those wonderfully flavourful sides of beef. Parrillas (steak houses) are on practically every corner and will offer up any cut you can imagine. There is an exhilarating passion for fútbol – Argentines are truly devoted to this sport and experiencing a live match should be on your itinerary – and you have a rich edgy culture, part Latin American and part European that you can’t help but fall in love with.

While Argentina’s big cities have a lot of urban pleasures to offer, their real purpose is to springboard travellers into the country’s greatest attraction: the natural world. From mighty Iguazú Falls in the subtropical north to the thunderous advance of the Perito Moreno Glacier in the south, Argentina is a vast natural wonderland. The country boasts some of the Andes’ highest peaks, several of which top 6000m near Mendoza and San Juan. It’s home to rich wetlands that rival Brazil’s famous Pantanal, mountains painted in rustic colours, deserts dotted with cacti, massive ice fields and arid steppes in Patagonia, glacial lakes, Andean salt flats, penguins, flamingos, caimans, capybaras and more. These are all the unforgettable sights and adventures for you to experience and be amazed by.

Some world – class ski – slopes are located in Argentina. Las Lenas, Chapelco and Cerro Catedral all have decent snow from June to September. Argentina’s Mt. Aconcagua (6962m) is the highest summit in the Western Hemisphere, and should be only undertaken by the very experienced as it can take weeks only to acclimatize to the thin air. Mendoza offers plenty of scope to satisfy white water thrill – seekers. The Amazon has an estimated 15,000 animal species, with around 1800 species of butterflies alone! The same accessibility is also available in the Esteros del Ibera marshlands in Corrientes, while the Peninsula de Valdes is a great place to watch whales.

The weather in Argentina is wildly varied, from the scorching subtropical summers of Chaco and Formosa provinces, to the freezing, gale-force winter winds of Tierra del Fuego. Argentina’s seasons are reversed from the northern hemisphere’s. The best time to visit Buenos Aires is in spring (September through November), when the jacarandas are in bloom and temperatures are blissfully cool, and in fall (March through May). Summer (December through February) in the capital is hot and humid. Mendoza, Córdoba and the Lake District are all spectacular in fall: the leaves put on an epic display, temperatures are comfortable and the crowds are thin. Summer is the best time to hit Patagonia, when the weather’s milder and more services are available. In other seasons, public transport becomes trickier as services thin out. Northern Argentina can be brutally hot in summer and is best visited in spring. Winter (June through August) and fall in this region are also pleasant. Ski season runs mid-June through mid-October, and the resorts are most expensive and most crowded in July and August when every porteño (person from Buenos Aires) seems to be on the slopes. The most expensive times to travel are the Argentine vacation months of January, February and July.

Start your trip with Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina. Mix together a beautiful European-like city with attractive residents, gourmet cuisine, awesome shopping, a frenzied nightlife and top-drawer activities, and you get Buenos Aires. It’s an elegant, seductive place with a ragged edge, laced with old-world languor and yet full of contemporary attitude. Buenos Aires is somehow strangely familiar, but unlike any other city in the world.

In between cutting-edge designer boutiques, ritzy neighborhoods and grand parks are unkempt streets full of spewing buses and bustling fervor. In the middle of all the mayhem seek out the classic Buenos Aires: the old-world cafés, colonial architecture, fun outdoor markets and diverse communities. Rub shoulders with the formerly rich and famous in Recoleta’s cemetery, making sure to sidestep the ubiquitous dog piles on the sidewalks. Fill your belly at a parrilla (steak restaurant), then spend the night partying away in Palermo Viejo’s trendiest dance club. Come to Buenos Aires and you’ll understand why so many people have fallen in love with this amazing city, and even decided to stay. There’s a good chance you’ll be one of them.

Start with Plaza de Mayo, founded in 1580 as the city’s first central plaza. Plaza de Mayo is the symbolic and physical center of Argentina’s rocky history. The square’s name commemorates the May Revolution (1810) that began Argentina’s process of independence from Spain. Move on to Galerías Pacífico, a beautiful French-style shopping center which dates from 1889. The Galerías boasts vaulted ceilings with paintings done in 1954 by muralists Antonio Berni, Juan Carlos Castagnino, Manuel Colmeiro, Lino Spilimbergo and Demetrio Urruchúa. For many years the building was semi abandoned, but a joint Argentine-Mexican team repaired and restored the murals in 1992.

Also visit Casa Rosada, the rosy colored Renaissance – style palace which is home to Argentina’s presidential offices. You can then pass by the Cemeterio de la Recoleta where ‘streets’ are lined with impressive statues and marble sarcophagi. Crypts hold the remains of the city’s elite: past presidents, military heroes, influential politicians and the rich and famous. The neighbourhood of La Boca is you should head to soak in all that is typically Argentinian. The Caminito Street is famous for street tango artists and related memorabilia. The place also has numerous tango clubs and Italian taverns for travelers who want to taste local wine & cuisine.

Another city worth visiting in Argentina is Mendoza. A bustling city of wide, leafy avenues, atmospheric plazas and cosmopolitan cafés, Mendoza is a trap. Even if you’ve only given it a day or two on your itinerary, you’re bound to end up hanging around, captivated by the laid-back pace while surrounded by every possible comfort.

Lively during the day, the city really comes into its own at night, when the bars, restaurants and cafés along Av Arístides fill up and overflow onto the sidewalks with all the bright young people, out to see and be seen. All over the country and in much of the world, the name Mendoza is synonymous with wine, and this is the place to base yourself if you’re up for touring the vineyards, taking a few dozen bottles home or just looking for a good bottle to accompany the evening’s pizza. The city’s wide range of tour operators also makes it a great place to organize rafting, skiing and other adventures in the nearby Andes.

In the next post we shall explore the sultry & sexy country of Brazil