Throwing oneself at Argentina is no joke. The collection of coasts, forests, mountains, deserts, plains and rivers is impossible to visit in one go. In Argentina, sooner or later everybody makes a choice what to sacrifice in place of where. But fret no more! After reading this article your gut will feel Argentina stronger than pre-poop Sunday morning.
Here are the Where, How and Why of Argentina.
WHERE is Argentina?
Pick up any globe (figurative or literal), take a look and see what fraction of a moment it took you to find Argentina. Even if your globe was the size of a golf ball, a lot of information should be already obvious.
Firstly, they have access to THREE oceans, meaning a long coastline. Argentines are a maritime nation, living in a splendid spot for international trade, fishing and penguin rodeos. You’ll also notice it’s in South America, Africa’s sister. Or cousin. Or disgruntled ex. (Not sure if continents sprout or mate or…).
Secondly, it’s in the Southern and Western hemispheres. Which means their seasons are reversed/versed (compared to the northern hemisphere), and that they breakfast when Europeans lunch and Japanese dine.
Argentina is a spear. Near-ideal natural barriers and size make it a big girl on the political map, at least in theory capable of deciding for herself. The only other player of similar-sized mojo around is Brazil – the biggest on the continent by area, population and GDP. Their western neighbor, Chile, isn’t particularly liked for helping the UK during the war for Islas Malwinas/Falkland Islands and for pushing the Andean border eastward. Argentina also has territorial disputes in the Southern Patagonian ice field and in Antarctica. Relationship with Uruguay is friendly, but patronizing. They like to call Uruguay “the royal province”, which annoys the hell out of Uruguayans. Bolivia is seen as a non-threat and Paraguay is of interest mostly because they supply (hydro)electricity from the Yaciretá Dam.
This is the high-level view. But how are things once we zoom in?
HOW is Argentina?
Argentina is the 8th biggest country in the world. It spans an impressive 33⁰ of latitude – roughly the distance between Washington DC and Bogotá, or between Italy and Afghanistan. The climate varies from extremely cold to extremely hot, sometimes mere hours away. And besides 37 national parks, there are areas no human has ever visited.
So… how to make sense of it?
The physical features
First, let’s look at the physical features. Any country is just an imaginary boundary containing hills, plains, valleys, forests, bodies of water et cetera. But no two mountains are the same, nor are the borders accidental.
The western (left, to those magnetically handicapped) side of the country is the mountains. Andes are the spine of Argentina, all the way from the head in the arid deserts, to the tail dipped in the Arctic Ocean. And the tallest peak around, including other continents named “America” is Mount Aconcagua (6961 m), found near Mendoza.
Stepping down from the mountains you’ll enter the Andean highlands. Some regions (Neuquen, San Juan) remind you of a spaghetti western, others (Tucumán, Catamarca) overwhelm with a thick jungle. A modest corner of these highlands in Argentina is the famous altiplano – the high plain, where Andes are the widest. Altiplano is the second largest plateau in the world, with salt flats, volcanoes, geysers, llamas and dust in the wind. Although most of it lies in Bolivia and Peru, Jujuy province is a nice introduction to the area. And while in the northwest, take note of the tropic of Capricorn, where baseball caps cast the perfect shadow.
The middle of the country holds the quintessential Argentinian landscape – pampas (meaning plains in Quechua). Pampas are the working intestines of Argentina, the linchpin explaining the history, economic prosperity and social composition, showing that culture is a function of geography. These are the grasslands the size of France and Ukraine combined – a perfect place for farming, cattle ranching and violent death by nature. If you fancy fresh steaks, tornadoes, farm produce, wildfires, floods and stampedes, this is your place.
The entire bottom bottom third of Argentina, thought to ‘ve been ruled by giants, is itself a giant. Patagonia – the kingdom of wind, unpredictable weather and unforgiving conditions. Patagonia is vast, harsh and mostly empty, Atlantic air masses travel great distances unobstructed, bringing rain and snow over what little vegetation there is.
|As noted by Charles C. Mann in his splendid I-can‘t-recommend-it-enough book, the disease must‘ve wiped out over 90% of indigenous people before Europeans had even reached Patagonia by land. Tierra Del Fuego was named after the bonfires all along the coastline!|
Sun, clouds, showers or hale show up at moments notice, like guests in a shared hostel room. Although Patagonia has a single name, it‘s incredibly diverse. British Columbia-style archipelagos and fjords in the south, steppe grasslands resembling Kazakhstan in the middle, gentle Atlantic coast in the east and the dramatic Pacific coast on the west (reachable only in the Chilean part of Patagonia), the unfriendly barren mountains in the southwest and dreamy fairy tale panoramas in the northern mountains…Lastly, there‘s Tierra del Fuego. The southernmost tip of the continent borders 3 oceans, making it lucrative in terms of water resources as well as international trade. The Drake Passage/Mar de Hoces (the stretch of ocean between Antarctica and South America) and the Straits of Magellan (the narrow water corridor between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego islands) are busy with trading ships, wildlife and tourist cruises to Antarctica. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, serves as a base of operations for anyone visiting Antarctica or otherwise enjoying their time away from humanity.
If Andes are the spine, then Río de la Plata is the artery of Argentina. The basin of the second longest river in the continent (Paraná) includes 4 out of 5 rivers over 1000 km long. And yet, there are plenty more – Río Negro, Río Colorado, Río Desaguadero provide a convenient way to haul any plunder west to east, irrigate the fields and survive’n’stuff.
Simply put, Argentina is beautiful.
What‘s there to dig
Any functioning country needs energy. The statement sounds trivial, but it’s not. Energy sources and habits reveal whether a country is a hummingbird, living meal to meal, or a camel, always bringing its lunch along. And things like safety, pollution, prices, access to goods or infrastructure become easy to grasp.
Argentina relies largely on fossil fuels, largely imported, largely redundant, as it has sufficient oil reserves for domestic needs and an enormous potential for clean and secure energy. The main method of producing electricity is burning natural gas. Gasoline prices are similar to Brazil, which is more than the USA, but significantly less than Europe. Thus travelling by car can be a smart alternative to buses and planes, as long as you fancy 20-hour rides.
Looking at nothing but energy, Argentina could be the next France. Already almost 1/3 of their electricity is produced in hydroelectric dams, with many great rivers still untapped. And the potential for wind power is enormous. A full ~15% of total energy consumption is up for grabs. Free money waiting to happen. Thanks to the post-war scramble for the cream of the crop of the scientific world, they also developed an atomic program. Just like Operation Paperclip, Juan Perón ordered the recruitment of nuclear physicists fleeing Nazi Germany. Today, nuclear power plants produce ~10% of electricity in the country. Although they import the fuel, there are unmined uranium deposits in Chubut and Río Negro.
Even though there‘s no shortage of conventional resources to mine (copper, silver, gold, titanium, uranium, oil and gas), the most important for years to come is potable water. This is a big deal for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Argentina is one of the few countries with the potential to come out stronger from global warming. Large plots of uninhabited land down south is the kind of place to settle if you‘re not the ark-building type.
Secondly, the abundance of resources makes Argentina susceptible to the Resource Curse. This means little incentive for innovation, diversification and stability, because resources are such easy money. Given corruption rates and decades of economic problems, it‘s easier to see why.Thirdly, Argentina‘s an especially sexy prey for the world superpowers. China has already established a base (never mentioned not pursuing military goals) and built a dam, both in Patagonia . And USA maintains its interest as well by building a base too. Foreigners building military bases in Argentina is almost curtesy at this point.
Remember that bit about pampas being the reason for economic prosperity? The world is always hungry for beef, citrus, soy, alcohol and wheat. It‘s apparent in the numbers and on the tables. I won’t list all the dishes, they’re just an internet search away. Instead I’ll mention which ingredients are bound to be cheap and quality there. The cultural triumvirate is yerba mate, wine and steaks.
Yerba mate (Misiones province) is a tea consumed with a straw (bombilla) from a special cup (calabasa/mate). It’s an alternative to coffee that’s as much a dietary as a cultural cornerstone. But I gave it proper attention in a separate article about the culture of Argentina. It’s apparent on every street and every park, but you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant to serve it. It’s consumed communally with own utensils.
Argentinian wine (Mendoza, San Juan) is famous around the world. The vines and technology have been around pretty much since the first European colonizers. Even if they have to dig deep for water. Avoiding lengthy monologue about the merits of this wine over other (to which I’m terribly underqualified), Argentina has many experts on all things wine, so a wine-tasting tour is in order.
To complete the meal, you only need a steak. Argentina is famous for its weekly ritual of asado, which is a fancy way of saying barbeque. Their beef is an exercise in quality and simplicity. With pampas, perfect for cattle and farming, little needs to be done to have very good food.
Naturally, there’s plenty more to try, especially given the size, diversity of climates and a history of immigration. There’s seafood, lamb, citrus, pastry, corn, cheese and much more. But I implore to check what a province is famous for before ordering.
Argentina was dealt a high hand, but it’s forced to play with one tied behind its back. The structures are clumsy, the system corrupt and history complicated. A living testament to colonialism being alive, well and rebranded.
WHY is Argentina?
So far we know she’s big, diverse, rich, beautiful and corrupt.
Not by accident. At least, not entirely.
The explanation begins with plate tectonics. You know, the outermost layers of our planet, floating on an ocean of liquid rock like a drunk uncle in a swimming pool. They float, collide, grow and recede back to the melting pot, shaping the landmasses and climate. The entire continent of South America and half of the South Atlantic Ocean lies on the South American tectonic plate. The plate moves away from Africa and pushes against the Nazca tectonic plate along the Pacific Ocean. Nazca plate, being heavier, ends up on the bottom, a.k.a. subdued. Thus, the Andes are the uppermost part of the outermost layer of the South American tectonic plate.
This explains a number of things about the region: the prevalence of precious metals and natural resources (all of the supreme shit from under the good ‘ol crust), the volcanoes (heat from the insides of Earth pushing through the cracks), the earthquakes (plates scraping each other), the divorce of South America and Africa… It even explains the name! Argentina was named after the silver, exported in byzantine amounts in the XVI-XVIII centuries. How was it transported? You guessed it! Hauled by boats on the River of Silver – Río de la Plata, which is the confluence of Río Uruguay and Río Paraná.
The world would be a radically different place if it wasn’t for the Argentinian silver. The rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, the Opium Wars in China, the global financial system, genocide of numerous peoples, proliferation of new diseases on a scale of the entire world and many other unprecedents trace their roots to a thin layer of shiny rocks on the sidelines of a tectonic plate.
Ever since the European colony gained independence and stabilized into a semi-functional political entity, the borders expanded. European colonizers found themselves by the mouth of La Plata. The enormous fields of flat, fertile land waiting to be conquered made settling pretty much a no-brainer. The network of rivers was born from the wet Atlantic air masses hitting the mountains and returning close to the ground, like bar regulars on a Saturday morning. Since the entire country, including Patagonia, is crisscrossed with long, navigable rivers, Argentinians didn’t wait for the invention of asphalt to get their sh*t and themselves transported. Shipment of goods, cut, mined or otherwise harvested, was never a problem.
In the XIX century Argentinians raced to take as much land as they can. As a result, the Argentina -Chile border ended up along the mountains. Had they allowed any other state to establish, they’d have a hard time driving them away. So having the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other makes border security less of an issue, despite having longer borders.
The state needed to populate the land, protecting the country and legitimizing the Argentinian claim. At the end of XIX and the beginning of XX centuries, Argentina was hungry for immigrants. They offered competitive wages and ample work opportunities – a life no less dignified than in the US at the time. According to estimates, between 1870 and 1930 the country received 7 million immigrants. Today, out of 45 million people (according to CIA), over 97% are of European descent (largest groups – Italians and Spaniards). The few black or indigenous people were either sent to the front lines, exterminated or simply haven‘t immigrated in large numbers.
This explains why Argentina is 92% Roman Catholic (only ~20% practice). It also gives some context to their political scene. Keep in mind that in politics, few things are more useful than conflict. But manufacturing one is definitely safer than dealing with pre-existing race riots, separatist movements and ethnic cleansings.
You can’t outrun geography. It’s always the starting point, even if it’s only lateral, even if it’s ignored. To make a conscious effort of understanding geography of a country is to unconsciously study its history and to shed light on its future. And if you’ve followed carefully, it’s future too.
Make your sacrifices meaningful.