Argentina: my guide to becoming a meat eating, Spanish speaking, mountain climbing cowgirl reporter
I was moving to Argentina to be a Journalist. A magazine in Mendoza at the foothills of the Andes mountains wanted me to write about wine tasting and the extreme sports in the area.
My Spanish was fairly basic and I’d come from tiny Bermuda, population 63,000, and landed in Buenos Aires, population 15 million. I’d been a vegetarian since I was 12 but I intended to throw myself into everything Argentinian so when I landed I went straight to a parrilla grill and ordered a steak, medium rare. Turns out that’s not the Argentinian way, they like it well done. Whatever, I was a carnivore.
I knew one person, a South African friend I’d taught with in Mexico who’d been living in Buenos Aires since we finished teaching a year or so ago. Over the next few nights we went to secret restaurants in hidden courtyards and bars and clubs filled with the world’s most beautiful people. By day we walked from barrio (neighbourhood) to barrio. From the ghetto of La Boca to watching tango dancers in the streets of San Telmo, the designer’s mecca of Palermo Soho to Eva Peron’s resting place at the famous Recoleta Cemetary. It is a beautiful and outstanding city, really one of a kind.
After 3 days it was time to board the bus for Mendoza, an 11 hour drive to the west. The bus company transporting Argentinians around their vast country was called Andesmar, and it is a legend of a bus. The seats recline and there’s a guy who comes around and pours you red wine, gives you bingo tickets and then calls out the numbers. As the bus hurtled towards the desert that surrounds Mendoza there were excited cries of “bingo!” through the night, mainly mine.
The magazine had found me accommodation with a local family. I arrived at Mendoza’s hectic bus station and used my Lonely Planet guide to find the house. The family was incredible but goodness me did I find them difficult to understand. They spoke a million miles an hour while it took me a week just to ask for water in my Mexican Spanish that had been slightly improved by my Colombian teacher in Bermuda. Confused? So were they. Like all Argentinians the family ate their evening meal together at 10pm when the heat had subsided. I was desperate for bed but made myself stay awake and I was glad I did. We bonded via Spanglish over the course of the night, a routine that was repeated most nights I was there.
The next day I walked into the city and found the magazine and its British boss, Alfie. The magazine was a bit of fun for Alfie but his main interest was his wine tour company. Alfie was smart, funny and quite the entrepreneur. He told me there was no money in the magazine but if I needed some cash I could be one of his tour guides. To be clear, I knew absolutely nothing about wine, but that wasn’t a problem for Alfie.
But first thing was first, I had a journalistic assignment! A bus was going to pick me up at dawn the next day and drive me up into the Andes so I could white water raft down the rapids of the Mendoza river. It was a reporter baptism of fire – literally sink or swim. The landscape was harsh; sheer rock faces with magnificent condors circling the blue skies above. The bus dropped me off at the rafting base in the small village of Potrerillos and the tourists and I were given an Argentinian rafting instructor called Roman who spoke some English. His instructions were fairly brief; chiefly, don’t fall in.
It was unbelievable fun, so exhilarating. We were soaking wet and freezing cold with Roman shouting at us indiscernibly over the roar of the water and the sound of our hearts pounding in our ears. When we’d navigated the raft boat through the rapids and made it to the calm of the river I was on top of the world. Back at base we sat around a fire drinking Quilmes beer. I was in Argentina! I had survived the rapids! I fancied Roman! Wait, what? I did, the feeling was mutual. He asked if he could see me again and we started dating the next day. What happened next??
I wrote up my article and Alfie loved it. He also found the whole Roman situation hilarious and wanted me to stick around, I was given another assignment – paragliding off a mountain. This time the bus picked me up in the afternoon and drove me out to the Andes for sunset. A group of us rattled around on the back of a truck as we climbed higher and higher. Safety gear on, parachute laid out, we leapt off the mountain in tandem, riding the wind and watching the sun set over the Andes until we touched down to earth half an hour later. Life was good. But money was not, it was time to start working for Alfie in a tour guide capacity.
I joined one of his tours to watch how it was done. It is impossible to learn about wine and winemaking in a day, you can’t, I was a nervous wreck. But the next day I picked up the American tourists from their hotels and together with the tour bus driver drove them out to incredible wineries around Mendoza. Some looked like Spanish villas, others like spaceships, but we were always greeted by a member of staff who took us on a tour of their cellars and gave us a tasting. I made mental notes of all that they said and with each of my tours my guide material grew larger.
And that’s how it was for months, one day taking tourists to wineries, the next out on horseback giving them a gaucho experience. Gauchos are cowboys from the South American pampas – a name given to the large treeless plains of this huge, diverse country. I’d take the group to a ranch, choose the right horses for them based on their size and experience and then walk or gallop along the plains and then to the vines where an actual gaucho and I would cook the asado of blood sausage, chorizo, goat and steak.
Sometimes tourists wanted to go further up the Andes to Aconcagua, the highest mountain peak in the Western Hemisphere. It was sacred to the Incas and now nicknamed the Mountain of Death for the number of mountain climbers that died there. Alfie’s tour involved me taking them to the lowest base camp, Plaza de Mulas. It’s high altitude there, about 4,300 meters above sea level and breathing is difficult. For some tourists just being there was enough and they’d stay in the bus, others wanted me to walk them further up the mountain. The mountain caps were covered in snow but at that level it was mainly brown and barren with minimal flora or fauna. I can’t say I had any desire to go any further up, I was very happy to respect Aconcagua from afar, gracias.
After Plaza de Mulas we started the drive back to Mendoza stopping along the way to look at rock formations.
A place that felt very special to me was Puente del Inca, a natural bridge over the Las Cuevas River formed by glaciers and hot springs. Charles Darwin visited it in 1835 and made sketches of the bridge and its stalactites. Afterwards the Argentinian government built the Transandine Railway up through the Andes and Puente del Inca became a thermal resort. Now all that remains is a market where the locals sell their wares; brightly coloured woolen jumpers and hats, handmade pots and pieces of the mountain. The air, the landscape, the kids’ faces – it is an experience worth having.
Amazingly I was getting tipped very well and was starting to really feel an affinity with the place. I was writing restaurant reviews and articles about football matches for the magazine and knew the city like the back of my hand. I’d enrolled in another Spanish class where I met one of the best and most fun people in the world, a Kiwi called Fiona. She was also a rafting and hiking instructor and had an apartment in the city. She’d let couch surfing backpackers stay for free so the place was always a hive of fun internationals with stories to tell. With Roman coming down the mountain after he’d finished rafting each day we made quite the gang.
One morning at my family’s house I woke to the sounds of dogs and birds going crazy outside. A few minutes later the house shook violently. Initially I thought it was the teenagers upstairs before I realized it was an earthquake. Mendoza had been flattened by one in 1861 and lost a third of its population. The city had been rebuilt with low-rise buildings around communal parks that acted as meeting points, but the fear was still palpable. We all ran outside in our pyjamas and watched the house wobble, the dad passing us cigarettes to calm our nerves. Their house like everyone else’s in the neighbourhood survived, this time.
That year I existed on coffee, cigarettes, red wine and meat. On Christmas Eve, the biggest day of Christmas celebrations in Argentina, I was struck with a stabbing pain in my stomach. And then another and another. After a little while of escalating attacks Roman picked me up and carried me through the streets of Mendoza trying to find a doctor or hospital that was open and that would see me. It turned out my delicate little vegan tummy of years prior was not equipped for all this flesh and all these parasites. Roman burst through a hospital door and someone took pity on me. A doctor bent me over and injected morphine into one bum cheek whilst pinching the other. It was very Argentinian. I would get attacks over the next few years. I am now a born again vegetarian.
My visa only allowed me to stay in Argentina for 3 months at a time so every quarter I would get the bus to Chile, stay a weekend and then return. Good old Andesmar took me over the Andes to a border checkpoint with Chile where I always showed my Australian passport and hid my British one. There’s a history between Argentina and Britain because of the war over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas as Argentina calls it, and also that interesting ‘hand of God’ incident. I thought it was a wiser move to play my Australian cards.
As soon as you got to the Chilean side of the mountain the landscape changed to green and lush. Santiago de Chile is another fabulous city, smaller than Buenos Aires, less European and dare I say it, less pretentious? Other than beer and wine Argentinians drink Fernet, a bitter liquor originally from Italy that they mix with coke. I couldn’t stand it. Santiago de Chile was all about the pisco sour; delicious egg white, sugar and lime. On one trip my friend from Buenos Aires and his friends came with me and it was just one of those weekends where you remember laughing non-stop.
When we got back to Mendoza I took them to my friend’s restaurant out in the countryside. She was a Canadian chef who had persuaded her parents to come with her and setup a winery and hotel in rural Mendoza. That day was perfect; her parents so generous, the food delicious, their property beautiful. A week later I heard that bandits had stormed their house, stolen everything and shot the father. He eventually recovered and they returned to Canada, the dream now a nightmare.
This was happening more and more frequently in the area with guests at wineries being thrown to the floor at gunpoint while their wallets and jewellery were taken along with the profits from the winery. The tour bus driver Diego and I were understandably on edge. I remember pulling up at one winery and getting out of the van to open the customers’ door. A car’s exhaust backfired and Diego and I threw ourselves onto the ground. Realising it was just a car and not gunfire we picked ourselves up and I calmly started pointing out the Malbec grape vines. They must have thought we were mad. Diego and I found it all very funny later with each of us reenacting the other’s dramatic dive.
But I didn’t want to do it anymore. Fiona had met a South African couple who had bought a horse farm and needed someone to look after it while they went back home for a few months. Fiona and I went up for a weekend and fell in love with the place. It was simple, stunning and so peaceful. We agreed to look after the farm and animals and they agreed to let us turn it into a hostel, a rural Argentinian experience for intrepid backpackers. This is actually kind of where the adventure begins.
To be continued…