Buenos Aires feels like a place one could live in. Coming in from the airport, it looks lush and green, with none of the peeling suburbs that greet you in so many capital cities. Our rental apartment is in Palermo, an upscale neighbourhood of cafés and designer boutiques with a Mediterranean feel. The apartment is vast and white and loft-like, with concrete floors. You could be in Barcelona or Naples. Kathy’s flight from Washington gets in shortly after mine from Paris. We eat lunch at the parilla (grill) downstairs, and then I drag her off to look for the Casa Borges, where the writer was born. You can’t go in, but from the outside, it has a subtle, quirky air. Inside there might be monsters and labyrinths.
Argentina is the most European of the South American states, and in some ways you feel entirely at home, but this is the Southern Hemisphere, and things are different. The monsters and labyrinths are of course invisible to the naked tourist eye. What we notice first is the climate. It’s March, the summer is over, there’s a cool breeze blowing up from Patagonia, and winter is coming.
Kathy’s daughter Lara joins us next morning, and we head for the Recoleta Cemetery to pay our respects to Evita: saint, whore, jefe spiritual, “that woman” – take your pick. The cemetery is vast and well-kept, laid out in a tidy grid of narrow alleys. All the best dead people in Buenos Aires are here. Eva Duarte de Perón resides in a plain black marble tomb. Her corpse was removed from the country soon after her death, but she was finally laid to rest twenty-two years later.
After lunch at La Biela, a grand old nineteenth-century café whose terrace is shaded by a venerable gum tree, we head downtown. The Microcentro district is the financial and administrative heart of the city. At the height of its wealth and glory, in the late nineteenth century, with immigrants pouring in from Italy and Spain in search of a better life, Buenos Aires aspired to become the Paris of the South, and built accordingly. The eight-lane Avenida 9 de Julio claims to be the widest street in the world. The Teatro Colón was for years the biggest opera house in the Southern Hemisphere, until Sydney overtook it in the 1960s.
Heads spinning with traffic and jetlag, we stumble round the Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of the desaparecidos demonstrate on Thursdays. Today is Monday, there’s some kind of activist tent city, and cars pounding all round the square. At one end is the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, painted an unappealing salmon pink colour to symbolize the blending of the red of the Federalists with the white of the Unitarists in the nineteenth century (don’t ask). It has a balcony overlooking the square where politicians come to stir up national passions. This is where Evita used to whip up the “peasant resentment” of her descamisados (shirtless ones). Further down the square, the Metropolitan Cathedral is a shrine to José de San Martín, Argentina’s most revered hero, who liberated Chile, Peru and Argentina from the Spaniards in the early nineteenth century. I’m intrigued to realize that the Libertador is a neighbour of mine. There’s a statue of him in the park across the road from my house in Paris.
The first European to reach Buenos Aires was Pedro de Mendoza, who made landfall in San Telmo in 1536, and founded the settlement of Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire (at a time when traffic pollution must have been much less acute). San Telmo remained a fashionable residential area until an outbreak of yellow fever drove out the bourgeoisie, and Italian immigrants took over their elegant mansions. It claims to be the birthplace of tango, and is supposed to be the haut lieu of urban poetry, but we missed the Sunday market, and nostalgia is in short supply on a Tuesday. A couple of mediocre dancers are practising their craft on Plaza Dorrego, surrounded by the output of some mediocre painters. It’s the Argentine equivalent of the Place du Tertre. The dancers are technically proficient, but short on passion. They pass the hat round the tables when the shift is up.
South of San Telmo is La Boca – which also claims to be the cradle of tango – and which is a district of Ill Repute. The guidebooks warn about not straying out of the tourist areas, the people at the next table in the café on Plaza Dorrego advise us not to go there on foot, and the taxi driver instructs us not to come here at night. No por la noche. He says it twice and with emphasis, to make sure the gringas have understood. But in daylight, La Boca is fun. After quiet San Telmo, it’s a sort of funfair thirties slum. It was founded by Genoese dock workers who built corrugated metal shacks along the dockside and painted them with whatever colours were left over from the ships. The result is a lurid hodge-podge of low-lying buildings running along one or two main alleys: yellow staircase, pink sidings, orange balconies, all mixed up together. Shops sell tourist tat, restaurants offer cut-rate menus, Carlos Gardel blares out on every corner. Gardel was one of the most famous tango singers of the 1930s, killed in a plane crash in 1936. His songs feature plaintive violins, bouncy bandoneons, and a suffering tenor voice that sends old-fashioned shivers down your spine.
Back in our laid-back yuppy neighbourhood, Kristoffer, the apartment manager, born in Sweden, drops by to change our euros and dollars into pesos, and advise us on where to have dinner. The Argentine peso is so low that the locals are desperate to get their hands on some serious currency. There is much talk about the Argentine Debt, protests break out sporadically here and there, and at one point there’s a public service strike. For us, however, everything is cheap. Restaurants, taxis and trendy boutiques are well within our reach. We don’t get jolted out of our happy tourist bubble until the end of the week, when a taxi driver refuses one of Kristoffer’s hundred peso notes. The heladería doesn’t want it either. Alarmed, we rush home and check our piles of notes, holding each one up to the light to inspect the watermark of Evita. Only two are fake. Kristoffer apologises and agrees to change them. The monsters and labyrinths recede.
The ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay takes an hour and a quarter. We arrive in Colonia del Sacramento at half-past one. It’s a quiet, still, grey day. There is no one to be seen, and no cars on the road. After the chaos and energy of BA, it’s disconcerting. But at the entrance to the Barrio Historico we find the Restaurant Florida, which has lace tablecloths, antique ornaments in a glass-fronted bookcase, and Carlos Gardel record covers on the walls. The owners are elderly, and speak clear distinct old-fashioned Spanish. (Argentine Spanish is slushy: Cafayate becomes Cafajate, and “llamar” becomes “jamar.”) The owner’s father came from Bordeaux, and the cuisine is advertised as cocina de autor, auteur cuisine. We have an exquisite three-hour, three-course lunch, accompanied by two bottles of Tommasí, a delicious Uruguayan Chardonnay that just slides down. After that, there’s just time for a quick stroll round the historical centre. Colonia has some attractive colonial buildings, cobbled streets, a lighthouse, a vast central square. Tourists are few and far between. The season is over. On the way back to the ferry we see a few men sitting on their porches, and some little boys on bicycles who scream, Holà, how are you!
Back in Palermo, we’ve taken to having breakfast in a café called Bartola that has nursery-coloured pink and blue chairs, a wide choice of brunch, and delicious medialunas (croissants). A poster at the entrance says: La vida es como la bicicleta – hay que pedalear hacia adelante para no perder el equilibrio. (Life is like a bicycle: keep pedaling or you’ll lose your balance.) Anyone who rides a bike in Buenos Aires must be insane. The traffic is ferocious, and the city is huge. In a week we only skim the surface. There are districts we don’t get to, and monuments we don’t see. As the days go by, culture shock is kicking in. The Catholic underlay and the European faces make you think you’re at home, but it’s a whole parallel universe down here. The politicians are people we’ve never heard of, and so are the rock stars. The shops sell clothes in colours that are brighter than we’re used to, created by designers whose names mean nothing.
The Museo Evita is housed in an elegant mansion that was originally bought by the Eva Perón Social Aid Foundation in 1948, and converted into a shelter for homeless women. The Museo claims to “disclose truth with historic rigour,” and a few book covers at the entrance acknowledge that there is indeed a “white myth” and a “black myth,” but any negative impressions are soon swept away by film footage of adoring crowds and bereft mourners, and glass cases of glamourous dresses. Evita was a star of radio soaps during the Thirties, and became a political figure during the Forties, when she married Juan Perón. She died of cancer in 1952, aged thirty-three. The military thought she was a dangerous whore, and shipped her body out of the country. The Argentine film Eva no duerme (released in 2015, the year after our trip) tells the story of her macabre posthumous existence, and draws a straight political line from Eva and her descamisados to the Generals and their desaparecidos.
Back to tango. After the elusive sighting on Plaza Dorrego, we try to find a milonga, which is a place you go to dance, watch other people dancing, maybe take some lessons. Milongas are supposed to have sessions in the late afternoon and in the evening, but the ones we find are all closed. One of them has a drawing on the pavement showing you how to place your feet, so we try that instead. We are not gifted. It seems that Serious Tango People don’t come out until after dark, but we have dinner reservations. La Cabrera is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires. It occupies three or four addresses stretching over two city blocks, and there’s a queue in front of each one. The steaks, like all the steaks we’ve eaten this week, are far too big for any non-Argentine to consume, but they give you a map of the cow to help you navigate the menu.
Abandoning a side-trip to the pampas to see the cows in situ, we fetch up at the Museum of Latin American Art. It’s housed in a striking trapezoid structure. Glass walls allow natural light to flood the exhibition space. It houses over five hundred works of twentieth-century Latin American art that were collected by a local millionaire. Some of the Cubist works are clearly influenced by Braque and Picasso, but they’re so drenched with colour that they have an entirely different feel. There are paintings by Rivera, Kahlo and Botero, but most of the works are by artists I’ve never heard of: Tarsila do Amaral, Xul Solar, Jorge de la Vega. More of the parallel universe. A temporary exhibition by the Peruvian fashion photographer Mario Testino is called In Your Face. The photos show Beautiful People baring their fangs in various states of dress, undress, and feigned sexual arousal, all preparing to leap down from the walls and devour you. It’s a bit like being at the zoo.
It’s Kathy’s birthday, and we have seats for the show at the Esquina Carlos Gardel. Although it’s a tourist venue, the setting is elegant, the food is all right, and the dancing is not bad, though the older dancers have a flair and style that the younger ones have yet to acquire. Tango, like wine, has to age.
Lara goes back to Washington, and Kathy and I get down to business. A few years ago we took a swing through the Napa Valley, and we’re anxious to pick up research where we left off. Argentina is the world’s fifth-biggest wine producer and the industry is centred in Mendoza, on the edge of the Andes. We leave Palermo for the airport as dawn is breaking, and reach Mendoza mid-morning.
The wine harvest is over and Mendoza is quiet. It’s a functional little town organized in a grid system of one-way streets, which they call contra mano. Street signs are an optional extra. The locals don’t like drivers who don’t know where they’re going, and they keep their hands on the horn. After driving three times round the block counting the intersections, we locate our hotel, which is called the Bohemia. Oil paintings decorate the pool, and there’s a bookshelf in the bar. The rooms are cramped and the shower is lukewarm, but the owners are friendly and helpful. We spend the afternoon in the park recovering from early rising, and dine on grilled chicken in a nearby parilla. The wine is a Malbec called Finca La Linda that I discovered in Liverpool last year. Nice choice, says Marco, our friendly waiter, who has spent time surfing in Hawaii.
Most of the bodegas that offer wine tours and tastings are scattered along Ruta Nacional 40. Bicycles can be rented to tour the vineyards. We had assumed that Highway 40 was an idyllic little country road with wineries nested on either side, but it turns out to be a four-lane highway lined with warehouses. There’s an unappetising shopping mall on the edge of Mendoza, and an entrepreneur selling dog food from a pick-up truck. More serious is the fact that today is feriado, and most of the wineries are closed. We fetch up at Roberto Bonfante, where the only tour is in Spanish, a language we don’t really have down, but there are no better offers. The guide is a very nice lady who takes our group through the process of wine-making from start to finish. Most of the finer points go over our heads. Dudas? she asks, preguntas? Doubts? Questions? but linguistic deficiencies prevent us from expressing either. She urges us on to the next part with Adelante! and is kind enough not to charge us for the visit.
We drive back to Mendoza for a late lunch in a cavernous Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and artificial lighting that looks like the kind of place the Godfather would take his family. On the main square, the Frente de Izquierda (Left Front) is endeavouring to break the holiday calm with megaphones and a small band of demonstrators. It’s not at all like Napa here. Not a single health food store or trendy clothing boutique. Well-dressed Mendoza seems to favour T-shirts and tracksuits.
Over the next two days, we visit four more wineries. The Bodega Lagarde is foodie paradise, and we indulge in a gastronomic lunch of honey melon soup, pumpkin terrine, goat cheese on beet mini cake with hummus, and fillet steak, each with its own specially chosen wine. Not entirely sober, we roll across the road to Luigi Bosca, the producers of Finca La Linda. The climate here is cutting-edge commercial, they produce one million bottles a year, and the winery has a Californian air.
Next day, at CarinaE, a “boutique bodega for high-quality wines,” we meet a Frenchman called Philippe who came out to Argentina to work for EDF, found an abandoned vineyard, and stayed on. The bodega uses the traditional cement vats that have been phased out in some vineyards to produce what they call “Argentine wine with a French soul.” It’s a cool grey day, and the Andes are hidden by mist. Our guide is an amiable young man who offers us a choice of wines, accompanied by sausage and cheese. I opt for the in-depth experience with five different Malbecs, while Kathy is more open-minded.
Our last stop is at Catena Zapata, which is built in the shape of a Mayan pyramid, and has delusions of grandeur. Catena is an empire producing five million bottles a year. By buying up smaller vineyards, they’ve created a vast range of wine. There’s a guard with a walkie-talkie, a barrier across the road to keep out the riff-raff, and a stone and marble interior that could have been built for Mussolini. In the grandiose oval cellar where the wine is stored, the barrels sweep round the corner into the distance. After the tour, our guide gives us a lesson on how to assess the wine. First you swirl it round, then you smell it, which she calls “first nose.” Then you do it again, “second nose,” and discover that the smell is different. Then you take your first taste, swirl some more to let the air in, and taste again. The first and second sips are completely different. We may not know what we’re looking for, but at least we know how to do it.
Next stop is Salta, a colonial city on the edge of the Andes, founded in 1582. The plane lands as it’s getting dark, and the drive into town is a nightmare. First we miss the turn off the highway, and then we get lost. The town is laid out in another contra mano grid system, and there are no street signs. It’s too dark to read the map, buses thunder past, drivers hoot, the car mists up, the ventilator fails to shift it. We’re relieved to reach the hotel.
The Hotel del Virrey is vast and dark and colonial, and we are given a huge room furnished with what looks like Grandmother’s cast-offs, on the ground floor overlooking the street. There’s an iron grille over the window. The first night we enjoy strewing our possessions around after our cramped quarters in the Bohemia: the second night, having discovered a succession of quiet, white, unoccupied rooms on the courtyard side, we are not pleased to have been fobbed off with the the ugliest, noisiest room in the hotel. Still, the water is hot in the shower.
Salta is rougher and tougher than sleepy Mendoza, with a frontier edge and more colour. Bolivia is not far away and there are more Indian faces. It has a colourful, noisy town square with trees and fountains, stalls selling local handicrafts, a mournful Andean guitarist singing something impassioned, and a pink and white colonial cathedral that looks as if it were made by Baskin Robbins.
The Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montana was set up to exhibit the mummified bodies of three Inca children who were found in 1999, preserved in ice, near the summit of Mount Llullaillaco. They were sacrificed to the Inca gods in the early 1400s. The museum exhibits a range of artifacts that were intended to accompany them into the next world, describes the expedition that found them, and explains how the sacrifices worked. The children came from high-born families, the sacrifice was intended to ensure the continuing fertility of the land, and it was considered an honour to be chosen. The three children, a young boy and girl, and an older girl of around fourteen, travelled to Cuzco in Peru for the ceremony and were then taken home. The journey would have taken months. After being welcomed home, they were taken up into the mountains and entombed. Studies have shown that the children, especially the older girl, imbibed considerable quantities of chicha (an alcoholic drink) and coca, in the months before they died.
It’s all rather grisly, and we’re happy to fall into the nearest restaurant and order a glass of wine. Salta is another wine-producing area, and I’m developing a taste for the local Torrontés, which is not the same as the one produced in Mendoza. The Mendoza Torrontés grape is an uva mentirosa that is dry and fruity at the same time. The grape up here is crisper and more straightforward. Eating our Ensalada Caprese, with mozzararella that comes from goats and is unexpected in colour and texture, we watch the comings and going on the Plaza 9 de Julio. (The Ninth of July is a very big deal: it’s the day Independence was declared in 1816.) There are old gents in pullovers, schoolchildren in uniforms, sharp young lads with jeans hanging off their hips, women carrying quite large children (not a single buggy in sight). Sellers of necklaces and pink Rolexes offer their wares politely, but don’t hassle us.
By late afternoon, we have exhausted the town’s colonial and sociological opportunities and seen a great many churches. The light is drained and dusty; people flop in the square. A young mother is asleep on a bench, and the baby beside her is sleeping too. The culture shock we barely noticed in Buenos Aires is creeping up, and the baños (restrooms) are getting worse. We go in search of an ATM. Our supply of pesos is running low, and tomorrow we’re leaving for a three-day trip to the back country. In Mendoza we got done by the traffic cops for not having our lights on, and it might well happen again. At dusk, we retire to the hotel swimming pool with headphones and a bottle of Malbec to watch the sun go down. Kathy has an audiobook, and I listen to music. Out here on the edge of the desert, it takes Bach and Brel and the late great Roy Orbison to keep me grounded.
It’s 159 km from Salta to Cachi, and the trip takes five hours. We leave as soon as it’s light, which is not until eight. All of Argentina is on the same time zone as Buenos Aires, and we’re quite far west. It rained in the night, but around ten the sun comes out. By then we’re up in the mountains. The road is unpredictable, but the views are amazing. We stop for coffee and a visit to the baños, buy some earrings from a lady selling silver jewellery, and peel off a layer of clothes. We’re about to enter Los Cardones, a national park, where there are no services at all. The landscape is spectacular and desolate, red soil, grey rock, cactuses standing guard like sentinels on the hillsides. Traffic is sparse. Layers of cloud, high and low, grey and white, off-white and pearl, light and thick, cotton and gauze, drift past the mountain peaks and float across the plain.
By one o’clock we are in Cachi, feeling smug that we survived the wilderness. Cachi has a central plaza, a simple church, and not much else, but the hotel where we’re staying is delicious. El Cortijo has low beams, flagged stone floors, and is decorated in warm earthy reds and browns. The service is friendly and the food is excellent. It’s so cosy that we linger longer than we should the following morning. The distance to Cafayate is 154 km, about the same as the previous day, and we think we’ve got it down. It’s a beautiful clear sunny day and the sky is a pure deep blue. At least we have the wit to fill the tank and buy bottles of water.
The road is far, far worse than the previous day. Nine-tenths of it is unpaved, and the surface is dreadful. Why did nobody warn us to get a four-wheel drive? There are emergency telephones every few kilometres, but we’re not anxious to have a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. We crawl along. We cringe every time a stone bounces off the car. It’s less isolated than yesterday, with occasional houses and dried-out pueblos. We average 20 km an hour. This gives us plenty of time to admire the landscape. There are mountains all around us with snow capped peaks. Little clouds drift out of nowhere and perch on their summits. Dogs stray in the dust along the road.
Around lunchtime, we stop in Molinas, in the hope of finding sandwiches, but there’s only a sleepy restaurant across from the church and we want to keep moving. The only thing worse than breaking down in the midday heat would be breaking down at night. It’s starting to feel very Thelma and Louise. Kathy wonders when Brad Pitt is going to show up, but he doesn’t appear. The mountains have been thrust up from the earth and tortured by the wind into strange quasi-human shapes. Twenty kilometres out of Cafayate, the paved road begins. You can hear our whoop of joy back in Bolivia.
Cafayate is a pleasant little town. It’s the centre of a big wine-growing area, and if we had had time we would stay longer, but we have to get back to Salta to catch the plane to Iguazú. We squeeze in a morning visit to a bodega in the town centre, but the tasting is jinxed by the arrival of a large group of morose, middle-aged French tourists, who look as though they have got up too early, driven too far, and heard too much, so after a rapid lunch of empanadas and a glass of Torrontés, we get back on the road. It’s 190 km back to Salta, but the road is good. The Quebrada de Cafayate is a landscape of towering red ravines and weird rock formations, scarlet and crimson, rust and vermilion. As we get closer to Salta the mountains flatten out, the traffic gets thicker, we get stuck behind trucks of corn, and start to stress, but we reach the airport in plenty of time for the Hertz guys to do their long weird South American routine on the computer, check in for the flight, and decompress in the bar.
Aerolineas Argentinas flies a circular route from Buenos Aires to Mendoza to Salta to Iguazú and back to BA. The flights work like clockwork. The planes are clean. The flight attendants are polite and impersonal and address us as “Lady” (gap in the training manual there). The invariable inflight snack consists of one lemon cookie, one chocolate cookie, and a packet of crackers.
When we get to Iguazú, night has fallen, and the sky is full of stars. The drive to the hotel takes us through what seems to be the rain forest. It’s dark and tropical, faintly menacing. We’re staying at the Sheraton, the only hotel in the national park, and the only one with a view of the falls. Since it’s dark we can’t actually see them yet – but we can hear them.
The adventure is over, and for the rest of the trip we will have a guide. Joining a group of English-speaking travellers, herded by an Argentine guide called Gabriel, we take a small train through the jungle next morning to Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), which is the biggest and more impressive of the cataracts. Then we take the train back to the starting point to do first the Upper and then the Lower Walk. This might sound like overkill, but it isn’t. The Iguazú Falls are amazing, there are over 250 different falls, spread over 2.5 km, and you don’t tire of contemplating them from a variety of angles. Today we’re visiting the Argentine side, and tomorrow we’ll cross the border and do the Brazilian side. At least, I will. As a US passport-holder, Kathy needs a visa for Brazil, and she doesn’t have one. The guidebook implied that she could get away without one, but Gabriel is categorical that no, she can’t. By the sound of it, his agency was burned in the past, and had to pay a fine.
On the train back from Garganta del Diablo, we share the carriage with a group of international twentysomethings discussing cattle roping at an undisclosed location on the Brazilian side. One of the girls (probably English) asks one of the boys (probably Argentine) how they can eat so much meat. The solution, says the Argentine kid, is to avoid vegetables, which are entirely useless and take up space in your stomach that can be more profitably reserved for meat. Ah, so that’s it.
The first European to see the Falls, says Gabriel, was called Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish soldier and explorer who was shipwrecked in Florida in 1527. It took him nine years to make his way to Mexico, and he wrote an account of his journey called The Shipwrecked. He saw the Iguazú Falls on his way to the Rio de la Plata in 1540. When he talked about what he had seen, no one believed him. He died in poverty in Seville. (I come across his book on Kentish Town Road in London two weeks later. Small world.) The visit ends with a very nasty boat trip that takes you along the river and under the Falls. You get soaked to the skin and they give you canvas bags to wrap up your shoes and cameras. Kathy thinks it’s hilarious, and I hate it. There’s so much water you can’t open your eyes, and so you don’t see a damn thing. It’s waterboarding that you have to pay for.
Much more congenial is the helicopter trip they offer us next day on the Brazilian side. It costs an extra US$100, but it’s worth it. They take us up in a small four-seater helicopter for ten minutes. Seeing the falls from the air makes you see how it all fits together, Argentinian side, Brazilian side, river before the falls, river after the falls. I’ve never been on a helicopter before, and it’s a damn sight drier than the boat. Back on the ground, we cross the Brazilian national park to see the falls from a different angle, and Gabriel fills us in on filmography. The Mission, with Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, was shot in Iguazú in 1985, and all the scenes that show the falls are authentic. Moonraker with Roger Moore took place on the bank over there. The villain’s house in the movie Miami Vice was located right here where you have a view of two waterfalls (no such house actually exists). Our walk ends up right beside the Falls. There’s a platform where you can stand right beside the water, and a panoramic elevator to take you back up the hill.
After all that energy and violence, it’s good to spend a quiet afternoon at the Sheraton eating a lunch of useless vegetables, followed by a Guaraní massage that involves lumps of wood shaped like lemons, followed by Pina Colada by the pool as the sun goes down, watching exotic-coloured birds that match the exotic-coloured cocktails. If the Sheraton wasn’t so stingy with the free wifi, it would be perfect.
The Jesuits arrived in Argentina in 1609, and founded fifteen missions in the provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, organizing the local Guaraní Indians into social and religious communities to cultivate the land. The best preserved of the surviving missions is San Ignacio Miní, which is a four-hour drive from Iguazú. According to the museum at the entrance to the mission, the Jesuits found their vocation in South America, away from the political and imperial intrigues of Europe. The missions benefited the Indians by protecting them from bandits and slave hunters, and the result seems genuinely to have been a kind of social utopia. But the Jesuits fell foul of Portuguese and Spanish colonial interests in the New World, and were ordered to leave South America in 1768. All the missions were abandoned, and they fell into ruin.
San Ignacio Miní was rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century, by which time it was completely overgrown, but in its heyday, looming out of the jungle, it must have been an impressive sight. There was a huge red sandstone church and an enormous plaza. The gilded baroque interior is long gone, but you can still make out the insignia of the Society of Jesus over the altar. (In Buenos Aires, we visited a building called Manzana de las Luces, which was the former headquarters of the Jesuits in Argentina. The cab driver had never heard of it, and we had to tell him where to go. When we found it, it was in serious need of upkeep. The only sign of life in there was a ratty handicrafts fair.)
From the mission we drive down to Posadas, a sleepy town with a manicured riverbank, just across from Paraguay. There’s a five-hour wait for our flight to Buenos Aires. The airport has no departure board, no planes announced, no passengers waiting. But time goes fast in the air-conditioned bar with free wifi and very cheap whisky.
We spend our last night in Argentina in an odd little hotel in the Retiro district called the Art Hotel. It is long and narrow and loft-like, manned by unsmiling black-clad young men. Imaginatively positioned mirrors on a black-painted wall open up the space, and there’s an art exhibition on the ground floor. Our room is dark and cramped and might, in less cultured circumstances, be described as dingy. Midway through your shower, you have to turn off the water to let the drain cope with the flow. After the nonchalance of the provinces, Buenos Aires feels like another planet. Mothers pick up uniformed schoolchildren, dog walkers exercise seven or eight animals on leashes, cars flood past. The air smells of petrol and parilla. In the cemetery down the road – maybe – Evita sleeps.