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High Steaks – Asados in Argentina

Central Argentina may not be at the very top on an itinerary when visiting the country, but it does offer some interesting places to visit. The cities are easy to fly to direct from Buenos Aires and, for lower budget travellers, the bus network is very good. Overnight buses, in particular, have a variety of services available, including a double decker first class option that offers a reclining bed, TV and food. It’s about a 5 hour journey from BA to Córdoba which is often used as a transit city when travelling from the coast to the mountains.

We were based in Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina by population. It’s a pleasant city and it’s possible to undertake a number of day trips to interesting places from there – all an easy bus journey within an hour or two of the centre.

Alta Gracia is a small and pretty town in the Sierras Chicas. A former Jesuit residence has now been converted to the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuitica Alta Gracia museum which has an interesting history of Jesuits in the area.

The Jesuits built El Tajamar, a lake which forms a focal point for the town. It’s worth hanging out by the clocktower at one end of the lake; it not only offers tourist information but is also a focal point for entertainment in the area – music and dance shows are regular events.

Che Guevara spent twelve years of his childhood in Alta Gracia until he moved to Buenos Aires in 1944 to study medicine and thereafter become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries. His story is told in the fabulous film, The Motorcycle Diaries based on his book of the same name. The house he lived in has been converted into an interesting museum.

Villa General Belgrano, to the south-west of Cordoba, somewhat bizarrely, offers a little slice of Germany right in the middle of Argentina. It was established in 1930 and is a distinctly alpine town with traditional Bavarian architecture.

Food-wise, you can enjoy local versions of sausages, Spätzle and strudel amongst many traditional German delicacies, all of which can be washed down with a stein or two of beer. The town has an Oktoberfest event – an annual beer festival – held each October which, after Munich in Germany and Blumenau in Brazil, is considered to be one of the most important in the world.

When visiting any towns and cities in central Argentina one of biggest impressions that strikes you as you walk around the area, particularly the suburbs, is the aroma, which is predominantly that of meat cooking. It is a mouth-watering scent. Argentinians are well known for their love of meat, especially beef. Asado is the Argentine equivalent of a barbeque and is massively popular, particularly at weekends.

The word asado refers to both the cooking technique and the event. Most apartment buildings in the city have an asados area where residents can book space and enjoy family time cooking and eating good food together. The area will include a parilla (pronounced ‘parisha’ in Argentine Spanish as the ‘ll’ takes a ‘sh’ rather than a ‘y’ sound), a small kitchen area and benches to prepare and eat your food. You are responsible for clearing up afterwards and leaving the area clean and tidy for other residents to enjoy their asado at another time. We were delighted to be invited to a family asado in Cordoba.

There are two parts to the parilla – the v-shaped firebox and the grill. You need to make sure you have fuel. It’s quite common to scour the local area for wood/grasses to burn on the fire. First the fire needs to be started. Wood or charcoal are the most common fuels. Apparently it is not the done thing to use lighter fluid or briquettes – pine cones are sometimes used if the fire is not being very co-operative when starting up.

These flames burn too fiercely to cook the meat directly, so the firebox gets really hot then coals from the embers are transferred to the grill and spread around the cooking area. The meat is then placed on the grill above these coals. Traditionally the cook is the asador, invariably male, who takes on responsibility of watching over the feast.

Argentine meat is superb quality and very good value. Bife de chorizo (not to be confused with chorizo sausage) is a thick cut sirloin steak, which usually comes with a generous layer of fat – and remember, fat is flavour.

Meat is most definitely the main attraction of the meal. Everything else is secondary. The steak is served with just a hat-tip to carbs – usually bread -which is ideal to mop up the delicious juices – and some token salad so that the meal appears to have a semblance of nutritional balance. Sauces aren’t very common in Argentina either, although the heavenly piquant and gorgeously green chimichurri, which is usually comprised of chopped parsley and oregano, minced garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar, all blended together, would be a good accompaniment.

Wine, often a rich, fruity red Malbec, accompanies the food, but beers are also popular. The whole process of cooking, eating and socialising together makes for a very pleasant and relaxing way of spending the afternoon, which can then turn into a rather enjoyable evening as well.

Whiskey on the Rocks in Patagonia

The Perito Moreno glacier, located a few kilometres away from the Patagonian town of El Calafate and inside Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the park’s most famous attractions. There are loads of tour operators who can arrange a trip from El Calafate and it’s about an hour and a half journey to the glacier from the town.

When I was studying geography many years ago, human geography always seemed to be a little bit boring (counting different types of shop in the central business district of a small town) compared with physical geography and meteorology in which we learned about about oxbow lakes, karst scenery, lapse rates and glaciation. Moraine, especially terminal moraine, seemed to be exotic and exciting and, well, very different from any geographical feature to be found in suburban Surrey. To be able to see a glacier up close – and actually walk on it – was an ambition fulfilled.

The Perito Moreno glacier is unusual in that it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing. Most are shrinking as a result of climate change. You have to enter Los Glaciares park and pay the entrance fee. There are choices – you can walk along an excellent viewing trail but it is also possible to don crampons and undertake a trek on the glacier itself. There’s the Big Ice for hardy young souls, where you’ll spend about 8 hours on the ice and traverse a wide section of glacier, or the Little Ice which is a taster for people who are less intrepid. Or just old – you cannot do the Big Trek if you are over 45 years old.

If doing the glacier walk, you’ll be taken to a ferry and will then cross the lake – it takes about half an hour and the view of the glacier is wonderful. There’s a full briefing available in English and Spanish and you will be accompanied on the glacier by several guides.

Even the Little Trek is a marvellous experience. You need to wear long-sleeved tops and gloves as the ice is surprisingly sharp so you don’t want to hurt your arms or hands if you fall over. Sturdy shoes are essential. You’ll be loaned some crampons, spikes that strap to your shoes (hence the need for good footwear) which will enable you to walk on the ice without slipping over. They’ll be fitted by people who know how to fit crampons and will ensure safety on the ice.

Crampons take a little bit of getting used to, especially when walking downwards on the ice. When walking straight or uphill, just walk firmly, keeping your legs slightly apart, about the same width as your shoulders (so they don’t get all tangled up), making sure the spikes embed themselves into the ice. When walking downhill, keep your feet facing forward, (penguin style doesn’t work), again with legs slightly apart and walk steadily.

Once on the glacier there are some amazing sights.

At the end of the trek there is a table, and on that table is a bottle.

Yes, the end of the trek offers a warming whiskey on the rocks, the rocks, of course, being large chunks of glacial ice.

Fire and ice. Fortunately, it’s close to the edge of the glacier so you can stagger off in your crampons after enjoying a tipple.

There’s a lovely walkway on the other side of the glacier to get some amazing views.

As the glacier advances, it cuts off part of the lake, effectively creating a dam. Over time, the water pressure causes this ice bridge to rupture and large parts of the glacier calve off.

The last rupture was in March 2018.

Even if you’re not around to see the rupture (it happens every few years) there will still be opportunities to see chunks of glacier calve away from the main ice. You’ll see it first. From a distance a chunk of ice will fall into the water. It looks pretty small from a distance but is probably a fairly large piece. Then you hear the sound – it’s a loud cracking sound, like a shotgun.