It’s still dark as we huddle around the small, crackling fire by the river. Our local guide, Santiago, pours out steaming sweet coffee into plastic cups to warm us up before our hike. Shivering from the early morning cold, we watch as pink light slowly grows from behind the Andes. We are staying down in Cachi, a small town in the Calchaquí Valleys of north-western Argentina, where the landscape ranges from fertile green farmland to dry mountain desert, the latter of which we’re standing in now.

Warm and contented, we are ready to set off. Santiago puts out the fire and leads us across the footbridge to where the path starts. We climb up to where the mountain plateau opens out in front of us, dotted with fork shaped cactuses and massive boulders, snowy peaks line the far end of the rocky slopes. Our guide takes us to the pre-Inca settlement ruins we have come to see, and there on top of a low crumbling wall, he sings for us. It’s a very old song from the region and he wails in a high, wavering voice. It is a despairing kind of sound. Standing there, breathing the crisp air where, once Santiago finishes his song, it is perfectly silent, it’s hard to believe I’m in the same country that I spent the first six weeks of my time in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is not a beautiful city; tower blocks punch into the sky on all sides and huge thoroughfares roar through the very centre of town. The pavements are plastered in dog shit. There are lovely parts to the city however; the parks close to where I lived in Palermo offer some respite from the manic pace of the capital, so too do the elegant boulevards of the neighbourhood of Recoleta, with their shady plazas and up-market coffee houses. I had come to experience a new city and to learn Spanish at a school where students from all over the world congregate, living with some of these travellers in an Argentine woman’s apartment, who’d been happily welcoming people like us into her home for years.
The capital of Argentina is a vibrant place. Safe without losing any of its edginess, it has an atmosphere of opportunity and excitement, with so much to offer. From watching glossy ponies kick up the pristine turf at a civilised polo match to feeling the concrete stands shake underfoot as the ‘fanaticos’ go berserk for their team at the football. Not going out at night until after 1 in the morning to the dimly lit bars of Palermo Viejo, or enjoying a huge, juicy steak at a restaurant down at the docks. Wondering through the minimalist modern art gallery to looking on as tango dancers touch step the cobbled streets of San Telmo.

Just outside the city, the dusty plains of cattle farms and horses offer a different kind of escape. Visiting an ‘estancia’ (a ranch), if it isn’t a phoney imitation, offers a small experience of ‘gaucho’ culture. Riding through the flat, still farmland in the early evening heat before going back to the estancia for a smoking barbeque and an ice cold Quilmes larger is, quite simply, blissful.

Back in the cool and now bright Cachi, I have the colonial architecture of Corrientes and the mighty spray of Iquazu falls in the north-east to look forward to later in my journey. I won’t have time to get down to Patagonia with its icebergs, penguins and whales. That’ll be for next time. Argentina’s diversity is awe-inspiring, its people’s spirit of generosity life-assuring. So I must go back, voy a volver, Argentina! I will return!

Ollie Small

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