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South America

1 Jun - 1 Jul 1997

Won't you buy for me Argentina

I liked Argentina — and so did a few of my companions on the Australian Australian Grain/Cottongrower study tour to South America. Quite a few seemed to be overcome with Bolivia as well. As soon as we arrived at La Paz they fainted — but more of that later. For now I want to get back to Argentina, and I mean that literally.

It may have something to do with the fact that, for much of its area, Argentina is, agriculturally, a very rich place. Beautiful soil, “so fertile it would grow babies” — as one of our party described it — convivial climate, wall to wall well managed crops very reminiscent of the mid-west of US and hectare upon undeveloped hectare of opportunity for those prepared to give it a go.

It may also have something to do with the fact that Argentina has made an art form of beer and barbecues. It was little wonder that our party felt right at home. The hospitality was at times almost overwhelming — at least I think that was what overwhelmed me. 

Be it on the part of an estancia owner whose family had built up an extremely well run operation over several centuries, or from the proprietors of very small, full of ‘character’, provincial one and a half star hotels — there was hospitality aplenty.
But this was a study tour and we were there to learn and learn we did.

We now know that Argentina has more productive land in one province than there is in all of Australia; and that they know how to farm it really well; and that we are very lucky that their idea of export is to put their produce on a truck and run it north over the border into Brazil. 

And did I mention that there are lots of scenic wonders in Argentina — and they are not all waterfalls. The men seemed to be all called Miguel and I was assured by the equestrian minded ladies in our party that these fellows would look good in the saddle. 

I think polo must do things for your thighs — I know that the jeans the Argentinian women spray on each morning certainly do. 
Actually there was a range of wildlife in Argentina. We saw armadillos, we saw a ferret-like thing that we were assured was called a ‘wwheeees’, we saw toucans and Arthur formed what some felt was an unnatural relationship with a condor.

No molestos los animalos

Arthur couldn’t read Spanish. By that time in the afternoon, following some more overwhelming Argentinian hospitality, I doubt that he could read English. So the sign at the zoo ‘no molestos los animalos’ didn’t really register. But I was privileged to see Arthur tame the savage beast. He had that huge bird of prey eating out of his hand — indeed we kept the video going in anticipation of it eating parts of his hand.

The tour took in the highly productive Pampas region — corn, wheat, soybean, alfalfa and cattle, lots of cattle. We ate some of these, probably about two each. 

The meat I had was spectacularly good on a regular basis. You have never really eaten meat until you have wrapped yourself around an Argentinian ‘parrillada’ (I know that’s the Spanish word for ‘grill’ but I’m still not sure how to pronounce it — which may help to explain some of my gastronomic adventures).

When I say we ate two cows each, we ate all of them — every little bit. It was edifying for me to watch my friend, a well known Australian cotton magazine editor, consume some parts that had biological functions well beyond our understanding. At least we knew where we were, so to speak, with a mouthful of udder. But there were parts from the throat and intestinal tract areas that remain a tasty mystery.

There are definitely investment opportunities in Argentina. They have the soil, the water, the climate and the markets although they appear to be a little light on for support infrastructure.

You will have to be prepared for a bit of pioneering, but then that’s what farming in Australia has been about, and still is in many areas

Rolling in Rolexes

If you don’t want to grow cotton you might want to get into Rolex watches. Mind you they are pretty price competitive in Paraguay. But stocks should be fairly low — our party bought about 900 watches at prices ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. Guarani, that is, and there are about 2500 Guarani to the US$. Mind you even $20 for a ‘genuine’ Rolex isn’t too bad — mine’s still going and most of the gold is still attached.

We left Paraguay, went into Brazil and then left Brazil to go back into Argentina and then we came back to Brazil — I think. What I know is that every time the bus went through a gate we had to pay a National Park entrance fee — and there seemed to be a lot of Nations.

Water does not seem to be a problem on the eastern side of the South American continent. The rivers are big, really big. And if you want to go white water rafting I would recommend Iguassu falls.

All had a ball at the falls

Otherwise perfectly rational Australian farmers, when faced with an abundance of water, will always find ways of immersing themselves in it. One would think that they had never before seen a flow of a million megalitres a minute, or thereabouts. One of our party commented that he would need to be running all his pumps at full capacity just to cope with the spray.

We flew over Iguassu falls, we walked around Iguassu falls, we climbed down Iguassu falls, we boated under Iguassu falls, we slept next to Iguassu falls and we marvelled at Iguassu falls in the moonlight. We liked Iguassu falls.

The farming country in south eastern Brazil continued to impress, as did the banana brandy. We tasted the brandy after a spectacular train ride down the mountain from Curitiba to Morretes and then by bus to the village of Antonina on the Atlantic coast.

The pre-lunch brandy was important. It lowered your inhibitions enough such that you were prepared to eat the local stew — a stew into which you vigorously mixed copious amounts of something akin to cement. Your meal was ready to eat only when you could invert the bowl containing it above your head, and not end up wearing it — the stew that is.

This was one thick stew but I must say that this shared experience had the effect of binding us together — I was bound up for three days.

Rio was spectacularly attractive and spectacularly ugly, and ultra-modern and steeped in history and full of fun and potentially dangerous — and all of the above at the same time. Needless to say some of the stalwarts of the Australian grain industry took the opportunity while in town to catch up with their Brazilian financial adviser. Min Taylor found Ronald Biggs — yes, that Ronald Biggs — on Copacabana Beach. 

It was that sort of town. Even the spectacularly longlegged, scantily clad girls in the “Rio By Night” show were not all they were cracked up to be. Angus sensed that there was something different about them. But it wasn’t until he was assuming a particularly friendly pose for the obligatory photograph that he put his finger on the problem. Those guys were quite attractive, particularly the ones with the tail feathers.


La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, really took our breath away. So much so that several of our party fainted — something to do with being at an elevation of 4300 metres. Apparently breathable air runs out at about 3500 metres. I have never before been in a hotel where you can order oxygen through room service.

Those that could walk, or at least thought they could, hit the indian markets. Baby alpaca jumpers — made of wool taken from baby alpacas rather than jumpers for very young alpacas — were keenly sought after. One of our guides suggested there was one important phrase to keep in mind when dealing in this commodity, “Baby alpaca? Maybe alpaca!” I think there’s something in that for us all.

We entered Peru in much the same way tradition has the Inca people arriving. Across Lake Titicaca and via the Island of the Sun. The Island of the Sun had an ancient Incan Fountain of Youth located up a series of several hundred steps. Childs’ play anywhere else but nearly the death of us at that altitude.

Flying high

And speaking of death and altitude, flying in the Andes is a real adventure. We had one flight where they were confident they could get us off the ground, but not with our luggage. Apparently the air was thin and our bags were full. 

While the sensitive negotiations regarding baggage weight limits were underway, most of our party took the opportunity to purchase some more mementos from the local traders. This would merely constitute hand luggage, an entirely different weight category of course.

From the advanced agricultural technology and methodology of Argentina to the ox and plough of Peru — it was like entering a time warp. And made even more so by the realisation that these people were farming on terraces built 500 years before by the Incas, and probably not doing it as well as the Incas had.

Cusco (the ancient Inca capital) and Machu Picchu (the lost city of the Incas rediscovered only at the beginning of this century) were both very impressive. The amount of silver and gold that we took with us when we left town was very reminiscent of the Spanish conquest — but I think the conquistadors beat the price, and the vendors, down much further than we did.

We flew down from the highlands to Lima, the Peruvian capital and then bused south along the Pacific coast to Ica.

The coast is one long rainshadow induced sand dune — it just never rains. But for thousands of years various civilisations have farmed the verdant river valleys that wind through the desert from the Andes to the sea. 

Those ancient civilisations farmed cotton and grain and the Peruvians still do today. It seems other ancient traditions persist too, particularly those related to drinking pisco.

Peruvian pisco pals

Pisco is an interesting 40 proof grape product, loosely described as brandy but perhaps more akin to rocket fuel. It seems that in Peru whenever one farmer meets another farmer and pisco is at hand then it is pisco time. Luckily our party was made up of a lot of very culturally sensitive farmers who were prepared to bow to tradition and get on the pisco with the locals.

We flew over the Nasca lines, then over the Andes again to Buenos Aires, and then the length of Argentina south to the Straits of Magellan. There were too many hours in a seemingly endless day flying west to New Zealand. It was a big relief to swap the Aerolineas Argentinas plane and service for an Ansett flight on the final leg across the Tasman — Australia seemed to start there and then.

We saw a lot, we learned a lot and we had a great time doing it. Many thanks to all who travelled with us and we will see you next year in Europe.