Culture in Argentina

Culture in Argentina is inexorably entwined with its landscapes and history. The Italian influence in Buenos Aires, written in the city’s romantic architecture, underpins astonishingly good Argentinean ice cream, while on street corners dancers tango to busking violins. Out of the city, the vast pampas grasslands which stretch into the remote northwest and down into the Patagonian Steppe fuel herds of beef cattle and Argentina’s gaucho cowboys. A symbol of Argentine identity, the gaucho lifestyle has wound its way into the heart of Argentinean food and culture – from traditional choripan sandwiches to a strong sense of national pride. So, raise a cup of mate and say ¡salud! to delicious asados, sumptuous Malbec wine and discovering more about culture in Argentina.

The mate ritual

What tea is to the British, mate is to the Argentineans – an almost sacred, caffeine-rich, health-boosting infusion made from the dried leaves of the yerba mate, an evergreen holly tree found across Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, as well as some regions of Brazil. Visit Argentina and you are guaranteed to be offered a sip of mate to try at some point during your trip.
The mate is drunk from a hollow gourd with a stainless steel straw or bombilla. To say mate is ubiquitous is an understatement; visit an Argentine supermarket and the sheer choice and selection of yerba mate available will astound you. It’s the tea aisle at Tesco on steroids. But mate is about more than drinking tea, it’s about companionship, community and sharing. Argentineans of all ages will gather to share a drink of mate together, underpinned by unspoken etiquette and ritual.

One gourd and bombilla is shared by a group of friends, and once you have drunk your fill, you pass the gourd back to the cebador – your friend in charge of carefully preparing the mate – who then refills it with hot, but never boiling water before passing it to the next person to drain their few sips. Make sure you don’t say gracias, thank you, until you’re done – that’s the polite way to refuse your next turn – and don’t move the bombilla from its position in the gourd.

The gourd itself varies from person to person, and some are made from traditional calabash gourd and wood passed down through generations of the same family.

Tango rhythms

There are few dances more synonymous with a city than tango is with Buenos Aires, and while the tourist tango shows are all about the spectacle, the real Argentine tango is the understated one danced by Porteños (the term for local people, meaning ‘people of the port’) in milongas around the city. Accompanied by a live tango band, weekly milongas are friendly, sociable gatherings that are open to everyone, of all levels of tango experience and ability. Argentineans come here to dance, and partners change frequently throughout the night.

Head to the historic barrio of San Telmo on a Sunday evening and the Plaza Dorrego comes to life with the outdoor Milonga del Indio. If you need a confidence boost to hit the dance floor you can choose a holiday which offers Spanish and tango classes that include a trip to a local milonga in the company of your local teachers.

Gaucho culture

A world away from the Buenos Aires’ heady buzz, the pampas grasslands that cover much of Argentina are the domain of vast estancias – ranches – and the country’s herds of famed semi-wild beef cattle. Managing and working these vast tracts of land are Argentina’s originally nomadic cowboys – gauchos – whose unique rural culture stems from both indigenous and Spanish – or mestizo – influences.

While the rural gaucho lifestyle has changed dramatically with the encroachment of modern life – as estancias became fenced-in and the gauchos became unable to ride as freely - Argentina’s gauchos remain proud, skilled horsemen and they symbolise traditional Argentine national identity. The influence of the gaucho culture can be seen reaching into all aspects of Argentinean life – from its famed asado barbecues, the ubiquitous choripan sandwiches (more on both of those below) and the mate-drinking ritual we’ve already described.
Visit an estancia in Argentina’s far northwest, around Salta, and you’ll get a glimpse into some of the most authentic gaucho culture left in the country, where day to day life in the remote mountains is still played out on horseback. Alternatively the vast estancias stretching across the Patagonian Steppe welcome visitors for an insight into remote, rural Argentinean life.

Many holidays to Argentina, both bespoke tours and small group guided tours offer estancia stays or visits (sometimes optional extras) in their itineraries. Alternatively you could choose a holiday entirely on horseback where gaucho guides take you into the heart of some of Argentina’s most remote territory – sharing their skills, traditional food and unique knowledge of the land.

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Gastronomic goodies

Argentina may be best known for its epic Patagonian landscapes and dancers tangoing on Buenos Aires street corners, but look closer and you’ll find one of Latin America’s most sumptuous foodie scenes.

Meat features heavily in the Argentine traditional diet and the country’s steak is legendary – paired with a glass of locally produced Malbec wine. No visit to Argentina is complete without an asado – a selection of meat barbequed on a grill or over an open pit fire. Choose one of Buenos Aires’ upscale asado restaurants, where you can choose which meat you want off the grill, or dine outdoors under the stars around a traditional gaucho campfire.
In the meantime, there are plenty of tasty on-the-go treats which will stave off any hunger pangs before a traditionally late Argentinean dinner. These include empanadas, which are pasties filled with beef, egg, onions and spices, and choripan, chorizo sausage served in a crusty bread roll topped with spicy chimichurri sauce, which originated as a handy, hearty gaucho lunch.

For world-class Argentinean wine head west to Mendoza, where beautifully balanced Malbec is grown against the snow-tipped backdrop of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Argentinean Andes. The best wineries are gathered around Maipú, although you’ll be able to sample a glass – or two or three – across the country.

An influx of Italian immigrants into Argentina in the 1870s and again in the 1940s has left Buenos Aires with a distinctly Italian flavour to its heritage. And while the Italians might have originally passed on the secret of great ice cream, the Argentinean -made cold stuff is now giving Italian gelato a run for its money. Hikers and adventurers exploring the Argentinean Lake District around Bariloche will find helado so good it’s like an icy-cold comforting hug welcoming them on their way back into town.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: M M] [Intro: Christian Haugen] [The mate ritual: Beatrice Murch] [Gaucho culture: Torrenegra] [Gastronomic goodies : pxhere]
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