It’s All Latin America, But…Viva La Diferencia!

By Carole Reedy

This past April I was fortunate to spend a month in three Latin American countries I’d been eager to visit for years: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. The historical and political aspects of each country dominated our sightseeing agenda, but perhaps more compelling were the daily customs and habits in each country and our perceptions of the people. Were you to visit, you’d perhaps have a different vision. My observations were polar opposites of my expectations.

Here are my two cents regarding the people and daily lives of our neighbors to the south. The perceptions and comparisons I make are based on my experience of living 20 years in Mexico.

Dress: The first and perhaps most surprising observation in Buenos Aires is how underdressed the women are. We were told, here in Mexico and also in Chile, that the elegance in dress and composure of the Argentine women was something to behold. I had visions of fur coats, bright lipstick, hats with veils, and backless pumps, shades of flamenco and tango reflected in the apparel. What we found were women of all ages dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, no one sporting bright colors except the occasional swath of a red scarf.

In two weeks, we walked hours in most neighborhoods, but saw no drastic diversion in dress. In contrast, our Mexico City professional women wear everything from classy conservative suits to short skirts and silk blouses, all accompanied by a healthy amount of makeup (face powder, eyeliner applied with tracing discs, mascara, lip liner, and lipstick whose application is masterfully achieved on various modes of public transportation despite the sudden braking attempts of the drivers).

The biggest surprise was the absence of tacones (those high-heeled shoes with platforms that force the wearer to lean forward), with which young woman here continue to struggle. The newest fad farther south appears to be a return to the 90s: chunky shoes with big chunky heels and platforms, a takeoff on high-heeled platforms, perhaps? This caused a bit of confusion. Were they setting a fresh trend or were they going backward?

Bookstores: Shocking! The lines to get into the annual International Book Fair in Buenos Aires snaked around city blocks. We might have thought we were waiting in line for Rolling Stones concert tickets. Since my visit I’ve read about the extensive reading habits of the people in Argentina and the vast number of bookstores in the city. One of the most beautiful, and largest, bookstores in the world, El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore, is situated in the ritzy Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta. And grand and splendid it is! Built originally in 1919 as a theater for popular tango shows featuring beloved singers such as Carlos Gardel, it was converted into a movie theater in the ’20s. Then in 2000 The Ateneo publishing house created the bookstore, which now occupies the beautiful theater building

People and places: Although everyone is very nice, somewhat friendly, and helpful, the people in Buenos Aires lack the warmth of the Mexican welcome. You don’t hear a daily buenos dias from passers-by on the street or the provecho from strangers in restaurants. Once you make contact, I found the people most agreeable, but they don’t initiate conversation.

Folks seem a bit friendlier in the less populated cities of Mendoza, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay. Also, the aloofness of the men in Buenos Aires is evident in most venues. Women seem invisible to them. When you walk down the street as a woman, you move when passing. They, never. Populations are small despite the vast expanses of land, but the statues and constructions are grand. After living in Mexico City for six years, I felt no obstacles presented a problem while traveling; everything seemed easy. Even Buenos Aires has a population of just 3 million. And all the public monuments and buildings are strikingly beautiful and big.

Food: Despite a diet of pizza, beef, empanadas, and pasta, very few overweight people are evident, though the reason for this remained a mystery. Men don’t sport big stomachs, and the women don’t have large hips. (It certainly makes for a more pleasant metro ride for all.)

Argentines eat several times a day, so there’s rarely an hour when you can’t get served. Breakfast is usually just bread and salami, ham, and cheese, and maybe some cereal and fruit (but certainly not the tasty varieties we have in Mexico). In 30 days, we were offered eggs just once in our small hotels and bed and breakfasts.

A big surprise was the absence of arrachera on the menu in the restaurants that offered beef as a specialty. Arrachera, a huge favorite here in Mexico, is the most tender cut, always marinated before cooking. Argentine restaurants in Argentina don’t offer it, but there’s an array of other cuts to satisfy any serious meat eater.

The pizza is a pizza lover’s delight, made always with just a little tomato sauce and mounds of mozzarella cheese. Empanadas appear to be a staple in all three countries. Meat-filled empanadas are the most delicious and popular. Any time of day you can stop in a small store on the street to buy them. We also took them back to our rooms for a late-night snack.

Wine: All the wine is good and very affordable. A day didn’t go by without a copa de vino with our main meal, and each block of the city houses several wine shops. You can also take wine tours and participate in wine tastings in all three countries. The wines exported to Mexico and the US have a different taste than those same wines in their home countries. If you’re an oenophile be sure to visit the Mendoza region of Argentina. Although bragging rights go to the Malbecs, we were bowled over by the Torrontes (a white wine) of the Mendoza and Salta regions.

Language: Contrary to expectations, English is most definitely not the second language in these three countries. Rather, it’s Portuguese. In Montevideo, tours of the Teatro Solis and the Palacio Salvo were given in two groups, Spanish and Portuguese. (Ditto for the tours in Argentina.) There were an equal number of tourists in each group. The proximity of Brazil surely accounts for this. The majority of tourists in all three countries appeared to be from neighboring Brazil, and very little US English is heard anywhere.

I did, however, overhear an American summarizing her South American vacation to her travel companion thusly: “I am done with Europe,” she said. “From now on I’m vacationing in South America, where the landscapes are vast and beautiful, the people are delightful, the food tasty, the cities feel safer, and there is no jet lag!” I agree.

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