David A. Van Wie
The City of the Dead in Buenos Aires
After more than twelve hours on planes and in airports, my fishing compadres and I felt a bit like zombies when we arrived in Buenos Aires.
After checking into our hotel in the Recoleta area, everybody was up for a walk to stretch our legs. Our tour hostess suggested the cemetery nearby as a "can't miss" destination. "A cemetery?" we asked.
Well, that hardly describes the Recoleta Cemetery, a magnificent City of the Dead.
But first, the famished fishermen stopped for a late lunch at an outdoor cafe situated beside and under a gigantic rubber tree (Ficus elastica) that was planted in Plaza Francia in the 1700s. Known as El Gran Gomero de la Recoleta, the branches spread 50 meters wide, so long and thick that they are braced with stout poles around the plaza and in one spot by a sculpture of Atlas holding up an enormous limb. As we sipped our beers and dined on empanadas, a parakeet swooped down to steal a packet of mayonnaise off of a nearby table and proceeded to open it expertly on a limb above.
After lunch, we walked through the square where there was literally dancing in the streets. Tourists are treated to costumed dancers performing the tango, which is practically the national religion of Argentina.
In contrast to the vibrant street life, we soon passed through the gates to Recoleta Cemetary, literally a city of the dead. It was designed in 1822 to honor the most prominent figures in Argentine history with family mausoleums and sculptures in the heart of downtown BA. Some crypts are very old and in disrepair, while others are modern with "tenants" who have recently moved in.
The layout and architecture were mesmerizing, as were the hundreds of sculptures of angels, generals, politicians, and scientists. We wandered up and down the lanes, occasionally meeting up with one of the resident cats that help keep the graveyard rodent free. The dramatic afternoon light added to the effect. Flowers bloomed here and there, while wild plants sprung from unusual places.
Unfortunately, our time to explore was limited by the 5 pm closing, so we were not able to find our way to the monument of Eva Peron, the subject of the musical Evita by Andrew Lloyd Weber. The lasting impression as we departed the cemetery was appreciation for the rich history of Argentina and its relative wealth, despite the economic turmoil of the last century.
Our gang of mighty piscators gathered for dinner at Fervor, a fine restaurant just a few block from our hotel. We caught up on news and shared our anticipation of the experience ahead.
The next morning, we flew just over two hours southwest from BA to the small
regional airport in Esquel, where our fishing guides met us to drive three more hours farther southwest to the remote Las Pampas Lodge on the Rio Pico, in the foothills of the Andes just seven miles from the border with Chile. On the highway, our guide Harrison noted that the posted speed of 80 km/h is "just a suggestion" as we roared along at 140 km/h or more. We saw cattle and sheep and gauchos, of course, plus ample bird life, including numerous hawks and emus. When we got to the dirt roads, Harrison slowed to under 100.
As we passed the spring creek headwaters of the Rio Pico (which is joined nearby by the Rio Pampas), we were surprised to learn that the river flows west through a canyon into Chile and dumps into the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles away on the far side of the towering peaks visible from the lodge.
We paired up and stowed our bags in our comfortable-looking double rooms. I bunked with my brother-in-law, Eddie, who, like all of us, was soaking in every minute and detail. Norm and Emil were next door on our side. We soon met the others in the central dining & living room. It was late afternoon, too late to hit the river, so fishing would wait until the next day, Sunday.
We'd come a long way and it was time to relax, unpack, and hear the plans for the week ahead over dinner. But first, our hosts asked, "do you guys want to see the local rodeo?" It was just down the road in the tiny hamlet of Las Pampas. We could hear it from the porch as sheep quietly munched the grass in front of our room.
"We'll bring beer," one of the guides added. Well, why not? We decided to go see what the gauchos were up to.