March 2010 issue

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The Southern Cone

Argentina, Chile and Uruguay form part of the southern cone of the South American continent. Given their close proximity to one another, students will find they share common customs, culture and cuisine. Nicola Hancox reports on the delights of Spanish study in this region: geographic discovery, red meat and wine.

Geographically, the Cono Sur is made up of the southernmost Spanish-speaking countries of South America. With varied climate conditions ranging from the subtropical to the sub-Antarctic, students are sure to find both an environment and a culture that best suits them and their language learning needs.

“Argentina is the largest Spanish speaking country in the world and is one of the safest countries to visit in Latin America,” relates Joanne Hurley, Commercial Director at Expanish in Buenos Aires. Having backpacked around the continent several years ago, Hurley regales that it was the Argentinean way of life that prompted her to return to the country to set up home. “I loved Buenos Aires and Argentina so much that I really wanted to return permanently and improve my Spanish,” she says.

As the second largest country in South America (stretching some 3,900 kilometres from north to south) trekking the length and breadth will take some doing and Hurley relates that it is hard to come up with a shortlist of places students should visit. “It’s so diverse it’s hard to compare!” she says. However, she acknowledges its vibrant capital is a good place to start.

Much of the architecture of Buenos Aires is reminiscent of Europe – one need only see the Congreso de la Nación (the Argentinean congress) to be fooled into thinking they were standing in London! “Buenos Aires was born mimicking Europe…” states Annabella Yagust from DWS language school in the city centre, “…copying characteristics from both Madrid and Paris,” she adds. Lorena Belcastro from BASP agrees, adding that the capital possesses all the charm of a European capital city but at half the cost.

Made up of 47 barrios (neighbourhoods), the city has several districts that have remained loyal to their European roots, notes Yagust. La Boca – heavily populated by Italian immigrants in the early 19th century – is one such example. Colourful murals adorn the walls while modest dwellings built of corrugated metal exteriors are painted bright colours, a typically Genoese tradition brought to life on foreign shores.

Meanwhile, DWS is located in the largest and greenest neighbourhood: Palermo. “The location of our school is a privilege,” enthuses Yagust. “[We are] away from the noise and the crowds associated with a big city, allowing students to study Spanish in a quiet and relaxed environment.” The area is particularly popular with families on weekends and with 350 acres of green space, activities such as cycling, jogging and rollerblading are popular pursuits.

“In San Telmo [another neighbourhood], visitors can experience the oldest and most culturally rich part of Buenos Aires,” notes Mariela Tort at Mundo Español. Authentic candlelit streetlamps (called Faroles) line the streets while Tango-themed bars (some dating back to the 1800s) vie for attention. Sundays are particularly busy, adds Tort with the main town square – Plaza Dorrego – hosting a weekly flea market where students can pick up anything from classical art pieces to vintage clothing.

Red meat is, according to Hurley, a staple part of the Argentine diet. Reputed to have the highest consumption of red meat in the world, no trip for carnivores is complete without sampling the country’s most prized export. Traditional Argentinean barbeques, known as asados, are pitched all over town cooking cuts of meat, chorizo, morcillas [black pudding], mollejas [sweetbreads] and various other organs! For those not so fond of meat products, however, Hurley recommends a sweeter alternative. “Try the ice cream from any of the city’s many ice cream parlours,” she says.

Impressive scenic landscapes await students beyond the country capital and Katie Dunlop from Road2Argentina in Buenos Aires suggests students make good use of transport links. “Students should take advantage of the affordability of long distance bus travel, as well as its security and reliability,” she says. Iguazu Falls (a masterful waterfall on the Brazilian/Argentina border) is just an overnight bus journey away, as is Mendoza (one of Argentina’s most important wine regions) and Córdoba – home to one of the country’s most prestigious universities. It was also awarded the Cultural Capital of the Americas in 2006 and students can experience its passion for the arts first-hand by visiting one of its four major art galleries.

Natural wonders like the Andes (the mountain range separating Argentina and Chile) and the Patagonian glaciers (best explored in the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares which contains some 47 examples) are awe-inspiring but the provincial towns of Salta and Jujay in the north are also well worth a bus ticket, advises Dunlop. It is the north-west where life is a little more relaxed, she relates. “Small towns dot the map, populated by indigenous people accustomed to a different pace of life, set against the backdrop of jagged mountains, striking salt flats and big skies.”

Stretching 4,270 kilometres from tip to toe and only 177 kilometres from east to west, Chile has one of the world’s most unique topographies. Consequently, it’s a land of varying extremes with arid desert-like conditions in the north and cooler, wetter climes in the south. “Chile is an attractive country,” notes Carlos E. Torres from the Universidad Viña del Mar. “From the desert in the north to the forest in the south… it makes people explore it and enjoy its attractions,” he states.

Having worked at the international arm of the university for four years, Torres relates he relishes teaching students about his country and culture. “I love when I see the progress of students when they stop being just witnesses of a new culture, and they become a part of it,” he says. The university itself is located in the coastal city of Viña del Mar (meaning vineyard of the sea), one of Chile’s premier beach destinations. However, Torres notes that it’s perhaps best known for its annual music festival – Festival Internacional de la Canción de Viña del Mar. “This is an important event in Chile and Latin America and people from different parts of Chile and the world come and participate in different activities,” he says. The festival features both Latin American and international performers (recent headlining acts have included Simply Red, Franz Ferdinand and Nelly Furtado) and lasts for five days.

Santiago, the Chilean capital, is located some 120 kilometres away and is teeming with gourmet restaurants and a buzzing nightlife. Like Buenos Aires, the city is made up of different districts each with its own unique identity. Cecilia Quezada from Ecela – Latin Immersion cites Bellas Artes and La Vega as her two personal favourites and she explains that despite being polar opposites, they represent two very distinct types of Santiaguino culture. Students can stroll around Bellas Artes and soak up the bohemian vibe with its many museums, cafés and restaurants while La Vega is a jumble of market stalls selling fruit, vegetables, sauces and spices. “The sights, sounds and smells of Chilean street culture are abundant, and it is a place not to be missed for anyone looking to experience a day in the life of a Chilean,” she enthuses.

However, to experience Chilean culture at its very best, Quezada recommends students stick around for the nation’s Independence Day celebrations in September. “Santiago’s streets and parks fill with festivals called fondas, where Chileans from all walks of life gather to eat, drink and be merry while celebrating their nation,” she says. Mirtha Condesa Araujo, Director of Natislang (which has campuses in both Santiago and Valparaíso) agrees and adds that the school hosts its own celebrations by holding a barbecue evening. Teachers and students toast one another with chicha – a traditional drink made with fermented grapes or apples – and eat delicious empanadas [a type of stuffed bread or pastry].

Valparaíso is another coastal city and one of the country’s most important seaports. Owing to its historical importance, natural beauty and unique architecture, it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, and students need only see constructions such as the city’s funiculars [an inclined railway] to see why. Locals are inherently proud of this unique transportation system and they offer visitors an original way of seeing the city and its surrounds. “It is a unique city with a special charm that mixes the diversity of its people with the history of our country,” asserts Condesa Araujo, and she advises students also visit the nearby Casablanca Valley – one of the fastest growing areas for viticulture [wine production] in Chile.

Torres relates that students shouldn’t shy away from more rural areas and he counts the Atacama Desert as a must-see. The plateau is reputed to be one of the driest places on earth and some parts haven’t seen rain since record keeping began!

Compared with Chile and Argentina, Uruguay’s geography is relatively flat and green. Bounded by various bodies of water (most notably the Atlantic and the Rio de la Plata – a large river estuary), its climate is relatively temperate all year-round. However, like its geographical neighbours, much of its population is of European descent and consequently culture and cuisine are a blend of native and European traditions.

“Uruguayans are a very welcoming people and are always fond of explaining and showing their culture to foreign students,” explains Federico Hoeser, founder of Academia Uruguay and Academia Buenos Aires, and he regales that the inception of the Uruguayan campus in 2007 was the result of nascent demand for an alternative Latin American option. “The idea of building the Uruguayan school came when talking to students in Buenos Aires, many of whom continued their journey to Uruguay or wanted to spend some time there to get to know Montevideo,” he says. Hoeser goes on to explain that Academia students make good use of the ferry links that connect Buenos Aires with Montevideo and students are often encouraged to experience life on both campuses. “Both cities are separated by a three-hour ferry ride and students can switch sites every Monday,” he notes.

As the capital, Montevideo is an obvious first choice for students new to the country. “Compared with the enormous city of Buenos Aires, Montevideo is smaller, more quiet and laid back,” asserts Hoeser. However, it’s certainly not short on the entertainment front. Full of museums, theatres and a carnival that is said to rival Brazil’s, it’s no wonder students frequently end up staying that little bit longer.

Like their Argentinean neighbours, Uruguayans are proud meat eaters and many students will certainly sample the odd chivito [a substantial steak sandwich] or two while in town. However, much of the cuisine is distinctly European and tourists are just as likely to see pasta dishes (a nod to its Italian roots) and frankfurter-like sausages called hungara (of German origin) on the menu.

Students also have over 500 kilometres of sandy beaches to explore while in the country, many of which remain relatively low-key in terms of tourism. Hoeser notes that the coastal locality of Punta del Diablo in the northeast is well worth a visit and is a haven for holidaying Uruguayans. Once a modest fishing port, it is slowly but surely becoming one of the country’s most fashionable beach resorts.

Agent viewpoint

Emlyn Lee, Cultural Embrace, USA
“Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires, offers travellers all the old Spanish world perks at an affordable price with a passionate flair. There is something for everyone. In the north are the more rural areas with some breathtaking scenery. The hometown of Che Guevara is found in the small town of Rosario. Also, there is the country’s wine region situated in Mendoza near the Andes. A traveller can switch climates by taking a trip from the warmer north to the freezing temperatures of the Patagonian region of the south.”

Franziska Büeler, Linguista Sprachaufenthalte, Switzerland
“Students choose Uruguay because it is still an insider tip and a country that not everybody knows. Most students say that they like being in a country that only few people here know personally. A lot of people who travel to South America are a bit afraid in terms of security. Uruguay is known as a safe country and therefore it is a very convenient place to learn Spanish.”

 Matthias Möbius, Danza y Movimiento, Germany
“Uruguay and Argentina have strong European influences from the past. You can feel that you are in a melting point of two cultures. Our clients are attracted to the possibility that they can combine language travel with other cultural activities, mainly dance, especially in Buenos Aires. They can even combine a course in both cities and they can complete the metropolitan experience with a tour to places of national interest like the waterfalls of Iguazu or Patagonia.”

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