Travel: The Hand of God and all its works: Majestic falls, Maradona, massive steaks . . . Frank Barrett, a non-footballing vegetarian at large in Argentina, goes misty-eyed at the tomb of Eva Peron

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The Independent Travel
BOUNDING up a flight of stone steps through the jungle towards the top of the cataracts at Iguazu, I encountered a lizard the size of a pit-bull terrier. It fixed me with a lazy eye before flicking out its tongue and ambling off into the undergrowth. Had I been less terrified I might have been able to scream.

'My God, what was that?' I asked Marcelo, the guide.

'What was what?'

'That]' I quavered, pointing towards the gaping hole left in the foliage by the recently departed dinosaur. 'Iguana,' said Marcelo, unconcerned, as if I'd asked him to identify a passing butterfly.

'Is it dangerous?' Marcelo repeated my question to his friend and they both laughed uproariously. I wasn't clear whether they snickered because it was well known that iguanas are extremely dangerous, or because iguanas are famously super- chummy, one of man's best friends. Presumably the former, as there weren't many locals wandering around with iguanas on leads.

Marcelo wasn't much interested in talking about wildlife. He was keener to chat about football, Diego Maradona in particular. 'Hand of God,' he chuckled, referring to the notorious 1986 World Cup match when Maradona helped Argentina to put England out of the competition with a goal scored with his hand.

I had an uncomfortable feeling that talk about England-versus-Argentina confrontations might lead towards the troubled waters of the Falkland Islands, or 'Las Islas Malvinas (Arg)' as they are uncompromisingly labelled on the map in the Aerolineas Argentinas in-flight magazine. But just then we reached the viewpoint at the top of the Iguazu falls. From below our feet tumbled millions of gallons of foaming, boiling water. The air was filled with a jet-engine roar as the torrent crashed to the rocks hundreds of feet below. It sent up a drenching mist that everywhere turned into psychedelic rainbows before our eyes. In and out of the cataracts darted swallows; overhead wheeled black birds of prey, circling like hang-gliders. Among the trees and bushes fluttered brightly coloured butterflies as big as tea plates.

I stood with Marcelo and Marcelo's friend, looking down on these extraordinary sights, tipsy with pleasure. I feasted on the spectacle, humble in the presence of the majesty of raw, epic nature.

Marcelo smiled and gave me a thumbs-up sign. 'Gissa coin]' he yelled through the watery din. Could he be requesting a tip? I turned out my wet empty pockets and mimed improvidence. Marcelo shook his head. 'No, no. Gissa coin] Gasser] Gasser Coin]' The coin finally dropped: 'Gascoigne? Paul Gascoigne]' 'Si] Si]' nodded Marcelo with a fresh pantomime of urgent thumbs-up signs. 'Maradona number one] Gasser Coin number two]' We stood in South America's choicest spot and for a few moments silently reflected on the charms of Newcastle's favourite son.

Iguazu is Argentina's biggest tourist attraction, but in a country that receives fewer overseas visitors than London's Madame Tussaud's, this doesn't mean much. Most of the action appeared to be on the Brazilian side of the falls, where sightseeing helicopters irritatingly buzzed backwards and forwards non-stop, frightening the birds from the skies. Argentina has banned sightseeing helicopters from its sector.

At the ultra ugly-modern Hotel Internacional Iguazu, for pounds 100 a night you can have a room with a view offering a large, luscious Cinemascope slice of steaming falls. Bad for those with a weak bladder perhaps; unforgettable for the romantic.

The day I was there, the hotel was deserted. Waiters basked on the terrace; like the iguanas, they were happy to soak up the roasting midday sun until my arrival sent them scurrying away. They returned with menus and hot rolls.

'English?' I braced myself for a broadside on the subject of Las Islas Malvinas (Arg). 'Heremy Erons . . . Roberto de Niro?' inquired the waiter. 'You know the film The Mission was filmed at Iguazu: you have seen it?' 'Yes,' I replied: 'Have you?' 'No, but I would like to. One day,' he said wistfully.

Seen from the air on the flight down to Buenos Aires, the Iguazu Falls - five times bigger than Niagara - look less the accidental work of nature and more like a heroic landscaping project devised by God. No wonder the place so inspired the Jesuits to build their missions here.

IF IGUAZU is the work of God, Buenos Aires is undoubtedly a European production. In an old episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk and the chaps get beamed down to a planet that had been cunningly crafted by some alien genius - goodness knows why - to look like a European city in the Thirties. It had a bit of Rome, a soupcon of Paris, a hint of Barcelona: all very carefully done. Of course, it didn't fool Spock ('Illogical, captain'). The Enterprise crew stayed long enough to rescue a damsel in distress from a gang of unidentified Fascists before boldly going somewhere else.

You get the same sort of feeling arriving in Buenos Aires. I found myself not only suffering from time lag, but place lag as well. Where was I? It was a city with the wide boulevards of Paris, the handsome public buildings of Rome and the cafe society of Barcelona or Madrid. Shops on the smart Avenida Florida include Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Timberland and even a Harrods department store (no relation to the Knightsbridge variety).

I had been warned that Argentina offered slim pickings for vegetarians: the only choice was whether you wanted your steak big or very big. Nothing could have been further from the truth. A heavy Italian presence in Argentina ensures that BA is well supplied with good pizza and pasta places. The Spanish heritage guarantees that you will never want for a good omelette.

While BA resembles Europe, it often reminds you more of the post-war Europe of the Fifties. Where the hotel hot water suddenly gives out for no reason. Where if you want to make a direct-dial phone call to the UK, you have to go to the central post office and call from a metered booth. Somebody I spoke to in BA told me they had waited 12 years to have a telephone installed and paid pounds 1,500 for the privilege of being connected.

But things are changing. After years of economic mayhem and rampant inflation, President Carlos Menem seems to have worked wonders. The Argentine peso is now pegged to the US dollar, inflation is under control and the city seems to radiate affluence. But a lot of the style is empty swank. In order to maintain even a modest lifestyle, many hold down two jobs: my tour guide spent his days escorting groups and his evenings as a university lecturer.

For a country which had regular military coups instead of elections (five major coups since 1930, and 19 years of military rule), the recent political stability is a cherished novelty. But the Argentines are too realistic to expect miracles from Mr Menem.

However they did expect miracles from Eva Peron, the former radio soap star who was married to Juan Peron, elected president in 1946. Evita, as she was known affectionately, espoused the cause of the common people and was rewarded by popular adoration.

A woman told me that she was listening to the radio on the night in 1952 that Eva Peron, aged 33, died of cancer. 'An announcer interrupted the programme and said 'Eva Peron has passed into eternity'. I went to the kitchen to tell the servants, who started screaming hysterically. They rushed out of the apartment saying they had to see the body.'

Evita is buried relatively modestly in the del Norte cemetery in the fashionable Recoleta district. The cemetery is crowded with avenues of ostentatious tombs, each a miniature palace. However Evita's resting place is a simple, anonymous family tomb. On her memorial tablet, it really does say, 'Don't cry for me . . .'

Across the city, you can find more immediate reminders of the country's troubled history. Every Thursday afternoon since 1977, the Mothers of the Disappeared have gathered in the Plaza de Mayo. There are mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers who stand chatting - then at some unseen signal they begin to move anti-clockwise around a large circular paved area before the presidential residence, the Casa Rosada. A trestle table sells 'Mothers of the Disappeared' pens and T-shirts. They even have a monthly newspaper.

Most carry photographs of the relatives who were 'disappeared' during the Dirty War fought by the government against dissidents from 1976 to 1983. No one knows for sure how many were disappeared - estimates range from 9,000 to 30,000. Babies taken from dissidents were given to armed force personnel, sometimes the very torturers who had murdered the baby's parents. The story of these dark years has yet to be fully told.

Meanwhile, the Mothers continue to gather every Thursday. These afternoons are part protest and part mutual support - a sharing of grief. It is impossible not to be moved by their dignity. I asked one of the mothers if it was all right for me to photograph her. 'Of course. Of course.' How long will you continue the protest, I asked her. 'Para siempre.' Forever.

My head aching from the heat of the square, I walked down into the cool of the subway station and paid my 20p fare at the ticket office. The Buenos Aires subway is like a living transport museum, virtually unchanged since it was built at the turn of the century. The trains are delightfully rickety: compartments are wood-panelled with mirrors and illuminated by dim electric lights - they look for all the world like the smoking room of an Edwardian men's club.

Well before the train has reached a halt in the station, the doors lurch open (sometimes the doors never shut at all). But while passenger safety may not be a priority, the trains are frequent and fast - and travel is cheap.

On my final day in Buenos Aires I went for an early-morning run around the park opposite the Retiro railway station. In this park stands the clock like Big Ben that was presented to the city in 1910 by the well-heeled members of the British community.

Jogging back to the hotel I came across the large memorial to the 650 Argentines who died in the Falklands war. Seeing the names personalised an enemy army which at the time of the war the British tabloids had been keen to depersonalise (they were simply 'the Argies').

When I later plucked up courage to discuss the war with a group of Argentines, they told me that their army had been a ramshackle conscript force of young men, largely from the hotter northern provinces. Poorly trained, badly equipped (many wore plimsolls, unsuitable for the cold and wet of the islands), they were never likely to be a match for Britain's professionals.

Rather than feeling bitter towards Britain over the war, most Argentines seemed relieved that defeat precipitated a new era of democracy. A short walk from the memorial, Union flags decorated hotels and shopping malls around Avenida Florida to celebrate British Week.

I SPENT my last night of the trip as a paying guest at Benquerencia, an estancia on the Pampas, two hours' drive from Buenos Aires. Benquerencia, owned by Guillermo Staudt and his wife, Marta, is a working farm but these days makes its living from tourism rather than cattle.

Guillermo is an irascible Argentine of German extraction who was taught English 60 years ago by his nanny from Lewisham. As a result, he speaks perfect English in the manner of P G Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth.

The style of the Staudt mansion is middle-period Addams Family. A retinue of servants waits upon the Staudts and their visitors with a studied servility not seen in Britain since King John was on the throne.

We ate our dinner from an absurdly large table. Guillermo rang a handbell and a white-jacketed servant, the spitting image of Lurch, silently cleared the dishes before serving the new course. Marta talked of the polo set, gossiped about the Duchess of York ('Ferjie') and the duchess's mother, Mrs Barrantes, who lived out on the campo. Guillermo spoke of his passion for carriage driving and his admiration for the guiding light of the sport, Prince Philip (Guillermo and Philip attended the same German prep school in the Thirties).

Before dinner Guillermo had taken me out on his carriage. Two flunkies, kitted out in what looked like the uniform of a pre-First World War German Navy midshipman, danced faithful attendance. Perpetually scolded by Guillermo, they leapt off their rear perch whenever we stopped in order to hold on to the horses' reins.

After dinner I walked back alone to the guests' quarters. Above me were the unfamiliar stars of the southern sky. The darkness echoed to the sounds of strange birds and unseen animals. That night in Argentina, travel ceased to be a simple passage across the face of the earth and became more in the nature of an out-of- body experience. As I floated on my antique bed, I felt sure that on the next day not even a Boeing 747 could bring me home.

Frank Barrett presents a report on his trip to Argentina on BBC 1's 'Holiday' programme at 7pm on 6 April.

Flights: Journey Latin America (081- 747 3108) offers return flights from London to Buenos Aires from pounds 468 with Iberia travelling via Madrid: the fare, valid until the end of June, is based on two people flying together. Direct flights with Aerolineas Argentinas start at pounds 583; non-stop flights with British Airways cost from pounds 759.

Packages: A Journey Latin America Gaucho tour including Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and Bariloche costs pounds 1,542 for a 12-night package including return flights from London and internal air travel.

Accommodation: The estancia Benquerencia is located on Ruta 41 between Monte and General Belgrano (0271 20748).

Books: The South American Handbook (Trade & Travel Publications, pounds 19.95); Argentina: a travel survival kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 6.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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