Friday, January 27, 2012

Argentine Road Trip: Beach Edition

Throughout Capital Federal there are billboards advertising for Buenos Aires beach. Where are these illusive beaches? Is there a sandy riverside park I didn't know about, or even a lake I'd never heard of? This just couldn't be so. Alas, the beaches are part of Buenos Aires province, and thus a journey away from the self contained world of CABA (That's the autonomous city of Buenos Aires for you foreigners). But a beach is a beach, and a beach with a David Guetta concert is irresistible, so I was on my way.
Like any good trip, planning was the first step. We were going to be driving, so I needed to know what I was in for. I found out the Villa Gesell and Pinamar beaches were about a 5 hour drive. Keep this statistic in mind when you hear that more than half of Argentines live in Buenos Aires. (Yes, five hours away is still Buenos Aires province; the provinces are essentially like the U.S. states.) The route is one of the nation's best for road trips, with a well paved four lane highway that even has gas stations, rest stops and a few restaurants along the way. Part of the way is even downright scenic.
Rest stop culture here isn't the same as the 18-wheeler filled, vending machine and dirty bathroom spots we have along U.S. highways. Argentine rest stops are a place where you can actually spend a while, enjoy a freshly made snack, still weak coffee (sorry) and take a rest. Atalaya has been the rest stop for Argentine beach bums en route for more than 70 years. There are even youtube videos of people stopping at Atalaya. The medialunas are famous nationwide, and nearly the only thing people buy there, though they do offer a few other types of baked goods plus a shop with the Argentine staples: alfajores, dulce de leche, etc.
The dirt parking lot was filled with more than 50 cars when I went, the line for medialunas was out the door, and the line for the bathroom wasn't much shorted. Inside, the small dining room can only accommodate a tiny fraction of the travelers; the majority of people take their snacks outside eating off the tailgate, hood or roof of their cars. There is also an adjoining mini mart and gas station to satisfy accompanying needs.
The Argentine coast has more than a dozen beaches. On this trip, I visited the first three well known beaches, Cariló, Villa Gesell, Pinamar and Mar de Plata, each of which offers a unique experience.
Driving from CABA, Cariló is the first beach you reach. The entrance is one of three exits from rotary, and is marked by a wooden gateway which make it look more like a summer camp than an exclusive resort town. Essentially, it's a hybrid of an upscale development and tourist village. After passing the entrance, which is monitored by police, you drive a while on dirt roads through the forest until structures begin to appear. The town is made up of luxury homes scattered on relatively spacious lots throughout the woods. Many homes are wood and are built in the Dutch style that is common to many areas of Argentina, however there is also quite a bit of variety including ranch and modern homes. 
Downtown Cariló is centered around the Paseo Epuyen shopping center, with shops offering Argentina's finest brands, plus tons of imported brands. Even the local supermarket has far more imports than your average Disco. There are also many independently owned restaurants offering a variety of cuisines from hot dogs to fine dining.
Past the downtown and all the homes is the beach. Unlike Buenos Aires' bigger beaches, Cariló has lots of open space, and the clientele are mostly families and couples. There's no party scene, not a stereo or beer (except ours) in sight when we were there. The only disruption is the occasional four wheeler riding the dunes behind the beach. There's also a beach club where you can take the exclusivity up a notch by renting cabanas.
If you haven't been to South American beaches before, one of the greatest things they offer are traveling salesmen. People walk up and down the beach selling a variety of products. The best part is, in general, they don't approach you and creep you out like their counterparts in some other countries. They just walk around shouting out what they have, and if you want it you give them a wave. The usual spread in Argentina is cold drinks, ice cream, fruit salad, milanesa sandwiches, corn on the cob, chipa, churros, jewelery, sunglasses, bohemian clothing and bikinis.
The next beach I visited was Pinamar. It is a bigger city, with the commercial district concentrated beside the beach and the residential areas sprawling out from there. Bunge Boulevard is the strip, and it runs perpendicular to the beach. There are numerous restaurants, shops, apartment buildings and hotels. Though generally upscale, you can still find take out and souvenir shops among the Audi dealerships and sophisticated restaurants. Cruising the strip in luxury cars and clubbing are both popular evening and nighttime diversions. There are also many recreational activities available from fishing and kite boarding to golf and horseback riding.
The final beach I visited was Villa Gesell, which is more of a city on the beach than a beach city. It's still very seasonal and touristy, but the city is quite large and there is lots to do other in addition to the beach. The bigger size though also means wider diversity and a lower standard. The city and the beach are by no means dilapidated or even run down, but the clientele are middle class and the businesses cater to such a standard. There's just a lot of variation. In some areas there are exclusive beach clubs and upscale businesses, and in other areas there are cheaper attractions. Downtown spreads over an area of several blocks, and centers around a pedestrian street where there is a casino, arcades, restaurants and all kinds of shops.
One final attraction in Villa Gesell, and the instigator of the entire trip is a club called Pueblo Limite. It's a huge facility on the outskirts of downtown known for hosting international performers and huge parties. Like any good beach club there's a huge main dance floor, impressive light show, mix of indoor and outdoor space and several bars. On Sunday January 16, it hosted David Guetta, to what I suspect was an exceeding-fire-code packed house.

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