Argenti (name) Land Of Extremes

September 23, 1990|By Anthony Perrottet

As the second-largest country in South America, an eighth-largest in the world, Argentina offers astonishing geographical diversity: tropical rain forests and jungles, mountains rising more than 20,000 feet, prairies and deserts. The visitor who chooses only to stay in the capital city of Buenos Aires can miss out on a great deal.

Since so much is available, a traveler might want to stake out a particular region. Two areas especially show the great range of options available to a visitor: the lowlands to the north and Tierra del Fuego at the extreme southeast. They are part of the same country, but are worlds apart in geography, history, climate and ambience. A north-south tour might involve some machinations regarding travel arrangements (not to mention packing for weather extremes), but could be highly rewarding for the intrepid.

North: into the jungle

Sticking out like a crooked finger from the northeast of Argentina, the subtropical province of Missiones features some strange associations. Graham Greene used its wet and steamy towns as the setting for his novel "The Honorary Consul," where expatriate Britons and South American revolutionaries accidentally meet.

More recently, the award-winning film "The Mission" has publicized the provinces 18th century Jesuit empire. The film was shot in its colonial ruins, dense jungles and at the Iguazu waterfalls, considered more spectacular than those of Niagara.

A visit to the region begins in Posadas, which can be reached from Buenos Aires by daily Aerolineas Argentinas flights. Posadas itself has little to recommend it, with an empty plaza lined with wilting palm trees, a military airport and quiet hotels where guests sip heavy red wine as they perspire under revolving fans.

A highway escapes north from the town into the rich green countryside, kept lush by regular downpours. The road follows the Parana River, often in flood with its brown waters swirling around treetops and over the roofs of houses. On the other side of the river is Paraguay, ruled from 1955 to 1989 by the dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. He ran the country as if it were his own private plantation.

On the Argentine side trudge farmhands with straw cowboy hats and hoes, while horse-drawn carts compete with huge trucks in taking wood to the more advanced south.

It was in this same region that teams of Jesuit priests began setting up their mission stations in the 1600s. At their height in the 18th century, they housed 100,000 of the local Guarani Indians, studying, growing grain and carving musical instruments that were renowned in the finest courts of Europe.

Today, the ruins of the greatest Jesuit mission at San Ignacio are only two hours' drive from Posadas. They are announced by the unfortunate use of a piece of Jesuit art in a concrete military bridge, as designed by the former governor of the province.

The grounds themselves are more tastefully kept. San Ignacio has been turned into a silent and elegant park, with the masonry of the ruined colonial buildings covered by a thin film of moist moss.

At these ruins in "The Honorary Consul," bumbling Paraguayan guerrillas trying to capture the U.S. ambassador caught an old Englishman instead. Today, instead of lurking revolutionaries, there are only prowling gardeners equipped with wooden scythes.

Busloads of visitors wander among the old Jesuit living quarters and cathedral, decorated with Indian carvings of angels and stars. Outside, the gravestones of the priests bear simple but clear messages: "Here Lies Father Juan, a Good Man."

The other great attraction of Missiones province is only a few hours farther up the highway to the border with Brazil: the magnificent cataracts of Iguazu, where the opening scenes of "The Mission" were shot. They can be reached from the new commercial center of Puerto Iguazu, where Brazilians flock to buy blue leather jackets and smuggled French perfumes in shops also crowded with vats of green olives and hunks of local cheese. Outside, in the newly paved street, the bustling local market mysteriously sells nothing but onions and garlic.

The nearby Iguazu Falls are one of South America's most extraordinary sights. Millions of gallons of water thunder over the various cascades, with such force that most visitors wear overcoats to protect against the violent spray.

Obscure paths lead into the dripping rain forest to less impressive but more serene surroundings. These trails follow various spider-webbed routes, with small animals scurrying for cover behind walls of thick jungle, while the orange mud shows footprints of the local -- and, say park rangers, harmless -- variety of tiger.

The back roads of Missiones Province can be explored by car, past old rundown fishing villages on the Parana and isolated naval prefectures presumably on the lookout for the Paraguayan hordes. Other Jesuit ruins can be found, crumbling and overgrown with vines.

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