Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Olavarria, Argentina

After a 900-km drive from Neuquén, I am spending Xmas in the city of Olavarría, Buenos Aires Province, before heading to the city of Buenos Aires.

Olavarría is a city of about 100,000 in the humid pampas, about 400 km southwest of the city of Buenos Aires. The main reason I'm here is because it's my wife's hometown, and she and my daughter have flown here to spend the holidays with her extended family. Tonight we take a bus to BA, where I will finish up the new manuscript of Moon Handbooks Patagonia and send it off, with maps and photographs, to the publisher.

Olavarría is not a city I would include in any of my guidebooks, though a couple nearby estancias (guest ranches) do make it in. It's interesting, though, in that its vigorous economy is a reflection of the country's recent economic success, and the café I'm sitting in is a reflection of modern changes. Don Torcuato was formerly a classic general store, where gauchos rode in on horse carts to make months' worth of purchases; recently, though, it's been transformed into a bistro-on-the-pampas, while preserving the building's original features. The high wooden shelves that once held bulk groceries, for instance, now display the large wine inventory.

Unlike many pampas cities, Olavarría has an industrial as well as an agricultural base, thanks to the nearby cement factory at Loma Negra. In fact, for many years, the biggest celebration here was the Fiesta Nacional del Cemento (National Cement Festival), complete with its own Reina del Cemento (Cement Queen!). That may sound quaint, or even silly, but compared with almost any city of comparable size in the US, Olavarría has much to recommend it--at midnight or even later, the streets are full of people in what is a real community--as opposed to any anonymous bedroom town in, say, Kansas, where being out at that hour might be grounds for arrest.

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