Thursday, 26 March 2015


To read the guidebooks, to flick through the postcard carousels, to graze the coffee table glossies, it would appear that all twenty million Argentines holiday on the beach at Mar del Plata, or at least the ones that haven't absconded to Costa-Uruguay. An exaggeration, but only just. The stereotypical picture: a castellated wall of high-rise condominiums, the sand, the sea and their attendant breaking waves, indecipherable under a colourful heaving morass of humanity. The gazebo shade-sheds and the honeycombed beach parasols, ergonomically packaged for maximum financial density. The immediate hinterland streets lined out with an appropriate support infrastructure of shops, shops and shops.

Only today they stand empty. Today is Monday, the first school day, the first day of the shoulder season. That amorphous time betwixt sun lotion reek and the forlorn strands of roller-shuttered shops; between late season sales and the companionable silence of a winter's shore. A morphosis, when the peripatetic trader will sell off his last six withered apples before he heads off for another new season on the Spanish costas. When Abdel will take his stock of Egipto-asian cottons to Malaga, Eduardo will return to his mail delivery in Toronto and Juan will swap the life-guarding tower on Necochea beach for its equivalent on Benidorm's.

Yet it's a coastline that needs to be divided into two sub-sets. A Costa del Atlantica oceanboard and of the Barrancas de la Rio Plata. Two distinct shores divided by a sand spit. To study this water's edge on a map, it's hard to see how the river can be classed as the world's widest, for it looks more like a firth, an indentation of the ocean, impinging into the Corpus Argentina. A dagger of water jabbed into the torso of The Americas, secured from wandering away by two small fingers. The digits of Punta del Este on the Uruguayan northshore and Punta Rasa on the southbank.

It's difficult to imagine how these two divergent coasts, that are mere metres apart as they merge by the two Puntas, can be so different in character. That is, until you meet this river and this ocean. To westward, behind those minor promontories, the brackish, tideless water is latte-brown, the waves short chop and the banks mud and rushes. A humid soup of mosquitoes and rotting vegetation fed by the great jungle rivers: ParanĂ¡ and Uruguay. Step around the corner, to ocean ward and the waves become steel-green oceanic breakers relentlessly crashing up against cliffs or pounding on long reaches of hard, compacted sand. There's a sharp clarity to the early light, a freshness to the coast, a fact that each local authority forms into great copy, Claiming that their resort town is 'sin humo', humidity free. On evidence, I would counter that it's all relative.

Bernard Rohloff, the brain behind our new bike gears, claims he got the idea whilst cycling on an Atlantic beach, trying to evade an incoming wave and finding that his cluster cogs became instantly clogged in sand. Over the years, we've had similar experiences with South American earth roads in days of rain, stranded by the verge, poking bits of stick into chains and sprockets. Allow it to dry and it soon becomes an adobe donkey brake. Still, it's exhilarating to ride where the surf runs out, seeing just how far you can go before finding an impediment.

On one strand we made twelve kilometres before a cliff intervened, forcing the enjoyable task of returning back along that glorious stretch, weaving around tide-ravaged sandcastles, ducking under monofilament lines and negotiating the legs of a pier. Sporadically scattered along the coast, these rod fishers' piers are a remnant of a past era. Their wrought iron skeletons exposed to the rotting sea salt, their scrofulous 'crete piles scabbed with mussels. Some are disconnected from land, whilst those that are fit for purpose will be festooned in rod and line, some will even have lighting and seating for the dedicated enthusiast.

What is noticeable about all of these costal places, is the cleanliness. With one interesting exception. At Santa Teresita we walk barefoot around thousands of dead freshwater fish. The retreating surfline leaving thin arching trails of scales and bones, the tideline a wrack of empty-socket carcasses. This evening, gulls and hawks are sampling the eyeball delicacies, leaving the carcass for the morning. When a digger will scoop up the previous day's deposited offerings, leaving only the faint aroma of fishmonger. It's a story that I can't find an explanation for. Theories involving insecticidal runoff, river and ocean currents abound. All an on-line search can offer, is the assistance of a lawyer specialising in 'dead cat poisoning in New Mexico". Or this curiously-translated piece of non-information. It's certainly not an image that's likely to be found in any holiday agent's glossy brochure for the Argentine Costas.