Dakar, meat, malbec and blondes
Ahead of the brutal Dakar Rally, Derek Alberts discovers the sights and sounds of South America.
In Argentina, football is king. However, for a few days in January, motorsport takes centre stage. Not just any motorsport mind you, but the Dakar Rally - arguably the toughest, most brutally taxing race on the planet, where death is very much a way of life.
One of the more humorous features in sport is that the Dakar Rally happens to take place nowhere near Dakar. It's common knowledge that the race relocated to South America in 2009 following the continued troubles in North Africa, and while the "Buenos Aires Rally" may have been more pertinent, there's no denying that the original moniker has stood the test of time as a brand, and would have been extremely difficult to replace.
In fact, the rally has nothing to do with the Argentine capital either. As in 2012, the event begins in Eva Peron's homeland, but whereas the seaside resort of Mar Del Plata hosted the start back then, the university town of Rosario will do the honours this time around.
It may not play much of a role in the rally, but Buenos Aires is the gateway to one of the world's most beautiful countries, and is a must see. I first visited "BA" in 2012, but my stay lasted less than an hour as I was soon on the road to Mar del Plata. This time, I did manage to see a bit more of the place, along with my colleague Waldo - the pair of us covering as much as we could in a very short space of time, on foot.
One curious aspect of Argentina is the country's taste in cuisine. Despite being on the doorstep of the Atlantic Ocean, seafood is almost impossible to come by. This place is all about meat and Malbec, which is surprising given the physiques of the locals. A friend of mine once said that you'd find far more beautiful blonde ladies in Argentina than you would in Sweden, and while I'm yet to visit the Scandinavian country, I'd find it hard to disagree.
Another popular pleasure for Argentines is coffee. Java can be found almost anywhere, none more so than at Café Tortoni. Established in 1858, Café Tortoni is the oldest shop of its kind in Buenos Aires, and has been rated one of the ten most beautiful cafes in the world.
It's hardly surprising then that on the day I visited, a queue of people braved the pouring rain as they waited patiently outside, desperate to get a table.
One place that didn't need a queue, given the ample space inside, was the El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop. My biggest vice by far are books, but I would have entered this magnificent building no matter what was inside.
This cathedral of reading started its life as a theatre, but was converted to a bookstore in 2000. It stands over three stories tall, and many of its original features remain intact. Like Café Tortoni, it too is rated in the top ten of its kind on the planet.
I failed to get anything given that all the books are published in Spanish, although I am currently reading Ricky Ponting's biography. While the book is certainly engrossing, the former Aussie cricket captain will have to take a backseat come Sunday, when Dakar 2014 begins.
Over 700 competitors will be in action, including Giniel De Villiers. The South African captured third place in 2012 in his Toyota Imperial Hilux, but went one better last year when he and teammate Dirk von Zitzewitz finished second.
For 2014, forget a top tenner - number one is the number they want.