On the upside, Carlos Paz Rugby Club won’t have to keep an eye out for helicopters landing on the pitch this week.
Anything else? Nope. That’s it. That’s the only possible upside from the postponement of Rally Argentina. For the World Rally Championship, this is the week the coronavirus really made its presence felt. The trip to Buenos Aires is genuinely one of the season highlights.
First, there’s touching down from a longhaul flight and that welcome stretch of the legs. Coming in from Europe, more than likely you’ll disembark at Ministro Pistarini, also known as Ezeiza International Airport. Depending on three things: if you’re awake, which side of the plane you’re on and how much cloud’s around, you could be treated to two major South American capital cities in a matter of minutes as you descend, Montevideo and Uruguay are over there and Buenos Aires is down there.
Down. And out of the airport, the first job is to grab a cab and direct it north through the city to the side of the River Plate and another airport, this one – Aeroparque Internacional Jorge Newberry – is by far the most popular for domestic flights.
This is the point you regret all that optimism you felt months earlier when you were booking your flights. Three hours will be plenty to get across town and hop aboard the Aerolíneas Argentinas for the hour-and-a-bit flight to Córdoba. It’s not. It never has been. And it never will be.
Except it always, just about is. A good 45 minutes of that journey are, however, sat in silent prayer – usually staring at the back of a Renault 4 which has neither a straight panel, nor one the same colour – wondering if the traffic will ever clear. Depending on stress levels, you might or might not have a passing interest El Monumental, River Plate’s ground – largest football stadium in the country. When you pass it, you know you’re in the Belgrano district and not a million miles from the airport.
Flight two done. It’s hire car time. 99% of the time that means a Chevrolet Aveo. The sedan. It’s a Vauxhall Corsa. With a boot. It might have air conditioning. It won’t have powersteering or central locking.
Time to head further west and the final part of the journey to Villa Carlos Paz and the service park alongside Lago San Roque.
Fortunately, the Córdoba district council has splashed its road-building cash on the Avenue de Circunvalación Agustín Tosco, a move which, at a stroke, has saved the WRC certainly days if not months in combined time driving the streets of downtown Córdoba. Before thr ring-road around the north-west of the city, I don’t think I drove to or from the airport the same way twice. Only the old Athens airport in Glyfada, south of the city, was more complicated. Finding your way back there after a week in Itea was so confusing, it’s only good fortune that I’m not typing this from a bench staring out at the Gulf of Aegina.
Into Carlos Paz and the first thing you see from the dual carriageway (apart from the San Roque lake) is Hotel Las Lajas, a sticky-carpeted joint which serves unnaturally orange orange juice. It is, however, run by the loveliest people who don’t half know how to grill a lemon-splashed chicken with a fried egg.
I know very little about the centre of Carlos Paz as the service park is out of town and the restaurants all clustered on the main drag. And they’re all much of a muchness – with the building centred around an enormous parrilla, on which all sorts of meat is cooked. La Volanta’s typical of this and a real rally favourite.
Hotel Portal del Lago is the stock hotel and has been since I’ve been going to the event. It’s wood-panelled throughout, and if you get one of the downstairs rooms you can feel like you’re in a bit of a dungeon. But it is convenient.
Prior to the arrival of some swankier downtown gaffs, Portal del Lago was where everybody stayed. Regularly you’d sit down to breakfast – for a glass of slightly less radioactive orange juice – alongside Colin McRae or Carlos Sainz.
The Portal del Lago bar remains one of the finest sources of stories in the entire championship.
Arriving in Argentina in the middle of the southern hemisphere autumn can mean chilly mornings and, occasionally, rain. But it’s usually warm and sunny, with plenty of stunning sunrise shots available for the sleep-deprived Europeans. All that changes when you head for the hills.
There’s no such thing as a bad stage in Argentina, the action will always be outstanding. But you need to travel further west and ever closer to the Andes for the best of the best and the road that runs between El Condor and Copina. In the last few years the stage has run uphill, finishing up between the rocks at more than 2100 metres. I’ve always preferred to see the cars coming down the hill. Either way, it’s a road that rocks this rally.
Barely a car’s width in places, this was once the only east-west route from Buenos Aires to the Andes. The wooden bridges which still line the route are testament to the history which pours from the place.
It’s stunning. And it’s Sunday. But the people will have been camping up there since Tuesday or Wednesday. Last time I went up, the atmosphere was just incredible. Locals emerging from their tents just in time to greet the sun peaking over the far-off mountains, while the more entrepreneurial sold warm bread from baskets carried up and down the road.
Stepping back from the road, it’s fair to say the facilities were, well, it’s fair to say they’d been busy. And the facilities, in case you were wondering, are the few shrubs and bushes which survive on what looks to the uninitiated (and, let’s face it that’s the vast majority of us) like the moon.
It’s a quite brilliant place, especially once the condors start circling high above, keeping an eye out for a dead animal or two to eat.
Talking of cow, the steak in Argentina really is all that. It’s exceptional, whether it’s a sandwich off the wood-fired asado in the service park or a brochette de lomo in Puerto Madero’s epic eating emporium Cabaña las Lilas – providing it’s preceded by an empanada (think South American pasty in miniature) and accompanied by a deep, red, moody Malbec – it’s absolutely perfect.
I’ve got to stop now. I’m making myself hungry. And thirsty.
Carlos Paz won’t be the same without the WRC this week. And, for rally fans the world over, this will be a WRC-free week to be endured.
We’ll try to make it less painful with a DirtFish flavour of South America, which you can join via #DirtFishArgentinaWeek on social media and on our website.