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Destination Argentina

Argentina Also Does Carnival

Twelve floats, thousands of feathers, and millions of multi-colored sequins light up the night to an explosion of rhythms: this is the Gualeguaychú Carnival, where more than 40 years of tradition erases taboos, borders, and language barriers.

By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman

It’s two in the afternoon; businesses pull down the shutters and homes close up for the legendary “siesta time.” The sun bakes the streets of a city center that looks like a ghost town frozen in time.

We are in Gualeguaychú in the Argentinean province of Entre Ríos. In this city of 110,000 inhabitants, time flows as tranquilly as the two rivers that bathe the city. Eco-tourism offerings like hot springs and walks in the woods attract visitors throughout the year. We have come in search of its real treasure, however, a pleasure soon to be savored.

Looking around, we see low-rise colonial homes as we stroll toward the Playa del Puente, a spa resort near the city center. Greenery enhances classical architecture, and pure tranquility and silence soon give way to music surging from beyond the trees. Even from afar I begin to understand why the city center seemed so deserted: hundreds or perhaps thousands of people have come to enjoy the day at the spa resort. We are here for the Gualeguaychú Carnival, where multi-national crowds have been erasing taboos, borders, and language barriers for more than 40 years. The music never stops during Carnival and feet defy fatigue to keep moving.

Drinks abound, music plays, and the river tempers the blazing sun that has accompanied us since we arrived. This is an experience for gutsy, light-hearted people who come here determined to have fun. Time passes, the sun slowly sinks, and people begin to disperse as if a silent alarm had announced zero hour, leading everyone to simultaneously decamp to parts unknown.

The corsódromo (a kind of Sambadrome for dancers and floats), which features the first carnival runway in Argentina, has been the main party venue for twenty years. Tonight, the lights are on, the chairs are dusted off, and the ground shakes. The corsódromo, with a 1,660-foot parade runway and room for 30,000 people, is packed to the rafters. Outside, the floats are almost ready, as are the three dance troupes that earned the honor of participating this year (2017): Kamarr, Ara Yeví and Marí Marí. The groups, each more than 200 dancers strong, put the finishing touches on their costumes and make-up. The lines progress through the entrance and faces glow with happiness as the music resounds in the background. The air briefly crackles with tension; barely-contained nerves and joy waft from the parade runway and the first float finally enters.

Twelve floats, thousands of feathers, and millions of multi-colored sequins light up the night. An explosion of rhythms and colors parades between the stands, the bands play atop the floats, and feet move among giants, masks, monsters, and fairies: the party has begun! The dancers’ smiles and their impossibly talented feet raise everyone’s spirits, making us forget the heat and our own tiredness. When the rhythms of carnival sound in Gualeguaychú and the streets exude color, we are all part of Carnival and happiness permeates the air.

As the competition grows tougher, the troupes give their all. Throughout the year, the dance troupes work as hard as they can to shine during Carnival, especially the last phase of the competition on the final weekend, which attracts the largest audience.

Each dance troupe is judged on many aspects, including music, liveliness, float, and choreography, with points accumulating over the ten nights of Carnival. Ten nights filled with sweat and tears. Winning the top spot is the dream of the hundreds of dancers who radiate energy and joy as they prance rhythmically up and down the specially-designed runway.

Feathers flutter surprisingly fast and masks come to life. Each corso, or dance troupe, has its own theme and mask. Each one adds its own interpretation of the meaning of Carnival, filling the nights with fantasy and breathing life into fairytale and horror-story creatures that dance alongside the audience.

Even though the last dance troupe has almost finished, we have not fully processed the swirl of colors and sensations. In a few hours, Gualeguaychú will once again become the placid place we first saw. Tranquility and routine return, the stars fade, dawn lays its comforting fingers on the exhausted participants, the lights are switched off, and the box office goes dark…until tomorrow.

Between parties, be sure to make time for:

Isla Libertad Castle: A symbol of the city. More than 80 years after its construction, its striking architecture and dark past continue to intrigue locals and tourists alike.

Cathedral: Built in 1863, but not inaugurated until 27 years later. Its most impressive feature is a 2,200-pipe organ that provides music for many city events.

Azotea de Lapalma Museum: A 19th century building shrouded in legends of heartbreak and death. The ghost of the niece of Juan Lapalma, Gualeguaychú’s first doctor, appears on the roof terrace and bewails her sorrows while curious passers-by search for the source of the cries. The house-museum displays the wealth of the Lapalma family.

Walks: The city’s natural beauty is a great attraction for anyone who might enjoy a walk or an outing on the river. The region’s extensive flora and fauna provide green refreshment for the eyes and a balm of fresh air for the lungs.

How to Get There

Copa Airlines offers three flights a day to Buenos Aires from North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. From Buenos Aires, public transport will take visitors on the nearly 3-hour highway journey to Gualeguaychú.

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