Small-Town Living in Argentina’s Sierra Mountains

Can you see yourself relaxing in a hammock stretched between trees in your backyard, watching the sunset over the mountains while bright green parrots chatter overhead? Do you prefer access to peace and nature over the cultural attractions of a big city? While the majority of U.S. expats in Argentina choose to set up their home-away-from-home in the capital city of Buenos Aires, there are many alternative options for those of us looking for a more laidback, simpler lifestyle.

The Sierra Mountains sprawling north-west out of Cordoba city are peppered with small towns hosting vibrant communities and diverse outdoor activities. You can live on a large property with no neighbors but horses for miles, or in a small house within a town that provides many of the amenities of city life but is nestled among the mountains, or choose your own balance of the two.

I am living in Capilla del Monte, almost two hours from Cordoba city. While it is most famous for its UFO sightings that attract crystal-loving hippies from all over the country, I am more captivated by its earthly attractions. From my back door, I can hike into the mountains or bike on the web of dirt roads that make up much of the town and surrounding area. It’s a short bike ride to several rivers which provide delightful rock-hopping and swimming through natural pools or under waterfalls, and there are lakes for fishing or boating or just enjoying a picnic with friends on the shore.

For the more adventurous, we have two rock climbing areas only 15 minutes away offering several hundred climbing routes along a picturesque river bed. It’s such a luxury for me to live so close to my favorite activity, when I used to drive over three hours for it back in California. Another popular adventure sport here is paragliding—why walk down from the top of a mountain when you can jump off? I love watching the brightly colored parachutes drifting down towards town with a tiny pair of legs swinging underneath.

All of this outdoor time is made possible by Capilla del Monte’s wonderful climate. If you are a sun-worshipper like me, you’ll relish the 300+ days of sun per year. The coldest daytimes in winter get down to around 50 F, but I can usually still sit outside comfortably under the strong sun in the middle of the day. The summer months (Dec to Feb) can get very hot, sometimes pushing over 90 F, so everyone flocks to the rivers to cool down. These are the same months that the town fills with tourists, and we think about taking a vacation either to the snow in the U.S. or to the beach in Central America.

Another significant factor in my love affair with Capilla del Monte is the balance between small-town peace and vibrant downtown life. We live less than a mile from the city center but can sit on our porch hearing only the sound of the hummingbirds buzzing around our yard, and enjoying magnificent views of sunset over the lake and alpenglow on the mountains. Yet, we travel just a few minutes and find ourselves on the Techada, the covered street, which is usually bustling with people. The Techada is frequently shut down to traffic, whether for the annual alien UFO parade in February, or for Halloween in October, and the street fills with revelers. In the summer months, the whole downtown area comes alive with pop-up events like a puppet show for kids or live music from local bands, and the restaurant tables spill out onto the sidewalks.

While our choice of restaurants is nothing like in a big city, there are plenty of options to keep you entertained and fed. The Italian influence is strong here, as elsewhere in Argentina, so the staple foods are pasta and pizza, but always with an alternative offering of giant slabs of meat. The parrilla (BBQ) is an unshakeable Argentine institution, and we often see locals setting up their grill at the river, lake or campground for a multi-hour family meal involving several pounds of meat.

For North Americans like me, it can be a tough adjustment to match the Argentine dinner schedule. We endured several evenings of starvation before we learned our lesson—always eat dinner at home before you go to someone’s house for a BBQ! Typically they don’t even start lighting up the BBQ until 10 p.m. As for the restaurants—countless times we’ve found ourselves returning from a long hike around 7 p.m. and wanting to eat out. Nope. You’ll never find a restaurant open before 8 p.m., and you’ll be the only person inside if you do show up at 8. Typically, as we are paying the bill to leave at 9.30 p.m., other people are starting to trickle in for dinner. I am forever impressed by the tenacity of the Argentine stomach.

© Wikimedia/Havardtl

The community of Capilla definitely leans to the “hippier” side of the scale—people are really into exercise, health foods, and looking out for the environment and for each other. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to yoga classes and health food stores, and you’ll have endless opportunities to sit back and chat with the locals, who never seem to be in a rush. Just be prepared to share mate (mah-tay), Argentine tea, whenever you hang out. “Let’s have mate” is akin to “let’s get a coffee” in the U.S., except that everyone takes turns sipping the same drink from the same cup, rather than ordering their own personal favorite. It’s an indispensable part of Argentine social life, and a small nod to their strong sense of community and solidarity.

So what’s the cost of living in this nature-lover’s paradise? If you can earn in U.S. dollars and spend in Argentine pesos, then you can live a relatively easy life here. A few examples: We are renting a three-bedroom house with a pool for about $250 a month. My husband gets an osteopath treatment every week for about $10. A nice dinner out for two people with wine is around $20. Dentist and teeth cleaning are $5. The exchange rate fluctuates wildly—in the one year we’ve lived here, the value of the U.S. dollar has doubled—but the low cost of living is reliably consistent.

While we have all the basic amenities we need on a daily basis right here in Capilla, it is convenient to have the city of Cordoba less than two hours away. Cordoba capital, as it is known, is the largest city in Argentina after Buenos Aires, with a population around 1.3 million. It boasts all the amenities a city-lover could wish for like shopping malls, universities, nightclubs, hospitals, theater, and museums. We originally thought we’d go to the big city every couple of months, but haven’t found any need to do so beyond legal visa issues or occasional healthcare. If you want a change of scenery without traveling all the way to Cordoba, you can visit nearby towns 15 to 30 minutes away. Our daughter attends the bilingual school in the next-door town of La Cumbre, which has a small U.K. expat community, so we’ll often visit friends or eat out there.

Personally, I love the peace and nature that comes from living in a more remote area, but there are certainly downsides. Culturally, you’re not going to find a variety of entertainment options like museums or theaters. Logistically, it’s a long trip if you want to travel to the U.S.—a 90-minute drive to the airport, 90-minute flight to Buenos Aires, then 9+ hour international flight. Medically, if you have any conditions that require regular specialist care, you may not be able to address those here. We have a small public hospital and some private medical clinics and dentists, but for anything serious you would want to travel to Cordoba, where the medical facilities are excellent and low cost.

Capilla del Monte is a wonderful place to live if you’re looking to really immerse yourself in a new culture. You won’t find a significant expat community, and there are few people who speak English, so you’ll thrive here if you’re excited to learn Spanish and be part of the local community. We’ve met a handful of U.S., Canadian, and U.K. expats who have become friends, but we’ve also had no trouble connecting with Argentines through outdoor activities or music or school. The people here are friendly, outgoing, and welcoming to newcomers, so you’ll find yourself invited to BBQs and making new friends in no time. If you want to spend more of your life outside enjoying nature and mountains, or you love nothing better than sitting in the sun with friends sharing tea and chatting, then you’ll fit right in.

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