The sleepy riverside town of Gualeguaychu, north of Buenos Aires, bursts into life every weekend from January to March – the second-largest Carnival in Latin America, after Rio de Janeiro's
When Carnival time comes round in South America, there are so many more options than starrily-priced Rio de Janeiro, where the muggers are lithe dancing boys who suction out your bag as they kiss your mouth in Ipanema’s packed streets. Many visitors are unaware that Rio’s Carnival takes place locked inside the Sambadrome – an indoor road specially constructed for the event. Street-side carnivals known as corsos and murgas take place across the continent from Bahia to Bolivia, Colombia to Cafayate. At every one, you need to be prepared to be squirted with espuma by the kids on the street and emerge looking as though you’ve been attacked by a crazed bubble bath.
Argentina claims the second-biggest carnival in South America after Rio, and it runs every weekend between January and March in Gualeguaychu (yes, it is pronounced as though you’ve just sneezed). A three-and-a-half-hour bus ride, totally chicken-free (Argentina’s long-distance buses are perhaps the best in the world), leaves us at the riverside town of Guayle, somewhere between Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls to the north. It is hot. It is very silent. The rusting 1940s wagon cars and coloured cinema houses might be in Cuba. It is sleepy. We are hungry and thirsty but nothing is open. Not even a stalk of tumbleweed rolls down the dusty streets. The residents of Gualeguaychu take their siesta very seriously.
We rest up at our downtown hotel, The Emperador, with its super-helpful staff and bathtubs (quite a treat in Argentina) but later we salivate over the rooftop pool at the riverside Aguay (+54 3446 422 099, www.hotelaguay.com.ar) and promise to treat ourselves next year. At 6pm the town bursts back into life. Shops and cafes reopen. People come out to drink coffee as though having a second breakfast and we wait outside the corsodromo with jittery Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) hoping to secure some entradas. The ticket office has only back row places left so we are waiting outside the Portakabin containing the VIP ticket office that allegedly opens at 6pm. At 6.30pm, staggeringly punctual by Argentine standards, a man unlocks the door and puts down his papeles and cash box but cannot begin sales until a chair has been secured. We are fading away in the glare of both the sun and the Porteños – but eventually a four-seat "table" in the fourth row is procured for just 280 pesos (less than £10 a head).
Ecstatic, we walk down to the river where Friday night is warming up up with reggae music and beer at the beach bars. It's an incongruous sight to see Jamaica recreated by the side of a tranquil river, as though Malaga has landed at Marlow-on-Thames, but Argentines will party wherever the opportunity presents itself. As night falls, we dine like Carnival Queens under the stars at La Cascada, on fresh caught dorado – like a meaty and flavoursome plaice - that tastes as though it has just leapt from the river beside us straight onto the parilla (barbecue). We sip Argentine champagne at a roadside kiosco, watching the boys and men riding their motos up and down the strip. All have spare helmets – Argentine men regularly travel without their wives.
There are five "schools" (the groups that parade), of which three perform each year – the winner from the previous year, plus the two that were resting. It is possible to go to one of the school’s practice areas a few hours before showtime and wait for your Lana Turner/Pop Idol moment. If someone doesn’t show up, you’re on! I suggest you only attempt this if you have at least some dance experience and look marginally acceptable in an outfit consisting of a single triangle of sequinned froth attached to some dental floss, a headdress of 10,000 fluorescent feathers and enough sequins to cause grade-three whiplash. And remember, you have to bring your own silver heels.
We enter our stand as Carnival is beginning, just before midnight. The corsodromo is built along the tracks of a disused railway. Samba music fills the balmy sky and we adorn ourselves with feather masks and tall sequinned headdresses purchased from the stalls gathered around the station entrance. Inside, we are instantly transported fto Africa, to Asia, to Venus and Mars. A monstrous sky-blue Buddha attended by golden Ganeshes and white-plumed handmaidens glides by. A 50ft-tall Francisco Pizarro attended by 10ft-high seahorses is surrounded by the Incas he conquered in 1532, all sequined and revelling as never before. A spaceship-sized silver trinket depicts armoured conquistadores cowering beneath a dancing Inca boy wearing a headdress of feathers as big as the roof of a village hut. A tribe of Inca giants surrounds a glittering green jungle populated by emerald-plumed naked dancing boys and handmaidens in jewelled loincloths. The Kings are as beautiful as the Queens, wear less clothing and carry heavier headdresses.
We are far too stimulated to sleep when Carnival ends three hours later. The music from the Papelitos school plays over and over in our heads. We join the rest of the world by the edge of the river until a gingery sun chases us off. While many stay in the beach clubs dancing in the sand, we hitch a ride from some friendly moto riders and make our way to the termas on the other side of the river where the mineral hot baths might suction out our tiredness and the excess of cocktails served during the parade in carved-out melons. The sulphur-rich, warm-water baths not only extract toxins but improve circulation, metabolism and digestion, as well as all skin and muscle issues.
"Reina, reina," staggering souls shout as we ride through town and across the bridge as our sparkling headdresses begin to glitter in the rising sun. In Gualeguaychu, anyone can be mistaken for a Carnival Queen.