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With a lively culture and a literacy rate of over 93%, Argentina is the most developed country in Latin America. It was also, until recently, the most prosperous.
For almost 100 years it was one of the world's main cattle ranges and one of its most important granaries. The natural riches are still there, but a long period of political instability has brought economic decline.
Stretching 3,492 km through more than 32 degrees of latitude, and through climatic zones that range from sub-antarctic to sub-tropical, Argentina is made up of four natural regions.
The heartland is the pampas - vast, largely featureless plains that cover 650,000 square km, almost a quarter of the country. Their rich, black soils were covered originally with tall grass.
The long border with Chile in the west is dominated by the Andes which rise to 7,000 meters above sea level. In the north is a cold desert region but there is a string of oases, with towns such as San Miguel de Tucuman and Mendoza.
To the north lies the region between the Parana and Uruguay rivers, known as Entre Rivs, and Chaco. These areas are covered in thick forest, with grassy plains where the forest has been cleared, and swampy lowlands.
South of the pampas is Patagonia, some 780,000 square km of dry plateaux, intersected by ravines and swept by strong winds. The region includes half the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, which Argentina shares with Chile. It was named 'Land of Fire' after the explorer Magellan saw Indian campfires along the shores. Patagonia is sparsely inhabited; only one town, Comodoro Rivadavia, has over 180,000 inhabitants (2010).
History of Argentina
After its discovery in 1516 by Juan de Solis and the founding of Buenos Aires in 1536 by Pedro de Mendoza, the colony of Argentina was neglected under the viceroyalty of Peru. In 1778 the capital had only 24,000 inhabitants. However, in 1776 Buenos Aires became the capital of the newly created vice royalty of La Plata.
Because of Spain's alliance with Napoleon, the British invaded in 1806 and the Spanish governor fled. The local-born Argentines expelled the British and, encouraged by their success, went on to shake off Spanish rule, declaring independence in 1816.
Independence brought bitter internal divisions, and conflict arose between Buenos Aires and the provinces. A great landowner, Juan Manuel Rosas, emerged as dictator; he governed ruthlessly from 1835 to 1852, but created a sense of Argentine nationality.
Conflict continued after the death of Rosas, but the advent of refrigeration and the world demand for meat brought an enormous boom in the 1880s. Constitutional problems were forgotten in the prosperity that ensued. Argentina at last became a united country, ruled by a president and a national congress.