When I first imagine Oktoberfest, I picture bratwurst, lederhosen, and surprisingly enough, Germany (duh). I do not imagine a tiny village one hour away from Córdoba, whose first language is Spanish and favorite sausage food is choripán, not frankfurters. However, that’s where we found ourselves three days ago, knee-deep in Pilsen and apfelstrudel, listening to some Bavarian tunes while dancing around with seventy-something women wearing dirndls and braids.
When I first heard about Oktoberfest in Argentina, I was a little perplexed. Munich is the first city which would immediately spring to mind, as the festival originated there nearly five centuries ago as a pagan celebration. Oktoberfest was officially established in the early 19th century by Crown Prince Ludwig, and it used to include horse racing with the aim to boost Bavarian agriculture.
However, the only sport I can remember seeing at this particular festival was how many pints you could chug in a minute. Although Munich does indeed hold the world’s largest beer festival, Villa General Belgrano in Córdoba current ranks in 3rd place, with 50,000 revelers annually over the eight core days of the celebration.
This still begs the question: why on Earth does this tiny town in Argentina hold one of the biggest German celebrations in the world? The province of Córdoba itself has the largest German population in Argentina, followed by Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires. As many will know, this population expanded at various times, and a large stint was pre-WWI, when Germans, drawn to the wheat- and beef-producing pampas in the center of the country, migrated.
So, in 1929, in the Calamuchita Valley, two German immigrants founded the town of Villa General Belgrano as they were attracted by the lush green quality of the valley and wished to use it for agricultural purposes. It was built in an Alpine manner, with Bavarian-style architecture and attracted many European immigrants, as well as local Argentines.
The kitsch, German-influenced style of the architecture and the general German traditional vibes are still very much retained in the town, as newsstands sell the German weekly newspaper Argentinisches Tageblatt among other German outlets, and the church offers Sunday services in German and Spanish. Like many isolated immigrant communities, the town still very much holds on to traditions that the motherland may have left behind, such as munching on apfelstrudel on the reg and selling steins in every shop.
The Oktoberfest was founded in the early ’60s by the first immigrants who formed the town. This festival is the heart of the place, and the gimmicky, touristy element of the festival really does take over. Tourists are an extremely central part of how the town functions: souvenir shops and restaurants epitomize this village.
In fact, arriving at the town was extremely surreal. You really feel transported to a tiny Austrian ski village, where you feel like investing in a pair of clogs is entirely necessary. The way I would describe it, without dissing the town completely, is the slightly creepy Duloc town from Shrek.
You know the one, with the song “Welcome to Duloc,” with the homogeneous set of white children dressed in blue outfits dancing on cobbled streets. Villa General Belgrano does slightly channel some inauthentic and clinical, sterile vibes, which I think have to do with how much the town relies on tourism.
Despite my cynicism, the town does have a fairytale image which feels comfortable and a little nostalgic. You half expect a horse and carriage to pop up at every corner, and the abundance of hot chocolate and apfelstrudel is a warming and cozy addition.
I would recommend that you spend a day acclimatizing to the village. It is set in (arguably) the most scenic and beautiful landscape that I’ve come across in Argentina. You should take the morning to go on a hike around the area, if you hire a car it’s easy enough to drive up somewhere a little out of the tourist areas and park out somewhere, maybe near the San Roque lake en route to Córdoba.
Otherwise, if you’re happy to stay within the vicinity, an easy 1.5-mile trek up The Cerro del Virgen will suffice. The first section is a little steep, but has some steps to help, and then it evens out into a pretty easy ascent of 230 meters upwards. You then reach the top, which reveals a stunning panoramic view of the town and the peaks around it.
Within the town itself, I think it’s time to wave goodbye to the dream of finding a cute, non-touristy restaurant with authentic food. Every restaurant is crafted to be as gimmicky as the villa so I think you should really dive head-first into it. Let go of any inhibitions and grab a pizza or burger with your pint and get ready for smiling folk serving you in lederhosen.
The restaurant that we finally ended up going for was called Potrerillo Resto Bar which had really great, kind, and attentive service and pretty inexpensive food. There’s a fire outside in the back and candles on the table, so it is a lovely safe haven away from the wooded ski-village vibes if that’s what you need.
The festival itself was similarly surreal. We entered into what was essentially a huge village fete on steroids. I say “village” because they have created an artificial villa cervecera with little cerveza stores in the woodland area about a mile outside of the town. The community has organized a free shuttle bus called the Bierbus which runs relatively regularly between the Oktoberfest site and the town center, which is useful for people that are planning on downing those pints on arrival (everyone). When we arrived, it took a moment to blink and remember that we were in Argentina and not Munich: it literally was everything that I imagined, and more.
We seemed to be in the minority who had not chosen to dress up (yes, I regret everything, but my disorganized self forgot to buy the full plaid costume prior to entering the town where tourist prices skyrocketed). Children in full regalia danced around as adults chugged local and national beer from handcrafted steins which were sold everywhere and anywhere. In fact, the steins were a big thing: you could actually only drink if you invested in an AR $250 (or so) mug. My friend, post five or so “previa” cervezas had a full-on hour-long argument with the bar staff about whether he had to buy a stein, or whether he could fill up on plastic glasses, which really advocated for the “pleasant British” stereotype (not).
Apart from the heated stein argument, the vibes were really friendly and we got into them, one chopp at a time. The beer itself was reasonably priced, at about AR $120 for a pint to refill your stein and AR $200 for a liter. The main beer tent (pictured below) sold the official Oktoberfest beer in rubia, amber, or stout, whereas the smaller tents produced more smaller-scale artisanal brewed beers, which came with a slightly higher price tag.
We made our way around the festival, and I think I sampled around three liters of beer in total over six hours (not including the previa), which, considering the recommended daily amount of water is 2 liters, is quite impressive (and worrying). To soak up the booze and to readjust the proportions of being half-beer and half-man, you could munch on some Argentine and German snacks, which were mostly pork-based. Some of my top piggy recommendations would be the Eisbein, which is pig’s knee and is a lot more delicious than it sounds, or Kassler, which is smoked pork shoulder with potatoes, applesauce, and red cabbage. Equally, choripan and fries were a staple, of course.
The food available really personified the mashup of cultures at this particular Oktoberfest. Rather than being only about German culture, Villa General Belgrano’s festival had its arms wide open to many different nationalities. The music and performances also were a shout out to different countries worldwide: one minute there was Arabic dancing, the next you were getting emotional to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” (please watch the video below to see us Brits going mental over our man Neil) and then you were transported to Ireland with a river dance while the orange, green, and white flag waved in the crowd.
The festival really was a melting pot of different traditions, but at the core was, of course, the German traditions of bursting the barrel, and dishing out the pretzels. See below our gal that we nicknamed “The Bread Woman” who had huge pretzels that she handed out to the crowd (confusingly, she also handed out challah bread, not sure on that choice).
Another confusing level of this woman’s role in the festival is that she vaguely resembled the Grim Reaper with her black coat and pointed hood. The reaction that she received from not just the children, but also from fully-grown adults who all rushed, elbowing each other out the way to grab a sweaty handful of salty pretzel, was quite extraordinary. For some unknown reason (please someone enlighten me?) she seems to be a very important element of the celebrations, as she appears in every picture from last decade or so: cloak and smile both proudly worn balancing both sinister and friendly vibes.
As the evening wore on, the chairs that were originally placed in neat German-like rows later were removed for dancing space, just in time for those crazy Oktoberfest tunes to start cracking. My personal favorite was that bizarre, yet classic “Duck/ Chicken Dance” that originated in Switzerland (“Der Ententanz”) which anyone who is anyone will have certainly heard in the past (cheep cheep hands, wing flappy arms, sassy salsa down, and then clap-clap).
By this point, we were all a few liters of beer down, dancing the waltz with the locals, and grabbing soggy pretzels from strangers so I’m not able to tell you blow-by-blow what happened in the last few hours. However, there was a really wonderful dance group called “Balance” from Chile who really stole the last two hours of the show with their incredible contemporary dance routine involving, believe it or not, a lot of balancing using aerial dance techniques.
Seven hours after we arrived, we stumbled back and contemplated what we had just witnessed. As a group we had in total: argued for over an hour over a mug of beer, been invited to go swinging with a friendly German couple, had been punched in the face by an Argentine, and had collected 10+ phone numbers for friendly locals inviting us to their house for strudel.
The evening was chaotic, bizarre, and it ended with a choripán and chatting broken Spanish with Argentines. Aside from everyone being dressed in Lederhosen and some lesser-known German brews running from the taps, we barely noticed a difference between a normal night out in Buenos Aires and a day at this infamous event.
Tucked among the rolling countryside of Argentina, somehow this niche event manages to manifest itself year in, year out. Although it starts as a cheery festival with a family feel, it is later fueled by tankard upon tankard of beer and descends into a hectic, yet jolly brawl to which a stein cup is your golden ticket. I’m already keen on buying my ticket to next year, and this time, we’re buying the lederhosen in bulk.