Argentina, meaning "land of silver," is a rich and vast land—second largest (after Brazil) in South America and eighth largest in the world. Its heartland is a broad grassy plain known as the Pampas (pronounced PAHM-pahs).
The Spanish first arrived around 1516, and Argentina gained independence in 1816. The small native population died from European diseases, and today's population is over 95 percent European. For Spanish, Italian, German, and other immigrants in the late 19th century, Argentina held great promise. Today the literacy and urbanization rates are high, the birthrate and the infant mortality rate are low, and most Argentines consider themselves middle class.
The recent past has been tumultuous. Some 30,000 people disappeared—the Desaparecidos—in the "dirty war" during the military junta's 1976-1983 rule. In April 1982 Argentine forces invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, which Argentina calls the Islas Malvinas. Defeat by Britain during the 1982 Falkland Islands war loosened the military dictatorship's stranglehold on democracy.
Since then much has been won: greater freedom of the press, tolerance of opposition, and increased foreign investment. However, a deep recession caused economic collapse at the end of 2001—followed by fragile economic growth. Unemployment plagues the economy, even as the nation enjoys the continent's highest per capita income.
The Andes mark Argentina's western edge, forming the boundary with Chile. The highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, Aconcagua, dominates the Andes at 6,960 meters (22,834 feet). From the Andes, gently rolling plains extend eastward toward the sea. Much of the Pampas, including a rich agricultural section, occupies this region. Northeast Argentina features rain forests and Iguazú Falls. These spectacular falls, on Argentina's border with Brazil, drop along a 2.7-kilometer (1.6-mile) front in a horseshoe shape. South of the Pampas, dry and windswept Patagonia stretches to the southernmost tip of South America with the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia.