Wild, welcoming and surprisingly easy to explore: Argentina is top of our holiday wish list as the southern hemisphere spring begins…
Argentina is a natural and cultural wonderland – one of the few countries where you can explore tropical rainforests and immense glaciers, ancient archaeological sites and cosmopolitan cities, snow-capped mountains and vast plains, and pioneer towns at the very end of the world. The dramatic landscapes are mirrored in the diverse people. Argentines are amazingly friendly (no-one will mention the Falklands!) and they do hospitality in style. What’s more, frequent internal flights and comfortable long-distance buses make travel easy, so you can combine several regions into one unforgettable stay.
Most visitors arrive in Buenos Aires. This sultry, seductive city is crammed with chic bars and boutiques, world-class cultural venues (including the Teatro Colón and the MALBA gallery) and stylish, sophisticated hotels. But its history remains palpable – in the graceful Art Nouveau buildings of Recoleta, in the melancholic strains of the milongas (tango salons) in deliciously crumbling San Telmo, and in the lively Plaza Mayor, where crowds once cheered Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada and mothers of those who ‘disappeared’ in the 1970s Dirty War now parade in protest every Thursday. If you love cities, a week here will leave you wanting more; even if you don’t, a couple of days will start your trip with a bang.
From Buenos Aires it’s a quick flight to the Lake District – a 700km string of indigo lakes, fairy-tale valleys and forested slopes. The airport is near the central town of Bariloche, where you can go climbing, skiing and white-water rafting, or succumb to the gentler pleasures of lake cruises, fine cuisine and lolling in idyllic waterfront retreats. From here, journey along serpentine roads to upmarket resorts like San Martín de los Andes, and spectacular riding at an authentic estancia.
There are more mountains, this time bordered by vineyards, in Mendoza, Argentina’s top wine-producing region. The sunny days and pristine air provide ideal conditions – not only for grapes, but for a few days of R&R. Start near the elegant city of Mendoza, where several bodegas have opened smart boutique hotels. Then head west to the dramatic peaks around Mount Aconcagua, or north to the spectacular Valley of the Moon at Ischigualasto and the wind-sculpted canyons of Talampaya National Park.
Further north still is the region of Salta, another Argentina altogether, with a strong indigenous influence. Its capital, also called Salta, is a lovely place to linger: colonial buildings enclose palm-shaded plazas, and the pink stuccoed cathedral is wonderful. Don’t miss the live music and street food on Calle Balcarce, the Museum of High Mountain Archaeology, which houses the remains of mummified Inca children, and the views from the cable car up Cerro San Bernardo. Stay in town at Legado Mitico Salta, or in the peaceful fringes at House of Jasmines or Finca Valentina.
Beyond the city, the Andes rise up towards La Puna, an immense high-altitude desert where llamas wander and salt flats shimmer, and the multi-coloured Quebrada de Humahuaca gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage site with archaeological treasures and tiny villages. Or head southwest from Salta to the beautiful Valles Calchaquíes to sample high-altitude wine and relax in a luxurious finca.
The steamy, subtropical rainforests of the northeast are home to further marvels, chief amongst them the Iguazú Falls. They’re an extraordinary sight, even by Argentina’s standards: 275 columns of thundering water straddling the border with Brazil, with rainbows hovering in the vapour and swifts darting in and out of the spray. There are walkways over the falls, adrenaline-fuelled boat rides underneath them (be warned: you’ll get drenched!) and dinghies for leisurely floats down the Upper Iguazú, where caimans bask on rocks and toucans pose in the trees. Stay nearby at Posada Puerto Bemberg.
After you’ve gawped at Iguazú, venture deep into the jungle to Yacutinga Lodge to experience the fragile culture of the Guaraní people, or journey south to the Esteros del Iberá, a swathe of pristine wetland that’s home to 300 species of birds, as well as alligators, deer and capybaras. From your lodge – we love Posada de la Laguna and Rincon del Socorro – your guide will take you out by boat to lagoons, creeks and floating islands (jump on them and you’ll feel them bounce). Return at sunset to find the world turned deep orange, seemingly suspended between water and sky.
At the other extreme – of both the country and the climate – are the vast wilds of Patagonia. This is glacier country, where massive sheets of ice fall with a deafening roar into turquoise lakes. The most spectacular is Perito Moreno – you can don crampons and walk on its sculpted surface, or take a boat under the towering glacier wall. El Calafate is the usual base for exploring, but we’ve avoided the touristy town and found Eolo, a hotel with an incredible setting. Another unmissable Patagonian sight is the jagged granite bulk of Mount Fitz Roy – base yourself at Los Cerros, which, together with adventure company Fitz Roy Expediciones, will take you on amazing hikes and then feed you fine food and wine.
If time allows, carry on down to Tierra del Fuego at the very tip of the continent. The breezy pioneer town of Ushuaia is a welcoming base for the beautiful national park and boat trips down the famous Beagle Channel. You’ll quickly tire of the ‘End of the World’ tag, attached to everything from trains to sandwiches, but you’ll never forget gazing out from the brightly coloured zinc buildings and realising that there’s nothing out there but the Antarctic.
When to go
Argentina’s climate is diverse but, in general, the southern hemisphere spring (October-November) and autumn (March-May) are the best times, with balmy temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Summer can be incredibly hot and humid, particularly in Buenos Aires, and parts of Patagonia are inaccessible in winter. Roads in Salta are sometimes washed away by heavy rain from January to March.
Our top tip
It’s a cliché, but Argentine steaks really are unbeatable: huge, succulent and cooked to perfection on parrillas (grills) and asados (barbecues) everywhere. To see where your dinner was reared, squeeze in a visit to the Pampas – the grasslands stretching from the Atlantic to the Andes, home to gauchos, cattle ranches and atmospheric colonial towns.
See our destination guide for more information on Argentina and places to stay.