The 7 Very Best Places To Visit In Argentina
Which are the very best places to visit in Argentina? What shouldn't you miss? Here's a list of all the the places you should mark indelibly in your itinerary.
So you’re thinking of traveling to Argentina? Let me first congratulate you on having made a fine choice. From the pulse and vitality of Buenos Aires nightlife to the majesty of Patagonia and the vast gaucho-speckled plains that separate them, Argentina is blessed with some of the most stunning scenery in the world, and some seriously vibrant cities.
Travel is generally uncomplicated: cities and smaller towns are well connected by an extensive, reliable bus network, all-conquering platforms like Airbnb, Hostelworld and Booking.com are firmly established — meaning hotel, apartment and hostel reservations are just a few clicks away — and all the tourist spots are amply endowed with agencies offering treks and tours. There are more public WiFi spots than in most European countries, and when you ask someone for directions, you may have a sudden desire to offer your oracle a lifelong friendship. You can probably get by in English, especially if you don’t venture off the beaten track, but learning some Spanish will undoubtedly expand the limits of your voyage.
Argentina is a big country. That may sound like a somewhat facile observation, but people often underestimate the distances they’re about to travel. If you really want to see everything without hyperventilating, you’ll probably need a good four weeks. To give you some perspective, it’s the eighth largest country in the world by landmass, coming in at just under three million kilometers squared — that’s about a third bigger than Mexico and nearly the size of India. Despite the good intercity connections, bus journeys between Buenos Aires and cities in the north, west and south tend to take around twenty to twenty-four hours. So either pack a good book for the bus journey (I packed this one), buy yourself a car, do it the Che-way on a motorbike, or be prepared to fork out for some flights.
That said, the distances are well worth covering, and you’ll often be treated to spectacular, cinematic vistas as you scythe through the Argentinian countryside in your semi-cama bus seat. So where exactly should you go? What are the very best things to see and do in Argentina?
The first six things to see and do are, in my opinion, things you’d be insane to miss. For number seven, I had to cheat a little, throwing in a synopsis of the rest of Argentina (because there is just too much for a Top 7 list). You’ll have to let me know whether that consigns me to travel-writer-purgatory. Let’s start with the obvious:
1. Buenos Aires
The sprawling capital city boasts almost half of the country’s population of forty million, which gives you an indication of how sparsely populated the rest of the country is, and the overwhelming majority of international flights arrive there. After a forty minute taxi ride from Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE), you’ll find yourself in a bustling barrio. Wondering which one to stay in? Top of my list would be Palermo; Palermo is the Shoreditch, the Brooklyn, the Kreuzberg, the Chueca of Buenos Aires. It’s teeming with trendy young things floating between cafés and shops, where even trendier young things serve them craft beer and strong coffee. If you want to be more central, San Telmo or Recoletas are probably your best options. San Telmo hosts a fantastic artisan market every Sunday, which is definitely worth a visit, ideally whilst mildly hung-over from the festivities of the night before.
So you have your bed in Palermo, and you’ll be going to the market in San Telmo on Sunday, but what else should you mark indelibly in your itinerary? Buenos Aires is deserving of a whole listicle unto itself: If you’re into history, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with the sights of the city center with a walking or bike tour. While the city doesn’t boast the rainbow of architectural strata of, say, London, Paris or Rome, its history can strike you as comparatively raw as you stand outside the Casa Rosada and learn of the last century’s seismic shifts of political power, of Eva Peron and of the mothers of the disappeared.
If you’re into steak, welcome to heaven. I recommend Don Julio. Into dancing? Welcome to the home of Tango. Head down to La Boca to see people tangoing in the street, slalom between Technicolor shacks and street performers hankering after a photo with you or opt for a performance in one of the many restaurants in and around the center. There are also plenty of places offering classes — I went to a place on the southern side of Palermo where, even if you chickened out, you could trace the steps of Tango on the boulevard outside. Into fast feet and football? A trip to see Boca Juniors or River Plate will, for those unperturbed by crowds of irascible fans, provide you with the quintessential South American soccer experience. Perhaps you’ll even catch sight of the next Messi or Maradona. Into mixing with the local gentry? Take in a polo match at the Campo Argentino de Polo.
Into, erm, dead people? At the heart of Recoletas is the shantytown cemetery of el Cementario de la Recoleta, an eerie, miniature settlement for the deceased with an opulent center and a decaying periphery. You can easily spend an hour or two meandering between the mausoleums and translating the epitaphs of the luminaries and linchpins of Argentinian society.
If you now find yourself in need of a reaffirmation of the beauty and vitality of the living world, you can pass by MALBA, the modern art gallery and the botanical garden on the way back to Palermo. The botanical garden is an oasis among the hustle of the big city, and gives way to the parks of Palermo and the city joggers who go round and round and round…
The last thing you’ll want to do in Buenos Aires is leave. You’ll probably do this by way of the bus terminal Retiro, by ferry from the port or via the airport Jorge Newbury, all three of which are adjacent to one another to the northeast of the city center. But where in the world should you go next?
What?! Uruguay’s not in Argentina! Very true, but it’s so seductively close to Buenos Aires — a mere hour’s ferry trip away — that it’d be madness not to hop across the Rio de la Plata. Colonia del Sacramento, the nearest port and an idyllic Portuguese colonial settlement, offers respite from Buenos Aires. After Colonia, you can either decide to cross off Uruguay from that big world map of yours and return to Argentina, or venture north, visiting the capital Montevideo and the coastal towns of Punta del Este, La Paloma, Cabo Polonio and Punta del Diablo. The beaches in Uruguay are far superior to their Argentinian counterparts, and if you want to factor sun, sea and sand into your travels, Uruguay is the place to head for.
The distances in Uruguay are much more manageable — you can cover the distance between Colonia and the northern border with Brazil in about eight hours. Punta del Diablo, in particular, offers a great location for surfing and beach loafing and is perfectly equipped for all those seeking the consummate backpacker lifestyle. And you may catch sight of a whale just off the coast. Who can say no to a whale?
If Uruguay had a more populated interior, and if the roads linking this interior were more conducive to efficient intercity travel, you could make the trip to the majestic waterfalls of Iguazu overland. As it is, this is only advisable for the adventurous. For the rest, it’s probably best to return to Buenos Aires, and then head north by bus or plane. On arrival, most people choose to stay in Puerto Iguazú, located northwest of the falls at the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers, which mark the frontier between Brazil and Paraguay. The town feels a little like a ski resort afflicted by an eternal summer, but there are some nice places to stay dotted about.
So why make the effort to venture so far north just to see a waterfall? Well, as the Lonely Planet notes, “there are waterfalls and there are waterfalls … the power and the noise live forever in the memory." I wholly concur. The name Iguazu is derived from the Guarani for big water, which is something of an understatement; the Iguazu falls are the biggest system of waterfalls in the world. As you wind your way along the elevated platforms and the thunder of the falls begins to froth in your ears, you experience a childish, burgeoning sense of excitement. Then, when you reach the viewing platforms, you can’t help but be taken aback by the visceral, cinematic spectacle laid out before you. And this doesn’t just happen once — Iguazu National Park consists of myriad routes and pathways that lead from one section of the falls to another, each with its own character and beauty. You can comfortably spend a day exploring. Uniquely, I wasn’t even perturbed by the crowds of people mulling around; everyone should see this place, and the collective, shared sense of awe and excitement just adds to the experience.
4. Salta And Surroundings
Salta lies in the far northwest of the country. Before commencing my trip, I knew virtually nothing of the northwest. Like most people, when I thought of Argentina, I thought of tango in Buenos Aires, gauchos and beef in the pampas, and the alpine scenery of Patagonia. Salta offers a stark contrast to these images of the bustling, the bountiful and the bucolic — the landscapes are parched and unwelcoming, the mountains are burnt a hundred shades of hell, and fields of hardy cacti strive stubbornly toward the arid blue skies. It’s like a teenage Death Valley, full of angry colors and vegetation, announcing itself in unexpected places; and it’s completely spectacular.
The people are the product of their environment, imbued with hardiness and a smoldering sense of humor that bursts intermittently into flame. There’s a rich and proud culture of music and festivity, a worthy history that includes a pivotal role in the achievement of Argentinian independence, and the best wine and empanadas in the country, apparently. Using Salta as your base, you can visit Purmamarca, home to the world-famous-in-Argentina montaña de los siete colores (mountain of seven colours) and Jujuy in the north, as well as Las Salinas Grandes, the little brother to the breathtaking salt plains of Bolivia. Trips to Cafayate and Cachi in the south will take you through deliciously barren landscapes, occasionally and inexplicably interrupted by fertile valleys, rusty red rivers and cathedral canyons.
Every good trip carries a surprise; a place which unexpectedly reveals itself to be something special. Perhaps it’s just because I went there on a whim, but Salta was that place for me on this trip.
5. Bariloche and La Ruta De Los Siete Lagos
If you want to start an argument in the north of Argentina, you can casually suggest that the wine from Salta is better than the wine from Mendosa. If you’re heading south from Salta, you’ll probably stop over in Argentina’s most famous wine-producing region. As I’m limiting myself to seven points, I’m going to move us straight onto northern Patagonia, and the beginnings of some of the most sublime alpine scenery in the world.
La ruta de los siete lagos, which translates as the route of the seven lakes, connects San Martin de los Andes to Bariloche. San Martin is a wantonly neat town on the shore of Lake Lacár. From here you can explore the Lanin National Park, which has as its centerpiece the eponymous, perfectly formed snow-capped volcano Volcán Lanín. As you navigate the route to Bariloche, you’ll notice the outside world becoming progressively greener and the mountains becoming more densely packed; more picture-postcard. Bariloche is like the guinea pig older sibling of San Martin — all the town-planning calamities of Bariloche have been astutely avoided in San Martin. The town clings to the coast of the enormous Nhua Huapi Lake. Houses and hotels occupy the shore along the entire twenty-five kilometers between Bariloche proper and the Llao Llao Municipal Park, the gateway to the Nhua Huapi National Park and a beautiful location for short treks. The town of Bariloche isn’t in itself a highlight, but it’s become synonymous with the lake district. Villa Angustia and El Bolsón, small towns to the north and south of Bariloche, respectively, are also good locations from which to explore the surrounding national parks and don’t share the slightly unsettling, transitory feeling of Bariloche.
6. El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier
Argentina and the world has a lot to thank Francisco "Perito" Moreno for. Guides up and down the length of Patagonia will often tell you that Argentina was the second country in the world to assign national park status to areas of natural beauty (following in the footsteps of the US) and, thereby, the second country to protect and preserve them. Moreno, an explorer and academic, initiated this by donating land previously bequeathed to him to establish the Nahuel Huapi National Park. As a demonstration of gratitude, Moreno’s name pops up all over Patagonia. Among the things named after him, there’s a wealth of streets, an entire town that lies equidistant from El Bolsón and El Calafate, a national park and the country’s most famous glacier.
So what’s so special about the Perito Moreno Glacier? Well, it’s a huge, moving wall of ice which stretches across some 30km, spans 5km in width and measures 70m in height. It’s the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, and it’s one of the few remaining advancing glaciers, progressing at a pace of about two meters a day. There’s a good chance you’ll bear witness to sizeable chunks of ice collapsing dramatically into Lake Argentino while you gape in awe from the viewing platforms. The glacier is also eminently accessible, which you may see as an advantage or a disadvantage. If you’re something of an adventurer, you can escape the crowds on the viewing platforms and break out on a trekking tour across the ice. I recommend it: there’s no better way to appreciate the scale and preternatural beauty of the glacier.
7. Algo más?
Condensing the attractions of any country into a listicle will always result in some controversial omissions. Furthermore, much as guidebooks tend to lead to ever more footprints on the well-trodden tourist routes, web-hosted listicles will likely lead to ever greater concentrations of crowds at a select few destinations. I have little quarrel with this in places such as Perito Moreno and Iguazú, which are well-equipped to cope with large quantities of tourists and are an education in the scale and beauty that nature can achieve.
That said, it’s good to get off the beaten track. My trip to Salta, in particular, felt like this, and came from a glowing recommendation lodged into a wine-fuelled discussion with a Porteño in Buenos Aires. Asking the locals is undoubtedly the best way to reveal the lesser-known gems. It’s also a great way to kick off a conversation — the Argentinians are proud of their heritage and the jaw-dropping natural beauty of their country — and quite a few of these chats ended with me being invited to join for dinner, or on a fishing trip or to an evening of empanadas and chopps at the local peña. It’s for this reason that I highly recommend learning some Spanish before you leave.
So where else should you check out if you find yourself with the time and energy to explore further? Well, there’s El Tigre in the north of Buenos Aires, which makes a good day trip from the city. It’s peppered with well-kept homes interspersed with a network of waterways and an unsettling number of security cameras — indicative of the level of wealth there and the sense of insecurity this imbues. If you’re traveling from Buenos Aires to Patagonia by bus, you may well want to stop in Córdoba, Argentina’s second city with 1.3 million residents. It’s home to the National University of Córdoba, Argentina’s oldest, and it has a reputation for being a culturally rich and lively student city. It’s also a good base from which to explore Argentina’s extensive interior. Finally, the most glaring omission for many will be Tierra Del Fuego and Ushuaia, located at Argentina’s southernmost tip. While it’s a long way from pretty much anywhere, it remains accessible by road and air and is the starting point for once-in-a-lifetime voyages to Antarctica or an exploration of the snow-capped mountains and the bleak majesty of the end of the world.
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