In terms of geography, Argentina is an extremely diverse country, encompassing everything from harsh deserts to humid jungles. Stretching from the subtropical north to the Subantarctic regions of beautiful Patagonia in the south, Argentina also boasts a rich cultural, artistic, and architectural heritage that has drawn upon many influences from around the world. With its wonderful “barrios,” including colorful arts neighborhoods such as La Boca and trendy districts like Palermo, Buenos Aires boasts a distinctly European feel and is the best place to begin exploring (it’s also the best place to learn to tango, that most romantic of Argentinian dances). In addition to its many cultural attractions, the other big draws are the country’s natural wonders, including the huge glaciers of the snow-capped Andes and the breathtaking Iguazú Falls, the world’s largest group of waterfalls.
The stunning Iguazú Falls lie along Argentina’s border with Brazil, with Iguazu National Park on the Argentinian side and Iguaçu National Park on the Brazilian side. Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these huge waterfalls are undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights in South America. Visitors can get quite close to the these thundering falls thanks to a network of easily accessible walkways and viewing platforms designed to provide the best possible views, including some at the bottom of the falls, an area known as the Devil’s Throat. Iguazu is in fact made up of between 150 to 300 individual falls along its nearly three-kilometer edge, a number that changes depending on the season, varying in height between 60 to 82 meters and each as spectacular as the next. Served by an international airport in Argentina (and one in neighboring Brazil), it’s relatively easy to visit, particularly if flying from Buenos Aires.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The main hub for tourists visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Patagonia’s Los Glaciares National Park, the small town of El Calafate offers numerous accommodation options and other amenities for visitors. It’s here that most visitors join excursions to see the park’s popular glaciers, most notably the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier, a massive 30-kilometer-long ice formation (and the world’s third largest freshwater reserve) just 78 kilometers from the town center. Named after a 19th-century explorer, it’s just a two-hour trip from El Calafate to the glacier’s large visitor center, and from here just a short walk to the glacier along a fun walking circuit. For those wanting to climb the glacier, ice trekking tours are available that range from an hour’s walk over the ice formation to longer five-hour excursions. Another important feature of Los Glaciares National Park is the 3,359-meter-tall Monte Fitz Roy, a stunningly beautiful mountain straddling the border with Chile that is reputably harder to climb than Everest.
Buenos Aires: The City of Barrios
One of South America’s most attractive cities (also one of the largest), Buenos Aires is often the first glimpse of Argentina most visitors will have before heading off to popular tourist destinations such as Patagonia. But the smart ones will linger here and take in the many delightful museums and art galleries housed in the splendid old colonial buildings spread across the city’s districts or “barrios.” Of the must-see barrios, be sure to visit La Boca, Buenos Aires’ most colorful neighborhood and home to the fun Caminito Street Museum, a splendid pedestrian zone and open-air museum popular for its brightly painted houses, amusing sculptures, and outdoor tango lessons. Fashionable Recoleta is another must and is where you’ll find the Recoleta Cemetery with its elaborate mausoleums containing the remains of such famous Argentinians as Eva (Evita) Perón, along with numerous public gardens, museums, art galleries, cafés, and boutique shops. Other districts to explore if time permits are Palermo and Belgrano with their wide boulevards and palatial mansions, and, in the downtown core, the delightful Plaza de Mayo.
Ushuaia: The End of the World
At the southern end of Argentina, Patagonia is famous for its spectacular landscapes: a dramatic mix of the Andes and long stretches of plains and plateaus. Most adventures here start in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. Established as a penal colony in the early 20th century and now a popular jumping-off point for trips to Antarctica or around Cape Horn, this town on Beagle Channel is surrounded by a unique landscape of mountains, sea, glaciers, and woods on the edge of the Tierra del Fuego National Park, with its spectacular scenery and diverse flora and fauna. Popular attractions include the San Juan de Salvamento Lighthouse – also known as the End of the World Lighthouse – built in 1884 on the Isla de los Estados; the End of the World Museum with its exhibits relating to the region’s natural history, aboriginal life, and early penal colonies; and the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia, housed in the town’s notorious former military prison and worth visiting for its many maritime artifacts and scale models of famous ships such as Darwin’s Beagle.
Puerto Madryn and the Valdés Peninsula
The city of Puerto Madryn lies on the shores of Golfo Nuevo in one of the most sheltered places on the Patagonian coast. Founded by Welsh settlers in 1886, the city’s deep-water port and abundant nature reserves make it one of the most popular cruise destinations in Argentina, while its rugged coastline also attracts water sports enthusiasts, particularly windsurfers who enjoy defying the strong Patagonian winds. Highlights include the Natural Science and Oceanographic Museum, in a beautiful heritage building overlooking the harbor, which houses numerous displays of Patagonian flora and fauna, including a whale skeleton and a fascinating exhibit about giant squids. For nature lovers, the big draw is the Valdés Peninsula, an important nature reserve listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its diverse wildlife. Guided tours of the reserve are a must, and visitors normally leave having seen everything from right whales (here to mate and calve), along with elephant seals, sea lions, and orcas. It’s also an important breeding ground for migratory shorebirds, in particular Magellanic penguins.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
The lakes, rivers, peaks, and glaciers within Tierra del Fuego National Park attract numerous visitors and hikers to Argentina’s oldest coastal national park, a massive 156,000-acre area that extends all the way from Beagle Channel to the Chilean Border and northwards to Lago Kami. Using the town of Ushuaia as a base, adventurers head out onto the park’s hiking trails or along the coastline to explore its dramatic scenery, which includes everything from tall waterfalls, dense forests, and mountains, along with beautiful glacier-fed lakes such as Roca and Fagnano. One of the most popular routes is Senda Costera, a coastal path to Lake Roca from Ensenada Bay that offers a chance to see a rich diversity of wildlife including Andean condors. For those who prefer to see the sights in comfort, take a ride on the superb Southern Fuegian Railway, an elegant antique steam train through the park to Canadon de Toro.
Mar del Plata
Some of the best beaches in South America are in the relatively modern city of Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast 400 kilometers from Buenos Aires. Here, the beautiful beaches sprawl for more than eight kilometers, with those nearest Mar del Plata’s modern cruise ship port being the Chica and Grande beaches (they’re also popular among sea lions, many of which hang out in the waters around the city’s fishing wharves). Once a playground for the rich, many old mansions mingle with newer resorts along the city’s splendid waterfront with its numerous parks, squares, and gardens. In addition to the beaches, windswept dunes, and dramatic cliffs, Mar del Plata is home to the excellent Juan Manuel Fangio Museum, a car museum dedicated to one of the world’s greatest Formula One drivers and containing more than 100 cars and 500 trophies (a highlight is an exhibit dedicated to the first automobile, an 1886 Daimler). Another must see is the Mar del Plata Aquarium with its many marine attractions, including dolphin and seal shows, penguins, tortoises, and flamingos.
Bariloche and Argentina’s Lake District
Usually simply referred to as Bariloche, San Carlos de Bariloche has gained a well-deserved reputation as a place for the adventurous. The town is probably best known for nearby Cerro Catedral, the tallest of its peaks and a popular ski resort that draws visitors from far and wide. One of the largest ski resorts in South America, Cerro Catedral includes more than 100 kilometers of ski terrain and is particularly popular for its stunning views over Nahuel Huapi, one of the many lovely lakes that make up Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina’s Lake District. Bariloche is, in fact, located within the park and serves as the major tour center for those wanting to explore the area’s diverse natural beauty, which encompasses everything from volcanoes to waterfalls and glaciers and offers opportunities for camping, hiking, cycling, rafting, and climbing.
Undoubtedly one of Argentina’s most beautiful cities, Mendoza is as popular with outdoor enthusiasts in winter as it is in summer. When the snow flies, skiers from across South America turn up to experience some of the Andes’ best ski slopes at the popular resorts of Las Leñas, famous for its steep terrain, and Los Penitentes, just 25 kilometers from the border with Chile. Come summer, these same areas are popular among hikers and climbers, many aiming for the top of the 6,960-meter-tall Aconcagua mountain. Other outdoor activities include whitewater rafting and trail riding, some offering overnight adventures with camping under the stars. Also famous for its olive oil production, Mendoza has many other fun cultural attractions, including a number of museums and annual festivals, as well as a bustling Central Market (Mercado Central) where locals buy produce, meat, and fish (it also boasts some excellent food stalls and restaurants).