Argentina: The First-Timer's Guide

Wed, 13/04/2016 - 10:00am
Read Time: 3.9 mins

With its vast, vivid landscapes of arid mountain deserts, lush rainforests, expansive Pampas and the mighty Andes, it is little wonder that Argentina stirs the imagination. Lone gauchos, big wines, fused cultures, and the fervour of fútbol, politics, and tango all feed into the bold passion of Argentina.

Buenos Aires Buenos Aires


Buenos Aires

A sensual, stylish and energising mesh of Latin American colour and European charm, Argentina’s largest city serves up an evocative mix of histories within its colourful barrios (neighbourhoods).

The small yet significant quarter of Monserrat holds the country’s political heart, Plaza Mayo – the site of powerful protests and the Casa Rosada, the building from which the much-loved Eva Peron addressed thronging crowds. From here a walk down the tree-lined Avenida de Mayo provides a fascinating architectural timeline of the city’s diverse influences.

Iconic, popular and brightly painted, the dockside Boca district is home to Maradona’s former club and is the place to catch a rousing local fútbol game. Palermo Soho flaunts the city’s cutting edge, with late-night dining and design stores, while the cobbled streets of San Telmo trace the city’s faded opulence and teem with weekend market goers. In well-to-do Recoleta visit the famous cemetery – the burial place of Argentina’s rich and powerful – and spend time browsing the shelves at El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a bookshop housed in a magnificent converted opera theatre.

Don’t miss: the tango. Whether at the laid back, open air milonga on Plaza Dorrego Sunday night, or early evening (when locals come to dance) at the Confiteria Ideal’s atmospheric dance hall, make sure you experience this sultry dance.

Cordoba at dusk. Photo: iStock Cordoba at dusk. Photo: iStock


Cordoba Province

Located smack in the centre of the country, Cordoba province is often overlooked. Yet with its wild sierras emerging suddenly from the vast Pampas and the country’s second largest city, steeped in Spanish colonial architecture and alternative arts, Cordoba should be on any itinerary.

Cordoba city packs in culture with fantastic galleries, museums, historical buildings and a range of live music venues – sometimes even combining them. Go local and sip on a mate tea while people watching and strolling the shady canal, La Canada; or browse the antiques, crafts and arts at the Paseo de las Artes market. Tiny bars and bustling pizzerias line the surrounding streets. It may be home to Argentina’s oldest university but a night out on the town with electronic music, reggaeton and rock reveals Cordoba’s younger heart.

For a change of pace, put aside a day or two to explore the valleys and hills of the surrounding sierras, a complete pastoral experience with quiet villages, hill walks, rivers, swimming holes, camping and fishing. There are good bus connections that make this easy, but it is worth hiring your own car to explore more extensively. Be sure to stop at a parrilla (grill) to try various cuts of Argentina’s famed beef.

Don’t miss: The chance to stay at a rustic estancia (ranch) and head out on horseback into Cordoba’s vast and wild expanses of gaucho territory.

The Iguazu Falls. Photo: iStock The Iguazu Falls. Photo: iStock


The Iguazu Falls

The colossal volume of moving, pummelling water roaring amidst a steamy, subtropical rainforest confirms the Igauzu Falls as one of the most exhilarating experiences and visceral natural wonders on earth. This dense blanket of water comprises some 270 individual falls and stretches for three kilometres, straddling both Brazil and Argentina. The Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) is the most spectacular fall at 80 metres high.

Jump on the eco train or walk the trails that thread through the national park and watch for tropical birds, butterflies, and monkeys amidst the brilliant shocks of green as the waterfalls’ noise resonates through the jungle. Catwalks lead you to this UNESCO World Heritage site’s many viewing platforms, where you can experience the mighty expanse of raw power first hand.

Don’t miss: Getting up close enough to feel the spray of the Garganta del Diablo and stepping back across the Brazilian border for a panoramic view.

Quebrada de Humahuacha. Photo: Balzano Quebrada de Humahuacha. Photo: Balzano


Quebrada de Humahuaca

For 10,000 years the narrow, windswept canyon of Quebrada de Humahuacha has served as a passage from the plains of Jujuy up to the Bolivian Andes. This sublime landscape of rock formations and chromatic splendour – where desert mountains display their multi-coloured sedimentary strata – is dotted with small villages, adobe churches and archaeological sites. Easily reached from Salta or Jujuy, the Quebrada’s intense natural beauty and indigenous culture amply reward a longer stay.

Pink, ochre, green and black hues streak through the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven colours) and are most vivid against a big morning sky in the small village of Purmamarca. Sleepy Humahuaca, at a height of 3000 metres, is a great base for further exploration of the region. Its adobe houses, cactus-studded hills, stone paved streets and cosy restaurants add to the rustic feel.

Don’t miss: Tucking into warming traditional dishes such as locro, goat stew, and empanadas at a local comedor (canteen), while enjoying local music.

The ruins at San Ignacio Miní. Photo: iStock The ruins at San Ignacio Miní. Photo: iStock


San Ignacio

Founded in the seventeenth century, the Jesuit mission at San Ignacio Miní once housed over 4000 people, while running cattle and farming. Set amongst the verdant explosion of remnant Atlantic Forest, the mission’s worn ruins, the most extensive in the country, are a romantic reminder of the former splendour of this religious, cultural and social hub. For background, the Centro de Interpretacion tells the story of the mission and its eventual decline, following the Jesuits' expulsion from the New World. But there is enough left to imagine how things once were: an ornately carved portal, crumbling priest quarters, libraries, dining rooms, kitchens and a cemetery and church, set out around a central plaza.

Don’t miss: the nearby Casa de Horacio Quiroga, the house of the Uruguayan writer who was a pioneer in this once untamed region. The river views and bamboo plants add to the jungle feel, which inspired his stories.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a translator, writer and avid traveller. She lives in Christchurch, where she is the director and chief editor of the publishing house Freerange Press .