With trippy multi-coloured quebradas, soaring Andean peaks and shimmering prehistoric glaciers, Argentina is an adventurer’s paradise.
When I tell people I lived in Argentina, they usually start swooning about the cafes, antique shops and milongas of Buenos Aires. They’re right, Buenos Aires is amazing, but it’s not the only incredible thing about this vast and varied country. I spent more than two years exploring Argentina and I still haven’t seen it all.
The Victoria Falls may be bigger and the Angel Falls higher, but there can be no waterfall on the planet that is even half as gorgeous as Iguazu.
The falls themselves combine savage power and intricate delicacy, and they are as spectacular from up close as they are from far away. But the sideshow is just as intoxicating: the pink impatiens that flourish between the rivulets, the omnipresent yellow, blue and white butterflies, and the cheeky coatis (South American representatives of the raccoon family) which have overrun the place.
If you’re wondering whether to visit the falls from the Argentine or the Brazilian side, you’re asking yourself the wrong question. You need at least a day on each side to really appreciate Iguazu. I’d advise staying in Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side, as it’s quieter and cheaper and the falls are far more ‘in your face’. But if you want to get that photo of the whole waterfall from above, you have to visit the Brazilian side too.
The city of Salta, with its pink cathedral and always-temperate climate, wasn’t nicknamed ‘The Beautiful One’ by accident, but it’s the surrounding countryside that gets me most excited. In one, admittedly rather long day, you can traverse gorgeous serpentine mountain passes, an enormous mind-bending salt pan and mile upon mile of cactus-strewn semi-desert.
Stop in the delightful winemaking village of Cafayate for a lunch of humitas (spicy shredded lamb encased in polenta and steamed in a corn leaf) washed down by a glass of Torrontes, a fruity local white, before returning to Salta via the almost-impossibly fecund Parque Nacional El Rey. The park, one of the world’s few remaining cloud forests, is a great place to spot toucans and, if you’re really lucky, glimpse a tapir.
Back in Salta, be sure to enjoy a night of barbecued meat and traditional music at a lively peña before heading north to explore the Quebrada de Humahuaca near the Bolivian border. This incredible scalloped valley features mineral-rich sedimentary strata which range from demure creams and yellows to positively garish purples, greens and oranges – there really is no need for Instagram filters in this neck of the woods.
Although the Quebrada can be seen in a day, you’ll get far more out of it if you stay overnight in one of the small indigenous towns where llamas, panpipes and colourful skirts are the norm. The town of Humahuaca is probably the most convenient option, but for an otherworldly experience, set your sights on the remote mountain hamlet of Iruya.
It shouldn’t even be legal for one small region to be home to such abundant picture-postcard perfection. Everywhere you look in the so-called Lake District, there’s an extinct volcano or a glacier-fed lake; a soaring stand of conifers or a babbling brook that’s so clear you can make out every single pebble on the stream bed.
You’ll most likely arrive in the agreeable resort town of Bariloche on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, but I’d strongly advise renting a car to explore the surrounding lakes, valleys and villages. The ‘Route of the Seven Lakes ‘ has to be one of the most idyllic drives on the planet, and the chocolate box charm of towns like San Martin de Los Andes and Villa la Angostura is hard to beat.
While most visitors prefer to experience the wonders of the Lake District in summer, it is extremely popular among skiers and snowboarders in winter.
Mere mention of Patagonia evokes visions of wild open spaces and boundless adventure. This vast region that spans more than a million square kilometres across southern Argentina and Chile is even more amazing than anything your imagination can conjure up. To truly appreciate the scale of Patagonia you should get there by bus… However, there are also regular flights if the 36-hour journey from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos sounds a bit much!
A few miles north of the scruffy Atlantic town of Puerto Madryn lies Peninsula Valdes, the anvil-shaped peninsula where David Attenborough filmed his documentary of orcas wilfully beaching themselves while ambushing sea lions. The area is also home to large colonies of fur seals, whales, elephant seals and penguins – although the largest penguin colonies are found to the south of Puerto Madryn.
No trip to Patagonia is complete without a visit to the immense Perito Moreno Glacier: an icy contrast to that other wall of water in Iguazu. The glacier is actually one of the world’s fastest moving, and every seven years or so it encroaches all the way to the opposite lake shore, causing a difference in water levels which eventually results in one of the most deafening and explosive natural phenomena on the planet.
You’d have to be exceptionally fortunate to be there for the ruptura, but Perito Merino is amazing 365 days a year. Accessed via a two-hour drive from the town of El Calafate, the glacier will take your breath away before your vehicle has even come to a standstill. Be sure to snap a few shots of it from the shore before boarding the boat that will take you almost to the face of the glacier, where massive icebergs regularly cave into the lake’s icy waters. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even walk on a stable section of the glacier in crampons.
There’s so much more I want to tell you about Argentina. About the winelands of Mendoza and nearby Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. About the bizarre rock formations at Valle de La Luna and the storied island of Tierra del Fuego, the land at the end of the world. About Buenos Aires, the ‘Paris of South America’ and its varied barrios. I could tell you about them, but you’ll have so much more fun discovering them for yourself.
By Nick Dall