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Plan the perfect Argentina holiday featuring Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and The Andes

by Staff

Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world. Ten longish holidays and you might claim to sort of know it. But for a first exploration or just a very memorable holiday, the key is to choose half a dozen stops, mix up the topography, cuisines and cultures, and spend some time on the road to get some sense of the sheer scale of things. There are good roads even in the outermost regions, and the landscapes are the main attraction outside the capital. Don’t rush through them.

This itinerary heads west and north – we have a separate itinerary for Patagonia and all points south – so the latitudes are broadly subtropical. History and gastronomy are the guiding principles as we pass from the port city to the pampas to mountain peaks and finally to the wetlands and waterfalls. Along the way, the diet shifts from steak and wine to ethnic indigenous fare to river fish and tropical fruits.




Argentina is home to a wealth of topography, wildlife and cultures


Credit: Evan Austen

Buenos Aires bookends the tour. The city is a cultural powerhouse, a melting pot and the source of the nation’s wealth. BA, as locals call it, is heady and energetic, but it’s generally safe, even when there’s turmoil in local politics. With an established café culture, a dining scene that rivals Lima’s for quality and depth, and lovely hotels of all classes and styles, it’s a great place to stop before and after a trip.

This two-week journey combines classic experiences with less obvious stops to get beyond the clichés of Evita, football and humongous steaks, and sets the country apart from its neighbours. Brazil is beach-loving and as big as a continent. Chile is long and lovely. Colombia is sultry and magical. But Argentina, thanks to its combination of European and mestizo social and cultural mores, its range of latitudes – tropical to temperate to sup-polar – and topographical diversity, is probably the easiest “soft” introduction to Latin America. You can arrange this trip with a tour firm or, if you’re canny and confident, combine organised stages with independent travel. Either way, you’ll have a holiday of a lifetime. ¡Vamos!





The basement of the iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires holds a stage for jazz and tango artists



Credit
:
DCR Imagenes S.L.U. / Getty


Belle Époque architecture and cafe culture

Check into the Alvear Palace in Recoleta for three nights. Opened in 1932, it’s the most opulent address in the city. Stroll off your jetlag on the well-heeled streets of Recoleta. Named after a monastic order, it’s one of Buenos Aires’s most exclusive neighbourhoods and home to the finest examples of the city’s French and Italian-influenced belle époque architecture. Walk along Alvear and Quintana avenues and calle Posadas, find a bench on the many leafy plazas, and spend an hour in the Recoleta cemetery – one of the world’s most beautiful necropolises. The mausoleums of Evita and the Duarte family as well as numerous presidents and members of the cattle-rearing gentry are found here.

Have a light lunch at the Café Biela (Quintana 596) – one of around 80 so-called “cafés notables”. There are salads and sandwiches; if you’re peckish, a milanesa (breaded veal or chicken) with mashed potato or fries is a local staple.

Dedicate the afternoon to a look around the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which has a great collection of 19th and 20th century Argentinian art; and then enjoy a short siesta. 

For dinner, walk six blocks to Piegari (Posadas 1042) for some of the best Italian food in the area; try sorrentinos, oversized ravioli that are a local invention.



Palermo in Buenos Aires


Hip and leafy Palermo is home to the city’s main park


Credit: Getty Images

Parks, plazas and art

For your second day in Buenos Aires, the focus is Palermo, the largest barrio or neighbourhood. Much of it is residential but the main city park is here, as well as many beautiful monuments, plazas, museums and galleries. Malba is an outstanding private museum with a strong collection of modern and contemporary Latin American artists.

Have a light, healthy lunch in Malba’s airy restaurant, Ninina. It’s especially good for salads, soup, quichés and empanadas. Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) have a sweet tooth; try the cakes with a coffee.

Walk around Palermo Viejo aka “Palermo Soho” afterwards. This is the coolest district, with some good barista-type cafés – Full City at Thames 1535 is recommended – and very hip fashion outlets on the streets around the Plaza Julio Cortázar. 

For dinner, indulge in a steak-fest at one of South America’s best grill restaurants at Don Julio; the same group, lauded in international rankings, also runs El Preferido de Palermo.



The Pampas


The province around Buenos Aires has some of the best agricultural land in the country


Credit: Getty Images

Countryside estancia

Buenos Aires’s surrounding province is also called Buenos Aires. It’s immense and has the best agricultural land in the country – which basically means in the world. Drive out to Estancia Villa María for a barbecue lunch and carriage ride. Confident riders can saddle up with a gaucho-cum-guide and have a canter on one of the criollo horses. There’s also an 18-hole golf course and tennis courts. The lawns and parkland were landscaped by Charles Thays, also responsible for beautifying Recoleta’s plazas. Villa María is not the only estancia by any means, but it’s only 36 miles away so you’re not spending hours travelling to get to your relaxing destination.



Gaucho riders


Confident riders can saddle up with a gaucho guide


Credit: Getty Images

Head back to Buenos Aires for your final night there. If you’re still hungry, have a pizza at the atmospheric Güerrín on Avenida Corrientes – the Broadway of Buenos Aires and the “street that never sleeps”. Skip the cheesy tango shows, but ask your concierge to check what’s happening at Torquato Tasso and Club Atlético Fernández Fierro; these are great venues for live music, including concert-style tango.



winery in Mendoza


Enjoy miles of soft sand (almost) to yourself


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The capital of wine

Fly in the morning to Mendoza, 620 miles west of Buenos Aires. The capital of a province of the same name, it’s the epicentre of Argentinian winemaking. Check into Cavas Wine Lodge for two nights. Set in weeping willows and gnarly vines, it has good views of the mountains, and is handy for exploring the city. Mendoza is surrounded by long-established appellations and vineyards owned by many of the leading wineries, including Norton, Terrazas, Susana Balbo and Chandon. Malbec is the best-known varietal from the region, but Mendoza’s valleys are also strong for bonarda, syrah and chardonnay as well as pink-skinned cereza and criolla.

Visit the Catena Zapata winery, a Mayan-style pyramid that offers tours of the estate and five-wine tastings, and its restaurant, Angelica, is a good lunch spot. 

Dine at your hotel today. The in-house farm-to-table restaurant goes big on seasonal and organic cuisine; the picadas – platters of cured meats, cheeses etc – are outstanding. Obviously the grilled items are good, so perhaps try the chorizo sausages and sweetbreads, expertly paired with wines from the extensive cellar.



Gaucho riders


Confident riders can saddle up with a gaucho guide


Credit: Getty Images

Mendoza is not all about wine.  Drive out to the Puente del Inca, a natural rock arch in the main valley leading up to the border with Chile. The journey will give you a sense of the rain shadow that keeps the wine region sun-blessed and necessitates an ingenious irrigation system to keep the vines happy. If it’s clear, you might catch a glimpse of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas.

Have dinner at 1884, an informal fine-dining restaurant helmed by Francis Mallmann, one of Argentina’s veteran food supremos. As you have been very carnivorous of late, perhaps try the grilled Patagonia hake with ratatouille and aioli, or octopus – or surrender and have slow-cooked lamb “al malbec” with mashed potato.





The Cono de Arita rises at the southern end of the Salar de Arizaro salt flat



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:
BlackBoxGuild / Getty


Inca history and folk music

Fly to Salta in the Andean north-west. Check in to the Legado Mitico, for one night. It’s a nicely appointed hotel in a converted townhouse, just a block from the main plaza.

When Buenos Aires was still a backwater, Salta was an important trade and religious centre on the main mule-train route to Alto Perú (modern-day Bolivia). A modern city, it has a provincial feel and the churches are still the most important buildings.

The north-west is Argentina’s most ethnically-rich region. You’ll see this in the food, in people’s faces, and in the clothes people wear – especially outside the city. Visit the Museum of High-Altitude Archaeology for an insight into the Inca influence here. Opened in 2004, it exhibits ritual and religious objects, including the three mummified Llullaillaco Children, buried five hundred years ago at an altitude of 6,730 metres, as a religious sacrifice, along with one hundred and forty-six grave goods. Catch a cable-car to the top of Cerro San Bernardo for views of Salta’s dramatic Andean setting.



Dancers in Salta


Salta is a city rich in culture and history


Credit: Getty Images

In the evening, go to one of the many local peñas – folk music clubs where you can eat delicious empanadas and humitas (sweet-corn wraps), drink local wine and hear Andean-inflected folk music. Several are concentrated on calle Balcarce, five minutes’ walk from the hotel.

Drive west out of Salta and cross the wide valley where mules were grazed in colonial times before making the long journey to Potosí across the Andean High Plain. You’ll pass through the Los Cardones national park, a southern variation on a classic wild-west landscape, with candelabra cactuses studding the rocky foothills. As you enter the Calchaquí Valleys, you’ll join the Ruta 40, an epic highway that runs from the Bolivian border down to the Strait of Magellan.

Spend the night in the picturesque adobe-walled, cobble-paved village of Cachi, staying at the gorgeous El Cortijo – a modern hotel carved out of a 19th century house, using stone, adobe, reeds and wood.



The Andes


The colorful Andes offer views of stunning formations of deep red rock


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Colourful mountains and aromatic wine

Head south from Cachi and drive through mountainous landscapes that keep changing colour, by turns dun brown, orange-red, soft green and rose-pink. There are options for lunch at the beautiful Hacienda de Molinos and at the very smart Colomé winery. 

You’ll notice vineyards as you approach Cafayate, a sunny oasis town, where you’ll check in to Patios de Cafayate. Enjoy a tasting at the Piatelli winery. Several grapes are harvested in the slopes around here but torrontés – a white grape that produces a uniquely aromatic wine – has become something of a talisman. It’s great with pasta, white meats and fish, but is also a great drinking wine if you’re looking for an aperitif or even dessert tipple.



Piatelli winery


Enjoy a tasting at the Piatelli winery

Ravine road trip

After breakfast, drive south to see the ancient ruins at Quilmes and then turn north for the drive to Salta airport (200 kilometres or three hours), via the Quebrada de las Conchas, a wide ravine of deep red rock that’s one of the most spectacular natural sights in Argentina. As you head south, rocks, worn by wind and summer rain, have taken on anthropomorphic forms.

In the evening, fly to Puerto Iguazú and check into Awasi Iguazú for a three-night stay.





Taken together, the Iguazú Falls make up the largest waterfall system in the world



Credit
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Awasi Iguazú


Over to Brazil

The Iguazú Falls are some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The memorable backdrop of the 1986 film The Mission, they are formed by a huge cataract in the rocks on the Argentina/Brazil border where the Río Iguazú plummets 270 feet down to the Río Parana, South America’s second longest river. In the language of the native Guarani language – the indigenous group who featured in the film – “Iguazú” means “great waters”.

Drive over the border to Brazil to take in a panoramic vista of the main falls. Enjoy a Brazilian feijoada lunch at the Belmond hotel. There are around 275 separate falls but when the high river is in spate they seem to merge into one great cliff-edge tsunami. The setting – dense green subtropical jungle, with trees sprouting at wild angles around the falls – is stunning.  You’ll see coati, birds (including toucans) and butterflies and possibly monkeys.

Enjoy a superb dinner at Awasi. 



Iguazu Falls


Iguazu Falls are a spectacular stop on the route

The falls up close

After breakfast, head to the Argentinian side to see the falls close-up. There are upper and lower walkways, allowing close-up views of the magnificent Devil’s Throat, San Martín and Two Sisters falls. Look out for the great dusky swifts that nest behind the falls and flit around the cascading torrents.

Awasi has a full menu of bespoke activities. After lunch, take off for a forest walk, an easy bike ride or a river trip to the hidden Yasi Waterfall. Before dinner, visit Awasi’s well-stocked bar. Ask to try the local gin, Principe de los Apostoles, infused with yerba maté tea.



Ibera wetlands


Spot rare marsh deer in the Iberá wetlands


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Jesuit Missions

After breakfast, pick up a hire car and drive south through Misiones province to San Ignacio Miní. This is the most spectacular of the many ruins of Jesuit Missions that were built in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Misiones is known for its maté plantations. Yerba, as it’s known here, has always been drunk by the native Guaraní, but the Jesuits learned how to cultivate it intensively. The gourds, metal straws and dried leaves are available everywhere if you want to try: it’s bitter, but moreish once you get used to the flavour, and is said to be a good source of antioxidants.

Continue south towards Corrientes province; 35 miles after the city of Posadas, check in to Puerto Valle for three nights. It’s a tranquil lodge in a small country estate on the Río Paraná, with rooms in a century-old neo-colonial building and some smart chalets with all mod cons. 



Iberá wetlands


Iberá is undergoing several major rewilding programmes


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Glittering waters

The Esteros del Iberá are the most extensive wetlands in Argentina. Iberá means “glittering waters” in Guarani. The shifting waters are continually cleaned and filtered by reeds and soils and topped up by seasonal rains. 

Puerto Valle has its own lagoon, where you will be punted out to see lots of caiman, rare marsh deer, capybara with their cuddly pups, magnificent jabiru storks and lemon-winged wattled jacanas, known as “Jesus Birds” because they seem to walk on water, besides many other waders.



Iberá wetlands


Iberá means glittering waters


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Lunch and dinner are at Puerto Valle. The cuisine is pretty haute for a remote lodge, with a different menu every day: typically, three courses, including fish and veggie options, are offered at all sittings, and the hotel stocks excellent wines. Make sure you try river fish such as dorado while in the area, as well as chipá (savoury manioc rolls) and mbeyú (manioc cake).

Visit the Iberá national park to do some more birding and wildlife-watching. Rewilding schemes are in progress at several locations. Closest to the hotel is a macaw reintroduction scheme, and to the south major programmes are repopulating the wetlands with jaguar, giant anteater, collared peccary and giant river otter.

In the afternoon, ride a criollo horse around the estate. Look out for the local howler monkeys and giant tegu lizards. Come evening, Puerto Valle’s staff often arrange barbecues in the quincho (summer house) for guests. It’s a perfect goodbye dinner.

Fly to Buenos Aires from Posadas or Corrientes, and then back to the UK.



Awasi hotel


Enjoy good weather in the spring and summer shoulder seasons

When to go

During the spring/summer shoulder season. From October through to early December, Buenos Aires and Mendoza are balmy but not baking. The summer rains arrive in Salta. Iguazú and Iberá are tropical but bearable. Most locals take their holidays from Christmas to the end of February, so hotels are not too packed or pricey yet. The summer/autumn shoulder season, March-early May, is also recommended.

What to book

Cost-effective

Explore (01252 240 605, explore.co.uk) has a 14-day group tour to Buenos Aires, Mendoza and the Andean northwest, including wine tasting, a visit to the Humahuaca gorge north of Salta, and a drive up to San Antonio de los Cobres in the Andes. From £2,308, including B&B accommodation, tour leader and all transfers and excursions, but excluding flights. Departures in May, October and November 2024.

Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.com) offers a 14-day luxury trip to Buenos Aires, Mendoza, the Salta region, Iguazú Falls and Iberá wetlands, from £6,745 per person. The holiday includes premium accommodation on a B&B basis, full board at Puerto Valle in Iberá, transfers and guided excursions. International flights are extra and start at £880 per person.



Palermo


Be sure to eat local specialties, as well as empanadas and steak


Credit: Getty Images

Expert tips

  • Change money every two to three days. The Argentinian peso exchange rate changes weekly, sometimes daily. Take cash (dollars not sterling) and change as and when you need money. Avoid using credit or debit cards.

  • Don’t just eat empanadas, steak and Mendozan malbec. The holy trinity of Argentinian cuisine is great, but regional hosts sometimes overlook the fact you are arriving from other cities and towns and have already had your fill. Ask to try veggie and pulse dishes, river fish and seafood, local fruits and delicacies. Try tannat and blended wines from across the many winegrowing regions. 

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