Argentina’s vivacious personality might overshadow its stunning natural beauty. But look beyond the sizzle to discover unique and diverse landscapes and things to do in Argentina that capture the essence of the elements: water, fire, earth and air.
Argentina is flamboyant and showy (think Evita and Maradona); its capital, Buenos Aires pulses with tango passion and hypnotic music.
You can while away time at historic landmarks and lively restaurant precincts. And favourable exchange rates means there are shopping bargains to be found.
Beyond the glamour is a land of spectacular extremes, from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes to the grassy Pampas plains.
Nothing could be a world apart from Patagonia’s frozen icy Perito Moreno Glacier as the earthy hues of the Quebrada de Humahuaca canyon.
Iguazu National Park, Northeast Argentina
Our Argentine odyssey begins in a speedboat at Iguazu Falls (Iguazu means big water), at the Brazilian border. At first, we’re lightly damp from the spray of the falls but the boat soon speeds up and disappears into the swirling mist.
I shut my eyes and hold my breath as the waterfall engulfs me. Seconds feel like minutes, and then relief comes as the speedboat emerges safely from beneath the edge of the waterfall. “Free shower!” shouts our grinning guide.
Getting sopping wet under one of Iguazu Falls’ many waterfalls is a memorable way to soak up the atmosphere of Argentina’s most famous natural asset.
Located in the World Heritage-listed Iguazu National Park, Iguazu Falls is astounding. During the rainy season there are as many as 260 individual waterfalls spread in a horseshoe across the Iguazu River.
We walk along the park’s extensive timber walkways, stopping frequently to admire picturesque vistas of waterfalls framed by virgin rainforest.
The ultimate viewing spot is Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat, perched on a lookout 80 metres above the river with water gushing on three sides.
The roar is deafening and clouds of water vapour soars high into the air. It’s not difficult to see why the Guarani Indians believed these falls were created by wrath of the forest god.
The next best view is from the balcony of our room at the Sheraton Iguazu Resort, while sipping Caiparinha cocktails. Around us, the virgin rainforest teems with wildlife.
San Antonio de Areco, The Pampas
Further south, on the fertile Pampas plains, a young gaucho trots beside us in silence as we watch three riders gallop ahead.
This is our fourth time in two days on a horse. And although the gaucho speaks no English, the language of horse riding is universal.
We’re settling into the rhythm of the earth with crumpled clothes and boots muddy from stomping around the plains at Estancia El Ombu de Areco. The 1880s colonial mansion was built by the country’s former war minister Lieutenant General Pablo Riccheri near the rural town of San Antonio de Areco.
The gauchos we meet live up to the image of the romantic cowboy figure dressed in baggy trousers with long-bladed knifes hanging from leather silver-studded belts. These sons of the earth eke their living from the rich pastures of the pampas.
The estancia is cosy and rustic; by gaucho standards it’s luxurious. But for us, the real luxury is the chance to experience the culture of the gauchos. One evening, after dinner, an elderly gaucho pulls out a guitar and breaks into a spontaneous and soulful tune. The melancholy allure of the music tugs at my heart and I’m reluctant to go leave for our next destination.
As our car pulls up in front of an elegant imperial building with soaring marble columns, I survey our crumpled clothes in dismay. A smartly dressed doorman opens the car door with his white-gloved hand and ushers us into one of the city’s most glamorous hotels, the sleek Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt.
It’s a former historic mansion, once the home of a wealthy family, recently revamped and extended to incorporate a gleaming new limestone tower. The hotel is worth visiting just to peruse the significant array of art hanging in its public spaces; there’s an underground art gallery as well as lobbies and restaurants which showcase original South American paintings and sculptures.
The 48 barrios in Buenos Aires (which means “good air” or “fair winds”) range from stylishly sophisticated to beguilingly bohemian.
We’re staying in the heart of fashionable Recoleta where boutiques housed within grand neoclassical buildings display this season’s European fashions.
Nearby, in the Recoleta cemetery, a crowd is gathered outside the Duarte family mausoleum, offering flowers to acknowledge Argentina’s most celebrated lady, Eva Peron.
Although most people visit the cemetery to see her grave, a walk through the graveyard is an eye-opener to the riches of the Argentine elite. Grand art nouveau, art deco and modernist-style mausoleums are the final resting places of presidents, scientists and prominent Argentine families.
Plaza Mayo, the city’s main square, is filled with European architecture including the pink house of Casa Rosada where Juan and Eva Peron once waved at crowds from the balcony (Madonna also sang from here in the movie Evita), and the baroque Cathedral Metropolitana containing the tomb of Argentina’s most revered hero, General Jose de San Martin.
Pedro de Mendoza founded the city in 1536 on a personally financed expedition from Spain. But even after Argentina severed ties with Spain in 1810, waves of Spanish and Italian migrants continued to roll in.
The Europeans were followed by mestizos of mixed Indian and Spanish descent from other Latin American countries, infusing the city with a multicultural atmosphere.
There’s no other city in the world where the tango’s influence has embraced the very core of its character. Here the tango is part of culture and a way of life. In the colourful barrio of La Boca we stroll through the open-air mall admiring tango art and tapping our feet as tango dancers twirl energetically on the pavement.
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego
From Buenos Aires, we fly to the end of the world. In the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), facing the Beagle Channel with a picturesque backdrop of soaring glacial peaks, is Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. The landscape is windswept and rugged.
Nearby at the train station in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, we squeeze into a carriage of the park’s steam locomotive. El Tren del Fin del Mundo is a replica of a train that once shuttled prisoners to the forest to gather wood.
The park was formed in 1960 to protect 63,000 hectares of wilderness and is the only Argentine national park with a maritime coast.
The wilderness reveals vistas of soaring peaks, rivers, black-water swamps and sub-Antarctic forests. Condors, cormorants and albatrosses swoop and glide above us. Wild horses graze along the mountainside.
At the end of the train line, we continue our tour by car to Lago Roca where tranquil views of the lake are framed by a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. We stroll along the walkways at Bahia Lapataia, where a sign tells us we’re 17,848 kilometres from Alaska.
Even though it’s remote, our hotel offers all the ingredients for a luxurious stay: a restaurant with an extensive wine list and superb chef, a spa and a room with a view. And oh what a view! Sipping a glass of Argentine wine while watching the ships sail through the Beagle Channel is something to talk about. Next stop Antarctica.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Cruise Traveller
There’s plenty to see and do in Argentina.
Where to stay
Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt, Buenos Aires is a sleek hotel in upscale Recoleta.
Faena Hotel & Universe, Buenos Aires is a historic red brick granary transformed with Phillip Starck’s bold designs. Rooms from US$455.
Mansion Dandi Royal, Buenos Aires is a boutique tango hotel in eclectic San Telmo.
Estancia El Ombu, San Antonia de Areco is a historic estancia where you can ride a horse alongside a gaucho. US$150 per person per night (twin share) includes meals and horse riding.
Time to tango
Pedro de Mendoza might have founded the city in the tango neighbourhood of San Telmo but it is said that Buenos Aires didn’t truly find itself until tango musician Carlos Gardel sang the first tango hit song, “Mi Noche Triste”, in 1917. Today, the tango is danced in the streets, in milongas (or dance halls) and dazzling tango dinner shows.
Academia Nacional del Tango (Avenida de Mayo 833) has classes for all levels during week days at 6pm.
An upmarket dinner show costs around US$80. See Rojo Tango, Esquina Carlos Gardel or El Viejo Almacen.