Marvellous though Buenos Aires is, you may wish to follow the example of the Porteños and escape the urban mêlée for a few days. Immediately north of the city, and understandably a favourite getaway destination, is the watery labyrinth of the Paraná Delta. Unfolding westwards and southwards, the famed Pampas of Buenos Aires Province form the country’s agricultural heartland; unfairly neglected by most tourists, these fertile grassy plains offer a fascinating window into Argentina’s traditional gaucho culture and rural life. The country’s beaches are not exactly world-famous, but two dozen popular oceanside resorts fringe the province’s Atlantic coast; some are worth checking out for their restful tranquillity, others for their frenetic nightlife.
The Paraná Delta’s main town, Tigre, is often described as a subtropical Little Venice; wooden launches chug along opaque canals lined with timber bungalows and subtropical thickets instead of Renaissance palaces and piazzas.
The province’s inland landscape is dominated by farmland – providing the bulk of the country’s exports – peppered with picturesque gaucho settlements: San Antonio de Areco a charmingly old-fashioned example with cobbled streets and well-preserved nineteenth-century architecture, within striking distance of several traditional and luxurious estancias; Tandil, whose museums and rugged setting make it a highly worthwhile stopping-place en route to Patagonia overland; and the appealingly quiet town of Mercedes, famed for its authentic pulpería (a traditional bar-cum-store). Closer to Buenos Aires, the mini-city of Luján exposes the country’s spiritual heart, with a mass display of religious devotion in honour of Argentina’s patron saint, the Virgin of Luján. In a predominantly flat province, to reach anything approaching a mountain, you will need to head for the western reaches, where you’ll find the Pampas’s most dramatic relief, the Sierra de la Ventana range, 580km southwest of Buenos Aires.
The coastal route starts just south of La Plata, the pleasant provincial capital. Another 260km southeast, the point where the silty Río de la Plata flows out into the cool waters of the South Atlantic Ocean marks the beginning of the country’s seaside resorts, hugely popular with local families in the summer. In January and February much of the national capital pulls down its shutters and heads en masse for the coast; if crowds and 24-hour parties aren’t your thing, visit in December or March when hotel prices can drop by half or more. Two of the major resorts along the so-called Interbalnearia, Pinamar and Villa Gesell tend to attract younger holiday-makers, while Mar del Plata is the liveliest of all, with vast crowds packing its beaches by day and flocking to its numerous clubs and restaurants at night. If you hanker after peace and quiet, there are more isolated spots, though, such as exclusive Cariló, bucolic Mar de las Pampas or sleepy Mar del Sud. Of course, if it’s pristine white sands, shady palms and warm seas you’re after, you’d be better off heading north to Brazil.
One of the world’s most beautiful and unusual suburban landscapes, the Paraná Delta lies just a few kilometres north of Avenida General Paz, the ring road that divides the city of Buenos Aires from its namesake province. Constantly shifting as sediment from tropical Brazil is deposited by the mighty Río Paraná, the Delta region is a wonderfully seductive maze of lush, green islands separated by rivers and streams. Lining the banks, traditional houses on stilts peep out from behind screens of subtropical vegetation. The Delta actually begins at the port of Diamante in Entre Ríos Province, some 450km to the northwest of the city, and its one thousand square kilometres are divided into three administrative sections. By far the most visited area is the first section, most of which lies within a ninety-minute boat trip from the picturesque town of Tigre, itself just 25km northwest of Capital Federal. Travel beyond here into the wide Río Paraná de las Palmas, and you may be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stumbled onto a tributary of the Amazon. At this point the Delta widens, inhabitants and amenities are much more dispersed and isleños (as island dwellers are known) rely on electric generators and kerosene lamps. The abundance of water and warm climate mean that mosquitoes are a real problem in and around the Delta, so come prepared.
Sitting on an island bounded by the ríos Luján, Reconquista and Tigre, Tigre owes its poetic name to the jaguars – popularly known as tigres in Latin America – that inhabited the Delta region until the beginning of the twentieth century. Primarily seen as a departure point for excursions to the Delta, the town itself is sometimes overlooked by tourists. At first glance, it’s a bit of a hotchpotch but don’t be put off by initial impressions – Tigre offers a vivacious mix of faded glamour and day-trip brashness. The bars and restaurants around the refurbished riverside area provide perfect vantage points for an unhurried contemplation of the comings and goings of Delta life.
El Tigre (as it also known) lies along the western bank of the Río Luján, one of the Delta’s main arteries, and the town is divided in half by the smaller Río Tigre, which runs north-south through its centre. Riverside avenues flank both sides of the Río Tigre, while the broad Paseo Victorica runs along the Río Luján on the western side of town. A good place to begin a tour of the area is around the Estación Fluvial, immediately north of the bridge over the Río Tigre. The point of contact between island and mainland life, the Estación bustles with activity, particularly at weekends.
The town was first documented in 1635 under the name of El Pueblo de las Conchas (“Seashell Village”), a small settlement that functioned as a defensive outpost against Portuguese invasions. The town became a favoured summer retreat of the Porteño elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from when its sumptuous mansions and palatial rowing clubs mostly date. Back then social life revolved around events at the Tigre Club, home to Argentina’s first casino, and the grand Tigre Hotel, whose clientele included Enrico Caruso and the Prince of Wales. The town’s decline as a glamorous destination was partly due to the closure of the casino (shut in 1933 through a law which prohibited casinos in the vicinity of the capital) and in part a result of the growing popularity of Mar del Plata, made ever more accessible thanks to the arrival of the railway and improved roads. The Tigre Hotel was demolished in 1940, although the elegant Tigre Club still stands at the apex of the island and has now been reinvented as the excellent Museo de Arte Tigre.
Stretching for a couple of hundred kilometres west and northwest of Buenos Aires city, the Pampa Húmeda (“wet pampa”) is the country’s most fertile and valuable land. It is dotted with several sites of interest, including Luján, at the very beginning of the RN-5, less than 70km west of the federal capital. This is Argentina’s leading religious site, thanks to its vast basilica, purpose-built to house an image of the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Luján. Further along the RN-5, Mercedes stands out for its authentic pulpería largely untouched since the nineteenth century. Pulperías, essentially provisions stores with a bar attached, performed an important social role in rural Argentina (rather like Wild West saloons or British village pubs) and enjoy an almost mythical status in gaucho folklore.
The small town of Lobos, to the capital’s southwest, is another popular weekend destination for Porteños, primarily for its lakeside setting. The most notable destination hereabouts, though, is San Antonio de Areco, a charming market town to the capital’s northwest, along the RN-8. Known colloquially as Areco, it has retained a remarkably authentic feel despite its popularity with tourists; if you visit only one pampas town during your stay in Argentina, this is the one to head for. As the recognized centre of pampas tradition, Areco puts on a popular gaucho festival in November and has some highly respected artisans and an extremely attractive and unusually well preserved historic centre. Like other destinations in the Pampa Húmeda, it is close to Buenos Aires and a potential day-trip from the capital, but spending a night – especially at an estancia – will give you a better feel for the much slower pace of life in the interior. Areco and its neighbours are also useful stopping-off points on the way to the Litoral, Córdoba or the Northwest. Further afield and better suited for a longer stay (or a stopover on the way to Patagonia), Tandil is an appealing town of cobbled streets with its own tradition of pampas culture. The main attraction is the nearby mountain scenery, perfect for riding and long rambles.
The pampas, the vast expanse of flat grassland that radiates out from Buenos Aires, forms one of the country’s most famous features. Similarly, the gaucho, who once roamed them on horseback, facón (knife) clenched between his teeth, leaving a trail of broken hearts and gnawed steak bones behind him, is as important a part of the collective romantic imagination of Argentina as the Wild West cowboy is in the US. The popular depiction of this splendid, freedom-loving figure – whose real life must actually have been rather lonely and extremely brutal – was crystallized in José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, from which just about every Argentine can quote (they learn it by heart at school). It’s a way of life whose time has passed, but the gaucho’s legacy remains. You’re unlikely to witness knife fights over a woman, but you can still visit well-preserved pulperías (traditional bars), stay at estancias and watch weather-beaten old paisanos (countrymen) playing cards and chuckling behind their huge handlebar moustaches. The term “gaucho” is still a compliment while gaucho garb – beret or sombrero, knotted scarf, checked shirt, ornate belt (tirador), baggy trousers (bombachas), boots or espadrilles (alpargatas) and a poncho – is considered almost chic. A gauchada means a good deed or an act of macho heroism, altruistic courage or, at least, heartfelt generosity. Shrines of red flags dedicated to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, one of the most famous gauchos of all, are often seen by the roadside throughout the country.
Founded in 1756 on the site of a shrine containing a tiny ceramic figure of the Virgin Mary, Luján, about 70km west of Buenos Aires, is now one of the major religious centres in Latin America. The Virgin of Luján is the patron saint of Argentina and the epic basilica erected in her honour in 1887 in Luján attracts around eight million visitors a year. This Neo-Gothic edifice is one of the most memorable – though not the most beautiful – churches in Argentina. The town’s other major attraction, the vast Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo, is a multiplex museum with an important historical section, as well as being Argentina’s largest transport museum. Away from the museums and the basilica, all grouped around the central square, Luján is pretty much like any other provincial town, with some elegant, early twentieth-century townhouses and less-elegant modern buildings.
For a real flavour of Luján in full religious swing, you should visit at the weekend, when as many as eight Masses are held a day – but, unless you desperately want to take part, avoid visiting during the annual pilgrimages, when the town is seriously overcrowded. These take place on May 8, the day of the Coronation of the Virgin; the last Sunday of September for the Gaucho pilgrimage, when up to a million gauchos come to honour the Virgin of Luján; the first Sunday of October, when young people walk here from Buenos Aires; and December 8, when smaller pilgrimages mark the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday.
In 1630, a Portuguese ship that docked in Buenos Aires on its way from Brazil contained a simple terracotta image of the Virgin made by an anonymous Brazilian craftsman. The icon had been ordered by a merchant from Santiago del Estero and, after unloading, it was transported by cart towards his estancia. After the cart paused near Luján, so the story goes, it could not be moved. Packages were taken off the cart in an attempt to lighten the load but only when the tiny package containing the Virgin was removed would the cart budge. This was taken as a sign that the Virgin had decided on her own destination. A small chapel was built and the first pilgrims began to arrive.
The Virgin has been moved over the centuries, although according to legend it took three attempts and several days of prayer the first time. In 1872, Luján’s Lazarist order – a religious body founded in Paris in 1625 with the emphasis on preaching to the rural poor – was entrusted with the care of the Virgin by the archbishop of Buenos Aires. In 1875, a member of the order, Padre Jorge María Salvaire, was almost killed in one of the last Indian raids on Azul. Praying to the Virgin, he promised that if he survived he would promote her cult, write her history and build a temple in her name. He survived and the foundation stone to the basilica was laid in 1887.
The original terracotta Virgin is now barely recognizable: a protective bell-shaped silver casing was placed around it in the late nineteenth century. Sky-blue and white robes, the colours of the Argentine flag, were added as well as a Gothic golden surround. The face of the original statue can now just about be seen, peering through a tiny gap in the casing. Even if you don’t visit Luján itself, you cannot avoid seeing images of the Virgin: she is the patron saint of roads and paths, and almost every bus and many other vehicles all over the country sport Luján figures and stickers.
Tranquil and cultured, the well-preserved provincial town of Mercedes, 37km southwest of Luján along the RN-5, was founded in 1752 as a fortress to protect that city from Indian attacks. It’s easy to find your way around – the main drag, Avenida 29, crosses central Plaza San Martín, which plays host to the grand Italianate Palacio Municipal and large Gothic Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de Mercedes and is a real hub of activity – especially in the evening, when locals fill the tables that spill out of its inviting confiterías. Mercedes’ main draw, though, is its unmissable pulpería.
The sign outside Mercedes’ big attraction claims this to be the last pulpería. Known locally as “Lo de Cacho” (Cacho’s place), it was run, until his death in 2009 at the age of 70, by the self-styled last pulpero, Cacho Di Catarina. The gloomy interior, which has hardly changed since it opened its doors in 1850, harbours a collection of dusty bottles, handwritten notices – included an original wanted poster for the biggest gaucho outlaw of them all, Juan Moreira, who was killed by a police posse in nearby Lobos – and gaucho paraphernalia: it doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up visions of the knife fights that the late Cacho claimed to have witnessed in his youth. His family still runs the bar in his name and musicians frequently drop in for a glass of Vasco Viejo and impromptu singing and guitar playing, much of it dedicated to the sorely missed Cacho. To get to the pulpería, best visited in the evening for a beer and a picada featuring some of the renowned local salami, take a remise or the local bus that runs towards the park from Avenida 29. A couple of blocks beyond the last stop, the road becomes unsealed and on the left-hand corner you’ll see the simple white building, a sign saying “pulpería” painted on its side.
Delightful San Antonio de Areco, the national capital of gaucho traditions, hosts the annual Fiesta de la Tradición, the country’s most important festival celebrating pampas culture. Despite its modest promotion as a tourist destination, playing on its appealing setting by the banks of the tranquil Río Areco, the town has retained a surprisingly genuine feel. You may not find Areco full of galloping gauchos outside festival week, but you still have a good chance of spotting estancia workers on horseback, sporting traditional berets and rakishly knotted scarves, or of coming across paisanos propping up the bar of a traditional boliche establishment. Areco has a prestigious literary connection: the town was the setting for Ricardo Güiraldes’ Argentine classic Don Segundo Sombra (1926), a novel that was influential in changing the image of the gaucho from that of an undesirable outlaw to a symbol of national values.
The town’s only real sights are a couple of museums, the most important of which is the Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Güiraldes. But what really makes Areco memorable is the harmonious architectural character of the town’s centre: all cobbled streets and faded Italianate and colonial facades punctuated by elaborate wrought-iron grilles and delicately arching lamps. There are also some excellent artisans working in the town in talleres (workshops). Weaving and leatherwork are well represented, but the silversmiths are the highlight.
Areco’s traditional gaucho atmosphere extends to the surrounding area, where you will find some of Argentina’s most famous estancias, offering a luxurious accommodation alternative to staying in Areco itself. The town and its surroundings were badly hit by terrible floods in late 2009, and many sights have only just recovered, having required extensive and costly restoration work.
Estancias are Argentina’s haciendas or ranches, mostly wealthy farms set up to raise livestock on extensive swathes of green pasture, dotted with the odd ombú. The owners, or estancieros, effectively make up the country’s aristocracy, and still employ large numbers of peones (ranch hands), some of them regarded as latter-day gauchos, to look after their cattle and, occasionally, sheep. The main buildings, known as cascos, range from simple colonial-style farmsteads to ornate mansions, with architecture inspired by French chateaux, English country homes or Italianate palaces. Scattered all over the country, but with the greatest concentration in Buenos Aires Province, above all around San Antonio de Areco, many of them take in paying guests; this can be either for díasde campo, during which visitors take part in outdoor activities, such as horseriding or even polo, and enjoy three or four hearty meals, or overnight stays in often luxurious rooms for a complete estancia experience.
One of Argentina’s most original and enjoyable festivals, San Antonio de Areco’s Fiesta de la Tradición began in 1939 on an initiative of then-mayor José Antonio Güiraldes. The actual Día de la Tradición is November 10 – the birthday of José Hernández, author of Argentina’s gaucho text par excellence, Martín Fierro – but the celebrations last for a week and are organized to run from weekend to weekend, either the first or second week in November, depending on the weather forecast. Activities, including exhibitions, dances, music recitals and shows of gaucho skills, last throughout the week, although the high point is the final Sunday, which begins with dancing and a procession of gauchos dressed in their traditional loose trousers (bombachas), ornamented belts and wide-brimmed hats or berets. An asado con cuero, at which meat – primarily beef – is cooked around a fire with its skin on, takes place at midday in the Parque Criollo (at a reduced price for gauchos) and is followed by an extensive display of gaucho skills, including jineteadas, Argentine bronco riding.
Birthplace of Argentina’s top two tennis players, Juan Martín del Potro and Juan Mónaco, the attractive town of Tandil, many of whose streets are cobbled with stones quarried from nearby, is set among the central section of the Sistema de Tandilia, a long range of granite hills. Beginning around 150km northwest of the town and running across the province to Mar del Plata, they seldom rise above 200m; close to Tandil, however, there are craggy peaks of up to 504m. Although this is not wild trekking country, the sierras are ideal for horseriding and mountain biking. The town itself is well geared for the holiday-makers who come all year on weekend breaks, with some excellent accommodation plus enticing delicatessens and restaurants and a lively, bustling feel in the evening. Tandil is particularly popular during Holy Week, when the Vía Crucis (Stations of the Cross) processions take place; they end at Monte Calvario, a small hillock topped by a giant cross, to the east of the town centre.
The endless string of resorts along the easternmost coast of Buenos Aires Province are connected by the RP-11, known as the Interbalnearia (literally, the inter-resort road). They include the trendy pair of Pinamar and Villa Gesell and their smaller, but rapidly growing, satellites Cariló and Mar de las Pampas, around which sand dunes and pine forests dominate the landscape. The route from La Plata runs southeast along the RP-36, threading through flat pampas, dotted with cows and divided at intervals by tree-lined drives leading to estancias. Tall metal wind-pumps, which extract irrigation water from beneath the surface of the land, inject a little drama into the scene, while giant cardoon thistles – a desiccated brown in summer – sprout in clusters like outsize bouquets. The RP-36 joins the RP-11 around 90km southeast of La Plata.
Pinamar merges seamlessly with Ostende, Valeria del Mar and finally Cariló, the area’s most exclusive resort. While Ostende and Valeria del Mar are effectively quieter suburbs of Pinamar, Cariló has more of a separate personality, a fact made clear as Calle Bathurst, the paved main street of Valeria del Mar, abruptly turns to a sand track with a sign announcing the entrance to Cariló’s exclusive “parque” on Calle Divisadero. An idyllic pine forest dotted with luxury hotels, spas and designer shops, this is where Argentina’s rich and powerful come to get pampered, hidden away from the rest of society. While apart-hotels and rental homes maintain a tasteful distance from each other, and development in the village is controlled by tight laws, the amount of new construction spiralled in the new millennium – too fast for some locals – and you’re still likely to hear the distant hubbub of building work among the tweeting birds. Cariló nevertheless remains a tranquil place, albeit one significantly more expensive than other resorts nearby. If you can afford it, and don’t mind the often snooty attitude of some of its regulars, its varied and thick vegetation, quiet, sandy streets and gourmet restaurants can make it a very agreeable destination.
Mar de las Pampas, just south of Villa Gesell, is a haven of tranquil pine forests and pampas grass. The beach is not as deserted as you might expect, since it is easily accessible from Gesell, but inland you can lose yourself along sandy tracks that meander around dunes and woody valleys. The pine forest setting is not dissimilar to Cariló’s, though Mar de las Pampas has a more down-to-earth feel – for now. There is no real division between it and Mar Azul, a short way south and distinguished from its neighbour only by its more regular lanes and lesser development. The pair are currently enjoying a reputation for maintaining the bohemian spirit of Villa Gesell, with blues musicians playing at local pub Mr Gone on Mar Azul’s main drag, Avenida Mar del Plata, and Blue Beach, a balneario cultivating a chilled-out atmosphere.
Pinamar gets its name from the surrounding pinewoods planted among dunes by the town’s founder, Jorge Bunge, in the 1930s; this attractive setting is now rather spoiled by a mix of high-rise buildings and ostentatious chalet-style constructions. Pinamar stretches southwards along the coast, swallowing up the neighbouring resorts of Ostende and Valeria del Mar, tranquil places that can be easily reached as a day-trip, albeit with their own accommodation options. Long the favourite resort of the Porteño elite, in the 1990s the resort symbolized the high-living lifestyle of the Menem era, and the exploits of the politicians and celebrities who holidayed here were staples of the gossip mags. Pinamar fell out of popularity for a while following the high-profile murder of an investigative journalist here in 1997 and the post-2001 economic recession, but has bounced back with a vengeance. It remains a hugely popular summer holiday spot and, although it has lost its exclusive crown to places like Cariló, it is more expensive than many other Argentine seaside resorts.
Separated from Cariló by a strictly off-limits nature reserve, Villa Gesell is reached by taking the RP-11 a further 10km or so south. The town is named after its founder, Carlos Gesell, a mildly eccentric Porteño of German descent. In 1931, Gesell bought a large swathe of coastal land, largely dominated by still-moving sand dunes. Inspired by methods used in Australia, Gesell managed to stabilize the dunes by planting a mixture of vegetation including tamarisk, acacia and esparto grass. He sold lots, many of which were bought by Germans and Central Europeans escaping World War II. Favoured by hippies in the 1960s and 70s, Gesell has a more laidback feel than some of its smarter neighbours and teeters on the edge of being run down. The resort remains popular with Argentina’s middle and working classes, plus teenage groups enjoying holidays away from their parents. If you fancy something a bit livelier, head for one of Villa Gesell’s popular balnearios spread out along the length of the beach, such as Amy, AfriKa or 13 al Sur, which vie with each other every year to become the season’s show-off spot.