Big, busy and brash, Mar del Plata (or Mardel to initiates) dwarfs every other resort on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. Around six million mostly Argentine tourists holiday here every year, drawn by its bustling beaches and lively entertainment, earning it the nickname La Feliz, or the Happy City. The seventh biggest city in Argentina, Mardel’s primarily a place where the Argentine working classes go to forget their daily grind and chill out for two or three weeks every summer. If the thought of seeking an unoccupied towel-sized scrap of sand every morning or queuing for a restaurant every evening makes you shudder, you’re better off avoiding the resort in January and February. On the other hand, if you quite like mixing your trips to the beach with a spot of culture, nightlife or shopping, you may appreciate the city’s cheeky charm. Physically Mar del Plata is favoured by the gentle drama of a sweeping coastline and hilly terrain, and while its rather urban beaches may lack the unspoilt tranquillity of some other resorts, they are certainly fun places to hang out and great for people-watching.
Furthermore Mar del Plata is the only resort really worth visiting out of season – while the city folk may breathe a sigh of relief when the last of the tourists leave at the end of the summer, it certainly doesn’t close down. The city enjoys a rich cultural life that includes a number of modest but interesting museums and galleries, and one of Argentina’s most important ports, appealing for its colourful traditional fishing boats and seafood restaurants. The oceanfront is dominated by haphazard modern developments but scattered here and there are some wonderfully quirky buildings, built in a decorative – even fantastical – style known as pintoresquista, an eclectic brew of mostly Neo-Norman and mock-Tudor architecture.
The official centre is Plaza San Martín but on summer days the city’s true heart lies further south, around Playa Bristol and the Rambla Casino, a pedestrian promenade flanking the grand casino and landmark Gran Hotel Provincial. Aside from the beaches and away from the quiet neighbourhood of La Perla, there’s little in the way of sightseeing in the city centre. Culture vultures will want to head south to the rollercoaster streets of Loma Stella Maris, where they’ll find the Museo Municipal de Arte Juan Carlos Castagnino, or to the quiet residential area of Divino Rostro, home to the Villa Victoria cultural centre and the Archivo Museo Histórico Municipal. South along the coast, a visit to the colourful fishing port makes a fine way to end the day – for both the lively bustle of returning fishermen and the majestic (but noisy and smelly) sea lions who have made their home at the port’s southern end.
Founded in 1874, Mar del Plata was soon developed into a European-style bathing resort, following the vision of Pedro Luro, a successful Basque merchant. As the railway began to expand into Buenos Aires Province, Mar del Plata became accessible to visitors from the capital, with the first passenger train arriving in September 1886. The subsequent opening of the town’s first hotel in 1888 – the luxurious, long-gone Hotel Bristol – was a great occasion for the Buenos Aires elite, many of whom travelled down for the opening on an overnight train.
Nevertheless the richest of Argentina’s very rich continued to make their regular pilgrimages to Europe and it took the outbreak of World War I to dampen Argentine enthusiasm for the journey across the Atlantic and to firmly establish Mar del Plata as an exclusive resort. Mass tourism began to arrive in the 1930s, helped by improved roads, but took off in the 1940s and 1950s, when the development of union-run hotels under Perón finally put the city within the reach of Argentina’s middle and working classes. The horrified rich then abandoned it for the more genteel Pinamar and Uruguay’s Punta del Este, while Menem’s peso–dollar parity in the 1990s meant the middle classes found it cheaper to sunbathe in Florida and the Caribbean than on the Argentine coast. The 2001 crisis and devaluation led to a resurgence in Mardel’s popularity; in 2009 the Gran Hotel Provincial reopened after lengthy restoration.
Second only to the Rambla Casino, with its stone sea lions, Mar del Plata’s favourite postcard image is that of the striking orange fishing boats that depart every morning from its port, about 3km south of the city centre. In the early evening you can watch them returning to the Banquina de Pescadores (Fishermen’s Wharf) full of crates bursting with sea bass, sole and squid, which are hauled onto the quayside by the fishermen. At the far end of the wharf is the Lobería, a colony of around 800 real-life sea lions – they are all males as you can tell by their distinctive giant manes and loud bark. These lobos can be observed from an incredibly close (and smelly) distance – a metre or so – all year round, though the colony shrinks in January and February, when large numbers head for the Uruguayan coast to mate. There are also a number of good seafood restaurants around the port, mostly grouped around the Centro Comercial. Buses from the centre of Mar del Plata head to the fishing port; both #551 and #553 can be caught anywhere along Avenida Luro.
Heading south from Mar del Plata, the first resort you come to is popular Miramar, 45km further down the RP-11, a largely modern town, dominated by some rather grim high-rise buildings. A more appealing alternative to busy resorts like Mar del Plata is tiny Mar del Sud, a further 16km southeast. One of Argentina’s least-developed beach resorts, Mar del Sud is in many ways one of its most appealing. Although it is increasingly courted by in-the-know Porteños looking for something a little different, the atmosphere remains tranquil, with a safe community feel and the occasional party to inject some life. Its beaches are far less frequented than those to the north and if you venture a short way away from the small clutch of beachgoers grouped around the bottom of Avenida 100 you won’t have much trouble finding a stretch of soft sand to yourself. The town’s unassuming buildings are dominated by the crumbling faded-pink walls and steeply pitched roof of the ex-Boulevard Atlantic Hotel, an elegant, French-influenced construction built in 1886. It’s now a wonderfully creepy old building, its once glamorous rooms taken over by doves and scattered with chunks of plaster. Guided visits are possible during the day on request from Eduardo Gambo, who runs the place and is something of a local personality; he also rents out bungalows.
Top image: Almirante Brown Square in the coastal city of Mar del Plata in Buenos Aires province, Argentina © Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock