With so many natural wonders – the prodigious waterfalls of Iguazú; the spectacular Glaciar Perito Moreno; unforgettable whale-watching off Península Valdés; or the handsome lakes and mountains around Bariloche – deciding where to go in Argentina can be tricky. Yet many of the country’s most rewarding destinations are also its least known, such as the Esteros del Iberá, a huge reserve of lily-carpeted lagoons offering close-up encounters with cormorants and caimans; or Antofagasta de la Sierra, a remote village set amid frozen lakes mottled pink with flamingoes; or Laguna Diamante, a high-altitude mirror of sapphire water reflecting a wondrous volcano. In any case, climate and distance will rule out any attempt to see every corner; it’s more sensible and rewarding to concentrate on one or two sections of the country.
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Unless you’re visiting Argentina as part of a South American tour, Buenos Aires is likely to be your point of entry, as it has the country’s only bona fide international airport, Ezeiza. It is one of the world’s top urban experiences, with an intriguing blend of European architecture and a vernacular flair that includes houses painted in the colours of legendary football team Boca Juniors. The city’s museums are eclectic enough to suit all interests – Latin American art, colonial silverware, dinosaurs and ethnography are just four subjects on offer – and you can round off a day’s sightseeing with a tango show, a dinner at one of the dozens of fabulous restaurants, or a hedonistic night out.
The Litoral and the Gran Chaco
Due north lies the Litoral, an expanse of subtropical watery landscapes that shares borders with Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. Here are the photogenic Iguazú waterfalls and Jesuit missions whose once-noble ruins are crumbling into the jungle – with the exception of well-groomed San Ignacio Miní. Immediately west of the Litoral extends the Chaco, one of Argentina’s most infrequently visited regions, reserved for those with an ardent interest in wildlife, so be prepared for fierce summer heat and poor infrastructure. A highlight in the country’s landlocked Northwest is the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a fabulous gorge lined with rainbow-hued rocks; it winds up to the oxygen-starved altiplano, where llamas and their wild relatives munch wiry grass. Nearby, in the Valles Calchaquíes, a chain of stunningly scenic valleys, high-altitude vineyards produce the delightfully flowery torrontés wine.
Sprawling across Argentina’s broad midriff to the west and immediately south of Buenos Aires are the Pampas, arguably the country’s most archetypal landscape. Formed by horizon-to-horizon plains interspersed with the odd low sierra, this subtly beautiful scenery is punctuated by small towns, the occasional ranch and countless clumps of pampas grass (cortaderas). Part arid, part wetland, the Pampas are grazed by millions of cattle and planted with soya and wheat fields of incomprehensible size. The Pampas are also where you’ll glimpse traditional gaucho culture, most famously in the charming pueblo of San Antonio de Areco. Here, too, are some of the classiest estancias, offering a combination of hedonistic luxury and horseback adventures. On the Atlantic Coast a string of fun beach resorts includes long-standing favourite Mar del Plata.
Córdoba and the Central Sierras
As you head further west, the Central Sierras loom: the mild climate, clear brooks and sylvan idylls of these ancient highlands have attracted holiday-makers since the late nineteenth century are some of the oldest resorts on the continent. Córdoba makes an excellent base for exploring the region, including sights such as the pre-Colombian Cerro Colorado and the Quebrado Condorito National Park.
Mendoza and El Cuyo
Keep going west and you’ll get to the Cuyo and some of the best places to go in Argentina, including the regional capital of Mendoza, also the country’s wine capital. The Mendoza region is home to numerous world-class vineyards specializing in Argentina’s signature grape, malbec (further north lie the torrontés and tannat producers of Cafayate). From here, the scenic Alta Montaña route climbs steeply to the Chilean border, passing Cerro Aconcagua, now well established as a fantasy challenge for mountaineers worldwide. Just south, Las Leñas is a ski-and-snowboard resort where celebrities show off their winter wear, while the nearby black-and-red lava wastes of La Payunia, one of the country’s hidden jewels, are all but overlooked. Likewise, San Juan and La Rioja provinces are relatively uncharted territories, but their marvellous hill-and-dale landscapes reward exploration, along with their underrated wineries. The star attractions are a brace of parks: Parque Nacional Talampaya, with its giant red cliffs, and the nearby Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, usually known as the Valle de la Luna on account of its intriguing moonscapes.
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Argentina cherishes the lion’s share of the wild, sparsely populated expanses of Patagonia (the rest belongs to Chile) and possesses the most populous half of the remote archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. These are lands of seemingly endless arid steppe hemmed in for the most part by the southern leg of the Andes, a row of majestic volcanoes and craggy peaks interspersed by deep glacial lakes. An almost unbroken series of national parks running along these Patagonian and Fuegian cordilleras makes for some of the best trekking anywhere on the planet. You should certainly include the savage granite peaks of the Fitz Roy massif in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in your travel itinerary, but consider also the less frequently visited araucaria (monkey puzzle) forests of Parque Nacional Lanín or the peerless trail network of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. On the Atlantic side of Patagonia, Península Valdés is a must-see for its world-class marine fauna, including southern right whales, elephant seals and orcas. If you have a historical bent, you may like to trace the region’s associations with Darwin and his captain Fitz Roy in the choppy Beagle Channel off Ushuaia, or track down the legacy of Butch Cassidy, who lived near Cholila, or of the Welsh settlers whose influence can still be felt in communities like Gaiman and Trevelin, where home-baked cakes can be enjoyed in traditional Welsh tearooms.