Studded with outstanding natural wonders and endowed with one of the world’s hot-list cities, Argentina is a vast and varied land. Tapering from the Tropic of Capricorn towards the tip of Antarctica it encompasses a staggering diversity of terrains, from the lush wetlands of the Litoral and the bone-dry Andean plateaux of the Northwest to the end-of-the-world archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Its most emblematic landscapes are the verdant flatlands of the Pampas and the dramatic steppe of Patagonia, whose very name evokes windswept plains inhabited by hardy pioneers.
At first glance, Argentina may seem less “exotic” than the rest of South America and its inhabitants will readily, and rightly, tell you how powerful an influence Europe has been on their nation. It has been quipped that Argentina is the most American of all European countries and the most European of all American countries, but it actually has a very special character all of its own, distilled into the national ideal of Argentinidad, characterized by proud, defiant passion. While there is a lot of truth in the clichés – Argentine society really is dominated by football, politics and living life in the fast lane (literally, when it comes to driving) – not everyone dances the tango, or is obsessed with Evita or gallops around on a horse. Wherever you go, though, you’re bound to be wowed by Argentines’ zeal for so many aspects of their own culture and curiosity about the outside world.
One of Argentina’s top attractions is the leviathan metropolis of Buenos Aires, the most fascinating of all South American capitals. It’s a riveting place just to wander about, people-watching, shopping or simply soaking up the unique atmosphere. Its many barrios (neighbourhoods) are startlingly different – some are decadently old-fashioned, others daringly modern – but all of them ooze character. The other main cities worth visiting are colonial Salta in the Northwest, beguiling Rosario – the birthplace of Che Guevara – and Ushuaia, which, in addition to being the world’s most southerly city, enjoys a fabulous waterfront setting on the Beagle Channel.
But the country’s real trump cards outside the capital are the sheer size of the land and the diverse wildlife inhabiting it. In theory, by hopping on a plane or two you could spot howler monkeys and toucans in northern jungles in the morning, then watch the antics of penguins tobogganing into the icy South Atlantic in the afternoon. Argentina hosts hundreds of bird species – including the Andean condor and three varieties of flamingo – plus pumas, armadillos, llamas, foxes and tapirs roaming the country’s forests and mountainsides and the dizzying heights of the altiplano, or puna. Lush tea plantations and parched salt-flats, palm groves and icebergs, plus the world’s mightiest waterfalls, are just some of the scenes that will catch you unawares if you were expecting Argentina to be one big cattle ranch. Dozens of these biosystems are protected by an extensive network of national and provincial parks and reserves.
For getting around and seeing these marvels, you can generally rely on a well-developed infrastructure inherited from decades of domestic tourism. Thanks in part to an increasing number of boutique hotels, the range and quality of accommodation has improved no end in the last decade. Among the best lodgings are the beautiful ranches known as estancias – or fincas in the north – that function as luxury resorts. In most places, you’ll be able to rely on the services of top-notch tour operators, who will not only show you the sights but also fix you up with a staggering range of outdoor adventures: horseriding, trekking, whitewater rafting, kayaking, skiing and hang-gliding, along with more relaxing pursuits such as wine tasting, birdwatching or photography safaris. Argentina offers such a hallucinating variety it’s all but impossible to take in on one trip – don’t be surprised if you find yourself longing to return to explore the bits you didn’t get to see the first time around.
Top image © kavram/Shutterstock