Argentina is a highly exciting destination for outdoors enthusiasts: world-class fly-fishing, horseriding, trekking and rock-climbing opportunities abound, as do options for whitewater rafting, skiing, ice climbing and even – for those with sufficient stamina and preparation – expeditions onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap.
Argentina’s network of national and provincial parks offers wonderful opportunities for nature tourism across this country’s range of ecosystems. Highlights for wildlife viewing include the Península Valdés, a superb destination for marine wildlife and fauna of the Patagonian steppe, the humid swamplands of Esteros de Iberá, and the subtropical jungles of Iguazú.
For an overview of the national park system, visit the National Park Headquarters in Buenos Aires at Santa Fe 690 (Mon–Fri 10am–5pm; t011 4311 0303, w). There is an underfunded and not terribly helpful information office on the ground floor that may be able to provide some introductory leaflets, and they can give you tips if you’re intending to visit some of the more isolated places like Baritú, Perito Moreno, San Guillermo and Santiago del Estero’s Copo, which have limited infrastructure and require some prior planning. A wider range of free material is available at each individual park, but these are of variable quality – many only have a basic map and a brief park description. Each national park has its own intendencia, or park administration, although these are often in the principal access town, not within the park itself. An information office or visitors’ centre is often attached. Argentina’s guardaparques, or national park rangers, are some of the most professional on the continent: generally friendly, they are well trained and dedicated to jobs that are demanding and often extremely isolated. All have a good grounding in the wildlife of the region and are happy to share their knowledge, although don’t expect them all to be professional naturalists – some are, but ranger duties often involve more contact with the general public than with the wildlife.
A good port of call in the capital for nature enthusiasts is the Fundación Vida Silvestre, located at Defensa 251, 6th floor, Buenos Aires (Mon–Fri 10am–1pm & 2–6pm; t011 4343 4086, w), a committed and highly professional environmental organization, and an associate of the WWF. Visit its shop for back issues of its beautiful magazine (in Spanish) and for books and leaflets on wildlife and ecological issues, as well as for information on its nature reserves.
Argentina has an incredible diversity of birdlife – you can see some ten percent of all the world’s bird species here. Birdwatchers should visit the headquarters of the country’s well-respected birding organization, Aves Argentinas, at Matheu 1246, Buenos Aires (nearest subte station is Pichincha on Linea E; Mon–Fri 10.30am–1.30pm & 2.30–8.30pm; t011 4943 7216, w). It has an excellent library and a shop, and organizes regular outings and birding safaris.
Argentina offers some truly marvellous trekking, and it is still possible to find areas where you can trek for days without seeing a soul. Trail quality varies considerably, and many are difficult to follow, so always get hold of the best map available and ask for information as you go; the Club Andino in Bariloche (see Park information) can offer excellent advice, as well as sell you maps. Most of the best treks are in the national parks – especially the ones in Patagonia – but you can often find lesser-known but equally superb options in the lands bordering them. Most people head for the savage granite spires of the Fitz Roy region around El Chaltén, an area whose fame has spread so rapidly over the last ten years that it now holds a similar status to Chile’s renowned Torres del Paine. Tourist pressures are starting to tell, however, at least in the high season (late Dec to Feb), when campsites are packed. The other principal trekking destination is the mountainous area of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, south of Bariloche. This area has the best infrastructure, with a network of generally well-marked trails and mountain refuges. In the north of the country, some of the best trekking is in Jujuy Province, especially in Calilegua, where the habitat ranges from subtropical to bald mountain landscape.
Camping is possible in many national parks, and sites are graded according to three categories: camping libre sites, which are free but have no or very few services (perhaps a latrine and sometimes a shower block); camping agreste sites, which are run as concessions and usually provide hot water, showers, toilets, places for lighting a campfire and some sort of small shop; and camping organizado sites, which have more services, including electricity and often some sort of restaurant.
You should always be well prepared for your trips, even for half-day hikes. Good-quality, water- and windproof clothing is vital: temperatures plummet at night and often with little warning during the day. Keep spare dry layers of clothing and socks in a plastic bag in your pack. Boots should provide firm ankle support and have the toughest soles possible (Vibram soles are recommended). Gore-Tex boots are only waterproof to a degree: they will not stay dry when you have to cross swampland. A balaclava is sometimes more useful than a woollen hat. Make sure that your tent is properly waterproofed and that it can cope with high winds (especially for Patagonia). You’ll need a minimum of a three-season sleeping bag, to be used in conjunction with a solid or semi-inflatable foam mattress (essential, as the ground will otherwise suck out all your body heat). Also bring high-factor sunblock and lipsalve, plus good sunglasses and headgear.
Park authorities often require you to carry a stove for cooking. The Camping Gaz models that run on butane cylinders (refills are fairly widely available in ferretería hardware shops) are not so useful in exposed areas, where you’re better off with a high-pressure petrol stove such as an MSR, although these are liable to clog with impurities in the fuel, so filter it first. Telescopic hiking poles save your knees from a lot of strain and are useful for balance. Miner-style head torches are preferable to regular hand-held ones, and gaffer tape makes an excellent all-purpose emergency repair tool. Carry a first-aid kit and a compass, and know how to use both. And always carry plenty of water – aim to have at least two litres on you at all times. Pump-action water filters can be very handy, as you can thus avoid the hassle of having to boil suspect water.
Note also that, in the national parks, especially on the less-travelled and overnight routes, you should inform the park ranger (guardaparque) of your plans, not forgetting to report your safe arrival at your destination – the ranger will send a search party out for you if you do not arrive. You’d be advised to buy all your camping equipment before you leave home: quality gear is relatively expensive in Argentina, and there are few places that rent decent equipment, even in some of the key trekking areas.
For climbers, the Andes offer incredible variety. You do not always have to be a technical expert, but you should always take preparations seriously. You can often arrange a climb close to the date – though it’s best to bring as much high-quality gear with you as you can. The climbing season is fairly short – November to March in some places, though December to February is the best time. The best-known challenge is South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua (6962m), accessed from the city of Mendoza. Not considered the most technical challenge, this peak nevertheless merits top-level expedition status, as the altitude and storms claim several victims a year. Only slightly less lofty are nearby Tupungato (6750m), just to the south; Mercedario (6770m), just to the north; Cerro Bonete (6872m) and Pissis (6793m) on the provincial border between La Rioja and Catamarca; and Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world (6885m), a little further north into Catamarca. The last three can be climbed from Fiambalá, but Ojos is most normally climbed from the Chilean side of the border. The most famous volcano to climb is the elegant cone of Lanín (3776m), which can be ascended in two days via the relatively straightforward northeastern route. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, near Bariloche, offers the Cerro Catedral massif and Cerro Tronador (3554m). Southern Patagonia is also a highly prized climbing destination. One testing summit is San Lorenzo (3706m), which, from the Argentine side, can best be approached along the valley of the Río Oro, although the summit itself is usually climbed from across the border in Chile. Further south are the inspirational granite spires of the Fitz Roy massif and Cerro Torre, which have few equals on the planet in terms of technical difficulty and scenic grandeur.
On all of these climbs, but especially those over 4000m, make sure to acclimatize thoroughly, and be fully aware of the dangers of puna, or altitude sickness.
As a destination for fly-fishing (pesca con mosca), Argentina is unparallelled, with Patagonia drawing in professionals from around the globe. Trout, introduced in the early twentieth century, is the sport’s mainstay, but there is also fishing for landlocked and even Pacific salmon. The most famous places to go are those where the world’s largest sea-running brown trout (trucha marrón) are found: principally the Río Grande and other rivers of eastern and central Tierra del Fuego, and the Río Gallegos on the mainland. The reaches of the Río Santa Cruz near Comandante Luís Piedra Buena have some impressive specimens of steelhead trout (sea-running rainbows, or trucha arco iris), and the area around Río Pico is famous for its brook trout. The Patagonian Lake District – around Junín de los Andes, San Martín de los Andes, Bariloche and Esquel – is the country’s most popular trout-fishing destination, offering superb angling in delightful scenery.
The trout-fishing season runs from mid-November to Easter. Regulations change slightly from year to year, but permits are valid countrywide. They can be purchased at national park offices, some guardaparque posts, tourist offices and at fishing equipment shops, which are fairly plentiful – especially in places like the north Patagonian Lake District. With your permit, you are issued a booklet detailing the regulations of the type of fishing allowed in each river and lake in the region, the restrictions on catch-and-release and the number of specimens you are allowed to take for eating. Argentine law states that permit holders are allowed to fish any waters they can reach without crossing private land. You are, in theory at least, allowed to walk along the bank as far as you like from any public road, although in practice you may find that owners of some of the more prestigious beats try to obstruct you from doing this.
For more information on fly-fishing in Argentina, contact the Asociación Argentina de Pesca con Mosca, Lerma 452, Buenos Aires (t011 4773 0821, w).
Argentina’s ski resorts are not on the same scale as those of Europe or North America and attract mainly domestic and Latin American tourists (from Chile and Brazil), as well as a smattering of foreigners who are looking to ski during the northern summer. However, infrastructure is constantly being upgraded and it’s easy to rent gear. The main skiing season is July and August, although in some resorts it is possible to ski from late May to early October. Snow conditions vary from year to year, but you can often find excellent powder.
The most prestigious resort for downhill skiing is modern Las Leñas, which also offers the most challenging skiing and once hosted World Cup races. Following this are Chapelco, near San Martín de los Andes, where you also have extensive cross-country options, and the Bariloche resorts of Cerro Catedral and Cerro Otto, which are the longest-running in the country, with wonderful panoramas of the Nahuel Huapi region, albeit with rather too many people. Ushuaia is an up-and-coming resort, with some fantastic cross-country possibilities and expanding – if still relatively limited – downhill facilities; the resort’s right by the scenic town, so it’s a good choice if you want to combine skiing with sightseeing. Bariloche and Las Leñas are the best destinations for those interested in après-ski.
Though it does not have the same range of extreme options as neighbouring Chile, Argentina nevertheless has some beautiful whitewater rafting possibilities, ranging from grades II to V. Many of these are offered as day-trips, and include journeys through enchanting monkey-puzzle-tree scenery on the generally sedate Río Aluminé; along the turbulent and often silty Río Mendoza (see Tour operators); through deep canyons carved by the Río Juramento in Salta; on the Río Manso in the Alpine-like country south of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi; and along the similar but less-visited Río Corcovado, south of Esquel. Esquel can also be used as a base for rafting on Chile’s fabulous, world-famous Río Futaleufú, a turquoise river that flows through temperate rainforest and tests rafters with rapids of grade V. You do not need previous rafting experience to enjoy these, but you should obviously be able to swim. Pay heed to operators’ safety instructions, and ensure your safety gear (especially helmets and life-jackets) fits well.