Sunshine and red wine; tenderloin steaks and glacial lakes; gauchos, ice flows, tango shows; iconic football; a thundering waterfall; a night-long bar-crawl – all these and more are reasons your clients want to go to Argentina. Just be prepared to feel a stab of jealousy as you wave them off on their trip.
Have you ever wondered what envy sounds like? Try telling someone that you’re going on holiday to Argentina. That ‘oooooh’ – rather like the sound you hear immediately after a decent-size firework detonates – that’s the noise of the green-eyed monster.
When I returned to the UK bursting with tales of riding through the pampas with a gaucho and sipping malbec in the shadow of the Andes, every single person I tried to tell gave me flinty stares of undiluted jealousy. Everyone was crying out to go.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Argentina, but just one is key to its universal appeal. Like one of its graceful tango dancers, it pulls off a clever balancing act. Argentina showcases its many alluring qualities, but never topples over into extremity. It is distant, exotic and different – but not to a level that’s intimidating (yes, North Korea, I’m looking at you).
There are gorgeous properties where you can kick back and relax, but this isn’t all that’s on offer (pay attention, the Maldives). Sights and activities are varied and wide-ranging, rather than focusing on just one theme (stop giving me that frosty look, Antarctica). Like a Jessica Ennis of vacations,
Argentina excels across a wide range of holiday disciplines. Urban fun, natural wonders, cultural variety, eventful history, a good-time lifestyle – choreographing a perfect trip is simply a matter of combining some of these steps.
For great landscapes, schedule in glacial Patagonia, the peaks of the Argentine Lake District, the roar of Iguaçu Falls, or the craggy moonscapes of Salta.
Salta is a wine-growing region too, so time there or in Mendoza will make memories worth bottling. For wildlife, add a stop in the Ibera wetlands, Peninsula Valdes or Tierra del Fuego. There’s Andean culture in Salta, gaucho culture in Cordoba or in the Pampas surrounding Buenos Aires, and in the capital itself, culture from the high – opera and art – right down to football and street tango. It’s all there, ready to be picked and mixed. The vast distances between each area will require domestic flights, but Aerolineas Argentinas’ regular, reliable services make this simple stuff.
Even Buenos Aires – the only borderline compulsory stop on any Argentine itinerary – can easily be cut and stitched into a shape that suits your client. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct character, serving up a selection box of delights.
You don’t need to go far from the city to find a contrast. Just an hour’s drive from the capital’s vast urban sprawl, clients can find themselves in the middle of the Pampas, where there’s nothing but the odd tree and herds of cattle between you and the horizon. A stay at an estancia here or in Cordoba is a quintessentially Argentine experience not to be missed. You can ride with the ‘gaucho’ cowboys, pick up the basics of polo, or simply swim, sunbathe and eat vast quantities of grilled meat.
Mendoza deftly caters to my three great loves – landscapes, lazing and wine. Countless rows of vines – green or gold, depending on the season – extend as far as the eye can see, backed by the purple-hued, snow-capped peaks of the Andes. Private wine tours are easy to organise, but wine-tasting is only the half of it. Some vineyards – we chose O Fournier – have gourmet restaurants serving tasting menus with accompanying wine flights.
Many, like the Clos de los Siete group, are not only temples to viniculture, but also to architecture, with the day-to-day apparatus of wine-making hidden within extraordinary works of modern design.
Wine tours are a must, but pick the right accommodation, and clients will want to spend some time simply sitting and sipping. In the peaceful Uco Valley, Casa Antucura is an eight-room boutique that feels more like a holiday home with staff than a formal hotel (review, page 65). Rooms open on to a landing that forms a 360-degree library – pick a book and head to the lounge-cum-bar-cum-dining area, where tables and sofas spill outside on to the terrace, from which you can check whether there are loungers free around the pool at the bottom of the garden (there always are).
Channelling the Mendozan modern design ethic is the Swiss-owned Entre Cielos, a hotel that combines Argentine charm with sleek efficiency and serves both perfect steak and to-die-for chocolate cake. Brushed concrete walls are set off with sumptuous soft furnishings in the main hotel’s 15 rooms, but the pick of the bunch is the new vineyard loft, a cute cabin on stilts, hidden among the grapes (review, page 65).
Buenos Aires and Mendoza both showcase Argentina at its most European – its Spanish, Italian and French influences to the fore. Head north towards the Bolivian border and you’ll find a different land, where the Andes make their presence felt, both physically and culturally. The heritage is Inca, rather than immigrant.
The museum in Salta, (where we stayed at the central, comfortable Solar de la Plaza), is home to the 500-year-old Children Given to the Mountain – three spectacularly preserved Inca mummies, unearthed from the summit of a volcano in 1999. In this region, rocks jut out of the earth at crazed angles and in a veritable paint catalogue of hues – the Hill of Seven Colours at Purmamarca glows in vivid shades of orange, red, pink, purple and, strangest of all, green. Even the cuisine is different here – we’re in the land of empanadas and rabbit stew, rather than steak and dulce de leche.
The area around Salta is a dream to self-drive – something relatively rare in a land the scale of Argentina. The famous Route 33 from Salta to Cachi switchbacks up through the Cuesta Del Obispo, an almost alpine environment of gargantuan green peaks. At the top, it’s all change again – along the eight-mile ruler-straight Tin Tin Line that crosses Los Cardones National Park, a place of stark, dry beauty and thousands of the cacti so signature to northwest Argentina.
Overnight at La Merced del Alto, a hotel with one of the most stunning settings in Argentina, slap bang in the middle of the sprawling Calchaquí Valley. Built in a simple, white-washed style that’s almost monastic, it’s furnished with bright, Andean textiles.
Temptations abound in Argentina. It’s one of the reasons we all want to go. Living like an Argentine is all about choosing the larger steak, having that extra glass of wine, staying out for just one more hour. However, there’s one temptation that you must resist. With so much to see, the danger of packing too much into an itinerary is ever-present.
However, hitting the right pace is imperative. To make the most of this beautiful country, sometimes you need to slow right down. Create space for an hour’s pause in Cafayate so clients can sample the should-be-wrong-but-it’s-so-right wine-flavoured ice cream. Take time out of chaotic Buenos Aires in the haven of peace, shade and sushi that is the Japanese Gardens. Leave an evening or two to serendipity.
A friendly invitation to an asado led us to a raucous evening around the barbecue, chatting with new-found friends until the early hours, overwhelmed by the Argentines’ kindness and generosity – and the size of their steaks.
Take another tip from those tango dancers. There’s a rhythm that works, and it goes quick, quick, slow.
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TAILOR-MAKE BUENOS AIRES
Accommodation ranges from mainstream to cutting-edge
If the steak-and-tango lifestyle appeals, stay in Palermo, where the day is for shopping and cafe culture, and the night for dining, drinking and dancing. Design-led hotels range from the well-established Legado Mitico to newer players such as Mine Hotel.
If clients are more cutting-edge, try the Philippe Starck-designed Faena Hotel and Universe in Puerto Madero for left-field design set away from the madding crowd, or the Mansion Vitraux in more down-and-dirty San Telmo. This gritty, bohemian district is up-and-coming. There are street markets and antique shops, and it’s next door to the port-suburb of La Boca, which is too gritty for comfort at night, but where tourists flock during the day to see the colourful houses, tango dancers and the iconic Bombonera stadium.
Older clients will love Recoleta. It’s home to the cemetery where Eva Perón is laid, and numerous examples of belle epoque architecture. To dip in and out of different neighbourhoods, book something slap-bang in the middle of Microcentro – the classic Panamericano is a good choice.
When Brits want to make each other jealous, we go to Argentina. When Argentines want to make each other jealous, they go to Uruguay – specifically Jose Ignacio.
A six-street grid of beachside loveliness, Jose Ignacio is the Hamptons of Buenos Aires. Somehow, it has retained its laid-back, fishing-village feel, despite hosting millionaires, celebrities and supermodels during the December to March high season.
Clients who want to rub shoulders with the crème de la crème should stay in one of the two exquisite Vik properties. Estancia Vik sits outside the town, and is a white-walled ranch set in a 4,000-acre estate complete with a stable and polo fields. Playa Vik looks as if an alien space-ship predominantly fashioned from glass has set itself down on Jose Ignacio’s seashore and set up as a boutique hotel. Both are owned by the same modern art-loving, half-Uruguayan, half-Norwegian billionaire, and are undoubtedly among the most luxurious, most eccentric places I’ve ever stayed.
At the Estancia, each of the 12 rooms features the work of a different Uruguayan artist, an entire hut is dedicated to the art of barbecue and there’s a small chapel. At the Playa, the art and design comes from big-hitting internationals, including bespoke Zaha Hadid furniture. The pool cantilevers out above the beach and the firepit is Jose Ignacio’s sundowner location-of-choice.
Journey Latin America offers Highlights of Argentina, a 15-day small group escorted tour, visiting Buenos Aires, Iguaçu Falls, Salta, Bariloche and El Calafate, from £4,198, including UK flights and departing January 19.
Tango, gauchos and wine
Cox & Kings offers an 11-day package with stays in Buenos Aires, a ranch in Cordoba and Mendoza, where a wine tour is included, from £3,495 including flights, private transfers and breakfast.
Rainbow Tours offers a 13-night trip visiting Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Iguaçu and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro from £2,584. Or, 13 nights visiting Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Uruguay’s Colonia and Jose Ignacio (£3,297). Flights included.
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