Massive on a grand scale, Argentina is the planet’s eighth largest country so you can forget seeing everything or getting around all of it in one visit or even several. Within its miles and miles of highly varied terrain can be found South America’s highest point – Cerro Aconcagua, 22,834 ft/6,960 metres – and its lowest – the Laguna del Carbon, 344 ft/105m below sea level.
Argentina is famous for its pampas-grazing cattle which produce some of the finest beef known to man but it is also home to cosmopolitan cities, the mighty Andes Mountains, cacti-sprinkled deserts, remote lakes, vast tracts of forest, mighty glaciers, salt flats, the roaring Iguaza Falls it shares with Brazil and so much more; the wildlife which lives among this natural wonderland is also a huge draw for the visitor and includes such things as pastel-coloured flamingos and penguins in vast colonies.
Natural beauty aside, Argentina is perhaps most famous for the tango – a dance it has exported to the rest of the world with great success but still jealously guards as its own. If you’ve ever wanted to learn the steps of this fiery-hot passionate dance now is the time.
Argentina is one of South America’s more affluent and modern nations so as you wander its highways, byways and totally off-the-beaten-path trails you are likely to encounter any number of variations, degrees and mixes on a European, Western and Latin theme.
As such a vast country its highlights number in the hundreds if not thousands and could keep you going for years. Here are just 10 of the many things you can do while travelling in Argentina, with a selection of both the most popular and the more unusual mixed in.
1. El Ateneo Grand Splendid – The planet’s loveliest book store – Buenos Aires
Back in 1919 the palatial Grand Splendid was an opulent arts theatre where some truly tango greats performed. In 1929 it became a cinema and the first in Buenos Aires to have pictures with sound. Around the end of the 20th century it looked possible that the beautiful building would be demolished. However, bookshop chain Grupo Ilhsa stepped up to the plate and converted the erstwhile theatre and cinema into what is quite possibly the world’s most elegant and lovely bookshop.
The books for sale here are perhaps nothing out of the ordinary but the surroundings most certainly are. Still intact are the soaring ceilings complete with ornate frescoes, theatre boxes where the rich and powerful once reclined, graceful balconies and galleries, all kinds of gildings and trimmings and even that most iconic symbol of performing glories – the draped red plush stage curtains – sweeping across the original stage.
Everything here is on a grand scale and the store itself ranks as one of the largest book shops in all of South America. Even if you don’t want to buy a book you have to take a peek inside this building and should the urge to linger and soak up the vibes of grandeur and tango history which suffuse all here hit you, no problem. Grab a coffee and enjoy the live piano performances which serenade the store’s shoppers as they browse the shelves.
2. Perito Moreno Glacier – A still advancing, iceberg nursery – Los Glaciares National Park
There are a few visit-able glaciers in the world but much rarer are those which are not in stasis or retreat. The 19 mile/30.5 km long Perito Moreno Glacier is an exception, advancing up to 6.5 ft/2 metres every 24 hours and giving birth to giant icebergs many times a day.
A series of platforms and board-walks around Lago Argentino – part of a UNESCO World Heritage listed area – allow visitors to get as close to the action as safely possible to watch the miraculous and awe-inspiring spectacle of icebergs ‘calving’ from the glacier (calving is iceberg speak for breaking off) and crashing into the lake. Iceberg creation aside, the whole has a big wow-factor – a towering mass of the glacier itself, in shades of dazzling white and shimmering ice-blue, which in total covers around 121 square miles/313 square km; the whole is wrapped up in a lovely mountain- and forest-surrounded panorama. Should you fancy it, there is also the chance to hop on board a boat to get even closer to the ice face or sign up for a trekking tour which allows you to actually set foot on the glacier.
3. Cementerio de la Recoleta – An atmospheric tribute to the dead – Buenos Aires
Wandering around what is essentially a graveyard might not have been quite what you envisaged doing when you set out to travel the world but the Cementerio de la Recoleta is not just any graveyard; this is a real not-to-be-missed Argentinean sight.
Ranking as the city’s number one tourist attraction, this vast city-within-a-city is a labyrinth of walkways among crypts – both ancient and modern – carved from marble, granite and stone which rise on either side of you at times to way overhead. The whole is a mono-chromed mini-world of whites and greys, guarded over by angels beyond count and adorned with various other statues and figures. The older tombs are moss covered and cracked, sprouting both plants and trees where nature attempts to re-stake its claim. The air, atmosphere and emotions such a place evokes are highly memorable and the entire thing is suffused with a very different kind of beauty to that more usually experienced or sought after when travelling.
4. The Wanda Mines – A window into the world of mining gems – Wanda, Puerto Iguazu
It’s not every day you get to step inside an actual working mine and there is something extra thrilling and all Tomb Raider-ish about doing so knowing that the mine is full of sparkling gems. Sporting hard hat (which just adds to the whole aren’t-I-being-intrepid feel) you will be taken to see the glittering floors and walls of the mine inside a series of caves where the gems are still encased in the rock and in their raw state before being mined. You will also learn about the mining processes used to ensure this valuable bounty, which includes amethyst and quartz, is removed as whole and perfect as possible and then you get to watch as it actually happens.
The end of the tour (naturally) brings you into the big gem shop on site but the whole is refreshingly free of hard sell or hassle. And if you do happen to be a crystal collector or you’d like a souvenir of your experience the prices are actually very reasonable.
5. Iguaza Falls – Nature at full force at a vast site, which spans both Argentina & Brazil – Misiones Province
For much of its latter journey, the Iguaza River/Rio Iguaza winds its way slowly and quietly through the jungles of both Argentina and Brazil. However, there is a point where it encounters a giant cliff and this is where the mild and hushed becomes a roaring, plunging, cascading wall of water known as Iguazu Falls.
This awe-inspiring spectacle can be viewed from either the Argentinean or Brazilian side and many will tell you that this particular waterfall is more wonderful than either Niagara or Victoria Falls. Iguaza certainly has a more splendid natural jungle setting than Niagara’s concrete and casino enclosed environment. Debates on comparative beauty aside, Iguaza Falls – in reality a series of 275 separate falls – is without doubt jaw-droppingly magnificent.
From a senses point of view – as you stroll the boardwalks or stand at the viewing platforms – your body will get soaked from the spray and your ears will be well and truly pounded by the sound of thousands and thousands of gallons of water plunging 269 ft/82 metres down a cliff.
6. Campo del Cielo Meteorite Field – A showcase of space’s natural debris – Chaco Province
Campo del Cielo – or Field of the Sky – covers many kilometres and is strewn about with at least 26 craters which mark the spots where meteorites fell to Earth thousands of years ago. You can wander around this the site and see some of the meteorites which have been unearthed from the spots they buried themselves into from the sheer force of their impact.
Records relating to the Campo del Cielo go back to the 16th century when a local governor sent out his military men to hunt down some of the iron masses which the natives of the area claimed fell from the sky. The expedition were successful in finding a great lump of metal sticking out of the earth and promptly dug it up and brought it to their boss who recorded its history in papers which were consigned later to the archives and forgotten.
In 1969, the Field of the Sky gave up one of its most famous treasures – a meteorite known as El Chaco weighing in at a whopping 37 tons making it the second heaviest meteorite ever known. It was discovered with a metal detector, laying several metres below the surface.
Dating of some of the samples has been possible by analysing the charred wood which the meteorites rest on and the general theory is that around 4500 years ago a behemoth rock of around 600 tons blew apart in space and then showered the region with its debris. In September 2016 another 30 ton chunk of this meteorite was discovered around the same region by a team of meteorite hunters from the Astronomy Association of the Chaco.
7. Parque el Desafio – One man’s junk is another man’s treasure – Gaiman
Pint-sized Gaiman – along with Rawson, Puerto Madryn and Trelew – is where 165 Welsh immigrants landed in 1865. The settlements they established here are – even to this day – quintessentially Welsh with around one third of the current day population claiming Welsh descent. People visit this Welsh flag-flying town to explore the historic sites, old chapels and refresh themselves with a cuppa from one of the many Welsh tea-houses serving traditional pots of tea and cakes.
Gaiman has another claim to fame though – a park built entirely of recycled rubbish and reclaimed objects; in its entirety the park is a veritable wonderland of unusual beauty. Parque el Desafio is the brainchild of just one man – Joaquin Alonso – and supplying a much-loved attraction for visitors from all over the world was not really his intention in the beginning – he just wanted to make his grandchildren smile.
Opened to the general public in 1984, the park contains all kinds of the weird, wonderful and unexpected. There are such things as a building made of glass while an old rusting but wildly decorated car chassis rubs shoulders with an enormous blue whale. As you wander the maze of pathways you will also find such delights as a sculpture of the Taj Mahal or a particular themed installation such as that dedicated to the war over the Falklands.
At every turn you will find a plaque made from scrap metal, a paint tin lid or wood on which can be found a quote – taken from a range of sources which include Greek philosophers and pop culture. This place is meant to be fun and quirks of humour are both evident and partly hidden throughout but it is also supposed to make the visitor reflective and contemplative regarding the world we live in.
A collection of the quotes has been compiled by surviving members of the family which can be taken away as a memory of your unforgettable visit here.
8. The Fitz Roy Range – Hiking & Craft Beers – El Chalten
Argentina has plenty of top-notch trekking up for grabs but the rugged wilderness of the Fitz Roy Range is widely considered by those in the know to be the absolute hub for all those intent on experiencing the best of the country’s hikes.
World-class mountaineers come here for some full-on challenges but where hiking is concerned the accessible and varied trails are achievable for all of moderate fitness. You don’t have to put too much effort into getting views of the wonderful kind either with some stunners just a few hours of foot-slog out of town. Once you have got out into the fresh air and made some effort to be active you can reward yourself (guilt-free) with a beer at the cute micro brewery in town on your return
9. Bosque Petrificado de José de Ormachea – Walk the fossilised forest where dinosaurs once roamed – Sarmiento
The South American countries between them tend to do moonscape-like places rather well and here is another, this time courtesy of Argentina. However, this highly isolated and totally remote-feeling example in the Sarmiento Department has a whole extra bonus – there is a 65 million year old petrified forest here. Both destroyed and preserved from their original wooden and live state by a massive volcanic eruption, the trees here are actually made of stone but at times that is hard to believe until you touch them. Great trunks, branches and logs with intricate grain detail are strewn around this atmospheric place which has plenty of signage to explain what you are looking at. Visit later in the day to get the full effect of the sinking sun’s light on the rocks.
10. Drink ‘Mate’ with your New Argentinean Buddies
It is impossible – and I repeat.. impossible – to come to Argentina and not experience the mate ritual. You are going to see it everywhere. Mate is a traditional herbal tea, somewhat bitter to the unaccustomed palate, which has a blend of caffeine (in low amounts), vitamins, minerals and who knows what else which combine to act as a stimulant.
Every social setting – formal, informal, big, small and with family or friends – seems to involve the ritual of mate drinking. It is traditionally prepared in a hollowed out gourd, although these days it can be in a vessel of any kind, and is drunk through a metal straw. Mate is made for sharing and gets passed around among all those you are with.
There are 101 unwritten rules and etiquette observances surrounding the mate ritual so you might like to do a little homework to make sure you don’t make any social gaffs. Don’t worry though – the whole nature of mate drinking is very informal and Argentineans will make allowances for foreigners and guide you through the process if you are unsure.