The sights and sounds of South America
Date Posted: 02/08/2011
Gauchos riding the plains, colonial charm, spectacular scenery and the sizzling tango make Argentina an unforgettable destination.
Comprising almost the entire southern half of South America, Argentina’s attractions are both far-reaching and diverse. From the penguin filled shores and glaciers of coastal Patagonia to the vast open stretches of the pampas, tropical north and cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, it offers a vast spectacle of sights and experiences.
Earlier this year British Airways launched the first direct route from London to Buenos Aires, the country’s main gateway, and other airlines offer flights to the Argentine capital with a touchdown on the way. Once you are there, Argentina offers groups excellent value for money. In the last cost of living survey by Mercer Consulting it was ranked 161st amongst 214 cities – the lower the number the more affordable the city - so meals out and shopping offer plenty for your peso.
The ideal introduction to Argentina, a stay in Buenos Aires can easily fill an entire itinerary or be combined with a coach tour or flights to some of the country’s other main tourist attractions.
The so-called ‘Queen of the River Plate’, it is one of the largest cities in the world. Built by Europeans, Buenos Aires is unlike any other Latin American city and has also been described as the Paris of South America. A huge metropolis that’s home to more than 11 million people, the elegant city has many distinct and colourful neighbourhoods, or barrios.
Plaza De Mayo, the main square, has always been the political centre of the city and is among the highlights on a city coach or walking tour. Here your group can take photos of the Casa Rosada, or pink house, where the president has his offices and the balcony where the beloved former first lady Eva Peron gave her famous speeches. The Metropolitan Cathedral, with its classical facade and mix of architectural styles, is also on the square and well worth visiting.
When it’s time for a break enjoy a strong Argentinian coffee and croissant, plus a spot of people watching, in one of the ornate marble-floored cafes. The oldest is Cafe Tortoni, in Avenida de Mayo, which opened in 1858.
By night Buenos Aires is a city that never sleeps and many locals are night owls. For visiting groups an evening at one of the many tango and dinner shows provides an exciting introduction to this sensuous dance. One of the best is the Piazolla Tango show inside an opulent theatre, which includes a three-course dinner followed by tango dancers, singers and musicians.
The grassy and fertile plains extending westwards from Buenos Aires to the Andes are easily accessible on a day trip from the capital. In the 19th century, European landowners established huge estates, or estancias, and introduced herds of cattle and horses which were rounded up by gouchos, celebrated and notorious in equal measure for their horsemanship, hardiness and lawlessness.
These days many estancias have opened their gates to visitors, enabling them to experience country life on a genuine working ranch. A typical day trip from Buenos Aires will take your group through the scenic pampas countryside to an estancia for a barbecue, traditional singing and dancing, and a dazzling display of horse riding skills by modern day gauchos.
Situated in the Andean north-west, Salta is the most Spanish-style and best preserved colonial city in Argentina, often likened to the cities of Andalusia. Nicknamed Salta la Linda - Salta the Fair - the centre boasts an impressive architecture dating back to the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries surrounding the Ninth of July central square, including the cathedral and former town hall that is now a museum. As Salta is also located in the southern-most region of the Inca empire an impressive range of exhibits, including mummies from the period, can be seen in the Museum of High Mountain Archaeology.
From Salta, groups can take excursions to the sub-tropical forests in El Rey national park and the desert canyons of El Toro and Cafayate. It is also the starting point for the breathtaking Train to the Clouds, an engineering marvel that wends its way to the Polvorilla viaduct. The railway reaches a height of 4,200 metres above sea level, making it one of the highest in the world, and the 16-hour journey, including meals and commentary, can be completed as a day trip.
Two hours by plane from Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine country and accounts for nearly two thirds of the country’s wine production. Situated in the foothills of the Andes, the vineyards are some of the highest in the world.
European settlers introduced wine-making to Argentina in the 19th century and Mendoza now has more than 1,000 wineries, many of them with restaurants and accommodation. On tours your group can learn about the flourishing industry and taste different wines, such as the red Malec for which the region is renowned. Groups with a particular interest in wine should visit in March when festivals take place throughout Mendoz to celebrate the grape harvest.
Taking its name from ‘great waters’ in the native Guarani language, Argentina’s most imposing natural attraction is in the tropical north-eastern region of Litoral. An area of large rivers, red earth and lush forests, the Iguazu National Park was established as a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.
Shared by Argentina and neighbouring Brazil, there are more than 200 thundering falls ranging from 60 to 82 metres in height. The highest, called the Devil’s Throat and bigger than Niagara, can be reached from a lower path that leads to the base of the falls, where visitors are often doused in spray; or an upper path and footbridge that offers dramatic views. Many coach tours of Argentina take in the falls and if time is limited the quickest way to get there is on a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Cataratas del Iguazu airport.
Buenos Aires top three sights
1. La Boca: This atmospheric district was originally built by Italian immigrants and is renowned for its distinctive multi-coloured houses, art galleries and La Bombanera football stadium, home of the famous Boca Juniors.
2. Recoleta Cemetery: Centrepiece of the exclusive district of the same name is this incredible Gothic cemetery. Filled with enormous mausoleums and towering memorial it is the final resting place of Eva Peron whose life can be traced in the equally evocative Evita Museum.
3. San Telmo: The oldest neighbourhood is characterised by its Spanish colonial buildings and cobbled streets lined with cafes, antique shops, pavement artists and tango salons. Every Sunday there is an arts and crafts market in the main square.
Eat: Argentina is one of the world’s largest beef producers and Argentines eat more meat per head than other country. As a result, parillas - or steak restaurants - abound, serving quality beef in all kinds of guises. A classic dish is locro, a hearty stew with different meats, corn and beans; and empenadas, melt-in-the-mouth pasties made with cheese are among the more limited options for vegetarians.
Drink: Mate, the traditional drink of Argentina, is an infusion of the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant that’s sipped from a round cup with a metal straw called a bombilla. An acquired taste, visitors might want to add sugar or orange peel to hide its bitter flavour. As the world’s fifth wine producer, Argentina produces many excellent wines and Torrontes is a particularly fresh and aromatic white wine.
Try: Dancing the tango. Venues such as the la Confiteria Ideal in Suipacha, an iconic coffee shop, bar and dance hall in Buenos Aires that has been featured in many films, hold daily classes in the afternoon and evening for complete beginners. Afterwards your group members can join the locals to try out their newly learned steps at the milonga, the name given to social tango dances.
Buy: Leather goods, tango CDs, local handicrafts and silverware.
Go: Argentina’s climate ranges from subtropical in the north, to humid and steamy in the centre, and cold in the south. In Buenos Aires temperatures average 23 degrees-Celsius in January and ten degrees-Celsius in July. Spring and autumn are good times to visit.
Flight time: 15hrs.
Time difference: GMT -3hrs.
Language: Spanish, with English widely spoken.
Currency: Argentinean Peso £1=$6.73
Red tape: No visa or inoculations required.
Did you know?
• Argentina takes its name from argentum, Latin for silver, because when the Spanish landed in the 16th century they were given silver gifts by the indigenous people.
• The legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel was French but told people he was born in Argentina at the age of two.
• Although Argentines are passionate about football, the game of pato - a cross between polo and basketball - is the country’s official national sport.
Argentina Tourist Board UK: