Tuesday, 2 March 2010

5 'Must Visit' Places in Argentina

Argentina is the second biggest country in South America and is blessed with a great diversity of lanscapes and cultures. In the north are the surreal moonscapes of the Andes with a strong element of indigenous cultures. In the east there are steamy tropical jungles. In the West there are mountains, lakes and the best wine growing areas. In the South is Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego - vast open spaces and habitats for a huge selection of flora and fauna.

It was a hard job but I've narrowed down all the great destinations in Argentina to my own personal top 5. They are not in any order of preference.

1) No list about Argentina would be complete without mention of Buenos Aires. It is a perfect city for a backpacker because there is plenty of cheap accommodation available. The city is safe to walk around during the day. There is a plethora of interesting places to visit and things to do. See the dog walkers in the rich areas of recoleta, visit the necropolis where Evita is entombed, see the freaky indigenous art on the top floor of the Belle Artes Museum, check out one of the energetic protests forever happening on the streets, admire the beautiful colonial architecture. And there's more: visit the funky coloured Boca area, see street tango, and party hard at night in one of BA's many nightspots. At the weekends bars and clubs are bursting full of the young and beautiful until the late hours of Sunday morning. Buenos Aires is not just one of the most interesting cities in South America it is one of the coolest cities in the world.



2) Amaicha del Valle is in the north of Argentina, high up in the Andes in the Calchaqui Valley. It is a small town with a remarkable 350 sunny days a year. It is said to have the purest Indigenous population in Argentina. There is a mother earth or Pachamama festival every February. But what really makes Amaicha special is the Quilmes Ruins a few kilometers out of town. The Quilmes people resisted the Spanish for 130 years. Their main city was near Amaicha. It is a place of special energy. The terracing is spectacularly constructed in a giant wedge in a mountain. The history and culture of the Quilmes people is fraught with injustice. The Spanish shipped them out of the area and sold their sacred city to a business man who built a hotel on the spot. It wasn't until the 1970s that they got their holy site back. Even wikipedia keeps quiet on Spain's great shame.

3) No list about Argentina would be complete without mention of the incredible Iguazu Falls near Puerto Iguazu. The Iguazu Falls form part of the border between Brazil and Argentina. They can be viewed from both sides. Indeed from Puerto Iguazu it possible to do day trips to two other countries - Brazil and Paraguay. In Brazil there is Foz do Iguacu and in Paraguay there's Ciudad del Este which is near the world's second biggest dam, Itaipu dam. But the main event is definitely the Iguazu Falls on the Argentine side. They are in a big national park. The various falls can be seen from a network of catwalks or pasarelas. The most spectacular of which is the one above the falls that ends in the famous viewing point above the Devil's Throat, Garganta del Diablo. There is a wealth of flora and fauna in the park. There are over 2,000 plant species, 400 bird species, jaguars, caimans, monkeys and cute coatis (see picture below). The park offers great trekking opportunities as well as a variety of boat trips. In the Guarani language 'Iguazu' means 'Great Waters'. Indeed they are.


4) Patagonia is a vastness of open spaces the likes of which I've only seen in Tibet. It is also the home to the first Welsh settlers in Argentina. Our guide to the Valdes Peninsula told us an amusing story about Princess Diana's visit to the nearby town of Trelew. She wanted to visit a tea shop to show her appreciation of all things Welsh (after all at the time she was married to the Prince of Wales). Her handlers got it very wrong because she ended up visiting a tea shop run by Italians. You have to admire the Royal Family's incompetence.

That aside, the Valdes Peninsula near Puerto Madryn is a very special place. As you drive around the windswept roads you see horses and guanacos (a relative of the llama) and if you are lucky you can spot rheas and armadillos. The real treat, however, is the coast line which is littered with elephant seals lounging around in the sun. You will also see sea lions and hundreds of Megellanic penguins and on rare occasion a pod of orcas looking to snack on a seal. Most tours of the Valdes Peninsula also include a trip to Puerto Piramide where you can catch a boat to view southern right whales who sometimes seem almost playful.

5) Last but far from least there is the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate. It is one of only two advancing glaciers in all of South America. You can get close to the epic glacier and spend many an enthralling minute watching huge chunks of ice falling from the 5 km-wide glacier and making a terrific booming noise across Lago Argentino. For the more adventurous types there are trekking trips available onto the ice using clampons. Nearby is Bahia Redonda, where you can see black-necked swans and flamingos. El Calafate is also a great stop on the way down to Tierra del Fuego and the End of the World.

These are my 5 'must see' places in Argentina, but to be fair there is just so much more. More mountains, more lakes and lagoons, more wildlife, more architecture and more nightlife to experience and enjoy in a country whose economic woes have suddenly made it a lot more affordable to backpackers and travellers.

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