When we think about Argentina, we conjure up so many wonderful memories that it's hard to relate them all. It is a country of romance and passion, the tango and gauchos, the Andes Mountains, deserts, pampas, and diverse culture. The Spanish conquistadors first named Argentina in the early 16th century when they explored and named the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver). Most appropriately, we began our 30-day inland bus trip through north and central Argentina in strategically located Montevideo, Uruguay on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. Oh, man, what a trip! Here's a sampler.
1. Iguazu Falls
On the border of Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazu Falls are a UNESCO Heritage Site and have been cited as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. There are 275 individual cascades that comprise the falls area. The Iguazu National Park (Argentine side) offers catwalks, paths and excellent views from hundreds of different vantage points. The flora and fauna in this sub-tropical, littoral area are outstanding. We saw caiman, capybara, tapirs, mischievous coati and lots of birds.
2. San Ignacio de Mini
We went out of our way to visit this sleepy little town which offered little except the chance to see the some of the best preserved Jesuit mission ruins in Argentina. Originally built in 1632, this site, built by the Jesuits and the local Guarani people, was absolutely beautiful and provided an excellent insight into the influential role played by the missionaries. Well worth the side trip.
They call it “Salta la Linda” (Salta, the beautiful) and it is. A Spanish colonial city founded in 1582, the city's architecture alone is worth a visit. Visit the Cabildo, an 18th century governmental building and really good museum and take in the Plaza 9 de Julio. Check out Iglesia de San Francisco and the Cathedral. Take the teleferico or climb the stairway to the Visitor's Center at the top of San Bernardo Hill for great views of the city. Lots of tours begin here for the surrounding areas.
4. PN Los Cordones and Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas
We booked a tour in Salta for an overnight guided tour to Cafayate and Cachi which took us through this desert area of remarkable color and beauty. We saw wild goats, guanaco (same family as alpaca, only larger), “cardones” (petrified cacti) and lots of spectacular rock formations.
This charming town is in the midst of a wine-growing area, so there are lots of vineyards to visit and wine-tastings to do.
A picturesque little colonial town with a lovely 16th century white-washed adobe church, Iglesia de Cachi, in its center. Local people go about their lives here in a relaxed manner and offer a different view of rural Argentinian life.
7. Cόrdoba, City of Bells
This is a gem of a city and our favorite in northern Argentina. With six major universities and several private schools, it is historically one of Argentina's major centers of learning. The National University of Cordoba, established in 1613, is the oldest in Argentina and 4th oldest in the Americas. There's lots to see and do here. High on the list of things to check out is the Manzana Jesuitica. It took us awhile to figure out that “manzana” in Spanish translates to block or square, as well as apple. The Jesuit influence is strong here and the Jesuit Block definitely merits a tour of the centuries' old buildings and museum pieces. Don't forget to visit the Jesuit Crypts. They're small and eerie, but worth a stop. The central Plaza is beautiful as is the ever-present Cathedral. Several day tours to Jesuit estancias (ranches and missions) in the surrounding area are available and provide not only a closer look at history, but local rural life as well.
Think wine, wine and more wine. Even the ice cream comes in wine flavors. Take the on/off Trollebus to acquaint you with the city and get your bearings. There are winery tours galore available. Also, the restaurants here are great and offer “flights” of wine, so you can sample several with your meal. General San Martin Park is quite interesting and an inexpensive van tour takes you past the major sights and to the top of Cerro de la Gloria. The City Gates and Marly Horses are the best!
9. Over the Andes
The bus trip over the Andes is a kick-ass, knock your socks off kind of ride. Get your bus tickets early and reserve a front seat with a panoramic view. The hairpin turns are so tight, the bus has to back up and make a couple of swings to get around them. It's hair-raising. You can sneak a peek of Aconcagua (22,837'/6960m), the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, on your way up to the pass. The wait at Customs between Argentina and Chile is tedious, but the descent into Chile is worth the aggravation. Not for the faint-hearted.
10. Buenos Aires
Argentina's capital city and the “Paris of South America”, BsAs (as it's frequently written) has it all: outstanding cuisine and wines, the tango, world-class shopping, antiques, great museums, fine architecture, and a vibrant, sensual energy that you can't help getting caught up in. Even the cemeteries are over the top. Buenos Aires deserves a blog post of its own and minimum of a week to visit. We visited at least four times while we were in Argentina and saw something different each time. Suffice it to say, it's a world-class, not-to-miss city.
A whole month on the road and we still missed sights we would have liked to see … yet another reason to return.
If you go:
Lonely Planet Argentina was our guide and it was excellent. Coincidentally, we met Sandra Bao, the author of LP Argentina, on our trip to Antarctica and had long talks with her about how the LP books are written. Lots and lots of research, work and travel.
We took a sidetrip to Paraguay since it was so close (that's another blog post someday in the future). Paraguay required a visa in advance for US citizens which we obtained at the Paraguayan consulate in Montevideo.
When on a bus crossing the border from one country to another (e.g.Uruguay to Argentina), make sure you check that your passport is properly stamped before the bus takes off. David's passport was stamped correctly; Marcie's was not stamped at all. This caused problems when we tried to check into our hotel. The desk clerk inspected our passports and noted I was in-country illegally.
Some nationalities (e.g., USA) require a Brazilian passport to visit the Brazilian side of the Iguazu Falls. Local cab drivers “offer a gift” to the Immigration officials to take you across without a visa. We opted to give it a pass this time around.
Note that if you speak Spanish, the Argentine accent will throw you for a loop. The traditional “ya” sound for a double ll is pronounced as “ja”. So pollo is poy-jo instead of poy-yo and million is mil-jon instead of mil-yon. Very confusing to the ear at first.
Souvenirs to look for:
Carpincho leather (from the rodent capybara)
Leather goods (cow hide) galore. Great if you need whips, braided leather, etc.
Woven rugs, blankets, ponchos are excellent quality especially in rural areas
Penguino pitchers traditionally used to serve house wine
Maté cups and gourds and straws (bombillas)
Food and drink:
Beef … if you like beef, Argentina offers up some of the best in the world. Choose pretty much any “parrilla” (pronounced pah-ree-ja) for prime grilled steaks and veggies.
Try a “tenedor libre”, literally “free fork” in English, it's an all you can eat restaurant which can be a great value.
Maté – a bitter, herb drink, served hot or cold, that Argentines drink the way Brits drink tea and Americans drink coffee.
Wine … especially Malbec, though the selectionis overwhelming.
Media lunas – croissants
Dulce de leche – caramel-tasting delight and used on everything from toast to ice cream topping.
Alfajores – layered cookies with dulce de leche in the middle
We kept great notes on buses we used, restaurants we tried and hotels we stayed at while we traveled and we'd be happy to share them with you. Send us a note and we'll send you a copy.