off the beaten track in argentina

off the beaten track in argentina

December 2, 2011  |  main blog, travel tips and tales

Argentina is accessible and fun for visitors. In fact, it’s easy for Aussies to feel at home in a place with friendly people, jacarandas, malbec and cheap, tender meat. Buenos Aries, a city of 12 million, has plenty to experience for up to a week in any itinerary. The 24 hour side trip to Colonia in Uruguay, adds variety and can easily be built in.

From a travel perspective, the “must do’s” in Buenos Aries include the Evita museum; Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada – the scene of many significant events in history; MALBA – the museum of Latin American contemporary art; Recoleta Cemetery; La Boca – the birthplace of the tango; Teatro Colon -the famous opera house; the markets of San Telmo; and one of the many professional tango shows. Getting off the beaten track unlocks little treasures of restaurants, nightclubs and bars, although there’s little action before 10pm.

It’s amusing how some things seem relatively expensive and others cheap. Two poor quality cappuccinos cost 35 pesos (about $9) – which can buy a good bottle of malbec, a return taxi to the city, an entire home cooked meal, or ten empanadas. Don’t order cappuccino in BA!

Beyond Buenos Aries lie plenty of options – including Iguazu Falls, the Mendoza wine region, Patagonia and the north-west with Salta at the centre. We chose Salta on a LAN Chile flight – having been outraged by the discriminatory airline pricing policies for foreigners.

First impressions are always interesting – Salta has a rich heritage, lots of battlers, interesting ethnic influences (Inca, Spanish, Italian, Syrian and Lebanese), pretty girls (Matt Damon and Robert Duvall married Salta girls), a town in transition being discovered by the rest of the world,  and where the siesta is taken more seriously than in Buenos Aries. We warmed to Salta – a city of 500,000 with grand colonial architecture, great restaurants and a fantastic little boutique hotel called Hotel Antigua del Convento at $80 a night.

It’s OK to drive in regional Argentina. The manual Chevrolet was a suitable way to make excursions south and north of Salta. The trip south to the wine region of Cafayete provided some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. Our eyes were on stalks as we ogled the crimson rocks and sheer magnitude of the dry river beds and massive Andes mountain ranges. It really was as if we were on another planet. Words cannot do justice to this multi-coloured, multi-textured landscape that is a geography teacher’s paradise. 

Cafayete wine region is older than Australia’s. Vineyards in the region are the highest in the world, averaging 1700 metres. The altitude is offset by the latitude as Cafayete is quite close to the Tropic of Capricorn. The region enjoys 340 cloudless days annually, with temperatures ranging between 2 and 38 degrees. The soils look similar to the champagne region of France – shale dominated, hungry and well drained. We loved the Cabernet and Malbec but didn’t warm to the much acclaimed white, Torrontes which was a bit sweet.

The trip north took us close to Bolivia to places like Purmamarca (home of the hill of seven colours), Humahuaca and the amazing Salinas Grandes – an inland salt lake at 3500 metres altitude, covering 3000 square miles. Purmamarca has become a tourism mecca, with artesan stalls dominating the town landscape and boutique restaurants and accommodation springing up. They offer a stark contrast to the living conditions of local people in their almost primitive mud brick homes. We pondered whether this destination will suffer from the “Kuta beach effect” ten years from now. Tourists can destroy the essence that attracts them in the first place.

The drive from Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes is at least the equal of the Salta wine trail south. A magnificently engineered mountain road (a key route to Chile), llamas, multi coloured mountains and the expansive salt lakes were a totally different experience for two seasoned travellers. Although we only experienced a small transect of the Andes, it left us without doubt that this is one of the most impressive geographic phenomena in the world.

Why don’t you elevate Argentina in your travel priorities and experience it before the Qantas direct flights stop in April 2012? If you do, here are a few tips:

  1. Incorporate the Andes in any travel itinerary – there’s nothing like it on the planet
  2. Get some basic Spanish before the trip. It gets embarrassing when you can’t reciprocate the enthusiasm and warmth of a new interaction
  3. Buy a Frommer’s guidebook to supplement the internet. It’s the pick of the crop.
  4. Book ahead. Argentina is becoming a hot spot for world travel and often booked out
  5. Book an apartment with cooking facilities. While restaurants are reasonable good value, the fresh produce and wine is outstanding quality and value.
  6. Don’t be afraid to drive in regional Argentina –it’s  quite easy really
  7. Take the subway around Buenos Aries at 30 cents a trip and supplement it with walking. Major attractions can be “clumped” and reached on foot


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