Argentina: A Guide to its Greatest Cities
By Sarah Edwards
As the 8th largest country in the world, it’s impossible for most travellers to explore all of Argentina. Its diverse landscapes take in everything from glaciers and mountains to deserts and surprisingly European-like cities, whilst the friendly people and incredible food and drink will have you wanting to linger longer still. Argentina has a reputation for being an expensive destination for world travellers, and whilst it’s not the cheapest, it more than makes up for the extra expense with the incredible experiences it has to offer.
We spent a glorious two and a half weeks exploring several cities – journeying from Puerto Iguazu to Mendoza, Buenos Aires and on to Salta. It’s a perfect itinerary – starting with Iguazu Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world, then relaxing in a world famous desert wine region, before soaking up the incredible atmosphere of Buenos Aires and the colonial architecture of Salta. Don’t underestimate travel times – our adventures took us almost 4,500 kilometres by bus, plane and car, but the distances covered are worth it for everything you get to see along the way.
Here’s what not to miss in our favourite Argentine cities:
Described as a frontier city, Puerto Iguazu is located in the northeast of the country on the border with Brazil and is the gateway to the incredible Iguazu Falls.
The largest set of waterfalls in the world, Iguazu is shared by Brazil and Argentina, but it’s surely the Argentinian side that takes the most time to explore and offers the most rewarding experience. With 80% of the Falls in their possession, at least a day or two is needed to enjoy this spectacle from every angle. The complex includes up to 300 waterfalls, depending on rainwater, reaching heights of up to 80 metres.
The Iguazu Falls are quite simply breathtaking, unbelievably loud and impressive in the way they thunder down through the rainforest, casting rainbows and creating swirling rapids. Thrill seekers can explore by boat or helicopter, as well as on the many trails leading around the 3km water edge.
The Falls are located just 18km from the city, so much of the area is dedicated to tourism – but unlike it so often does, it hasn’t ruined the atmosphere of the place. It’s a sleepy town, safe and quiet, with plenty of variety when it comes to eating and drinking options.
Budget: Around $40US for entry; and take your own drinks, snacks and waterproofs or it’ll get pricey.
Eat & Drink: Steak and red wine at one of the incredible steakhouses in town – we loved Nino Parilla y Restaurante – bargain prices for brilliant food. As with many places in Argentina, you can get a decent house red wine for about $6US!
Sleep: Lots of options for hostels, we liked Pousada El Shaddei with its decent central location.
Four hours on a plane took us down to Mendoza, the heart of Argentina’s wine industry with the Andes mountains providing an impressive backdrop. The city itself is fairly small, nestled on the edge of one of the world’s driest deserts, but has a great atmosphere. We expected to stay a day or two and lingered almost a week.
It’s a paradise for those seeking adventure sports, with mountaineering, hiking, rafting and horse trekking just some of the activities on offer. It’s also a great winter sports destination with easy access to many ski and snowboard resorts in the Andes.
Don’t miss experiencing horse trekking through the desert – great views of nearby mountain ranges, wineries and the city itself, topped off with a stunning sunset. Trekking is typically followed off with a trip to the ranch and accompanying winery for a traditional Asado for dinner and as much Malbec as you can drink.
A trip to the wineries is a must – whether you choose to hire bikes and explore independently or take a mini bus tour, this is a great day out. Learn about the production of wine and olive oil in the area with generous tastings along the way.
Mendoza is also famous as the gateway to Aconcagua – the highest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. A day trip up to the high mountains shows a completely different side to the area, with snow-capped peaks and amazing mountain landscapes.
Budget: A reasonable amount – horse riding starts from around $65US per person, winery tours are similar, although a self-guided cycle tour is cheaper.
Eat & Drink: Steak and red wine again – enjoy the locally produced Malbec. If that red meat is getting too much, there are some great vegetarian buffets in town.
Sleep: Hostel Lao is a family run hostel that makes you feel at home – a rustic kitchen where everyone sits together for breakfast, and the friendliest hostel dog we’ve met.
Another destination we thought we’d enjoy for a couple of days and ended up staying much longer; allow plenty of time to explore the many and varying districts of the city. A strangely European-like spot deep in South America, with its Spanish style architecture and almost-Parisian cafe culture, Buenos Aires is a vibrant and unique place.
Get arty in Palermo and visit the famous giant moving steel flower sculpture and the Malba gallery. Explore the beautifully maintained Japanese gardens and see the Museo de Bellas Artes. In the historic centre, wander the streets and see the Plaza De Mayo, Congress Building and Teatro Colon, amongst other impressive buildings. And whilst a cemetery may seem like a surprising tourist attraction, you’ll never have seen anything quite like La Recoleta, with its winding alleyways and intricately carved mausoleums.
San Telmo is known for being a little rough around the edges but hosts a fantastic antiques market and some great restaurants. Whilst the famous La Boca is a must see with buildings created from shipping containers and painted with bright and colourful designs – soak up an outdoor tango show in the sun outside one of the many cafes lining the main streets, or shop for souvenirs at the market stalls.
The nightlife is also worth enjoying – we’re not party people but La Bomba de Tiempo is an experience in itself, with its famous percussion act taking place in an old olive oil factory. Enjoy a tango lesson and three-course meal before seeing one of the amazing tango shows on offer in the city centre – worth a splurge!
Budget: Again, Buenos Aires isn’t cheap; the best way to save is to avoid eating out where possible and save your cash for exploring the city sights.
Eat & Drink: The city has an incredible array of restaurants; we had amazing food at Don Ernesto in San Telmo. Make sure to enjoy a coffee at the famous Cafe Tortoni and take a step back in time.
Sleep: For a relaxed atmosphere and rooftop bar, the Portal del Sur hostel is great and located in the historic centre. We’ve also heard good things about Milhouse for people looking for more of a party hostel.
Another short flight took us into Salta, on the border with San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. We weren’t here long, but would definitely recommend it to any travellers exploring Argentina. It’s another city with a completely different vibe, and perhaps it’s one of the most deep-rooted attractions of the country that every place you visit can be so different from the last.
It’s most famous for its Spanish colonial architecture and the impressive cathedrals and churches are worth seeing even if you’re not into that sort of thing. The blue-toned church of St. Francis and pink-hued main cathedral are particularly spectacular, both by day and night. It’s the city square that really comes to life at night though, with crowds of locals and street entertainers lining the Ninth of July plaza. Stop at one of the busy cafes or bars where you can soak it all in.
In Salta we enjoyed another day horse riding and eating barbecues – this time in a more lush and less desert like landscape. The views over the city from the Cerro San Bernardo at sunset are incredible and it’s worth the hike (or short cable car ride if you’re not feeling so energetic).
Budget: Less expensive than Buenos Aires and Mendoza, it’s much easier to have a good time without blowing the budget in this city.
Eat & Drink: Dona Salta offers great traditional Argentine food in rustic surroundings – the empanadas here are excellent.
Sleep: the Hotel Candelaria is pretty cheap and only a short walk from the city centre.
(For all things travel from Sarah and Rob adventures, check out the blog)