Argentina is the second largest country in Latin America, home of Maradona and Messi, the Gods of football, and some of the best steak in the world. Argentina had a huge influx of immigrants during the eighties, as the government wanted to boost its dwindling population size, welcoming those fleeing religious and political persecution with open arms. There came Italians – hence the delicious pizza and exaggerated hand gestures, and there is even a Welsh community in Patagonia. Argentinians extremely well-travelled and cultured, you undoubtedly come across many all over Latin America.
The most important thing you need for Argentina is time. Argentina is no place for whistle-stop tours; it is not an easy country to travel around in the sense that most places of interest are days away from each other. Fortunately, Argentina has arguably the best buses in Latin America in terms of comfort, although not the most economical.
As you can see from the map above, there is no straight-forward backpacking route for Argentina, and Patagonia itself can be almost treated as another country! This post gives an overview and guide of the top destinations that Argentina has to offer: Buenos Aires, the “European capital”; Iguazú Falls on the border with Brazil; Mendoza, across the border from Chilean capital of Santiago, the wine country, the snowy scapes of Southern Patagonia, and the often overlooked but incredible Northern region of Salta and Jujuy.
It is advertised online as a tour from Buenos Aires, but in reality it is around 20 hours away by bus. It is 100% worth the journey, but make sure you allow at least 4-5 days for the trip. It does not really work as a part of a wider route as it is in the middle of nowhere. I did a strange trip, going from Salta to Asunción, Paraguay, and then to Iguazú on the Brazilian side.
Iguazú falls straddles the border of Brazil and Argentina and there is always much debate about which side is better. We have been to both sides, and both give you a different perspective on the falls, but are equally incredible and neither is superior. The Brazilian side shows you the bigger picture, you are observing and contemplating the immensity of the falls; on the Argentinian side you are part of the falls, you are in it, enveloped and surrounded by them. The border runs through the middle of the falls, so it just depends on where you are coming from and which is more convenient.
Mendoza is vineyards. There are wine tours left, right and centre that will take you to several vineyards, show you how wine is produced, and of course, taste various wines. Some tours are offered on bikes, if you are up for cycling under the influence. To be honest, if you are more interested in drinking than the production of wine, you can save some money, buy wine cheap at the supermarket, rent a bike and tour the city yourself. It’s a city full of parks and plaza, easy to navigate and ride around by bike.
Mendoza to Santiago
The journey between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina is absolutely stunning, crossing the snowy peaks of the Andes, and you can see Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 6500m high. The journey takes around 10 hours, and it the most gorgeous border crossing ever (albeit cold!). However, the crossing often closes during winter when snow is too heavy, so be careful if you are under any time constraints.
Bariloche, San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón
For many, Patagonia is a trip in itself and it is deemed too far and expensive for many to fit into their plans. This was certainly the case for us. However, it is still worth visiting the gateway city of Bariloche and its nearby towns of San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón for a glimpse of Patagonia.
Bariloche is a large town built on the shores of Nahuel Huapi, largest lake in the area, surrounded by snowy mountains, where you can enjoy skiing, trekking and water sports. It is the main commercial town in the region and can be reached directly by bus from Mendoza (8 hours).
For a quieter, more authentic experience of a small winter town in Patagonia, head to the charming town of San Martin de Los Andes, surrounded by lakes and araucaria forests. It is much less touristy than Bariloche, although fairly expensive in general, even for groceries. It is also a great place to ski in South America, as Chapelco Ski Resort is less busy than Bariloche and cheaper than Chile. There is not much to do, but wander around the tranquil streets of wooden houses and well-mannered locals. It is about an hour north of Bariloche, you can stop off en route from Mendoza to Bariloche.
The route between San Martin de Los Andes and Bariloche, known as Cruce de Lagos, is absolutely stunning. The route runs alongside the Andes mountains, and the region is full of lakes formed by the mountain thaw. There are seven lakes of every hue from sky blue, turquoise to jade and emerald green. It very picturesque. You can take the a tour from both towns, or the normal buses take the same route but without the chance to stop a viewpoints and photos.
Many people head to Bariloche and believe it is not worth heading any further South if not planning to head to the Deep South. However, El Bolsón is an enchanting town hidden in the mountain valley, just two hours from Bariloche. In the morning, when the sun starts to rise, the clouds hang low and waft through the valley like a gentle stream. There is also a forest of sculptures, El Bosque Tallado, where fallen trees have been turned into sculptures of animals, people, faces. There are many walking trails which will take you through fairytale forests, especially magical in the snowy winter. Also El Bolsón has arguably the most delicious choripan in Argentina.
It is possible to arrive by bus between Bariloche, San Martin and El Bolsón. Another equally inexpensive option is to arrive first to Bariloche, and rent a car to go to both San Martin de Los Andes and El Bolsón, and enjoy them in your own time.
Jujuy region attracts few foreign visitors, with most people taking day tours from Salta to the Jujuy region – however, this way, you end up spending 5-6 round trip and they are often pretty overpriced. From San Pedro de Atacama, you can a get bus across the border to Northern Argentina and visit the Jujuy using local transport.
Purmamarca is a small town in Jujuy, where you will find the Mountain of Seven Colours. A couple of hours will do, but if you arrive in the evening, there is one hostel, but also there are many families that offer cheap rooms. Tilcara is the next village up, about an hour away, which is a nice, traditional… but not a huge amount to do. Otherwise, you can head directly to Humahuaca, another hour north, which is a little gem of a town tucked in the mountains of the Jujuy region.
Humahuaca is a short trip away from the Hornacal mountain range, where you can see the impressive Mountain of Fourteen Colours, so-called for its zigzagged rubric.. or reds, browns, greens and yellows, a result of of the accumulation of different sedimentary rocks when this area used to be under water millions of years ago. Humahuaca is also a gorgeous little town to wander around, selling artensal Andean products (llama jumpers etc), has some delicious food. You can also visit the immense Monument to the Heroes of Independence and a colourful little cemetery. Locals are modest, farm folk who look to Pachamama to bless their harvests – if you are lucky you may come across a traditional Pachamama festival.
Iruya is a tiny little village hidden in the mountain valleys, which absolutely stunning. You can go hiking in the surrounding mountains and see condors. If you are up for a challenge you head even further north, San Isidro, where no roads lead and you can only reach by walking.
Salta is the capital of the North of Argentina, a typical Latino city, full of colonial churches. It is a definitely a contrast to the little villages of Jujuy. It is a good place to just chill and recharge, there is no sight particularly outstanding, but, as previously mentioned, many travellers use Salta as the departure point for trips to Cafayate and Cachi, which are more difficult to read by public bus. However there is one incredible museum that is unmissable – High Altitude Museum, where you will find the mummies of the Children of Llullailaco Volcano. These children were buried alive over 500 years ago in a sacred ritual, and due to the specific climatic conditions (extremely low temperatures combined with high altitude, lack of oxygen… ) the children were found barely changed – skin, hair, hands, clothes in-tact everything.
It is also worth spending an evening in a peña, a traditional bar typical of Northern Argentina where they have traditional folkloric music. In the restaurant penas, performers dance onstage, and members of the audience are also welcome to go and dance too. Other where people bring their own instruments and play and sing and anybody in the bar can join on, traditional folk songs.