We just got home from a month in South America: three weeks in Argentina, a 4-day jeep tour in southern Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, and a few days in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Yup, a whirlwind of greatest hits and a few off-the- beaten-path gems. This is the first in a series of posts about the natural wonders and cultures of these countries. I’m still on cloud nine thinking about all our amazing experiences. I’m going to start with the highlights of our travels in Argentina. They aren’t in any specific order, except perhaps the first one.
Fall hiking in Patagonia (El Chaltén)
This wasn’t just a perfect moment, it was four days of perma-grin plastered on my face. Sure, I’d seen photos of Patagonia, but in real life those towers of the Fitz Roy range are completely overwhelming. Add the fall colours, and…well…I’m still speechless. We were there the second week of April, the peak time for fall foliage. The small town of El Chaltén is a day hiker’s paradise with trailheads just steps from hostels and hotels. Imagine a day of hiking through scenery like this and then topping it off with glass of Malbec and Argentinian steak. It’s hard to beat. I’ll be posting about several hikes.
The beauty and sound of Glaciar Perito Moreno
Glaciar Perito Moreno is beautiful and enormous (30 km long, 5 km wide, 60 m high), but it’s the sound of the glacier that lingers with me. As pieces of ice calved, thundering crashes disrupted our contemplative awe. We were lucky to see several huge pieces break off and plummet into Lago Argentino. Parque National Los Glaciares has done a fantastic job with the boardwalks that let visitors see the glacier from every vantage point. The park is easily accessed by private car or tour from the town of El Calafate, 78 km away.
The jungle trails of Iguazú Falls
Most people head straight for the Garganta del Diablo (the devil’s throat), the highest and deepest of the falls and the star attraction at Iguazú. It is indeed amazing, but we equally enjoyed the trails that wind through the jungle to glorious viewing platforms that are blissfully uncrowded, especially early in the morning. Later in the day, exquisitely coloured butterflies are everywhere. We spent a very full day exploring the falls on the Argentinian side and another half day visiting the Brazilian side. Both are glorious and I really recommend seeing both. I’ll tell you why in a dedicated post.
Wine pairing lunch in Cafayate
Nestled up in the northwest of the country, Cafayate is the second most important wine growing area in Argentina (after Mendoza) and the highest altitude wine growing region in the world. We stumbled upon Bodega Piattelli, a gorgeous winery, where we whiled away the afternoon on their beautiful patio over a five course wine pairing lunch. The wine, the food, the view, the temperature…everything was perfect. Luckily our hotel was only 3 km down the hill! Cafayate is most easily accessed via the lovely town of Salta.
Driving the Valles Calchaquíes loop from Salta
The off-the-beaten path Valles Calchaquíes packs an incredible diversity into a relatively small area. We rented a car in Salta and did a 3-day loop that took us through jungle, cacti-strewn highlands, otherworldly rock formations, traditional villages and sophisticated wineries (see Cafayate above). Visually, my favourite was the tortured landscape of Quebrada de las Flechas (arrow gorge). A good portion of the loop is unpaved and there are steep switchbacks with precipitous drops. But, this area is meant to be savoured, slowly. Three days are minimum; five or six would have been perfect.
Exploring the Quebrada de Humahuaca
We traveled north from Salta with Poncho Tours, exploring the spectacular Quebrada de Humahuaca for three days before being dropped off at the Bolivian border. The mineral rich mountains, awash in reds, purples and yellows, provide an enchanting backdrop for the traditional towns. Purmamarca is incredibly scenic, but I enjoyed less-touristed Tilcara even more. And my absolute favourite of this region—Hornocal (see below). You’ll be seeing more of Hornocal and other wonders of the Quebrada de Humahuaca region.
Breathless at Hornocal
No, I haven’t doctored this photo. Located near the town of Humahuaca, at an elevation of 4350 m (14,272 ft), Hornocal takes your breath away in more ways than one. Created by the accumulation of sediments during different time periods, this place is like nothing I’ve ever seen. For now, it remains very untouristed. It’s difficult to get to with public transit, and most tours don’t visit Hornocal. I’m so glad I was obsessed about getting there. We visited as part of our private tour with Poncho Tours, but it’s doable on your own in a rental car (with good tires and adequate power to get up the steep, curvy, gravel road).
Stories from Cemetario de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires
A cemetery making it into my top highlights, hmmm? But this cemetery, in the tony Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta, is no ordinary cemetery. Its 4700 mausoleums and countless sculptures are works of art, and it’s the final resting place of many notable characters. A shout-out to Free Walking Tours Buenos Aires who enthralled us with stories about the cemetery’s”residents”. Most notable among them is Eva Perón, and I shall attempt to relay the fascinating story of her long and circuitous journey to Recoleta Cemetery.
Passion in spades in La Boca, Buenos Aires
The colourful neighbourhood of La Boca dates back to the rapid settlement of Buenos Aires near the end of the 19th century with the influx of millions of European immigrants. They were a passionate and resilient lot, living in crowded tenement housing. But they left their mark on art, music, dance (the birthplace of tango), politics and sports. Brightly coloured houses and captivating murals give this neighbourhood a distinctive look. Current residents seem just as passionate as their forefathers, especially when it comes to their beloved Boca Juniors football team. Another shout-out to Free Walking Tours Buenos Aires from whom I learned all this interesting stuff.
Vicuñas: Getting to know the sexy llama
Seeing llamas was a lovely novelty for us, but our introduction to the beautiful vicuñas was even more special. While related to llamas, vicuñas are wild and the former are domesticated. They are high elevation dwellers, hanging out at no lower than 3200 m (10,500 ft). The ones in the photo were grazing on the steep slopes leading up to Hornocal. Vicuñas are a protected species but they are corralled periodically so their prized wool can be shorn. Later in our trip, in Bolivia, our guide referred to them as sexy llamas. I love this description of the elegant vicuñas.
I hope you enjoyed my highlights from Argentina. They represent only a fraction of what this richly diverse country has to offer. There is much to elaborate on in this post, but I’m also anxious to write about our extraordinary time in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. I’ll see what I feel like.