Notes from an Immense Country

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Words and Photography by Sarah Duff 

I’m on what feels like the edge of the world—on the top of a groaning glacier. I’m watching as a chunk of ice as big as a house calves off the edge into a lake dotted with floating icebergs. 24 hours before, I was getting sprayed by the mist of one of the most powerful waterfalls on the planet. A few days before that, I was drinking wine in a vineyard 3 000 metres above sea level. The previous week saw me dancing the tango. All of this within one country. Stretching nearly 4 000 kilometres from its northern tip to the south, Argentina—the eighth largest country in the world—encompasses a diverse array of landscapes. 

I start my trip in Buenos Aires,  Argentina’s beating heart. Despite being flippantly summed up as the “Paris of the South”—by the kind of people who want to understand a place only in context of somewhere else—it’s very much its own place. Buenos Aires’s rich European heritage can be seen in the pockets of grand turn-of-the-century architecture, wide boulevards and grand mansions. Crumbling façades, abandoned buildings and anti-establishment graffiti, on the other hand, tell the story of the current economic instability. And then there are the colourful buildings of the rough-around-the-edges La Boca, where the tango was born; contrasted with the stark glass-and-steel modernity of Puerto Madero’s high-rises. This is a city that’s both European and Latin American, elegant and gritty, traditional and contemporary—a heady mix that makes Buenos Aires the kind of place of which you never get bored.

Buenos Aires doesn’t have a lot of blockbuster sights such as those you find in New York or Paris—instead it’s the kind of place that calls to be sampled slowly, barrio by barrio. I do a tour of the city’s huge street art murals, wander the cobbled streets of romantically decayed San Telmo, marvel at the splendour of Recoleta’s mansions, and get lost among the mansion-like tombs of the Cementerio de la Recoleta.

Everything happens late in Buenos Aires. If you want to see good tango you need to stay up way past midnight. I’d thought people would be performing tango in the streets, but it turns out those are just for tourists. The real tango happens at tango clubs known as milongas, where the good dancers generally arrive after 2am. For my tango experience I catch a taxi to La Catedral, a bohemian milongain a huge warehouse filled with recycled furniture and eclectic art. I try out a lesson and then sit at a candlelit table with a bottle of wine watching. The dancers range in age from their early 20s to 70s. They cut across the floor to the songs of Carlos Gardel. I’m only tempted to try out my own stumbling moves once the Dutch courage kicks in.

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‘Buenos Aires is a city that’s both European and Latin American, elegant and gritty, traditional and contemporary—a heady mix that makes it the kind of place of which you never get bored’ 

After Buenos Aires, most tourists follow a typical itinerary to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine country in the west. I decide instead to travel further north to Salta, one of continent’s best-preserved colonial cities—and as of the past few years, a new spot on the tourist map. After European-centric Buenos Aires, Salta feels like the ‘real’ South America. Wandering around, I keep thinking it could be the set of a movie. The crumbling old terracotta buildings, bars where bands play traditional Argentinian folk music and the main square—which at dusk is full of families, kissing couples and people licking ice creams the same colours as the pink and cream baroque cathedral. It seems almost too photogenic.

The province of Salta produces some fantastic wines and the vineyards outside the city are worth a visit—though you could go for the setting alone. I drive through Mars-like red rock valleys at the foothills of the Andes to reach the Upper Calchaquí Valley where I visit the world’s highest altitude vineyards at Bodega Colomé, one of Argentina’s oldest wine estates. Here I do a tasting of Malbec and Torrontés and snack on a platter of picadas—Argentinian tapas—in a vineyard flanked by cacti and arid mountains.  

The opposite corner of Argentina couldn’t be more different. In a cigar-like strip of land on the country’s north-eastern edge is Iguazu Falls, a three-kilometre stretch of some 275 waterfalls bordering Brazil, and ensconced in dense rainforest. It’s one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and one of those places everyone you meet in Argentina tells you to visit. I fly all the way up to Iguazu for a day just to see the falls—there’s not much else to do around them other than drink beer at the tourist restaurants—and am met with incessant rain. I buy a transparent plastic poncho that makes me look like a giant shopping bag and walk slippery paths, fighting thickets of selfie-shooters—their GoPro sticks forming a steel forest—and feel annoyed about the crowds these kind of ‘bucket list’ sights attract. Nevertheless, the falls really are spectacular. The sheer breadth of them combined with the Indiana Jones-type jungle setting and the exhilaration of standing on a steel walkway on the precipice of a cliff, getting sprayed from hundreds of cubic metres of water, make up for the tourist hordes and the drizzle.

From Iguazu I fly 3 800 kilometres south to Patagonia, my last stop. One of the last great wildernesses of the world, Patagonia offers the kind of raw scenery that is beautiful to the point of surrealism. Glacier tongues snake out of the jagged ridges of the Andes and are offset against miles of windswept steppe, studded with the occasional lake.

I base myself near the town of El Calafate, at Eolo, a luxury lodge styled like a traditional estancia (ranch) atop a hill on a cattle farm. The views stretch across Karoo-like khaki plains towards the snowy Andes. I decide I could easily spend all my time at the lodge, sinking into the deep leather couches, working my way through the high tea menu and the excellent wine list, watching spring snowstorms turn the landscape white. But more adventures beckon.  

I do long hikes up mountain passes—where I meet pack llamas and few other hikers—sail through a lake of icebergs the colour of Hall’s blue cough drops, ride a chestnut mare across the steppe startling flamingos and hares—all of which are worthy of stories of their own. But the highlight of Patagonia turns out to be a trek across the Perito Moreno glacier. A 250 square kilometre ice field cracked with deep blue fissures that moves two metres a day and looks like it’s straight out of the world north of the wall in Game of Thrones.

Wine tasting in desert mountain vineyards is memorable, but drinking whisky at the end of a trek, cooled with chunks of centuries-old ice hacked off a glacier, is the kind of experience worth flying around the world for.