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Argentina - Slow Travel
Matthew Lepori (MattL)
These notes are the product of a six week stay in Argentina. I spent a week in and around Salta, two weeks in Buenos Aires, and four weeks in and around Bariloche. This was part of a three and a half month trip, including stays in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Argentina was my last country, and while I enjoyed greatly Peru and Bolivia, Argentina was a welcome return to familiar home comforts.
I have traveled extensively in Europe as well, to give you some reference. And I naturally compare Argentina to Europe because of how European the country is. I know some people think South America and immediately assume it's all the Third World, but I can assure you this is not the case. Argentina is on par with Europe in terms of infrastructure, culture, sites, and beauty. To go further, Argentina has natural beauty that you simply can't find in Europe.
Argentina is an enormous country and these notes are in no way wholly comprehensive, but they should give you a good feeling for some of the popular destinations - places you yourself might be in one day.
Planning Your Trip to Argentina
The vast majority of the discussion of "slow travel" focuses upon the European continent. Farms in Umbria, villas in Sicily, country homes in the Dordogne, apartments in Paris, and so on. Taking the slow travel idea from a place as compacted as Europe and extrapolating it to South America necessitates some revising of the European model. Slow travel in Europe typically means renting a place to stay for a length of time, and then traveling around that center location in concentric circles. While this is technically possible to do in South America as well, the issue is distance. Simply put, places you want to see in South America tend to be pretty far apart. Staying in a villa in Siena puts tens of interesting locales within two hours drive of you. Staying in Buenos Aires puts a few within such easy reach, but many others lie outside of the "typical" range for your European slow traveler. And yet, due to the huge nature of the country, you would consider them within Buenos Aires' circle. Essentially you can keep the circular travel ideal, only you have to draw it a bit bigger.
The transportation issue should be addressed. Europe has a very efficient system of trains, and one might assume the transportation system in Argentina perhaps could not match it. I would disagree. Buses in Argentina tend to be efficient and very comfortable (in fact, much more so than any train I took while in Europe). They run at least as often as trains would in Europe, they have restrooms like trains, and hey, when's the last time you saw a movie while on a train? Or was offered complimentary drinks and food? Or got a seat that reclined all the way back so it was nearly horizontal? Buses may not have the romantic image of the train, but busing around Argentina is easy and enjoyable.
This essay examines three areas of interest for the slow traveler in Argentina: Buenos Aires, Salta, and Bariloche. All three have their own appeal and cater to different sorts of travelers. One features all manners of urban delights, one a nice city base to explore the oddly colored and shaped rocks and ridges around it, and the last a small resort base for hiking and skiing in alpine Andes. These notes won't focus upon where to stay (villas, farms etc.), but why you would want to stay there and what each has to offer. The one thing I will mention in regards to accommodations is this: since the Argentine peso is currently extremely weak versus the dollar and euro, you can expect to stay at much more lavish digs than you would be able to afford in Europe.
Buenos Aires (BsAs)
BsAs is the preeminent urban destination in Argentina. With 11 million people and an occupied area of "ginormous" proportions, a city lover would never really have to leave. Which is good, since one of the main drawbacks to BsAs is that it lacks the close conglomeration of interesting sites around it, such as those that surround Salta and Bariloche. But since the city is so vibrant and interesting, you probably won't want to spend much time away anyhow. Residents of BsAs are called portenos; they got the name because of BsAs' role as a port city.
Food and nighttime entertainment are probably the two biggest attractions to the city. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of historic sites (Teatro Colon, Recoleta cemetary, etc.) and good art (numerous galleries, including a lot of works by European masters) to enjoy. There are beautiful neighborhoods such as San Telmo and Palermo. There's a zoo and botanical gardens. And last but not least, Buenos Aires has at least eight professional soccer teams, two of which being the internationally renowned River Plate and Boca Juniors (seeing either of them live is said to be an experience of a lifetime, and seeing them play each other an experience that could take your life). The city of Maradona ("el Papa es aleman, pero Dios es argentino") is probably the most soccer-frenzied on earth.
But what else interests a slow traveler more than food? I mean really - after you spend a month in one place, you really are down to food as the novel and unique thing in your day. You know your area. You've probably seen already what the city or town has to offer. But food, ahhh, food is timeless. BsAs has world-class restaurants, and a culinary scene that easily rivals those that I have found in New York, London, or anywhere in Italy. Largely a product of its immigrant history, the city features endless choices for Argentine, Italian, French, and Japanese tastes. And modern fusion cuisine has its own considerable niche within the establishment. Palermo, just one of BsAs many suburbs, has a ridiculous amount of restaurants to try and enjoy. The never-ending city limits seem to be matched by that of the places you can enjoy a nice meal.
And then there's the nightlife. Tango, salsa, theater, blossoming Argentine cinema, posh lounge bars, relaxed cafes, Irish pubs, frenzied discos, swanky clubs, seedy dives - practically everything.
Tango in San Telmo (easily the prettiest part of BsAs)
Top things a slow traveler might want to do in an extended stay in BsAs
If you're staying in a city for awhile, chances are you're going to want to involve yourself in some project while there.
The most obvious choice here is tango. Tango is still a passionate subject for the city, despite the "touristification" of the dance, and there are infinite places to go to learn Tango.
The next most obvious choice is Spanish. Sure you can learn Spanish in a myriad of countries, but no people on earth speak a more beautiful version of the language than do the Argentines. A combination of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese makes it easily the most lyrical and lush Spanish on Earth. The downside is, it does take some getting used to if you already have some experience with the language. But once you do, and you begin speaking Spanish in the Italianate singsong, and pronouncing your "y" and "ll" as "zsh," you will probably be forever enamored.
And then there's shopping. You will find every major designer you know from your home country, and at a fraction of the price you're used to. I did a little shopping in my stay there, saving myself 50% off the price of the exact same items I knew from home.
Fourth, get to know the neighborhoods. Seedy but ultra-colorful La Boca, trendy and hip Palermo, upscale Belgrano and San Isidro, regal Recoleta, historic San Telmo, and the bustling centro are areas that allow for endless exploring. And I really mean that. Palermo alone is the size of many European or American cities, and it's simply one bit of greater Buenos Aires.
Top places a slow traveler would want to see outside of BsAs
Buenos Aires is surrounded for hundreds of miles by the nearly perfectly flat pampas. Meaning that you aren't going to find the most spectacular natural beauty (unless you have a thing for never-ending prairie).
That being said, there is some to find, such as at Tigre (within one hour of BsAs via train or bus, population 300,000). Tigre sits on a river delta and offers boat rides through the marsh and islands. Some of the islands are known for their beauty, especially the Isla Martin Garcia where you can find an interesting town, gallery forests (canopied forests found in the tropics) and a wondrous tranquility (a very nice change from the bustling capital). The bird watching in the delta is very good, if that is your thing. Tigre itself is a city of 300,000 people, with a center that's apparently been revitalized in recent years, and is nice for walking around. Tigre is a very popular getaway for portenos from Buenos Aires, so keep that in mind before visiting on a beautiful weekend in January. You might find more people than birds or islands.
Another extremely popular summer getaway is Mar del Plata (five hours from BsAs via bus, pop. 550,000). It's a decent sized city that is Argentina's most popular and famous beach resort. If you are staying for a month in BsAs, and it's summertime, and the heat and humidity are getting to you, a week at the playa may be in order. Keep in mind that going during the holidays in January would be like going to the Costa Smeralda for ferragosto. By slow travel standards Mar del Plata is pretty far from BsAs, however it's known for being Argentina's best beach, and is supposed to be a nice city to peruse. As I visited Argentina in the winter, I had no reason to go to Mar del Plata, so this information is second hand from what I gathered talking to other travelers and Argentines. For those interested in a more serene beach destination, I have heard good things about Mar de las Pampas (reached from Villa Gesell, pop. 22,000) and Pinamar (pop. 20,000).
A more urban pleasure is La Plata (1 hour from BsAs via bus, pop. 650,000), which sits on the bank of the river La Plata as does Buenos Aires. The city was founded in 1882, designed in a grid fashion with diagonal cross streets, and wide boulevards leading into numerous plazas. It has a very European feeling due to its neoclassical buildings and feels vaguely similar to Paris. It is a bustling city in its own right, so don't come here expecting tranquility.
A more quiet destination is Colonia del Sacramento, the best preserved colonial town perhaps in the entire continent. Colonia is actually in Uruguay, and is only a short 45 minute boat ride from BsAs across La Plata. Only about 30,000 people live here, and its biggest draw is its barrio historico. Quaint, cute, charming and unique for the area.
Salta (population 500,000) is an interesting and beautiful city in its own right, but clearly outshined in terms of urban values by the capital. That being said, Buenos Aires doesn't have some of the world's most beautiful and interesting rock and mountain formations around it. Salta does. The combination of easily accessible natural beauty, plus a vibrant city filled with good restaurants makes Salta one of the most attractive places in Argentina for a slow traveler. I spent eight days in and around Salta and could have used another week. I would not recommend Salta as a place for someone who wants to spend a long time in one place (a month there and you might get a bit bored), but two weeks in the area, with time spent in Salta and in the numerous towns and sites around it, would be the highlight of any longer vacation. Of my nearly four months spent between Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, the Salta area ranks in my top three as far as most beautiful and enjoyable.
The tourist infrastructure here is highly developed as Salta is squarely on the Argentine tourist radar. It's one of the most popular destinations during holidays, especially the winter holiday in mid-July, when thousands of portenos from Buenos Aires come here for the sun and mild climate. Keep this in mind if you'll be here at this time and book well in advance. Also know that Salta is an absolute furnace in the summer; most tourists tend to avoid it in December and January.
Top things a slow traveler might want to do in Salta
If you are a church lover, Salta features three garishly colorful churches for your pleasure. One in baby blue, one in burgundy and gold, and the main cathedral in a shell pink. I've seen many-a-church in my life and these three have to be among the most gaudy yet beautiful I have experienced.
Next, the unavoidable saltea. The pride of Salta cuisine, a saltea is essentially an empanada but a smaller version of it, and filled with local recipes. You'll find empanadas all over Argentina, but the undisputed king is the saltea version (so popular they even sell them in Bolivia). From my own personal experience, I heartily agree. They are incredible, and nowhere outside of Salta will you find such delectable treats. Every restaurant, regardless of type, has these for about 3 pesos per (or $1 USD).
Also food related is the unique Salta experience of gauchos as entertainment. The line between dining and entertainment blurs a bit here, and some places take it all the way, combining dining with folkloric shows including gauchos and local music. I dined at some restaurants featuring gaucho waiters and whatnot, but never attended one of the shows. I walked by one of these places one night, "El Boliche de Balderrama" and it was absolutely packed with people who came for the show. So I can at least attest to its great popularity.
Top places a slow traveler would want to see outside of Salta
And now begins the main reason why people come to Salta: the scenery and small towns. There are essentially three loops one can do out of Salta, two of which I had time for, and both blew me away. The third is equally famous and absolutely recommended by everyone who undertakes it. The best way to do these circuits is by renting a car. Generally you'll get charged 130 pesos per day for a 1.6 liter 3-door car.
Route 1: Salta - Cafayate - Cachi - Salta
What can I say about this circuit. Incredible ... all sorts of adjectives could go here and none would do sufficient justice. Gravity and reality defying rock formations such as El Anfiteatro (ampitheatre), La Ventana (window), Los Castillos (castles), El Obelisco (obelisk), and La Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) lie on this route in the Quebrada de Cafayate. You'll likely run into a guitarist playing inside the Anfiteatro, and it's an experience. A solo acoustic player easily fills the entire space with music. Heavenly.
Along with these natural wonders lies multicolored rock hills, red rock canyons, cacti and a beautiful winding river and several picturesque river valleys. Cafayate itself is a nice little town, not much to do or see in it, but pleasant for an overnight stay. However wine lovers will rejoice for there are numerous vineyards surrounding Cafayate. Trips to do wine tasting and tours are a huge draw.
The Cafayate - Cachi portion of the circuit is less heavy on landmarks but features simply beautiful open terrain. You'll see a lot of jagged rock formations, almost like spears or pikes, on this route. Less red rock here and more white and grey volcanic formations. The towns along the way are tiny and cute, like Molinos and Seclantas. Cachi itself is a nice little town (and my personal favorite on this route). Good restaurants, nice for a little meander.
Cachi - Salta is equally scenic to the first leg of the journey, and is known as one of Argentina's most scenic mountain routes. It features more mountainous terrain, and the road winds through the beautiful Quebrada de Escoipe, a narrow gorge that threads through ridges and opens into giant panoramas. You also pass through Los Cordones national park, named for its giant candelabra cacti. Los Cordones is reminiscient of the altiplano found in Bolivia and Peru: high, flat and almost featureless desert.
The rockscape from Cafayate to Cachi - jagged and white
Some logistics: Salta to Cafayate is about 180km. Cafayate to Cachi is around 165km. And Cachi to Salta is 160km.
This trip is best done over the course of three days. Outside of Cafayate and Cachi the tourist infrastructure is slight. The other towns you encounter on this route are very small, and in reality are more like hamlets or villages.
Route 2: Salta - Purmamarca - Tilcara - Huamahuaca - Iruya - Salta
This is not a circular route like the previous one described. These towns lie on the main highway running north from Salta to the Bolivian border (with the exception of Iruya).
This is probably the most famous part of the greater Salta region for tourists, especially the seven-colored mountain of Purmamarca. Purmamarca is a small town and its one claim to fame is its big multicolored hill that sits as a backdrop behind the town. It's beautiful, but you'll see many multicolored rock formations around Salta so it's not unique in that regard. But to see so many colors compressed into one hill is pretty neat (pink, green, grey, purple, orange, brown, white). And around Purmamarca rise some impressive orange ridges. The best time to take a picture of the seven-colored mountain is 10am, when the sun is at your back and has illuminated the entirety of the mountain. Any earlier and it is obscured by one of the ridgelines opposite.
Between Purmamarca and Tilcara you'll pass Maimara, which has a pretty interesting cemetery. And on this stretch on the east side you'll see the multicolored ridge side, with its color-bands rolling up and down in a wavelike pattern. This entire area is the Quebrada de Huamahuaca, a UNESCO site for its villages and unlikely scenery. Tilcara is a pretty neat little town, but in my opinion Huamahuaca is more interesting if you had to choose only one to spend time walking through. But if you have plenty of time, which as a slow traveler you might, Tilcara is worth a nice afternoon to mosey around in. Huamahuaca, however, is definitely the most interesting small town around Salta. Very atmospheric at night, full of narrow streets and orange lamps. It's bigger than the other towns described in this section, so there's a bit more to see and wander through. And its church is absolutely beautiful, and sits on a very nice plaza.
For my money, it's these towns that make this route fun and interesting. The route through Cafayate and Cachi has better scenery, but less interesting towns.
Past Huamahuaca is Iruya, which sits off of the main highway. The route to Iruya is not long, but it's unpaved and involves a very steep climb (around a 1000 meter vertical ascent in about 50km) and can be arduous. I did not have the opportunity to get here, but every Argentine I talked to raved about the place and the trip to get there. They call it the "town hanging from the sky." A small town sitting on a mountainside practically cut off from the rest of civilization; gets very few tourists, and has very limited accommodations. It is probably best to consult a travel agent in Salta to arrange accommodations before getting there, as it's a good six hour trip from Huamahuaca.
Some logistics: Two highways run north from Salta. One is the main highway and appears to go out of the way on maps, and the other is the bypass and appears more direct. Despite being longer, the main highway is a good half hour faster as the bypass goes through some (uninteresting to a tourist) towns and has stoplights that really can back-up traffic. Between Salta and Purmamarca is the city of Jujuy, which held little interest to me nor most other tourists.
So one can get from Huamahuaca back to Salta in around 4 hours total. The entire route is paved.
Route 3: Salta - San Pedro de los Cobres - Salinas Grandes - Purmamarca - Salta
I did not get a chance to do this route, but here's some information anyhow. First off, most tourists know San Pedro de los Cobres only because it's where the "Tren a las Nubes" goes, the Train to the Clouds. It's reputedly one of the best train trips in the world for scenery, crossing several viaducts and whatnot. The train is currently (temporarily) closed, but you can drive Route 51 to S.P. de los Cobres instead, which follows the train tracks for much of the way. Thus you get most of the good scenery you would on the train.
One major issue is the state of the road - dirt track, and pretty rough by comparison to the other dirt roads in the area. Our car rental agency recommended against us driving it.
From S.P. de los Cobres you can head north to the Salinas Grandes, which is Argentina's largest salt plain. I drove through this on my way to Salta from Chile, and it's a pretty cool site and very worth seeing if you haven't been to the Salar de Uyuni. From the Salinas it's an easy jaunt to Purmamarca and back to Salta, all on paved highway.
Bariloche (population 120,000) is located in the south of Argentina, near the Chilean border, and in the Andes. It and the towns around it are quirky. It's as if they attempted to take the Vail (Colorado) look and transplant it into Argentina. It translates well. Perhaps one gets a mental image of what a mountain resort town should look like, and you generally expect to see one of those two styles: French-Swiss or Coloradoan. So when you get to Bariloche it just makes sense that this is how it should look. That said it certainly is a striking difference from other cities in Argentina.
Bariloche feels pretty upscale; it's a premier destination for the jet-set of Buenos Aires. This means you get fantastic food, good lodging choices, and of course higher prices. It's popular in both winter and summer, winter for the snow sports and summer for hiking and relaxing by the lake. Bariloche is located in the lakes district of Argentina, meaning no matter where you go you'll be near water and a good view. Which is good since there's really nothing to do in Bariloche, except gorge oneself on great meals (see my travel notes Argentina - Food and Restaurants). But if you are into either skiing, snowboarding, or hiking (they do a lot of paragliding here as well, saw quite a few floating about), then you'll be in paradise here. And a lot of people come here for that paradise. Expect to find the place pretty crowded with Argentine and Brazilian tourists in July through the first half of August, and in January. But once the hordes from Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Sao Paolo leave, you get the place mostly to yourself. When I arrived on August 4th the place was packed and buzzin'; when I departed on August 26the it was low key and tranquil.
La Hoya ski resort
Top things a slow traveler might want to do and see around Bariloche
The main winter attractions are snow sports. See my travel notes Argentina - Skiing for a guide to the ski resorts around Bariloche. The cost of skiing (lift tickets, rentals) here is roughly half that of Tahoe or Colorado, and from what I am told, a third cheaper to that of Switzerland and France. From Bariloche there are four resorts within three and a half hours of you, making it easy to hop around and try new places.
As I visited in the winter most of my time was spent either cozied up around a fire, holed up in a restaurant or bar, or on the slopes enjoying the snow. Due to the snow I didn't get to do any hiking, however I hear it's excellent, and from the natural beauty in the area I would be inclined to agree.
There are a couple excellent drives I did from Bariloche, and highly recommend. First is the famous Seven Lakes Drive, which is a nice scenic back road from Bariloche up to the very rich and well-to-do resort of San Martin de los Andes (ironically the first place Ernesto Guevara, noted communist, stopped on his motorcycle journey - indicating that Che was indeed a consummate middle class youth when he first started on his trip, undergoing quite a large transformation as time unfolded). The road can be rather pothole-y but our tiny rental car made it through no problem. Along the way expect alpine bliss: lakes, trees, mountain ridges, streams, and waterfalls. It makes a nice four hours.
The other drive I did was south, from Bariloche to Esquel. Bariloche likes to call itself "Alta Patagonia," which isn't really true but it probably looks good on tourist brochures. That being said, as you drive south from Bariloche you do get into the upper reaches of Patagonia, and really get some incredible landscapes to ooh and ahhh over. The Seven Lakes Drive is pretty in your typical alpine sense, but the drive to Esquel is majestic in a way one can probably only find in places like Patagonia or Alaska. Huge, open empty spaces. Big, big sky. Big, big mountains and ridges and glacier valleys. My nose was pressed to the window the entire way of this journey. I had the luck of going on this route as the sun was setting, I would highly recommend you do the same.
The towns around Bariloche
Villa La Angostura, San Martin de los Andes, El Bolson, and Esquel are all quaint and have their own different charms about them.
Angostura (population 2,000) is basically a one road town, but has some really fantastic restaurants and makes for a pleasant meander. It's on the same lake as Bariloche, and has the typical nice lake views.
San Martin is also on a beautiful lake, sitting inside its own little picturesque cove. There is a mirador (vista point) you can drive to above town for an utterly beautiful view down on the lake and the town in the background. It's of decent size, 20,000 residents, but feels very much like a small little town. It's easily the most squeeky clean and well-presented town I saw in Argentina. Hell there's even a mini harbor where the Buenos Aires crowd moors their sailboats.
El Bolson I did not stop in, but it has the reputation of a hippy hangout and handicrafts center. It didn't appear to be all that beautiful of a town, but it's situated in an almost unreal setting between two gigantic mountain ranges.
Esquel is the oddball of the bunch. It looks like it could be a little town in Kansas or something. Looks like small town America, honest to god, which is almost worth seeing since you are in Patagonia, Argentina. There's nothing to see or do here really, but it's the gateway to points south in Patagonia, and has the cheapest ski resort in the entire country ($15 lift tickets).
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3436: Matt's photos from his 2005 Argentina trip.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3468: Photo essays on South America, from Slow Travelers.
Argentina - Food and Restaurants: The food of Argentina and recommended restaurants.
Argentina - Skiing: Coming soon
Peru - Guide to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley (Peru): Coming soon
www.turismo.gov.ar: Argentina Tourist Office site
© Matthew Lepori, 2005
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