Argentina is the new Brazil.
Well, at times that's how it seems. Until as recently as the mid-1990s, Buenos Aires – distant, expensive, unexotically European in flavour – was pretty much off the backpacking map, and there were few luxury hotels to tempt moneyed travellers. Apart from Iguazú Falls and the marine life of Península Valdés – made famous in the BBC documentary The Trials of Life – the provincial highlights were largely unknown unless you were a guidebook writer or an intrepid Hispanophile.
No longer. Now, the estancias of the pampas are popular with horseriders and polo fans alike. The widespread imbibing of malbec wine from Mendoza has inspired curious travellers to visit that relatively isolated oasis in the shadow of the Andes mountains. Patagonia is now recognised as one of the planet's great wildernesses. And the ever expanding – and occasionally collapsing – Perito Moreno Glacier is routinely listed as a natural wonder of the world.
But though the popularity of Argentina now makes it competition for the likes of Brazil, Mexico and Peru, it is a very different country from these – or any of its Latino neighbours. Sure, a few clichés always come to mind when Argentina is mentioned: tango, beef, football, Evita. But none of these quite capture the mystery of a country that has never being pigeonholed as a 'beach destination' or an 'ethnic hub'.
Charisma and contrast
Argentina, for many, is exciting because it surprises, entices – and even confuses. Buenos Aires has become a popular city destination partly because it shimmers with something like old-world European elegance, but also because it resists being defined as a South American Paris or Rome. And when, driving through the arid wastes of Chubut, travellers come upon Welsh settlements or Scottish estancias, they are delighted to encounter something familiar in a place that is so other and inhospitable. Salta is Bolivia with some smart hotels; Bariloche is Switzerland with some slum areas.
Argentina's strength, then, is a certain enigmatic quality. This year marks the bicentennial of the start of the Wars of Independence. On 25 May 1810, a group of liberal creoles formed a junta to establish a new government; parades and the reopening of the Teatro Colón opera house will mark the anniversary. It's also a great opportunity to revisit the country and remember that Argentina has a rich human history as well as a thrilling natural one. Buen viaje – happy travels!
1. Buenos Aires
Why do travellers – and expats – love Buenos Aires? The reasons may seem obvious: great weather for most of the year; grand mansions and lovely parks; beautiful and vivacious people; cheap steak and wine. It's a European cocktail laced with Latin energy, and oh so fashionable.
Kick off at the Plaza de Mayo, the country's political epicentre: independence was thrashed out in the whitewashed Cabildo (Town Hall); Evita addressed her adoring 'shirtless ones' from the balcony of the Casa Rosada (Government House); and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gather around the central pyramid on Thursday mornings to remember their 'disappeared' loved ones – victims of the 'Dirty War'.
From here, head south to atmospheric, colonial-style San Telmo, one of the barrios (neighbourhoods) that lay claim to being a cradle of tango. Calle Defensa, the main drag, is famous for its antique stores and cobbled Plaza Dorrego, and leads to Parque Lezama, thought to be the place where the city was first founded by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536. Mendoza was chased out of the region by local Indians, and the city was re-founded in 1580 by Juan de Garay.
Continuing south you'll find the working-class district of La Boca, home of the legendary Boca Juniors footie team, where Maradona rose to fame. Tango also had its genesis here; the quaint but touristy street El Caminito is named after a beautiful orchestral piece by Juan de Dios Filiberto.
From La Boca jump on the 152 colectivo (bus) and ride up to Plaza Italia on Avenida Santa Fe. This is the departure point for exploring Buenos Aires' biggest and most interesting barrio, Palermo. Sub-district Palermo Viejo, west of the avenue, is hip, romantic, cobbled along some streets (viejo means 'old'), and full of independent restaurants, bars and boutiques. Tree-lined streets make for slow strolling and browsing.
Tiny Plaza Cortázar is the social and commercial hub; there are a dozen bar-cafés here. To the east is Palermo proper, a smart, middle-class residential barrio, best known for its huge park, the Parque 3 de Febrero. Along Avenida del Libertador is the Museo de Arte Popular Jose Hernandez, dedicated to gaucho culture; on Avenida Figueroa Alcorta is the fantastic Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; MALBA).
At its southern edges, the neighbourhood segues into even posher Recoleta, where there's a small but edifying national gallery, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and the world-famous Recoleta Cemetery. The latter, a labyrinthine, marble-walled simulacrum of the city outside, is one of BA's greatest sights.
To wind up, head back into the downtown area and stop for a coffee at the Café Tortoni. Opened in the 1860s, this grand café has become a tourist honeypot, but if you head there late in the afternoon you might just find a quiet corner. Take along some Borges' poetry to read while you enjoy a strong cortado (espresso 'cut' with a dash of milk) and a couple of medialunas (sweet croissants).
When you emerge it will be dark, which is when BA comes into its own – this is a night owl's city. The theatres along Avenida Corrientes, the huge obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio, the pink walls of the Casa Rosada – all glow as a breeze blows in from the pampas.
By now you'll have fallen in love with BA. In fact, so essential is it to your Argentinian experience that all the following itineraries assume you'll spend three or four days in this heady, heaving, hedonistic city.
2. Great waters
Follow the river to the Iberá wetlands and Iguazú Falls (two to three weeks)
Rosario - Gualeguaychú - Esteros del Iberá - Corrientes - San Ignacio Miní - Iguazú Falls
The River Plate at Buenos Aires is the name given to the huge estuarial body of water formed by the meeting of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. The latter is the second-largest river system in South America, and it's possible to spend weeks exploring here, taking in Rosario – Argentina's second city – and Gualeguaychú, home to the country's best carnival.
However, the natural highlight is the Esteros del Iberá, shifting wetlands that are home to the rare maned wolf, as well as caiman, capybara, waders and other birds – including the magnificent jabiru stork and the wattled jacana. Great ranches such as the Rincón del Socorro provide travellers with a base for exploration, as well as the horses needed to ride saddle-deep into the wetlands.
North of here is steamy Corrientes, where Graham Greene set his novel The Honorary Consul, and baking Posadas. The latter is a good base for exploring the mate plantations, source of the tea so beloved of Argentines. North are the ruins of San Ignacio Miní, a Unesco World Heritage site made famous by 1986 film The Mission. But the must-see stop is Iguazú Falls: 'Iguazú' (Guaraní for 'great waters'), is a 3km-wide panoramic collection of 275 or so falls that makes Niagara seem like a dripping tap.
3. Ranching and riding
Go gaucho in Buenos Aires, San Luis and Córdoba provinces (two to three weeks)
San Antonio de Areco - Luján - Merlo - Sierras de Córdoba - Traslasierra
The huge swathes of grassland that begin where the city of Buenos Aires ends are known as la pampa húmeda or humid pampas. Confusingly, the province that lies around Buenos Aires is called Buenos Aires. This is the breadbasket of Argentina: the ranching and agricultural heartland that made the country rich in the early 1900s and also the source of one of its key mythologies: the gaucho, the creole cowboy who fights the wars, watches the cows, and cooks the open-air barbecues as the sun goes down.
For those who want to tap into this laid-back, rural world, and perhaps try on some of the traditional garb - a metal cummerbund, a rakish neckerchief and Arab-style pantaloons for the men, big frilly dresses for the women – there are dozens of fabulous working ranches that now host visitors.
The capital of gaucho culture, San Antonio de Areco, is only an hour out of the city, as is Luján, site of one of Argentina's most important churches and surrounded by old estancias. The province of San Luis to the west is a much-ignored extension of the pampas region, and the town of Merlo, which enjoys a pleasant microclimate, is a good base for camping, riding, rockclimbing and hiking. To the north, the province of Córdoba, which can be divided into the popular Sierras and more out-of-the-way Traslasierra ranges, is another ranching and agricultural region.
Not all the rustic culture hails from the pampas or in the centre of the country. The north-western provinces have their own proud regional gaucho cultures. Salta, for instance, is famous for its red-and-black ponchos, the haute couture of every local cowboy. Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego also offer opportunities for some serious, long-distance rides.
4. Wine and walking
Seek out the malbecs of Mendoza, then head into the high Andes for some serious hiking (two weeks)
Mendoza - Luján de Cuyo - Maipú - Puente del Inca - Los Penitentes - Las Leñas
Argentina came late to the wine wars. By the late 1980s Australia, New Zealand and co had all established their wineries overseas, so when Argentina – which had been making wines for local consumption since the Jesuits produced lagrimilla wine four centuries ago – entered the fray, it had to come up with a fresh new grape. It opted for an old, forgotten French one: malbec, which produces a fruity, full-bodied wine that just happens to go perfectly with grilled beef.
Many of Mendoza's most respected wineries – including Finca Flichman, Norton and Catena – are open to the public and allow tastings. Many are free to visit; pick up the Caminos de Las Bodegas guide (£2) – it's essential for independent vineyard touring, which you can do by car or bike.
A new clutch of hotels has opened to cater to wine-loving travellers, organising tours and tastings, while vineyards such as Salentein have created their own boutique hotels. Grapes are harvested late February/early March, celebrated with Mendoza's Fiesta de la Vendimia (Wine Harvest Festival).
Mendoza owes its year-round sun, ideal for many wines, to the rain-shadow provided by the Andes mountain range. Take a short drive west of the city to the Puente del Inca for views of Aconcagua (6,962m), the highest mountain in the Americas and a non-technical, but nonetheless extremely testing, climb. For non-summiters, the Puente – a natural rock formation that resembles a bridge – is a good starting point for hikes in the foothills.
In winter (late July through to early October), there's a ski season at nearby Los Penitentes (another rock formation, this time resembling cowled monks) and Las Leñas.
5. Native Argentina
See indigenous culture and historical gems in Tucumán, Salta and Jujuy (three weeks)
Tucumán - Tafi del Valle - Quilmes - Cafayate - Salta - Cachi - Salta - Purmamarca - Tilcara - Humahuaca - Abra Pampa - La Quiaca
Somewhere north-west of Cordóba city the pampas begin to give way to a higher, more arid and far more rugged landscape. Flatness is replaced by green hills and then beige mountains, before rising finally to the grey, snow-capped wall of the Andes.
The main highways follow deep canyons and ravines that reveal multi-coloured rock strata. This is the altiplano – physically stunning and culturally some 300 years older than the rest of Argentina; this is also the place where indigenous culture has survived – the further north you go, the more you start thinking you might be in Bolivia.
Tucumán is the gateway to the region, but it's not an especially traveller-friendly city. The sight worth seeing is the Casa de la Independencia, where independence was declared on 9 July 1816. West of Tucumán, the road winds up through a natural cleft of subtropical forest before arriving at Tafi del Valle, a hilly town set amid grasslands that looks a lot like Wales; sheep rather than llamas graze here, and temperate as well as tropical fruits grow.
The road then rises to rock-strewn prairies and then to the high plains, taking in a 1,000-year-old ruin at Quilmes, the wine-making oasis of Cafayate, the handsome city of Salta (if you have time, take the back road to Cachi to see a park of giant candelabra cacti), the 'Mountain of Seven Colours' at Purmamarca, and the dusty native towns of Tilcara and Humahuaca.
Somewhere along the way, the highway crosses the Tropic of Capricorn and you find yourself at airless, dusty Abra Pampa, where herds of vicuña graze and people wear thick ponchos. Finally there's La Quiaca, a bustling town on the border with Bolivia.
6. Patagonian epic
Discover lakes, glaciers, the Welsh and the whales (three to four weeks)
Bariloche - Esquel - Trevelin - El Calafate - Lago Argentino & Perito Moreno Glacier - Río Gallegos - Puerto San Julián - Puerto Deseado - Puerto Madryn - Península Valdés
Drive through the heart of Patagonia and at times it feels like an unbroken swathe of arid steppe. In fact, this vast region to the south of the Río Colorado features varied topography, including mountains, lakes, desert, pampas, dunes, forests and glaciers.
There are as many routes through such a huge region as there are roads, but a three- or four-week overland trip allows you to explore the edges of Patagonia – where most of the action is – and make a couple of excursions across the steppe.
A natural entry point is the Lake District in the north-west, served by regular flights from Buenos Aires. Bariloche is one of the most popular summer and winter resort towns in southern South America; while its pseudo-Alpine architecture, chocolate factories and lively bars and cafés are entertaining, the real attraction is the beautiful, big blue eye of Lake Nahuel Huapi.
There are seven more lakes just to the north and a drive along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (visited by Che Guevara during his motorcycle journey through Latin America) is a highlight. But after seeing San Martín de los Andes and Junín de los Andes – the former a summer and ski resort, the latter a trout-fishing centre – and hiking in some of the low mountains here, it's time to head south.
From Bariloche, the road winds through El Bolsón, known as Argentina's 'hippie capital' (a great camping spot), and the town of Esquel. The latter is the terminus for the Old Patagonian Express, now only a novelty rail service for tourists. South of Esquel is the ranch where Butch and Sundance holed up during their Patagonian sojourn in the 1900s and, close by, the town of Trevelin.
The latter is one of Patagonia's Welsh towns, and is worth a stopover to see its chapels, tea shops and Welsh museum. A sharp left turn here will take you down the Welsh valley explored by the pioneering settlers between the 1860s and 1890s, but unless you are on a Cymru-themed pilgrimage continue south through the empty spaces of central Patagonia – by way of the oft-ignored but lovely Parque Nacional Perito Moreno – and you will eventually arrive in one of Patagonia's most popular centres: El Calafate. This is the base for visiting huge, turquoise Lago Argentino, the immense Perito Moreno glacier and its surrounding national park, and the lunar landscapes of desert and steppe to the south of the lake.
From El Calafate many head into Chile to trek around Torres del Paine, but if you want more Argentina, cut across the steppe to Río Gallegos to follow the Ruta 3 highway up the coast. There's a handful of wind-blasted forlorn towns along the way, but the essential stops are Puerto San Julián, to see where Magellan made landfall in 1520; Puerto Deseado, for its porpoises and cormorant colonies; and Puerto Madryn, a convivial resort where the Welsh arrived in 1865.
Madryn, as locals call it, is the base for exploring the Península Valdés. From June to December this is the place to see southern right whales basking in the bay off Puerto Pirámides; seal and sea-lion colonies inhabit the peninsula year round. It's also possible to spot pods of orca hunting offshore. If penguins are your thing, head back to Madryn and south to Punta Tombo, site of the largest continental Magellanic penguin colony in the world.
What next? Well, you've still not seen that vast nada of the steppe, so take a left off Ruta 3 wherever you like and explore...
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