Argentina – Cool cities, endless Pampas, rugged peaks and Patagonian glaciers

Studded with outstanding natural wonders and endowed with one of the world’s hot-list cities, Argentina is a vast and varied land. The country encompasses a staggering diversity of terrains, from the lush wetlands of the Litoral and the bone-dry Andean plateaux of the Northwest to the end-of-the-world archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Its most emblematic landscapes are the verdant flatlands of the Pampas and the dramatic steppe of Patagonia, whose very name evokes windswept plains inhabited by hardy pioneers.

One of Argentina’s top attractions is the leviathan metropolis of Buenos Aires, the most fascinating of all South American capitals. The main cities worth visiting are colonial Salta in the Northwest, beguiling Rosario – the birthplace of Che Guevara – and Ushuaia, which, in addition to being the world’s most southerly city, enjoys a fabulous waterfront setting on the Beagle Channel. Here are the top destinations to visit in Argentina.

Buenos Aires: Seductive and cultured, sophisticated yet earthy, eclectic but with a strong identity, it never bores, seldom sleeps and invariably mesmerizes its visitors. Influenced by the great European cities, Buenos Aires nonetheless has its own distinct personality enhanced by proud traditions, including football, tango and mate.

Modern Buenos Aires features elegant restaurants, glamorous bars, historic cafés and trendy nightclubs, plus a world-class opera house, countless theatres, multiscreen cinemas, avant-garde galleries and French-style palaces all underscore its attachment to the arts and its eternal sense of style.

The Central Sierras: This landlocked region offers some exquisite Jesuit architecture in and around the historic city of Córdoba, as well as excellent outdoor activities in the surrounding countryside.

Lying about midway between the Andes and Buenos Aires, the province of Córdoba you find the stark juxtaposition of the flat pampas with the rolling sierras, the first mountain chain one encounters when moving west toward the Andes.

There are three chains of mountains in the western part of Córdoba province, all of which run parallel to each other, from north to south. They are the Sierra Chica in the east, the Sierra Grande in the center, and the Sierra del Pocho in the west. The Sierras de Córdoba are neither as high nor as extensive as many of the other mountain formations east of the Andes, but their easy accessibility, and their beauty, as well as the myriad of small rivers and watercourses, have established a strong reputation as an ideal environment for trekking, horseback riding, water sports, and fishing.

Added to these sporting options are opportunities to exploring the diverse settlements in the Punilla Valley, discover Jesuit architecture on the Jesuit trail and in Alta Gracia.

The city of Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest, holds some of the country’s finest examples of colonial architecture, both secular and religious. One of the oldest cities in the country, it was founded by Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera in 1573.

The Lake District: Argentina’s Lake District – the northwestern wedge of Argentine Patagonia – is a land of picture-perfect glacial lakes surrounded by luxuriant forests, jagged peaks and extinct volcanoes. The undisputed modern capital, Bariloche, offers amazing adventures while north is the stunning Seven Lakes Route, and to the south is the splendid Parque Nacional Los Alerces, home to more fabulous lakes and ancient alerce trees. Further south still lurks a trio of curiosities: Butch Cassidy’s cabin, the Welsh settlement of Trevelin and the historic railway at La Trochita.

However, the real attraction is the sheer unspoilt beauty of the goliath Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, one of Argentina’s most-visited national parks. The park’s centerpiece is Lago Nahuel Huapi, a glacial remnant. To the west, a ridge of high peaks separates Argentina from Chile; the tallest is 3554m Monte Tronador, an extinct volcano that still lives up to its name (meaning ‘Thunderer’) when blocks of ice tumble from its glaciers.

Neuquén, the namesake capital of Argentina’s only palindromically named province, is a pleasant enough city to relax in, but its indisputable draw has to be the nearby treasure-trove of giant dinosaur fossils, earning it the nickname of Dinosaur Paradise.

El Cuyo: Argentina’s midwestern region, generally known as EL CUYO, is formed by the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja plus the neighboring province of San Luís. This massive territory stretches all the way from the chocolate-brown pampas of La Payunia, on the northern borders of Patagonia, to the remote highland steppes of the Reserva Las Vicuñas, on the edge of the altiplano. The sophisticated metropolis of Mendoza, one of Argentina’s biggest cities, is the epicentre of the country’s wine tourism.

The region’s dynamics are overwhelmingly about its highly varied landscapes and wildlife. In the west of the provinces loom the world’s loftiest peaks outside the Himalayas, culminating in the defiant Aconcagua, whose summit is only a shade under 7000m. Ranging from these snowy Andean heights to totally flat pampas in the east, from green, fertile valleys to barren volcanoes – including the world’s second-highest cone, extinct Monte Pissis – the scenery also includes two of the country’s most photographed national parks: the Talampaya and the Ischigualasto. All this provides a backdrop for some of Argentina’s best opportunities for extreme sport – from skiing in exclusive Las Leñas, to whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and even the ascent of Aconcagua or the Mercedario and Tupungato peaks.

Patagonia: An immense land of arid steppe, seemingly stretching into infinity, Patagonia is famed for its adventures and adventurers, for marvelous myths and fabulous facts. As a region of extremes, it has few equals in the world: from the biting winds that howl off the Southern Patagonian Icecap – the planet’s largest area of permanent ice away from the poles – to the hearthside warmth of old-time Patagonian hospitality; from the lowest point on the South American continent, the Gran Bajo de San Julián, to the savagely beautiful peaks of the Fitz Roy massif; from the mesmerizingly sterile plains along the coastline to the astoundingly rich marine fauna that thrives and breeds just offshore.

One of southern Argentina’s principal arteries, the RN-3 stretches from the capital all the way down to austral Río Gallegos. The highlight of this Atlantic fringe of Patagonia is the wildlife, most notably at the nature reserve of Península Valdés, famous for its whale-watching, but also at Punta Tombo, the continent’s largest penguin colony.

The region’s climax is reached, however, with two of the country’s star attractions: the trekking and climbing paradise of the Fitz Roy sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, accessed from the laidback village of El Chaltén; and the patriotically blue-and-white hues of craggy Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the world’s natural wonders, within easy reach of the tourist hotspot of El Calafate.