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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Argentina.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Argentina.
They say “like father like son” but in the case of the Montes, they stand for different sides of the Andes. Aurelio Montes, Sr. represents Chile and Vina Montes. Aurelio Montes, Jr. exemplifies Argentina and Kaiken. Although they are different countries and wineries, they have a lot in common, especially their passion for wine.
An exuberant passion for both wine and winemaking are two important components for producing an outstanding wine. This is true for both Aurelio Sr. and Aurelio Jr. I met Aurelio Montes, Jr., winemaker for Kaiken, a few years ago. When you’re in his company, his enthusiasm for his craft is quite apparent. You immediately sense his fervor for wine, the terroir and the entire winemaking process. This is also true of his father, which I sensed at a father-son tasting recently.
For Aurelio Jr., his love of wine started at a young age. His father made sure of this by dragging his son around the world with him as he was expanding his winery’s reach. Aurelio Jr. also worked in the vineyards starting at a young age.
At the time, Aurelio Montes, Sr. discovered the viticulture and terroir of the region east of the Andes – Mendoza, Argentina. As a result, he was moved to expand his winemaking prowess. He achieved this by having a hand in creating wines in a country very close to his native Chile, yet very different in the styles of winemaking. Hence, Kaiken was established in 2002.
Kaiken’s name represents the wild geese, caiquenes, that cross the Andes between Chile and Argentina during migration season. The name of the winery not only symbolizes this wild goose but also the Montes team that crossed the Andes to create the marvelous wines that embody the Kaiken label.
The Caiquen is also a very social bird and thereby suggests Aurelio Montes Jr. and Aurelio Montes Sr.
the social aspects that bring people together over a bottle of wine and food. It also represents the social responsibilities the winemakers feel they have in both Chile and Argentina.
The Aurelios are very civic minded and the community plays an important role in both wineries. Sustainability is important in every aspect of the vineyard. For Vina Montes and Kaiken, this means protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as attention to operations management and social responsibility. In other words, it is the mission of both wineries to “respect the environment, embrace sustainable practices, work in harmony with the local community and create value for both the shareholders and employees.”
At Vina Montes, the Angels program speaks out in the wines, winery community, and the local surroundings. Aurelio Sr. does this through a learning project he finances that includes complimentary health and life insurance for his employees and their families. As he puts it, “Happy people means happy wines.” The angel is their symbol and also the guardian of the Vina Montes winery. Some of his wines are dedicated to this program, including the Purple Angel and Sparkling Angel.
Another unique aspect of Vina Montes is music. You can always hear it resounding in the barrel room and the vineyards. Often, Gregorian chants echo throughout the winery.
Perhaps to further the importance of a sustainable approach to winemaking, Aurelio Sr. hired a Feng Shui architect to design and construct the winery building in 1990 and ensure that its environment is attuned to the wines. Even the water flows through the winery in a certain way.
Yes, we’re big believers in the idea that Buenos Aires can easily be done in a long weekend (if you hop a Friday overnight flight—11 hours from New York—you’ll get a full night’s sleep mid-air and wake up just one time zone away from where you left). But if you’re a fan of radically tasty albarinos and grenache blends, definitely tack on a few tannin-soaked days in Argentina’s Uco Valley or Garzon over in Uruguay. These two areas are not new tasting trails, as they’ve been on food-and-wine obsessives’ radar for the last couple years, but this year some revelatory openings make them easier to navigate and all around more plush for those who want a great spa treatment in between bottles of sauvignon blanc.
Anyone who knows Argentinian malbec knows Mendoza’s Uco Valley, where Francis Mallmann’s open-flame restaurant at multi-villa, ranch- style Vines resort has been drawing vino tinto lovers looking to eat local rib eye in gaucho country since its opening in 2014. Now it’s the unofficial anchor of Winemakers Village, a collective of privately owned vineyards, wine estates, and high-end lodgings across 80 acres that will eventually include 12 wineries, from the boutique to the positively micro. (And unlike at the miles-apart wineries common in Mendoza, the idea is that you’ll easily be able to vineyard hop by foot or bike.) Four vineyards, each helmed by vintners who’ve earned reputations from their years in the field, are already holding tastings: Super Uco, a biodynamic winery from the maverick Michelini brothers, known for getting creative with their aging techniques; Corazon Del Sol, where winemaker German Paez produces blends of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre; and SoloContigo, which launched in May with ten acres, standout torrontes, and outdoor tasting patios that look out on the Andes.
For a decade or so, Garzon, across the border in Uruguay, has developed a quiet following for its scores of small, under-the-radar (and, regrettably, under-visited) vineyards. But that could all change now that billionaire Argentine vintner Alejandro Bulgheroni has launched the latest in high-tech agro-tourism: Bodega Garzon, a 205,000-square-foot winery powered by renewable energy that’s on track to become the region’s first LEED certified vineyard (and has made this sleepy region catch up quickly with the high-priced bottles out of Mendoza). You’re coming here to taste tannat, Uruguay’s signature grape that somms will argue pairs even better than malbec with all that steak you’re eating.
Less than ten miles away is the tiny village of Garzon, where there are more sheep than cars on the streets, as well as Mallmann’s El Garzon Hotel and Restaurant, the most low- key of the ubiquitous chef’s ventures, which made the wine world pay attention to this town in 2004. Earlier this year, a few of the five guest rooms got wood-burning stoves and bigger bathrooms but retained the humble estancia aesthetic of wood floors and brick walls. Thankfully, the signature meals of pampas beef and fresh octopus haven’t changed a bit—nor have the views of the untrammeled yellows and greens of the Uruguayan countryside.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
When to Go
Most people visit during the harvest, from late February through April, but come in November/ early December to avoid the crowds and enjoy the warm South American spring.
Bodega Garzon: A swift two-hour Buquebus ferry takes you from Buenos Aires to Montevideo; then it’s an hour and a half to the bodega’s estates. (A detour toward the high-end beach town of Jose Ignacio takes less than an hour, and will let you cross
Laguna Garzon on native architect Rafael Vinoly’s futuristic ring-shaped bridge, completed in late 2015.) Winemakers Village: Take the two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, then drive an hour and a half south.
69 COLEBROOKE ROW, LONDON – With its unmarked side-street door, white-jacketed bartenders, jazz pianist and party vibe, this legendary spot is like tripping back to Fifties London. Even in the afternoon, the small, black-and-white, retro-designed room is buzzing with cocktail lovers. The candlelit tables are so crowded with exquisite drinks there’s barely room for the olives and mini saucisson.
Every one is innovative, including the Manhattan Steel Corp, made with maraschino liqueur and dry essence (a distillate concentrate of macerated grape seeds).
Almost too beautiful to drink, each is the creation of owner and mixologist Tony Conigliaro and his team at the Drink Factory. New comers are often surprised by their simplicity, but every cocktail is cutting edge and the changing menu has gained a cult following.
LITTLE RED DOOR, PARIS – Come here for a nightcap or five – it’s open until 3am on Saturdays – after bar-hopping around the Marais. It’s a laid-back spot with love-seat sofas, dimly lit corners and round-back chairs upholstered in a mish-mash of colourful fabrics. But to be in the thick of things, take a velvet-covered pew at the bar, where barmen with impressively high pours are dressed in denim shirts, dickie bows and aprons printed with flowers and butterflies. Bottom line: they’re having fun and the atmosphere here is super-friendly as a result. The Bartender’s Board Special changes fortnightly; original concoctions include The Hedgewitch, made with Amontillado sherry, Kamm and Sons botanical spirit, whiskey, blackberry liqueur and honey, garnished with a dehydrated blackberry. It’s a tribute to the mixologist’s mother’s favourite tipple.
LOS GALGOS, BUENOS AIRES – One of the city’s wonderful traditional bars, untouched for decades, the original Los Galgos closed its doors in 2015. But thanks to a rescue mission instigated by the savvy team behind the famous 878 bar in hip Palermo, an important slice of Buenos Aires’ Thirties history has been saved. Features such as French oak boiserie and beaten-up encaustic floor tiles keep the essence of the old Asturian tapas bar alive. And, given their taste both for nostalgia and a stiff drink, portenos have ensured that the relaunch has been an enormous success. It’s open all day, so start with a mid-morning cortado and come back for a vermouth and soda. But the cocktail that stands the test of time is the Negroni. One too many? Rib-eye seared medium-rare on the wood-burning grill will do the trick.
SALON DE NING, NEW YORK – Ah, the myth of Fifth. Not the most poetically named of avenues. Nor, these days, the prettiest. And yet – enchanted. Especially when seen from up high. Take the express lift, therefore, from the lobby of The Peninsula, at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, to Salon de Ning, the hotel’s elegantly east-meets-west-styled rooftop bar. Stand as close to the edge of the terrace your sense of vertigo allows. Cast your gaze up and down the street, which suddenly seems endless, seething with life and energy, and submit to sheer skyscraper hoodoo. Then take a seat or a day bed, recline into its plump silky cushions and raise a glass of something chilled and exotic – the house riffs on classic cocktails are unfailingly catchy – to what may still be the greatest city on earth.
DRY MARTINI, BARCELONA – Just as Ferran Adria was the wunderkind of the Spanish restaurant scene in the 1990s, the debonair Javier de las Muelas was its cocktail-bar impresario. He first shimmied his way into the spotlight in 1978 with the opening of emblematic Dry Martini. Almost 40 years later, he’s still going strong. How grown-up it feels to be in his gloriously old-fashioned world of polished-teak-panelled walls, racing-green leather armchairs and marble bar tops trimmed with gold. So cultish is its appeal there are now outposts from London to Singapore. But you really can’t beat the original joint, which hawks 100 variations of the classic Martini, as well as some of De las Muelas’ more outre inventions, such as The Pipe – a lethal concoction of Glenmorangie and Lagavulin whiskies, absinthe, spice droplets and smoke. Salut!
Cattle dung, grilled beef and horse sweat. It’s a perfume that might not have universal appeal but for me it was a sign that I had come to one of Buenos Aires’ (BA) most authentic neighbourhoods. Its name is Mataderos – Spanish for ‘slaughterhouses’ – and, since 1901, cattle have been driven, corralled and killed here to feed the ever-expanding population of the city and to satisfy the burgeoning demand for prime beef overseas. And on every Sunday for the past 30 years, a cluster of streets around the crossroads at Avenidas Lisandro de la Torre and De Los Corrales are closed and taken over by the Argentine capital’s only country fair. When I arrived, sometime after ten in the morning, scores of stalls were already busy selling everything from wooden handicrafts and mate tea gourds bearing patriotic insignia to long coils of red salami, crumbly country cheeses and jars of quince jelly.
There were also tango CDs, but the signature music was most definitely folk, and by noon the centre of the marketplace was given over to dancing couples – some in casuals, some in full gaucho regalia – dancing the lively, romantic chacarera I wandered around, happiest when most aimless, and chatted to an old chap who lived nearby over coffee – served from the back of converted 1920s Ford Model A by a Brazilian from Curitiba My local connection lectured me on the Falklands, politics, corruption and the usual staples of Argentine discourse, and then I roamed a little more, soon building up enough of an appetite to enjoy a sandwich of tender vado-flank steak- and a glass of craft beer.
This was rus in urbe (countryside in the city) of the finest kind. The residents of Buenos Aires might be known as portenos-port people – but the gaze in Mataderos is definitely directed inland, towards the pampas rather than the sea I got chatting to some friendly young guys manning the beer stall. “Mataderos is still the real thing,” said Miguel. “It’s safe out here and friendly, and it’s more for locals than for foreigners.” As I left, a boy was warming his horse up for an old country sport called corrida de sortija – in which riders galloped along holding aloft at wig that they hold out to hook a ring. It’s like low-cost jousting, but harder. However, l was already sated by my time in the magical ‘urban pampas’ of the Mataderos Fair, so I jumped on the No. 55 bus back to the city proper.
Wheel life – Whether gazing out of your plane window, from a rooftop bar downtown or from your hotel bedroom, at some stage you’re going to notice that BA is one of the world’s megasprawls. Spread out across what was once relatively flat pampas, and built in a bit of a hurry from the 1900s on – the local standard for a home is a mid-rise apartment – it can, in the wrong weather, look like a grim, grey mess. But the Argentine capital hides plenty of charms, and among its urban maze lie special pockets of greenery. Having indulged in museums, galleries, cafe-hopping and craft shopping, these open spaces allow you to get active and breathe with a bit more confidence than you might on the smoggy streets of downtown. I began by hitting Parque Ties de Febrero – just a short taxi ride from my hotel in Palermo Viejo.
Landscaped in the 1870s, the former estate of tyrannical caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas is now BA’s largest city park. It also goes by the names of Parque Palermo and Bosques de Palermo (Forests of Palermo), the latter in reference to those areas where sizable rosewood, palm, jacaranda and eucalyptus trees still stand. After inhaling their perfume, and that of the thousands of roses found here, I discovered a little gallery (Museo Sivori), perused its art and had a coffee. In BA you’re never far from culture, even in the middle of a park. The next day I went semi-rural again with a cycling trip. I met young guide Mariano and three other cyclists at the Plaza San Martin, beneath the monument to Jose de San Martin, Argentina’s liberator. It’s easy to overlook the plazas, but they are strikingly beautiful places.
This one was packed with white magnolias, pines, and oaks, and in one comer stood a massive, century-old gomero tree that required props to holdup its branches, which stretched out like long dark limbs across the ground. After a brief run-through of Argentine Independence (the country celebrated its 200th anniversary in July 2016), we set off on a whistle-stop tour of the area’s historical sites: the Malvinas War monument, the English clock – a 76m-high replica of Big Ben and gift from the city’s expat community – and Retiro railway station, which was built by the British. Mariano skilfully avoided taking sides, but talked openly about the corruption and dictators of the late 1970s and early ’80s. We also saw the city’s famous Immigrants’ Hotel, where poorer settlers were once fed and watered before going off to start new lives.
We then cycled through Puerto Madero, a pedestrianised dock development, passing flash apartments, corporate HQs, a couple of five-star hotel and the excellent Fortabat Collection. This private gallery showcases the art collection of the late Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, who, rather appropriately given its abundance in the city, made her billions in cement. Following a ride along the Costanera Sur, an old promenade dating from BA’s be Seepoque of the 1920s and ’30s, we pedalled into the Reserva Ecologica – a wonderful urban wilderness rescued from the city’s bulldozers.
Then came some seriously urban sections, as we passed under a motorway flyover and into a housing development built by the Perons, then on to the La Boca neighbourhood, to see the picturesque but, for me, too busy multi-hued pseudo-slum houses of Caminito. We grabbed a coffee and then rode back via the Plaza de Mayo, political epicentre of the nation and busy with barricades and posters. There’s always a march or a protest being planned against this wonderful backdrop, where Evita once promised the world to her beloved ‘shirtless ones’.
A natural escape – After a day or so of heavy exploration, I kicked back for a while, enjoying Buenos Aires’ more obvious metropolitan pleasures: moody old cafes, empty churches, bars and steakhouses, bookshops and bakeries. It’s not difficult to get drawn in to the city. Buenos Aires is set on an immense grid, easy to navigate and flat, meaning it’s ideal for strolling. I was soon enticed into wandering its celebrated streets: Avenida Corrientes, the theatrical and fun thoroughfere; 9 de Julio, the absurdly wide swathe in the centre of the city; Lavalle and Florida, the two most famous pedestrianised streets downtown, full of snack bars, cinemas and evangelical churches; and Defensa, a street as old as any in Buenos Aires, which took me out to the Parque Lezama where, it is believed, Pedro de Mendoza first founded the city in 1536.
After a couple of days’ exploring, I found myself back at the Reserva Ecologica, only this time on two feet instead of two wheels. I was in the company of Horacio Matarasso, ornithologist, guide and leading member of Aves Argentinas – the local equivalent of the RSPB and celebrating its centenary this year. It was one of those days portenos like to call a ‘Dfa Peronista’ – cloudless, sunny, fresh and perfect for both walking and watching. We started off by strolling along the edge of the park, spotting a few of the species that proliferate in the capital: mockingbirds, kiskadees (known by their onomatopoeic cry of benteveo’, which sounds like the phrase, I see you well’), cowbirds, ovenbirds, red-crested cardinals. Along lake borders the reserve, home to coots, teal and the lemon-winged wattled jacana, which has long toes to allow it to walk on lily pads and, to the naked eye, on water, too.
Then, using a newly opened entrance into the Reserva proper, we were suddenly amid a lush low forest of native shrubs and trees. Soon we were ticking off five, ten, 15 birds – two types of hummingbird, two kinds of parakeet and plenty of hawks. Birders rate species from I to V (low to high) based on the likelihood of seeing them; while we saw plenty of category IV and V species but we also spied a category I, a rare sighting of a tanager. Horacio was as delighted as I was. As we walked, we passed athletic joggers, older walkers and cyclists.
It was a uniquely bucolic, super-safe area, unlike my experience of other urban green spaces Horacio explained that it was an ecologically vital zone, part of a longer corridor that accompanied the Parana river right up into Brazil. There were benches to sit on and open spaces of lawn for stretching and resting, but no food or shops, limited signage and – a rarity in any Argentine green space – no barbecue areas. “The City Government sometimes tries to treat the reserve as just another park,” said Horacio. “But it’s not. It’s more like a national park, and needs to be seen as that.”
Growing up in Upstate New York, I started fishing with my dad as early as I can remember, and hunting at 16. He taught me how to identify different species of waterfowl, how to shoot and clean a gun, and which flies to use to catch trout. No matter where I am in the world, the change of leaves means grouse and woodcock hunting and the beginning of deer season; the first snowfall is a sign that duck and goose season is on the way. I’ve always hated hiking for hiking’s sake, yet I will happily walk for miles in search of game. I’ve also never been a morning person, but I’ll easily wake up at 4 a.m. on the coldest winter day for a duck hunt, or at first light in the summer to fly-fish some deep pool of a river. It’s early mornings like these, hovering in the cold of a duck blind with family and good friends over a thermos full of coffee, that make me feel alive and connected to the world in a way that nothing else does.
It’s no wonder I opted to buy 130 acres of farmland in a familiar corner of Upstate before I considered buying a primary residence in the city. But while I’m a kid from Binghamton, I’ve always been a sucker for big cities and all they have to offer.
As an art student and later as a professional photographer living in New York City and circling the globe on assignment, I became the rare guy who loves an ice-cold American beer out of a can about as much as a French Bordeaux—and I’m as comfortable in a pair of waders as I am in Belgian loafers. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively to hunt (woodcock and grouse in the Adirondack, wild boar in Texas) and fish (salmon at remote camps in Alaska, trout in the Spanish Pyrenees).
But it wasn’t until I went to Argentina—starting in Patagonia, the Western Hemisphere’s southernmost tip that includes 260,000 square miles of Argentina and a slip of Chile, up through the central agricultural plains that surround the colonial city of Cordoba—that I found the perfect union of all my loves: nature, wine, and an effortlessly sophisticated approach to food and decor. More than any other country I’ve visited, Argentina is designed for the gentleman sportsman. It’s nearly impossible to get your head around the vastness of the land and the sky when you’re standing thigh-deep in the clear waters of the Chimehum River, casting for brown and rainbow trout that have grown improbably fat thanks to the river’s catch-and-release policy.
Unlike expansive landscapes in the American West—where, outside of national parks, nature inevitably bleeds into strip malls or suburban housing developments—in much of Argentina, there are few man-made structures to help you grasp the scale of the place; your only clue maybe the silhouette of a gaucho herding cattle against the backdrop of a Jurassic landscape. It’s equally moving to watch the sunrise over the seemingly endless fields of head-high sunflowers as you head out to hunt doves in the agricultural province of Cordoba, which has, over the past few years, become one of the finest wing-shooting destinations in the world. Yet it’s more than this. There’s an unfussy elegance, the softer side of the sporting experience that is at odds with its more macho, blue-collar American counterpart.
Add to that a financial accessibility for this level of luxury that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Things that don’t seem like much are, in context, everything when you consider the alternative, which typically involves a motor lodge off some highway, a burger from a diner, and definitely no frills. Outside of a handful of exclusive lodges in Europe and the United States, refinements like lavender-scented sheets in the guest rooms, someone offering to stoke a wood-fired sauna for you, a handwritten note that cocktails will be at 9 p.m., after the evening hunt, and a kitchen that turns the stag or wild boar you shot into the night’s asado and serves it with an exceptionally good malbec just don’t cross over into the hunting experience.
GETTING THERE – Your first stop on the way to Aconcagua will be the town of Mendoza. There, you will collect your climbing permits, source any necessary equipment and supplies and arrange your transport to the trailhead. We flew to Mendoza rather via Sao Paulo and Santiago de Chile to get a discounted airfare. The most common route goes via Madrid and Buenos Aires with Aero tineas Argentinas. Long-distance coach connections also exist from the main cities in Chile and Argentina. The Aconcagua National Park is a three to four hour drive from Mendoza along National Route 7. You’ll be able to find accommodation at the former ski resort of Penitentes, as well as the offices of most trekking providers. Public transport connects Mendoza with Penitentes and the main trailheads four times a day.
WHEN TO GO – The normal climbing season is summer, extending between November and March. Outside of this period the winds are too strong, temperatures too low and all park services shut. Though, special permits are available for highly experienced, well prepared parties.
PAPERWORK – Whether you want to go all the way to the top or just hike along the valley floors – a beautiful trek in its own right – the first thing you’ll need is a permit. There are different types and fees, depending on the season and length of your trek and whether or not you’ll be using a local provider. Permit rules and procedures are subject to change, so it is always best to check the park website or you may be in fora bit of a shock.
GOING ALONE – If you go completely on your own, all you need to do after the above is pack your gear, load supplies for the whole expedition and jump on a bus to the trailhead. Most climbers rely on local providers to transport their gear to base camp and for some cooked meals or accommodation at Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas. Above Plaza de Mulas you’re typically on your own, although it is possible to hire porters or mountain guides for the higher camps. Having said that, if you’re looking fora fully supported expedition, it is best to inquire with the main commercial operators.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED – You’ll need some seriously good gear to protect yourself against the wind and the cold, including warm gloves, down overmittens, while double boots with removable inners are the standard footwear. The sleeping bag needs a comfort rating of at least -20C, in combination with a good mat and adequate thermal underwear, plus warm and wind proof mid and outer layers. Your tent will need to resist the fierce Aconcagua winds, but do not bother with pegs, as the terrain is generally too hard. Gas stoves work well most of the way and may be your choice for the simplicity of use and maintenance. Multi-fuel stoves, on the other hand, can also burn the cheaper ‘white gas’ and will become essential if the butane-pro pane mix liquefies with the cold. Some of the more comprehensive items will be available for rent in Mendoza. Oh, and don’t forget your pee bottle…
HEALTH & SAFETY – The single biggest health hazard on Aconcagua is acute mountain sickness (AMS). Any combination of a headache and gastrointestinal troubles, weakness, lightheadedness or difficulty sleeping must be considered as a symptom of AMS. Proper acclimatisation and hydration are therefore essential. Hydration is especially critical since the whole area is a vast high-altitude desert and water is scarce in the best of circumstances. There are two medical posts on the normal route, at Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas, where all climbers must submit to a free medical check before ascending further. Then there’s the weather. Adequate equipment and good judgement are needed at every stage of the climb to avoid being caught by Aconcagua’s infamous viento bianco. A daily weather forecast is available from the rangers and trekking agencies.
OPERATORS – The approved local providers are listed on the park website, which also includes contact details for the authorised mountain guides. Commercial expeditions are available from trekking and mountaineering operators such as Jagged Globe, KE Adventure, Adventure Peaks.
Christmas is approaching and our flights to Argentina are confirmed. On a Sunday afternoon I fmd myself at home, surrounded by the largest collection of gear I’ve ever assembled for a single trip: rucksacks and duffel bags, stormproof tent, my warmest sleeping bag and double boots, sack upon sack of dehydrated food. And a fluorescent green plastic pee bottle, marked with a large skull sticker. We’re heading to Aconcagua. It’s a journey which started a long time ago. It slowly came together over sparse talks with friends and was postponed year after year for injuries, weddings and financial crises. But then, the phone and email traffic increased, lists of food, equipment and trekking providers appeared, and we found ourselves running, cycling and sweating up and down the stairs under a big pack as the neighbours’ watched on with a bemused stare.
Christmas has come and gone. All nine finally meet at the airport: Alex and I, friends from previous hiking trips, Barbara, Gian, Victor and his tent-mate Rick, and Roberta, a lively 50-year-old lady from Bolzano with her partner, Syl-vain, who decided to attempt Aconcagua (6,962m) at 64 after defeating two cancers.
Our bags are so heavy and unwieldy that I’m shocked they’re even allowed near the economy check-in desks, but soon we’re all in an airplane flying over the Atlantic. We see it for the first time many hours and a few flights later, drowsy from the long journey. The Horcones Valley lies beneath the airplane like a giant wound in the earth. Above it, so high we can almost touch it, rises Aconcagua. The black, enormous, frightening piece of rock stares back at us, daring us to climb it. There’s no time for apprehensiveness in Mendoza as we meet Nicolas, our provider’s contact and are immediately confronted with the bureaucratic ordeal of getting our climbing permits.
The streets of Mendoza are blocked by a raucous crowd. “Macri supporters”, says Nicolas as we negotiate our way past the demonstration. National elections are near, and the two main candidates have split the public opinion. He continues: “Yes, this is still a divided country”. We leave Nicolas at the park headquarters and head straight for the outdoor shop where we’ll get our fuel and last bits of gear. Then it’s the bus ticket office and, finally, a restaurant. “Did you say you’re a plasterer?” I ask Barbara as we sit on the coach to Penitentes, plains and mountains rolling away under a low cover of clouds. “Yes,” she smiles, “I actually graduated as a chemist, but after one day at work I realised I wasn’t cut for an office job. My boyfriend was a plasterer, so I started working with him. If that sounds odd, ask me of the house I bought in Mongolia”. Penitentes looks like an abandoned outpost.
A few houses line the windswept road where big lorries speed and never stop. Rundown hotels and chair lifts are leftovers of the time when this was a popular ski resort. But Penitentes is where trekking providers have their stores and tomorrow morning they’ll carefully weigh and label our bags, load them on the mules and take them to Plaza de Mulas, where we’ll arrive in three days. There’s just enough time for a last as a do, Argentina’s famous grilled meat, before we sort out our packs and enjoy our last night in a proper bed. Fernando’s minivan drops us at the entrance of the Aconcagua National Park, the rangers check our permits and give us our rubbish bags and a detailed briefing of all the regulations. In practice, anything you do will trigger a $1,000 fine. Outside the window, framed by the deep blue sky, Aconcagua stares down at us while the ranger keeps talking.
The trek begins. We walk through the vast landscape and the sparse, hardy vegetation. We dance over a suspended bridge, a line of mules overtake us as we negotiate the steep, eroded banks of another stream. Confluencia is a small group of coloured tents, each quarter occupied by a different agency. Alex and Sylvain look a bit tired, but this is the first day and we’ve reached 3,200m of altitude relatively fast. The crazy thing is, round here 3,200m is low. The ranger on duty greets us with a friendly smile and quickly stamps our permits, all the while without taking his eyes off Barbara’s long hair. We spend two nights at Confluencia, hiking up to Plaza Francia to better acclimatise and give a close look at Aconcagua’s imposing South Face. As we walk along the Horcones Inferior Glacier, Lorenzo and Victor discover a common passion for rugby, and their tales of matches and drinks fill the grey, red and brown valley.
Plaza Francia is a silent, empty site with a lonely signpost in the middle. The immense, white wall of the south face looms over it while a small cloud dances on the summit, perhaps there’s someone now at the top, looking down on us from 6,900m. We’re back at Confluencia for the medical check. Just in time before the doctor calls it a day, he’s got an invitation to the rangers’ barbecue, which has exceptionally been extended to Barbara. The doc clears everyone for the next leg, apart from Sylvain. “Your blood pressure is too high. Take these,” he frowns, handing him a few pills. “But if it’s like this tomorrow, you’ll have to go down”. While the rest of the group sets off in the early morning, Sylvain, Rob and I wait for the doctor to open shop for another check. If the evening party has taken a toll on him, he hides it well when he opens the door.
Sylvain’s pressure has dropped considerably, and with another handful of pills we’re good to go. It’s a long way to Plaza de Mulas, and over 1000m of height gain. After an hour or so we enter the long, endless Playa Ancha: the valley floor is almost flat here, so empty and featureless that it looks like we aren’t even moving. We carry on walking, staring ahead with minds as empty as the land scape itself. We approach the final, steep ascent. It’s all grey scree and dust now we left the last shrubs a long way back. Aconca gua’s western buttresses tower above us. It’s almost evening when we reach Plaza de Mulas, a surreal village of plastic domes huddled in a vast rocky bowl, inhabited by strange humans all wrapped in duvet jackets. With the possible exception of Gian and Rick, we’re all tired from the long day and some are feeling the altitude: Victor is a bit nauseous, Roberta has a light headache.
Foreign visitors per year: 50,000+
Language: Argentine Spanish
Unit of currency: Argentine peso (AR$)
Cost index: 970ml bottle of beer AR$15-50 (US$2-6), campsite AR$50-60 (US$6-8), all-you-can-eat asado AR$100-150 (US$12-20), seven-day guided glacier trek (from US$2000)
Take a stunningly beautiful Zermatt, raze everything over two storeys (or three stars!), fill it with a motley collection of artisans, entrepreneurs and students, add a gaucho or two, then turn a cyclone loose, and you’ll be getting close to the vibe of Argentina’s newest city. While the town (`city’ is an overstatement) is towered over by jagged 3405m Monte Fitz Roy and enigmatic, ice-rimed Cerro Torre (3102m), its barrios include the 726,927 hectares of pristine World Heritage glaciers, peaks, lakes, forests and waterfalls of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
Throw in the second-largest chunk of ice outside polar regions, the wild and mysterious Hielos Sur (Southern Patagonian Ice Cap), and it’s no wonder Chaltén has quickly become Argentina’s trekking capital.
Even ‘town’ is optimistic. There’s still a village atmosphere, aided and abetted by a straggly main drag, unsealed side roads, lack of mobile phone reception, flakey internet, and a single ATM (which routinely runs out of cash on weekends). The closest airport is three hours away and the only civilised way into town is along Ruta 23 from El Calafate. But this just adds to Chaltén’s quirky appeal.
Make no mistake, it’s Los Glaciares that people come to see, and there are plenty of trails, views and peaks for enthusiasts of all capabilities, from half-day lakeside meanders to fully tooled week¬long sorties out on the ice cap. And if walking or getting vertical doesn’t do it for you, consider horseback, mountain bikes, fishing or sucking on a hand-crafted ale among other diversions. Officialdom is refreshingly laid-back.
Commemorating the first Argentine ascent of Fitz Roy, the annual Fiesta Nacional del Trekking in March sees numerous cross-country endurance events held in the surrounding hills.
Desafio Chaltén (Chaltén Challenge) every April combines mountain biking with trekking in an adventure racing.
Long summer days; hand-crafted beers; plastic travel gourds for mate (great for hiking if you’ve become addicted to Argentina’s national drink); coffee socks (reusable cloth filters, the best way for a caffeine hit on the trail)
Los vientos (wind). Screaming in off the ice cap like a demented banshee, it will shred tents, knock over fully laden trekkers and blow any loose gear into Tierra del Fuego.
The snow crunches underfoot as you stop to catch your breath out on the Hielos Sur, a vast expanse of white that stretches mind-bendingly to infinity. Or at least to Chile, where in the distance a range of nunatuks (exposed peaks) look like smashed pavlova. Shackleton eat your heart out!
Sit in the cold above Laguna Los Tres watching the first rays of dawn turn the sheer east face of Fitz Roy into molten lava.
Walk into town using the Chilean back door, via Lago O’Higgins and Laguna del Desierto, a multi-day wilderness crossing that sees only a handful of travellers.
The first apres-trek beer, a long-neck Quilmes Bock scoffed outside el supermercado. You haven’t even taken your pack off.
Mobile phone access. Should it come or not? Will it be the end of business or the end of the world? Everyone in town has an opinion.
Classic restaurant experience:
Vegetarians stop reading now. After days on the trail eating dehydrated soups and two-minute noodles, there is one dining experience in town that shouldn’t be missed, one whose mere mention brings saliva to jaded tastebuds. The all-you-can-eat asado. Argentines do barbecue meat with a religious fervour, and the asado, complete with charcoal firepit and crucified whole carcasses, is a meat-lover’s nirvana. Well, until the day after, when you decide to eat salad for the next week. Look for a tin shed north of Relinchos with the words ‘all you can eat’ and `parilla’ outside, but really, any parilla (grill) will do.
Classic place to stay:
It’s busy, cramped and sometimes downright uncomfortable, but there’s no greater (nor cheaper) melting pot of travellers than Camping Relincho. Perched above the Rio de las Vueltas, campers seek shelter behind trees, fences, cars, anything vaguely out of the wind. Your next-door neighbours could be a pair of hard-core Slovenian climbers, a well-groomed Buenos Aires family spanning three generations, or a lone Aussie motorbiker. When the wind is blowing a gale and your tent is bending double, the warm, cheery, chaotic communal kitchen is a refugio in every sense of the word, and somehow, everyone still manages to charge their mobile phones, even though they can’t use them.
Salta’s stunning countryside is dotted with pre-Columbian ruins, artisan villages, and deep, mineral-streaked, polychrome quebradas (ravines) carved by rivers running down the snow-draped Andes. Through this eerily eroded area by the Argentina-Chile border, the seasonal El Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) makes an unforgettable high-altitude, high-adrenaline trip that is on the must-do list of all train buffs. The fifteen-hour trip – not for the faint of heart – leaves from Salta, one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Argentina.
A magnificent engineering achievement, the track was finished only in 1948; it includes a harrowing series of switch-backs and tunnels, and crosses dozens of iron bridges and viaducts. The highlight is the 200-foot-high viaduct that crosses the La Polvorilla desert canyon before the train’s turnaround point in San Antonio de los Cobres, an old Indian mining town 13,000 feet above sea level. The return trip may induce a case of scenery overload – a good time for a siesta.
Recharge any frayed nerves at the area’s premier estancia, El Bordo de las Lanzas. After the revered General Martín Miguel de Gúemes led local gauchos in several successful battles against the Spanish royalists in the early 1800s, he would rest up at this estancia – even then a nurturing hideaway. Bordered by Chile and Bolivia and framed by the foothills of the Andes, the northwestern Salta Province is a center for farming and livestock, and the estancia’s 11,000 acres are dedicated to sugarcane, tobacco, sunflowers, and raising zebu cattle and the famous paso peruano horses that are available for guests’ use. Big, traditional meals based on regional specialties, using beef and ingredients from the estate, are proudly hosted by the gregarious Arias family of twelve, who make sure that their elegant 18th-century landmark estate provides the finest estancia experience in the region.
Detractors bemoan the loss of much of the old-world character of this developing ski resort in the heart of Argentina’s Lake District, but no one criticizes its enviable location in one of the continent’s most scenic areas. Modeled after an Alpine village, Bariloche is full of chalets and gingerbread-style shops; and restaurants serve up Austrian-German cuisine – this is chocolate and fondue country.
If you prefer natural beauty to man-made quaintness, head out of town and follow the signs for any of three driving tours that begin and end in Bariloche: The mountain and lake scenery is uniquely beautiful in each of the four seasons. The three-hour Circuito Chico (Short Circuit) is a lovely afternoon’s excursion, while the lengthier 150-mile Circuito Grande makes for a full day of gorgeous landscape. Both drives include excellent views of Patagonia’s Nahuel Huapí National Park, where you’ll find some of the world’s most dramatic peaks. And tucked away here in Argentina’s largest and oldest national park is the Llao Llao Hotel, uniquely situated on 40 spectacular private acres.
The hotel is in perfect harmony with its Andean location: There are ethnic fabrics, open fireplaces, and gleaming cypress logwork, all in an elegant hunting-lodge atmosphere – and everywhere, those views. Built in 1937 on the island-studded glacial Lake Nahuel Huapí (where Argentina’s record salmon weighed in at 35 pounds), the Llao Llao has recently been resuscitated after having been closed for fifteen years. Privatized and impeccably renovated, it is once again one of the stellar hotel-resorts of South America, with a new 18-hole golf course and lakeside tennis courts for guests who visit at the height of the summer, and nearby Bariloche’s sixteen ski runs for those who come in the austral winter. The cable car ride to the 7,000-foot peak of the Cerro Catedral is breathtaking in any season.