1. Canada’s National Parks
Why they’re hot? They’re free and ready to party!
Canada’s national parks are spectacular, from the dinky 15 sq km Georgian Bay Islands National Park to Alberta’s vast Wood Buffalo NP – the size of Denmark. But their scale is rivalled by the variety of geography available, taking in snow-swept tundra (Wapusk NP, Manitoba), Rocky Mountains (Jasper NP) and the dense old-growth rainforest of British Columbia (Pacific Rim NP). And to top it off, admission will be free during 2017, to mark 150 years of the Canadian Confederation: the perfect reason to find yourself celebrating in ‘the Great White North’.
From capital Ottawa, head south to Ontario’s Thousand Islands NP and grab a kayak to explore the titular chain of granite that pierces the St Lawrence River. Further west, Bruce Peninsula NP lies along the western shoreline of Georgian Bay, with fine trails and a marine park to explore, while Point Pelee NP is home to some of Canada’s best birdwatching. Alternatively, Mont-Temblant NP in Quebec boasts one of the most dramatic via ferrata on Earth. With so much choice on offer, this is a party you won’t want to miss.
2. Patagonia, Chile & Argentina
Why it’s hot? It’s 40 years since Bruce Chatwin explored the region, and you can too with new flights
Back in 1977, Bruce Chatwin shook travel-writing with the release In Patagonia. Hitting readers like a hard shot of pisco sour to the soul, four decades on, travellers still cling to tattered copies, as ripe a glimpse into Patagonia’s history, people and myths as anything since. So what better time to follow in his footsteps – especially with the launch of direct flights to Santiago, Chile?
Stand on the beaches of Argentina’s Puerto Madryn, as Chatwin did, where Welsh pioneers first landed in 1865 and continue to Trevelin, the archetypal green valley the settlers sought. Track Ruta40, meeting gauchos and stopping at estandas (ranches) en route; visit Mylodon Cave, where Chatwin sought his mythical sloths, in sight of the white-dusted peaks of Chile’s Torres del Paine NP; and cross into ‘Fireland’ (Tierra del Fuego NP).
But don’t stick to the book: this is a place to forge your own adventure, exploring sub-polar magellan forests, whale-rich seas and sweeping glaciers. Chatwin would heartily approve.
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.
Why it’s a hot spot: The Antarctic is a good feeding ground for orcas and it is estimated that half the world’s population (around 25,000) reside there. Tours circle the Antarctic Peninsula in search of dorsal fins cutting through waves, or to witness orcas crashing into icebergs to knock unsuspecting sea lions into the water where they can be devoured.
Where to see: Tours of the peninsula from Argentina’s Ushuaia are popular, with sightings of minke and humpback whales common. Trips from New Zealand to the Ross Sea in the eastern Antarctic are also rich with orcas.
When to go: February-March
Why it’s a hot spot: Neither heavy in numbers nor easy to spot, the lure of Patagonia’s orcas is their sophisticated hunting technique. Witness the lobos (meaning wolves, a local nickname given to the area’s predatory orcas) gulp down sea lion pups after purposely beaching themselves at high tide in order to capture their prey.
Where to see: Viewings are mainly land-based, with the beaches of Caleta Valdes, Punta Delgada and Punta Norte all good viewing spots.
When to go: March-April (Punta Norte) and September-October (Punta Delgada and Caleta Valdes)
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.
A barren, stunning landscape that is home to some 300 glaciers, Glaciers National Park seems like another planet – and is almost as arduous to get to. While most of Earth’s glaciers are receding, Perito Moreno – the park’s centrepiece – is still growing; its imposing 3-mile-wide wall of ice rises 200 feet above the surface of Lago Argentino. Boats dodge the bobbing icebergs in the lake – the country’s largest body of water and one of the loveliest because of its many fjords – for an up-close look at Perito Moreno as the 30,000-year-old, 20-mile advancing river of ice snakes its way down from the Andean cordillera.
The park is an area of harsh weather extremes and terrain to match, but you needn’t explore the End of the World in the same conditions chronicled by Darwin. Luxury exists in the southern fringe of Patagonia’s endless steppes at the handsome Hostería Alta Vista. This 155,000-acre working sheep farm that dates back to 1910 has made a gracious transition from private home to antiques-filled seven-room inn, with wrought-iron beds and luxurious custom linens. Guests can visit caves adorned with prehistoric paintings or ride horseback to the grounds’ upper pastures, where the views of Moreno Glacier (yet another local phenomenon) and the peaks of the glacier park are exceptional.
Although the Estancia Quemquemtreu, a privately owned 250,000-acre working cattle ranch, is but a speck on the vast stretch of Patagonia, it’s on every angler’s dream map. Reverse-season fishing in a remote corner of the world known for some of the hemisphere’s best trout fishing draws sportsmen from all parts of the globe. A private stream runs through the estancia, but it’s the ranch’s proximity to three of the region’s best-stocked rivers that sweetens the deal.
With only five guest rooms at the ranch, you’ll be virtually alone wading those streams, taking in the big sky and big spaces that evoke the frontier days of the unspoiled American West. Streamside lunches, traditional barbecues, and wildlife viewing are framed by the awesome granite peaks of the Andes that separate Argentina from Chile to the west. In addition to raising 25,000 head of cattle, Quemquemtreu is a working polo ranch, and guests are welcome to watch some of the country’s best players practice and train the ranch’s forty resident polo ponies.
For a real cowboy experience in Patagonia, stay at the Estancia Huechahue, a more “intimate” 15,000-acre Anglo-Argentine cattle ranch at the foot of the Andes, where the stables of fine criollo horses can make a gaucho out of even the most unconvinced gringo rookie. The expanses of northern Patagonia are best appreciated on horseback, and riders can explore sparsely populated and wonderfully varied terrain, including barren, rolling hills, picturesque lakes, and dense forests, high ridges where the condors nest, and the valleys and narrow rock gorges below. Guests can roll up their sleeves and participate in rounding up, herding, and branding the estancia’s livestock, or do nothing more strenuous than attend the day’s delicious asado lunch. There are optional rides to the ranch’s summer pastures, higher in the mountains across the Atlantic-Pacific watershed. Or trade in your mount for a jeep and head for the charming lakefront city of San Martín de los Andes, a slice of the Swiss Alps transplanted to Patagonia. The region becomes a popular alpine and cross-country skiing area in the winter months of July and August.
Ironically one of the world’s lesser-known great waterfalls, Iguazú manages nonetheless to steal the thunder of the others. In fact, it is wider than Niagara (proud South Americans call Niagara “a trickle in God’s mind” compared to their greatest cataract). More than 1,700 cubic meters of water per second plunge over 200-foot cliffs here, creating 275 separate falls (as many as 350 during rainy season) in a wide horseshoe that forms northern Argentina’s natural border with Brazil.
The magnificence of the widest waterfall in the world can be viewed from both the Argentine and Brazilian sides. (Helicopter rides are only available from the Brazilian side, with special flights added during the full moon.) Iguazu, the original tribal name – “Big Water” – has outlived the official name bestowed in 1541 by the Portuguese explorer Alvaro Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: Saltos de Santa Maria. A wonderful network of spray-drenched walkways takes travelers through dense tropical jungle and alongside and over the falls for the best close-up experience. More than 80 percent of the falls lie within the Argentine border, including the overwhelming Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – the single most impressive cascade. But a frequently departing ferry or bus to the Brazilian side allows visitors to decide for themselves if the view can possibly be any better from there. If you long to fall asleep to the thunder of the falls, the Hotel das Cataratas in Brazil is your choice. If awakening to an awesome panorama from your hotel window is your pleasure, go for the Sheraton Internacional in Argentina.
Like the nearby city of Mendoza, the Estancia Los Alamos is a verdant oasis surrounded by vineyards and orchards. Here, in the middle of the Cuyo – the country’s most arid region – and on the remains of what was once a half-million-acre cattle ranch, 12,000 irrigated acres are given over to extensive vineyards, olive groves, vegetable plots, and fruit orchards.
Built in the early 1800s as a frontier fort, the sprawling white adobe main house has been home to the Bombal family since 1866. It later became known as something of a literary salon and country retreat for such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges. Today the good life still prevails at what seems a mixture of European manor hotel and U.S. dude ranch. You can visit nearby vineyards on horseback or by jeep, descend class IV rapids through a beautiful rimrock canyon, or just lounge by the estancia‘s shaded pool. Lunches at 2:30 and suppers at 11:30 are anchored by pisco sours on the patio or late-afternoon tea. By day’s end you’ll know why the mendocinos call their home La Tierra de Sol y Buen Vino, the Land of Sun and Good Wine.
Estancia Acelaín gives visitors the chance to glimpse, even relive, the opulent seignorial lifestyle of the great cattle and grain barons, whose manor homes still dot the Argentine countryside. Built in 1922 by Enrique Larreta, a prolific Hispanophile author and one of the country’s wealthiest estancieros, Acelaín was designed in the style of Moorish Spain, where Larreta spent his honeymoon in the early 1900s.
Larreta’s literary masterpiece, The Glory of Don Ramiro, is set in 16th-century southern Spain and explains the origins of the estancia’s imaginative decor, architecture, and landscaping redolent of – if not imported directly from – that place and time. His own prodigious collection of Spanish furniture and art from the 11th to the 17th centuries still graces the estancia. Perched on a promontory, the house overlooks the lush, fragrant Andalusian gardens that are the pride and joy of the current owners, Larreta’s descendants and avid horticulturalists.
Woodlands make up but a part of the 1,600-acre Edenic parkland, which abuts 15,000 acres of grainfields and grazing lands for cattle; both woodland and park offer guests countless idylls, by horse, on foot, or in your favorite hammock.