Argentina Is Open—Here Are the Mountains to See, Wines to Drink, and Tangos to Dance
Summer in December? Yes, please.
Like a freshly uncorked Malbec, Argentina is finally opening up—to warmer, longer summer days and to vaccinated travelers. After enduring one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the country is finally welcoming tourists back for the first time in almost two years.
Just in time for summer in the southern hemisphere, visitors can once again venture across lupine mountains and through waterfall-filled forests, mountain bike in surreal deserts, trek over icy blue glaciers, or snorkel with penguins and sea lions. Eat steak and asado, drink the wine, explore South America’s incredible nature, and basque in siestas. It only takes two fully vaccinated dancers to tango. Here are the best places to go, as well as some helpful tips for visiting Argentina right now.
What you need to enter Argentina right now
Argentina offers a warm welcome to any traveler who can show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination (the final dose administered at least 14 days prior to arrival) and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of entering. Visitors must also have health insurance that covers Covid-19 and fill out the country’s declaration form. After that, no quarantine is needed. Argentina’s health ministry currently accepts vaccinations from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Covishield, Sputnik, Sinopharm, and Convidecia.
Helpful hint: Money exchange in Argentina is downright bizarre. Don’t even try to wrap your head around it. Just know there’s the official exchange rate, and then there’s what’s called the dollar blue. The dollar blue rate will often give you almost double the official rate, meaning you can stretch your travel dollars. Instead of paying by credit card (which will charge you the official rate), bring dollar bills (the higher denomination the better the rate, so stay away from ones and fives) and exchange them for pesos at the blue rate in a local “cueva.” Finding a cueva is an adventure, a little daring and confusing, but hey, that’s what travel’s all about.
The best places to visit in Argentina
Let’s get something straight: this is not a country you bop on down to for a long weekend. Distances are huge (Argentina is about as long as the US is wide), and considering a simple meet-up for coffee can take three leisurely hours, you may as well just throw yourself into a long, slow trip that leaves a lot of room for flexibility.
Most international flights will land in Buenos Aires first, and from there it’s best to pick a region to focus on—like north (either Salta or Iguazu) or south (Patagonia, obviously). If time and budget allow, finish strong with a few days in Mendoza, drinking wine and lamenting your return to a country where people do not respect your new four-hour afternoon siesta habit.
Buenos Aires is a wonderful mix of gritty and glamorous. Along its cobblestone boulevards (which locals somehow manage in stilettos), you’ll find tango halls where things don’t start heating up until around 3am, and bars from the 1800s still serving Fernet (like El Federal in San Telmo). You’ll be offered yerba mate more times than you can count and served steak so good you may just tear up. At La Brigada, you should order the sweetbreads, an ojo de bife so tender you can cut it with a spoon, and a bottle of Achaval Ferrer.
Where to stay depends on your budget. Fierro and Home Hotel are two reliable mid-range boutique hotels, but it doesn’t get any more indulgent than Palacio Duhau or the Four Seasons. If we were to superficially generalize some neighborhoods to check out: San Telmo is a bit bohemian; Palermo is young, touristy, and hip; Recoleta is classy old-money; and Almagro has a laid-back local vibe. And the best part about a city the size of four Chicagos is that some epic nature-based destinations are just a road trip or short flight away.
Salta is an outdoor adventure capital full of colonial architecture and beautiful plazas. Base yourself at Kkala Boutique Hotel and take in a peña (live folkloric music show) at La Casona del Molino, or Balderrama. Then, head to the desert of Cafayate.
This is mountain biking country, though you can also hike the Rio Colorado waterfalls or go white water rafting with Salta Rafting. If you’re feeling like gazing more than trekking, riding the Train of the Clouds’ high-altitude railroad tracks through winding mountains is an adventure itself. If you rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, an additional road trip to the tiny towns of either Cachi or Iruya is sure to be memorable—just bring a spare tire and extra provisions. No matter what you do, stay at Cafayate Wine Resort, where you can celebrate after your day of excursions with a tasting at Porvenir. Make sure to buy some yummy organic Condor Valley wine in a local vinoteca before you leave—it’s a 100% solar-powered winery focusing on conservation.
Tucked in the northeast corner where Argentina meets Brazil and Paraguay, the Iguazu waterfalls are one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. More than 275 falls span almost two miles, a stunning sight from the walkways or even closer boat ride. The surrounding province of Misiones is also known for its wildlife (think cool animals like the giant anteater, crocodile, harpy eagle, and jaguar).
There are some gorgeous luxury hotel options like Melia and Awasi, but for travelers on more of a budget, the mid-priced eco-lodge El Pueblito is a wonderful option. A couple of days in Iguazu should do it—the falls are definitely the highlight, so instead of buying additional nights and group activity tours, perhaps splurge on a private helicopter flyover of the national park.
One does not just casually “do” Patagonia. Starting from Bariloche in northern Patagonia and ending up, let’s say, down south in Ushuaia would take roughly 27 hours to drive. Also, Patagonia is just as much Chile’s as it is Argentina’s, so make sure certain things you associate with Patagonia are indeed on the Argentine side (Torres del Paine National Park, for example, is not).
There are four spots tourists are most likely to hit up. Bariloche and the surrounding areas of Villa La Angostura and El Bolson have alpine lakes, mountains filled with wildflowers, and renowned chocolate. Calafate has the famous Perito Moreno glacier that you should hike over with crampons, with nearby El Chalten available for trekking around Fitz Roy. On the nature reserve of Peninsula Valdes, a stay at Oceano in Puerto Piramides is a must for whale watching, hanging out with penguins, and snorkeling with sea lions. Ushuaia is as far south as you can get in Argentina—go a bit more and you’ll end up in Antarctica. Here, you can fly over the Beagle Channel with HeliUshuaia, scuba through kelp forests with leopard seals with Ushuaia Divers, or go hiking, kayaking, and on 4x4 adventures with Tierra Turismo.
Spoiler alert: Most of the best wine Argentina makes is not even exported. They save the majority of it for themselves and their five-hour lunches. So, whatever you thought you knew of Argentine wine from your bar back home, know that you are in for something even better.
Mendoza is perfectly set up for hedonism. Your main focus here is eating, drinking, and merrying. (And on getting a designated driver, of course). Start out in the capital city, then head immediately to Valle de Uco, where some of the best Malbecs are made and the vineyards are nestled into the base of the snow-capped Andes.
The Vines of Mendoza is constantly voted as one of the best hotels in the world, with understated elegance that’s never uptight or pretentious. And they have Francis Mallmann’s Siete Fuegos restaurant on site. SuperUco is within easy walking distance from there: an ultra playful winery with some absolutely funky biodynamic creations. Entre Cielos is a bit more budget friendly for lodging and, to take the self-care further, has a full-on hamman spa. Have a lazy afternoon lunch at Casa El Enemigo, with glass after glass of their 2013 Cab Franc, which received a perfect score of 100 points. This is not the place to go if you prefer your wine to come in a large box.
Side note I feel responsible to add: Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits of the world, does happen to be in Mendoza. But let’s be honest—I personally only ever toyed with the idea of ambitiously climbing its 22,837 feet while lounging in the nearby hot springs of Cachuete, overstuffed on asado and drunk on Malbec, gazing at Aconcagua from a safe distance.