Traveller's Guide: Active Argentina

Cycling, hiking, rafting, paragliding... there's something for every outdoor enthusiast here, says Tim Burford
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The Independent Travel

Any country that covers an area of almost 2.8 million square kilometres (over 10 times the size of Great Britain) is going to offer a huge variety of landscapes and outdoor activities. Argentina certainly fulfils that expectation, from the arid high plateau of the Altiplano on the Bolivian border to subantarctic Tierra del Fuego. The chain of national parks along the Andes, down the country's western edge, offers fantastic hiking, climbing, mountain-biking, horse-riding, rafting and even paragliding. However, other parts of the country also offer opportunities for outdoor activities – in fact horses and bikes are available for riding almost anywhere and the number of operators providing such options is expanding fast.

It's well worth leaving the urban charms of Buenos Aires for the remoter parts of the country to sample the range of sporty delights on offer. It can be several hours by plane or an overnight bus ride across the Pampas to the wilder extremes of the country, where you can ride stocky criollo horses through the mountains or white-water raft down rivers.

Heading north from the capital, the scenery doesn't start properly to impress until you reach the stunning Iguazú Falls, 1,400km to the north, where walkways give views of the falls themselves, and there are short trails into the jungle: a chance to see monkeys, birds and butterflies. There are also relatively unheralded opportunities for kayaking and fishing in the broad lazy rivers of Mesopotamia, a verdant area of north-east Argentina.

In the far south, the coastal marine mammals of Patagonia's Atlantic coast are the main draw from September to November. Kayaking around the Valdés Peninsula, close to southern right whales, elephant seals and sea lions, can be arranged through firms such as Patagonia Explorers (00 54 9 2965 1534 0618; patagoniaexplorers.com).

Mountain biking is popular nationwide, with bikes for rent in many towns. In the main Alpine resort of Bariloche, Andescross (00 54 9 2944 633581; andescross.com) offer a good choice of MTB outings. For the most part you'll be riding on existing tracks and dirt roads, rather than in purpose-built bike parks. Cycling is a great way of exploring anywhere in the country – for instance, in San Ignacio Miní, in the far north-east, you can hire a bike for around 50 pesos (£8) per day from the tourist info office at Sarmiento and Rivadavia (00 54 3752 470 707) to explore the Jesuit missions, detouring to a longhouse that's home to two dozen indigenous Guaraní.

The Andes are known to offer good fishing, mainly for various species of trout, and as you move south towards Tierra del Fuego these reach record-breaking sizes, with luxury lodges catering to international anglers. Juní* de los Andes, in northern Patagonia, is a traditional fly-fishing centre for rainbow, brook and brown trout and landlocked salmon, as well as native perch and pejerrey. Around Bariloche, in the Lake District, there's fly-fishing, spinning and trawling for trout. The Hotel Tronador, on Lago Mascardi, 60km from Bariloche (00 54 2944 441062; hoteltronador.com), offers double rooms from 800 pesos (£130), full board, and the Asociació* de Guías Profesionales de Pesca de Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi y Patagonia Norte (guiaspatagonicos. com.ar) will find you a guide. Licences cost 100 pesos per day (£16), 300 pesos per week (£48), or 420 pesos (£67) for the season, which runs from November to March.

Tim Burford is co-author of the 'Bradt Travel Guide To Argentina' (£16.99), the second edition of which is out this summer.

Mountain high

The highpoint of the Andean cordillera, running the length of the country's western border, is Aconcagua, which at 6,962m is the highest peak outside the Himalayas. It also offers a non-technical climb that can be achieved by non-specialists. However, it is no easy task, largely due to the weather. Winds can reach 240km/h and temperatures can plummet to –35C. The best time to climb is in the period from December to February, when the climate is at its most stable. There's no water above the base camp, so you'll also need to carry an adequate supply.

Outfitters in Mendoza – which lies around 1,000km due west from Buenos Aires, and is easily reached from Santiago in Chile – can organise mules to carry everything required by climbers and trekkers. They'll also set up hiking or horse-riding trips in the same area, or rafting from Uspallata on the chocolate-brown Río Mendoza. The longest established operator is Fernando Grajales Aconcagua Expediciones (00 54 261 428 3157; grajales.net). Argentina Mountain Expeditions (00 54 261 431 8356; argentinamountain.com) and Inka Expediciones (00 54 261 425 0871; inka.com.ar) also do an excellent job, charging around £2,000 for a 20-day expedition.

The most appropriate place to stay in Mendoza is the Campo Base Hostel (00 54 261 429 0707; hostelcampobase.com.ar), which is also the base for another operator: Cerro Aconcagua.com (00 54 261 425 5511; cerroaconcagua.com). A double room here costs from 150 pesos (£25), including breakfast.

Take to the air

The mirador of Cuchi Corral, 8km west of La Cumbre, offers perhaps the best paragliding in Argentina. Its ideal climate attracts professional paragliders from around the world. You can take a vuelo de bautismo (literally “baptism flight” with an instructor (300 pesos/£48 for 20-30 minutes), or learn to do it for yourself. The best contact is through RentaBike in La Cumbre (00 54 3548 451575; rentabike@hotmail.com), which – as the name suggests – also hires out bicycles. Or try Aero Club La Cumbre (00 54 3548 452 544; parapentefechu@yahoo.com.ar) or former world champion Andy Hediger (00 54 3548 452544; aeroatelier.com).

Walking tall

Some of the best places to hike in accessible wilderness are in the chain of national parks along the Chilean border in the Andes. These boast marked trails but few other facilities.

The easiest access is from Bariloche, a large resort in the Lake District, where remarkably rugged alpine peaks rise above a chain of dramatic lakes. There are some cosy huts here in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, and as it is close to major ski resorts there’s easy access with cable-cars and chairlifts.

The Villa Catedral ski village (1,030m) is reached by hourly buses; from here chairlifts and a cable-car lift you 800m to a ridge along which you can hike south towards Cerro Catedral and the Frey, Piedritas and San Martín huts. Continuing down the Casalata valley from the Refugio San Martín brings you to Lago Mascardi beneath the icecapped volcanic peaks of El Tronador (3,554m).

There’s more good hiking just south, around El Bolsón, where operators such as Grado 42 (00 54 2944 493124; grado42.com) and PatagoniaAdventures (00 54 2944 492513) offer guided hiking and rafting.

Another option is Los Alerces national park. From the Villa Futalaufquen visitor centre trails lead up a couple of peaks, rather lower than those near Bariloche and overlooking small lakes. There’s accommodation nearby in Trevelin and Esquel, small towns that trade on their Welsh heritage with cute tea shops.

Much further south, between the semi-arid Patagonian steppes and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the town of El Calafate is the overpriced base for the Los Glaciares national park, where some boat tours to the amazing Perito Moreno glacier include ice trekking as an option.

It’s far better, though, to take a full day or more to get right up on to the ice field. From the village of El Chaltén trails leads through the stunning FitzRoy massif, the granite pinnacles of which offer some of the world’s toughest climbing, and from there on to the icecap. Operators such as FitzRoy Expediciones ( fitzroyexpediciones.com.ar) will take you onto the ice, fully kitted out for around 390 pesos (£63) plus 50 pesos (£8) transfer from El Chaltén.

Four legs good

Argentines see themselves as a nation of horse-riders. One of the most interesting locations is Tafí del Valle, midway between Tucumán and Cafayate in north-western Argentina, where you can ride in the Andean foothills and visit the archaeological remains of the country’s earliest settled cultures.

The affable Pablo Huerta of Montañas Tucumanas (00 54 381 467 1860; montanastucumanas.com) runs a range of trips from an eight-hour day’s riding that takes you up to 3,000m and costs 500 pesos (£80) including guiding and food, to three-day camping trips for 1,450 pesos (£230) including tents and food. Cabra Horco Expediciones (00 54 9381 1567 88399; cabrahorco.com.ar) is based in Raco, 50km from the provincial capital of San Miguel de Tucumán. The company’s trips follow mule paths to over 2,000m, visiting indigenous villages on the way.

In La Cumbre, 100km from Córdoba, Estancia PuestoViejo (00 54 3548 423809; estanciapuestoviejo.com) is a working ranch that has a hostel and a country-house hotel – guests can ride with the gauchos to help round up the cattle. Dorm rooms costs from 40 pesos (£6.50) person; doubles in the hostel costs 150 pesos (£24), room only.

Polo is one of Argentina’s trademark sports, but it’s very much associated with the upper crust – traditionally gauchos play pato, in which a leather bag (formerly containing a live duck) is thrown from horseback into a goal, but this is fast dying out. The so-called Ruta del Polo leads south from the capital to swanky estancias where polo lessons are available at a substantial cost, notably at Estancia La Candelaria (00 54 2227 424 404; estanciacandelaria.com), on the outskirts of Eva Perón’s birthplace, Lobos. Here lessons cost 500 pesos (£80) per person per day, with four meals included.

The country’s gaucho capital is San Antonio de Areco, 113km west of Buenos Aires, where estancias such as La Porteña (00 54 911 5626 7347; laporteniadeareco.com), El Rosario de Areco (00 54 2326 451000; rosariodeareco.com.ar) and El Ombú de Areco (00 54 2326 492080; estanciaelombu.com), also offer polo lessons for 300 pesos (£50) a day. They also provide a more accessible día del campo (“day in the country”) for 140-210 pesos (£22-33) for families to enjoy safe horseback excursions with costumed gauchos. The day finishes with a barbecue.

One of the most authentic places to be a gaucho for a day is in Corrientes province, in the north-east. José Martin of Iberá Expediciones at Yaguarete and Pindo, Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (00 54 3773 15401405; iberaexpediciones.com) comes from a genuine gaucho family. Spend a day learning the ropes and finish it all off with a slap-up gaucho-style meal for 400 pesos (£64) for two.

Make a splash

The north-west of Argentina is a high and beautiful area centred on the lovely colonial city of Salta. Just 10km away, San Lorenzo is the base for rafting on the Río Juramento (100-180 pesos/£16-£29 for two hours plus lunch) through Turismo San Lorenzo (00 54387 4921757; turismosanlorenzo.com.ar). There’s also great rafting on the Río Hua-Hum, near San Martín de los Andes; on the Río Manso, from near Bariloche into Chile; the Río Azul, near El Bolsón; and through the Atuel gorge near San Rafael in Mendoza province.

Alternatively, the Esterosdel Iberá are a sort of waterlogged Argentine Serengeti. Covering a huge swathe of Corrientes province, near the BrazilianandParaguay borders, it’s a vast expanse of reedbeds and floating grasses, with a few stretches of openwater and about 370 species of birds, as well as otters, monkeys, anteaters, caimans and anacondas. There are plenty of motor boat tours, but the ideal way to get up close with the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, and other wildlife is bycanoe.

Hotels and hostels in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, the only accessible village, have canoes and kayaks available. Try the Posada dela Laguna (00 54 3773 499413; posadadelalaguna.com), which is right by Laguna Iberá. The campsite rents kayaks for 30 pesos (£5) per hour. In the larger town of Mercedes, 110km south of Pellegrini, the Delicias del Iberá Hostel (00 54 3773 422 508; deliciasdelibera.com) arranges excellent tours.

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