Argentina - Land of wine and tango
Mysterious, sexy, fiery, compelling – it demands your attention, seduces you and toys with your every emotion. It’s a description that applies to Argentina every bit as much as it does to its national dance, the tango.
This human art form, for it is far more than a mere dance, was born in the latter part of the 19th century in the poverty-ridden streets of immigrant communities in the port area of capital Buenos Aires. By 1912 it had become a worldwide phenomenon, only to fade in popularity until a revival in recent years.
Today, you can go out and watch tango shows in dinner theatres and tango halls across the city. But, more importantly, you can still find it being danced on the streets where it originated. Head to La Boca – the neighbourhood famous for its Boca Juniors football team which produced Maradona – and you may well see a crowd held spellbound by a couple sinuously demonstrating tango’s allure against a backdrop of the brightly-coloured houses of the Caminito pedestrian street. The cobbled street was all but deserted when I visited in late afternoon, but I managed to catch two dancers on a stage outside a café around the corner just before they finished. Safe by day, La Boca is not a place to linger at night, our guide warned us as we sipped beer outside a bar across the street. So we left.
I had wanted to visit Argentina, and Buenos Aires in particular, for years but had never had the opportunity before. It was to be a very short visit to this most European of South American cities, with little exploring time other than a city tour which included visiting the fascinating Recoleta Cemetery with its grandiose tombs, among them that of Eva Peron, the nation’s beloved Evita.
I also visited the Plaza de Mayo in the city centre, where white shawls painted on the ground mark where the Mothers of the Disappeared have walked round in circles every Thursday for over 30 years. Flanking the square are buildings including the vermillion-coloured Government House and colonnaded Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral.
However, Buenos Aires was something of a sideshow on this trip. My main reason for visiting Argentina was to discover its burgeoning wine tourism industry, before going on to Patagonia – travelling south 2,500km alongside the very spine of South America, the mighty Andes.
Argentina has been growing grapes to make wine for 400 years, but I must admit my ignorance of much of its produce up until my visit. I had always associated Chile with wine in South America, but that is because the Argentineans drank most of what they produced until recently. It is also only in the last few years that the quality of the wine has been such that it has been able to export and compete with other countries. Big names such as Chandon from France have invested heavily, helping to improve quality still further.
Argentina is enjoying the equivalent of a gold rush in its wine industry, with land being snapped up by both local and international investors to plant as vineyards. The reason for the boom is because these regions not only enjoy a superb arid and sunny climate, thanks to the lofty Andes mountains shielding them from rain and cloud, but also because of the altitude – the far north has some of the highest vineyards in the world – and the sometimes huge range in temperature between day and nightnight, which is ideal for growing grapes.
All these plus the free-draining, mineral-rich soil, the so-called terroir, help to produce wines which the world is now clamouring for. Torrontes, Malbec, even the once popular Chardonnay, now passé among the City quaffers who propelled its popularity back in the 1980s: all are gaining an increasing following as more people discover how good they are.
And in common with other wine-producing countries, people want to visit and learn more about them. As a result, wine tourism has begun to take off. Wine routes have been created in Salta, high up in the north-west close to the Chilean and Bolivian borders and, to the south, around Mendoza – now regarded as one of the top eight wine-producing regions in the world. Today, there are over 170 wineries in Argentina open to tourism, and on my visit I got a taste of what they offer. By taste, I mean we were visiting two to three vineyards a day and sampling an average of 10 different wines each day – the record was 25! – blending them ourselves at times under guidance from the winemakers as well as being taken through the wine-making process at various wineries.
We were served wonderful meals outdoors on tables shaded from the hot sun, very welcome as Salta is on the Tropic of Capricorn and these areas enjoy well over 300 days of sun per year. Our palates were treated to all manner of local delicacies; we even helped to make traditional empanadas, like miniature Cornish pasties, in an outside oven at one vineyard on the edge of a desert.
And we stayed in fabulous boutique hotels, both alongside vineyards and in town. At these, you get extremely personal service, hand-prepared local speciality dishes and an intimate knowledge of the wines.
In Salta, we toured the brand new Museo de la Vid y el Vino wine, which is very well presented and helps even the most unknowledgeable layman, me, gain an understanding and appreciation.
Of course, visitors are not just going to go for the wines. Argentina’s wine areas have so much on offer in terms of sightseeing, activities, adventure, history and culture that you will feel you have barely scratched the surface when you leave.
Salta itself is a beautiful city of grand colonial churches, ornate balconies and green squares. In the heart of the city is the fascinating MAAM museum, or high Mountain Archaeology Museum, which displays the incredible contents of the tombs of three young children who were found mummified high in the Andes by the Chilean border. You can also take a gondola up a nearby mountain for glorious sunset and dusk views of the city, then at night take in a typical folk club with local music and dancing. From Salta, you can also board the spectacular Train to the Clouds, one of the highest railways in the world.
The wineries themselves offer many things to keep you occupied. We watched polo at Chandon’s Tupungato winery near Mendoza. I played golf at La Estancia de Cafayata while my colleagues went horse riding through the estate led by a local goucho. I also played golf at the newly-opened Tupungato winelands course.
The previous day we had sampled some of the best Malbec wines at the inaugural World Malbec Day celebration, held on a plateau above the golf course and vineyards and where a hotel will be built in the next two years. As we sipped the rich red nectar, the erstwhile cloudy skies decided to put on one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever witnessed, the snow-capped mountain tops looking like they were ablaze through the gap and the sun’s rays lighting the underside of the clouds like a spreading fan.
Other activities include hiking and cycling through the mountain scenery and shopping for handcrafted goods in local shops and markets
After leaving my colleagues I flew on by myself to Patagonia, somewhere I had always wanted to visit. Patagonia is flavour of the moment, thanks to the new movie of the same name which co-stars Welsh singer Duffy in her first acting role. The film, shot mostly in Welsh and Spanish, focuses on the strong links between Wales and Patagonia; it was settled by Welsh immigrants in the 1860s and Welsh is still spoken in many towns and villages.
It was my first taste of the destination and I was struck by the magnificence and sheer scale of it. Patagonia is vast, encompassing the southern most portion of Argentina (as well as that of Chile), and comprising one third of the entire country – itself the world’s eighth largest. To put it in perspective, Patagonia is over 40 times the size of Wales and one and a half times as big as France. With a population of just 1.5 million.
I experienced a fraction of it, yet what I saw left me breathless.
After flying into Bariloche, capital of Argentinean Patagonia, I stayed in the nearby, historic Llao Llao Hotel & Resort, a Leading Hotel of the World member. My suite overlooked Nahuel Huapi Lake with a view – on a clear day, as it had been just before my arrival – of the glacier-capped mountains bordering Chile. Sadly, I got an early blast of winter during my stay with rain and then snow, and I barely caught views of the peaks.
They are part of the same chain of mountains as the Chilean volcano which erupted recently, spewing ash over Bariloche and other parts of the region and closing its airport at times. News pictures I saw of Llao Llao’s ash-covered golf course looked remarkably like ones I took with snow on the ground.
During my brief visit, I stayed at San Martin de los Andes, a three-hour drive away and in the heart of Patagonia’s Lake District. Known as the “Switzerland of South America” the region offers everything its European counterpart does, and more, including white-water
rafting, cycling, hiking, mountaineering, fly-fishing and golf.
I returned to Bariloche the next day for my flight to Buenos Aires and then home. I was in for a treat, too, as my driver took me via the Seven Lakes Route, one of the most scenic roads in the world. Just make sure you allow plenty of time to do it at leisure – unlike my driver who picked me up so late he had to drive like he was in a rally so that I could make my flight.
When to go
Seasons are opposite to those in the UK. Buenos Aires is mild from autumn to spring but hot and humid in summer. Salta and Mendoza both have very arid climates, Salta being tropical and Mendoza slightly cooler. Patagonia enjoys warm and sunny summers, but winters are cold and snowy.
British Airways introduced direct flights to Buenos Aires from London Heathrow at the end of March.
In Buenos Aires and other cities, taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful. For journeys within Argentina, domestic flights link key cities including Salta, Mendoza and Patagonia capital Bariloche.
Buenos Aires hotels include the Argenta Towers close to the city centre and Home Hotel in the Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood. Wine is the theme at boutique hotels Hotel del Vino in Salta, Altaluna Hotel in Cafayate and Posada Salentein in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. The InterContinental Mendoza is in the city of Mendoza. Patagonia hotels include Llao Llao Hotel & Resort and the Pestana Bariloche Ski and Golf Resort Hotel near Bariloche and the LoiSuites Chapelco Golf & Resort near San Martin de los Andes.
You can find free tango shows on the streets in several neighbourhoods, including La Boca. There are a number of evening tango shows. One of the best is the lavish Tango Porteno dinner show, set in an ornate Art Deco theatre.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Argentina.