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Argentina is a vast country. It measures 5000km by 1500km and, even without the titanic wedge of Antarctica that the authorities are wont to include in the national territory, it ranks as the world’s eighth largest state, immediately behind India. Thanks to its longitudinal position, standing between the Tropic of Cancer and the most southerly reaches of the planet’s landmass, the country encompasses a staggering diversity of climates and landscapes. The mainland points down like a massive stalactite on the map, from the hot and humid jungles of its northeast and the bone-dry highland steppes of its northwest down through windswept Patagonia to the end-of-the-world archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, a territory that is shared with Chile. Across the broad midriff stretch Argentina’s most archetypal landscapes: the mostly flat pampas grazed by millions of cattle – subtly beautiful scenery formed by horizon-to-horizon plains interspersed with low sierras, and punctuated by small agricultural towns, the odd ranch and countless clumps of pampas grass. These wide open spaces are among the country’s best assets – despite its mammoth area its population of 33 million weighs in at far less than Spain’s. This is a land with huge swaths still waiting to be explored let alone settled.

Like Chile to its west – with which it shares 5000km of grandiose Andean cordillera, several of whose colossal peaks exceed 6000m – Argentina is, for the most part, less obviously exotic than its neighbours to the north, and its inhabitants will readily (and rightly) tell you how great an influence Europe has been on their nation. It was once said that Argentina is actually the most American of all European countries, but even that clever maxim is wide of the mark. It’s a country with a very special character all of its own, distilled into the national ideal of Argentinidad – an elusive identity the country’s Utopian thinkers and practical doers have never agreed upon. Undoubtedly, the people of Argentina suffer from, but also encourage to an extent, some of the world’s most sweeping generalizations, based mainly on the typical Porteno, or native of Buenos Aires. They suffer from a bad press in the rest of the continent, but you’re bound to be wowed by their spontaneous curiosity and intense passion for so many things. On this score there’s a lot of truth in the clichés – their passions are dominated by the national religion of football, politics and living life in the fast lane (literally, when it comes to driving) – but not everyone dances the tango, or is obsessed with Evita, or gallops around on a horse, gaucho-style. Whether thanks to their beauty, sense of humour or other charms, the locals will help to make any trip to the country memorable.

So aside from the people, why visit Argentina? First, because the huge metropolis of Buenos Aires, home to two-fifths of the population, is one of the most exciting, charming and fascinating of all South American capitals. It’s an immensely enjoyable place just to wander about, stopping off for an espresso or an ice cream, or people-watching, or shopping, or simply soaking up the unique atmosphere. Its many barrios, or neighbourhoods, are startlingly different, some decadently old-fashioned, others thrustingly modern, but all of them oozing character. Added to that, Buenos Aires is the country’s gastronomic mecca and boasts a frenzied nightlife that makes it one of the world’s great round-the-clock cities. Elsewhere, cities aren’t exactly the main draw, with the exception of beautiful Salta in the northwest, the beguiling river-port of Rosario – birthplace of Che Guevara – and Ushuaia which, in addition to being the world’s most southerly city, happens to enjoy a fabulous setting on the evocatively named Tierra del Fuego.

Wildlife and adventure in the extensive outback are the real attractions outside of the capital. By hopping on a plane it’s feasible to spot howler monkeys and toucans in their jungle habitat in the morning, and watch the antics of penguins tobogganing off dark rocks into the icy South Atlantic in the afternoon. There are hundreds of bird species – including the majestic condor and three varieties of flamingo – plus pumas, armadillos, llamas, foxes and tapirs to be found in the country’s forests, mountainsides and the dizzying heights of the altiplano or puna. Lush tea-plantations and parched salt-flats, palm groves and icebergs, plus the world’s mightiest waterfalls are just some of the sights that will catch you unawares if you were expecting Argentina to be one big cattle-ranch. Furthermore, dozens of these vital biosystems are protected by a pioneering network of national and provincial parks and reserves, staffed by remarkably motivated rangers.

As for getting around and seeing these wonders, you can generally rely on a well-developed infrastructure inherited from decades of domestic tourism. And the challenge of reaching those areas off the beaten track is more than compensated by the exhilarating feeling of getting away from it all that comes from, say, not passing another vehicle all day long. Hotels are often much of a muchness, but a special treat – and not excessively expensive by any means – are the beautiful ranches, known as estancias – or fincas in the north – that have been converted into luxury accommodation. In most areas, you’ll be able to rely on the services of top-notch tour operators, who will not only show you the sights but also fix you up with all kinds of adventure activities: horse-riding, trekking, white-water rafting, kayaking, skiing, hang-gliding, along with more relaxing pursuits such as wine-tasting, bird-watching or photography safaris. While some visitors prefer to whiz about the country using an airpass, others like to enjoy the astounding scenery, magnificent wildlife and sensation of remoteness at a much slower pace. Argentina is so huge and varied that it’s hard to take it all in in one go – don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to return to explore the areas you didn’t get to see the first time around.

[ Buy on Amazon: Rough Guide to Argentina 2 ]

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