Buenos Aires - The Paris of the South America
Elegant and old-worldly, with a touch of Paris and a ton of Italian influences, Buenos Aires has a strong Latin American personality. Here, everything is grand, on a scale fit for kings: it boasts the best steak restaurants anywhere in the world, Nueve de Julio Avenue ranks as the world's widest street, Recoleta cemetery occupies one of the poshest parts of the poshest neighborhood, and the entire city fronts onto the world's widest river. Buenos Aires never fails to impress.
I always start every trip with an overview tour on arrival day. A must for Buenos Aires is Plaza de Mayo square, the political heart of the city. It sets a great backdrop for a brief history lesson, plus you can see the church where the current Pope used to serve as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Continue to the San Telmo neighborhood, with its cobblestoned streets, where the original porteños (Buenos Aires residents) settled in the early days. After a short drive south, stop off at picturesque La Boca, the colorful working-class port neighborhood (and famous soccer club), and walk along Caminito Street, where local artists display their work to the tune of tango performed in the street.
Pass through Puerto Madero and see this regenerated area, where red brick warehouses have been transformed into trendy restaurants and bars. Finish the tour in Recoleta’s renowned cemetery to glimpse at stunning mausoleums, the final resting place for many of Argentina's key characters - including Eva Peron.
Like any great city, there are lots of options for hotels. I favor one of two areas as a home base: Palermo, with its fabulous one-of-a-kind stores, boutiques, and great restaurants, or the Recoleta district.
In Recoleta is the Four Seasons Buenos Aires, one of my all-time favorite hotels anywhere in the world. It has 116 guest rooms and 49 luxury suites, including seven one-of-a-kind suites in the adjacent Belle Époque-style mansion, where many a celebrity has stayed - including Madonna during her filming of Evita. The breakfast is spectacular and the setting in the Elena restaurant is fabulous. I obsessed over the chef’s recipe for grilled octopus, and they were kind enough to share it with me. The adjacent split-level bar, Pony Line, is a hip place to catch a late night drink.
If you do stay in Recoleta, in the morning I recommend taking a cab over to Palermo, which feels similar to old school Greenwich Village in New York. Each small boutique is one-of-a-kind. Wander around to see beautiful handcrafted leather goods, unique artisan jewelry, and hip clothing stores. Your dollar goes far in Buenos Aires, so you will revel in how affordable things are.
On your way back from Palermo, make a stop at the MALBA Museum. The museum’s permanent collection includes notable works by artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Fernando Botero, and Antonio Berni. Temporary exhibitions here are also interesting, and the size of the museum makes it an easy hour stop, with a lovely cafe for lunch.
In the afternoon, visit one of the world's greatest opera houses, The Colon Theater, which took 80 years to complete and opened in 1908. Its interior is the personification of Argentinian wealth in the early 1900s: every marble tile, piece of furniture, and crystal was imported from Europe. It combines many European architectural styles and influences, including Greek columns, French stained glass, and Italian marble. The building has hosted opera luminaries such as Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, and Placido Domingo.
No visit to Argentina would be complete without a dive into the Tango. The origins of tango can be traced back to 1880, and its birthplace in slums inhabited by Italian and Spanish immigrants, Africans, and gauchos (cowboys). From these humble beginnings, compadritos (small-time hoods) born from this cultural mix started to portray cuchilleros (knife fights), characteristic of their social environment in music, lyrics and dance. Tango eventually found its way out of brothels and into high-class ballrooms, first traveling to Paris before returning triumphantly to Buenos Aires. Forget the polite image of ballroom dancing - tango is real roots music: sometimes sleazy, sometimes elegant, but always sensuous, rhythmic and passionate.
I think it is incredibly fun to take a tango lesson, during which a couple of professional tango dancers introduce you to the genre's basics. For those who really want to understand the culture, we can arrange for you to visit a milonga (tango dance club) to show off the moves you just learned and watch how porteños (Buenos Aires residents) dance the tango. Milongas are not luxurious venues - no professional shows or fancy outfits here. This is an authentic slice of Argentine culture.
From Buenos Aires, you have many options for destinations. One of my favorites is Bariloche.
Bariloche - The Seven Lakes route or Siete Lagos
Bariloche is an amazing a town in the Patagonia region of Argentina, about a two hour flight from Buenos Aires. This area is known for its spectacular natural beauty, and is popular for skiing in winter and hiking in the summer. We can arrange guided hikes, or you can rent a car and drive the Siete Lagos. The route of the seven lakes runs up National Route 40 through two national parks: Nahuel Huapi and Lanin, 185 kilometers (115 miles) total from Bariloche to San Martín de los Andes.
There is a famous resort in Bariloche called the LLao LLao, where you could easily spend a week just enjoying the natural beauty that surrounds you. I actually prefer the smaller property Hotel Aldebaran, which is situated in the San Pedro Peninsula. The small town of Bariloche can actually be quite touristy, so best to avoid it.
Hotel Aldebaran is only 23 km away from Bariloche, in the midst of beautiful scenery, forests, mountains and lakes by the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake. This hotel has 10 en-suite bedrooms with breathtaking views from individual balconies or the terrace. The Sirius Restaurant specializes in regional dishes, delicious meals baked in mud-ovens and the traditional Argentine Parrilla (barbecue). The chef is well-known for using local organic food flavored with fresh herbs and spices. Homemade bread is baked every morning, and jams and marmalade are made with local fruits and berries. There is also an excellent wine cellar stocked with the best Argentine wines.
The hotel helped arrange a fishing adventure for our family and we caught a huge trout, which the chef was so kind to prepare for us for dinner.
El Calafate - Glaciers in Patagonia
Your final stop on your tour should be in Patagonia. El Calafate is a small tourist village placed at the southern coast of Lago Argentino, and is considered the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. It is located 492 miles from Río Gallegos and about 600 feet above the sea level. Its urban view shows a picturesque small village surrounded by beautiful trees, with no high buildings and plenty of colorful gardens that make this village an oasis in the middle of the barren Patagonian landscape.
The reason most travel to this part of Argentina is to see the Perito Moreno Glacier - one of the world's few remaining advancing glaciers - currently grinding its way down the Cordillera directly into an arm of the enormous Lago Argentino. About every three years, the glacier cuts off the flow of water into the lake, resulting in an immense accumulation of pressure as the water behind the glacier rises.
Photo Credit: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez
The best place to stay is at Eolo Patagonia’s Spirit. El Calafate's Eolo is one of those very special properties. It embodies the spirit of Patagonia: its indigenous roots, personal experiences of the first European and creole settlers, and those of adventurers from all over the world that still reach this legendary land today. It is located 30 minutes away from El Calafate, on the way to Perito Moreno Glacier, stretching over a 7,500 acre property. From its comfortable facilities, you can observe Lago Argentino towards the north, La Anita Valley towards the east, and the Torres del Paine and the Rico branch of the same lake towards the south.
During a full-day excursion to see Perito Moreno glacier, travel across the Patagonian steppe and the Patagonian Andean Forest, seeing the distinctive notro tree with its intense red flowers, and arrive at the walkways in front of the glacier, which forms the source basin of Argentina and Chile glaciers. Walk the footbridges to catch majestic views and hear the cracks and roars of the incredible living mass that is Perito Moreno, with its three mile front wall, soaring 180 feet above the lake level and a 99 square mile field surface.
Alternatively, you could opt to include a stop in Mendoza to experience world renowned Malbec wine. While the priority in Mendoza is absolutely wine tasting, it is possible to do many outdoor adventures such as hiking (Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America is not too far), biking and rafting. But an ideal stay would include a full day wine tour, stopping at a good mix of small boutique and notable wineries followed by a fantastic Asado dinner.
I love Argentina - the people are full of passion for good food, good wine and their beautiful country. It works really well as a 7-10 day trip and the there are no time zone issues. We have customized this trip for families (works very well with older kids) and for couples.
Opening photo credit:Sander Crombach