Published: December 2009/January 2010
Argentina Uncorked
Glaciers, big peaks, balmy days, and vino. And right now, it’s all on sale.
Text by Claire Martin

Crusted in snow and ice, Cerro Aconcagua shoots up from the fertile plains of the Mendoza province to an altitude of 22,835 feet. It’s a spectacular sight, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere towering over the finest wine-growing region in South America. The thing is, in Argentina, scenes like this are hardly out of the ordinary. The eighth largest country in the world is home to 47 major glaciers (including one that’s a whopping 30 miles long), the Patagonian steppe, and massive trout lurking in thousands of miles of rivers and streams. Naturally, you can’t see it all, even during the temperate months of an austral summer. Our advice: Spend a few days in Buenos Aires (most international flights come through here), then a few more in an adventure zone or two. While travelers won’t find the fire sale of 2002, Argentina is still budget-friendly, with a night in a high-end hotel costing around $150, a steak feast running no more than $30, and a great glass of wine as cheap as a soft drink.

1. Wide-Open Wine Country

Argentine wine is older than Argentina itself—Spaniards brought the vines ashore in the 1550s. Opt for a two-wheeled tour of Mendoza, the country’s premier grape-growing region, with Duvine Adventures. The U.S.-based company is one of the only outfitters to lead cycling trips here, and its guides have a nose for the best reds. You’ll ride in the shadow of Aconcagua, sampling all the Malbec you can hold (without impeding your pedaling). Pit stops include private tastings at renowned wineries like Catena Zapata and Ruca Malen, meals at some of Argentina’s most innovative restaurants (Andeluna Cellars among them), and overnights in hotels like Posada Salentein, where two small country houses look out on vineyards of Merlot and Pinot Noir (six days, $4,495; duvine.com).

2. Patagonia’s Peaks & Valleys

Fly-fishing, scuba diving, hang gliding—chances are, if you can name it, San Carlos de Bariloche has it. Base yourself in the center of Patagonia’s gateway town at the sleek Design Suites Bariloche and start checking off your list (doubles from $175; designsuites.com). Patagonia Rafting leads day trips on the Río Manso, which spills from 11,660-foot Monte Tronador for more than 60 miles ($62; patagoniarafting.com). Bike through the Río Manso Valley to the Chilean border on 20 miles of singletrack and swinging bridges with Senza Limiti (full day, from $140; slimiti.com). Cast for rainbow and brown trout as they migrate back and forth between Lago Nahuel Huapí and the first 35 miles of the Río Limay with Limay River Flyfishing Guides (half day, from $280; limayriver.com).

3. The Land of Rock & Ice

El Chaltén (pop. 600) is Argentina’s Telluride, minus the millionaires. Tucked at the base of 11,073-foot Monte Fitz Roy near the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park, the five-block mountain town accesses some of the best hiking in southern Patagonia. And Hostería el Puma, owned by Argentine climbing pioneer Alberto Del Castillo, is the go-to hotel for hikers, with framed topo maps on the walls and trails leading out the back door (doubles from $160; hosteriaelpuma.com.ar). Day treks to Laguna Torre and Fitz Roy Base Camp afford close-up views of the region’s signature peaks and are doable on your own or with Del Castillo’s guidance—he also owns El Chaltén’s leading outfit, Fitz Roy Expeditions (fitzroyexpediciones.com.ar).

4. Darwin’s Watery Domain

Patagonia is no Serengeti—most of the region is scant on wildlife. But the Península Valdés, a spit of the Patagonian steppe that juts out into the Atlantic, is crawling with endemic critters. In 1833, Charles Darwin made land to the north of here, marveling that the guanacos (relatives of the wild llama) looked just like camels. That’s debatable, but Valdés is the place for a Beagle-esque experience, and Argentina Visión is the outfitter of choice. Book a custom sea kayaking trip for close encounters with elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, southern right whales, armadillos, rheas (native ostrich-like birds), and, of course, guanacos. Nights are spent camping out on the beach (five nights, $2,640; argentinavision.com).

What Else?

Smart Move: Argentines have been perfecting bus travel since the 1920s, when colectivos were among the first public buses in the world. For the 13-hour, overnight ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, you’ll have a fully reclining leather seat (think airline first class) and your choice of wine and meriendas—sweet and savory snacks like pastries and small sandwiches (first-class ticket, $65, plus meals; omnilineas.com).

Dine Right: Steak is to Argentina as pasta is to Italy: everywhere and always excellent. But no restaurant does it better than Cabaña Las Lilas, in downtown Buenos Aires (laslilas.com). Entire sides of beef and piles of sausages sizzle on a massive wood-fired grill in the middle of the steakhouse, and when you bite into your rib eye, you’ll actually taste grass—Argentine cows don’t do corn.