Argentinian, 10 of the best

Cosmopolitan cities, incredible landscapes, perspective-changing natural wonders and amazing wildlife. It’s possible to sip fine wine in the shadow of the Andes one day, and go whale watching off the Patagonian coast the next; or to gaze at the extraordinary colours of the Quebrada de Humahuaca in the dry air of the remote north west, before gasping for breath in the humidity of the Iguazu Falls. A visit to the continent’s most southerly city of Ushuaia can be combined with the aquamarine of the Perito Moreno glacier … and that’s before mentioning the glories of Buenos Aires.

Argentina, it seems, has it all. It’s a country that has repeatedly drawn me back after my first visit over a dozen years ago, with each return visit it only seems to become more appealing. I’ve seen a lot of the country – from the Bolivian border in the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the far south – these are my favourite places.

10. Susques and the Salinas Grandes

The route to the border town of Susques passes over the dramatic Cuesta de Lipan, a road of hairpin bends and mind-bending views reaching an altitude of 4,170m before descending to the vast white expanse of the Salinas Grandes. It’s truly magnificent. Drive further through the thin air of this remote region and you reach the village of Susques, with two beautiful adobe churches decorated with naive frescoes.

The Salinas Grandes in the distance, Argentina

9. Whale Watching in Peninsular Valdes

There are few sights as magical as the phenomenal gathering of southern right whales in the waters off Peninsular Valdes. Taking a boat out in the morning or late afternoon brings you up close and personal with whales leaping from the water, smashing their fins into the water, and slowly raising their tails out of the water. The surrounding area and coastline is also home to a vast array of different species, all worth exploring.

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whales, Península Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina

8. Mendoza’s wine region

Mendoza is a vibrant town sitting in the foothills of the Andes and is worth a few days of anyone’s time, but the real draw in this region is its world-class wines. The Valle de Uco, south of Mendoza, is one of the newer wine regions and is blessed by stunning landscapes and high-end bodegas offering superb food, wine and accommodations. We could have spent weeks exploring and wine tasting.

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

7. At the end of the world in Ushuaia

Sitting at the top of the Beagle Channel and ringed by snowcapped mountains, Ushuaia is as dramatically located as any town in Argentina. A magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, it has plenty of hiking and climbing opportunities in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. A trip down the Beagle Channel is a more sedate activity that brings wildlife sightings and beautiful vistas.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

6. The Quebrada de Cafayate at sunset

When it comes to scenic drives, Argentina has some of the most extraordinary in the world. The landscape of the Quebrada de Cafayate frequently beggars belief, best seen at sunset when the reds and oranges of the rock formations literally glow in the light. Best of all, you can end your journey with a glass of wine amongst the vineyards of Cafayate.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina

5. El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier

El Calafate feels like a frontier town for tourists, but it sits on the exquisite turquoise waters of Largo Argentina and is the jumping off point for one Argentina’s spectacular natural wonders: Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s hard to describe the sheer magnificence of the deep, luminescent blues of the glacier, but take it from me, it’s an unmissable sight.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

4. Iguazu Falls

Seen and heard for the first time, the thunderous roar of the 270 waterfalls that make up the Iguazu Falls make for an overwhelming experience. Words cannot describe the sheer beauty of the falls, but this is also a place where the power of nature imposes itself on you. It’s another of Argentina’s unmissable sights.

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

La Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls, Argentina

3. The Argentinian Lake District

It really is hard to overstate extraordinary beauty of this region. Bariloche, the main gateway to the region, may not be very appealing, but the mountains and lakes of the region are utterly mesmerising. The Ruta de Siete Largos is one of the world’s most scenic drives, and acts as a good introduction to the region, but the Lanin National Park near San Martin de los Andes is worth travelling around the world to see.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

2. Along the Ruta 40 to Cachi and Molinos

The Ruta 40 is a legendary road. Stretching nearly the full length of Argentina it is both an endurance test and a window into some of the finest landscapes in the country. In the north west the road is still largely unpaved, but the bone-jarring journey is worth it for access to tranquil adobe villages, high altitude vineyards and scenery to make you weep.

Early morning light on Molinos, Argentina

1. Buenos Aires

Argentina’s capital is a city about which people eulogise, and with good reason. This is one of the world’s great cities, grand European architecture mingles with pulsating Latin American culture that, from working class Boca to upmarket Palermo makes for a vivacious and vibrant whole. It’s easy to resort to cliche when describing Buenos Aires, but this Quixotic city on the Rio del Plata is one that everyone should experience at least once.

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Tango, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Serenity along Ruta de los Siete Lagos

We spent our last night in the lovely Andean town of San Martin drinking locally made beers and talking politics in the Fass Bier bar, before having some typically Patagonian food in one of the town’s best restaurants, El Regional. It seemed like a fitting end to a fabulous few days in this extraordinary region. We were heading south to Bariloche, and our final internal flight back to Buenos Aires, before departing for the European winter. First though, was the pleasure of driving back along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos into the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Leaving San Martin you drive for a few kilometres along the shores of Lago Lacar, the road rises upwards before turning away from the water through wooded hillsides en route to Lago Machónico. Here we stopped at the mirador to take in the views, before heading off-road along the Rio Hermoso to the beach on Lago Hermoso. To describe the view down the lake to distant snow capped mountains as beautiful simply doesn’t do it justice. I could have spent hours drinking in the vista.

The Ruta de los Siete Lagos is the sort of place where superlatives become redundant through overuse, and it wasn’t long until we reached the even more enchanting view over Lago Villarino and Lago Falkner. The two lakes are separated by a short river over which the Ruta 40 passes on a narrow strip of land. The lakes and their surrounding mountains are mesmerisingly picturesque, we’d brought lunch with us and we almost had a picnic on the shore of  Lago Villarino. In the end we decided to carry on to Lago Espejo Chico.

This, it turned out, was an inspired choice. On the banks of one of the most beautiful of all Patagonian lakes, we sat in glorious silence and ate our lunch under a bright blue sky. The pristine waters of the lake were so clear we cold see every detail of the lake floor. It counts as one of the nicest settings for a meal ever. It only lacked a chilled bottle of something sparkling. After lunch we took a stroll on the lake shore before heading along the final stretch of road to Villa La Angostura, where the Ruta de los Siete Lagos ends.

Just outside the town the road is joined by one that comes across the border from Chile. The change is almost instantaneous. There is far more traffic and a lot of heavy vehicles. After the Ruta de los Siete Lagos it feels like you’re abruptly thrust back into the real world. It’s not a pleasant experience. The route south towards the airport at Bariloche traces the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, it would be our final view of the Lake District. It’s taken me a long time to visit this extraordinary region of this extraordinary country, I hope to be back soon.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen and the glorious Lanin National Park

There can be few more magnificent sights than the incredible landscapes of the Lanin National Park. The Vulcan Lanin, a 3,776 metre high snow-capped conical volcano, is the most dominate feature of the park. Its massive bulk was a constant companion as we drove down the dusty dirt road to the park entrance at the eastern end of the deep blue Lago Huechulafquen (Long Lake in the indigenous Mapuche language). The wind whipped down the lake, creating small waves, and the views across the water to the mountains were beautiful enough make you weep.

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

We set off early from San Martin, reaching the dusty town of Junin de los Andes on the Ruta 40, before turning away from what passes for civilisation in this part of the world into the wilderness. We were headed to Puerto Canoa, which is less a port and more a jetty sticking out into the western end of Lago Huechulafquen. You can drive further along the road, but time was short and our small car was woefully underpowered for a journey of several hours on bumpy gravel roads. Once we’d walked on the beach at Puerto Canoa we turned back to San Martin.

The Lanin National Park was formed in 1937, and is the third largest in Argentina. It would have been wonderful to have had the time to do some hiking and climbing here, but that will have to wait until next time. Prior to the permanent arrival of European Argentinians in the region at the end of the 19th century, there had been a thriving indigenous culture here. Even today, there are Mapuche communities and farms along the route to Puerto Canoa. It must be an isolated existence, especially in winter when they’re at risk of being cut off by snow.

The journey along the lake shore is stunningly beautiful, and involved regular stops for photos, and occasionally to allow cows and horses time to cross the road. The main tourist season hadn’t started, so despite the many camp sites and hostels where you could spend the night, we only saw a small number of people and vehicles. Mostly it was just us and nature. As we made our way along the road we crossed creaky wooden bridges over crystal clear glacier fed streams. The water is intensely cold.

At Puerto Canoa you can take a boat out on the lake and onto another two lakes that are connected by rivers. It was very tempting, but the boat wouldn’t leave for another hour and takes around two hours. We already had a long drive back to San Martin on mostly unpaved roads, so we passed up the opportunity and instead went for a stroll along the black volcanic sand beach, had a paddle in the lake (very cold) and then got back in our dust covered car and retraced our route.

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Lago Huechulafquen, Lanin National Park, Patagonia, Argentina

Spectacular Andean landscapes on the Ruta de los Siete Lagos

The Ruta de los Siete Lagos is one of the most dramatic and beautiful road trips in the world. The sheer grandeur of the spectacular Andean landscapes through which you pass en route from Bariloche to San Martin de los Andes is, quite simply, breathtaking. I’ve waited twelve years to make this legendary trip, ever since I ran out of time on my first visit to Argentina. I’d seen photos, heard reports from other travellers, and my expectations were high. I need not have worried, the sun shone in a blue sky and our journey was accompanied by snowcapped peaks, wooded hills and aquamarine lakes.

The landscapes are vast in this part of the world, and in winter they can be very hostile, but on a glorious early summer’s day the 200km route from Bariloche to San Martin is simply extraordinary. The Seven Lakes route officially starts in Villa La Angostura, a bustling tourist village on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, and covers around 100km of winding roads through the heart of the Argentinian Lake District – although the first 100km to reach Villa La Angostura is almost as dramatic.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

The route takes you past more than the seven lakes it’s named after, but those seven – Nahuel Huapi, Espejo, Correntoso, Escondido, Villarino, Falkner and Machónico – are magnificent sights in their own right. The road is remarkably free of heavy vehicles, and remarkably well maintained. Only light tourist traffic seems to use it, which makes it a perfect route for cycling. We saw a number of cycle groups, as well as individuals. From the comfort of a car it was easy to envy them, but the climbs on the route are severe.

We decided that, since we’d be coming back along this same route, we wouldn’t spend too much time stopping and exploring on this leg of the trip. We were keen to reach San Martin in good time, but the journey is so beautiful we couldn’t help but stop to take in the views, and take more photos than was entirely necessary. There are places where you can stop and hike to various sights, including the Cascadas Ñivinco, a series of dramatic waterfalls.

We reached San Martin around lunch time, the final section of the route runs down hill alongside the huge Lago Lácar. The attractive town nestles at the eastern end of the lake, while the western end almost reaches the border with Chile. It’s a fantastic sight. Keeping with the luxury travel theme of the rest of our trip, we’d booked into a spa in San Martin, with a heated outdoor swimming pool. Perfect for floating and watching the stars at night. We checked in and went to explore the town.

San Martin was founded only in 1898, when a border dispute with Chile forced the Argentine government to settle the region. Before that, few Europeans had been into this area and it was still populated by the indigenous Puelche peoples. It’s a small and sleepy place of around 25,000 inhabitants and, like Bariloche, it depends entirely on tourism for its modern existence. Unlike Bariloche, it has retained much of its original charm. We met several people who’d relocated here from Bariloche for that very reason.

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

Ruta de los Siete Lagos, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

We stopped into the tourist office to get some advice on excursions, as well as eating and drinking options in town. There’s no shortage of restaurants and cafes, even the ubiquitous microbrewery movement has made its way here. We found an outside table ordered food and Patagonia beer, and planned our trip into the Parque Nacional Lanin for the following day.

Mountains, lakes and beautiful views, Bariloche’s Circuito Chico

If Bariloche, the town, is disappointing, the surrounding countryside certainly isn’t. We had a car and planned to head to San Martin de los Andes along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, but first we spent a half day driving the ridiculously picturesque Circuito Chico. The route travels along the crystal-clear lake shore, through wooded countryside, and passes interesting hamlets like Llao Llao and Colonia Suiza. The latter, founded in the 19th century by Swiss settlers, still retains a distinct Alpine identity.

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

There are places along the route where you can hike through the woods to hidden lake shores, picnic on lake beaches, get spectacular views over the mountains and lakes, and even take a tasting tour at the Patagonia Brewery looking out over Lago Moreno. The scenery is wonderfully dramatic, especially when the Yellow Broom bushes are in full bloom under bright blue Andean skies. We left the Peninsula San Pedro and drove anti-clockwise around the circuit, soon arriving at the famous Llao Llao hotel.

The Llao Llao sits in dramatic surroundings, and although its Alpine design fits the local scenery, its sheer size makes it a bit of an eyesore these days. We decided not to stop and headed onwards into a heavily wooded area that runs along Lago Moreno. We saw a sign for the Lago Escondido and decided to do the short hike through the woods to the lake. There’s a lakeside beach nearby that offers views over a branch of the Lago  Nahuel Huapi but, best of all, there was no one else around to interrupt the peace.

A little further along the circuit we passed the Cementerio del Montañés, a cemetery where climbers from around the world are buried. Soon afterwards we came to a sign for the Colonia Suiza, it looked a bit handmade and we weren’t exactly sure if this was the right road, but we took it anyway. Soon we were bouncing down gravel tracks past farms that really could have come straight from Switzerland, all the while throwing up plumes of chocking dust behind the car.

The Colonia Suiza was a bit of a disappointment. A small community seemingly entirely dependent on tourism, but with no tourists the day we arrived. The whole place had the air of an abandoned frontier town. We walked to the lake shore, where a large group of unfriendly ‘dogs on strings’ people were making the place look untidy. There wasn’t anything to keep us so we hit the dirt road again along the shores of Lago Perito Moreno. The colour of the water was extraordinary.

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Llao Llao hotel, Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Llao Llao hotel, Circuito Chico, Bariloche, Argentina

Because of the detour to Colonia Suiza, we’d missed the section of the Circuito Chico that has the most famous view in Bariloche, one that takes in the vista over the Llao Llao hotel, over the lakes and across the distant mountains. It’s truly spectacular and was well worth having to do the circuit again going clockwise this time. This is also the stretch of the circuit where the Patagonia brewery is to be found. Once you’ve taken in the magnificent views you can have a locally brewed beer to celebrate.

Patagonia beer, Bariloche, Argentina

Patagonia beer, Bariloche, Argentina

On the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche

What to do in Bariloche when you have a broken toe? This is the outdoor capital of Argentina, where hiking, cycling and climbing activities abound. I’d planned to walk some of the nearby mountains, but an injury sustained a few weeks earlier in Buenos Aires meant I couldn’t even contemplate putting my blackened foot into a walking boot. Luckily, we’d booked into the Fabula Lake House. Located right on the lake shore on a tranquil peninsular outside of Bariloche, it’s an extraordinary place to stay, and the perfect place to kick back and do nothing.

The day we arrived, Walter, the Italian owner who runs Fabula with his Argentine wife, Miriam, had just returned from a fishing trip on the lake. Two unfortunate but delicious rainbow trout were quickly turned into an al fresco lunch accompanied by wine from Mendoza. After our relaxing and indulgent time in the Valle de Uco, we were definitely in the mood for more of the same. We gave up on our plans to explore Bariloche and, instead, spent the afternoon in the garden taking in the views over the lake.

Bariloche, Argentina

Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche, Argentina

Rio Limay, Bariloche, Argentina

Rio Limay, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

Fabula Lake House, Bariloche, Argentina

This turned out to be a good decision because the next day when we did make it into Bariloche, it would be fair to say it was a disappointment. Urban planning seems to be totally missing from the town. Its hideous collection of ugly buildings, built with little regard for the exquisite natural beauty of the surrounding area, is an assault on the senses. The downtown area is focused entirely on tourism, chocolate emporiums and outdoor shops predominate. Urban sprawl stretches unchecked in every direction to accommodate the million people who visit each year.

Known as the ‘Switzerland of the Andes’, Bariloche was settled by German immigrants  coming from Chile in the 1920s, its original architecture could have been transported from the Alps. Alas, no more. As tourism has grown, the town’s population has boomed without any real attempts to manage the growth. It’s a shame, because as you walk around you constantly get views over the magnificent Lago Nahuel Huapi and to the Andes in the distance. The contrast between town and country is not flattering.

The Alpine architecture of previous decades may explain why Bariloche was appealing to the many Nazis and Facist sympathisers who fled here after the Second World War. SS Commander Erich Priebke, guilty of war crimes in Italy, was captured here in 1994. Reinhard Kopps, another SS officer, lived here openly and died only in 2001. They were just two of many. Despite its glorious location, this distressing history lends Bariloche something of a macabre air.

We had some lunch before driving back out of town to take the cable car to the summit of Cerro Otto, where a viewing platform provides spectacular panoramas over the lake to the mountains. It’s not cheap to ride the cable car, and there weren’t many people on it the day we were there, but the views just about compensate for the cost. Inside the mountain-top complex is a restaurant and an art gallery. The latter contains the truly bizarre sight of a three metre high replica of Michelangelo’s David.

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Michaelangelo's David, Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Michaelangelo’s David, Cerro Otto, Bariloche, Argentina

Afterwards, we drove back to the Lake House and watched the sun set and the stars come out in their billions. When it got too cold to stay outdoors, we were treated to the comfort of a log fire, on which our home barbecued dinner would be cooked. It was a traditional Argentinian meal, vast hunks of beef accompanied by chorizo and blood sausage, the famed morcilla, all washed down with a good Malbec. We went to sleep that night to the wonderful sound of nothing more than the breeze in the tree tops.

Bodega hopping in the Valle de Uco

There are still parts of the Valle de Uco that resemble the semi-arid desert that existed here before vineyards and fruit trees blazed colour across the valley floor. When you see the landscape as it once was, it’s hard to imagine how this area became famed for being one of the largest producers of exceptional wines in Argentina. It took visionary people to see in this scrubby landscape, a thousand or more metres above sea level, the perfect location for viticulture.

As unpromising as it looks at first glance, fed by snow melt from the Andes, the terroir of the Uco Valley is perfect for several grape varieties, most famously Malbec, and today produces some of the finest Argentine wines. One of the first pioneers of Uco’s booming wine business is the Bodega Piedra Negra, named for the black stone soils that are typical of the area. Its owners, Jacques and Francois Lurton, arrived in the area from France in 1992 and brought with them a family winemaking tradition dating back to the 17th century.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

It was to here we headed for yet another wine tasting, in particular we were keen to sample their prestigious Malbec varieties, but also far less common wines like Pinot Gris. We hadn’t booked, but when we arrived the security guard called the colonial-style villa and arranged a guided tour. We were the only people there, and were shown around by Emma, a knowledgeable young French woman who had recently arrived in the valley to learn about the wine trade. We ended the tour with a tasting of several wines, and the purchase of several bottles more.

One of the unintended consequences of our visit to the Valle de Uco was buying more bottles of wine than we could reasonably hope to carry home in a suitcase, never mind  lugging them around on the final leg of our trip to the Argentinian Lake District. Still, if you can’t make inadvisable purchases of wines while sipping them under an Andean sun in the middle of the vineyard where they’re produced, when can you? Adding to our earlier purchases from the previous day, the suspension of our tiny hire car looked under severe strain.

On our way to Bodega Piedra Negra we’d passed through a strange place marked on the map as Manzano Historico, or Historic Apple Tree. This seemed a bit improbable, but in this dusty corner of the Valle de Uco is an apple tree that General San Martin is supposed to have sat under on his return from liberating Chile from the Spanish. The alleged tree is still there, as is a big monument to San Martin and an unnecessarily large Christ statue. There was a big school party misbehaving to add extra surrealism to the scene.

After our tasting we drove towards the small town of Vista Flores, passing numerous vineyards on the arrow-straight roads of the region. This is a vast place with huge skies, we saw very few cars and few signs of life, but did come across a man hitching a lift in the middle of nowhere. We gave him a lift to the town before deciding our time would be better spent by the pool at the Finca La Azul, where we were staying. This was our final night in the Valle de Uco and the chef had prepared a delicious farewell dinner, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

The next morning we packed our bags and bottles and set off for Mendoza airport, taking a route through the foothills of the Andes that would allow us to explore more of this magnificent region. We hadn’t gone far when we came across gangs of gauchos riding in the opposite direction. We stopped to take a photo and they stopped to chat. There was a big fiesta happening in one of the bodegas further down the valley. It was tempting to turn around and head towards the party … sadly common sense prevailed.

Valle de Uco, wine tasting in the shadow of the Andes

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, the vineyards of the Valle de Uco stretch across a vast landscape under an immense sky. This is one of the premier wine growing regions in Argentina, producing some of the country’s most famous and delicious wines; and it’s dotted with fantastic bodegas that offer high quality accommodation, great food and, of course, plenty of wine tasting opportunities. If you have the time, and the cash, it makes for a truly luxurious few days in lovely countryside only a 100km south of Mendoza.

We had three nights booked at the Casa de Huespedes Finca La Azul, which sits in the middle of vineyards interspersed with peach and plum trees. It’s one of the friendliest and most relaxing places we’ve ever stayed. It set the tone for a lazy few days in the valley, hopping from bodega to bodega tasting extraordinary wines, and having some of the most delicious food of our trip, all locally sourced. Best of all, we spent time sitting in the garden at La Azul trying their range of excellent wines produced a few hundred meters away. We didn’t want to leave.

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the finca late in the evening. Turning off one of the long straight roads in the Valle de Uco, we crunched down a gravel track in the darkness of a country night just able to see the rows of vineyards on either side. Once inside we were offered a late dinner and had a bottle of something red and tasty while we chatted to the chef and the owner. It’s always disorienting arriving somewhere in the dark, and I was keen to see our surroundings in daylight.

The next morning I went for a walk through the vineyards as the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the mountains in the background. It was beautiful. As in Mendoza, the weather was a bit hit-and-miss, with rain and shine. Luckily, when the weather is bad in the Valle de Uco, wine tasting is an indoor activity. A couple of kilometres down the road is one of the more unusual wine producers at the Bodega Salentein. This is a famous Uco producer, but the twist is that it’s owned by an aristocratic Dutch family.

It’s the descendants of Heribert Van Westervelt, a prominent 18th century aristocrat from the Dutch province of Gelderland, who founded the Bodega Salentein, and who are credited as pioneers of the recent transformation of the Uco Valley into one of the world’s wine hotspots. The state of the art facility we toured produces some excellent wines – they were served at the wedding of the current Dutch King and Queen – and sits amidst vineyards overshadowed by the Andes.

The huge circular underground cellar is a bit like a Roman temple, creating a sense of religious reverence for the barrels of wine stacked all around. There’s a nice art gallery on site, as well as art in the grounds of the bodega, but compared to other places we visited its modernity felt a little soulless. Afterwards we strolled back to the car under a now ferocious sun, and headed for a six course tasting menu paired with tremendous wines at the Bodegas Andeluna Vineyard. The Valle de Uco is a pretty upmarket place, and fine dining options abound, but food at the Andeluna was exceptional.

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

By the time we emerged from the Andeluna, and it was a long lunch, it was raining hard. Luckily, we were staying only a short distance away and we staggered back to relax and digest our lunch in time to have another excellent dinner at the La Azul, which included an extraordinary piece of meat from the barbecue … I could get used to this kind of luxury travel.

Drinking with the pinguino in Mendoza’s historic streets

The funny thing about Mendoza is that, despite being founded in 1561, thanks to a series of earthquakes that have periodically flattened the city, few historic buildings have survived into the 21st century. The most devastating came in 1861, levelling the town, killing approximately 5,000 people and leaving many thousands more destitute. A number of 20th century earthquakes caused further damage, including a big one in 1985. The entire region is seismically very active, the effects of which have shaped the face of modern Mendoza – which is not always pleasing to the eye.

Mendoza was founded by one of the second wave of Spanish conquistadors, Pedro del Castillo. In search of ever greater wealth, the Spanish were expanding their empire southwards from the now devastated Inca Empire in Peru. Castillo crossed over from Chile and discovered an area with an ingenious irrigation system using water from the glaciers in the Andes. The system was the creation of the native Huarpe and Puelche peoples, whom the Spanish displaced by war and disease. They kept and developed the irrigation system, which continues to make Mendoza a green city.

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza Espana, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza Espana, Mendoza, Argentina

More settlers arrived and Mendoza became an important agricultural region, which is amazing given that it barely receives any rain and without that ingenious irrigation system would resemble a barren wasteland. Its growing prosperity made it politically and economically important. During the War for Independence from Spain, Mendoza was the headquarters of independence hero, General José de San Martín. It was from here in 1817 that his expeditionary force crossed the Andes to liberate Chile. A victory celebrated in statues and street names across the city.

While it destroyed all the old colonial-era buildings and forced the town to relocate to a nearby site, the 1861 earthquake bequeathed Mendoza its quintet of leafy plazas in today’s city centre. At the heart of the town is the large Plaza Independencia, radiating out from its corners are four smaller plazas: Italia, Chile, San Martin and España. Only a few blocks from any of these squares are most of Mendoza’s best restaurants, bars and museums. This includes Avenida Aristides Villanueva, a street that seems to be nothing but bars and restaurants catering to the town’s youthful population.

On our second day in town the weather continued to be unpredictable. The morning was grey and drizzly as we set out for a walk through the streets. It was a Sunday and there was little life in the town which, coupled with the weather, made it feel a little down at heel. On days like this you notice the old buildings that are crumbling thanks to a lack of investment, the homeless rooting through trash bins, and the beggars on pedestrianised Paseo Sarmiento going from table to table outside cafes. Mendoza seems to still be in the maw of the economic crisis.

Of course it also meant that no museums were open and many shops remained closed, leaving us with few options for entertainment. We were beginning to feel deflated when, as if by magic, the sun burst through the cloud and brought a whole new feeling to the city. The spring in our step restored, we headed to Avenida Aristides Villanueva for food, and were able to sit at an outside table to enjoy one of the great Argentinian treats – lunch accompanied by a pinguino of wine.

Microbrewery, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery art, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Pinguino of wine, Mendoza, Argentina

Pinguino of wine, Mendoza, Argentina

Restaurant Maria Antonieta, Mendoza, Argentina

Restaurant Maria Antonieta, Mendoza, Argentina

For anyone who’s never drunk from a porcelain pitcher in the shape of a penguin, a sort of kitsch Argentinian decanter, it’s a lot of fun. Possibly too much fun for adults over a certain age. We decided there was little to occupy us elsewhere in town so spent a long lunch to fully enjoy our pinguino. We were leaving early the next day for a few days in the Valle de Uco wine region, so after lunch walked off our meal in Parque San Martin before returning to the B&B. We had time for one final meal at the fabulous Restaurant Maria Antonieta, the perfect way to say goodbye to Mendoza.

Mendoza, into Argentina’s wine country

I have a couple of very memorable memories from our first visit to Mendoza a dozen years ago. One is that the city famed as the epicentre of Argentina’s wine industry was still reeling from the economic crash of a few years earlier, and poverty never seemed to be far from view. The other was getting trapped seven floors up on the roof of the Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Mendoza building, which offers views over the city to the Andes in the distance.

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the City Hall early enough for it not to be open, but we spotted a security guard who let us in. Our Spanish was pretty poor in those days, but despite the lack of communication we managed to convince him to let us visit the roof. Deciding to join us, he locked the front door and took us to the roof. The view was fabulous but without shade the Andean sun was relentless. After he’d pointed out all the sights, we made our way back to the roof door. It was then the guard realised he’d left the door key on his desk on the ground floor.

The guard called someone, but forty-five minutes later we were still on the roof and getting desperate. Finally, a man arrived at the entrance and the front door keys were dropped seven floors down so he could get in, retrieve the roof door keys, take the elevator seven floors up and  liberate us. That experience has always made me very fond of Mendoza. The city feels like it hasn’t fully recovered from the economic crash, but this youthful, bustling place has much going for it, including an excellent night life and culinary scene.

We were staying at the B&B Plaza Italia, found on a corner of the leafy Plaza Italia, one of a quartet of pleasant plazas that frame the town’s main Plaza Independencia. The owners, an old Mendoza family, gave us lots of local insight into the best places to visit. Unusually, it was raining, so we postponed exploring the town in favour of a long lunch and wine tasting. A short walk brought us to one of Mendoza’s finest restaurants. The Azafrán has superb food and a bewildering array of wine from vineyards in Luján de Cuyo, Godoy Cruz, Maipú and the Uco Valley.

When we emerged some time later, the sun had replaced the rain so we made our way to the Bodega La Rural in the Maipú district. There’s something odd about vineyards so close to a big city, even one with the towering backdrop of the Andes, but this is prime wine country. Maipu’s rich, mineral soils and grape-friendly microclimate made it one of the first areas in Argentina where vines were cultivated. They’ve been making wine here since the early 1800s.

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural was founded in 1885 by Felipe Rutini. Today, the Rutini brand is one of the most famous in Argentina’s wine industry. The bodega has an interesting museum of wine that is home to 5,000 pieces of winemaking memorabilia. There are short tours but the informative tastings of exceptional wines really makes a visit special. Vineyards sit picturesquely just behind the bodega for added dramatic effect. If you’ve got time, visiting any of the numerous nearby vineyards is easy, and you can rent bikes to cycle between them.

Despite the changeable weather, we reckoned our first day in Mendoza was a success. We made our way back to our B&B where the landlady proudly informed us that she’d secured us a table for dinner at another top Mendoza restaurant, María Antonieta. We probably could have gone for a couple of days without eating after our extravagant lunch, but this was a good opportunity to sample more of Mendoza’s famed culinary delights. One thing is certain, you will not want for good food in this town.