Argentina - beyond BA

Long before we saw the waterfalls we could hear them as a muted roar, as if there was a large carnivore deep in the jungle. Walking towards the sound, we entered a world of rich green rainforest, the sky barely visible through the canopy above. About the time that the roar resolved itself into the unmistakable, gut-churning cacophony of countless millions of litres plunging over a chasm, the mist in the air became drenching and the path a muddy quagmire.

Finally we could see the falls - not a single torrent but a series of gigantic cascades punctuated by islands of greenery over several kilometres. Iguazu Falls, on the border between Argentina and Brazil, are the most impressive cataracts on earth.

Many popular destinations seem to have waterfalls as focal points. Most people travelling to the eastern side of North America consider including Niagara Falls in their itinerary and Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls draws an every-increasing number of Australian visitors. However, for many years South America had the image of being too far way, too uncertain politically and the attractions only vaguely understood. We may have heard of Iguazu Falls and hold vague recollections of gauchos riding across the pampas from school texts but was that enough to warrant the journey?

Those clinging to Zorro-induced images of Latin Americans as swarthy, mustachioed, blanket-clad figures are in for a surprise when they land in Buenos Aires. Argentina is eerily like Australia: a big country cold at the bottom, hot at the top with vast distances between the bits you want to see. The people in BA (as Buenos Aires is invariably called - although the residents are Porteños) are fair-skinned, drive Japanese cars and eat at McDonalds. Even their Spanish is crisp and precise with none of the sing-song lilt of the Mexicans.

My advise to anyone with an interest in the outdoors is to visit Evita's tomb, spend a day walking around the architectural highlights of BA then flee Argentina's capital city for the much more exotic sights of the countryside. And, unless you have lots of time, accept that flying is the only viable transportation option - for Argentina is a land of extremes: the most interesting parts are at either end of this very long country.

Iguazu Falls remain the "must-see" excursion in Argentina. It's even possible to see them as a one-day flying visit from BA but that would be a waste. Better to spend a few days there to walk the length of the falls, watch the toucans in the trees, take a terrifying boat trip acros the lip of the Devil's Throat, and cross into Brazil for the excellent overview of the falls from the northern side.

For Australians the true fascination of Argentina lies in the deep south. Argentina extends much farther south than the bottom of Tasmania and NZ spaning the barren expanse of Patagonia and the island of Tierra del Fuego. It's a wonderland of Andean peaks, glistening white glaciers filling vast valleys, tiny towns and enormous estancias, the sheep stations of the south.

Looking over the Beagle Channel at the southernmost reach of Argentina, Ushuaia is the city at the bottom of the world. It's also the stepping off point for the Antarctica Peninsula and so is a surprisingly sophisticated town of about 30,000 residents. It's full of souvenir shops and pizza joints catering to ship crews. There are excursions to national parks where condors soar and along the channel inhabited by penguins and seals.

Sadly, the stepping off point for the most dramatic landscape of Argentian Patagonia is the much-less appealing town of Rio Gallegos (pronounced Rio Ga-jegos by Argentinians). It's not a city that rewards exploration. However, from here, the tourist vilage of El Calafate and the Moreno Glacier is only a few hours away. The rich blue Moreno Glacier is a beautiful sight and, until a few years ago, it was the site of a strange physical phenomenon in which the glacier would advance to block the river then collapse in a giant deluge of shards of ice. That hasn't occurred since 1988.

Perhaps the best known images of Patagonia and the Andes are of towering, snow capped granite spires rising sheer above soft hills and lakes. There are two places to find this. From El Calafate you can cross the border into Chile and drive north to the Torres del Paine National Park - the whole trip takes less than a day. Or you can head north along the gravel travel that is Ruta 40 to Cerro Fitz Roy (he was captain of the Beagle when Charles Darwin was on board and exploring Patagonia) and the nearby trekking centre of El Chalten. Either destination will be a highlight of any visit to South America - and, by the way, the pink birds you'll see in just about every lake and waterhole down here really are flamingoes.

Patagonia is defined as the huge area south of the Rio Colorado so the decision to traverse it by bus is comparable to electing to travel from Brisbane to Perth by road. The truly brave will head north from El Calafate up rough Ruta 40 past El Chalten to the ski resort of Bariloche, home of some of the world's best chocolate. The potentially brain-dead will travel along the perfectly sealed coastal Route 3 (there are signs warning each time you may strike a pothole - if they did that in Australia it'd block out the scenery) aiming endlessly north towards BA. However, there are a couple of stops that could make that very long haul worthwhile.

A close examination of a map of Argentina will reveal a bump extending into the sea like a tiny wart on the coastline. That is the Peninsula Valdez. The interior of the peninsula is uninteresting scrubland but along the coast there's indescribably rich wildlife, huge gatherings of sea lions and elephant seals, milling flocks of flying seabirds with penguins walking around below looking skywards enviously, and (between July and December) migrating Southern right whales. It's easily reached from Puerto Madryn or you can stay in a cabin in the pretty little peninsula village of Puerto Pyramides.

Not too far way from the coast is the prosperous city of Trelew, frequently promoted as an historical anomaly. In 1865 a group of Welsh settlers came to the area to set up a Welsh colony. The last Welsh immigrants drifted in in 1911 and Welsh was still the dominant language until this generation. However, the Welsh influence is fading fast, evidenced by the tourist ritual of afternoon tea that is a travesty of what you'd expect to find in Cardiff or Swansea.

But travel is always a surprise and if Trelew is a disappointment, Balcarce is a joyous discovery. The body-image obsessed Argentinians love the beach and regularly make the 400 km drive to descend on the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, an expanse of high-rise that looks like the Gold Coast on steroids. Few would pay to leave Australia looking for a beach holiday but about 70 km inland motoring enthusiasts will find the best reason to come down this way: the wealthy but nondescript town of Balcarce. This was the home of the Formula One racing legend Juan-Manuel Fangio and the Fangio museum here is the best in the world. Apart from being the most successful racing driver ever, Fangio remains an inspiration because he won his first World Championship when he was 40 years old. Every car he raced is here - including his first Model A Ford into which he managed to shoehorn a Chev V8 engine.

If you elect to fly around Argentina but wish to do at least one road journey to see the countryside, consider taking the bus ride from BA on the east coast across the continent to Santiago de Chile on the west coast. It passes over the pampa into the rainshadow of the Andes to arrive at the relaxed mountain city of Mendoza. From here, the highway climbs up and up to the summit of the Andes and the Chilean border post. There are views of Anconcagua (6959 m), the highest peak in South America. Then you plummet down a series of switchbacks into the relatively low valley where Santiago lies.

Argentina is a surprising destination. It's less threatening than Australian preconception holds it - but it is also more familiar than expected and much of it is not very exotic at all. The highlights, however, are wonderful and accessible. Cheap international airfares right now ensure that it has never been closer.

Travel File

Qantas and Aerolineas Argentinas fly from Australia to BA. Peregrine Adventures (03) 9662 2700 and World Expeditions (02) 9264 3366 have organised tours in Argentina. The South America Travel Centre (03) 9642 5353 or (1800) 655 051 runs some tours and will also make any arrangements for individual travellers

Argentina has the same seasons as Australia but the far south can be cold year round. Australians do not need visas for Chile or Argentina.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd