America’s most European country has returned to glory
Maybe we would have lost our nerve if it wasn’t for the biting wind cutting through our puffy jackets, carrying bullets of snow from the freezing mountain caps. Our desire to be warm again kicks our fear. And slowly, one by one, we step off the ledge.
It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque place to rappel. Above us, the Argentinian Andes are topped with jutting rocks that look like the shattered underbite of a giant. Below, the mountains slide into a bottomless fjord that’s full of snowmelt. Behind us, as we hang off the side of the cliff, is nothing but sky, no sign of where we might find our feet on land again.
“Come on,” our guide urges. “It’s not as steep as it looks.”
It might seem, before traveling here, that Argentina itself required a leap into the unknown. In recent memory, the country suffered from political unrest, crippling inflation, and warnings that tourists should probably go elsewhere. But recently, with political stability returned and the peso finally leveling out, there has been a return to a place that often feels like the southernmost country of Europe.
Has Argentina come back? Finding out requires taking that first step off the ledge.
Before our descent into the Patagonian sky, we began our trip in Tupungato, a village in Argentine wine country, south of Mendoza. Here in the high desert, straight rows of grape vines separate wide expanses of scrub brush that are drained of color. Along the western horizon, the Andes are treeless hulks of green and gray, painted white on top with the remains of the winter.
Our home for the next two nights is the Auberge du Vin, a boutique resort that appears sprouted from the soil, concrete painted the color of the gravel around it. The resort is assembled with squares and rectangular concrete shapes that form dramatic angles against the rolling hills. The resort itself is an indication of Argentina’s turnaround: last year, Marriott Latin America purchased it and other Tribute Portfolio properties in an effort to expand the chain’s presence in the country.
That afternoon, the resort’s general manager, Jimena Sanchez, gave us a tour to the clifftop spot where a new winery tasting room is coming soon, past the crayon-green polo courses, and to the edge of a golf course that makes its way across valleys and hills in the desert.
On the Auberge rooftop that night, chefs feed hot coals into the outdoor grill for a traditional Argentine asado: cuts of beef, blood sausages, sweetbreads, goat ribs and rabbit. Just a few feet away, the hotel sets up a wine tasting for its guests as the sun begins to dip behind the Andes.
Leading the tasting is Walter Nesiti, a winemaker who created two of the five reds in front of us. He begins with a pinot noir, then Malbecs, then sneaks in a cab blend. He asks us to analyze the flavors coaxed from the grapes: spice, chocolate, cherry, raspberry, and especially the granite minerality this region is known for. “These are like my babies,” Nesiti says, lifting his hands as if cradling a newborn. “It’s a huge joy for me when people try them.”
The desert air turns frigid after the sun disappears, so we head downstairs, past the lounge’s roaring wood fire, and into a private room surrounded by walls of artfully dusty cava bottles. There, the table holds the accoutrements of an asado: roasted vegetables, potatoes and garlicky chimichurri sauces. The chef arrives in intervals with an overflowing carving board, first filling our plates with blood sausages, followed by fistsized beef ribs with centers the color of the Malbec we’re drinking.
It’s a meal that preps us for what’s ahead. In the morning, we take an 11-mile downhill bike ride to the Domaine Bousquet winery. A cellar tour precedes lunch on a terrace overlooking the vineyard. It’s there that the conversation turns to the state of things in Argentina. It happens to be election day, and Argentines are required by law to vote.
Our guide for the day is Emiliano Griffone, who explains that the winery gave him and the other workers an hour off that morning to be sure they followed the law.
Griffone spent the last year in Paris working in a wine cellar there. He came back to find things a bit more stable in his home than when he left. But he’s still initially pessimistic. “Our government is nothing but corrupt,” Griffone explains. “Things are getting better and they are also getting worse at the same time.”
To explain, he calls out to a server nearby and asks about her new iPhone. Excise taxes are so expensive in Argentina that, like a lot of people, she drove 15 hours through a mountain pass to Chile to buy it. “Ridiculous,” Griffone says, shaking his head.
Yet it appears things may be stabilizing, he says hopefully, with the Argentine peso finally, after a decade, holding its value: about 17 to a U.S. dollar. “Maybe it is time for optimism,” he says.
It’s that optimism that carries us to our next destination, the capital of Buenos Aires, the Western Hemisphere’s fourth-largest city, and, arguably, its prettiest.
On our first morning in Buenos Aires, we get back on bikes for a tour of the city’s sprawling parks, with duck ponds and paddleboats and wide-open green spaces. For a weekday, they’re unbelievably busy with sunbathers and dog walkers.
Ringing the parks and the city’s wide boulevards are low-rise apartments and offices with Victorian, Moorish and baroque architecture that look transplanted from Seville or Paris.
Leading us is Santiago Negri, who moonlights as a bike guide while also working as a playwright and actor. Like many Argentines, he’s theatrical also in the way he speaks, with a singsong Spanish that sounds Italian and dramatic hand gestures as if he’s conducting an orchestra.
Negri says there’s an undeniable uptick these days in his hometown. Tourists fill his bike groups every day. Locals crowd his shows nightly. He points to the storefronts—not a shuttered one anywhere—and the mass of people who fill every sidewalk in the city center.
“It was very bad not a long time ago,” Negri says. He recalls several years ago when runaway inflation forced the government to freeze bank accounts and business simply stopped. Nobody could pay their rent or utilities, and they scraped together whatever cash they could simply to eat.
“I look back on that now and can’t believe how far we’ve come.”
That night, on the suggestion of a local, we enter a flower shop overflowing with bouquets. We must look lost when, finally, the proprietor points to a walk-in freezer door. There’s a stairwell behind it that leads down to a Brooklyn-esque cocktail bar.
The bartenders make us gin and tonics with rose petals and an Old Fashioned-inspired drink in a beaker filled with wood smoke. Crisp tempura vegetables arrive in paper. Later, we will take in a tango show packed with tourists, but for now we sip drinks the way the locals do, slowly, over long conversations, ours wondering what the morning’s trip into the mountains of northern Patagonia will bring.
Later that morning, we are headed out. The dirt road ahead of us has been washed away into a stream full of rapids, but the man behind the wheel of our Land Cruiser barely slows as we approach it. The front end drops in to the rush, and we plow through to the other side. Nahuel Alonso doesn’t even pause in the conversation, making it clear this is part of his daily commute.
“When you listen to the news on the radio today,” he says, gesturing to the dashboard with a flourish, “it is very optimistic. You hear optimism in people’s voices for the first time in a long time.”
Alonso isn’t a native of Argentina, but it is perhaps in his blood as much as anyone. He was born in Ibiza, and his mother gave him the common Patagonian name of Nahuel simply because she thought it sounded adventurous. Alonso would ask his mom to bring him to the place where his name came from, and when he was 5, she did. There, they took a day trip to a remote island in the middle of Lake Nahuel. That’s where his mother met a park ranger who would become Alonso’s stepfather. After moving from Ibiza, Alonso spent his childhood sailing the lake he was named after and climbing the peaks that rise from it.
Now, he leads tourists, mostly from the United States, on custom-made adventures—horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, or maybe just touring the breweries you’ll find along highway switchbacks. Some tourists are day-trippers from Buenos Aires, while for others he plans a weeklong adventure in the Andes.
Alonso parks his Land Cruiser along the bank of the lake that bears his name, and still we don’t know where we’re headed. He likes it that way. Even though most U.S. tourists want a detailed itinerary, with activities planned to the minute, he insists they simply go with his free-spirited approach, figuring out whether to go climbing or kayaking based on “how things feel [at] that moment.”
We begin with a hike into old-growth forest that clings to the steep mountain, requiring hand-over-hand climbing. “Don’t look down,” Alonso warns, and yet there it is below us, white-capped water lapping against a distant shore, where we’d land with a misstep.
“Almost there,” Alonso says as we take a step out on a rock that appears to have been lopped off by a giant machete. He explains that the last ice age caused these dramatic features, glaciers cracking off the edges of boulders.
Next comes rappelling, and we suit up in harnesses and then tie in to ropes hooked into the boulder. As we lower ourselves down, it’s hard to catch a breath. It’s not the exertion as much as it is the unknown below us, as we take baby steps into the air.
But then it’s clear that Alonso was right: It’s not as steep as it looks. Actually, the boulder is more rounded as it descends down maybe a hundred feet. Behind us is a view down the fjord toward Chile, where it will cascade down waterfalls toward the Pacific. To our left, the lake is broken up by the triangle shapes of the mountains that rise to the sky. “Don’t forget to stop and look around,” Alonso reminds us.
We land on a path that takes us to a clearing tucked into the mountain. There, waiting for us, is a Patagonian feast of vegetable tarts, smoked fish wraps, and a dessert of local farmers’ cheese and jellied sweet potato. We wash it down with light pinot noir and then warm up with tea flavored with ginger and cloves.
As we eat, looking out over a view that is simply impossible to capture in any photograph, there’s something Alonso said earlier that is especially relevant. After a trip to the most European city in the Americas, a wine country built from high desert, and a mountain region that might rival any other, how can you not feel optimism about Argentina?
WHERE TO STAY
AUBERGE DU VIN, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel
Mendoza Uco Valley Tupungato, Argentina, 54/261-4764-520, starwoodhotels.com
This 28-room wine-country boutique resort in the high desert is backed by the snow-capped Andes rising in the distance. Modern rooms boast large slider windows that let the breeze float off the vineyards that surround the property. Above the indoor-outdoor pool is a rooftop deck where chefs roast meats for an asado feast that can be requested in advance; it’s also an ideal spot to watch the sun set over the dramatic peaks in the distance.
PARK TOWER, a Luxury Collection Hotel
Buenos Aires Avenue Leandro N. Alem 1193, 1001 CABA, Argentina, 54/11-4318-9100, parktowerbuenosaires.com
Gilded in gold and outfitted with Victorian-inspired furniture from the lobby to the rooms, the Park Tower feels like something special. White-gloved bellmen, a shoeshine service and butler service are among the ways the hotel sets itself apart from the sister Sheraton tower next door. A lounge in the lobby full of high-backed chairs makes for a stellar spot for afternoon tea or a cocktail with the captains of Argentine industry.
ARELAUQUEN LODGE, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel
Bariloche Ruta 82, frente al, Lago Gutiérrez, San Carlos de Bariloche, Río Negro, Argentina, 54/294-447-6150, arelauquenlodgehotel.com
With the dark wood siding and chunky beams across the ceilings, you’d be mistaken for thinking you’ve entered a mountain lodge in the Alps. The look continues out back, with a wide porch that overlooks the golf course, lake and mountains that appear within touching distance. In winter, Arelauquen serves as a home base for skiers, and in summer it’s the starting point for an adventure into the Andes.
WHAT TO DO
Ruta 89 S/N km 7, Tupungato, Argentina 54/2622-480-000, domainebousquet.com
The Bousquet family traces its winemaking history back to France, four generations ago, and claims to make the world’s most awarded organic wines. A tour of the property includes a trip into the original historic-looking brick cellar, the more modern loft-style tasting room attached to it, and should end with a multicourse lunch on a second-story patio.
Arroyo 872, C1001 CABA, Buenos Aires, Argentina floreriaatlantico.com.ar, 54/11-4313-6093, floreriaatlantico.com.ar
Follow Buenos Aires locals into this tucked away flower shop, through a door that looks to hide a walk-in freezer. Instead you’ll find a stairwell down to the alley-length cocktail bar. At the bar, order small plates—and watch the bartenders find creative ways to shake new flavors into old drink recipes.
Martha Salotti 445, Buenos Aires, Argentina rojotango.com, 54/11-4952-4111
The tango gets an upscale treatment at Rojo Tango. The night begins with a three-course meal and nonstop pours of Argentine wine. The troupe makes its entrance from all corners and quickly shows that the tango requires all the skill of a gymnast and ballet dancer, from the jumps and dramatic dips to the constant costume changes.
Freddy’s Nuestra Parrilla
C1066AAT, Bolívar 950, C1066AAT CABA, Buenos Aires
Asado—a selection of grilled meats—is best sampled at simple storefronts like Freddy’s, tucked away next to the bustling Mercado San Telmo in a neighborhood of Colonial-era buildings. Locals grab a choripán, or a simple sandwich of grilled chorizo and copious chimichurri on crusty bread. Eat while leaning casually on the narrow bar that runs along the wall, watching Buenos Aires pass by.
Biking Buenos Aires
54/11 4300 5373, bikingbuenosaires.com
With several locations, Biking Buenos Aires will build an itinerary for its riders. Take a trip into the city’s sprawling parks system, with its enviable bike lanes, to a tour of neighborhoods such as the crumbling-yet-charming San Telmo.
RP82, Lago Gutiérrez, Río Negro, Argentina 54/9-294-459-3650, cassis.com.ar
In a remote modern lodge in Patagonia lake country, Chef Mariana Müller crafts dishes as pretty as the lake and mountain views out front. Her meals are presented in small tastings that highlight ingredients, including local roasted lamb leg and vegetables she picked from her garden out back. The freshness and tweezers-were-likely-used presentation earned her the designation of Best Argentine Restaurant from the Argentine Academy of Gastronomy.
Mountain guide Nahuel Alonso will plan a simple day trip or a vacation’s worth of excursions to the Argentine lake country, from hiking to brewery tours. Meals, made by his mother, rival the picturesque views, served sometimes on a table mountainside or on a remote island.