A JOURNEY to Argentina can, at once, be a cultural extravaganza and a natural escape.
From tango lessons in Buenos Aires and wine-tasting tours in Mendoza to close encounters with the magnificent Iguazu Falls and walking with hundreds of wild penguins in Ushuaia, Argentina is capable of throwing travellers right in the thick of the action.
Let’s do the tango
My travel companion and I began our journey in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city, with a profound link to tango, a world-renowned dance form that is often described as passionate and intense.
Originated from Argentina in the 1800s, tango is best learnt at the La Boca district in Buenos Aires — not because this area was home to elite groups that spent their days socialising and dancing, but because it used to be a working-class slum.
Tango originally came from the musical gatherings of slaves brought to the Americas to work, and then gained popularity among poorer European immigrants.
La Boca’s location right by the old port made it a convenient place for the immigrants working in the shipyards and warehouses to reside in.
Workers there would typically build their homes with scrap materials and leftover paint from the port.
Today, peppered among these multi-coloured houses are tango salons and outdoor stages with tango dancers offering tourists quick lessons in the art, alongside local musicians and singers providing the accompaniment — the perfect place to get one’s Latin hip-swirling moves on!
Wine and dine
To relax after this energising experience, cross the country to its most prominent wine region, Mendoza, for a sip of its most famous wine export, the Malbec as Argentina is the world’s leading producer of this wine.
Mendoza alone is home to more than 85 per cent of the country’s Malbec vineyards.
The most highly rated Malbec wines are produced in the Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo districts at high altitude, right at the foothills of the Andes mountains.
Wine-tasting tours are a must-do here. For wineries with a story to tell, head to Antigua Bodega Giol in Maipu.
It used to be the largest winery in the world in the early 1900s, built by two immigrants who famously added small drops of champion bull blood into their wines.
For a journey into the great outdoors, Argentina offers two spectacular experiences.
The Iguazu Falls is a highlight for any nature enthusiast travelling to South America.
This is the world’s largest waterfall system spanning 2.7km across the border of Argentina and Brazil.
Numerous islands in the Iguazu River split the falls into almost 300 separate waterfalls between 62m to 80m tall.
We had only one day to spare, so on the evening before our trip there, we discussed with fellow travellers whether we should spend the day on the Argentinian or Brazilian side of the falls.
The Argentinian side won the majority vote as two-thirds of the falls lie on that side, and the maze of walkways created for travellers there promise an afternoon of fun exploration.
This advice did not disappoint.
We were able to navigate ourselves easily the next day through the walkways to get the best views of the water.
Through forested areas we walked, with the occasional waterfall tumbling below us, to a big “wow” moment when the massive curtain of falls was revealed a distance before us.
The walkway then led us right to the bottom of the falls for an awe-inspiring view.
We were so close to the crashing waters that people were carrying umbrellas and wearing ponchos to avoid getting completely soaked.
From there, it was a walk above an oddly calm river to the monstrosity of another waterfall, the Devil’s Throat.
We could hear its frightful rumble even before we saw it. This was the largest water curtain in the system, carrying half of the volume of the Iguazu River.
Into the wild
For close encounters with wildlife, head to Patagonia, a region at the southernmost tip of Argentina that is famous for its stunning natural landscapes and wildlife colonies.
Ushuaia is the perfect place to start. For US$60 (S$83), we were able to take a boat ride down Beagle Channel, featuring islands packed with animals set against beautiful mountain ranges.
Like scenes straight out of Animal Planet, we came face to face with huge colonies of black and white imperial cormorants and sea lions lazing on the rocks, before reaching the most popular stop on the tour, Martillo Island.
As our boat neared the land, we stared in disbelief as the island’s inhabitants came waddling towards us.
Penguins — hundreds and hundreds of them — came towards us to peer around curiously, as everyone onboard went into a photo-taking frenzy.
The black-and-white Magellanic penguins and the orange-beaked Gentoo penguins are the most common inhabitants here.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you might even be rewarded with a rare sighting — the King penguins, the second largest penguin species in the world. They might just make a special appearance to make your day.
We flew from Singapore to Buenos Aires on American Airlines, with stopovers in Tokyo and Dallas.
In La Boca, look for restaurants that offer free tango performances with their meals. Enjoy a famous Argentine bife de chorizo or sirloin strip steak while being entertained.
■ If you have an extra day to spare, consider spending one day on the Argentinian side of the Iguazu Falls, and another day on the Brazilian side, which is famous for its panoramic views.
■ Ushuaia is a unique spot for another type of cruise — to Antarctica. It currently offers one of the cheapest ones on the market: a 10-day cruise costs about US$5,000 (S$6,920).
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