Back in 2014, I spent five months backpacking through South America with my then-boyfriend. Argentina was the fifth country on our itinerary, after starting in Colombia and travelling overland through Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
We crossed into Argentina in the north of the country and stopped in Salta – “La Linda” city – before continuing on to Mendoza, Buenos Aires, and finally crossing into Brazil via Iguassu Falls.
Throughout our whole trip, I published blog posts in (almost) real-time. Those posts are now a decade old, so are probably too out of date to be of any use to other travellers. They’re also a little embarrassing! I like to think I’ve improved a lot as a writer in the last decade – and these posts are more like nerdy diary-style blog entries.
Realistically, they don’t have a place on my site any more. But that South America trip was a huge chapter in my life – and a turning point in my career as a blogger. These blog posts are part of the journey that brought me to where I am today. So instead of deleting them all, I’ve gathered them all up, in order, onto one page.
Honestly – I’m only keeping these blog posts here for me, because they have so much sentimental value! I’m only writing this intro in case anyone stumbles upon this page and wonders what’s going on!
So – here are my Argentina diaries in all their original, innocent glory…
Salta Argentina – Relaxing in “La Linda” City
1st-3rd June 2014
Running away from slightly-above-our-budget Chile, we headed instead to Argentina. While still a lot more expensive than other South American countries, as long as you’re sensible a stay in Argentina can still be affordable. Our first stop was the popular northern town of Salta, a great place for not spending too much money as there’s loads of nice places for a walk – one of our favourite free activities!
We didn’t do much in Salta, but what we did do we really enjoyed. One of the first things we did was to head to Viejo Jack’s for lunch on a recommendation from a friend. This is where we had our first steak in Argentina: an enormous slab of Bife de Chorizo (rump steak) big enough for us to share, with a side of chips with egg and parsley. The steak was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen, about four inches thick, and our adorable, friendly waiter had the chef cook one half rare especially for Sam – even though we’d ordered medium rare in compromise. We’ve had a lot of steak since that first one, but I still think Viejo Jack’s was the best!
Sunday afternoon was spent relaxing in the park, watching some free entertainment which went on the entire day. We only stayed for a couple of hours, and saw a clown (we couldn’t understand his jokes, but his juggling was pretty impressive), a traditional mariachi band, and a singer. There were loads of street vendors around selling candied apples, hot drinks, roasted nuts, and pots of jelly, and we shared a candyfloss while we watched the show. It seemed to be something that takes place every Sunday, so worth a visit if you’re in Salta.
The city centre was really beautiful, with an enormous plaza surrounded by lovely colonial buildings, like the big pink cathedral. A few blocks away, we also found a huge cornflower blue and yellow basilica which looked like something out of Disneyland. The back of this basilica had domed roofs with turquoise mosaic tiling that might have been inspired by Middle Eastern mosques, while the front was a beautiful, surreal pastel blue affair that looked so out of place in such a modern city!
The best way to view Salta “La Linda” (The Pretty) is from the top of Cerro San Bernardo, a huge hill overlooking the city centre. Not fancying the long walk up, we took the cable cars for 70 pesos each return (although the walk down wasn’t steep, so it’s worth paying only for the ascent). The cable cars were really fun, and the views from the top were impressive; we could see across the whole city to the lines of distant mountains, some so far away it way hard to tell if they were hills or clouds. San Bernardo is also a really nice place to sit and relax; a quiet, green space with a huge network of man-made rivers and waterfalls that form one enormous fountain, it’s a great place to escape the city for a while.
Preferring greenery over buildings, no matter how pretty, we also spent a lot of time exploring the parks in Salta. Alongside the picturesque boating lake, surrounded by willows and families of ducks, we discovered an artisan market and had a look around at the beautiful handicrafts, then we spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sun beside the lake.
Salta definitely earns its nickname La Linda, and it was a great place to spend a couple of days relaxing and catching up with things before heading off to the rest of Argentina.
San Lorenzo Salta – Hiking in Argentina’s Northern Mountains
3rd June 2014
On our third day in Salta, we were keen to get out into the surrounding countryside and explore. Salta is set in one of the more beautiful parts of the country, with tons of great things to see on tours of the area, and we were keen to visit a little bit.
Since it was only down the road, and an easy, cheap bus ride away from Salta, we settled on San Lorenzo. This is a leafy Saltean suburb with a large and picturesque reserve full of forests, rivers and hills. Not realising we were supposed to pay for the reserve and hire a guide, we walked straight in, but on a quiet Tuesday there was no one around to stop us. I’ve heard the place gets pretty busy on weekends, but we didn’t see anyone else once we’d left the entrance behind, so I’d recommend visiting on a weekday if possible.
We were testing out a new app I’d found, Wikiloc, which lets you download GPS routes for various hikes all around the world. The route we’d chosen, a 15km hike around the Quebrada de San Lorenzo and up into the hills beyond, was a lot longer than the standard two hour hike through the gorge, went off-road quite a lot, and was pretty hard to follow even with a GPS map on my phone showing us the way. One of the problems was that, since I can’t connect to the net on my phone overseas, there was no physical map and we were just following a line! Also, in places the path was pretty overgrown and sometimes vanished – so to be honest I wouldn’t recommend the route unless you’re a confident hiker.
It was still a fantastic walk, in spite of the few technological glitches, and the scenery was spectacular. We started off on a rocky path following the river, through a thick forest with mossy tree trunks, ferns, fungi, and damp green leaves catching the sunlight. It may be winter in South America right now, but the weather was gorgeous, like a day at the end of summer in England, with warm, bright sunshine and just a hint of a chill in the shadows.
The small, fast stream gurgling through the riverbed was dotted with miniature waterfalls and was so pretty, but we soon left it behind and headed up a steeply winding uphill path. Behind us, the views across the gorge, smothered in green forest, and to Salta beyond were fantastic. We headed into the thick forest, smelling of damp earth and bark, following a pack of wild horses as they sauntered uphill, until we came to a huge clearing of rich grass under a clean sheet of blue sky. Sitting down for lunch, we spotted a condor swooping low over the landscape in search of carrion, but besides him and the horses we had the place to ourselves. It was gorgeous!
From there, the rest of the uphill hike wasn’t too long. The steep path was pretty demanding, but when we finally reached the top and stepped out of the tangled branches of the forest, the reward was a staggering view of a deep, green valley carved between rolling hills that vanished into the blue, misty distance. We flopped onto the grass in the blistering sunshine and could have spent the rest of the day just staring at that view, if we didn’t have to get back to Salta for our night bus.
Surprisingly, the descent was the trickiest part. Following the GPS route instead of the path led us into waist-deep bushes with just a hint of a track between them, probably left by animals. We followed the clumsy, frequently disappearing trail down the side of the steep hill and into wiry forest, until we found ourselves almost completely lost. After an hour of circling the hillside, getting caught on brambles and snorted out by some wandering cows, we finally made it back to the path and followed this downhill in a steep, zig-zagging pattern that was really hard work on my ankles – much worse than going uphill.
Eventually, though, we made it back down into the gorge and the thick, summery woodland, where we followed the river back to the start of the trail. It was a beautiful walk and we had the entire reserve to ourselves, which was fantastic, so I really recommend a visit to San Lorenzo while you’re in Salta – but just follow the paths!
4th – 10th June 2014
From Salta, we wound our way southwards to Mendoza, a city tucked between hills and surrounded by a huge, flat wine region of neatly lined grapevines on dusty soil.
A pretty, modern city with wide tree-lined avenues at the centre, neat European architecture, filled with orange and yellow leaves marking the transition into winter. The weather was mild, chilly air but a warm sun, the perfect place to spend a few days unwinding.
We did, of course, what everyone comes to Mendoza to do and drank plenty of wine, renting bikes to cycle between vineyards for tastings.
We also ate plenty of steak, which is fantastic across Argentina. Twice we visited the same restaurant, Onda Libre, an all-you-can-eat buffet with a huge, circular barbecue serving loads of different meats.
No one was brave enough to try intestines, chinchulini, a national delicacy, but we did pile our plates with delicious steak, beef and pork ribs, chorizo, and chicken, along with the buffet dishes of potatoes, pasta, stews, bolognese, and a big salad bar. All topped off with a huge selection of desserts, like chocolate flan and lemon pie.
During the six days, we didn’t do too much in Mendoza as it’s not a particularly exciting city, but there were some highlights.
The central plaza, a big green space with benches, trees, and fountains, was a perfect spot for sitting in the sun and chatting. We also spent a day exploring Parque San Martin, an enormous nature reserve where we walked around the big lake and stopped in a waterside cafe for lunch.
My favourite stops were the Aquario Municipal and the Serpentario near Parque Ohiggins. Although small, the aquarium had plenty to see, mostly freshwater fish native to South America; glittering piranhas, twisting eels, sulky catfish. We watched the tortoises for ages, catching something I’d never seen before; a long, slow-motion fight between two tortoises.
One had the other’s head clamped in its mouth and wouldn’t let go, with the other struggling desperately for a good twenty. Eventually, he got free, and skulked away, with no apparent winner of the fight. Afterwards, the tortoise that had been munching his enemy’s head hid his own inside his shell in shame, while one of the spectators of the fight waited outside looking for all the world like he was mocking him!
Across the road, in the dark Serpentarium, dozens of glass tanks held coiled snakes which eyed us suspiciously as we passed. Huge pythons, anacondas, colourful vipers, rattlesnakes, dead-still lizards, and three disgusting, huge, hairy spiders.
Some snakes were in motion, working their way up the glass, others lay still, some next to long, unbroken skins like crinkled plastic wrappers.
Thankfully, the spiders never moved and I could kid myself they weren’t real – strangely snakes don’t scare me at all (in fact I’d love one as a pet), but even behind glass big spiders will make my skin crawl.
Through our hostel, we organised a trek up Cerro Alto, tall hill, a steep climb up a winding road that laced around the hill.
The walk was tough but fun, although the wind that early in the morning was pretty cold, and our reward was the view from the top, where we could see the whole of Mendoza resting between gentle green hills. (FYI – this is a super simple hike with a really obvious track, so as it turns out there was no need for a guide. I recommend visiting via public transport without a tour).
Although not an action-packed few days, Mendoza was enjoyably sleepy, indulgent and restful. The modernity felt like luxury after the rest of South America, but also seemed somehow boring, less adventurous. But, just like Sucre in Bolivia, Mendoza was a pleasant place to stop and relax en route through Argentina.
11th – 17th June
We arrived on a rainy Tuesday and spent the first two days trying to enjoy the city in spite of dark skies, thunderstorms, and ceaseless rain. The first day, exhausted from a sixteen hour bus ride from Mendoza, we barely did anything: after a late lunch of steak at a nearby restaurant we lazed in our hostel lounge and played chess.
The second day, we walked into the centre and got caught in the hopelessly bucketing rain, so heavy that we were instantly soaked, then made our way to the Recoleta district in search of a mall to dry off and hunt for clothes. It’s a much fancier district than I’d imagined, made up of enormous hotels and glossy apartment buildings with doormen, so the prices at the Recoleta Village mall were a bit above our backpacker budget.
Instead, we sheltered in the free Fine Arts Museum (Museo des Bellas Artes), where we wandered through an impressive collection of antique European art. It’s known as one of the best things to do in Buenos Aires, but was probably a bit wasted on me! Not being art lovers I can’t say that we took it particularly seriously.
From the museum, we headed to Alvear Palace Hotel for afternoon tea, an elaborately fancy affair which was completely surreal compared with the backpacker lifestyle we’ve been used to! The tea was huge, so filling that we didn’t need any dinner that night, and again we lounged in the hostel listening to the rain and thunder outside.
Finally, on the third day, the sun came out, and we headed outside into the crisp Autumnal sunshine for a full-day bike tour of the city with Biking Buenos Aires.
It was a fantastic day, cycling through all the central highlights of what, in the sun, is a beautiful city, although the real highlight was lunch; huge, hot pork sandwiches called bondiola, eaten in the bright sun on the boardwalk alongside the nature reserve in Puerto Madero.
That night, we treated ourselves to a fancy six-course dining experience at the Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant Io Sono Shukuhin (review still to come). Six delicious courses, with plates like salmon teriyaki on penne pasta or chicken satay skewers, each one partnered with an Argentine wine; it was one of the best meals of the trip, and we left feeling very full and also just a little tipsy.
The perfect weather held out for the rest of our stay, so we were able to revisit the Parilla on the boardwalk in Puerto Madero and grab another greasy but delicious bondiola for lunch!
We spent the afternoon shopping on Calle Florida, the city’s main high street, and returned to the hostel exhausted but with a much-needed new shirt for Sam. That night we headed for one of Buenos Aires’ main attractions, a tango show with a delicious three-course dinner at We Are Tango!
Sunday was spent lazily browsing the San Telmo antiques market. Alongside antiques, we found loads of new products and local handicrafts, but it was much more interesting than some of the other markets we’ve visited.
Between the stalls were street performers: a couple dancing tango to the tune of a live guitar; a scrappy, lively band of young guys playing an eclectic mix of guitars, trombone, a bongo and a box drum; a string quartet in the middle of the road. There were delicious food stalls, selling more bondiolas or choripans (fat chorizo sausages wrapped in bread), and stalls selling some great homemade gifts like jewellery, clothes, or incense burners.
Sunday night was spent at the Fuerza Bruta show (also reviewed separately, here): a ridiculously impressive show combining dance, music, special effects and a pure insanity!
There were frenzied drummers pounding out an animalistic rhythm accompanied by yells and hoots, a suspended man running in the centre of the room, girls swimming in a glass pool of water above our heads that descended so we could touch the glass, flashing lights, wild dance moves, people swirling around the room above our heads. It was crazy, bizarre, and absolutely brilliant!
Having done so much in such a short amount of time, we spent the whole of the last day in bed watching the world cup matches and only leaving the room to get food. It was lazy and maybe a waste of such a beautiful city, but we were all BA-d out, and had to recover ready for the twenty hour bus ride to Iguassu Falls.
Biking Buenos Aires
13th June 2014
On our third day in Buenos Aires, the rain finally stopped to reveal a crisp, clear day, inviting us to get outside and really explore the beautiful city.
And we’d found the most fantastic way to do that, with a bike tour with fab company Biking Buenos Aires. With so much to see in the city, and plenty of green spaces, bike is a brilliant way to tour Buenos Aires; many things are too far apart for a tour on foot, and a bike is far better than being cooped on a bus.
Biking Buenos Aires – The Perfect Tour of BA!
We met our awesome guides – Stef and Angi – in the San Telmo neighbourhood and set off on the Heart of the City tour with four other tourists. It was Friday 13th, but Stef assured us that it’s not an unlucky day in Argentina, where Tuesday 13th is the bad-luck day.
I was impressed with the company straight away: not only were the bikes and helmets in great condition, but our guides also brought gloves, scarves and water bottles for us to borrow, and they were really safety conscious.
Stef led the group, with Angi acting as Trail Guide, following up the rear to keep the group together, and riding ahead to stop traffic each time we came to a crossroads with no traffic lights. Both guides were absolutely lovely and great fun, easily the best tour guides we’ve had on this whole trip, and really made the day enjoyable. We set off to explore some of the different districts and top sites of Buenos Aires, with an enthusiastic Stef leading the way!
San Telmo District
Cycling through San Telmo, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires, was a fantastic way to start the tour; surrounded by beautiful mansions and rich, European-style architecture. Although there’s a lot of beauty in the area, it’s decidedly run down, with a lot of the buildings in disrepair. Once the richest district in the city, San Telmo suffered a series of yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s and was essentially abandoned.
Beginning with beginnings, we stopped in San Telmo’s Parque Lezama to learn about the founding of Buenos Aires next to the statue of the founder himself, Pedro de Mendoza. The original 1536 founding failed due to wars with the indigenous tribes, disease, and harsh terrain, so BA wasn’t actually founded properly until 40 years later at the site which is now the Plaza de Mayo.
At the bottom of the park, we also saw the Argentina Uruguay Friendship Monument, a big bronze structure resembling a ship. More interesting than the monument itself was the story behind a destroyed section at the back: during the economic crash in 2001, people stole bronze from statues to sell.
2001 was a pretty bad year for Argentina, who collected two world records – one for defaulting on 93 billion dollars of debt, and one for having five presidents in just two weeks.
La Boca Buenos Aires
Next, we cycled into La Boca, an atmospheric neighbourhood with a ‘provincial town’ feel, as Stef put it. where the first port of BA is found.
It’s a colourful, historic part of town, where many of the wonky buildings feature brightly painted corrugated iron and wood, having been originally built by immigrants from spare items found around the shipyard, or from the ship they arrived on itself. The neighbourhood, apparently the birthplace of tango, is really pretty and artistic, with a big art market and beautifully painted buildings.
In La Boca, we stopped for a break to look around El Caminito – a bustling street close to the old port – and to try some Mate, the traditional Argentine hot drink served in a special cup – also called a mate – with a metal straw called a bombilla.
The drink is something of a ceremony in Argentina, poured by a Cebador/a with everyone taking turns to drink from the same cup. Mate is pretty bitter, so we had some tasty cookies to eat with it. One of the group was a vegan, and Stef had managed to source dairy-free biscuits (a difficult feat in Argentina) to accommodate her, which I thought was really nice.
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
Stef also showed us a mural in La Boca dedicated to the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. This group of mothers campaigned for justice during the dictatorship of the 70s, at a time when 30,000 people went missing without a trace, kidnapped by the government.
The Mothers campaigned by walking in a silent circle around the Plaza de Mayo, at a time when public gatherings were illegal, and drawing attention to what was going on.
It was later discovered that the missing people were sent to a detention centre under sports club Club Atlético, and years later during construction for a new bridge two hundred bodies were found, although most others are still missing – our next stop was at a memorial for those victims under the bridge itself. The horrific stories, so recent, were so out at odds with the beautiful, friendly city we were cycling through, and really shocking.
From La Boca and tales of political injustice, the next stop at Puerto Madero – the glitzy waterside district of high-rise apartment blocks and fancy restaurants – was even more of a contrast.
The story behind the port was pretty funny, though: built to replace the too-small port at La Boca, the new port took ten years to build but was never used, as thanks to poor planning it was also too small! The area was renovated in the 90s and became instead a glamorous, expensive neighbourhood.
We cycled along a walkway next to the reed-filled river of the ecological reserve, where we passed a ton of Parrilla places with sizzling grills sending out irresistible aromas, eventually stopping for lunch at our guides’ recommendation Parrilla el Sueno.
Here we tried a traditional Bondiola, a huge sandwich stuffed with thick slices of hot pork, which was absolutely incredible.
Leaving Puerto Madero, we crossed the Puente de la Mujer, a white bridge with a sleek modern design which supposedly represents a couple dancing tango. But, as Stef pointed out, the architect who sold it to Buenos Aires was quite the salesman; because the exact same bridge can be spotted in several other cities, for example in Dublin where the same design represents a harp!
Plaza de Mayo
Our last stop at the Plaza de Mayo rounded off the tour nicely, bringing us to the point where Buenos Aires was successfully founded the second time around, and effectively back to the beginning again.
We were able to view the presidential palace La Casa Rosada (pink house) and the balcony from which Eva Peron gave her famous speech, as well as the cathedral and several other important buildings.
From the Plaza it was just a short ride back to the garage where we’d started the tour, and then it was time to say goodbye. We’d had such a fantastic day that I found myself wishing it would last longer. Stef and Angie were fantastic guides, really friendly and easy to talk to about all sorts of things besides the tour itself, and Buenos Aires is just such a beautiful city for a bike ride. If you’re in BA, don’t miss the Biking Buenos Aires tour!
Biking Buenos Aires Info
The Heart of the City tour runs from 11am – 4pm and costs $60 USD per person, but check out the BBA website for details of all their fab tours.
Wear a jumper and bring your camera, but don’t worry about carrying anything else: BBA provide water, gloves and scarves if it gets cold, and rain ponchos just in case.
Iguassu Falls Argentina Side
19th June 2014
I can’t believe I left it so long to write about Iguassu Falls Argentina, our last stop in the country! It was such an amazing, indescribable experience that I’ve been finding myself more and more reluctant to attempt to put it into words, and by now it has already taken on the dreamlike surreality of memory.
For me now, the name summons up fragments rather than clear memories; white mist, the air damp and dripping, my trousers soaked through. Rainbows, the unbelievable noise of thunder and roaring, hot sun and lush green forests of tangled, mossy branches dripping with life, flourishing in the abundance of water. It’s one of those places which are so special that no clear image is enough; the experience is made up of all those little details.
We arrived in Puerto Iguassu, the last frontier in Argentina’s top right-hand corner, to find a sticky humidity and tropical landscape that was unexpected after the European coldness and countryside of Salta, Mendoza and Buenos Aires.
The town itself was quiet, a sleepy afterthought of the area’s main attraction, with the roads empty and all the locals glued to a world cup game. We wandered to the river’s edge, to the viewpoint for Las Tres Fronteras, where you can stand in Argentina and look across the water to Paraguay on the left and Brazil on the right.
It all looked more or less the same: a coffee-coloured river separating dark green chunks of land, but standing in the corner of three countries had an air of excitement about it, and it gave us our first glimpse of the last stop on our trip, Brazil.
But it wasn’t time for Brazil yet, and we had big plans for our last day in Argentina. I’d seen the pictures, I’d heard countless recommendations… but nothing prepared me for how heart-stoppingly incredible the falls were. We arrived early, with the morning mist still lacing the tangled branches of the thick, tropical forest, and found ourselves in a relatively quiet, leafy park which still seemed to be shaking off sleep.
We were unfortunate in our timing, because heavy floods the week before had damaged lookout points and bridges, so a few of the trails and the two major attractions – the viewpoint above the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) and the ferries to the San Martin island – were closed.
At first, I was heartbroken, but in the end, our day at Iguassu Falls was still an incredible experience.
We started with the Upper Trail, only half open thanks to a destroyed bridge, and curled through the forest drawing ever closer to the sound of the falls.
Suddenly, there it was; a thundering spray of white water lurching off the edge of a cliff beside us. Two big falls churned side by side, the Dos Hermanas (two sisters), which added their spray to the heavy morning mist clinging over the tops of trees, turning the whole forest quiet and grey.
We crossed a bridge over a third fall, and I was so busy watching the white water tumbling away beneath me I didn’t see what was around the corner until Sam pointed it out to me. A huge, crescent-moon sweep of waterfalls, some wide, others thin, creating between them one enormous waterfall half-hidden behind the white mist of the spray, laced with rainbows.
I had not been prepared for this! The view was staggering; not only the beauty of it but the power. So much noise, thundering and roaring, and so much spray that we could feel it in the air far from the falls. Such sheer force of water.
The upper trail, which we followed as far as we could, gave us various viewpoints of this side of the falls. From here, we weren’t able to see the horseshoe, the Garganta del Diablo, which is best viewed from the topmost viewpoint (sadly closed) or from the Brazil side, but we still had wonderful views of most of the falls. Next we headed down to the lower trail to get nice and close.
This led us first to the edge of Argentina, where we faced Brazil across the wide, brown river, then right around the cliff to face to falls, giving us a more distant view of the whole thing, before finishing right up inside this crescent.
The metal path wound through the dripping wet forest, where the morning mist and the heavy spray dripped down from the leaves as rain, and took us right out beneath the final viewpoint of the upper trail, where we were surrounded by crashing waves of swirling spray bouncing from the bottom of the falls. I stood at the end of the pier-like viewpoint to pose for a photo, getting soaked by the fresh, ferocious spray, so that within seconds I looked as though I’d fallen in the river.
Although with everything closed, there was nothing else to do in the park without paying for a boat tour, we still wanted to stick around for a few more hours. We took a ride on the small train back towards the entrance, from where we spotted a huge pack of coatis, the small racoon-like animals which beg food from tourists and forage from the bins near the picnic areas, then headed back into the park along the Green Trail where we saw even more wildlife including more coatis and some gorgeous blue birds.
After a picnic lunch, we revisited the Upper Trail one more time. By now, the morning mist had completely cleared, leaving bright blue skies and sunshine over the falls, making the views even more incredible. While everyone around us was scrambling to get the perfect shot, we simply stood still and gazed in total awe at a view which is, really, indescribable (not something a writer should admit) and which is infinitely better than the photos.
Read more about my South American Adventure in this timeline post.