Mist soaked, we clung to the railing of the wooden platform, watching in awe as tons of water thundered over the horseshoe-shaped precipice and plummeted 350 feet down into the chasm of Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) on the Argentina side of Iguazu National Park.
“Poor Niagra,” Eleanor Roosevelt said when visiting Iguazu. The American/Canadian falls is no match for the massive flow that is Iguazu—275 individual falls coalescing into a massive 1.67-mile-wide panorama of water that, during the rainy months, pumps as much as 450,000 cubic feet—enough to fill five Olympic swimming pools every second—into the river basin that borders Argentina and Brazil.
“Be the first ones there,” we’d been told, “or you’ll be looking at the backs of heads.” So we climbed aboard the park’s first scheduled train, disembarked at its terminus, and race walked two-thirds of a mile along a wooden walkway that spanned forest and river until we got to the platform and the stunning view before us.
Even though Gargenta del Diablo is the jewel in Iguazu’s crown, the park is not without many other splendors. An Upper-Falls trail takes you on a sightseeing tour of the rest of the falls, while the Lower Falls trail offers a different perspective. And like Niagra, visitors can opt for a raincoat-essential speedboat tour—an Argentine Maid of the Mist, if you will—that actually goes under the falls.
There’s also an abundance of hiking trails where you can spot the local fauna, including an array of birds, butterflies, monkeys, giant lizards with forked tongues, and cute coatimundis—one of which we found begging for food at the train station. The monkeys hang out around restrooms where they also beg for (and sometimes steal) food, so watch your sandwiches and fruit.
Most visitors to Argentina start in the capital city of Buenos Aires—a cosmopolitan metropolis comprised of 48 barrios or neighborhoods. From our hotel near immense Galerias Pacifico shopping center we were able to explore on foot, easily finding the grand Avenue 9 de Julio and its distinctive obelisk, visiting Casa Rosada (the presidential palace and site of Eva Peron’s speech), and touring the exquisite Teatro Colon theater. One day we unexpectedly came across a Gaucho Days celebration featuring a folk band perched on a balcony, and costumed dancers whirling in the street below.
Looking forward to seeing gauchos, we had scheduled our trip for early November to coincide with the country’s largest gaucho parade in the town of San Antonio de Areco—about seventy miles north of Buenos Aires. It’s possible to take a bus, but we opted for a one-day guided tour to this special event. On the way there, we learned that the parade had been cancelled because of an approaching storm. But the weather turned out to be picture perfect, so we visited leather-working, wool-weaving and silver shops as well as a gaucho cafe. Afterwards, our guide drove us to a nearby estancia (ranch) for lunch—meat, meat, and more meat in typical Argentine fashion. We were also treated to a short horseback (or carriage if you preferred) ride and two gaucho horsemanship demonstrations. Despite missing the parade, I gave the excursion five stars.
Back in Buenos Aires, we hopped on the subway and exited at trendy barrio Palermo, where, before enjoying a café lunch, we strolled through the zoo and wandered around two parks—Jardin Botanico and Palermo Lakes—where locals come on weekends to jog, picnic, in-line skate and ride pedal boats.
Another barrio, La Boca, was on our must-see list. Famous for its tango cafes, colorful buildings made of cast-off shipbuilding materials, and the city’s favorite-son soccer team—the Boca Juniors—La Boca (the mouth, in Spanish), at the mouth of the Riachuelo River, was first settled by shipbuilding and dockworker immigrants from Europe. We’d heard there might be a crime element there, so we elected to go with a local guide. The tourist section of the barrio—Caminito—appeared more kitschy than criminal, and we had a great time wandering through artists’ studios and souvenir shops, listening to musicians, and, yes, watching tango dancers on café stages.
It was with reluctance we left the vibrant city life of Buenos Aires, but our next destination—Patagonia—awaited. At the airport city of Trelew, we rented a car and prepared to explore Argentina’s big-sky country, where guanacos (llama family), rheas (ostrich related), Patagonian hares, hawks and owls hang out on the sides of bumpy gravel roads, and mountains appear as miniscule dots on the flat land’s horizon.
At Punto Tombo’s Magellanic penguin colony, hundreds of cheeky tuxedo-clad birds waddled back and forth from their hillside ground nests to the ocean in search of food and play. A further excursion along the Peninsula Valdes coast took us to the seaside town of Puerto Piramides, where we boarded a boat to spy on southern right whales and check out lumbering elephant seals tussling in the surf or lazing on weathered sea rocks.
Patagonia is Argentina’s dinosaur-bone repository. New skeletons are often discovered in this area, and some—like the gargantuan titanosaurus at 180,000 pounds—are displayed at Trelew’s fascinating paleontological museum.
But our most surprising discovery occurred in the Welsh-settlement town of Gaiman, known for its tea houses. Completely by accident we stumbled upon the very event we’d missed in San Antonio de Areco—a gaucho parade. Dozens of gauchos, silver knives gleaming in the backs of their waistbands, rode, hat tipping and horse prancing, down the main street and past musicians on the review stand. Following the parade, costumed folk dancers and, of course, tango dancers performed in the street. After all that excitement, there was only one thing to do—enjoy a late lunch of sandwiches and sweets at a tea house.
Considering the vastness and long driving distances in northern Argentina’s high desert region, we decided to sign on with Say Heuque tours and leave the driving to them. Our must-see here: Salinas Grande, 2,300 square miles of salt flats, which is mined, not for table salt, but for sodium and potassium used in making soap, oven cleaners, and drain openers. The place is also a “gold mine” of lithium for batteries. To get there, we crossed high mountain passes, one topping an altitude-sickness-inducing 13,400 feet.
In addition to the salt flats, the high desert offered other unique experiences. We lunched on llama meat, drove through multi-colored mountains and a forest of cacti in Los Cardones National Park, visited a winery and historic pueblos along the highway, spotted a wild herd of vicuna whose wool is the finest in the world, and were treated to a mini concert in a towering rock crevice known as the Amphitheatre where three musicians played and a local tour group sang the country’s national anthem.
The flight back to Miami was bittersweet, our fondness for Argentina cemented in memories of good food, music and dance; a vibrant culture; spectacular scenery; and friendly, welcoming people.