Argentina's Greatest Escapes
Published: April 2009
By Connie McCabe
Whether it's angling, hiking, or trail riding, we've tracked down some of the country's quintessential adventures and matched them to six small—but luxurious—inns, lodges, and estancias
Argentina can be divided into two parts: Buenos Aires and everywhere else. The capital has long reigned as one of South America's most tempting destinations and remains as dynamic as ever, but an enormous hinterland rolls out beyond city limits—and it is equally worthy of a journey. This is, after all, the eighth-largest country in the world. That's more than a million square miles of spectacular terrain—ranging from cactus forests and subtropical jungles to crystalline lakes and colossal glaciers—and the potential for unparalleled outdoor adventures. Traditional estancias, or rural estates, abound in the countryside, but many of these country refuges are uncomfortably outdated. Here, instead, a handful of intimate escapes: a 17th-century granary turned hideaway, a fishing lodge for sybarites, a resurrected Patagonian retreat, and three modern estancias with every 21st-century amenity. Even if hiking boots and wet suits are not your idea of relaxation, never fear: those who are after a luxurious leave of absence will feel right at home.
Pirá Lodge, Corrientes Province
THE VIBE Back to Nature MAIN ATTRACTION Fishing
Many eyebrows arched when I said I was off to Corrientes, the northeastern province famous for the Iberá Marshlands, a freshwater swamp more than twice the size of the Florida Everglades that crawls with creatures like black caimans (South American crocodiles), bone-crushing anacondas, capybaras (the world's largest rodents), and the dorado, a golden beast of a fish so unpredictable that the monster trout in Patagonia seem docile by comparison. Four years ago, Nervous Waters, outfitters specializing in ultra-luxe boutique fishing lairs, staked out a 2,470-acre property about 11/2 hours from the city of Mercedes. They hired Pablo Sánchez Eliá and Laura Orcoyen, a husband-and-wife design team renowned for chic shops and restaurants in Argentina and Uruguay, to create a luxuriously understated aesthetic for the new Pirá Lodge. The result: sienna-hued stones; raw acaciawood canopy supports; plush, pillowed sofa swings; and heavy wooden furnishings from the nearby province Santiago del Estero. But those cloudlike white-on-white beds and pedestal sinks in gloriously oversized bathrooms aren't the end of the story. Neither are the ambitious chef, the inviting self-service bar, the come-hither 70-foot pool, or all those hammocks and poetry books. Pirá Lodge is, first and foremost, a fishing destination, and guests have five multilingual Argentine guides (waders never looked so sexy) and five speedy American skiffs (the only such boats in the country) at their service for no fewer than eight hours of angling a day. (That means an alfresco breakfast at 7 a.m. sharp; fortunately, naps are worked into the schedule.) At least, this is the stress-melting routine November through April. The rest of the year, when the dorado disappears, Pirá is all about bird-watching (there are more than 350 species here), leisurely horseback rides, and curling up poolside with the likes of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges.
Paraje Tacuaral, Mercedes, Corrientes; 54-3773/420-399; www.nervouswaters.com; doubles from US $ 5,250 for 7 nights and 6 days of fishing, all-inclusive.
Hostería Isla Victoria, Nahuel Province
THE VIBE Island Getaway MAIN ATTRACTION Mountain Biking
Imagine an all but uninhabited island, with intensely dark forests, rocky hills, hidden lagoons, and pebbly beaches. Make it over 13 miles long and about a mile wide (almost the size of Manhattan) and put it on a giant glacial lake. This is Isla Victoria; in the middle of Lake Nahuel Huapí, the island has been a cherished chunk of Nahuel Huapí National Park, in northern Patagonia, since 1934. That means you'll find none of the lawless sprawl of bungalows, cabins, and souvenir shops that threaten to stifle the charm of Bariloche, Argentina's equivalent of an alpine village. An hour's drive from Bariloche's airport, then another 40 minutes by boat, Isla Victoria's virginal timberland is filled with swaying, squeaking 150-foot evergreens and one solitary hotel, Hostería Isla Victoria, a modern reinvention of what was, from the early 194o's until a devastating fire in 1982, the ultimate romantic getaway for Buenos Aires's well-to-do. After five years as a dismal mound of ashes, then 15 years of reconstruction, the new property opened in 2002, on the same sheer-cliff perch, with the same symmetrical cypress-and-stone façade. This time, though, there are 22 spacious rooms, done up in jewel tones to complement the lake and treetop views and designed with a minimalist sensibility: padded headboards, contemporary paintings by local artist Karina Craff, Mapuche rugs woven in traditional styles, and oversized windows. There is also a decadent spa, a screening room, an ample wine cellar (stocked with a number of Argentine exclusives such as a Malbec from Felipe Rutini, Enzo Bianchi's Cabernet, and Angélica Zapata, a Cabernet-Malbec blend), and a library that serves as a perfect refuge-inside-the-refuge, with leather club chairs and game tables. Rest, if you must, but island expeditions are irresistible, whether taken in a state-of-the-art kayak, by mountain bike, on horseback, or on foot. Don't worry about inclement weather: Windbreakers, wet suits, and even black wool Patagonian ponchos and wide-brimmed sombreros are yours for the borrowing. And don't pack the trail mix. One of five gracious guides will whip up mid-excursion tea and pastries, complete with tablecloths and crisp linen napkins.
Isla Victoria, Nahuel Huapí National Park, Nahuel; 54-11/4394-9605; www.islavictoria.com; minimum two-night stay $1,140, double, all-inclusive.
Estancia El Rocío, Buenos Aires Province
THE VIBE Aristocratic Argentina MAIN ATTRACTION Polo
It's hard to believe that just 60 miles outside the capital travelers can find this 400-acre property, located in the legendary Argentinean pampas, where the horizon seems to stretch on forever and sunsets are nothing short of spectacular. The easy pace at El Rocío, a guesthouse and working ranch, makes it seem worlds away from the cosmopolitan and frenetic city. Whether you love to marvel at a colt's wobbly first steps or to watch a seasoned cowhand break a three-year-old, you'll be in horse heaven. Days are spent riding the trails and eating authentic, cooked-over-an-open-fire asado, the country's barbecue. French owner Patrice Gravière and his Spanish-Argentine wife, Macarena Llambi, originally built this four-bedroom cottage—all wooden shutters, pastel washes, and rustic beams reminiscent of Provence—as their personal residence, filling it with mementos from their travels throughout the world, including a rocking horse from Thailand, a hand-carved liquor cabinet from Portugal, whimsical ceramic masks from Mexico. The couple teamed up with former polo pro Diego Cacace, who oversees the stables (15 mares, three stallions, and some 50 ponies) and runs polo clinics. Experienced players are welcome, but even those who have never swung a mallet should by the end of one week be able to hold their own in a six-chukker scrimmage. Or just enjoy watching. Summer, when the days are long, is prime polo-playing season, but winter, when all five fireplaces crackle inside the house, is glorious as well—especially for duck and pigeon hunters. But there is no performance pressure here: many guests come merely to disconnect, and this team goes to extreme pampering measures to combat any lingering tension. It's bad, Cacace explains, for the horses.
Rte. 3, Km 102.5, San Miguel del Monte, Buenos Aires province; 54-2271/420-488; www.estanciaelrocio.com; doubles from $200.
Estancia y Bodega Colomé, Salta Province
THE VIBE Wine Country Retreat MAIN ATTRACTION Hiking
In 2001, Swiss wine impresario and art collector Donald Hess, on a quest for new ideal wine-producing conditions (in addition to his operations in California, South Africa, and Australia), handpicked an exquisite 96,000-acre plot in the heart of the Andes, 9,596 feet above sea level in Argentina's northwestern corner. Hess salvaged the property's original 1831 bodega and 25 acres of ramshackle vines in what was then a struggling winery, and, with help from the 400 villagers of Colomé, proceeded to rebuild the bodega, resuscitate the vineyard (adhering to strict biodynamic principles), and construct an exclusive nine-room boutique inn. He didn't stop there: Hess built housing for employees, a water-generated electrical system, a church, a market, a restaurant, a community center for the villagers, and, just because he thought it seemed appropriate, a museum to display the work of American artist James Turrell, scheduled to open next year. Four years later, Bodega Colomé's gorgeous stone patios, romantic colonnades, handcrafted clay tiles (80,000, all made to order by a local artisan and his family), and simple wooden doors and shutters are juxtaposed with a smattering of contemporary sculptures, paintings, and fountains. Color is used boldly in the interiors—a blaze of orange in the dining room, blood-red in the bar—and luxury flourishes abound: Italian flatware, Swiss linens, and hand-painted bedspreadsand pillowcases done by an artist in Buenos Aires. Getting to Colomé requires an arduous five-hour drive from Salta, through pueblitos, forests, valleys, gorges, steppes, deserts, and riverbeds and up an 11,000-foot slope. Colomé feels light-years away from civilization, but you'll eat off Villeroy & Boch bone china. Guests can venture out alone on marked hiking trails or be led by Hess himself on an educational tour, from garden to farm to winery, ending with an enlightening wine tasting before dinner. Now, who doesn't love that kind of adventure?
4419 Molinos, Salta; 54-3868/494-044; www.colome.com; two-night package $490, double, all-inclusive.
Dos Lunas, Córdoba Province
THE VIBE Classic Dude Ranch MAIN ATTRACTION Riding
All was blessedly peaceful when I arrived in late afternoon. The air was warm with the late-day sun. Birds chirped softly. Then came galloping hooves and whooping voices, and things were off to an energetic start. I had come to Dos Lunas just in time for the evening trail ride. This is Argentina's heartland, where the pancake-flat pampas ripple up to the 9,000-foot Sierras de Córdoba. Gauchos still wrangle cattle here, a reliable horse is often preferred to a set of wheels, and grand summer retreats scattered throughout the mountains lure city dwellers from their urban lairs. Dos Lunas itself is a regeneration, funded by a group of investors, of a 96-year-old residence. Eight vintage country-house guest rooms are appointed with iron chandeliers and bed frames, charming floral-print bedspreads and lampshades, and sturdy wooden bureaus and tables. Of course, this isn't a place for holing up. The pool (huge and round), the barbecue hut (expect at least one extravagantly long cookout), and the broad wraparound porch all draw you outside. Guided excursions on one of the ranch's 100 criollos (Argentine ponies) take guests to the Moon Ravine to spy on condors, for instance, or across velvety green hills and up red-rock formations. And there will be no sleeping in the saddle: these are authentic horseback adventures. Overnights are spent high in the sierras listening to a guitar-strumming gaucho next to a roaring bonfire.
Alto Ongamira, Córdoba; 54-351/422-3012; www.doslunas.com.ar; doubles from $300, all-inclusive. El Molino de Cachi,
THE VIBE Country-Inn Chic MAIN ATTRACTION Village-hopping
One evening during my stay at El Molino, Nuny Durand looked me square in the eye and told me the secret of their seven years of guesthouse success. "Everybody is after a bit of peace and quiet," she explained, "and we have plenty of that." In this sprawling six-room adobe-and-tile inn, you hear little more than the cascading water of the river below and the rustling of wind in the treetops. I actually had to strain to catch a bit of kitchen clatter, the carrying-on of fellow guests (all visitors must be 14 or older), or the dog barking. Nothing else. And it was blissful. Naturally, a heavenly location on a picturesque bluff, just two miles from the town of Cachi in the lush northern end of the Calchaqui Valley, makes all the difference. Not to mention the fact that the Durands' son, Alberto Jr., is a professional guide and provides superior custom-designed tours showcasing the region. You can spend the day riding up into the Cachi range for a lunch above the clouds, or wind through the thousands of candelabra cacti of Los Cordones National Park, or descend to the emerald floor of the Enchanted Valley. Or you can wander through sleepy villages like La Poma and Seclantás in search of local handicrafts and textiles. And there is always the inn itself: it's the little things, such as the hand-embroidered cloth coasters that magically appear on your nightstand each evening, that make El Molino so memorable. The authentic home-style cooking—baskets of pastries and fresh breads at breakfast, local staples like tamales and hearty stews for dinner, alfajores (South American cookies) at tea—and Alberto Sr.'s house-made wine make a lasting impression as well. The entire inn is an ode to the Salteñan culture: handwoven throws and wall hangings, Nuny's elaborate silver collection, and, right in the dining room, the actual molino, or mill, that gives the property its name. This age-old device is simply a pair of giant granite wheels that grind whatever is placed between them—usually wheat or corn. The mill has been in operation since the 17th century and is still used by villagers for a few minutes each day. But even the mill doesn't make much noise.
Cachi, Salta; 54-3868/491-094; www.elmolinodecachi.com.ar; doubles from $100, including breakfast.
CONNIE MCCABE is the South America correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
When planning a trip to Argentina, keep in mind that the seasons there are opposite those in the United States. American Airlines (from Miami, Dallas, and New York) and United Airlines (from Washington Dulles and Chicago) have direct flights to Buenos Aires. For travel within the country as well as insider tips (such as where to find the best wool sweaters in Bariloche or how to spend a free afternoon in Córdoba), contact Mai10 (54-11/4314-3390; www.mai10.com.ar), a Buenos Aires-based custom-tour company.