What's the best thing to do in Argentina or South America sounds a lot like a question I once heard a friend ask about your home country: What's the best thing to do in Australia? That's tough. Surf? Visit the Outback? Rugby? But Argentina, being the second largest country on the continent, has some of the planet's tallest peaks, thousands of miles of coastline, rivers, lakes, wine, epic urban centers, and of course, Patagonia. So while what's the best for you might be terrible for me, here are a few all-around crowd pleasers to help you in your hunt for perfection.
First, limit yourself to a region. Argentina has plenty to do, so while you may be tempted to hop the border to Peru to see Machu Picchu or hit the beaches of Brazil, I'd recommend sticking to one or two places in the countryand with Argentina's economy as it is, your tourist dollar will likely stretch more than some of the other places in South America.
Farther south at the gateway to Patagonia you'll find San Carlos de Bariloche, or Bariloche for short, a charming town of about 60,000 people on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi and 1,000 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. (Word of advice: don't waste your time driving, take an overnight bus or fly from Buenos Aires; the landscape across the Pampas is as flat and featureless as a cafeteria table.) Once in Bariloche you'll find ski areas like Mount Catedral, just 12 miles from town, where 53 runs and 39 lifts traverse wide-open terrain. Come summer, some of the trails are open to mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders, while climbers tackle the higher summits. Of course, you're also on the fringes of Patagonia here, where all manner of adventure awaits. Just south of Bariloche are Lago Puelo and Los Alerces, two Argentine Patagonia national parks with mountain vistas, glacial lakes, and miles upon miles of hiking trails. And if you can afford the time, you simply must give a week to hopping over into neighboring Chile and exploring Torres del Paine National Park. Here you'll find a fantasy land of rock so jagged and sheer that Outside magazine once called the peaks "the closest thing Mother Nature has created to a scream in stone." Numerous outfitters, like Southern Explorations (877.784.5400; www.southernexplorations.com), offer trips through Patagonia, essential if your visit falls in the winter, or if you want to do something more aggressive than simply trekking. But if you're just aiming for a few days in the wilderness with your backpack and tent, check out the Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonia Andes , which covers routes in both Chile and Argentina. Also, be sure to check out sites like www.torresdelpaine.com and www.interpatagonia.com for general information about where to go and what to see in this remote corner of the globe.
One word of caution: Patagonia can become downright addictive (see Outside's November 2005 feature story "Magnetic South") . Dip your big toe into the Argentine Lake District west of Bariloche and you may end up chucking all other responsibilities until you've made it all the way down to the region's southernmost point, Tierra del Fuego National Park. Consider yourself warned.