This year marks 30 years since the Falklands crisis, but with relations between the UK and Argentina now much improved, Sarah Marshall says there’s no better time to discover this sophisticated South American gem.
Thirty years ago, a holiday in Argentina probably wouldn’t have been on the cards for most UK tourists. As controversial battles waged in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, relations between Thatcher’s Britain and Argentina’s ruling military government were at an all-time low.
Today, thankfully, an invasion of a much more positive sort is taking place. A flurry of boutique hotel openings, a roaring wine trade and the shifting global focus towards South America as a whole are all factors inciting British travellers to make their next stop Argentina.
Walking through the streets of capital city Buenos Aires does feel strangely familiar: patisseries piled high with creamy cakes, cafes on street corners - it’s all very European and distinctly Italian.
The ornate architecture, spanning colonial, art deco and neo-gothic styles, could easily have been lifted from Paris, Barcelona or Rome, and is a reminder of the city’s decadent past.
A fine example of turn-of-the-century grandeur is the recently restored Teatro Colon - which, according to the late Luciano Pavarotti, was one of the best opera houses in the world.
Golden-framed balconies draped with thick velvet curtains, and magnificent chandeliers hanging in marble-pillared halls are riches very much at odds with the economic turmoil that plagued Argentina in the late Nineties. That period of hyperinflation is now over, however, and the country is developing at a rapid rate.
From the French-style service in restaurants, to the dusty antique shops of San Telmo selling treasures once imported from overseas, European sentiment can be felt throughout the city.
It’s not by coincidence.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th and 16th centuries had a dramatic impact on all of South America, but it was the influx of immigrants from Genoa in the late 19th and early 20th century that has really shaped the cultural landscape of Buenos Aires.
The famous Caminito, a street museum filled with brightly painted houses, souvenir stores and steak restaurants, is a recreation of their dockside dwellings and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
Entertainment takes place every day; tango dancers in red dresses split dangerously high up the thigh cling to their partners in a passionate embrace, while gauchos (Argentine cowboys) in culotte-style trousers perform traditional dances involving furious Cossack-like squats.
The Caminito can be found in La Boca, which is also home to the most famous football stadium, Bombonera, where sporting deity Maradona once played for Boca Juniors.
I’m told devotees have even set up a Church of Maradona, where it’s possible to get married. To seal the agreement, bride and groom must simulate the ‘hand of God’.
Despite my efforts, sadly I never find the Church.
Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires) have a reputation for being cold and arrogant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the only frosty reception I encounter in Argentina is when I leave the city and head south to the ice fields of Patagonia.
When I first arrive, after a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires, I’m relieved to find the area’s trademark gusty winds are remarkably sedate. With its beautiful but unforgiving windswept plains bathed in an icy glow, it feels like one of the last unsullied corners of the earth, where nature still has the upper hand over man.
It’s already 9.30pm, but the sun is still a good 90-degree angle from the ground. During the summer months of November to February, the days are long with temperatures of up to 24 degrees centigrade - ideal conditions for trekking.
I make my way to Los Glaciares National Park, home to the Perito Moreno, one of earth’s few ‘advancing glaciers’.
This astounding 5km mass of ice tumbling down into the Lago Argentino creaks and lurches forward at a rate of about two metres a day.
At sunset, the 60-metre high icy mound is cloaked in orange; by sunrise it shimmers in pink; and as the day takes hold, deep blue beams of light appear to pierce this fairytale creation that could pass itself off as a majestic wedding cake.
Getting up close - either by boat, trekking with an organised tour, or by foot on one of the viewing platforms - affords an even greater sensory experience.
Sight is one thing, but it’s the sound that really brings Perito Moreno to life. Sucking, popping, croaking and crunching - the ice is in constant flux. At any given moment, blocks fall away to create icebergs in the creamy, silver lake.
At the north side of the park, a three-hour bus journey from Calafate along the impressively photogenic Route 40, lies El Chalten. This small town is the stepping off point for some of the area’s best trekking routes.
I set off on a walk that should take eight hours, but two hours in and I’ve barely covered any ground. Every second step is a photo opportunity. Rivers, frozen in time, cascade through mountain ranges; gnarled tree trunks and branches, burned silver by the wind, cover the forest floor like victims on a battlefield.
The final stretch of my steep climb to the Lago de los Tres, nestled below the jagged peaks of Mount Fitz Roy, is tough, arduous and at times - with gale force winds whipping against my face - almost death defying.
But all the pain, anguish and buckled joints are worth the final reward.
Crossing one last peak, I find myself at the base of a turquoise blue lake, within a stone’s throw of the Fitz Roy swathed in thin smoky wisps of cloud.
If Patagonia has more in common with the icy landscapes of Antarctica, the tropical forests of Misiones - in north-east Argentina - are closer to the postcard image of South America.
A five-hour flight distance from El Calafate, via Buenos Aires, it feels like a different continent. The area’s largest attraction is the Iguazu Falls, a series of 275 waterfalls and cataracts shared by Brazil and Argentina.
Argentine authorities have done well to save their park from descending into a Disneyland attraction. A small train brings visitors to the base of the Devil’s Throat, a long and narrow chasm where half the river’s water falls, while various walkways wind through the forest and under waterfalls to give a true sense of the natural surroundings.
Within 10 minutes of arriving in the park, I’m already soaked through. A permanent damp mist hangs in the air, attracting wildlife and insects in droves.
The best views of the Falls may be from a distance, but to really understand their power you’ll need to get close on one of the ‘catwalks’.
As I head towards the crashing water, small rainbows appear at my feet with increasing frequency. I’m dazzled by colour, drenched with water, and drowned in sound.
Just as the ripping and popping of the Perito Moreno was a reminder of nature at work, the thundering roar of water crashing from heights of up to 82m leaves no doubt about the sheer strength and power of the Falls.
From waterfalls to glaciers and even sporting deities, Argentina is bursting with natural talent and full of surprises. The days of cheap living may have passed, but there’s never been a better time to go.
I already know a return visit is on the horizon, if only to track down the Church of Maradona and find out if the hand of God really does exist.
Key facts - Argentina
:: Best for: Sweeping landscapes.
:: Time to go: Buenos Aires is a year-round destination, but southern Patagonia is best visited during the summer months of November to February.
:: Don’t miss: A guided tour of the newly renovated Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Visit www.teatrocolon.org.ar.
:: Need to know: Visit Iguazu Falls at night on a full moon and you might see a silver rainbow.
:: Don’t forget: Lip balm, the winds in Patagonia can be biting.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Journey Latin America and a 16-day holiday to Argentina starts from £3,657 per person, including flights. Visit journeylatinamerica.co.uk or call 020 8747 8315.
Air Europa flies from London Gatwick to Buenos Aires, via Madrid, from £691.30 return. Visit aireuropa.com or call 0871 423 0717, and for more information on travel and hotels in Argentina, visit www.destinationargentina.com