Travel with Ker & Downey’s Katy Heerssen as she discovers a varied landscape of tropical rainforests, mountainous beauty, and a distinctly European flair in Argentina’s experiential hot spots. Read about it below and in the Fall 2012 issue of BESPOKE magazine.
On the first occasion to use my passport since chaperoning 28 high schoolers through France and Italy, this Texas native headed for a spring break south of the border – way south – in a place that turned out to be closer to home than I expected. Ker & Downey’s Holly Kilpatrick and I explored the many faces and varied locales of Argentina.
Our first glimpse of the country was its capital, Buenos Aires. The metropolis is famously referred to as the Paris of South America, and the nickname fits. Driving through the busy streets I was instantly reminded of my last trip abroad and the flats that lined the streets of Paris – terraces decked with wrought-iron accents and overgrown with flowering vines, stone and brick mingling to craft an inviting facade. The European influence is undeniable, with not only Spanish roots but a healthy German and Italian presence in the population as well. Our guide Mario Braun – a brilliant German Argentine – is among the many residents of Buenos Aires who embody the city’s unique melting pot of cultures.
Though I spent my nights at the storied Alvear Palace hotel in the heart of the posh Recoleta district, I had the chance to visit a few other favorites of Ker & Downey guests. Buenos Aires’ hotel options are as diverse and eclectic as the city itself. At the Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau – an opulent private home turned exceedingly beautiful hotel – I sampled treats presented in dainty bowls, enjoying a view of the manicured courtyard as I had my first taste of sinful dulche de leche, an Argentine favorite. Close to the Puerto Madero Waterfront in a renovated warehouse, the Faena is an explosion of color and whimsical modern decor, with sleek accommodations and a nightlife all its own. The hotel’s cabaret is home to Rojo Tango, a nightly tango show as provocative as the hotel itself, which is often the temporary home of worldwide VIPs like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who performed his “The Wall” tour during my visit.
During our city tour with Mario, we spent a considerable part of the day in the fascinating Recoleta Cemetery. Being buried here is the ultimate posthumous status symbol, and even middle-class families scrimped and sacrificed on earth just to spend the afterlife in the company of actors, musicians, and heads of state. Family shrines entombing generations of loved ones are so intricate they shame even the stateliest mausoleums of New Orleans’ cemeteries. Among the graves is the final resting place of former first lady María Eva Duarte de Perón, better known as Evita.
Many Argentines were quick to school us on all things Evita, pointing out, for instance, that she never actually said “don’t cry for me, Argentina” – much less sang it. We were just as quick to inform them that not all Texans are cowboys, and that none of us ride horses to work or school – or had ever ridden one at all.
Still, I felt an uncanny connection to our next destination, north of Buenos Aires: San Antonio de Areco, where South American cowboy culture is alive and well. Small stores with attached workshops display handcrafted pieces – among them spurs, belts, and harnesses adorned with silver, or ropes and whips braided from horse and cow hair – created in the same fashion today as they had been for gauchos centuries ago. The sleepy town comes to life annually during the second week in November as gauchos from all over the country descend upon the city for the annual Gauchos Festival. Up to 2,000 horses and many more riders take part in a weeklong series of parades, contests, and celebration of the generations of a proud and humble culture.
Several miles from the peaceful city center we switched vehicles and were driven along a bouncing, muddy road to the unmistakable red buildings of Estancia La Bamba de Areco. The entire staff awaited our arrival, greeting us along the tree-lined drive and ushering us inside the home, built in 1830. Up a narrow staircase we entered the lookout tower, where marauding bands of natives or others traversing the Camino Real could be spotted at a distance. At ground level, a sitting room stretches toward an opulent dining room, both chock-full of curiosities and art that pay tribute to the historic traditions of the gaucho and the refined sport of polo. Equestrian pursuits are a passion of owner Jean-Francois Decaux, himself a polo player and team owner. From the three suites in the main house to the rest scattered in buildings original to the estate, each room of the hotel is named after a famous polo pony – Mariposa, Lalabai, and Gato among them. The deluxe accommodations extend beyond guests with two legs – Decaux’s 18 polo horses inhabit stables styled to appear as though they were as old as the estate itself.
Over lunch we mused with our hostess about her former life as a “city girl” in Buenos Aires, and how after several years in the peace of the estancia, she never wanted to work in the city again. The head chef was artfully preparing our meal just feet away from us in a bricked barbecue, gliding by to serve platter after platter of fresh grilled meats, seasoned potatoes, vegetables, and toasted dulche de leche. All the while, Gaucho the massive black Lab napped on the dirt floor, no doubt dreaming of the table scraps he would later be spoiled with. The many equestrian activities are among the highlights at La Bamba, including a gaucho-led horseback tour of the estate and the pampas and polo demonstrations during the season. After lunch we were treated to a gaucho demonstration, a kind of ballet on the grass that illustrated the trust between a skilled gaucho and his steed.
Next we flew south to the edge of Patagonia. Knowing that I would soon be returning to temperatures already approaching the mid-90s in my beloved Houston, I took every opportunity to enjoy the crisp air of Argentina’s autumn. El Calafate is the main hub in the area, a town that has boomed in the past several years thanks to its easy access to the UNESCO-listed Los Glaciares National Park. The town is not unlike a small Colorado ski village, its main drag lined with tiny bars, cafés, and shops where dialects from all over the world can be overheard. Within walking distance to the activity of the main avenue, Los Sauces Casas Patagonicas is a quiet collection of individual homes separated into spacious suites. Rock paths through manicured lawns and stands of trees connect the casas and the main lodge, where Holly and I fueled up before sunrise, anticipating our glacier hike in the park.
The thought of hiking more than a mile on varied elevations of glacial ice was both thrilling and terrifying – this Texas girl’s first experience with actual sticks-to-the-ground snow was at age 15, and I had no idea what to expect from the frigid surface of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The largest and most popular of the dozens of glaciers in Los Glaciares National Park encompasses an area three times the size of Manhattan, ever advancing on the impossibly turquoise waters of Lake Argentino. The lake owes its striking color to the unique mix of sediment stirred by the constant movement of the glaciers. We were ferried across the water with other intrepid hikers, among them an Australian family. Their daughter had just celebrated her tenth birthday and, like me, was a bit daunted by the 22 stories of ice towering before her. The guides assured her that the task could be accomplished, and after the initial ascent, she was setting the pace for the group and bounding over the icy rises and falls with the guides at her side.
Our group of about 20 stomped and sloshed, at times teetering on the edge of ancient waterfalls cascading into bottomless blue caverns, and navigating the slick surface with relative ease, thanks to the crampons provided. With the help of our guides we even refilled our water bottles with actual glacial H20, sampling what the world’s third-largest reserve of fresh water had to offer. Our trek was rewarded with a glass of Maker’s, served over ice chipped from the glacier, of course. The bourbon and the ice were both well-aged, though with a considerable number of year’s difference. In an era when we are painfully aware of climate change and the threat it poses to us now and in the years to come, it was refreshing to be standing atop tons of ice that is millions of years old and is defying nature by inexplicably continuing to grow in size. After a picnic lunch – complete with individual bottles of Malbec – and relaxing on a blustery hill, we crossed back over the lake and headed for the intricate viewing platforms of the Perito Moreno visitors center. The durable metal paths are fully accessible for all mobility levels and provide an amazing view of the entire face of the glacier. Our guide pointed out the spot where the ice had blocked the lake up until about week before our arrival – this recurring natural dam splits Lake Argentino in two until the accumulated pressure triggers a rupture, sending ice thundering into the lake. Ruptures are unpredictable but happen regularly at Perito Moreno, interrupting the stillness with an unearthly crack. When it comes to witnessing glacier ruptures, however, Murphy’s Law certainly applies. As soon as we turned our heads or passed behind the trees we would hear the telltale crack echoing over the lake, the “oohs!” from other onlookers, and a distant rumble and splash. Simply hearing it was enough to remind me of the power and the years behind all that sluggish ice.
We continued on to a new destination outside of El Calafate. Bordered by sheep and cattle estancias, Eolo is a slice of bliss at the base of Mount Frias, a healthy distance from the more commercial surrounds of town. Constant breezes brushed over the estate, reminding me of the arid, mountainous stretches of nothingness in west Texas – something my family remarked on as I video chatted with them from the deck outside the dining room, giving them a panorama with my iPhone. Suites are ample and airy, with views over the pastures to Lake Argentino or the mountains behind. My time here felt like a holiday with a distant relative you rarely see but who always greets you with a jovial pat on the back and a generous glass of wine. Dining is unhurried and unique, with an ever-changing menu of seasonal offerings that highlights local Argentine beef and lamb. The home is decked with thoughtfully sourced artifacts from all over Argentina, and during the lodge’s off-season closure, the owners scour antique markets in Buenos Aires for furnishings, books, and pieces to add to the collection. Horseback riding is a must at Eolo, so we rode to a tiny lagoon within view of the hotel, catching distant glimpses of pink flamingos in the water and condors circling overhead. This was the perfect pause and recharge I needed for the rest of the trip.
Next we headed back to the big city for a quick night at the Four Seasons Buenos Aires. I was lucky enough to stay in the deluxe one-bedroom suite, the first of the 49 suites to be graced with an updated decor as part of a comprehensive renovation. The hotel is drawing on the design prowess of WA International, whose portfolio includes Dubai’s The Address Downtown and One&Only The Palm. With generous leather couches and a sprawling dining table that seats eight, I almost felt I needed to head downstairs and invite St. Patrick’s Day revelers up to enjoy the space with me. They surely would have appreciated the illuminated sink and metal paneling in the guest half bath as much as I did. My view from the twelfth-floor picture windows looking down 9 de Julio Avenue was among the perfect last impressions of the vibrant city.
On our last day in Buenos Aires we explored La Boca, the neighborhood noted for its colorful buildings and iconic La Bombonera football stadium, and the place where the tango was first danced in back-alley brothels. The streets were quiet on a Sunday morning, with only a handful of artisan stalls open. When Holly purchased a print, we were given directions to the artist’s home and studio a few blocks over. We were greeted by Guillermo Alio, who was eager to sign Holly’s print and drew quick illustrations for us both. When he’s not creating, he visits tango clubs with his wife, tapping into his past as a traveling dancer. He uses the dance as his art, literally dipping his shoes into paint and allowing the fluid movements of the tango to paint the canvas. Ours was a treasured meeting with a talented La Boca fixture.
When spending a Sunday in Buenos Aires, it would be a true shame not to visit the funky-fun San Telmo district and its massive street market. The avenues surrounding the Nuestra Señora de Belén church are lined with vendors of all sorts, displaying rows of glittering antique colored glass, oversize skeleton keys, and the occasional magazine cover emblazoned with a vintage image of Freddie Mercury or the iconic cartoon urchin Marfa. It was a time capsule jam-packed with the ornate and the quirky, a perfect reflection of San Telmo’s history. The neighborhood was Buenos Aires’ finest until a yellow fever outbreak forced wealthy families to abandon their palatial homes and populate Recoleta instead. In time artists and musicians moved in, converting stunning colonial villas into studios and galleries, and bringing with them a creative spirit that remains today.
Argentina is as large as it is diverse, and may take a few trips to be experienced as a whole, but it’s a corner of the world that’s worth the visits. Mendoza is an epicurean mecca, famous for its incredible wines. The undulating valleys east of the Andes cradle hundreds of wineries, 25 of them neighbors to the Cavas Wine Lodge. The collection of adobe-style casitas, each with its own private plunge pool and rooftop terrace, delivers an exclusive escape in the heart of wine country. Farther north there’s Salta, a historic city with a wealth of Spanish-colonial architectural treasures and a vibrant cultural and culinary community – the latter benefiting from Mendoza’s nearby breadbasket. Outdoor adventurers flock to Bariloche, a haven defined by Lake Nahuel Huapi and the Andean foothills, to enjoy fly-fishing, river rafting, and hiking in the summer and skiing on Mount Catedral in the winter. The luxurious Canadian-style Llao Llao Hotel & Resort looks as if it was plucked straight out of the Rockies and enjoys a breathtaking position overlooking the lake and the old-growth forests in the heart of Nahuel Huapi National Park. Diplomats and celebrities from around the world have been welcomed into the gorgeous hotel for decades, drawn by the unrivaled scenery, and possibly by its excellent golf course. In addition to the historic building, constructed in 1940, a modern wing of the hotel has tremendous views of Lake Moreno and Mount Tronador.
Though I wanted to see more, our journey concluded at Iguazu Falls, which felt like home – humid and hot. I was glad to have soaked up all the chill I could in Patagonia! We traveled to the end of a forested road and found Loi Suites Iguazu Falls, a jungle hideaway that feels like an urban resort. Swinging bridges stretch over the tropical gardens and connect the outlying rooms and suites to the main building and its spectacular multi-level infinity pools and sprawling outdoor lounge. From here it was just a short drive to Iguazu National Park and the famous falls. Our guide Chino was incredible, imparting so much history of the falls’ discovery and the tribulations of the men who trekked through the jungle to find them. As we navigated the web of elevated paths and bridges I tried to imagine walking over the terrain, the roar of rushing water in the distance growing closer, not knowing what we might stumble upon at any moment. The falls were discovered by Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who, interestingly, also chronicled explorations in the Texas Gulf Coast and the area that is now Houston. And it all comes full circle – I’m reminded of home even in the foreign surroundings of Iguazu Falls. I started planning my return even before I touched down in Houston, arriving as expected to a rush of humidity and instantly longing for a sip of glacial ice water.