On the world map, the sheer size of Brazil has a strange effect on Argentina — it seems to shrink it. The slimmer, more southerly country appears like a stem propping up the head of a massive flower. On most Britain-centric renderings, Argentina looks tucked away, pushed down into the southern reaches of the Atlantic, yet it could absorb the UK 11 times and still fit in the Republic of Ireland, too. The world’s eighth largest country is anything but petite. But it’s also one of the longest countries on the planet, stretching more than 30 degrees of latitude. The north-south divide is so extreme that within the borders you can find armadillos and albatrosses, crocodiles and condors, pumas and penguins. From dense jungle in the north, through vast grassland planes, Argentina eventually tapers down towards the land of fire, Tierra Del Fuego, which is more often covered in ice.
It’s true to say that most countries in the world have been sculpted by water, but in Argentina it’s possible to see these processes happening live. This is a country that within its own vast territory presents every shape of water.
Going with the flow at Iguazú Falls
From a distance it looks like a terrible forest fire. Columns of white smoke entwine and rise on the breeze, drifting further and further from the canopy. Except it’s not smoke, but mist, rising from a place where no fire could survive, the mighty Iguazú Falls.
I’m standing on the balcony of my room at the Meliá Iguazú, and from perhaps a mile away, I can hear the brontosaurean rumbling of the falls through the jungle. This hotel is the only one inside the national park on the Argentinian side of the border, but from here I can see Brazil, too. The falls sit on a tight intersection of three countries, with Paraguay also walking distance from this extraordinary place; for all the political wrangling of the 18th and 19th centuries, it seems that no nation was quite willing to retreat from Iguazú.
New hotels pop up in the region from time to time, but the reason to come here has nothing to do with man, and everything to do with what the indigenous Guaraní people called “the place where clouds are born”.
The most dramatic part of the falls, The Devil’s Throat, is the furthest from the park entrance, most commonly reached by a small train.
Before that, though, the national park offers several trails, all of which have their own waterfalls. It feels as though this corner of South America is becoming a tropical Atlantis. At times, it can be too much, even for this specially adapted environment. Some of the world’s other great falls, such as Niagara and Victoria, may ordinarily have more water tumbling over them, but in 2014 all known records were shattered when a storm surge caused 1.6 million cubic feet per second to rush over Iguazú’s sides. That number might not mean much on its own, but it was 26 times the normal rate, and more than five-and-a-half times anything recorded at Niagara.
All of which sounds very dramatic but does little to convey the sense of beauty that goes along with the awe.
As I’m drawn towards the Devil’s Throat, the crowds begin to thicken. Jumping off the train, I follow the excited conga of people making their way out to the viewing platform.
From a distance it looks like an inferno, but up close the Devil’s Throat looks like the jungle is collapsing in on itself. The astounding force of the water is so violent that it appears to boil — vapour rising from white-hot liquid.
With billions of particles flying through the air, time seems to stretch one second and compress another. These thoughts and more fly around my head, which may be down to some prehistoric magic intrinsic to Iguazú, but could perhaps also be explained by the super-charged negative ions in the air. In any case, when I stagger back from the edge of the abyss, I’m left in little doubt: this is water at its most agitated.
Being still in the lake district
I hire a bike in the western city of San Carlos de Bariloche and cycle out of town. After what feels like a mountain section of the Tour de France, I stop, breathless at a lookout. What I see scarcely seems real: a series of lakes interlinked, lying in the shadows of snow-peaked mountains, some home to islands covered with pine trees. Across the surface of the water, winds seem to dance, as though through tall grass on a great plain. Once my lungs are revived, and I’ve taken some photos, I remark to a stranger next to me that it looks a little like the Alps. “No,” he says with a chuckle, “I’m from Switzerland and we don’t have this many lakes.”
Nestled on the eastern side of the magnificent Andes and generally regarded as the northernmost point of Patagonia, Argentina’s lake district is today shaped primarily by mountains. They dictate the climate and provide that sensational backdrop, while separating the bodies of water, which today lie blue and placid but which were once part of the Great Patagonian Icefield.
The Swiss comparisons are common and leaned into heavily by the local tourism industry. The town centre has an increasing number of local brewers serving beer in satisfyingly Germanic steins, but they’re significantly outnumbered by the army of chocolate makers and sellers. Over the years, the German diaspora spread here, too (they first started moving here at the start of the 20th century before a high number allegedly arrived in the late 1940s) but today Bariloche draws people from all over the world.
Beer and chocolate are fine bonuses, but the main draw is the lakes. It’s so lovely around here — my guide, Romina Flores, often finds herself using both English and Spanish to describe the beauty. Though she’s not originally from this part of the country, she understandably finds it hard to leave. As one of the outdoor capitals of South America, there’s no shortage of work, or opportunities to explore on her own when she has time off.
For any lover of nature, this is an obvious base — as well as watersports and cycling, there are dozens of trekking and mountaineering options, and then the Austral winter brings snowfall, transforming the entire region. “It’s really very natural, very clean. In English, this is called ‘old man’s beard’,” she says, gently cupping a piece of wispy usnea lichen in her hand. “It’s a pure air signifier.” The stuff seems to hang from almost every tree.
Frozen in time in Patagonia
Buried in the icy heart of Patagonia, the town of El Calafate is a long way from anything. Only one town of any real significance — El Chaltén — is within a day’s drive, so most people arrive here by plane. They may be underwhelmed by the approach: El Calafate sits in the midst of a featureless desert landscape and the Andes appear only on the horizon.
And yet it is one of the most visited towns in all of Patagonia. The reason for this lies around 30 miles to the west; Perito Moreno never saw the glacier that today carries his name forward six feet every day.
Fringing Los Glaciares National Park, Perito Moreno Glacier is not the largest in the park, but it is perhaps the most visually satisfying. And, unlike the majority of its peers elsewhere in the mammoth Southern Patagonian Icefield, this one seems to be coping with the world’s rising temperatures.
When I visit in early 2018, its restlessness is proving to be problematic. If ice is supposed to represent water in a static state, the Perito Moreno Glacier is determined to live its gigantic life a different way. Every few years, it advances far enough that it latches on to a small peninsula, which effectively marks the border between Brazo Rico and wider Lago Argentino. When this happens, the natural flow of water between the lakes is effectively dammed, causing the former to fill to dangerous levels with water from tributary rivers.
It’s risen 42ft when I see it, which has already drowned some trees that made their home too close to the lakeshore, but that pales in comparison to the 1960s when Brazo Rico rose 92ft, devastating nearby farms. Locals decided to attack the glacier with dynamite. It made no difference.
Visitors are likely to be more interested in what happens when the glacier naturally rights itself: underground currents bore their way through the ice-dam that has formed between the glacier and the land, allowing the lakes to level off, before making a bridge between ice and land. After years of this strange shape holding, it eventually collapses, too, an event that draws photographers and videographers from across the globe.
Things may be congested then, but on any given day, the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the world’s most sensational natural attractions, with chunks of ice the size of cars frequently calving from its three-mile-wide face. From deeper within (its total area is approximately the same as the city of Buenos Aires) the behemoth creaks and groans, snaps and shudders, noises like shotgun blasts signalling tiny adjustments.
Also emerging from within are hypnotising shades of blue. There are complex scientific reasons about why this happens, why other colours are filtered out while this tremendous blue endures, but looking into the ice giant, it’s just as easy to believe that it’s a sign of the glacier’s vitality and vigour. Perhaps it’s also a reminder that this was all once water and though it may take 600 years to undergo the process, it too will eventually return to that beautiful source.
Cox & Kings offers an 11-day trip to Argentina from £2,495 per person. The price includes all flights and transfers and two nights in Buenos Aires, two nights at the Meliá Iguazú, two nights in Bariloche and two nights in El Calafate. A two-night upgrade to Los Cerros in El Chaltén costs from £350 per person.
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)