Argentina Side Trips Open the Door to Wonder and Adventure

Visitors to Buenos Aires will never be at a loss for enjoyable ways to spend a day in the sprawling city. But for those who've made a long journey to Argentina (most of us!), it pays to take advantage of excursions outside the capital.

These can range from half-day trips to a ranch on the pampas, for example, to several days at the Swiss-style mountain resort town of Bariloche; wind-swept Patagonia with its natural wonders; or the justly famous Iguaz Falls on the Brazil border. Your reward: experiencing some of the world's most dramatic landscapes.

The two-hour air flight north to Iguaz Falls should not be missed. This spectacular wonder with its 275 thundering cascades - some with drops of 240 feet - envelop you in a misty, tropical-jungle world of unparalleled beauty. In the national park on the Argentine side, walkways allow for experiencing the cataracts from various levels and angles - the lower walkway has been called "the most beautiful thousand-meter walk in the world." The very comfortable International Hotel in the park offers falls views from half of the rooms. Boat and jungle trips are also available.

A day-long tour south takes you to the ruins of the 17th-century Jesuit missions, where some 5,000 Indians were taught trades and protected from slave traders until the order was expelled from the area by Spain and Portugal. (This story - and the falls - was vividly depicted in the 1986 Oscar-winning movie "The Mission," starring Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro.)

Traveling south into Patagonia - the lower third of Argentina - can involve a trip into the vast arid, windy steppes and glacial terrain that so entranced Charles Darwin and many since, but it can also mean visiting mountain and lake regions reminiscent of Switzerland. The Argentine-Chilean Lake District stretches 900 miles along the spine of the Andes.

The picture-book setting of San Carlos de Bariloche in the lake district allows for every outdoor activity from mountain climbing and skiing to fishing and horseback riding. Early settlers - largely of Swiss, Italian, or German origin - left their mark on the architecture, chocolate factories, and culture of the area. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have lived in the area when hiding from Pinkerton's agents.

One of the most memorable one- or two-day trips on the continent is the journey by catamaran and bus across three lakes and the Andes pass from Bariloche to the Chilean city of Puerto Montt. Glacier-fed lakes, soaring volcanoes, "cool jungle" forests with 400-year-old trees, chalet-style hotels nestled in the valleys: Wild beauty and modern comforts make the "lakes crossing" a popular extension to any visit to Chile or Argentina. The trips leave every day year round, but rain can put a damper on some - hiding the volcanoes from view.

Once in Chile, travelers can fly north to Santiago or south to the southernmost tip of the world, Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego.

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