Mention Patagonia, and few travellers with a spirit of adventure struggle to conjure up its wild scenery. Yet such an image rarely springs instantly to mind of the puna, the arid and often surreal moonscapes of the upland plateau in north-west Argentina.
But the high-altitude region’s valleys and volcanoes are just as rewarding as the vast plains and peaks of Patagonia. Building up the puna brand is just one of many initiatives that Argentina’s new government has in mind for its diverse tourism sector, in the hope of boosting international visitors from 6m to 9m annually by 2020, especially from markets such as the US and China.
Having slumped since 2013 — particularly because of the economic crisis in Brazil, which accounts for some 1m visitors — tourism has started to pick up again. The removal of currency controls triggered a devaluation that made Argentina cheaper for overseas visitors.
“We are sending a very clear message that we are a friendly country again, a country that is open to the world,” says Gustavo Santos, the tourism minister. As examples, he cites the suspension of a $160 “reciprocity fee” for US citizens as well as plans to eliminate value-added taxes for foreigners. The government also intends to waive visa requirements for those Chinese visitors who already have visas for the US or EU.
Santos is working closely with regional governments and the private sector to develop new destinations. These include the north-eastern wetlands of the Esteros del Iberá. The late US philanthropist and ecologist, Douglas Tompkins, donated land for a national park that Santos says will have “the greatest biodiversity in South America”. “Tourism is one of the sectors with the greatest potential for private investment. It has been underutilised,” says Santos, whose aim is for tourism to generate 300,000 jobs over the next four years.
A range of hotel projects is already being developed by, among others, Spanish groups Iberostar and NH that together are worth around $170m. The government is keen to promote niche sectors too, from gay tourism to eco-tourism, as well as travel for those keen to learn Spanish. Even “fertility tourism” is on the rise, thanks to a combination of low costs and the high success rates of IVF treatment in Argentina.
Meanwhile, Santos hopes to double flight capacity over the next four years after the “misguided” and protectionist policies of the previous government often made domestic flights more expensive than international ones. Colombia’s Avianca has bought a small Argentine executive flight and charter company called MacAir Jet — owned by the family of president Mauricio Macri. The long-awaited arrival of low-cost airlines in Argentina could also shake up the market, with Irish operator Ryanair aiming to start operating in the country as soon as next year.
Campo de Piedra Pómez
Some 20m years ago, a volcano in the high-altitude puna of the north-western province of Catamarca spewed out a giant field of pumice stone about 25km long and 10km wide. Over the millennia, the pink-hued stones of the Campo de Piedra Pómez, as it is known in Spanish, have been sculpted by the elements into bold, undulating formations. These are even more breathtaking for the few visitors that make it to this extremely remote part of Argentina than the altitude of more than 3,000m above sea level.
Perito Moreno glacier
The sight of giant chunks peeling off the Perito Moreno glacier’s colossal ice wall and crashing into Argentino lake below is already one of South America’s star tourist attractions. Now “mini-trekking” on top of the Patagonian ice allows tourists an entirely different view, giving them the chance to examine up close the monstrous shapes formed by the twisted ice. On their descent tourists are treated to a whisky, served with fresh glacial ice, naturally.
The fertile plains of the Pampas, a vast agricultural belt with Buenos Aires at its epicentre that stretches from southern Brazil to the Patagonian steppe, made Argentina rich a century ago. Traditionally, the Pampas were the home of the gaucho, Argentina’s answer to the cowboy. Although the grasslands are increasingly being turned over to more profitable crops such as soya, the trademark ponchos and bombachas (trousers) of that brooding Argentine archetype remain very visible at estancias, the ranches that are opening up to high-end tourism.
San Ignacio Miní
The Jesuit mission of San Ignacio Miní in the far north-east of Argentina, in the province of Misiones, is one of the best preserved of the dozens of “reductions” — missions — that were built in the area some four centuries ago. It housed as many as 3,000 Guaraní Indians at its peak, but the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish empire in 1767 led to San Ignacio’s inevitable decline. It was pulled down by the Indians a few decades later but subsequently restored. In 1986, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
They are neither the highest nor the widest waterfalls in the world, but for beauty and spectacle the Iguazú falls deserve a special mention. As many as 300 waterfalls of varying shapes and sizes crash over about 2.7km of basalt cliffs, and in 2011 they were voted one of the New7Wonders of Nature in a poll organised by the eponymous Swiss foundation. Close to the triple frontier between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, about 80 per cent of the waterfalls are in Argentina, where an intricate network of paths and walkways allow visitors to get up close — and very wet.
Esteros del Iberá
This limpkin, so called because it appears to limp when it walks, is part of a hugely diverse collection of wildlife, which also includes yacare caimans, giant anteaters and jaguars, in the second-largest wetland in the world after Brazil’s Pantanal. The Esteros del Iberá patchwork of swamps, bogs and lagoons in the north-eastern province of Corrientes is soon to be upgraded to a national park. The move follows a vast land donation by the widow of US ecologist and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, who died last year in a kayaking accident in Chile.