Argentina: Time to raise the steaks
It takes two to tango but Argentina is a one of a kind holiday. By Sophie Linehan
At this stage, I have come to accept that Christmas, though very enjoyable, really only serves to highlight just how miserable January is, and so, with that in mind, this year I fled. And where do people in the movies go when they flee? South America, of course.
My first stop on arriving in Argentina was the stunning capital Buenos Aires, a city you need stamina for, particularly in January's 40-degree heat. It is common for locals to eat dinner at about 11pm and nightlife -- yes, they really do dance the tango -- doesn't really get going until about 2am. It is not unusual to see foreign revellers passed out in bars having peaked too early, while infinitely more dignified Buenos Aireans look on, bemused.
But don't worry if this type of public humiliation does not interest you, as Buenos Aires has more -- much more. It's a city possessed of a rich cultural heritage, with German and Italian influences, as well as the more obvious Spanish.
There's chic shopping, historical monuments, intimate little quarters and colourful neighbourhoods -- and steak, steak and more steak.
San Telmo ,the city's oldest quarter, has a plethora of laid-back cafés and plazas, perfect for people-watching day or night. There is also the wonderful San Telmo market open through the week, but at it's best on the weekends. Here, you will find meat, fish, fruit and vegetables all jumbled in with vintage clothes, antiques and general bric a brac. By night, San Telmo is perfect for a stroll, with bars, restaurants and tango galore.
I stayed in the centre of the action at the brilliant Carlos Gardel (part hostel, part smokey Thirties bordello), where if you are slumming it, there are loads of cheap beds. Also available, if you're feeling fancy, are some comfortable apartments, which the Carlos Gardel owns just across the street. These make a lovely, private base from which to explore the action or hide from the heat.
After setting up your resting place, check out the resting place of some more illustrious folk in the Cementerio de la Recoleta. Eva Peron is buried here, but even without the famous names, this cemetery is a remarkable little city within a city, with its labyrinthine streets and stunningly carved mausoleums.
After a packed week, I left the heat of the city for the majestic beauty of the Argentinian lake district, staying on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi and surrounded by the Andes. This involved a refreshing 20-hour bus journey. Yes, refreshing. Argentinians do bus journeys every bit as well as they do steaks.
There are two types of seats available: the semi-cama generally reclines about half of the way back and has a comfort rating of a fold-out sofabed; the cama folds all the way back and has a comfort rating of a four-poster kingsize bed. Meals are included in the ticket. Suffice to say, the buses are more comfortable than most of the hostels.
Our goal was Bariloche, Argentina's top tourist destination situated amid stunning snow-capped mountains and clear, blue lakes. The town retains the influence of its early Swiss and German settlers, with alpine-style chalets and chocolate shops galore. It's heaven for people who like the outdoors. In winter, the nearby ski resort of Cerro Catedral is apparently the best in South America, while in summer the town is the perfect base for swimming, hiking, cycling, horseriding and rafting the Rio Manso.
Though the town centre itself is packed with B&Bs, hotels and hostels, there are much more appealing places to stay just outside the town on the shores of the lake. I stayed in the lovely, laid-back hostel the Green House.
Cycling is a great way to explore the area. I did an exhilarating ride to Lake Gutierrez, which, like everything else in the area, is beautiful and tranquil. There I abandoned my bike and took a short hike through the forest to some waterfalls. After a week in Bariloche, it was time to get back on the road and head to the Atlantic coast and Puerto Madryn.
The town was founded by Welsh settlers and is a hot spot for wildlife and Welsh tea. An absolute must is a trip out to Peninsula Valdes to see penguins, elephant seals, sea lions and, if you're lucky, orcas.
Also highly recommended is a visit to the wonderfully weird nearby town of Gaiman, and one of the famous Welsh tea houses for afternoon tea.
Gaiman has a central leafy square and tree-lined streets built along the most minty green river I have ever seen. For tea, I went to Plas y Coed, which is set in small gardens and houses the life work of Gaiman's Joaquin Alonso, who dedicated most of his time to making art out of rubbish.
A truly unique spot and a great way to wrap up my adventures in Argentina.