Argentina is sexy again thanks to a range of cheap hotels opening across the country, says Douglas Rogers.
There's more to Argentina than tango and gauchos. After four years in the economic doldrums, the country is once again the sexiest destination in South America. A slate of chic new hotels in Buenos Aires - including a Philippe Starck-designed property in the once-derelict docklands district - has helped the capital regain its sultry image.
And while a visit to Patagonia is never to be missed, stylish, privately owned boutique hotels and estancias are now opening in other, less-known and long-ignored parts of the country, notably the Mendoza wine region to the west, and the desert oasis towns of Salta and Jujuy provinces in the north-west.
For example, the Hollywood star Robert Duvall and his Argentine wife have created a chic boutique estancia in Salta, and in Mendoza and Cafayate new wine lodges and even wine spas are opening in the middle of the vineyards. With luxury small hotel groups such as Rusticae and NA Town&Country Hotels, overseeing many of these new properties, visitors can now find style, sophistication and fine service in even the most remote parts of the country.
Here we present a guide to the hottest hotels and estancias in Argentina, and, overleaf, also take a look at where to eat, drink and shop in the trendy new neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires.
1555 Malabia House
With its chic boutiques, bars, restaurants and leafy cobbled streets, it's easy to see why Palermo Viejo is known as Palermo SoHo. 1555 Malabia House is a former girls' convent dating back to the 1890s, but now is a private home with 15 clean-lined, white-upholstered rooms and a cosy library and lounge at the front.
Light streams in to glassed-in gardens along the corridors and complimentary breakfasts are served in a single-table dining room any time you wake up. As Palermo is famed for its nightlife, that could be very late.
In the late 1920s, shipping tycoon Nicholas Mihanovich commissioned the building of the 20-storey Art-Deco Bencich Tower because he wanted to see his ships sailing into Buenos Aires. The tallest skyscraper in the city at the time, it eventually became a low-cost tenement block until Sofitel restored it to period glory in 2002. It's a triumph, from the gorgeous Boticcino marble lobby set beneath a towering glass atrium to the 144 chic and contemporary rooms - most with city and river views. Located on Arroyo, the refined art gallery and antique store street, it also hosts monthly fashion shows and art exhibitions, while its acclaimed French chef, Thierry Pszonka, has made its Provençal restaurant Le Sud the hottest table in town.
Faena Hotel + Universe
BA's regenerated docklands is the setting for local tycoon Alan Faena's breathtaking Faena Hotel + Universe. Designed by Philippe Starck, the former redbrick warehouse resembles Battersea Power Station at first glance. Once inside, though, it is another universe, with its own food market, swimming-pool bar, spa, hammam, cabaret and gourmet bistro decked out in rich red, white and gold tones. Red-velvet upholstery and smooth marble flooring dominate a cathedral-like lobby and, yes, the building also has accommodation: 105 hotel rooms and 83 private apartments.
Four Seasons Hotel and Mansion
The 1930s-built Alvear Palace (1891 Avenida Alvear) might be the grand dame of Buenos Aires hotels, but I thought it jaded. The Four Seasons, a few blocks down the street, is far better. The hotel of choice for visiting celebrities from Madonna to the Stones, it comprises a recently revamped main tower with 165 rooms and a beautiful 1920s belle époque-era mansion behind it containing seven lavish suites. A garden swimming pool is set between the two buildings. You're in the heart of Recoleta, a short walk from the cemetery where Evita Perón is buried, and Patio Bullrich (1245 Posadas), a 19th-century auction house turned boutique shopping centre.
Cavas Wine Lodge
With the increasing popularity of Argentine wine, a visit to Mendoza is now as essential as a stay on a pampas estancia. Cavas Wine Lodge, recently opened by Buenos Aires transplants Cecilia and Martin Díaz Chuit, is the most chic of a new wave of wine-estate hotels, with 14 standalone rooms - known as vignettes - set in 35 acres of vineyards. Each room has a roof deck with a plunge pool and a fireplace, while the colonial-style main building is set around a terrace courtyard with a stunning view of the Andes - the perfect backdrop for a dinner of Mendocino goat entrecôte in the candlelit restaurant.
The Díaz Chuits don't produce their own wines yet, but they do sell award-winning Mendoza vintages, and you're only a short drive from the Chandon estate in Luján de Cuyo, which makes renowned Bodega Terrazas de los Andes blends.
House of Jasmines
Robert Duvall loves the smell of jasmine in the morning. He and his Argentine wife Luciana have turned this 120-year-old ranch house set in sprawling gardens of roses, orchards and jasmine into a gorgeous boutique inn. Located just outside the colonial city of Salta, in the shadow of the Andes, a long tree-lined driveway leads you to the rambling farmhouse. The interiors are done in brilliant white, including all seven rooms, which have wrought-iron four-poster beds. The two prime suites have terrace views of the gardens, fields and mountains beyond. You can hike, ride and swim on the estate, but be sure to spend some time exploring the 16th-century Spanish city of Salta, which has the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country.
Hostal el Cortijo
If Salta, with its red-rock canyons, oasis towns and Inca-related mestizo populace is the most exciting new tourist region in Argentina, it's partly because of towns like Cachi. Around 100 miles south-west of Salta city, over the heart-stopping Cuesta del Obispo pass, the town lies in a rugged, cactus-strewn valley. As gauchos on horseback and mestizo women in bright ponchos parade the dusty streets, and bells toll from the 17th-century church on the plaza, you'll feel you're on the set of a spaghetti Western.
Estancias nearby include La Playa and El Molino de Cachi, but the cosy, stone-built Hostal el Cortijo is in Cachi itself. Furnished with Andean carpets and pre-Hispanic art, it has 12 rooms, the best of them a suite with a terrace deck facing the snow-capped Nevado de Cachi peaks. The vine-covered courtyard is a relaxing area for breakfast and sundowners.
Patios de Cafayate Hotel & Spa
In southern Salta, the Calchaquies Valley is challenging Mendoza as the centre of high-altitude viticulture in Argentina. The French wine guru Michel Rolland operates here as does the Swiss millionaire Donald Hess, whose Colomé vineyard is the highest in the world.
Cafayate, the valley's main town, has just seen the unveiling of Patios de Cafayate, a beautiful 30-room hotel on the El Esteco winery occupying the original Spanish colonial home of the estate. An extra wing has been added in the same Spanish style, with a library, antique-filled cigar lounge, restaurant and colonial-tiled patio overlooking lush lawns, pool and vineyards. You don't just get to drink the wines of the estate: the wine-based therapies at the Winespa include bathing in water treated with Cabernet Sauvignon.
El Manantial del Silencio
The north-western state of Jujuy, nudging the Chile and Bolivia borders, is even more dramatic than Salta. Snow-capped Andes peaks tower over barren valleys, desolate white salts flats and pre-Incan cliff-side villages. Purmamarca, a few miles off the main road to Bolivia, is the eeriest place of all: a tiny village comprised entirely of low-lying adobe clay homes set beneath dramatic red-rock cliffs. Mestizo traders sell llama wool rugs and jewellery in the plaza, while eagles swirl around the cliffs above. The best hotel in town is the serene El Manantial del Silencio - a former monastery with simple rooms void of all mod-cons. Its fine Andean restaurant and the Zen calm of its setting already attract stylish taste makers from Buenos Aires. Get there before they let the secret out.
Rincón de Fuego
The hillside town of Tilcara lies on the eastern side of Quebrada de Humahuaca Gorge, recently declared a World Heritage Site for its pre-Incan Andean ruins. The Rincón de Fuego is the cosiest property in Tilcara: an earthy, stone and clay house partly built into the hillside. It is heated with a permanently lit fireplace that links a warm carpeted lounge to an open-plan dining room and kitchen - the layout allows you to watch the chef prepare meals like corn and beef stew while you sit by the hearth. The six rooms have fireplaces, llama blankets and whirlpool tubs.
Tilcara has dozens of chic art stores, cafés and restaurants, as well as tour companies offering trips to the salt flats, surrounding valleys and archaeological sites.
Los Glaciers National Park in Patagonia is a spectacular landscape, crossed with blue lagoons, emerald rivers and glacial lakes set beneath towering rock faces. Helsingfors, set on the southern shores of Lake Viedma, is a century-old eight-room estancia built by the Finnish explorer Alfred Ranström. Set beneath the towering sequoias he planted in 1910, it's been jazzed up since his day, with Jacuzzis in the rooms, an enviable wine cellar and a restaurant that makes exquisite Patagonian lamb dishes. It's so remote you should spend at least three days here hiking, riding to the Blue Lagoon and motor-boating on the lake.
A mere 15 miles from Bariloche, the holiday "capital" of Patagonia, overlooking glassy Nahuel Huapi Lake, the 10-room Hotel Aldebaran mixes country comfort with urban style. Fresh baked bread is prepared in a wood-fired mud oven every morning and dinners in the elegant stone restaurant, Sirius, are all organic, including beef grilled traditional parilla style. Guests can kayak, hike or sail the lake in the hotel's luxury yacht, the Fjord VI, or simply unwind in heated whirlpools on the spa deck, views of snow-capped peaks beyond. In the evenings they gather around a cosy fireplace in the lounge to sample wines from the superb cellar.
The neighbourhoods to watch in Buenos Aires
Retiro and Microcentro might be the historic heart of Buenos Aires, home to the kind of high culture and classical architecture that remind visitors of Paris, Milan or Madrid, but it is the gentrifying neighbourhoods of Palermo Viejo, San Telmo and Palermo Viejo that are defining the new Buenos Aires.
Artists, film-makers and fashion designers have made the cobbled, tree-lined streets of the northern suburb that Jorge Luis Borges called home the most stylish neighbourhood in town. Head to the intersections of Gurruchaga, El Salvador and Armenia streets for the largest concentration of boutiques.
Jazmin Chebar (4702 El Salvador) is the Stella McCartney of BA, creating classic women's wear with colourful twists, while Nadine Zlotogara's store (4638 El Salvador) features more flamboyant skirts and dresses. Maria Cher (El Salvador 4714) is the edgiest of the new-wave of BA designers. Men can pick up Paul Smith-style shirts at Felix (Gurruchaga 1670) and Nestor Goldberd's immaculately tailored jackets and jeans at El Cid (Gurruchaga 1732) - at a fraction of London prices.
Until a decade ago Argentine cuisine was straight up meat, pizza and pasta, but Palermo is at the centre of a gourmet revival, with dozens of classy new restaurants offering a fusion of European and Latin cuisine.
Bar Uriarte (1572 Uriarte; 0054 11 4834 6004), an open-plan Italian-style restaurant-bar with low couches, tables and a beautiful garden is the latest place to see and be seen. Try the ossobuco with white polenta, and the potent cocktails at the long bar. Desde de Alma (5296 Honduras; 4831 5812) a romantic, candlelit bistro is set on a rustic street corner nearby. Its braised lamb with girgola mushrooms is spectacular. Even the traditional Argentine parilla, or barbecue meat joint, has gone up a notch in style in Palermo. La Cabrera (Cabrera 5099; 4831 7002) set in a former general store, is a modern take on the theme, with ever succulent beef, a formidable wine list and appetisers such as roast pepper and goat's cheese salad.
This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in BA, and the cobbled streets, colonial mansions and courtyards, particularly along Defensa street, are reminiscent of the barrios of Madrid. Each weekend the two floors of Pasaje La Defensa (1179 Defensa), a 19th-century house, become a thriving antique flea market, selling everything from vintage clothes and tango records to 200-year-old furniture. The beautiful Bar Sur (299 Estados Unidos; 4362 6086), with its black-and-white tiled floors and curved windows, is the best tango dinner show in town. Veteran guitarists and singers perform, and a pair of graceful dancers move between the tables - before asking you to dance.
From San Telmo you're only a short drive from the old Italian working class neighbourhood of La Boca. For the best weekend lunch, catch a taxi to El Obrero (64 Agustin Caffarena; 4362 9912), an unforgettable parilla down a derelict and crumbling ghetto street. Inside, the chalk board menu, old-school waiters and sizzling beef grilled on an open fire make it the best parilla in the city - as regulars such as Wim Wenders, Bono and Diego Maradona, whose pictures are on the walls, would testify.
It's not only the Faena Hotel that helped turn the once derelict waterfront into the richest real estate in Latin America. Indeed, the glass and steel Hilton Hotel on the same side of the canal came before it. But it's the west side - specifically the reclamation of six red-brick warehouses that began the revival in 1996. It's here that visitors now find the sprawling Cabaña Las Lilas (516 Alicia Moreau de Justo; 4313 1336), the loft-style restaurant of cattle baron Octavio Caraballo, said by many to be the greatest steak house in the world.
If the queue to get in is too long try the gaucho-themed La Caballeriza (4514 4444) next door, which is also superb. Nearby is the paved esplanade along the water, packed with joggers and strollers. It's all a far cry from the wasteland this used to be a few years ago.
Last Frontiers offers an 11-day trip to Argentina, with four nights in Buenos Aires at Malabia House, two nights at El Manantial del Silencio in Purmamarca and two nights in Salta town from £1,445 per person, based on two people sharing. This includes flights from Gatwick and domestic flights in Argentina with Aerolineas Argentinas, transfers in Buenos Aires, breakfast throughout and car hire in the Salta area.