Just a 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires, the province of Misiones in northeast Argentina is best known as the site of the stunning Iguazu Falls. But there are many compelling treasures in the province, including the Jesuit missions that are its namesake. Here are four top picks for your adventure.
Gauchos on horseback
Gauchos are the cowboys of South America. In addition to the usual connotations of macho sexiness, they are among the strongest symbols of Argentine nationalism. The gaucho represents pastoral purity and resistance to both domestic corruption and European colonialism.
The gauchos still wear traditional clothing with pride and flair: fitted vests and ponchos, jodhpur-like trousers called bombachas and knee-length socks, which are brightly coloured in some regions. Many gauchos wear brimmed hats reminiscent of cowboys, but others sport oversized berets and jaunty neckscarves for a look that says bohemian jockey. Cowboys might have swagger, but gauchos are adorable.
Gauchos may be macho and rural, but they are not closed-minded. After breakfast one morning, they thumb through the Mexican gay magazine Ohm, examining the pages of scantily clad boys with studious interest.
At Estancia Santa Cecilia in Candelaria, visitors can accompany the gauchos on horseback as they herd cattle across the pampas. At dawn, one begins the trek over the grasslands, across streams and up and down hills to the remote places where the cattle roam. The pace promotes quiet appreciation of the passing landscapes, and the rhythm of riding lulls one into a contemplative trance.
Gauchos are known for being the strong and silent type. After the first day riding, Carlos Adolfo Navajas asks if I understand: “When you are connected to the land, this fills your mind,” he says, gesturing to the beautiful vista. “Words are unnecessary.” I’m speechless.
Jesuit Guaraní Missions
From the early 1600s, the Jesuits constructed enormous missions in present-day Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. The Jesuits were colonizers, converters and sometimes protectors of the native Guaraní tribes, who may have suffered a still worse fate at the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese states.
After the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish realm, the missions were abandoned and quickly swallowed by the jungle. A thick cocoon of vines and leaves protected the sites, and many are well-preserved. San Ignacio Miní was discovered in 1897, and its red sandstone edifices have been restored over many decades.
Entire cities erected in jungles, the missions are a fascinating historical testament to the blind ambition of the conquistadors and the alternating alliances and antagonism between the Jesuits, the Guaraní and the Spanish and Portuguese crowns.
The Guaraní Baroque architecture is a rare and unique manifestation of that cultural mix. The hybrid of colonial and native styles features Renaissance European buildings adorned with traditional Guaraní carvings of jungle plants.
“Poor Niagara.” Legend has it Eleanor Roosevelt uttered these words upon first sight of the massive falls at Iguazu. Niagara trumps Iguazu in terms of water volume, but Iguazu is infinitely more breathtaking. The stunning collection of waterfalls is well served by an expansive network of walkways, bridges and lookouts. Open-air boats take you excitingly close to the falls. You will get wet, in pretty much any way you can interpret the phrase.
Flora and fauna
The Puerto Bemberg Reserve allows visitors to experience a small corner of the great Atlantic rainforest, home to 40 percent of the world’s plants and vertebrates. Day- or nighttime jungle walks bring you into contact with an astonishing array of birds, animals, insects and plants.
While it’s rare to run into a jaguar or puma, you may see pecari and tapir and any number of wild orchids, bizarre air plants and armoured insects. The whole experience is heady, chaotic and stimulating, with an endless presentation of new sights and sensations. The sustainable tourism endeavour includes a plant nursery and a reforestation program.