In 2019, our South American travel adventures included even more wild animals than usual. We’re talking orcas, snorkeling with sea lions, penguins galore, and our very first puma sighting (and what a doozie). Throw in a few hundred volcanoes, great hiking, a historic train, and much more and you’ve got a pretty good adventure travel year. Welcome to part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2019 series–our guide to the 17 Top Travel Adventures of the year in Bolivia and Argentina. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2019, part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and part 4 tells you all about our Top Travel Gear of the year.
Now, use our list of top travel adventures to plan your own adventure travel in South America.
Top Travel Adventures of 2019
Best adventure with Magellanic penguins: The Patagonia region of Argentina has many penguin colonies where thousands and even hundreds of thousands of mating pairs (mostly Magellanic penguins) return to the same nests during the South American summer months. We visited a few different colonies of Magellanic penguins, but the best experience was at El Pedral Reserva. Located near Puerto Madryn, this large ranch offers a day tour called Dia del Campo y Pinguinos (Farm Day and Penguins) that includes roundtrip transportation, multi-lingual guides, and a guided wander through the growing colony of Magellanic penguins that gather each year near the coastline on their property. When we were there (November), eggs were just hatching and the trail through the colony passed close enough to see eggs and a few early chicks in nests. Of course, the adults were adorable too as they waddled to and fro. The asado barbecue lunch was also great and featured some of the best lamb we’ve had.
Best volcano encounter: The La Payunia Provincial Reserve, near Malargüe, Argentina, is home to one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes in South America and the longest lava river in the world. There are also flamingos, more than 10,000 guanacos, foxes, birds of prey, and much more in this 474,442 acre (192,000 hectare) protected area, as we found out when we spent a day exploring La Payunia.
Best Amazon adventure: Most people think of Brazil when they think of the Amazon. However, the Amazon region spreads across eight countries including Bolivia where Madidi National Park protects 7,300 square miles (19,000 square km) of jungle. When we were there, road work on the route into Rurrenbaque made driving tricky, so we flew into “Rurre” from La Paz. From there, we spent a few days in the jungle with Madidi Jungle Ecolodge which has an off-the-grid operation about three hours by river from Rurre. The cabins were well-made and comfortable, the food was great, our guide was wonderful, and we saw a lot of wildlife during many hours in the jungle including jaguar prints, so many red and green macaws (there’s a reason this bird is part of the logo of the lodge), tapir prints, wood storks, tamarins, capuchin monkeys, brocket deer prints, and a white-throated toucan which we heard repeatedly but never managed to see. Next time. We were not surprised when we saw that Rurrenbaque and Madidi ranked #3 on the New York Times list of places to visit in 2020. Use our Madidi National Park Amazon travel guide to plan your own adventures in Madidi National Park including what to expect in the jungle, how to choose a lodge, when to visit, and so much more.
Best spontaneous hike: One day we felt like going for a walk, so we drove into Radal Siete Tazas National Park near Curicó, Chile, put on our boots, and started off on the popular El Bolsón trail. This turned out to be a 14 mile (22 km) round trip adventure through streams and up and down rocky climbs that may have been a bit more than we had in mind but it was worth it in the end for views like the one above.
Best puma sighting: We spent a couple of nights at a place called Campamento Darwin Eco Lodge which recently opened on a vast reclaimed sheep ranch near Puerto Deseado in Argentina. It’s a simple, comfortable, ranch-style place but the claim to fame here is the fact that Charles Darwin himself explored this land and camped on part of it. The current owners have removed the livestock and allowed nature to get back to normal and the result is an increase in native species that Darwin would appreciate. However, during our last vehicle safari around the property, we got more than we could have dreamed of–and we almost didn’t go out at all. The weather was windy and rainy and we figured there wouldn’t be many animals out and about, but we went anyway. The bulk of the outing was, indeed, a dud. But as we were getting close to the end of the tour we saw a puma in some low brush. As our vehicle stopped, the cat got up and walked slowly into a clearing about 40 feet (12 meters) from our vehicle. Then he just stood there and looked at us until the driving wind and rain prompted the big male (he was about 6 feet from nose to the tip of his tail) to walk to another area of brush for shelter. But he was still very close to us and didn’t seem in any hurry to get away. After about 15 minutes of this, we moved the vehicle a bit closer and Eric got out to change the angle from which he was shooting. All that movement flushed the puma from the brush and he walked slowly into the distance, looking over his shoulder occasionally as he sauntered off. Amazing. We returned to the spot the next day to look for prints, but the ground was too rocky for pugmarks.
Best literary labyrinth: The Laberinto de Borges is a large hedge maze labyrinth in San Rafael, Argentina (120 ARS or about US$2 per person). It was created by Randoll Coate who was a friend of Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges whose work has been described as “labyrinthine”. When the author died, Coate decided to memorialize him with a labyrinth as an allegory to the nature of his friend’s work and an ode to one of the writer’s most famous poems. Seen from above, the geometric maze, made up of thousands of low hedges covering 66,000 square feet, makes the shape of an open book. There’s a simple and comfortable outdoor café at the labyrinth with beer, wine, good homemade empanadas, and other dishes. The onsite store sells wines, beauty products made with grape seed extract, olive oil, and books written by Borges. There’s also a diorama of the labyrinth. Allow 30 minutes to wander the labyrinth and walk up the observation tower to look down over it.
Best total solar eclipse: In early July, parts of Argentina and Chile were in the path of full totality during a rare total solar eclipse. We watched the event near Bellavista in San Juan Province in Argentina and you can see the amazing things that we saw (and get some total solar eclipse photography tips) in our post about watching a total solar eclipse. That was our first total solar eclipse, but it won’t be our last. Eric is serving as the eclipse photography expert as part of this amazing super-all-inclusive December 2020 total solar eclipse package in Patagonia.
Best art in the woods: Near the town of El Bolsón in the Patagonia region of Argentina more than 50 sculptures exist in a hillside forest at 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) above sea level. To get there, we drove for about 30 minutes up a steep and rough dirt road, then hiked up about 2,800 feet (850 meters) along an equally steep trail (allow 30-60 minutes each way depending on your speed). At the treeline, we entered this outdoor art gallery (100 ARS, or about US$2 per person, cash only). Opened in 1998, El Bosque Tallado Museo al Cielo Abierto (The Carved Forest of the Open Sky) is home to 56 pieces of art. Most pieces were made by Argentinean artists, but there are a few made by artists from other Latin countries. All sculptures are made from fallen trees and the place is a great combination of nature and culture.
Best adventure with rockhopper penguins: At the beginning of this post we told you about our best adventure with Magellanic penguins, which are plentiful in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Harder to find are rockhopper penguins and their kooky, spiky, yellow and black hairdos (we like to call them punk rockhoppers). However, during the Penguin Island day trip with Puerto Penacho tours out of Puerto Deseado in Argentina, we saw a whole rookery of rockhoppers along with more Magellanic penguins, sea lions, elephant seals, and three types of dolphins. Penguin Island, which is part of the larger Penguin Island Coastal Marine Park, also happens to be a particularly pretty island with a lighthouse and everything.
Best museum adventure: When is a museum an adventure? When it’s packed to the rafters with items collected, cataloged, and displayed over decades by a French self-proclaimed humanist committed to teaching humans about other humans. That’s what we found when we visited the Museo Rocsen in Nono, Argentina. Opened in 1969, the museum now has 30 rooms displaying tens of thousands of items spanning 99 categories including everything from lamps to shells to taxidermy to radios to shaving kits to musical instruments to mummies. There are currently more than 60,000 items in the total collection but more rooms need to be added to make space to display it all in the museum. Think of it as organized hoarding of the highest degree.
Best super-low-impact adventure: In its heydey, the Termas de Cacheuta complex was one of the original wellness spas. It included a 150 room hotel where guests/patients checked in for weeks on end to breathe the fresh mountain air and soak in the mineral-infused and naturally heated waters. In 1934, a glacial dam burst and damaged the facilities and public taste changed and the whole thing fell into disrepair until it was brought back, in a smaller form, in the 1980s. These days Termas de Cacheuta is a more hedonistic experience. The hotel and hot springs complex, about 25 miles (40 km) from Mendoza, Argentina, has just 16 rooms and folks only stay for a day or two. Many more people just book a Thermal Spa Full Day package for a day visit (US$50 per person including transfers from Mendoza, access to the pools, and a buffet lunch). The soaking pools are comfortable but still feel natural (most are outside, so bring a hat for the sun), the water is hot enough, and there’s also a warm mineral mud station where you can slather your face and body then let the mud dry before rinsing off in a warm Vichy shower. Massages can be booked for an extra charge and there’s a full swimming pool as well. The buffet lunch was full of options including many vegetable, grain, and bean salads plus freshly grilled meats and a whole table of desserts.
Best adventure on rails: Many travelers have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express about the author’s epic adventure riding the rails from England to Patagonia. Well, you can have a bit of that adventure yourself onboard one of the trains Theroux took. She’s called La Trochita, aka The Old Patagonian Express. The 22 mile (40 km) roundtrip route that La Trochita does from the station in Esquel, Argentina takes a few hours (there’s nothing very much express about this train) and passes through Patagonian high prairie. Original cars have been restored, the steam engine now runs on diesel instead of coal, and passengers are strictly tourists these days but the journey still feels historic. Read about the whole experience including onboard entertainment, travel tips, and more in our post about riding La Trochita.
Best adventure with whales: There are several whale-watching boats that go out of Puerto Piramides in Peninsula Valdes National Park in Argentina. However, the Southern Spirit is the only whale watching boat that’s got two true decks for easy viewing from the first level or the top level. Our whale watching trip included a good bilingual guide and plenty of up-close time with southern right whales who come to the bays here to have their young then fatten up on krill before they begin their annual migration. This same company operates another unique boat. It’s called the Yellow Submarine and it’s partly submerged so passengers can see whales under the water as well as on the surface. The Yellow Submarine runs in September and October when the mothers and calves are closest to shore. It’s worth timing your trip accordingly.
Best adventure tour vehicle: The Mercedes Benz Atego 4X4 is an impressive machine and Argentina Vision tour company showed up with one of these beasts for our tour to the Estancia San Lorenzo penguin colony on the Valdez Peninsula in Argentina. First of all, the back portion of the vehicle has been modified so that there’s no vision through to the cab or the windshield. Instead, a giant TV is mounted in the front that shows a live cam feed of the road ahead. And the thing is huge and roomy and comfortable with a great suspension system even when traveling over miles of gravel roads. Plus you always know which tour vehicle in the lot is yours…
Best Incan adventure: To the Incas, Lake Titicaca was a sacred place and they built temples on some of the islands in the massive lake, including on Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna on the Bolivia side of Titicaca. We explored both islands, including boating on the lake, an Incan virgin temple, a spot where human sacrifices may have been made, a walk through a Yumani village, lakeside lunch, and much more with Turismo Bolivia-Peru tour company which provided an excellent guide who truly brought the history and living culture to life. Read more about this cultural and natural adventure in our post about our tour of Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.
Best dry suit adventure: We’ve done a lot of SCUBA diving and snorkeling all around the world, but we’ve never used a dry suit. That changed this year when we went snorkeling with sea lions off of Puerto Madryn, Argentina with Lobo Larsen Diving. We were there during South American summer, but the water temperature was a mere 51 degrees F (11 degrees C) and we didn’t want to have to get out of the water early due to the cold. So we went for the drysuit option. Unlike a wetsuit, which provides a layer of insulation but does not prevent your skin from getting wet, a drysuit is fully sealed and prevents water from reaching your skin. We wore wool long underwear and patient Lobo Larsen staffers helped us into our drysuits. It was a two-person job to properly put on and seal the drysuit which is tight around wrists and the neck, but pretty bulky and loose elsewhere. It felt cumbersome and a bit like wearing a spacesuit, but it worked. We spent 45 minutes in the freezing water as up to 15 sea lions darted around us and neither of us ever felt cold. What we did feel was excited to be so close to the sea lions which are not fed or enticed or caged in any way. They’re just curious and social (especially the young ones), but they remain fully wild animals and they can come and go at will. When our boat pulled up, several sea lions came swimming like bullets directly to the boat where they waited for us to get in the water like kids on Christmas morning. The sea lions are fast, and they bark, and even sometimes playfully grab onto your fins or elbows. It was a quick but extraordinary encounter and our English-speaking guide did a wonderful job of explaining the rules and basic sea lion behavior. The highest concentration of sea lions is in this area in August when water and air are both MUCH colder. We fully recommend the drysuit option.
Best adventure with fake whales: Killer whales aren’t whales at all. They’re dolphins and they got their name because they can kill whales. They also like to kill sea lions when they can get ’em, but it’s not easy. At Caleta Valdes in Valdes Peninsula National Park in Argentina, a few highly-skilled orcas (a more accurate name than killer whales) have learned how to beach themselves just long enough to snatch a sea lion from colonies that congregate on the sloping beach on this spit of land. Despite spending hours over two days watching the orcas at Caleta Valdes, we didn’t see any sea lion hunting like that. We did get to watch small pods of orcas hunting, swimming, and interacting and that was thrilling enough.
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
Here’s more about travel in Argentina