86. Beaches in Argentina (San Bernardo, Argentina)
All of the beach towns lie along the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires. Beach-wise, they're all pretty much the same - brownish sand, brownish water, and messy waves. Some beaches are wider than the others, and some are more shelly than sandy. Brown or not, during the humid hell that is Buenos Aires in January and February, these beaches provide a welcome porteño escape from the heat.
About 3 and a half hours south of BA starts the first cluster of beach towns. I'm gonna list them in order for interested readers as I had trouble finding a decent map online. San Clemente del Tuyu, Las Toninas, Santa Teresita, Mar del Tuyú, Costa del Este, La Lucila del Mar, San Bernardo and Mar de Ajó. Although in theory they are separate towns, in many cases thanks to urban sprawl they have merged together and there's little distinguishing one from the other.
A further hour south is a second cluster of beach towns - which I'll again list: Pinamar, Ostende, Valeria del Mar, Cariló, Villa Gesell, and Mar Azul. About an hour south lies the grandaddy of them all, Mar del Plata, a city on the beach with a population of one million. A little south of Mar del Plata is Miramar and then Necochea, both smaller cities.
Since we (me, my girlfriend Ruth, and Mark, our American friend who's winding up his year in Argentina) were coming from the south, Necochea was our first stop. My only experience with Argentine beaches was a rainy weekend with Juan 2 years ago, the gray cloudy sky then making the sea appear gray-brown. But arriving in Necochea the sun was out and the sky was blue, which made the ocean look an inviting blue too. Also, the further south you go, the further you get from the Río de la Plata's mouth, so the less brown the water is. Mark and I had a great swim, and caught some decent waves bodysurfing. It was great!
From there we were headed north to Mar del Plata where we tried to track down Ruth's friend Gaby, the property mogul. As usual we couldn't get hold of him, but we stayed the night there anyway. On arriving, I was impressed with downtown Mar del Plata. It had a Palermo vibe - lots of trees, clean streets, and tidy apartments. Here and there amongst the tall apartment buildings were some beautiful little houses made of stone or wood, similar to Bariloche but somehow quainter. My hopes for Mar del Plata were high, until we got to the beach, which even at the end of February was packed full of umbrellas and beach tents as far as the eye could see. Ruth said that compared to January there weren't many people but for Mark and me it was way too much. Sure, it would be a great place to come and party on the beach if that's your scene but I was looking for a more chilled out beach vibe.
The next day we headed north to the next cluster of beach towns, stopping first in Mar Azul, the southern-most town. This was what Mark and I were looking for - sandy streets nestled amongst dunes and bushes, no apartment blocks, a long wide beach, and most importantly some people, but not too many. Again Mark and I did a bit of bodysurfing followed by a game of beach paddle and we felt like we'd found the right place. But Ruth and I had to carry on to visit Ruth's sister, so Mark stayed behind to camp a few days before catching up with us later.
Well, if I liked Mar Azul Ruth promised me I was gonna love Cariló. She'd spent a summer there a few years ago helping Gaby the mogul with some apartments of his there. Coming in it looked promising, and the setting was beautiful - amongst a forest on the coast. Ruth said there are bylaws in place restricting just about everything - including the banning of paved roads. And the houses sure were amazing, all of them huge mansions or luxury apartment complexes... but something was missing. It felt too nice, too 5-star, too ostentatious, too pretentious. I preferred the down to earth feel we got from Mar Azul.
From Cariló we carried on north to Villa Gessel, where we just drove through town and left again, heading to Mar de Ajó which adjoins San Bernardo, where we've spent the last week staying with Sara, Ruth's sister.
San Bernardo is nice. Apartment buildings and hotels line the coast, but a few blocks back it's sand/dirt roads. The beach is probably 30km long, spanning the aforementioned towns, and it's busy the entire length of it, although not as packed as in Mar del Plata. There's balnearios every 50m or so where you can hire a beach tent, but the majority of beach-goers don't bother. There's lots of vendors cruising around with their carts selling corn on the cob ("hay choclo choclos"), facturas (pastries), panchos (hot dogs), gaseosas (soft drinks), liquados (shakes) and helados (ice creams), but they're never insistant or annoying.
The beach is wide enough that there's always room on the hard sand to scratch out a court for a game of paddle tennis or beach football or even tejo, a game played by old folks that resembles petanque, but played with flat wooden disks and not boules.
As for people, as Mark quipped there are still a few BABES (Beautiful Argentinean Butts Enveloped in Swimsuits) around. The girls mostly use skimpy Brazilian-style bikinis, and guys are all in long board shorts. Fortunately we only spotted a lone male G-string specimen, and only a couple of the elusive nut-huggers. Since it's now late February there are lots of families and elderly - I've never seen so many old-man-boobs, and it's eye-opening how many grandmas and obese people will squeeze into a swimsuit, but good on them.
Off the beach, San Bernardo has a main street which is always busy, and all the shops stay open til 2am. The girls went out to buy some jeans the other night and they didn't leave the house until 1am!
One thing that really sets the coast here apart from other beach towns I've been - in high season it's "a full" as Argentines say. Argentines only get 2 weeks of vacation a year, and they usually take it all at once, in January or February. And while they're here they do everything - if it's sunny, everyone's on the beach, bar none. The nightclubs and discos are open every night, and kids'll be partying every night. The main street is packed with shoppers and strollers every night. Queues outside the popular restaurants every night. Money's being spent everywhere. We're here right at the end of the season and it's still pumping! It sure makes NZ's beach resorts feel sleepy by comparison. It reminds me a lot of Australia's Gold Coast - a long beach spanning multiple towns, apartments on the beachfront, lots of shopping, and lots of partying. Mar del Plata would be Surfer's Paradise, and San Bernardo would be one of the smaller nearby cities on the beach - say Southport.
We've been here a week now and while we've had a few rainy days, the sunny days have been nice, and it's been great. We could spend another week here, especially since the high season has now finished and the crowds are disappearing.
In summary, if you're a foreigner looking for an overseas beach holiday destination there are probably nicer places than Argentina's Atlantic Coast to go to. But if you're already in South America, and you want a beach vacation in a Spanish speaking country, it's a good choice. There are enough beach towns to choose from that there's something for everyone - if you want to party every night and recover on the beach, go for Mar del Plata in mid January. If you like to chill out more, go for one of the smaller beach towns in December or March. Hamish and Lisa spent a week in Villa Gessel in early December and loved it. Since the beach doesn't change much it's all about finding the town with the right onda (vibe) for you. I wish I'd come here for a couple of weeks sooner, since this is now my third summer in Argentina!