Stroll through San Rafael and you’ll find streets lined with plane trees and poplars, cafés and roadside canals, as well as some charming squares. While it’s the second largest city in the province of Mendoza, there’s not a whole lot to do in town, but that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable.
Laid-back charm and a history of winemaking traditions brought here from Europe, you’ll find the snow-capped Andes backed by vineyards, olive groves and orchards. Walk or bike to one of the many family-owned wine cellars and olive oil factories, or head out to explore San Rafael’s scenic surroundings, such as Cañón del Atuel and Valle Hermosa. If you want some excitement, the many tour companies in town can arrange nights of mountain biking, hiking, climbing, rappelling, horseback riding, whitewater rafting or camping under the stars.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Rafael:
1. Canón del Atuel and Dique Valle Grande
When you’re in San Rafael, visit “The Other Grand Canyon” like a local.
Just 47 miles (75 kilometers) west of the city, you can drive or take a tour to discover the unexpectedly impressive Cañón del Atuel and its breathtaking scenery.
Check out the natural sculptures found on the canyon walls, see the painted mountains, and stop at selected viewpoints to see the water.
Bright blue reservoirs built by dams like Dique Valle Grande are perfect for water sports like kayaking and fishing.
Bring a cooler and take a ride on one of the pontoon boats or sit on the beach for a swim.
Camping is also popular here because of the total silence, clear skies and brilliant stars.
2. Laberinto de Borges
Whether you have kids or not, this giant hedge maze dedicated to the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Before you start exploring, learn about the history of Los Alamos and create this maze in the estate’s mini-museum.
Then get lost and try to find your way out, or climb the 18-meter tower and try to find desperate friends in the labyrinth.
When you’re done (or wait for the kids), you can enjoy tea and scones in the dining room.
Or better yet, grab some empanadas and sip a few glasses of the wine made here.
3. Las Linas
Las Leñas is one of Argentina’s largest, most modern and highest-altitude ski resorts, about two hours’ drive from San Rafael, the closest city to this ski mecca.
Advanced skiers will appreciate the extreme trails and even the possibility of heli-skiing, while intermediate skiers can enjoy one of the longest runs in South America.
There’s room for beginners too, with gentler options and ski rugs for true novices.
Some of the trails are illuminated for night skiing, and Las Leñas uses more than 30 snow guns to ensure conditions are always of high quality during the ski season.
The resort itself is an independent Andean hamlet with accommodation (including ski-in/out options) and plenty of restaurants, bars, shops, and even a nightclub to keep you busy.
4. Valle Hermoso
Driving from San Rafael is a bit challenging, rent a tour company for the day and see this beautiful valley (literally its Spanish name) that sits between two mountains.
People come here for adventure sports like hiking, mountain climbing, mountain biking and horse riding.
You can also discover trails, ponds, hot springs, lagoons and petroglyphs created by the ancients here.
Many tourists choose to arrange a 4×4 tour from San Rafael, like the tours organized by Turismo Aventura Sierra Negra.
They’ll take care of all the driving and provide you with delicious food for a full day of exploration.
5. Visit a winery
With nearly 200 wine cellars, San Rafael has a large wine industry that is just beginning to cater to tourists.
Today, some of them are open to the public for tours and tastings, so drive, rent a cab or bike to visit the vineyards.
Chenin Blanc is what the region is known for, but they also produce Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay here.
La Abeja is the oldest winery in San Rafael and they offer interesting tours, tastings and snacks.
Bodega Suter is also close to town, but further afield you can visit Bodegas Labiano, Alfredo Roca and the upscale Algodon wine estate with great food, tasting rooms and golf courses.
If you want to learn how sparkling wine is made, take a tour of the famous Bodega Bianchi, sample fine wines, and even pair it with food and wine.
6. Relax at Place de France and Place Saint-Martin
Part of the beauty of San Rafael is that there isn’t much to do in the town itself.
However, you can spend hours watching or roaming the town square’s trails.
Lovely and clean St. Martin’s Square with statues and fountains and lots of grassy shade for you to drink and relax.
The Place de France is also well-maintained and offers visitors a pleasant place to take a stroll on a sunny afternoon, as well as a popular children’s playground (Parque de Niños).
This public space is well-lit at night and is a great place to enjoy an ice cream from a nearby Heladerías.
7. Learn all about olives and olive oil
Between all the vineyards and wineries around San Rafael, you might forget the olive plantations and olive oil factories along the “Ruta del Olivo”, but that would be a shame.
Take a tour or tasting (or both) to learn how these family-owned businesses produce olive oil.
Founded in 1943, Yancanelo is the oldest and largest olive oil producer in the region.
They offer visitors the opportunity to pick their own olives (during the harvest) and visit the processing plant to see how the precious extra virgin olive oil is bottled – be sure to call ahead! If you can’t get enough, you can book a table at Sud’s where you can try the olive oil-based multi-course menu – even a dessert course!
Favorite place for fishermen, nature lovers and adventure sports enthusiasts, El Nihuil is a tourist village, dam and reservoir where you can spend the day doing various activities.
Besides relaxing on the beach, you can also kitesurf, windsurf and water ski in the lake formed by the dam.
The town itself contains lodge accommodation, fishing clubs and campgrounds, as well as an actual health center, police station, post office and chapel.
Rumor has it that everyone in El Nihuil can catch a fish – silver edge and trout are common – but if that’s not your thing, there’s plenty of hiking and mountain biking around the small village and its reservoir.
9. Rafting along the Río Atuel
There are many rafting companies in San Rafael that are ready and willing to take you for a day of adrenaline on the Atur River.
The rapids are class II and fun for the whole family, but there’s still room for excitement, being tossed into the sea, and even night rafting during a full moon.
Tour companies like Extremo, Raffeish and Kintun Expediciones will provide all the gear you need, from life jackets to helmets, and experienced guides will tell you when to paddle harder.
Downstream trips usually last 40 to 60 minutes, and some companies can arrange whitewater kayaking if you prefer to fly solo.
10. Ropes lessons, canopy tours and ziplines
If you’re looking for an unconventional outdoor activity that gets everyone’s acclaim, look no further than Bosque Aéreo Euca.
This unique place describes itself as a “high-speed forest adventure” near Cañon del Atuel.
Overcome your fear of heights in over 30 races between trees using bridges, ladders, walkways and tunnels, and 13 ziplines.
Don’t worry, there will be safety briefings, harnesses and instructors on hand at all times.
If you just want to do the zipline part, check out companies like Canopy del Lago who will help you fly over 7 ziplines hundreds of meters long over the waters of Valle Grande.
11. Parque Arqueologico Las Tinajas
Las Tinajas is an example of the natural beauty of San Rafael.
This park has over 100 hectares of land protected for its natural and archaeological significance, where you can spend a full day hiking through forests, caves and mountains.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, two walkways were created to introduce visitors to the wildlife and native culture of Mendoza province.
The first path takes you to observe the local flora and fauna, and then enters a natural cave to see ancient paintings of indigenous peoples (accompanied by a guide). The second trail is a self-guided walk that leads uphill to several rock formations (named The Wave and The Sleeping Dragon).
12. May 25 Villa
Just northwest of San Rafael, this peaceful hamlet was the first colonial settlement in the region, and a stroll through its dirt roads, lush surroundings, and remnants of its past will give you an idea of how the city got its start.
You can see the remains of the old fortress, the Plaza de Armas, adobe houses and the church dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is more than a hundred years old and still stands.
There are festivals on May 25th and July 9th, with traditional dances, festivities and local delicacies (try the carne a la mesa, or clay-baked meat pie). The village is also a haven for artists and writers who flock to the city for inspiration, many of whom have studios here.
13. Try downhill
If you’re up for a little adventure, rock climbing and downhill tours are a big deal in San Rafael.
If you’ve never done it before, rappelling (or rappelling) is actually a lot easier than climbing, but be sure to go with an experienced tour company who can show you the ropes (pun intended). Aventura Sin Fronteras, Kintun Expediciones and Extremo are the professionals who provide all the equipment and guidance you need to confidently descend the steep walls of Valle Grande.
No prior skills are required, and many of these companies can offer you a package deal that includes rappelling, camping, hiking, and even asado under the stars.
14. Elsos Nido Hotel & Spa
Spas and abandoned legendary hotels – what’s not to love? This mysterious resort in the Sosneados Valley was built in the 1930s and fell into disrepair for unknown reasons.
Theories surrounding its demise include Juan Peron, the Nazis, the rights of hotel workers, and even the British royal family, but either way, the hot springs are still around, and you can soak in turquoise, sulphur-smelling water.
The route here is windy and rocky and there is basically no cell phone service, so most people choose a 4×4 to get to the place. If you are visiting the surrounding area, please ask to include it in your itinerary!
15. Los Reyunos Dam
Another local favorite outside of San Rafael, this popular reservoir is beautiful and offers plenty to do.
It’s only about 40 minutes from the city, so pack a picnic and head out for a full day of swimming, kayaking and boating.
You can hike to see the rock formations in the area, or take the popular catamaran across the lake, which will point out the best spots.
If you want to do it yourself, you can rent a raft and cruise through the emerald waters to explore the place on your own.
Try the “tiro-bungee,” which is like a zipline across the lake, or just post it on the beach.
BBQ is available if you want to bring your own food and enjoy asado, and there is a campsite if you want to stay overnight.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in San Rafael, Argentina
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