Much more than hills.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
For those driving in from the north, the ancient Precambrian hills that frame the small city of Tandil in an otherwise flat pampean countryside suggest adventure, if not mystery. High-rises cluster at the foot of a little hill atop which sits a vaguely Moorish castle; the rest of the city of low houses and pleasant tree-shaded streets lies sprawled on rolling terrain around them.
The tallest trees correspond to the oldest neighborhood, the one that housed the upper echelons of the management of the Southern Railroad during the glory days of Argentina’s railway system when it was run by the British from the late 1880s to the first half of the 20th century. The smaller ones were planted by people who settled there afterwards and wanted to continue with shade-derived comfort in a region with no native shade trees.
You see that many of the streets are cobbled – an unmistakable testimony to the quarrying side to the city’s history and personality. You have to slow down for the speed bumps that protect residents from speedsters, and the storm drains that draw off the rainwater that rushes down from the hills when it rains hard.
The drainage system complements one of Tandil’s most noticeable quirks: the dam that stands no more than 10 blocks from the city center; it was built after a big flood in 1951. Since then, people have trustingly built homes right up against the 12-meter-high dam wall, behind which a 19-hectare lake and a tree-studded park constitute a recreation center that is within easy walking distance for most residents. People read, sunbathe, stroll and run around the lake where more active types fish, paddle canoes or man sailboards.

This city of around 130,000 inhabitants is not all that big; sooner or later, you are sure to come across its oldest building, a 19th-century post house that is now Época de Quesos, a famous deli that sells more than 50 types of cheeses, hams and sausages. They are produced by descendants of the Spanish, Italian, Danish, Belgian and Dutch immigrants who arrived before and after the construction of the railway. The city’s numerous cheese factories, which range from modern to artisan, emphasize its agrarian roots.
The eclectic cathedral that faces the Plaza Independencia main square, said to be inspired by the Sacré Coeur in Paris, has two towers and a tower-like dome that are unique in Argentina. Inside, wall frescoes and a sumptuous large gold-leaf altar and minor altars bring to mind the interior of a church of a wealthy 18th-century European town. However, it acquired its present aspect – the result of a remodeling – just 40 years ago. In the summer, the big linden trees in the square provide a cool shade that has nothing to envy of air-conditioning.
In front of the church, a metal mock-up of the frontier fort from which Tandil evolved reminds travelers that the first European settlers had a tough time of it in the 19th century before the Indians were killed, routed or penned up in reservations during a military campaign led by General Julio A. Roca. The post house where Época de Quesos now operates was one of the first buildings constructed outside the fort’s walls, and its basement was intended for both storage and protection against possible Indian attacks.
The Mapuches, who used the area’s good pastures to fatten cattle they stole from European ranches, were the ones who gave the spot its name; “tandil” means “stone that beats (like a heart).” They were referring to the large balancing rock that teetered on a smooth incline on a hilltop 5 km from what is now the downtown area. Nicknamed “La Movediza” by the Spanish settlers, it drew foreign tourists as early as the 1880s, because the construction of the railway immediately after Roca’s Indian-bashing campaign made it possible for them to get there from Buenos Aires quickly and comfortably. Visitors enjoyed putting a bottle up against the Movediza’s point of contact with its perch to see the glass break a few hours later, proof that the rock moved, although imperceptibly. Period photos show the Movediza and the rocks around it full of advertising and graffiti, revealing that the temptation to vandalize natural wonders was as strong a century ago as it is now. So too was the desire to show off; some of the most famous photos of the rock show people standing – and even balancing on one hand – atop it.
But after eons of teetering, the Movediza fell to smithereens one hot afternoon in February 1912. In the old days, it was said that the rock had been struck by lightning. But now that tandilenses have awakened to the fact that quarrying is ruining the look of their famous hills, some historians are saying that the stone was dynamited off its perch by quarry workers who were fed up with having their work interrupted all the time by the steady stream of rich foreigners who came to have their pictures taken beside it.
For 95 years, tandilenses mourned the demise of the Movediza, ignoring the Centinela, another balancing rock that has miraculously survived quarry work on another hill, and remains in place without moving. But the Movediza, and not the Centinela, occupies the city’s coat of arms.
Finally, in 2007, the national Tourism Secretariat put up 500,000 pesos to have an empty resin replica of the Movediza set on the spot of the original. A bit smaller than its predecessor, it is fixed to the spot and is surrounded by guardrails that presumably serve to prevent visitors from falling, and its surface from their aerosols.
Meanwhile, the Centinela stands free of such fetters atop its namesake hill, full of graffiti on all sides that are accessible to the public. During the past decade, its hill has housed a recreation center where you can hike, ride horses, cycle and abseil all year round, and have fun on water slides in summer.
However, most people go there to enjoy the delicious regional cuisine served at the Parador del Cerro, or at a restaurant with a scenic view of the city on another hill, to which it is linked by a chairlift.
Tandil’s other famous hill is Mount Calvario, whose forested sides house Argentina’s most famous Way of the Cross statues, distributed along a path which leads to a gigantic crucifix in a plaza at the top. Built during the 1940s, it draws thousands of pilgrims during Easter Week.
However, the city’s biggest attractions nowadays are no longer its Way of the Cross installation or its delicatessen. It is a quiet city, tandilenses are amiable, and there is no industrial pollution. People go there to relax in the clean air and practice outdoor sports in the hills on its outskirts – or in the sky above.
The Club de Planeadores de Tandil, the country’s second-oldest gliding club (02293-431-243), offers tourists baptismal flights 17 km from town. Its members enjoy gliding all year round on the ascending air currents created by the area’s unique topography.

El Hangar del Cielo , located 7 km from the gliding club, is the place for paragliding and rides in ultra-light aircraft.
The Aero Club Tandil, a bit closer to town, gives adrenalin addicts a parachuting experience that includes a 3,000-meter free-fall, accompanied by a qualified instructor.
The city has two golf clubs where tourists can play – one with an easy course, and another with a more difficult course surrounded by a country club.
In the hills around Tandil, hiking, cycling, rock climbing and horseback riding are the nature-friendly type of “adventure” activities on offer, and quad excursions – unfortunately well entrenched in the recreational universe of Argentine urbanites – the other type.
Two trail ride outfitters offer mounted excursions in the hills. They are very different from each other, but both are good and fill riders in on local flora.

El Penacho (02293-447-015), run by the Heredia family, beside the Don Bosco kiddies’ vacation camp, gives you an insight on the way rural families live in the interior. They are professional horse trainers and their home is full of criollo horsemanship trophies won at rodeos. Gabriel Barletta (02293-427-725) is a colorful natural-born showman who does everything possible to make clients lose their fear of horses and learn to ride, and his afternoon excursion ends with songs around a bonfire. One of his programs takes riders into the Sierra del Tigre Nature Reserve, where native wildlife like guanacos and llamas run free, and noisy quads are not allowed in.

Of all the 80 hotels, inns, cabin courts and apartment complexes available to tourists in Tandil, two inns on the outskirts of town have a special charm for people who seek quiet and contact with nature: Ave María (02293-422-843), a Norman-style house surrounded by an old forest on a working 400-hectare farm, and Las Acacias (02293-423-373) a masterfully refurbished farm house near the old-money golf club.

English-speaking travelers who seek a nice B&B arrangement check in at Michael and Judy Hutton’s place (02293-426-989) in the downtown area. The Huttons, who have retired in Tandil after more than 40 years of managing ranches in Corrientes, like chatting, and mix a mean Pimms. And Tandil has yet another thing going for it: its nearness to Buenos Aires (360 km – five hours by bus, four hours by car), and sea resort cities like Mar del Plata (168 km) and Pinamar (200 km). This proximity is, to say the least, a strong temptation to spend a week enjoying the contrasts of the hills and coast of the province of Buenos Aires.
For further information on Tandil options, see