Wander through San Rafael and you’ll find streets lined with sycamores and poplars, cafes and roadside canals, and a few charming plazas. Although it’s the second biggest city in the Mendoza province, there’s not really much to do in town, but that’s part of what makes it so pleasant.
With a laid back charm and a history of winemaking traditions brought here from Europe, you’ll find vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards backed by the snow-capped Andes. Walk or cycle to one of the many family-owned bodegas and olive oil factories, or head out to explore San Rafael’s scenic surroundings like the Cañón del Atuel and Valle Hermosa. If you’re up for some excitement, many tour companies in town can arrange mountain biking, trekking, climbing, rappelling, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, or an evening of camping under the stars.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Rafael:
1. Cañón del Atuel and the Dique Valle Grande
Do as the locals do and visit “the other grand canyon” while you’re in San Rafael.
Just 47 miles (75 kilometers) west of the city, you can explore the unexpectedly impressive Cañón del Atuel and its breathtaking landscapes by car or with a tour.
Take a look at the natural sculptures found in the walls of the canyon, check out the painted mountains, and stop for a peek out over the water at select viewpoints.
The brilliant blue reservoirs are created by dams like the Dique Valle Grande, and they’re perfect for watersports like kayaking and fishing.
Pack a cooler and head out on one of the pontoon boats or sit on the beach and have a swim.
Camping is also popular here because of the complete silence, clear skies, and brilliant stars out this way.
2. Laberinto de Borges
Whether you have kids or not, this enormous hedge maze dedicated to Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Before you start exploring, learn about the history of the Los Alamos estate and the creation of this maze in the mini-museum on the property.
Then get lost and try to find your way out, or climb the 18-meter tower and try to spot your hopeless friends in the maze.
And when you’re done (or just waiting for the kids), there’s a restaurant where you can enjoy some tea and scones.
Or better yet, grab some empanadas and sip a few glasses of wine that were made right here.
3. Las Leñas
One of the largest, most modern, and highest ski resorts in Argentina, Las Leñas is about a two-hour drive from San Rafael, the closest city to this skiing mecca.
Advanced skiers will love the extreme trails and even the possibility of heli-skiing here, while intermediate skiers can enjoy one of the longest runs in South America.
There’s room for beginners too, with milder options and a ski carpet for true newbies.
A few trails are illuminated for night skiing, and Las Leñas uses over 30 snow machines to make sure conditions are always quality during the season.
The resort itself is a little self-contained Andean village with accommodation (including ski in/ski out options) and many restaurants, bars, shops, and even a nightclub to keep you busy.
4. Valle Hermoso
A bit of a challenging drive from San Rafael, hire a tour company for the day and check out this beautiful valley (literally its name in Spanish) that sits between two mountain ranges.
People come for the prospect of adventure sports like hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
You can also discover trails, ponds, hot springs, lagoons, and petroglyphs that were created by ancient peoples here.
Many visitors choose to arrange 4×4 tours that leave from San Rafael, like the ones put together by Turismo Aventura Sierra Negra.
They’ll take care of all the driving and provide excellent meals for your full day of exploring.
5. Visit the Wineries
Home to almost 200 bodegas, San Rafael has a large wine industry that’s just started to cater to tourists.
Today a handful of these are open for public tours and tastings, so drive, hire a taxi, or cycle out 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 farther out you can visit Bodegas Labiano, Alfredo Roca, and the upscale Algodon Wine Estate with its great food, tasting room, and golf course.
If you want to check out how sparkling wine is made, visit the big time Bodega Bianchi for tours, premium tastings, and even food and wine pairings.
6. Relax in Plaza Francia and Plaza San Martin
Part of the beauty of San Rafael is that there’s not all that much to do within the town itself.
You could, however, spend hours people watching or roaming the paths in the town squares.
The lovely and clean Plaza San Martin contains statues and fountains, plus plenty of grassy, shady spots for drinking mate and relaxing.
Plaza Francia is similarly well-maintained, offering visitors a pleasant place for a stroll during sunny afternoons as well as the popular Parque de Niños with lots of fun attractions for kids.
This public space is well-lit in the evenings and makes a great spot for eating ice cream from one of the nearby heladerías.
7. Learn All About Olives and Olive Oil
Between all of the vineyards and wineries surrounding San Rafael, you might forget about the olive plantations and olive oil factories along the “Ruta del Olivo,” but that would be a shame.
Take a tour or do a tasting (or both) to see how these family-owned companies make olive oil.
Yancanelo was founded in 1943 and it’s the oldest and largest of the olive oil producers in the area.
They offer visitors the chance to pick their own olives (during harvest) and walk through the processing plant to see how the prized extra virgin olive oil is bottled – be sure to call ahead! If you can’t get enough of the stuff, you could book a table at Sud Restaurant where you can try a multi-course menu based around olive oil – even the dessert course!
8. El Nihuil
A favorite spot for fishermen, nature lovers, and adventure sports enthusiasts, El Nihuil is a tourist village, dam, and reservoir where you can spend the day doing a range of activities.
Aside from relaxing on the beach, you can go kitesurfing, windsurfing, and waterskiing in the lake that’s created by the dam.
The town itself contains cabin accommodations, a fishing club, and campsites, plus an actual health center, police station, post office, and chapel.
It’s rumored that everyone at El Nihuil catches a fish – silverside and trout are prevalent – but if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of hikes and places to mountain bike around the little village and its reservoir.
9. Whitewater Rafting Along the Río Atuel
There are many rafting companies in San Rafael ready and willing to take you out for a day of adrenaline on the Atuel River.
The rapids are class II and suitable for the whole family, but there’s still room for excitement, getting thrown overboard, and even night rafting sessions when the moon is full.
Tour companies like Extremo, Raffeish, and Kintun Expediciones will provide all the gear you need, from life jackets to helmets, along with experienced guides who will tell you when to paddle harder.
Trips downstream typically last from 40 to 60 minutes, and some companies can arrange whitewater kayaking if you’d prefer to fly solo.
10. Ropes Courses, Canopy Tours, and Ziplining
If you’re looking for a nontraditional, outdoorsy activity that gets rave reviews from everyone who does it, look no further than Bosque Aéreo Euca.
This unique place describes itself as a “high-wire forest adventure” near the Cañon del Atuel.
Battle your fear of heights as you take on over 30 games strung between the trees using bridges, ladders, walkways, and tunnels, plus 13 ziplines.
Don’t worry, there’ll be a safety briefing, harnesses, and instructors present at all times.
If you just want to do the ziplining portion, check out companies like Canopy del Lago who’ll get you set up to fly over the waters at Valle Grande across seven ziplines that are hundreds of meters long.
11. Parque Arqueologico Las Tinajas
Las Tinajas is a prime example of San Rafael’s natural beauty.
This park contains over 100 hectares of land preserved for its natural and archaeological significance, and you could spend the whole day here trekking through forests, caves, and mountains.
Two footpaths were created to teach visitors about the wildlife and native cultures of the Mendoza province before the arrival of Europeans.
The first path takes you to observe the local flora and fauna and then into natural caves to view ancient paintings by indigenous peoples (accompanied by a guide). The second path is a self-guided walk that leads uphill to several rock formations (with names like The Wave and The Sleeping Dragon).
12. Villa 25 de Mayo
Slightly northwest of San Rafael, this peaceful little village was the first colonized settlement in the area, and wandering its dirt roads, lush surroundings, and remnants of days gone by will give you an idea of how the city began.
You can see the remains of the old fort, the Plaza de Armas, adobe houses, and the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel which is over one hundred years old and still standing.
There are festivals here on May 25th and July 9th with traditional dancing, celebrations, and local gastronomy (try the carne a la mesa, or clay oven-baked meat pie). The village is also a haven for artists and writers who flock here from the city for inspiration, and many of them have studios here.
13. Try Rappelling
If you’re up for a little adventure, rock climbing and rappelling trips are a big deal in San Rafael.
Rappelling (or abseiling) is actually much easier than climbing if you’ve never done it before, 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 pros at it, and they’ll provide all the equipment and instructions you need to confidently throw yourself backwards off of a steep rock wall in the Valle Grande.
No prior skills are required, and lots of these companies can hook you up with package deals that include rappelling, camping, trekking, and even an asado under the stars.
14. Hotel Termas El Sosneado
Hot springs and an abandoned legendary hotel – what’s not to love? A bit of an obscure attraction, this mysterious resort set in the Sosneados Valley was built in the 1930s and later left to fall into disrepair for unknown reasons.
There are theories surrounding its demise that include Juan Perón, the Nazis, hotel worker’s rights, and even British royalty, but either way, the hot springs are still there and you can go soak in their turquoise, sulfur-scented waters.
The route here is windy and rocky and cell service is basically non-existent, so most people choose to reach this place by 4×4. If you’re doing a tour of the surrounding areas, ask to have it included in your itinerary!
15. Los Reyunos Dam
Another one of the locals’ favorite spots outside of San Rafael, this popular reservoir is beautiful and offers plenty to do for the day.
It’s only about 40 minutes from the city, so pack a picnic and head out for a day of swimming, kayaking, and boating.
You can go hiking to see the rock formations in the area, or take the popular catamaran across the lake which will point out the best sites.
If you’d rather do it yourself, you can rent a raft boat and cruise the emerald waters to discover the place on your own.
Try the “tiro-bungee” which is like a hanging zipline across the lake, or just post up on the beach.
There are barbecues available if you want to bring your own food and have an asado, and there’s a campsite if you want to spend the night.