400km (248 miles) S of Buenos Aires

Argentina's most popular beach resort is a sleepy coastal city of about 700,000 long-term residents -- until mid-December, when Porteños flock here through March for their summer vacation. Nearly eight million vacationers will pass through in the summer season, the vast majority of them Argentines. Although it's not as luxurious as Uruguay's Punta del Este -- the beach favorite of many jet-setting Argentines -- Mar del Plata is closer to Buenos Aires and far cheaper. Its long, windy coastline is known for its crowded, tan-bodied beaches and quieter seaside coves, and beautiful landscapes farther inland, leading to the edge of the grassy Pampas. The resort was at one time very exclusive, but during the Perón era many hotels and high-rises were built for labor unions and the middle class, changing both the social and physical makeup of the city forever. Some of the magnificent French- and Tudor-style mansions, which housed Argentina's summer elites in the early 20th century, have been meticulously preserved as museums.

Mar del Plata offers excellent nightlife in summer, when independent theater companies from Buenos Aires come to town, and nightclubs open their doors to passionate Latin partygoers. The months of December, January, and February are the most crowded, wild, and expensive for visiting. In March, families with children and retired couples on vacation make up the bulk of visitors, who take advantage of a more relaxed atmosphere and the slight reduction in prices. Many hotels and restaurants remain open year-round; though the weather is chillier, people do vacation here on weekends in winter too. While Argentines will tell you stories about family vacations here over the generations, the city only hit the international radar during the November 2005 Summit of the Americas, when massive protests took place against the former U.S. president George W. Bush's presence. Much of the city was blocked off during that time period, disrupting locals from their daily lives, and many people still have much to say about the visit.