A Tale of Two Towns

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The train to Tigre takes about an hour, meaning I arrived at 1:30 with about three hours to wander around this popular weekend suburb before hopping on the ferry to cross to Uruguay. That, on a weekday, is more than I needed it turned out. Most of the things were closed including the fabled Mate (pronounced Mah-teh) museum. Have we discussed mate yet? I can’t remember, but it is a very Argentinian (and, I would discover, Uruguayan) tradition that on the surface sounds very much English. Mate is a special tea from a ‘mate’ plant that is quite potent in both taste and caffeination. The leaves are sprinkled into a small round cup and then hot water and – if you’re a novice – sugar are added. There are traditions in how it is drank, who pours it, and that it is always shared (though I have not been offered any in my whole stay in Argentina). There is a special straw even, that is generally stainless steel and has small pores to suck up the water but not the leaves. Anyway, the museum where I was hoping to have all sorts of history to mix into this explanation was closed, so you’ll have to make due with that. I just ambled around the river town and sat on an outdoor patio enjoying a pretty nice day until the time came to get on the boat and take a few days out of Argentina.

The ferry ride across from Tigre to Carmelo is said to be the cheapest way to cross from Buenos Aires and also the most interesting. Given that the other passages are just open water I’m not inclined to disagree; you wind through islands of the river delta on your way across. I arrived in Carmelo, which is supposed to be a nice town on the Uruguay side after the briefest of formalities and was lucky to find a bus leaving in 30 minutes for Colonia. A friendly woman sat next to me and we talked pretty much the whole 1.5 hours until we arrived at 9:00. Sometimes my Spanish seems good and other times I can’t make people understand me. I walked to the Hostel Espanol which is only a few blocks from the bus terminal and there were Janet, Leanne, and Dan waiting for me with two empty bottles of wine. They’d been for my arrival at 7 but of course, that never happened. There was just enough for one toast and then we hit the mean streets of Colonia. It just so happened that it was the 29th of June and here the 29th of any month is the day of gnocchi where restaurants all have it on special and everybody goes out to eat it. Why? Well, in the past, before it was fashionable, it was one of the cheapest things you could eat and so at the end of the month when nobody had any money left, they’d head out for good, cheap gnocchi. It’s not so cheap anymore, but then again a plate with a bottle of really nice Pueblo del Sol Tannat (from Uruguay) was $7 so I can’t complain.

It was a nice dinner and great to hang out with the old group again. We bought some cheap boxed wine and retired to our hostel where we talked until the last person with their eyes opened realized the rest of us were all talking with our eyes shut. The next morning, Dan had to leave pretty early so we said goodbye to him, all checked out, and then me and the girls went and walked around the town. It’s really quaint with cobblestoned streets and stone buildings with coloured plaster. The sun was shining, the breeze was warm, humid, and refreshing and I didn’t realize how happy I was to have a break from the cities until we sat on the coast taking it all in. You could just see the tallest skyscrapers of Buenos Aires across the water in sight but a world away. One highlight was actually a local artist that had a great eye for painting women, he gave me his card for his website. The girls had to leave at 3 so I decided to take the 2:00 bus rather than waiting alone until 4:30 and said my goodbyes, but we’d had a fun day of taking “family portraits”, ambling, and sitting around visiting. The bus to Montevideo was 2.5 hours and the city was a lot more modern and landscaped than I expected. The older buildings, however, were very ominous looking concrete structures that would have been equally at home in the former USSR. I wandered around and opted to stay at the cheaper Che Legarto right in Plaza Independencia rather than El Viajero a few blocks away. The former was $9 and the latter $13 so over two nights that was almost a free third night. That said, I suspect I would have liked the El Viajero better just from the vibe I got.

Tigre and Colonia Photos

The City of Good Air and Great Everything

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ah, Buenos Aires. Capital of Argentina; Birthplace of the tango; Home of dulce de leche; City of statues, city of parks, city of eternal nights; New Paris, New Rome, New New York; where does one start? I’ll tell you. Unless you fly in you probably start at the Retiro train, bus, and “Subte” station (subway) a hustling-bustling mass of vehicles heaving bodies to and fro en masse but only after they have dodged their way in and out of other bodies to get there. My destination had been recommended to me by Alabama Dan, Hostel Obelisco, for its decent breakfasts and excellent location. Sometimes I get overconfident in my ability to find things. I had glanced at a map online the day before and now, arriving, I was less certain that I could find my way. I wandered to the subway and remembered that I was heading for Diagonal Norte station so that was step one. I remembered it was about two blocks east of the obelisk and when I came above ground, there in front of me was the obelisk – but which way was east? So I wandered up the street that ended up being Diagonal Norte and after a few blocks turned back to the obelisk where I found Corrientes which I also recalled from my map view, so I headed down there and found myself – and my hostel – right in the heart of the theatre district. I definitely felt like I was in New York as I walked past the old buildings, theatres, and people bustling everywhere. And that, as would soon unfold, was the first sign that I would love it here.

While in Cordoba, I’d met another backpacker named Rob from England that was couchsurfing in Buenos Aires with a girl named Fatima. I chatted with him while he was there and he recommended getting in touch with her, so I did. As a result, my plan after a late Friday night dinner was to meet up at her house where she was hosting a friend’s birthday. I was supposed to show up around 11-11:30 where we could visit and drink until 2ish then head out. The next step was dinner, which I ate around 10, a pretty reasonably-priced parilla (mixed grill). The problem was, in a city like this, I hadn’t banked on liquor stores all being closed at 11 (the equivalent of, say, 7 PM back home). I hunted and hunted, asked and asked, but could find nowhere to buy a bottle of wine, rum, or anything besides beer. I retreated back to the hostel to cancel my visit because I didn’t want to show up empty handed and decided to ask one of the nice girls working at the reception for ideas. I could buy a bottle of wine from the bar for a bit more than at the store or, one of the guys visiting there said, I could buy a bottle of vodka off him that he didn’t need tonight. So he walked to his place and he got me the vodka and then walked me to the bus stop and made sure I got on the right one. The people here, for day one, have been great.

I got off the 59 bus at the right spot with the help of the driver and walked to Fatima’s, not too late considering my hassle in procuring alcohol. Her friends were also there, a bunch of ex-pats from Bolivia, Peru, and Poland; they were all friendly and fun and tolerated my bad Spanish with good humour. Then it came to be around 2 and we hopped into a cab for a club nearby and I think I got home around 5 AM. I took a few hours and by 9 AM I had had breakfast and was out the door on a photo mission. The first stop was the nearby Obelisk where I attempted some panoramas. It sits right in the middle of Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world with 14 lanes not to mention access lanes and three (THREE!) boulevards to break up the crossing. If you sprinted across you might make it all the way to the other side in one shot. Maybe. So I wanted to get a shot that showed how wide the avenue was as well as the obelisk and the road wrapping around it. The answer was up and I surveyed the neighbourhood before walking casually into Hotel Colon and going to the top floor. There was a guy working on sound for their banquet room up there and he tried his best to help me find a way but there were only dirty windows to shoot through. I went down a floor and asked one of the women working there if I could get a view through one of the rooms and they quite happily obliged. A very nice courtesy of them and I have them to thank for the photo on the left.

I walked up the North Diagonal which connects the Obelisk with La Casa Rosada, effectively Argentina’s White House. It’s situated in Plaza de Mayo on, you guessed it, Avenida de Mayo, which connects it with Congress. The design of the city was an ambitious attempt to recreate the feel of Paris’ wide avenues and connecting monuments and it worked out beautifully. I wish we could have this sort of aesthetic foresight in city planning back home but I can’t blame the mayor I suppose, when the city gets up in arms about spending an bit more to make an important overpass look like it wasn’t shipped in from the former Soviet Union. I walked back to and then down July 9th, making my way to Recoleta where an incredible cemetery as well as a weekend artisan market awaited. By the time I got there the partially cloudy sky had become overcast and I lost all those great clouds that had been forming for my obelisk photos. As the cemetery was mostly statues (and I’d seen Dan’s great photos) I thought I’d shoot black and white anyway, so it didn’t matter as much but I can’t help but think how cool those photos could’ve been on a different day and with better light. Still, they were fantastic to behold and the decadence of the cemetery makes it clear that these were not the ordinary-Joses of Argentina. Presidents, governors, celebrities, and important people of means have all found their final rest here. I, however, had no time for ANY rest there as it had started to rain and it was 12 blocks to the subway station. So I left and walked quickly up the road and headed back to the hostel.

I was hoping to have SOMEthing to do that night but Fatima was busy and Laura (the Dutch girl I met in Cordoba) hadn’t been back on Facebook since messaging me to say she was also in Buenos Aires. I also didn’t really know anybody at the hostel aside from casually meeting two Arab Israelis and their two Kiwi friends who were nowhere to be seen. So I did nothing on Saturday night which was OK given how tired I was and that Friday was great. Well, I did plan to go to get a nice steak somewhere and again didn’t take a map with me. This time I walked within a block of it several times but never passed it and settled for plan B which looked busy and pretty bumping not to mention the menu was pretty reasonable. There were so many signs I should’ve got up and left but I’d searched a long time in the rain and was hungry. First, the busyness of the place was almost ALL tourists. I was seated behind some US pilots griping about co-pilots they’d worked with, for example. Then, when they brought the bread and olives I said I didn’t need it (they bring it unasked and then charge “cover”) at which point I was told I would pay cover whether I ate it or not. This was after he’d already opened my bottle of wine, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to be spending any money. Or like I could leave. Then when I ordered my steak he asked what I’d like with it. What does it come with? Nothing. Fries or anything like that are extra. So the price wasn’t so reasonable either. I bit the bullet and hoped the steak would be good. It wasn’t. It was tough as nails and lacking flavour much like the bottle of Norton Malbec that I’d chosen, and it turned out to be MORE expensive than the good steakhouse I’d wanted to go to when all was said and done. Ah well, it filled me up at least. I don’t know why I tipped, especially when he tried to get rid me to leave (in spite of plenty of open tables) while I sipped my wine and read a bit. The restaurant, by the way, was La Estancia.

The next day I had only one sure plan: to watch the Argentina-Mexico match. My morning was spent doing nothing in particular, just walking around looking at things and people. I went back to the hostel to study my Spanish book a bit but ended up sitting next to a Brazilian girl named Pricila that also wanted to watch the game. Argentina and Brazil are bitter rivals so she wanted to cheer on Mexico at a Brazilian bar but I managed to convince her to come with me to Futbol Park where a large screen was put up in the park and it was filled with cheering Argentines. She was to be disappointed as Argentina scored first an offside goal and then two more following it. Mexico scored one retaliatory goal before the end and then, more than any game I’ve seen before, the city went off. They are getting increasingly crazy with each win and after sharing a pizza and helping her load her luggage into a cab I grabbed my camera (why, oh why, didn’t I bring it to the park??) and went to just one of the squares filled with singing, honking, clapping, and stomping fans. A few photos here and there and then back to the hostel where a salsa band was already starting. I sat with one of the Israeli girls and visited for a bit then chatted with an actual girl (as in, not woman – she was 14) who I felt quite sorry for as she sat there watching her mom dance. She had an interesting story.

The next day I took off for La Boca, once again with too cursory a glance at the map but I made it there. La Boca is a really charming little district of colourful old buildings, tango in the streets, restaurants, art gallerys, painters, and so on. I’d been wanting to go to a Tango show as this is where it all started (there is some dispute on this to be fair) but they’re generally pretty pricey for backpacker budgets. Some of the restaurants were doing tango shows for free and I found one that also had reasonably-priced food (and the steak does come with fries?) and decided this was the way to do it. My steak was far better than at La Estancia, it cost almost half when all was said and done (though I had a glass of beer instead of a bottle of wine) and I got a tango show which was great. I don’t know but I think it must all be rehearsed: I don’t think you could pull off the dances they were doing without knowing what was about to happen. Or at least I couldn’t. I got up and tried a few moves with one of the dancers after lunch and headed back north through old San Telmo, Montserrat, and then hopped on the old wood-panelled subway to the congress building on the opposite end of the avenue. It was beautiful and I had a nice late afternoon sun making it glow. Then I walked back to the hostel and visited with a Colombian girl (from Cali) that sat next to me and we went to see Prince of Persia together instead of drinking too much. We should have drank. It wasn’t that bad really (especially if you remember the old game) but you could definitely wait for it to come on DVD and rent it.

I had one free night of accommodation after staying 4 nights and plans to hang out with the Colombian girl and her Serbian friends but I got a message from Dan, Leanne, and Janet across the river in Uruguay that if I wanted to see them I had to get there today. I was reluctant to throw away my free night and breakfast for the fifth day but I didn’t have much left to do in Buenos Aires and did want to catch up with them once more so I packed up, apologized to my new friends, and checked out. I laughed when the receptionist asked if I had a reason for checking out an hour late and told her I was actually checking out 23 hours early. I decided to head to Tigre, which is supposed to be a quaint suburb of Buenos Aires and from there take the ferry across to Carmelo, weaving through the river delta in what Lonely Planet calls “the most interesting and cheapest way to cross to Uruguay”. From Carmelo, itself a nice Riviera Plata town, I should be able to catch a bus and head down to Colonia where the gang would be waiting. So I and my backpacks headed for the Retiro train station, where I dodged people heading in all directions and discovered the true source of the tango. The train to Tigre cost about 30 cents and I was quite happy to get on board and watch Buenos Aires zip by out the window.

Buenos Aires Photos

Back to the Atlantic

Friday, June 25, 2010

I arrived in Rosario a little later than I’d hoped. It was dark, I was alone, and there were wolves howling in the distance. Alright, alright, so there were no wolves but as I wandered around the perimeter of the bus station trying to find the intersection that would take me to a nearby hostel, I could almost feel their eyes watching me from the orange-cast shadows in sidestreets and alleyways. I circled the entire station and did not find a single street I recognized from the Lonely Planet map and realized that I must be further out than the one listed there. So I took a cab and you were right... no wolves. It cost 12 pesos to get to my hostel, Rosario Inn, and there the friendly woman at the counter toured me around and introduced me to other backpackers. Specifically, I met a Berliner named Edgar who had essentially done the same trip as me but in a completely different way. He’d started in Mexico City and spent about a month in Mexico to my 12 days starting from Cancun. He’d hated Belize, spending only a day in Caye Caulker for example, and had been wise enough to get through Costa Rica in three days to my two weeks. For some reason, he’d skipped over Ecuador (where I’d spent a month and a half) and this is when, in spite of starting his trip a month after me, he overtook me. Still, here we were, he seven months with two to go and me eight with one, shaking hands in Rosario. But we didn’t talk about this all there; he wanted to find a good steak restaurant and who was I to say no?

We went for steak, walking about 20 blocks to get there. Even though it was probably around 10 PM and dark, I was immediately impressed with Rosario. Avenida Cordoba in a very long and leafy pedestrian street taking you past beautifully designed buildings and the air had a pleasant after-rain freshness owed, probably, to my moisture sensitivity after so long in dry climates and the Rio Parana emptying into the Atlantic nearby. And unlike the bus terminal area, no imagined wolves. The restaurant we’d been recommended was La Estancia and the entrance was adorned with photos of famous Argentines dining there. There were no less than five of Lionel Messi (star of the Argentina World Cup team) dining there at various ages and hair lengths. So we knew that it was probably going to be a good steak. The price was not cheap (contrary to reports from the hostel reception) but for what it was, and compared to home, it was pretty reasonable. I got a bottle of wine to go with my filet which, interestingly, they never asked how I wanted done. It came out mostly medium but I wasn’t too upset (I like medium-rare) once I took my first bite. Only my dad can grill a steak this tasty and it was the best steak I’ve ever had not cooked by him. Tender, juicy, and with a nice proportion of fattiness, I could almost have gone again the next day if not for the price being a little out of budget. That said, the meal cost 70 pesos including tip and wine bottle (I only finished half and kept the other half for dinner the next day) or about $18.

There is another meal that Argentina does really well, and that’s pasta. After dinner I went back to the hostel to catch up on my sleep and late the next morning I went in search of it: homemade pasta. It wouldn’t be my first pasta meal – I had some pretty nice ravioli in San Luis, for example – but I had to try some different varieties. So I wandered around the town a bit in the morning, even more impressed with the architecture and eventually found a place with a pasta-drink combo for 14 pesos. I’m not sure what happened but by the time I had eaten and had dessert (that’s probably what happened, along with the ‘cover’ for bread and spread that they usually do here) it cost 22 (with tip). It was supposed to be cannelloni but they were essentially crepes stuffed with hamburger and some leafy green and topped with tomato sauce and melted shredded mozzarella. Not what I’d expected but still very tasty.

After lunch I wandered around some more. Along the river was an interesting if unexplained complex of brick with stairs leading up and a hole in the centre where shops and things were lined. Out of this thrust two massive Greek pillars. While I was photographing this, three high-school aged girls called out to me to take their photo from a nearby grassy hill. This is not the first time this would happen today, though I can’t explain why. Continuing on, I wandered for a long time, passing Che Guevara’s home/birthplace here in Rosario and noticing all the buildings painted in art or with domed tops and rounded corners. There was little else to do with the day but take those arty photos so that’s what I did. I wanted to check out the flag monument around sunset but it was still far away and so when I passed the cinema I took in a movie that finished at just the right time: The Road. I didn’t know anything about it other than it wasn’t dubbed (I still can’t follow movies well enough to watch them in Spanish) and had Viggo Mortinsen. It was a bleak vision of an unexplained post-apocalyptic future that was a rather painfully obvious lesson in trust as well as the need for hope. I can’t say I’d recommend it but I didn’t walk out either.

The movie ended just in time for me to walk to the flag monument for and catch not only sunset but also the lowering of the flag. Here I was again asked to take a couple’s photo, which I did, but they had neither paper nor pen for me to email them and seemed entirely unconcerned with getting the photo which again perplexed me. The monument itself was really impressive and would be equally at home in Rome or Washington. A bridge crosses over a fountain littered with statues to a Parthenon of pillars covering the eternal flame which overlooks the obelisk of the monument and the flag that had just been lowered not to mention the river valley below. I had bought a mini tripod that afternoon (my third on the trip, hope I can hold on to this one) which came in very handy and all I could’ve hoped for was more cloud to catch the beautiful colours in the sky. Then it was back to the hostel, night having fallen, and while I’d planned to go out and get some groceries to compensate for last night’s dinner, Edgar had made way too much pasta and offered me the leftovers which went nice with my wine and my budget. It was in a blue cheese sauce and was really good especially for free (though I told him I’d pay half he wouldn’t take it). I didn’t go out as Buenos Aires is my next stop and I’m sure there will be plenty of that there, so I got some rest again and hope I’m ready for the big city. We’ll find out.

Rosario Photos

East is the New South

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We didn’t spin a bottle. We were back, yet again, in the Mendoza bus terminal recently arrived from from Uspallata after having been blocked from entry into Chile by endless winter snow. I was hoping to get my skis onto some of that snow in southern Las LeƱas, Argentina’s best ski hill, but ironically there was not enough snow for that (and also the hill didn’t open for another 3-4 days). Unable to go west, nothing to do south (aside from the Valdez peninsula which, at 18 hours each way, seemed a long way to go to see whales) and more of the same to the north the only solution was to head east to San Luis and hopefully a more off-the-trail adventure. With me were Alabama Dan, recently escaped through a narrow window from Chile, Janet, and Leanne, and we left the Mendoza bus terminal behind for the last time at 4:00 PM. We’d spent a bit of the day in a cafe where we were twice warned by friendly locals to keep an eye on our stuff and that we weren’t in a good area but we already knew that. This is called hanging out in a “character” area. There were characters alright. The bus to San Luis marked the end of my travels south. Now I venture east into Uruguay and Brazil before flying home. But otherwise it was uneventful and we arrived after dark then went to San Luis Hostel which is owned by a Russian-descended Argentine that reminded me in almost every way of Paul Velonas. We went through options and decided to visit a picturesque town called La Carolina.

The other option had been go to a nearby National Park which was certainly our first choice but we had arrived too late to get groceries sorted out for the hike. We had a decent dinner and some nice Argentine wine after hunting forever to find something open and came back and went to sleep. The hostel was empty except for us as San Luis isn’t really on the tourist trail and I suppose that was the appeal of the place. The hostel owner was really nice and spent a fair amount of time on the phone getting us bus information. We took the bus the next morning to Inti Huasi which was a little cave about 20 km past La Carolina, where we were heading, which had 6000 year old artifacts and, of course, a cave. The scenery between the cave and the town was probably the nicest we’d seen since leaving Mendoza but we bussed back to town and wandered around the stone streets and buildings admiring the quaintness. This took all of 30 minutes but we had about 8 hours before the next bus returning to San Luis so we sat at a restaurant and shocked the woman working by ordering 20 empanadas to share between the four of us. There was also a small labyrinth to pass 10 minutes and then we decided to hike up a hill overlooking the town. The scenery was nice but nothing that made a nice photograph thanks to both the sun’s location in the cloudless sky and its expansivenes. It was a fun hike up anyway (with an ambush from two grass spear throwing natives named Dean and Dan) and on the way down the girls sang songs together while I stumped Dan with such questions as the capital of Canada (Calgary?) and he retorted with naming all 50 states (I got to 42).

Back in town quite late and after a decent dinner, wine, and free wifi (even in this small rustic village!) we pondered if and how we might make the park in the morning but the girls wanted to sleep in and I can’t say I blamed them. I did too, but as always I’ll trade sleep and even food for doing something interesting or unique. Still, I didn’t care enough to do it on my own so we went off instead to Cordoba, continuing our trek back to Buenos Aires. I considered skipping this leg of the trip with them and going on to BA directly but I had only spent one night there and enjoyed myself so why not a few more? So we bussed to Cordoba with Cata which was certainly the nicest bus I’ve been on in Argentina thus far. You hear stories about champagne being served and various other comforts but busses so far have been about on par with Peru. I’m still waiting for my champagne and they served Pepsi instead of Coke but it’s the thought that counts. Getting back to the Tango hostel was great. Lorena was still there and I met her Dutch friend Laura, the owners greeted me warmly and by name, and later that night I also met up with Juan and his now ex-girlfriend when we all went out on the town.

Yes, it was a Sunday night but unbeknownst to us, it was flag day on Monday and that meant a holiday which in turn meant a big night. After a trip to the mall food court for dinner (most things were otherwise closed) we bought some wine and drank at the hostel (ring of fire, dancing, and music) until, well, late (maybe 1) and then taxied out to a club where one of the hostel owners (Fabien) could get us in for free. It was still happy hour when we arrived which meant 10 peso beer and tequila shots ($2.50). After happy hour the beer went up to 13 and the tequila down (??) to 8 pesos. This was the night I had been hoping my first time in Cordoba and although that was great fun too, this was probably one of the best nights out I’ve had on this trip. We had an amazing crew of people and everybody was a blast and all smiles even the next morning in spite of the fact that we returned to the hostel around 6 AM and were up around 10 again. I think there was even a while after the club closed where I was directing traffic in the hopes of unclogging the road and getting one of the oh-so-rare taxis. So I had a bit too much wine, but here you can buy a bottle of decent stuff for $2-3 and we would be taking advantage of that every night in Cordoba and tasting many a wine. We had tried to be ambitious, walking around the town and exploring on a photo-finding mission but with the holiday even the churches were closed. Janet, Dan, and I wandered in search of choripan, a sausage sandwich, and as hunger grew became desperate to find anything. At last we found a place and had some excellent steaks for lunch. I’m worried that between the food and wine here I’m going to need a diet before I go home. I almost hope Brazil’s food isn’t so tasty.

We went back to the hostel for our siesta after lunch and I later went out to see if Magdalena, a girl I’d met last time I was here, was working at the ice cream shop. She was and we met after her work for a drink and visit which was really good if short. That night the hostel owners were doing an asado/BBQ and I got back about an hour late (at 10:30) to find that they’d saved me my portion. It was ridiculously delicious. Tango Hostel is now one of the top hostels in the universe. Unless you are in that mode where you don’t want to socialize and visit, because then you’ll inevitably attempt to go to sleep early (i.e. pre 1 AM) and I can’t imagine that would be a successful venture. I brought back a bottle of wine from the grocery store and all of us shared it and another bottle that the hostel had on hand not to mention wines left over from the dinner. This night was a more relaxed stay at home and visit over wine evening and I found myself wondering why it is that there are so many great people all in the one hostel. I mean, I brought three of them with me, but there were about 8 or 9 of us that really got along great. The last time I had a group like that was in Nicaragua.

The big day had arrived. Greece vs Argentina in the World Cup. The game was at 3:30 PM but horns and noises started around 9 AM in anticipation. Stores had painted murals as though this were an epic match up of arch-rivals, a battle of the titans, a fight to the death with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. Flags were hung off buildings everywhere. The firecrackers started a little after noon. The four of us went out and got into the old Jesuit crypt which was somewhat disappointing in that it really had no atmosphere anymore but it only cost 2 pesos. I walked everybody to the bus station to see what time they could leave for Iguazu falls. We would be parting ways the next day as they were all flying home via Buenos Aires and so backtracking was inevitable where for me it was a waste of 18 hours and about $100 although it would’ve been great to stay with them. Buses to Rosario, where I was going, are every hour in the mornings so I didn’t bother to buy a ticket. We walked through the park back towards the hostel and I had to laugh at some of the looks I was getting. People were dressed as though it were -30 with puffy fur-lined winter jackets, scarves, and ear muffs and I was walking around in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops because it was laundry day. It was about 3:00 when we got to KGB and we got a nice if windy spot right in front of the TV.

What a frustrating game it was. Argentina, in first place in their group, had no need for points and played keep away instead of soccer. What the Greeks were playing was less clear to me; they seemed to be down on themselves and appeared to believe that if they could just pass a ball to some fan in the stands they would have a better chance. I’ve never seen so many bad passes go out of bounds, and that includes my alter-ego Dynamite Dean. They had a three man team. An excellent goal keeper, one defender that saved a sure goal, and one forward, #7. The rest were intended to distract the Argentinians like clowns at a rodeo. Magdalena met up with us after the game we all walked to the plaza to witness the celebrations which were, as you might expect, nuts. People were driving trucks around banging drums from the back while scooter drivers had blue capes flapping in the wind. Dogs were dressed in team jerseys and howling like everybody else. It was pandemonium far more so than their first game had been. If they win the world cup, I don’t know what would happen but I may have to come back to find out.

We went for a submarino (remember? hot milk with a dark chocolate bar melted in it) and I hung out with Magdalena for a while before she went home and I went back to the hostel in time to eat leftovers from the group’s pasta dinner. It was our last night so we went and bought three bottles of wine from the grocery store, Gato Negro (so-so cabernet), a magnum of something cheap that a local had recommended to me way back in Salta, and another bottle which I can’t recall the name of but was ironically the best tasting of the three. I wasn’t expecting it but we all went out that night to a bar around the corner and had a lot of fun again. I made some Argentine friends when they found out I was Greek-Canadian and were all out until 5 AM again. That’s Argentina though. Out til 5,6, or 7, sleep a couple hours, do some stuff in the morning, siesta for 3-4 hours, and then stay out til all hours. Dinner here is eaten around 10 or 11. Lunch around 2 or 3. So I was up again early, packed my things and said my goodbyes. I walked alone to the bus station on a route that someone had told me was shorter but nope. I was running out of time to catch the 11:00 bus and asked a local girl where it was and got completely wrong directions. I eventually had to take a cab which cost more than it would have going direct from the hostel only to arrive too late to get the bus. So I left at the same time as Dan, Leanne, and Janet but on a different bus, headed for Rosario. But I will meet up with them again in Uruguay as they work their way back to Buenos Aires and I to Iguazu and Brazil. And the bus alone wasn’t so bad – I had octopus for lunch at the Villa Maria bus station!

La Carolina and (Mas!) Cordoba Photos

You Shall Not Pass

Friday, June 18, 2010

The plan was to leave Cordoba at 9 PM and arrive at around 7:30 AM in Mendoza. I had allotted a week to Mendoza for a bit of trekking, skiing, and wine tasting but on the way back from Chile (when there’d be more snow in the mountains). The plan on arriving was to get the 9:30 AM bus directly out of Mendoza heading for Valparaiso, Chile, spend about 10 days over there and then come back for Mendoza and surrounds. I arrived, bought my ticket into Chile, and then waited around with Rob (the English guy I’d travelled there with from Cordoba) until it was time to board the bus over breakfast. I even boarded my bus, and then sat there and waited. And waited. I was working on my blog and photos so time went quickly enough but soon we were two hours past departure with no hint that we’d ever be leaving. The pass, I found out eventually, was covered in snow and the busses weren’t sure if it would open. No need to inform the passengers about such things, however. Another hour and the bus was completely cancelled but although they’d (Andesmar, my least favourite bus company in Argentina) allow me to book a ticket for another day they would only refund me 70% of my 100 pesos. I angrily changed for a few days later and decided to find a hostel and do at least the wine tasting in Mendoza but because they’d made me wait so long I had no time that day to do it. Instead I caught up on my blog and then with my Canadian friends, Leanne and Janet later than night at my hostel, Winca, on the corner of San Lorenzo and San Martin (and a reasonably priced 30 pesos).

Janet was feeling pretty sick unfortunately and neither of them ate much more than fries for dinner when we went out and I had my first Argentina steak. Definitely the best steak I’ve had since Cancun but nothing compared to a good cut of Canadian beef on my dad’s BBQ. The next day Janet was still sick so Leanne and I set out to Maipu outside of Mendoza to rent some bikes from the enigmatic Mr. Hugo and do a wine tasting trip. That is, after our first bus driver told us to get out in the town proper instead of out of town slightly where the bikes are. We had a coffee and a hot chocolate in the square which was nice anyway and then a tourist police made some phone calls to Mr. Hugo and got directions for us to the connecting bus which was really nice. The wine trip itself was a great if pricey day. Unlike other places, everybody charged for tastings We actually started the day at La Antigua which didn’t do wines but did have some chocolate, olive oil, crushed olive spreads, and liquors to try. I wound up buying an olive-garlic spread which served as quite a delicious treat in days to come. We tried a few wines but nowhere near so much as I’d hoped for in the day and nothing that really stood out aside from the rather expensive Trapiche tastings, which were excellent. We had lunch at a beer maker’s place and the beer was decent but what were excellent there were the empanadas – they were made with filo pastry instead of dough and filled with carne, pollo, or tomato-garlic and I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best.

We didn’t make it to what is supposedly the best vineyard in the region which is an organic farm on the other side as they closed early but everyone told me that not only did they have the best wines but also the most informative tastings. We were turned back by the tourist police who are out in large number protecting tourists mostly from themselves and arrived back at Mr. Hugo’s where quickly a party was forming with Mr. Hugo’s free grape juice wine. We met with an Aussie couple and an American guy and agreed to meet that night for a spot of basketball at the Liverpool pub which has an excellent lamb sandwich. It was ridiculously pricey but when I see lamb on the menu I can scarcely resist. The next morning my changed-but-not-refunded ticket was supposed to take me to Chile at 9:30 but once again the pass was closed and I was forced to wait until 11:00 before they would decide for sure. I find the whole situation ridiculous on so many levels. First of all, this is THE principle trade route between Argentina and Chile, and it apparently closes for weeks at a time due to weather. The economic cost of not building a better road or even tunnel must surely outweigh the benefits of doing nothing. Secondly, there seems to be no good place to get information on this border ANYwhere aside from the bus companies, all of whom force you to wait on the chance that it may get better. This must be a failure on both the parts of the bus companies and the governments as I would expect both to know the forecast, how much snow is falling and has fallen, and how long it takes to clean the pass after the snow has abated. Nope. The only recourse is to wait for a binary yes/no answer with no further information.

Foiled again by this joke of a border crossing and more than a little frustrated by the apathy and lack of intelligence on the part of anybody involved in this operation I managed to at least get a full refund. It didn’t matter because I had paid with my Visa and there was no way that I was paying the bus company, Andesmar, a cent even if they offered a partial refund. The man the next day, from an affiliate called El Rapido, was much more friendly and did what the first woman should have done... cancelled the transaction. Newly unchained from my ticket and waiting aimlessly in Mendoza which, though a nice city, hasn’t got much to offer outside of its surroundings, I decided to go to Uspallata a couple hours away and do some looking around at the place they filmed “Seven Years in Tibet”. The girls, for lack of plan and equal desire to go to Chile as well, came with and we had lunch while watching a great Swiss-Spain World Cup game and left at 1:00. The town is a dusty little existence but surrounded by beautiful desert mountains and the sunset that night was incredible though I had left my camera card behind in my computer so I couldn’t get a photo of it. There wasn’t much if anything for tourists there but we did find a pretty cool if pricey hostel called Portico del Valle with a friendly owner named Francisco who knocked the price down to 40/night for us which was a little more fair. The girls and I cooked up a pasta, salami, peppers, and beans meal and Leanne and I shared a bottle of wine with it. At the hostel were two friendly Aussie girls named Siobhan and Julia and a soft-spoken American girl named Claire as well, making the ration 5-1 not including our host. Uspallata was looking up.

We took a bus towards Aconcagua national park the next morning and I realized on the way there that what I had been wanting to do and what the plan was were two very different things indeed. The plan was to go up to the park entrance and walk back the “two and a half hours” we were told it would take to Puente del Inca, and natural rock bridge. I looked at the map and realized I wanted to trek into the park at least a bit and have a look at some nature. The girls were less enthusiastic, even as we passed Puente del Inca and stopped only 2 km away (and uphill) at the park entrance. Meaning the downhill walk back would be 30 mins or less and we’d have nothing to do. I guess I made a convincing enough argument because even though the park entrance and ranger station was closed we all walked to a viewpoint of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere and, in fact the southern hemisphere. Only the Himalayas have higher peaks. The sky was overcast however and near Aconcagua looked to be snowing, obscuring the view somewhat. From the viewpoint a partially snowed-over trail led into the park and there we lost Janet and Julia who decided to walk back and try to catch the 11:40 bus. The time was now 9 AM and they didn’t believe that it would take them 30 mins tops. The rest of us did a walk to the end of the road (which actually wound a fair way into the park) and then around a loop looking at a couple iced-over lakes. There, we also lost Leanne and Claire, and Siobhan and I continued deeper still into the park. The weather inside was pretty nice, only -5 or something like that and we had a great walk to a nice view a few kilometres further in the snow.

Siobhan, being Australian, didn’t have much snow experience so after a quick lunch on a rock looking over the river valley we wandered back and I taught her how to make a snow angel and also to roll down a snowy hill. She was a good and adventurous sport not to mention loving every minute of this winter wonderland which made it almost new again even for a Saskatchewan-hardened winter veteran. I was glad to not have to walk out there alone as well, because it’s always more fun with others and of course they thought I was crazy wanting to walk into a closed park covered in snow with the prospect of more on the way. Maybe I was but I wasn’t coming that far to not at least wander a bit into the park. We walked back out and onto the windy highway then down to Puente del Inca which was incredibly stunning and alone would have been worth the expedition up. The town itself was less so, but we got inside, reunited with the others, had a very expensive hot chocolate, and played President again. I lost the first round but worked my way to the top in three rounds and stayed President for the rest of the game to Leanne’s delight. When Leanne plays cards she gets fake mad which is hilarious and reminded me of Phase 10 with grandma.

We had to leave there and found a little bar where the guy was showing the Mexico-France game and sat drinking beer and watching and visiting and waiting for our 4:30 bus back to Uspallata. I dried out my socks on the heater – I had also stepped into a lake with one foot while I was demonstrating to Siobhan that the ice was to thin to walk on – and warmed my cold feet as a bunch of older tourists poured off a bus and looked in at us like a caged exhibit. Some even took photos of us, and it was all pretty hilarious as they waved and smiled and bounced back and forth in the cold. Back in Uspallata I returned to the hostel to find Alabama Dan waiting, having made it across the pass from Chile. So it had opened that day while we were exploring the countryside. I don’t think I would take back that day, but it seemed the cards were stacked against us. The clouds appeared to be coming in strong behind us. We had the cheapest meal I’d had so far in Argentina, 16 pesos for burritos including quite a bit of wine, prepared (with help) by the hostel owner. They were excellent. Of course I was catching up with Alabama Dan and talking about old times and new trips and swapping photo-viewing sessions. He’d just been to Easter Island and it looked awesome. We played some cards, finished the wine, and went to sleep around 1. The pass, sure enough was closed again the next day and looking to be closed right through the weekend and we’d all had enough. Dan, Leanne, Janet, and I left, leaving Chile behind for another trip, sad though I was to give up and do so. Likewise, it was still too early in the season for skiing and these changes of plan gave me two weeks of time to do... I have no idea what. All I know is that it’s not in Chile or on the ski slopes. So I head now to Mendoza, unsure which connecting bus to take. We’ve talked about putting place names in a hat or spinning a bottle and I don’t know how we’ll arrive at our final selection but rest assured I will be going SOMEwhere today.

Mendoza Photos

Cordoba Crazy

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I arrived early in the morning (before sunrise) in Cordoba and took a taxi to the Tango hostel nearby. I had no plans but it sounded pretty good from what I read in the Lonely Planet so I just headed straight there. I have to admit, I give that book a lot of grief but whoever recommended this hostel really got it right: staying at Tango was one of the best decisions I've made in Argentina. It's owned by a Colombian family that, like most Colombians, instantly make you feel welcome and at home. I planned to get a bit more sleep as it had been a short nap on the bus at best but that never really happened. I settled in, got a few things done, and met up with some of the fellow hostellers. The big plan for the morning - that is after I helped the owners set up their new internet/wifi modem - was Argentina playing their first game against Nigeria in the world cup at 11:30. After getting a cup of Lulo (!!!) for my efforts, I went with an English guy named Rob and an American girl named Lauren and we found a good outdoor lounge which, as it turns out, was the perfect place to watch. The sidewalk was full of fans, the beer was good, and the game was great. When the goal was scored you could hear car horns all the way to Buenos Aires. When they won the game, the city went nuts as though they had just been declared champions of the World Cup. Confetti in the skies, flags waving in the streets, clapping, banging, marching to the plaza with horns and songs, and bleached white toilet paper raining down against the blue sky in a proud display of Argentina's colours. They sure do love their soccer here, and it's hard not to get caught up in it.

Cordoba is mostly a university town with a huge student population which makes it a lively stopover at the best of times. My plan was to spend a night going out and the next day exploring before catching another night bus to Mendoza and then Chile to make up for a bit of lost time. After the game, the three of us walked towards the centre to witness some of the craziness and then grabbed some choripan (sausage sandwich) before splitting up. England and the US had a match that afternoon and they wanted to watch but with my limited time I wanted to explore the city some more. It is an incredible network of pedestrian streets and plazas, but it was siesta time and everything felt empty. I imagine a later time would be quite incredible to walk around but I went to visit a church which was nice on the outside and stunning on the inside and went back to the hostel to relax a bit and have a siesta of my own. Then it was dinner time (aka 10 PM). Our Colombian hosts had decided it was a Colombian food night and we were treated to Mora, Lula, and other juices, arepas con queso (better than I ever had in Colombia), meats, olives, cheeses, and of course Empanadas (Cali Style!). We all ate together and I got to meet a couple nice French girls and a Swiss guy not to mention several other great people staying at the hostel. Oh! And my first traveller from Luxembourg. That's when they kicked in the music and started dancing lessons. I tried a bit of salsa, merengue, and (I think) cumbia and we had a lot of fun before playing waterfall and then heading out to the club. The club wasn't where I would've chosen to go on a victory Saturday night - it was full and small and pretty ordinary all said, but there was no cover and we went with a good group and so had fun anyway. A really nice guy from Ireland and I weren't ready to call it a night when we dispersed so we went in search of another club and instead wound up chatting with a couple Argentine girls in front of their house until 7 AM or so.

The next morning was a slow start all said; I didn't roll out of bed until around 11 and we didn't get out of the hostel until 1:00. We went, with our Dutch guide (he's been in Cordoba for a month) to the nearby park and museum which was a lot of fun, surprisingly. They had some great and some terrible exhibits but we tried our own hand at modern art with our cameras and then went for a walk in the park afterwards. From there, Rob and I bought our tickets to Mendoza and came back to hang out at the hostel until it was time to go. It is amazing that after having known these people for 30-some hours I really didn't want to leave; this was complicated by a really awesome clerk at the ice cream shop that I developed an instant affection for. She was pretty, friendly, and had a good sense of humour. If Phil were here he'd say I'd fallen in love, as he often proclaimed while traveling this part of the world. But what kind of a travel blog would this be if I let such things stand in the way of new adventures? Probably more interesting, you're right, but it so happens that Cordoba is 'sort of' on the way back to Buenos Aires so there are plenty of excuses for a stopover awaiting me. As it was, I caught the overnight bus and took off for the Chilean border for a quick detour out of Argentina to visit Valparaiso and of course, Santiago. Or at least, that was the plan...

Cordoba Photos

Salta and Surrounds

Friday, June 11, 2010

The 2:30 AM train was a long wait after three days travelling around the salt flats of Uyuni but luckily our Argentinian friends let us stay in the office with heat, TV, and music. Some English guys I’d helped buy tickets were already waiting at the station and along with Rutger, the Dutch guy from our Uyuni trip, the four of us loaded our stuff in the baggage car and got aboard. Naturally, somebody had taken my window seat but when I pointed it out to him he pointed to his wife and sleeping baby so I had little choice but to go to the front and sleep there. Why they couldn’t get tickets together is beyond me. The sleep was restless but it could have been worse as we chugged southeast to Tupiza and ultimately Villazon, a town on the Bolivia-Argentina border. We arrived there at about noon and walked the kilometre to the border. There was a large line for exit stamps and we waited ages before going through the 10-second-or-less procedure ourselves. The Argentina side was faster save for a line to go through everybody’s bags looking for drugs, fruit, and other such things. They didn’t look hard and I can’t imagine a smuggler would have any problems bringing whatever into the country as long as it were under a layer of clothes. If they’re going to keep me in line for half an hour it could at least serve some purpose besides being for show. It took two hours to cross in total which, combined with a one hour time change, meant it was 3:30 when we emerged from the search line. The bus for Purmamarca, my first stop in Argentina, left at 4.

The four of us caught a taxi to the bus station 1.5 km away and got our tickets and the first food since that delicious pizza in Uyuni not to mention our first food in Argentina. But it was street food and I think you need at least 100km from the border before things really start to change (sorry Torontonians) so though a decent chorizo sandwich, it wasn’t incredible or different... just more expensive. I seemed to be the only one on the bus headed for Purmamarca and I asked the driver to let me know when we were there as it would be night by then. There were other travellers on the bus and one I recognized named Mathieu (who also recognized me) though we never figured out from where. He was talking to a somewhat loud-talking girl that I mistakenly assumed to be American but was, in fact, Canadian. The bus driver, unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, completely forgot about Purmamarca and didn’t even stop in the town. Added to this, we arrived way ahead of schedule so when by the time I asked how far it was to Purmamarca, about 30 minutes before we should have arrived, the front of the bus collectively told me that we had passed it. I shrugged my shoulders – what else can you do in this situation? – and decided that my stop for the night would be Salta instead; it was further down the road but had been my original plan before hearing that I needed to see Purmamarca. Rutger, for some reason, had not taken the same bus as us as he was headed to Jujuy but we had to change busses there anyway. So he waited at the border for five hours for no good reason but that, too, is travelling.

While waiting for the connecting bus to Salta I went for a burger with the girl I’d mistaken for an American, Janet, and her friend Leanne, both of whom were quite friendly and had a great sense of humour. We were far enough into the country that the burger was simply excellent. Matheiu joined us soon after and I had my new group of friends. We arrived in Salta at 1:30 AM, making it a 23-hour travel day in total and rather than risk full hostels we went with one of the touts at the bus station for Hostel Travellers, three blocks from the station past the teleferico. For 25 pesos/night ($6), we couldn’t go wrong. Breakfast, if you could call it that, was included and consisted of a cookie, crackers, and jam but the staff was very friendly and we weren’t too upset by the fact that the pool was closed for the season either. We were overtired and wound up playing cards until 4:30 AM and tasting the pretty decent Argentinian beer. I was “President” for all but two rounds, the first and the fourth last. All those years playing on the bus as a kid came in handy, I guess. The next morning we headed out to explore the town a bit and were shocked by what we saw. It is hard to believe that so much can change over an imaginary line but Argentina is a different world to everywhere I’ve been in South America except perhaps Colombia. Walking down the streets, I felt more like I was in Europe. Everything was clean, the buildings were well maintained and European-looking, and the people are a lot less homogenous than any of the other countries including Colombia. I was instantly in love with the place.

I went out with Janet, Leanne, and Mathieu to explore the town and we were all equally mesmerized. Our plan for the day was to amble (hard with a group), check out a few museums, and head up the teleferico in the afternoon but on passing a grocery store we amended the plan: Argentina has multiple cheeses, breads, and so on not to mention excellent wines. So we picked up few baguettes, some Bluebert and other cheese, crackers, a bottle of Colon Malbec, and some salami and visited one of the museums to look at the modern art exhibits. It was worth the 3 pesos and time but we skipped the museum with the mummies for cost reasons. Then we headed up the teleferico, walked around and admired the city, then grabbed a patch of grass and had ourselves a picnic. Delicious! I have been extraordinarily lucky to keep meeting cool people on my travels and I suppose that this is probably one of the reasons I really do enjoy doing it. We had a great time and a lot of laughs, the four of us, and made our way quite stuffed down to the hostel on foot to work it off.

Our last day in Salta, Mathieu and I took a trip out to San Lorenzo, a nearby town with a Quebrada (ravine) that was supposed to be quite nice. We were shocked by mansion after mansion along our walk and large 3-acre yards. The ravine itself was a nice walk and the cool, humid forest (not to mention tree-lined streets on the way up) was more reminiscent of Canada than anything I’ve seen in South America. It was hard to believe that only a few days ago we were in salt flats and desert but that feeling of disconnect from the rest of the continent (so far) seems to be a theme for our first stop in Argentina. Back at the hostel we met up with the girls and visited for a while, watching a movie in our room before heading out for another Argentine specialty: Parilla. Basically, it’s a mixed grill with sausage, beef, ribs, some sort of cow organ, and whatever other meaty fare they may decide to include. The place we wanted to go, Vieja Estacion, was charging a hefty cover for the live music so we wound up somewhere else with an excellent bottle of Pierro Marini Cabernet and live music for free. The musician was really good but about 6 levels too loud and we often had to shout to talk but it was a nice meal anyway even if, in true Argentine fashion, we didn’t really start eating until past midnight. From there, we went out for some nightlife and had a great time all around watching a pretty decent cover band.

The next morning we had a bus at 7:30 AM for Cafeyete, a small town several hours south in one of the wine regions and surrounded by beautiful countrysides. The problem was that we got back in at about 5 AM and as a result we almost slept in. Everyone except me had opted to stay awake and so when I woke up and heard them still talking, I almost didn’t check my watch: but then I did and discovered we had about 15 minutes to get up, dressed, and catch our bus. Somehow, we managed to do it, Mathieu and I, but the girls stayed behind and we ventured there ourselves. The road, for what I could keep awake to see, was filled with stunning scenery. To make the most of our time, we rented bikes when we got there in the afternoon and set out on a circuit to get in four or five vineyards before dusk. The first was a long uphill slog with nice views but pretty poor wines called Las Nubes; from there we went to two large vineyards the first of which was quite new and the second of which, Domingo, had a decent tour and decent but not-so-special wines. The third was Pierro Marini, the same wine we’d had with dinner, and was quite good. But the best wine by far was our final stop, Vasija Secreta, which had an excellent excellent 2007 Malbec. It was a long day of biking but with our new bottle of wine we picked up some bread, cheese with basil and aji peppers, and olives and had another picnic-style dinner. The girls arrived that evening and we met up with them for awhile before, tired from our lack of sleep the night before, we called it an early night.

I was still tired the next morning when we woke up at 7 AM to go pick up our rental bikes and catch the 8 AM bus up to Garganta Del Diablo, in the heart of the red rock scenery we’d passed through the day before. But we did it anyway, planning to bike back to town from the 45km mark in about 4 hours (it was supposed to be downhill most of the way) in time to get a quick lunch, pack our bags, and catch the 2 PM bus to Tucuman where we could catch our various busses to Cordoba (me) and Iguazu (Mathieu) when we arrived at 9 PM. The bike ride was fantastic and passed some incredible scenery but it was neither predominantly downhill nor fast: the wind was blowing against us at probably 30-40 km/h and making life very difficult. We pressed on for over three hours, stopping to enjoy the views as needed and do small walks into the devil’s throat, the amphitheatre, and so on, but there was no way we could make it back by two. We started hitchhiking/biking around noon and at 12:30 we got a ride in the back of a pickup truck into town. With some running around, we managed to just catch the 2 PM bus and head to Tucuman, which was a ride through pretty much every ecosystem on the planet from desert to cloud forest to soaring mountains to jungle to plains. It arrived shockingly early in spite of a late departure and a trip seemingly circumnavigating the earth. However, Mathieu was (contrary to our information) unable to catch a night bus and had to stay the night in Tucuman whereas I caught the 10:30 bus to Cordoba.

Salta and Cafeyette Photos

The Salt Plains of Uyuni

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The bus left at 8:30 in the morning for the nine (read: ten and a half) hour trip to Uyuni, gateway to Bolivia’s legendary 4200m Salar de Uyuni salt flats. En route we passed through Potosi, the world’s highest city and somewhere that with more time I would have spent a day at to visit the silver mine that almost single-handedly financed Spain’s colonial aspirations. There’s not much silver there anymore but miners still endure terrible conditions (it’s expected that within ten years, miners will develop lung disease). Worse, that means that most miners don’t live much into their 30s. But this bitter taste of reality was not to be and I arrived in Uyuni, found a hostel across the street from the bus terminal for 25 bolivianos, and shopped around for tour prices. There are one day, three day, and four day tours which generally cost 150 Bs ($21), 560 Bs ($80), and 800 Bs ($115) respectively. The one day takes you to the train cemetery and into the salt flats then back again; the three day adds an overnight stay in a hotel made of salt (really), a visit to Isla de Pescado, Laguna Verde/Colorado on the Argentine/Chilean border, and a stop in the thermal baths on the way back to Uyuni; the fourth simply adds a climb up a volcano overlooking the salt flats which, probably, would have fantastic views. I wanted to find a way to not loop back to Uyuni and continue on to Argentina but unfortunately this is a very expensive option. Those wishing to continue into Chile, however, can do so quite easily. I opted for the three day trip and got an early sleep to book my trip in the morning, visit the bank, reserve a seat on the train out of here, and run a few errands like buying a blanket for the cold, cold salt flats.

So I woke up at 6:30 AM, packed up my bags, and was out at 7 to beat the morning lines. The ATM was working and I got my money and booked my trip with Sumaj Jallpha for 560 including the sleeping bag (usually an extra 40 Bs and highly recommended). I had found cheaper for 500 or 520 with the sleeping bag but decided to go with the more pricey company because they had some good sounding recommendations and good friendly staff. Ironically it didn’t matter at all as the company that had given me the good price didn’t have enough for their jeep and wound up basically taking me anyway, except at an extra 40 Bs. So my advice is that, since they share anyway, just take a low priced one and go for it. We did have good food though never quite enough and our driver, Roman, didn’t speak English and was always rushing us for no good reason, so maybe better advice is just to go with someone else. In any case, aside from being rushed (I generally ignored his “Vamos chicos!” calls anyway) the tour was fine and most importantly we had a really cool group. There was a 19-year old Dutch guy named Rutger who was friendly and very talkative, and then four people living in Bolivia working for British Gas (BG). One guy was an electrical engineer from Tunisia (Amin), two were Bolivians (Juan Pablo and Paula) from Sucre/Santa Cruz, and the fourth was an Argentinian engineer named Vanina. They were hilarious and we had such a great time.


The first day was unquestionably the best. After a brief stop in the train cemetery just outside of town we took off for the Salar de Uyuni. Imagine 12000 square kilometres of salt, white and shining in the sun. At its deepest point, the salar goes down 12m and, yes, is pure salt. There was a sea here once, and a lake after that, and all the salt was left behind as the water evaporated. Just outside the salt flats is a small town with handicrafts and items made of salt – dice, jugs, and miniature llamas most prominent among them. Inside, after stopping at some salt mounds and bubbling ponds, our first visit was a salt hotel-turned-museum. Salt and water baked in the oven make bricks which are formed into the building, beds, tables, and chairs. Stopping here was somewhat pointless as our destination that night was a hotel exactly like this one. The next stop, Fish Island, was much more interesting. In the middle of a parched white sea of salty hexagons is an old island of dead coral, cacti, volcanic rock, and beautiful views of the surreal countryside. Our guide, as I said, was rushing us EVERYwhere, claiming that we would lose our spots in the salt hotel if we didn’t get there soon enough. We called his bluff and said we were fine staying in a real hotel and bought ourselves time to take a bunch of stereotypical salt-flats photos: being cooked in a pot, eaten on a spoon, squishing the jeep, and so on. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. Then off to the hotel where we witnessed a beautiful sunset and slept pretty soundly – except that with every breath you could taste the salt you were breathing in.


We began the second day with a walk to the nearby indigenous museum which was 15 Bs but also included entrance to the nearby funerary towers which housed remarkably well-preserved (thanks to the salt) and eery mummies in the fetal position, sometimes with tools or ceramics to help them in the afterlife. Much to Amin’s delight, we later past a few wandering herds of llamas – the man is obsessed but we did get some cool photos. The area is mostly desert and so anything breaking the sandy homogeny was a spectacle. Even a tree would draw attention. In this case, the next big stop was a tree, but one of stone and we certainly stopped. Aside from the rock tree there were pillars of rock all over and we did a bit of playing and climbing in them before the familiar “Vamos, vamos!” called us all back to the jeep. We passed a couple lakes, one of which hosted our lunch, and then entered the national park for Laguna Colorado. This is nothing more than a government money-grab and the price went up a few weeks ago from 30 Bs to 150 Bs (unless you are a Bolivian) which we grudgingly paid and moved on. Laguna Colorado is so named because the minerals in the water give it a salmon-red reflection when the wind stirs up the lake and we got some nice views of the red water and a shocking number of dead flamingos that weren’t quite up to the flight out to lower altitudes. The night was passed with a shocking number of wine bottles, shouting “Kampay!” with the Japanese tourist, and visiting with other groups sharing the hotel with us. The temperature there was cold and often gets down to -20 although with the cloud cover we were lucky to have it stay north of -10.


Morning started early with a 5:15 AM wake up call, a few pancakes, and fumbling in the dark. We were at 4600m and it was hard to get out of our warm beds but we managed it and were in the jeep by 6. The first stop this morning was some geysers shooting out steam and the plan was to get there while it was still cold and the steam was really pronounced. Pits of bubbling mud and steam at 200 degrees Celsius made this an interesting way to fumble around half-tired and we were all wide awake and tasting rotten eggs from the sulphur by the time we got back to the jeep to continue our final day. The next stop was meant to be some thermal baths but instead we went to Laguna Verde at the tri-border of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia first to let the day warm and the crowds disperse. We passed some beautiful mountains of red, white, yellow, and orange on the way and the lake itself lived up to its name. The thermal waters were empty when we got back and we quite enjoyed having it to ourselves – in spite of the chilly wind all of us save Paula got in and the water at 35 degrees was quite nice indeed. We were on our way back to Uyuni and passed Laguna Colorado again (which was nicer than yesterday) and another set of rock pillars before returning to Uyuni at 5 PM. The BG guys had to take off after a quick pizza and Rutger and I sat with them before moving on to our own excellent pizza at Minutemen, which is a must if you make it here. I had a train at 2:30 AM for Villazon at the Argentina border and beyond and probably the best reason for using the agency I did was that the very friendly Argentines in the office kept it open for us to wait for the train.

Salar de Uyuni Photos

Sucre is Sweet

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My bus with Cochabamba Lines to Sucre was probably one of the most comfortable bus sleeps I've ever had: maybe I'm just getting used to it? The seats reclined more than any other bus I've been on aside from the first one into Peru, the blanket was warm, and I woke 40 minutes before coming into Sucre feeling refreshed and glad to be arriving in a new place. The first step, as always, is finding a place to hang my backpack. After some walking around using the Lonely Planet as a starting point I found a great place to stay for only 30 Bolivianos per night. Residencial Ciudad Blanca, so named because all the whitewash in Sucre has given it that nickname, has a nice little courtyard around a blossoming tree, hot water showers, and private rooms. I liked the city almost instantly and decided as quickly that my neglected Spanish studies - one of my goals for the trip was to learn Spanish - were going to receive a five day refresher as well. I found a school called Fox which I can't recommend in itself but with a teacher that I certainly can named Abi with private classes for 40 Bolivianos (less than $6) per hour and she didn't mind teaching on weekends which sold me. Entirely by accident, I stumbled on Ty's hostel in my roaming of the city, Amigos, which cost the same as mine but for a dorm bed - always a good option if you arrive alone. Ty was looking for Spanish classes and a volunteer position for a month and likewise had success with the very friendly director at Fenix Spanish School who also hooked him up with an awesome apartment. I'd say by lunch Sucre had always ingratiated itself permanently into my good books.

Walking around we came upon one of my favourite parts of Sucre: the market! Conveniently located about half a block from my hostel, Ty and I split half a watermelon and chatted with a fruit vendor before sitting down to some fresh fruit juice - two glasses with no water, ice, or milk for less than a dollar. Without fail I was there every morning and tried grape juice (with water), mango-coconut with milk, apple, carrot-apple, a blend of fruits and veggies, and a fruit salad with yogurt and chocolate. Sometimes I'd read the newspaper, sometimes I'd chat with whichever local sat next to me, and sometimes I'd just sit there watching people in the market. If you go often enough and find a juice lady you really like you end up with her being your casera, your go-to-lady and many of the caseras know exactly what their customers have as they walk up with a warm "Buenos dias, casera!". Of course the market also has plenty of meat, nuts, veggies, and upstairs a bunch of small restaurants though I didn't partake in the latter after my recent food poisoning. But there were plenty of good restaurant options available and I can say confidently that I didn't have a single bad meal here in Sucre. We somehow managed to try most of the local dishes without realizing which I'd like to chalk up as an advantage of an adventurous spirit (or at least stomach). Falso conejo (fake rabbit which is actually just pulverized beef breaded and served in a spicy aji sauce) was one such delish-dish; another was seite lunares or literally "Seven beauty marks" which is homemade spicy sausage on a bun with lettuce and tomato; still another was a mix of sausage, beef, and chicken with potatoes and vegetables that was half stirfry and half stew. We found favourite restaurants everywhere we went and even the street food here is varied and good. I've never seen little pizza ovens on wheels but the pizza lady was at the corner across from my hostel every night beside an Argentinan with 'lomito' which literally means little roast (beef) though there was nothing roasted about the sandwiches he was making with egg, beef, salsas and spices.

There are plenty of hikes to do around Sucre but I didn't bother, to be honest. Part of what makes being in Sucre so enjoyable is that I can hang up my tourist hat for a few days, though I did exercise the new camera somewhat. Still, for completeness, there are a few nearby inca roads and a crater that is supposed to be worth hiking up. As well, nearby Tarabuco has some pretty good markets on Sundays full of woven goods but I stocked up in La Paz so I also gave that a skip. This area has a lot of dinosaur remains and one touristy thing I did do was to head to a cement foundry. That's right. They discovered some dinosaur prints while excavating, except raised into a steep slope by tectonic forces and preserved as a result of the minerals in the water when the sea drained from South America as it collided with the pacific plate and was pushed up. They've built a museum around it which was okay for a morning with nothing more interesting to do and I have to admit I was enthralled with the life sized titanosaurus (AKA brontosaurus) although the footprints were too far away to be very interesting. There IS yet another hike that you can do which takes you past some much more interesting looking carnivore prints but I didn't get there either. In spite of the fact that I was pretty regularly busy it was a time to recharge the batteries.

The days here are warm (if the sun is out) and the nights range from chilly to cold. Even so, nights here on the weekends were lively and full of locals and tourists alike milling around what has to be one of the nicest plazas in South America, 25 de Mayo. Ty brought out an Aussie friend from his hostel and three Bolivian girls they somehow met (I think while having their shoes shined by the sad number of children wandering around with polish and a little stool) and we had a great time that weekend. Classes with Abi were great, too. She's a really bubbly and intelligent 26-year old and we had great chats about politics and all sorts of topics while practicing Spanish and over pizza after class. Better still, I have, at long last, managed to get a lot better with the past tense, learn to use the imperative, and unraveled the mysteries of the subjunctive. She also gave me some tips on things to see and do in Sucre and as a result I had a great lunch at El Patio sitting with a retired math teacher eating their famous saltenas. Otherwise, Sucre was day-to-day pleasant but with no real stories. I'd study in the mornings and afternoons, either at the desk in my room or in the courtyard as the weather dictated. Classes were from 2-6 and afterwards I'd usually go back, do some studying, head out for dinner or sometimes get some food to go and come back to eat while I watched a movie on my laptop. Nueve Reignas (Nine Queens) was a really enjoyable Argentinian movie although I have to admit that I saw the end coming in spite of the twists. Finally, I got some details sorted out for John's bachelor party (and then unsorted), and have a tentative plan for getting myself home though unfortunately flight prices rise faster than the flights themselves and while I had found a flight for $730 to Saskatoon a week ago I now can't find anything less than $1000. Hopefully I'll have this sorted out very very soon but there are still one too many balls in the air for this summer. Better them than me!

Sucre Photos