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 Leñas, 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

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