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

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