Tuesday, December 29, 2015

South America (Argentina) - Day 36: La Quebrada De Las Conchas to Cafayate

We'd heard that the road trip from Salta to Cafayate was stunning, so we were pretty excited about hitting the tarmac and slightly relieved when Rodrigo turned up again the next morning with his English-speaking friend Sergio (half an hour late, naturally - this is Argentina time) with our new friend for the next seven days: Big Red.


It was an almost brand new Fiat Siena with just 500km on the clock which helped settle nerves about its reliability, as I had visions of us breaking down on a deserted mountain track and being pecked to death by buzzards. It also had air-con. We didn't realise how much we needed this until we set off. A lot. We needed it a lot.

The first job was getting out of Salta. This was easier said than done because the road system in the city is simply insane. You can come to a four-way junction with no traffic lights and no stop signs, and somehow you have to work out when it's OK for you to go. The locals certainly won't stop for you while you think about it, and if you wait too long you'll get angry beeps behind you. Once you get used to that, the next fun thing is buying petrol. Like Oregon, you can't pump your own petrol - you have to have an attendant do it for you and there's often only one or two milling around six or eight pumps in a busy petrol station. But when they get around to it they will also clean your windscreen for you if it's dirty, which turned out to be a blessing as it didn't take long for the car to get very, very dusty.

We found a supermarket and stocked up on essentials (cake, chocolate, sweets, the usual) and after somehow managing to leave the city, the first things we noticed were the butterflies. Hundreds of thousands of white butterflies were everywhere, flying over roads, fields and trees. It was beautiful, but also a little sad as I'm pretty sure we must have driven through or over hundreds of them, not to mention the ones that hurled themselves at our windscreen because they'd had enough of life. The white specks in the picture are just a tiny example which doesn't illustrate the sheer volume of them. Good luck growing crops here, as the caterpillars will ravage them.


We drove through a number of small towns and villages on the way south including La Merced, Osma and La Vina. Each of them had something to offer, whether it was a photogenic church, a flower-filled plaza, or an old lady selling empanadas from out of her kitchen through a hole in the wall. We found ourselves stopping whenever something caught our eye - which is the whole reason we got a car in the first place. A tour can take you places, but with your own transport you can set your own agenda and the freedom that provides is fantastic.



As we drove down route 68, the terrain started resembling something from the Old West. Red mountains, green vegetation, sandy tracks and cacti all combine to make you wish for a stetson and a horse. Well, until you get out of the car and are blasted in the face with heat. At one point we found a road that just....ended. Thankfully, it wasn't the one we were driving on. One can only speculate on how it collapsed - earthquake, maybe? I also managed to get my hat blown partway down the side of a cliff, but I bravely scaled the stony side to retrieve it whilst impaling myself on thorns. Look, I'm not saying I'm Indiana Jones. That's for other people to say.




Once we got further down route 68 on the way to Cafayate, it wasn't long before we entered La Quebrada De Las Conchas. Translated as the Gorge of the Shells, this road is stunning. Around every corner is another mirador or viewpoint of either magnificent scenery, interesting rock formations, or both. Earlier examples include the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), a name which seems to be used liberally around the country. See also: Iguacu Falls. This is a huge crevice that has been carved by the elements into the side of a mountain.




A little further down the road was the Amphitheatre, an almost circular naturally formed arena with acoustics so good that there are performances held there. A local played a pipe whilst we were there and the resulting sound was both eerie and beautiful. The rock formations are also great for optical illusions with photographs, as another local showed us.






Other highlights included the Three Crosses, the Frog, the Pinnacle and the Windows (the latter being on a very breezy plain), not to mention an entire nesting ground of parrots living in the numerous holes in the side of a hill.







The road from Salta to Cafayate is possibly the most interesting road trip I've done. There was something of interest around every corner, and the points are marked clearly with signs (in Spanish, of course) but it's obvious when there's something to see. That may be the reason why it took us almost six hours to get there rather than the 2 hours and 46 minutes Google believes it should take. That drive was almost worth the car hire alone, and we were only one day into our trip.

We got to Cafayate in the evening and checked into our hostel, La Morada, run by a genial host named Rollo. The town is a sleepy little place where dogs lay where they may, and tourism clearly exists but not to the detriment of the overall vibe. The central plaza contains a church which is beautifully lit at night, and the local restaurants have menus which may or may not be just for show. We tried to order three different things from El Hornito and were told that they didn't have them, so ended up with steak milanese and chicken, both of which were pretty good. Rounded off with a craft beer from a cerveceria on the square, I can safely say that this was the most enjoyable day we'd had in Argentina so far.




More were to come though - we had a day of wine-tasting ahead of us!

Monday, December 28, 2015

South America (Argentina) - Day 35: Salta

The hostel we booked was just over a kilometre from the bus terminal in Salta and the heat was pretty intense, so we rushed from shade to shade (well, as much as you can rush when carrying over 20kg around), grabbed water from a nearby kiosk, and finally found our way to La Covacha. We lucked out - the beds were also all singles which meant none of the disturbances you get from sharing a bunkbed, and there were no other people booked in that night either, so we ended up with a four-bed dorm all to ourselves. Result! We were pretty hungry, but we also needed to sort out a rental car for the week as we wanted to drive around the Salta region (confusingly, the city and the region are named the same). The hostel owner Diego was happy to oblige and called up a guy to come and chat to us. Rodrigo arrived about an hour and a half later, built like a tank and with arms the size of mountain cacti. He spoke little English but via the power of mime, basic Spanish and Google Translate, we managed to book in a Fiat Siena for 650 pesos a day (about £33), undercutting the local big boys Hertz and Europcar by about 300 pesos. That said, handing over 2300 pesos to a guy at a kitchen table we didn't know and who could feasibly have just run off with the cash was always going to set off alarm bells, but we trusted the hostel owner and agreed to pay the remaining half of the cash at 10am the following day.

With the admin completed we set out to explore Salta. It has an old colonial feel to a lot of it, with some beautiful architecture in and around the central plaza. The city itself has over 600,000 people so it's pretty big, but it didn't feel like overwhelming - more like a town. That may have been down to our distance from the centre though, since we were pretty close. We had a brief stop in the modern art museum to look at some interesting photos and some less interesting paintings, followed by empanadas and juice at the adjoining cafe which were both delicious and reasonably priced.







Since we didn't know what the food would be like in any of the places we were going to visit on our upcoming road trip, we decided to splash out a bit for dinner and headed to a tapas place called Bartz. We found out that turning up at 7:30pm (pretty late for English dinner) is something that Argentinians simply don't do. They generally eat at 9pm onwards, which made for a slightly surprised waitress when we walked inito the courtyard. She had to check whether the chef was actually around. Fortunately, he was.

They offered a tasting menu which we decided against after reading the reviews, and instead went for a few different dishes - squid, fried cheese with tomato and spicse, patatas bravas (possibly the best I've ever eaten), and some sort of meat thing with salad which I've forgotten but also tasted great. A bottle of white from the area helped round things off nicely.




Suitably stuffed, we wandered back to the hostel and got an early night (at least by Argentinian standards), ahead of collecting our car the next day. The first destination on our road trip: Cafayate in the south of the Salta region.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

South America (Argentina) - Day 32 - 34: Puerto Iguazú

As we said goodbye to Peter and Marit in the morning, they told us that they'd booked into the same hostel as us on the 23rd December in Buenos Aires. They would also be leaving on the 2nd January too, so we'd all get to celebrate Christmas and New Year together. Fantastic!

After that cheery news, our first few days in Argentina were ones we'd prefer to forget. When Tetris rang up the bus company, they had 20 spaces left for a bus to Salta that morning. Tossing up whether to buy the tickets through the hostel - at what we expected was an inflated price - we checked the weather, ruled out visiting the Itaipu Dam on account of an incoming storm (which it seems dissipated later with merely a splash of drizzle), and instead got on a bus to cross the border to our first stop in Argentina: Puerto Iguazú.

We'd booked a cheap hotel in the town and were planning on taking an overnight bus the following morning to Salta which would have taken an entire day and had us arrive on Monday 14th December. The crossing over the border was incredibly easy. We picked up a bus that said "Puerto Iguazu" from the stop over the road, hopped off at the crossing, got a stamp, brought in all of our bags unchecked because the guards clearly had no interest in searching through four meaty backpacks. We also brought over some snacks which were similarly ignored, including bananas. I'm pretty sure we've broken international law, but to be honest they aren't ripe yet and taste pretty grim so customs can come and collect them if they like. We then waited for another bus which took twenty minutes (the first bus doesn't hang around for everyone to get stamped over), jumped on, rode to the Argentina border, got stamped through and arrived in Puerto Iguazú about an hour after we set off. Argentina's time is an hour earlier than Brazil so we arrived well before lunch.

So far, so simple. However, things then deteriorated. We got to the bus station to find that the availability was now down to 4 seats. We had no pesos so decided to get to the Kerana Oga hostel and try and find out if they could book it for us. They spoke no English, and pointed us back in the direction of the terminal after first surprising us with a 21% VAT charge on our room rate which I'd missed in the booking.com receipt. One more thing to be aware of for this country, it seems.

We got back to the bus terminal to try and find someone who could change dollars; a tour operator told us that the taxi guys might be able to help, but the locals were wary of investing in dollars since a new president had been sworn in a day earlier who was planning on aligning dollars with a more sensible rate, so the best we could get was 12 pesos for $1. It was better than the official rate of 9.72 but far off the massive savings we were hoping for. Still, we may have better luck in Buenos Aires. We needed some luck, since between us checking in and then exchanging cash, three of the remaining seats to Salta had been sold. We were now stuck in Puerto Iguazú for at least another night. In despair, we booked the bus for the Monday, pushed our Salta accommodation back a day, then decided to go and get some food to cheer us up. The destination was Dona Maria because for some reason we thought that going to a hotel restaurant would be an excellent way to stem the flowing cash wound we'd inflicted on ourselves. We looked at the menu, tried to order something, failed to communicate completely, and ended up with half a river's worth of fish. Fortunately, it was delicious and the price, while more than a standard restaurant, wasn't bad for what we ate. Also, our new local beer was Quilmes. Not quite as good as Brahma, but not far off.



The rest of the day was spent catching up with planning and blogging. We fired off a Couchsurfing request on the off-chance that a local would be able to put us up for our extra day in the town and also give us some suggestions on places to visit while we were here, but booked another room elsewhere just in case.

The Couchsurfing turned out to be a bust, so we moved the next morning to Angiru Oga which was just around the corner. It was half the price of the other place, and whilst still not great, was more than adequate for our needs. We spotted a chap we saw in Tetris Container Hostel here too - Robert - who by a weird coincidence happened to be someone who had the same lecturer as Marit in the Netherlands. You can go halfway around the world and still run into an alumnus. The saying that it's a small world has never borne itself out more than when we are on the road. The first English person we met in Brazil was a fellow Salopian. Most people in England don't know where Shropshire is, yet you can't get away from us when we leave the country.

The weather deteriorated immediately, so we legged it back to the bus terminal and managed to track down the travel booth which I'd spotted online who bought dollars. They were offering 14 pesos to the dollar, confirming the fact that we'd been utterly ripped off yesterday. Thankfully we only changed $400 at the lower rate, so stocked up on three times that amount with this new generous exchange. Amazingly, they also bought the rest of our reais for an astounding rate too - it is almost worth running some sort of exchange train across the border to bring in reais. Almost. The amount of peso notes you get is crazy. I was feeling pretty gangster so set about spreading it on the bed, because why not. It's not like we had anything else to do.



As the rain continued to pour, we decided to head to a cafe with Robert and exchanged life stories. He was a sociology professor and worked with governments around the world to understand and try and improve the sexual health education of poorer countries. He was a very expressive person; when I asked him how much of a difference he thought the work the organisations made, the range of emotions flashing across his face ran from sadness to concern to regret. He said that he had to learn to just do the best job he could, and once his reports were handed into the various governmental bodies, forget about them. He could spend a year working with a community, and he wouldn't know if his work would end up lost in a drawer after submitting it. It sounds like bureaucracy the world over.

The evening dried up so we walked over to Aqva, a restaurant I was very much looking forward to eating at in order to banish the Argentinian blues we'd experienced thus far. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bust too. Not because the food was bad - quite the opposite. Four years ago I had a fundoplication in order to sort out an ongoing issue with indigestion. One side effect of this is that if I eat too quickly, my oesophagus gets clogged up meaning food can't get down to my stomach. Certain things exacerbate this - cold food, spicy food, salty food - but if I take it easy I can still eat anything. Unless I eat it quickly. The problem was that the food here was so good, that I wolfed a quarter of it down almost immediately. The consequences were not pleasant. Two hours later, I was still unable to finish my meal. I had to write the whole thing off.



We weren't sorry to see the back of Puerto Iguazú. It's a border town, firmly aimed at tourists; a grotty, garish, soulless place and not at all what I expect the rest of Argentina to be like. To see something else though, we first needed to get the bus to Salta. Twenty-four hours on a bus doesn't sound like fun, and it is even less fun when you take the first six hour segment, get off the bus at Posadas, then realise the new bus which you'd expected to be fully reclining (and effectively turned your seat into a bed), actually only reclined about three-quarters of the way. Essentially your body is almost flat, but your legs are hanging over the edge. Fine for sitting, not great for sleeping. We'd thankfully gone to a local burger place in between the bus change, which was one of the best decisions we'd made as the food provided on the bus was pretty awful. They provided us with a snack of dry crackers with vanilla wafers, and then at 10pm we received a tray of yellow. Yellow chicken, yellow bread, yellow condensed milk...thank goodness for the accompanying free wine and whisky chaser which helped bring a little sleep. We probably managed six hours or so, which wasn't as bad as it could have been.


We pulled in at just before 10am, completing an pretty miserable three days in Argentina. I didn't take it to heart though; I didn't expect our experience to be indicative of the country, I was just looking forward to seeing something more in line with what we'd read and we were hoping Salta would live up to it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

South America (Brazil) - Day 31: Iguaçu Falls (Argentina side)

Whilst we hadn't originally planned to hit the Argentinian side of the falls for at least a couple of days, Marit and her friend Fulya were heading there the following day on a tour. Peter had already been, so stayed behind to do some life admin. We don't mind tours, but prefer to do things ourselves when it's convenient. In this case there were two prevailing factors that prompted us to tag along (other than the company of the ladies): firstly, the weather for the following day looked like it would be as good as it could possibly get for at least a week, and secondly, the tour was only £3 more than if we'd gone it alone but with the added benefit of having a tour guide and also not having to faff around at the border with passport control, since they did all of that for you.

We decided to go for it. The problem was, we didn't have enough cash and by the time we'd booked ourselves onto the tour, the supermarket was closed along with any access to ATMs and the minibus was turning up at 8:30am the next morning. Marit was in the same boat, so I got up the next morning and the pair of us legged it over to the supermarket for the 8am opening...only to find that the standalone ATMs didn't accept our cards. This seems to be a problem with European debit cards over here - only official bank machines will let you withdraw money. Fortunately I'd planned for this eventuality and had details of a garage half a mile up the road with a Banco de Brasil machine; a few sweaty palms later, and we both had the money we needed.

The minibus there came equipped with a TV which pelted out 80s music videos for the entire length of the trip. I love the music from that decade, but the same can't be said for the videos which range from cheesy to cringeworthy, to downright weird. I don't know if Argentina has a penchant for 80s pop, or whether they think it's what tourists want, but some of the things I saw on that bus will haunt me for years.

Before the park, we stopped off at the Three Frontiers where the rivers of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina all meet. Not really worth a trip on its own given it's basically just a pillar and a view, but a nice addition to the tour.



Getting a tour was a great idea. Not only was our guide Gil knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in the area, but he also told us the best way to go around the park (and found out that the lower path was closed halfway along due to some railings collapsing...yikes). That alone saved us time, a wasted trip and disappointment, and was worth taking the tour for alone. Instead, we went along the upper path and stopped at the Two Sisters as a taster, followed by the Bossetti falls where a butterfly was very affectionate to anyone in the nearby area. There's also another walkway if you fancy getting drenched, which I did.












The sky was glorious, far nicer than the previous day, and it helped us appreciate the beauty of the falls even more. There are 275 falls in total, all of differing heights and strengths, but the best was saved to the end though, when we took a train to Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) - the same falls we'd seen the previous day, but far, far more impressive from the Argentinian side. Any thoughts I'd harboured about being underwhelmed by the whole thing were obliterated when we approached the end of the walkway and took in the sheer power of what we were facing. I've not seen anything quite like it - hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second cascading into an abyss. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Science, people!








It really was quite a special experience. There was something hypnotic about this endless barrage of water pouring into nothingness; but for the time constraints and the other tourists, I could easily have stared captivated by it for an hour.

Instead, we headed back to Tetris where the ladies and Peter whipped up a storm with some pasta whilst I got stuck into full-on stress mode about our plans for the next few days; we had decided to take a bus to Salta from Puerto Iguazu which would take us overnight and hadn't booked any accommodation or even thought about how we were getting there. Fortunately, a solid hour of focus meant that I got things sorted in time for some delicious food to be ready, and I gratefully took on washing up duties with Cody, a Canadian who was travelling with his girlfriend. With a plan settled, we headed out afterwards to Zeppelin Old Bar to listen to a band play rock covers. Whitesnake, Dio, (and others I've forgotten) all got the metal treatment. They were really, really good - especially the lead singer who sang in perfect English but switched back to Portuguese in between songs. It was surreal. The ladies bowed out gracefully at around 1am, leaving me and Peter to hold the fort down until about 3am before we gave in and hit the hay.




It was a great end to our first country, and it seemed bizarre that we'd spent over a month in Brazil. We'd barely touched it in terms of sheer land mass, yet had somehow crammed in so many fantastic memories and activities with another six months to go.

Argentina awaited!