Sunday, September 29, 2002

Hail to the North! Part 1

Buenos Dias! friends and family,

PART 1 of Northern Argentina
I just don't know where to start! Dan and I have had two of our busiest weeks yet, exploring the magnificence of Northern Argentine. This is hard to say, but I think I might like this area even better than Patagonia. It reminds me a lot of California (and Arizona, Utah, etc..), so maybe familiarity is cementing my love for this kind of topography. It is the end of winter, beginning of spring, so everything is very dry, with occasional patches of budding green. The smell of dirt, rocks, desert brush, pepper and eucalyptus trees act as a time machine, and make me feel like a dusty ten year old with scabby knees.

We started our exploration in Tucuman, a bustling city of commerce, anytime except during siesta. Here, we entered the world of funny money. Firstly, I can't believe that I haven't mentioned the tremendous problem we have had with big AND small bills in Argentina. No one ever has change for any purchase you make. The tab can be for 3.30 pesos, you'll pay with a 5, and the taxi driver, kiosk, cafe, etc. will not have cambio (change). Someone will have to go running around the corner, or accosting various customers, until change can be produced. It is a never ending nightmare, especially when ATM's only give you 50's. Anyhow, Tucuman along with all Northern provinces are suffering the most during the Argentine economic crisis. There is a serious shortage of REAL (Efectivo) currency. In an effort to maintain some semblance of commerce, many provinces have created their own money, such as Lecops, patacones, and Tucuman money. I have no idea what backs this paper currency (oil companies, debt?). As a foreigner, you should only be dealing with the 'real' Argentine peso, but it is impossible not to pick up some monopoly change along the way.

We manage to beat the heat by buying icecream as frequently as possible, and lucky for us, South American icecream is the best in the world! Most of the heladerias (icecream shops) make fresh icecream. Dan is a huge fan of any flavor with Dulce de leche. I like the alcoholic versions with rum or cabernet wine, and we both have tried every fruit combo from peach to berry.

From Tucuman, we took a steep mountain road through subtropical rain forest up to the cool heights of Tafi Del Valle, a misty hill station at 2100 meters. After an empanada break we continued our journey to the Quilmes ruins, passing through a cacti desert of greyish rocks and earth. The Quilmes indians used to live in this region from about AD 1000 to 1667, when the Spaniards deported the remaining inhabitants to Buenos Aires. They created a complex urban settlement of linked rock homes, sheltered by the peaks of a mountain side, and survived several attacks from the Incas.

Our night was spent in Cafayate, a small, charming country town of artesans and winemakers. The locals were celebrating the 'day of the students' and the first day of spring. Young school chldren were blasting their ghetto boxes in the plaza, and dancing cumbria in pairs. At night, the town hosted a parade of floats, and the plaza was full of Argentine tourists in ponchos and vendors selling cotton candy, sodas, and regional food, like tamales, locro and empanadas. The next day, we and another Argentine couple, hired a driver to take us on a tour of the nearby Quebrada de Cafayate - absolutely gorgeous colorful canyon land. Andean rivers have carved unusual landforms, such as the Castles and the Gargantua del Diablo, into the multicolored, creams, reds and chocolatey browns of the soil. At the bottom of the canyon runs a small river surrounded by green vegetation and home to the occasional cow, while the steep hillsides are barren and colored shades of bright red sandstone. In the afternoon, we rented bikes to go touring through the surrounding countryside, and to drop-in for a 'drop o' vino' in the local wineries. Dan will wholeheartedly attest to the fact that I am a lousy bike rider. I complain incessantly about the hard seat that makes my underwear climb, my back being bent forward, the steepness of slopes, and the sandiness of dirt roads. We've decided that bike trips and visits to the casino are two activities that I should avoid, and Dan can enjoy alone. :)

On a side note: Another observation Dan and I have noted is how short Argentine school girl's skirts are! These are uniforms, mind you, and most of these kids are attending private catholic schools. How is it allowed? They are either dressed in short plaid minskirts, that they appear to have grown out of, or they wear waistless smocks that barely cover the top of their thighs, and always look like they are going to become unbuttoned. Dan and I make bets as to whether they wear shorts underneath, but we can't tell! It must be impossible for these young girls to bend over without causing a traffic accident.

Northern Argentina To be continued...

much love,
Sarah and Daniel


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