Monday, September 30, 2002

Northern Argentina - Part 2


Hello Again!

Part 2 - Northern Argentina
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Salta, known as the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city, has its' share of convents, cathedrals and historical museums. It is also the most popular stop for visitors to Northern Argentina due to its proximity to the Quebradas, and unlimited tour agencies ready to whisk you off on a whirlwind excursion. Gringos galore! When we arrived at the bus station, our backpacks and my cargo pants immediately tagged us as tourists (Go figure), and we were hawked by at least 5 guys touting their hostels. We ended up going to Aldea Hostal because their representative was providing free transport, and we could have a private room with shower for less than $5(?!%).

Are we backpackers? Here we were, foreigners rubbing elbows with other foreigners, and we felt strangely out of place. The windowless cell we had checked into - the bargain of the century, was not what I was prepared to deal with. Are we not backpackers anymore, or am I just getting old? There is always a bundle of information to be had at these places, including the cheapest place to buy pizza or which bar all the gringos hang out at. Mostly, everyone wants to know where you have been, where you are going, and how long you have been traveling for. Sooooo, the next morning, we checked into a small hotel for $12 a night. I do have to say that this was my choice. I think Dan is a little more prepared to rough it, but I can't help wanting a clean bed that doesn't turn into a taco when you lie in it. (what can I say I love tacos!-dg)

Our new digs were located next to the teleférico (gondola), which takes you to the top of Cerro San Bernardo, for excellent views of the city. We hiked back down, and took a bus to the outlying neighborhood of San Lorenzo. This was a beautiful place, less than a half hour from the city center, where the wealthy live in big ranches with horses and dogs for pets. We rented quads (similar to ATC's, but with 4 wheels), and went on a dirt road tour through farmland, by gorgeous homes, over dry washes and down rocky trails.

Knowing that our time in Argentina was close to its' end and Bolivian llama and chicken parts were looming ahead of us, we were determined to enjoy steak as frequently as possible. In Salta, we had a fantastic meal of champagne apperitifs, wine, sparkling water, fresh bread with a black bean dip, mixed green salad with ripe tomatos and palmitos, luscious steaks with peach, pineapple sauce or mushroom, pepper sauce, and creamy potatoes, for about $15. How can we return home!???? We will never be able to live this well.

Still wanting to avoid the overly touristed circuit, we decided to rent a car and explore the twisting, mountainous roads, parks and valleys on the way to Cachi. We had an amazing day. Cachi, a small village in the Valles Calchaquies, is surrounded by scenic farmland divided by Alamos, and reddish mountains. The town itself is peaceful, cobblestoned and whitewashed, with touches of cardón (cactus) wood in the architecture. The drive between here and Salta is a stop and go journey, with numerous photo opportunities. The dry desert parque Nacional Los Cordones is a forest of candelabra cacti and undulating pink hills and terracotta rock formations. A little further past the park and near the shadows of the Cuesta de Obispo, Dan found a side road that took us to the 'Enchanted Valley'. Rich, red, rounded hills that had been carved out by an ancient lagoon, were covered by green grass, and were the perfect grazing place for sheep and goats. We went on a hiking exploration, climbing boulders, and probing into caves. Dan found shell fossils, and what we believe were ancient pottery pieces and an arrowhead.

The next day, we forged deeper into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, stopping in San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of the region, for an awesome vegan lunch (much needed after our overload on carne). On to Tilcara, my favorite stop in all of the North. Our stay was definitely special because of the Malka hostal and the nice people we met here. Malka Hostal is an uphill trek from the bus station, through a tiny (pop. 3300), colonial, dirt road town in Quechua territory. The owners are originally from Buenos Aires, and they have created a hillside oasis in the splendor of the Rio Grande valley. The hostal is divided into mini-bungalos with private rooms, kitchens and common lounging space. We had a fantastic front porch with views of the distant mountain range and bright yellow flowering bushes. On our first night, we met Rod from Australia, Sheena from Ireland, and Jose from Spain. This was our first time socializing with english-speaking travelers in a long time. We shared a meal and went for drinks at the local peña - El Farolito. The next day, we took public buses to the tiny village of Purmamarca, where we hiked through dry riverbeds, and around the Hill of Seven Colors (black to red sediment). On our way back to Tilcara we made another stop in Maimará and hiked to the hillside cemetery, with views of the massive mountains known as the Painter's Palette.

The night before, we had met an Argentine couple from Buenos Aires, Cecelia and Memo, who were on their week long vacation. They invited us to join them in an Asado, and organized all of the shopping and grill preparation. Dan joined the boys (Memo, Jose, the locals 'bikeman', and Chachiman), for some lessons in Argentine BBQ, while Cecilia and I made lettuce, carrot and potato salads. We had a phenomenal feast with some of the best chorizo sandwiches and meat that I have ever had. The trick is to take the asado beef (a distant relative of ribs with more meat and less bone), patiently rub salt in, and sprinkle with lemon, then grill over carbon (a purer version than the charcoal found in the supermarkets back home). We listened to music and got tipsy on wine mixed with coca cola. By midnight, the boys were rearing to go, while Cecelia and I were wiped out. Here begins Dan's 'anti' adventure:

Us hombres were just getting warmed up when we finished the meal at midnight. It turned out that tonight was going to be rather special in Tilcara. The self proclaimed number 1 Cumbria band (Pibes Chorros) from Buenos Aires was making a rare circuit thru the North and would end up playing in three different towns/pueblos before the night was over. Tilcara was to be the last stop so we decided to stop off at the local Peña before the Concert. We meandered in and ordered the drink of the evening Coca-Cola and wine.(It becomes important to differenciate Coca-Cola from coke, which in these parts refers not to soda or powdery subtances but to pure Coca leaves.) Coca leaves are technically illegal, but the Argentine government tolerates the use of Coca leaves by the indigenous(and tourists for that matter)in the far north. Halfway through the bottle of wine, Bikeman passed around the coke. The leaves were small, green, and had a faint smell similar to cat pee. I got a quick lesson and shoved the wad of leaves between my gums and cheek. Shortly after, I began to sweat, I thought my feet were my hands, I heard all the colors of the room and this huge Condor landed on my head....not really Mom, I was too buzzed from the soda-wine to tell any effects. At 2AM we decided to head to the show with our mouths full of shrubbery. The show was held at the local indoor soccer shed(which resembled a large garage used for painting cars). Everyone in town (25yrs and under) was there in good spirits. We switched to beers, which were served in 2 liter soda bottles with the top cut off and waited for the band...which still hadn't arrived. It wasn't until 5:30AM that the crowd got a little rowdy. Bottles were thrown and the kids began to shout. I soon realized I was alone with the locals. Memo and Jose had long since retired. At 6:10, the band arrived and the thinned out crowd proceeded to dance. I stuck it out for exactly 2 songs, and luckily had some morning light to find my way back to the hostal.
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While Dan slept off his hangover, ears still buzzing with horse music, I visited the local archeological museum, which housed an amazingly intact mummy from the San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, along with a rich collection of pottery, ancient weapons, and contemporary masks. In the afternoon, Cecelia and Memo joined us for a hike to El Pucara, a reconstructed pre-Columbian fortification, much like the Quilmas ruins. We lazed around the village, and ended up preparing another BBQ that night. Even though we were very comfortable in Tilcara, and really enjoyed the company of our new friends, we were getting anxious to see Bolivia, so we left the next morning, to visit our final Argentine city, Humahuaca. This is probably the most popular city to visit in the Quebrada (thus named), and was a little less provincial than Tilcara. Despite its bigger flow of tourists, we ended up being the only travelers staying at the Portillo hostal. We were able to organize an afternoon horse riding trip in a matter of minutes, and met our guide, Carlos at his home. He took us on a 3 hour tranquilo ride through the local hills and plateaus, teaching us about his unique Humahuacan indian culture. That night, the owner of our hostal was turning 32, and had a huge birthday asado planned. More meat, just what we needed. We were kindly invited to join and hang out with his family and friends, an eclectic mix of bohemian locals. Dan was by the grill again (the testosterone zone), and got first samples of the chorizo, mollejas, matambre, and chivito (baby goat). We didn't party late this night, just a few fernets and Coca-Cola, as we had to get up before 6 in the morning to catch our bus to La Quiaca, the border town....

Dan and I have finally left Argentina. It is hard to believe. I am sitting in an internet cafe in Tupiza, Bolivia, while Dan works on the photos. This will be our last entry about a country that we thoroughly enjoyed, and is full of friends that we will sorely miss. I was prepared to dislike Argentines for their rumored arrogance and patriotism (the same traits that Americans are hated for worldwide), but I have felt incredibly welcomed by friendly and warm people. The majority of people in Argentina feel poor, due to the recent economic crisis, but what a rich land and culture they have! Thankfully, they are still proud of their country and eager to point out its merits as quickly as they are ready to accept blame for their current problems. There has to be an end to government corruption and dishonest politicians!

We have been well treated guests in a country where many people wake up to a depression and continue to hold their heads high. After 4 months exploring Argentina, a longlasting, positive impression has been made in my mind. Sadly, this would not have been a financial possibility were it not for the strength of the dollar against the peso. It is the first time in decades that this country has been affordable to the budget traveler. The quality of food, accommodations, transportation, and entertainment has been high, and worthy of much more than what we have paid.

I have faith that Argentina will pull itself out of this historical crisis - there are too many good, skilled, and smart people for this not to happen. What will be sad, is the length of time it will take to regain their economic position in the world.

We love you, Argentina!
Sarah and Daniel

check out our photos (tomorrow) at http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/narg. With the kind of slow connection we are now dealing with, it will be a LOONGG time before more photos will be posted.

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