Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Westward ho!!


Dearly missed friends and family, Another 2 or 3(?) weeks fly by and the story continues... After Rosario, we began our westward trip to the Andes. Along the way, we stopped in Córdoba, which is in the center of Argentina and is surrounded by the central sierras. This is the second largest city in Argentina with an approximate population of 1,300,000 (barely beating Rosario), and reminds me the most of Spain. The surrounding hills are brown, rocky and 'Granada-like' and the old city center is compact and easy to navigate by foot, with pedestrian streets for shopping, park plazas, and blocks of historical colonial and ecclesiastical architecture. My impression is that the Cordobese are very intellectual and devoutly religious - Perhaps, I think this because of the abundance of colegios and catedrals. It is hard to walk down a street that does NOT have a church with people popping in and out for a prayer, or to miss the many nuns shuffling down cobble-stoned alleys. There are also gangs of students in uniform gathered in plazas, sitting under palm trees or reading books on benches. The central Plaza San Martin was hosting its annual book fair, and Dan and I think that we saw more people reading in buses, at tables, etc., than we have seen in awhile. Our personal culinary favorite of this region was the criolla empanadas...ahhh, the best in all of Argentina. They are small dough pastries filled with spiced beef, chopped green olives, onions and hard boiled eggs, and are juicy and scrumptious!

Next stop-
Mendoza is a charming eastern city with big graceful sycamores perfectly lining every street, and several shady plazas where you can rest, people watch, or shop for artesan crafts. Backed by the snow-capped Andes, surrounded by wine country, and relatively close to some excellent skiing, its' location couldn't be better. On beautiful sunny days, the people of Mendoza are drawn to the outdoors. Many can be found in the Parque General San Martin, a Golden Gate-like park full of picnickers, Sunday joggers, soccer games, tennis matches, mate-sipping friends, and lip-smacking couples. Our first day, we visited a few Maipu wineries and ended up spending a whole $4 on 3 bottles of wine!!! This IS the life.

Sunday, the worst day to do anything but eat, sleep, and catch up on internet detail, is a hopeless day to try and get the feel for any South American city. Assuming that this would be a day better spent viewing natural Andean wonders, Dan and I booked a tour through the Alta montañas to the Chilean border. We drove along the Paso de los Libertadores, through Uspallata, the place where 'Seven Years in Tibet' was filmed, and stopped at various historical points where General San Martins' army had passed enroute to liberate Chile from Spain's rule in the South American war of independence. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the Western Hemisphere's highest mountain - Cerro Aconcagua, but the higher we climbed, the faster the weather changed. By the time we reached Penitentes (a ski resort), the sky was all white and snow was a-dumpin'. The pass to Chile was quickly closed due to the inclement weather, and we were only able to make it as far as Puente del Inca, a natural bridge formed by sulfuric sediment from nearby thermal waters. The next day, Dan and I had booked a package to Las Leñas, a ski resort 6 hours South of Mendoza. Here we were, in the midst of premium powder, and we had to leave it! Dan inquired whether it was snowing in Las Leñas too, and was told that Los Penitentes was the only area getting this 'storm'. Absolute bummer! He was stressing about our possible poor timing the whole drive back to Mendoza. Along the way, we passed an outrageously long back-up of freighter trucks, who couldn't get their load to Chile... the winter dilemma.
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The tale of the missing Powpow,

We were not going to leave South America without at least one day on the slopes, so I worked some magic and managed to convince Sarah we needed five. Las Leñas is a world reknowned resort where the wealthy, pretty, and famous come to party, parade and occasionally ski. We decided to crash their get-together with our rented 80's outfits and thrashed equipment. We managed to find a place available 17Km down the road from the resort, called Hualum. Our package would include transportation to/from Mendoza to Hualum(6 hrs by bus), 5 days full access ski passes, all meals, and transfers to and from Hualum to Las Lenas (20 min by Micro-bus). We had to rent jackets, pants, gloves, equipment (ski/snowboard) and boots. The grand total equaled about 42Usd per day/per person or about as much as a lift ticket back in the U.S.

After getting teased with the fresh snow in the local hills. I checked the weather websites to get the forecast for Las Leñas. Weather.com predicted a 10% chance of precipitation. This was not what I wanted to hear. I made a desperate search for a positive weather forecast (one which would give a 98% chance for fresh snow). I checked every single weather related site in search of that rogue storm altering it's course for Las Leñas....10% turned out to be a generous estimate. Somehow, we managed to get all of our junk to the bus station and traveled 6 hours until we reached what looked like a large bunker erected in the desert. There was absolutely no snow on the ground and unfortunately a dilapidated sign confirmed this was where we were supposed to be. The conducter yelled out "HUALUM!" as the pretty people stared out the windows at our dismal resort with an "I'm glad we aren't staying there" look on their faces. Our paraphernalia was dumped on the side of the road and we watched silently as the bus rumbled up and around the bend heading towards Pretty-Powder-Partyland. We chuckled and decided to make the best of it. The interior of Hualum was actually decorated quite nice for 1974, and our room had the requisite wood paneling (neccessary for any great ski trip) and piping hot water (Which is about all I needed plus some snow). That first afternoon, we got up to the valley as quick as we could, found the snow and had a beautiful spring day session. The food and staff at Hualum turned out to be as nice as the green carpeting, ultimately, nothing a $1.50 bottle of wine couldn't fix. The first night, I looked through the window a total of 6 times before I fell asleep, straining to see anything resembling flakes. It was at 7:23am when I awoke to a morning glory! It seemed a rogue storm did manage to beat the 10%, chase us down, and drop over a foot of snow!!! POW POW GALORE! Shortly after my sighting, Sarah awoke and was treated to my rendition of the "I've got a Golden ticket" song and dance from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

When I finally got down off the furniture, we caught the first Micro to Las Lenas and had truly epic powder. On the third day we woke to a cloudless dazzling azure sky. It snowed another 3 inches for our last day and we made fresh tracks all morning. The last run of the trip, I managed to get up the famous Marte lift, drop in past the PELIGRO skull and cross-bones sign and into my first truly out-of-bounds chute.(called off-piste in Argentina. Las Leñas is famous for their out-of-bounds options) Since our knucklehead travel agent(you can never trust them!eugh?) didn't book our return trip, we were left on another road flagging down the next bus back to Mendoza. At that point, I could have walked all the way back to the city, giggling the whole way from playing in all that pow pow!
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It is now September 18th, and we are actually Northward ho! Errand day in Tucuman.

After Las Leñas and another short pitstop in Mendoza, then San Juan, we made it to our next destination, the Fertile Valley. In San Agustín, Dan and I organized an excursion to visit two national parks - Ischigualasto, otherwise known as Valle de la Luna, and Parque Nacional Talampaya. Visiting these two obscure parks is a little difficult, because there is no public transportation, and exploration of each park requires you to have a vehicle. We spent a night and day, pricing out drivers, and searching for any other tourists that might join us on the excursion and help us cut the costs. Gringo prices can sting, and some of the drivers seemed a little too slimy. Eventually, we met 2 Chilean chicos, Juan Pablo and Andy, who shared the cost of a car and driver with us. We ended up having a fantastic day in the desert. At Talampaya, we went on a 2 hour guided truck tour of the terracotta red, arid canyons, similar to Southern Utah's National park terrain. We hiked short trails to see rock petroglyphs and stone mortars. These mortars were used by indigenous indians for religious rituals. They would crush a certain type of cactus in them, and then drink the liquid to experience hallucinations.(safer then licking them..dg) Another stop was at the Chimenea del Eco, a halfpipe in the face of the cliff that is a natural echo chamber and bounces sounds at least 3 times through the canyon. In addition, we walked a nature trail which was representative of the canyons' flora and showcased various medicinal plants, and ended our tour at the Canyon of Cliffs.

Valle de La Luna, a little over an hours drive from Talampaya is a completely different landscape consisting of volcanic ash, monochrome clay and red sandstone. Parts of it reminded me of Zion Park in Utah, but with a lot less vegetation (mainly cactus, shrubs, a few succulents and algarrobo trees). This park is the home to a wealth of fossils and dinosaurs, including the oldest ever discovered predatory dinosaur, the Eorapter Lunensis. At the park entrance, we met 3 polish guys, who were travelling around South America in a tractor, on a big sponsored expedition. The tractor happened to be in Patquia, while they completed overland paperwork, but the 3 members of the team had taken their jumbo truck to go camp and explore the parks while they waited out the time. These guys invited us to join them and take the 3 hour park tour atop the roof of their truck. Needless to say, we had fantastic views, and got a good chuckle watching these guys work on videotaping and photographing the park. They had to keep changing their t-shirts, which had various names of their sponsors, to pose for different commercial photographs, and included bilingual Andy in some of their video footage about the park. If you want to check out their website, go to - http://traktoriada.icpnet.pl
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Well, we're hoping to make it to Bolivia in 2 weeks. We will keep you posted. All of our photos are now updated, including the entire lot of Paraguay shots. Please check out http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/etow and http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/laslan and http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/parks (...now over 1400 photos)

much love,
Sarah and Señor Powpow

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