Saturday, January 16, 2010

Northern Argentina

Across the Border:

Arriving in the northern Argentine town of Salta after two months of being in Bolivia was like coming back into the city after an extended period of camping. The lights and buildings were overwhelming - things like traffic lights and the obeying of such traffic rules struck me as odd. I certainly did not expect to feel such a culture shock moving from one South American country to the next. The bathrooms were the biggest shock. They not only had seats, but toilet paper and soap! and sometimes a hand dryer! The buses even had bathrooms on them... no more excruciating waiting until the next stop, or yelling at the bus driver in the middle of the night to pull over. I felt spoiled to have such luxuries on the bus.

Salta was cloudy and the days were warm and damp, with tepid rain in the evenings. The clouds broke only when you left the city limits and drove into the countryside. Then the sun shone brightly over the fields and fields of verdant tobacco plants, and the rust red mountains and warped rock formations.

I do not recommend the wine tours out of Salta. We spent only about a half hour actually in the winery - the rest of the time was just driving around or wandering through markets in small towns (which, there's nothing wrong with... unless you were expected to go on a wine tour). And the wine we were given to sample was terrible. And that's not even being a wine snob... these wines were physically painful to swallow. The wine tours in Mendoza, sadly, are the same deal. Both regions make good wine - Mendoza moreso than Salta, but they serve the leftover junk/vinegar on the tours for some reason.

I had my first Argentine steak in Salta - and I'm glad to say that it lived up to its reputation. I've never eaten so much red meat in my life as I have in Argentina. Even if I wanted to, I couldnt escape it: every restaurant is just dripping in carne. Even the salad bar has meat in it. A friend of mine ordered a salad, and was served a meat salad with tuna juice as dressing. Thankfully, Argentineans know a thing or two about the cooking of meat, so I've been eating very well.

My travel companion of the last 3 months, Yuval, and I had split up in Bolivia and traveled to Argentina independently. In Salta, two weeks later, I ran into him randomly on the street and so we decided to continue traveling together. I was incredibly pleased to have my travel buddy back - we travel well together, and he motivates me to do things I never would on my own (more on that topic later).

He and I left Salta for another large city a few hours south called Tucuman, which was similar to Salta, but I enjoyed it more. It was sunnier and the parks and plazas nicer. Every morning we drank the first palatable coffee since before the severe draught of decent coffee in Bolivia, and every afternoon sated ourselves with ice cream. Argentina, if anything, has been a decadent gastronomical experience.

From Tucuman we rented a car - an adorable Brasilian-made Corsa - and went on a four day road trip through Northwest Argentina, armed only with a map and lots of snacks.

Day One:
Tucuman to Familia - the empanada capital of Argentina. Every year they have a contest to see which restaurant makes the best empanada. And every restaurant has large signs displaying which year their empanadas won. The town itself was not particularly hospitable. I asked for directions at a Butcher's, and the man slicing through a giant piece of raw meat with a horrifyingly large butcher knife looked at me with utter disdain and directed me out of town. We went to the winners of 2006, got a giant bagful of empanadas and made a hasty escape. By the end of the day the word empanada made me feel nauseous and neither of us touched the stuffed pastry for a while afterwards.

From there we drove through a mountain pass draped in wild rainforest. The clouds hung low over the peaks and shrouded the mountains in mist, creating beautifully eerie scenery - the perfect backdrop to South American folklore. We stopped by a waterfall and a road side shrine to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). At these shrines, which are many along South American roads, travelers offer her coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to ensure safe passage.
Once we were through the mountains, the rainforest abruptly dropped away and was replaced with wide expanses of bright green fields dotted with hundreds of cacti. As we approached our next destination - the Valle de Tafi - a dense fog descended on us. It was a complete white out, we could barely see two feet in front of us. As if on cue, as soon as we drove into Tafi, the fog disappeared and revealed a gorgeous valley with a large reservoir. There were a few museums tucked away in the valley, but each one was closed - either because they had closed early or had decided not to open at all. The one "museum" that was open was hardly a museum at all.

The signage had directed us to a house with a small hut made of stone in the back yard. We knocked on the door and a glassy eyed man who looked just like Benicio del Toro in one of his scummier roles. He had only three buttons on his shirt done up and they were all straining hard against his protruding pot belly. In slurred castillean Spanish (Argentine Spanish), he called another man to bring us into the "musuem". We could hear shouting inside the house as the other, smaller but no less drunk man directed us into the stone hut. Once inside, there was a stone staircase hugging the circular wall and descending into a dark pit. On the surrounding ledge there were small artifacts and photographs of the hut's construction. On the dirt floor there was another, smaller hole meant for sacrifices. We thanked our guide and got back into the car.

We drove further north towards the connection with Ruta 40 - the infamous highway the runs the length of Argentina and gained notoriety via Che Guevara's famous motorcycle trip. We stopped at the Quilmes ruins - a pre inca civilizaton and one of the few ruins that Argentina has. It was closed for the day when we arrived, but they let us in anyways, so we had the ruins to ourselves. The area was studded with large, looming cacti and black crow-like birds circled and cawed overhead, like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

We spent the night in a small town called Santa Maria just off Ruta 40.

Day 2:

We left Santa Maria and drove forever on Ruta 40 through an endless, arrid desert. It was here I gained an appreciation for air conditioning. And also for our brave little Corsa. The road was unpaved, rocky and twisted, and slippery with dust. The most impressive feat was the Corsa making it through a large lake covering the road.

We passed through a few small towns, Belen, Londres, La Rioja, and finally stopped for the night in larger Catamarca. Being too exhausted to find anything better, we stayed in a horrid little hole of a hostel with a horridly grumpy owner who Yuval did not get on with at all.

Day 3:

After a breakfast of wonderful Argentine pastries, we were on the road again, on our way to a town known for its thermal hot springs called Rio Hondo. Being that it was over 30 degrees outside, the hot springs weren't particular popular at the time. All 170 hotels in the small town were closed for the off-season. We had to convince a hostel to clean a room for us. We stayed around the town for most of the day, meandering around and taking it easy. I had my first manual driving lesson (and did pretty decently, I might add!). The lady at the tourism office completed Yuval on his castilleano and asked if we were from Buenos Aires. Very complimentary but absurd seeing as how she spoke for 20 minutes while we smiled and nodded, understanding maybe 10% of what she said. Castilleano is much different from the Spanish spoken in Bolivia. But even though our understanding faltered until we got used to the new dialect, the Argentineans were spectactularly hospitable and helpful.

Day 4:

We made our way back to Tucuman via a National Park in the jungles, and a little reluctantly returned our corsa and resumed carrying our lives on our backs.

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