Gran Chaco and Mendoza
My second visit to Argentina – this time in the north-west – started pretty awkward. It was the continuation of my “overland” trip across Latin America with a tour operator I don’t want to name. The idea is generally great. You get a group of people into a massive converted truck and you travel through some more or less exotic countries. There is a lot of storage space, kitchen equipment, tents, small fridges, drinking water supply etc. Seats might not be super comfortable, quite basic interior but it can be a great experience. The name of the tour operator remains unmentioned due to the Tour Leader from hell, however I do believe the company shouldn’t be judged by one employee.
First, we had some troubles on the border. It turned out that some nationalities need to pay an entry fee in order to get into the country. Not me luckily, but it turned out the Australians had to and one of them forgot, which meant few additional hours and some bargaining for WIFI with the border patrol. So, the Argentinian part of the trip began. Because the last shopping for food we did was in Potosí we were hoping to stop on the way and eat somewhere local. Bad luck – the only place on the highway was closed when we got there.
Late in the evening we finally got to Salta, where there were no rooms left for us because the other truck got there first (there were 2 trucks at the time covering the whole route). So, we all squeezed into 3 rooms, at least 5 of us in each one. We only had a short stop in Jujuy earlier so I wanted to see at least a bit more of Salta.
A must is the St. Bernard’s cable car. The whole hill is actually quite perfect for an afternoon outside, with plenty of green and of course there is a beautiful view over Salta. You can potentially walk down back to town as well instead of taking the cable car. After the cold and harsh weather in the Bolivian altiplano, we could finally enjoy some heat and sunshine.
In the evening we went to this apparently famous stake house. On the way I have seen some of the most amazing graffitis – you can check them out right here. The restaurant was closed when we got there so in the meantime we went to a bar called Café del Tiempo where to my surprise they were playing my favourite Argentinian rock star Gustavo Cerati. The steak house – Jack’s – turned out to be very popular and of course crowded. And yes, the stakes were amazing, one of them was so soft you could cut it with a spoon, which we did. Not to mention the Chimmie Churri sauce, only garlic and some herbs in olive oil and yet heavenly flavour.
Leaving Salta the next day was not without some trouble. The heat was hard to stand, our bus fridge broke and because we had a lot of meat for the New Year’s grill, we had to wrap it in paper until we found a place that sold ice, which wasn’t easy because of the drought.
On our way to Cafayate we stopped in the La Quebrada de las Conchas valley. It’s full of very curious rock formations, created by rivers eroding the stone that flowed there in the more humid climate past, which gave the rocks the forms you can admire today. Most of them are situated close to the Ruta 68 that connects Salta with Cafayate, so you can stop on the way and enjoy the views. There has also been a recent discovery of Camino Inca close to the highway so the area gained even more in archaeological relevance. The one formation we stopped at was El Anfiteatro, named so because of the amazing sound reverberation between the walls. If you’re lucky, like I was, you could experience the acoustics during live music performances that very often take place there. The song that greeted me when we entered was “Oración del Remanso” by Jorge Fandermole. A guy was just sitting there playing a guitar and singing. I know the song in the Mercedes Sosa version, the most unique voice in Argentinian music history.
After the magical moment in the Amphitheatre we got to Cafayate. I can only describe the town as cute. It’s full of bodegas and wineries so if you’re a wine lover, it would be a perfect area for you. And although I didn’t manage to do it in the end, I would strongly recommend renting a bike and discovering the area on two wheels. The town itself is very walkable, full of artisan shops and bazars, where you can buy any possible kind of handmade kick-knacks.
As it was New Year’s Eve and we were camping there was of course a joined celebration with other tourists staying there and so I had an unforgettable night of “viajeros” (cut in half soda bottle filled with alcoholic drinks), playing guitars and singing – amongst others my personal favourite “De Musica Ligera” by Soda Stereo.
We were leaving in the morning so I have decided not to sleep at all, which turned out to be a misjudgement on my part as later that morning I spent about 3 hours in a hospital with one of the passengers as a translator (as our tour leader was useless in that department) and ended up completely exhausted.
Because of that I couldn’t really appreciate the Quilmes ruins that we were visiting later during the day. We only had limited time and the area is really vast. Quilmes were a tribe that lived at the foot of the mountains for about the last 800 years, if not longer. We know that they were never conquered by the Incas, however they coexisted in peace with them and cooperated economically.
The ruins resemble an arid desert landscape, but few hundred years ago there were a lot of glaciers and snow in the surrounding mountains, that delivered fresh water to people living there so the area was much greener. The Quilmes learned from the Incas how to keep water in reservoirs, in order to stop being dependant on the weather as much. And then the Spanish came. The haven’t conquered them either per se, but they have surrounded them to cut off the supplies. By the time the Independent Republic of Argentina was created, out of 6000 Quilmes there were only 2000 left. Unfortunately, the government decided to resettle them to a camp near Buenos Aires. If you look at the map, it will be easy to understand why not many of them survived that journey. There is a town called Quilmes there now, where they brew Quilmes beer.
The adventure I had with Córdoba is that I never actually got there. From Cafayate we only got to Recreo as the truck gave out again. It was New Year’s Day so finding a mechanic turned out to be bit trickier than usually. We had to eat from our reserves, however the locals were nice enough to share some basic food supplies with us. We also found an interesting place to sleep: a public swimming pool. We put up few tents and some of us got to sleep in the communal building with working aircon. It was probably the first time in my life I was grateful for aircon, the temperatures outside were insufferable.
So the next day we just ignored the big city and went straight to a gaucho estancia, where the plan was stay for about two nights. I must say I was a little bit disappointed, because the rancher turned out to be a rich expat from the UK. His family owned the land for the last 200 years and still you could see he was more British than local. He was actually born in Argentina but spent 20 years in England. His sense of humour was very imperialistic, showing his superiority and trying to prove he knows everything better than any of us. He was also very disrespectful towards the Argentinians, constantly reminding us how stupid and corrupt they are. We should see him as the saviour of the local community, because he hires a lot of them. Truth be told, if he really cared about people he wouldn’t have filled his place with young British volunteers to take care of the tourists but instead invested in some English lessons for the local youngsters so they can take care of us, tell us about the horses and their life on the ranch, the life of the real gauchos.
As luck would have it, we had an amazing weather for some horseback riding and were able to enjoy the unforgettable Gran Chaco landscapes. I have learnt about a very different way of directing a horse. Normally you would pull the rains towards left or right. In Argentina you’re supposed to widen and loosen them, very important not to pull at all as they get very nervous, the horses I mean.
It turned out the rich owner was earning money on two types of tourists. The first type was us using the camping place with some additional sleeping area in few buildings. And then there was the second type, the kind of people who would pay 400$ a night to stay in a luxurious estancia close to the stables.
We stopped for lunch at a corral and after the meal we had a lasso throwing competition. I tried and I tried and nothing. Apparently, the technique was good but with poor results. It only worked after I did the Rocky routine. Clearly it works for more than boxing. Later some young gauchos came over and started showing off with their lassoing skills. Unfortunately, they also have brought a young bull to show us how to capture it. The poor animal was out of its mind scared silly. I never witnessed anything like that and was a bit surprised by my own reaction. I wasn’t able to listen to the bull bellowing and left very quickly.
The last stop in Argentina was Mendoza. We only spent two nights there so had to choose very carefully what to do. As I don’t drink wine and wineries are the main tourist attractions in the province, I ended up doing some mild river rafting surrounded by the view of the Andes on the horizon. Mendoza is also the gateway for a lot of mountaineers planning to climb the mighty Aconcagua and reach the roof of the Andes.
At the time we were there, we also got to see many of the cars from the Dakar rally as they were racing towards the Chilean border. And so did we, leaving Argentina in the back mirror.