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Northern Argentina & Northern Chile

all seasons in one day 28 °C

Hola from the capital of Argentina, home to about 13 million people, so twice the size of London! We arrived on a nice comfy overnight cama bus which even stopped in a restaurant on route and provided us with a meal! The bus station was huge and we eventually found our way to the rather ageing but original metro station to get to central. The hostel was in a pretty good location, literally a stones throw from their national monument, the Obelisco. We arrived on a Wednesday which means free or rather reduced price entry to the city's museums so off we trotted to the recommended Museo National de Bellas Artes in the Recoletta area of the city with loads of quirky perspective art, creations and even furniture! We headed back to central to grab some food and the abundance of pizza and pasta in this Spanish speaking city was quite staggering. Again we managed to find some walking tours for tips in Buenos Aires and decided it was the easiest way of getting to know the city. They did 2 tours each day covering different areas of town with the first mainly concentrating on the historic civic centre. We met Virgina our excitable Argentinian guide in front of the country's parliament house which sits next to a very grand looking squat!!! Apparently the squat has no electricity or running water and used to be a posh coffee house where politicians used to meet in secret when the military dictatorship occupied the parliament during the 70's. The parliament house sits at the end of the long Avenida Mayo which leads you down to the main plaza home to the pink palace, the not so impressive cathedral and some classic examples of Spanish colonial style buildings. The pink palace is home to the current female Argentinian president and is where Eva Peron stood on the balcony and made that famous speech! The plaza is a hive of activity and is a centre point for a lot of the almost daily protests in the city, that's why the security fences hardly ever get taken down! Apparently no one knows why the palace is pink but it definitely becomes a brighter shade at night.
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Buenos Aires definitely has a European feel to it and a lot of the buildings are what you would expect to see in somewhere like Barcelona or Paris. With a couple of hours to spare before the next tour in the afternoon we found a nice buffet style salad bar a nice change from meat, pizza, pasta and empanadas! The afternoon tour was led by Sol a lot less excitable but maybe a little more informative! The tour concentrated around the more affluent part of town Recoletta and took a more cultural stance than historical morning tour. We passed some extremely expensive Parisian-esque appartments, apparently all of the materials were brought from Europe during Argentina's hey day by the returning cattle and grain ships. We were taken to the Falklands war memorial and were told that most level headed Argentinians could not fathom why their government would have sent young, ill-trained soldiers into a doomed conflict. It was also interesting to hear that from a young age at school the children are taught that the islands are part of the Argentinian map and it is not until they get a bit older that they realise that in fact the islands are British territory! Previously we had no real opinion on the conflict but the ever souring relations between the UK and Argentina whilst we were there brought the issue to the fore somewhat. We found out that cosmetic surgery is a large part of Argentinian society with medical insurance companies offering free treatments as incentives for medicare, resulting in a lot of surprised/strained looking faces of all ages walking around Recoletta!!! There were plenty of designer stores and expensive hotels and some of the original Buenos Aires mansions. There was one which was still home to an ageing couple living in the top floor and had no children so they had pledged to donate the building to the city once both had passed away. The tour ended next to Recoletta cemetery which apparently is well worth a visit and is home to Evita's mausoleum. We did in fact visit the next day and it is amazing how grand the mausoleums are and after a fair bit of walking around we managed to find the famous grave! The story of her journey from death to being laid to rest in this mausoleum is not 100% known but definitely has some gruesome tales!
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Another famous area of Buenos Aires is Boca, home to the city's famous football team and the tango centric uber coloufull Caminito street and market. The area around Caminito is fairly run down and tourists are warned that crime can be an issue with such underprivileged citizens trying to make a living and is highlighted by the police presence. However Caminito itself was a hive of activity from restaurants and bars to tango shows and tourists participating in some dance lessons! The buildings are a mix of bright colours and make for some good photo opportunities. A visit to Buenos Aires wouldn't be complete without sampling some traditional coffee in one of the popular coffee houses and sampling some prime Argentinian steak. So first up the coffee and we headed to one of the oldest cafes in the city Cafe Tortoni. The interior has not changed since it opened and the waiters are dressed in the traditional uniform, and serving great coffee and cake, it was well worth a visit. As far as the steak was concerned we were recommended a restaurant in San Telmo by the walking tour guide Sol and it really didn't disappoint. The restaurant was packed and the atmosphere bubbling, a good sign, and the steaks were big and delicious, the special was served with plentiful potato and great sauce at a very reasonable price hmmmm. With another 18 hour bus journey booked for the evening all that was left to do on the last day was to head back over to the Recoletta area of town to have lunch and wonder round the weekend market and meander through the well established parks before heading back to the bus terminal for an over-nighter to Mendoza.
STEAK!!!

STEAK!!!

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Mendoza is on the Western side of Argentina back towards the Andes and is famous for it's wine production. We had booked a pretty good hostel called Empedrado due to the great reviews it had plus the free wine they provided every night!!!! The hostel did live up to expectation with a nice garden area with grape vines hanging plus you were allowed to help yourself to the juicy fruits, they had a dinky pool to cool off in plus there were activities each night. The best of all was the asado presentation where we learnt that an Argentinian bbq is a lot more than charring some meat on a stack of coals! It is seen as a bit of an honour to cook an asado for friends and family and usually takes 2 hours to cook the meat slowly, no black burnt bits in sight. Again the wine was flowing and the steak was truly delicious. We couldn't visit Mendoza without going on the renowned biking wine tour and yes Meurig did actually try some wine!!!! We hired a bike from the friendly family run Orange bikes and with our free map and water we set off in search of tasty winery. The first place we stopped off at was Bodega La Rural where there was a full on wine museum and I can honestly say I have not seen kegs that big before. We tagged on to a tour in Spanish and managed to pick up on bits of the information but decided it would be best to head over to the tasting area and sample some of the red flowing goods. The next stop was a providor next to La Rural where they grew their own olives and produced their own olive oil. We got a tasting session of everything from olive paste, jams, chutneys and the home made liquors, some of which were blow your brains strength!!! The biggest winery in the area was Treviche which was set in stately grounds and the old factory buildings added to the setting. The tour cost 30 pesos each but it lasted about an hour an a half and we got to sample some really good wines and learnt about which wines come from which type of barrels and the quality depends on how many times the barrel has been used to age the wine, plus to top it off they can only be used for a max of 5 years and are imported from France at a small price of 150 Euros. After all the wine we decided to head over to the beer garden where they had home made brews and a nice garden to hangout. When we headed back to Orange bikes we were given complimentary snacks and yep more wine......... :-) It was time to leave Mendoza and head north to our next destination Salta and another 20 hour bus journey coming up but this time we splashed out and went Andesmar the poshest company, and it even included on-board Bingo !!!
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Salta city is one of the most northern cities in Argentina with old colonial buildings in it's centre and the Andes looming in the surrounding countryside. The centre of town is home to a classic plaza full of Spanish-esque buildings and a large grandly decorated cathedral. The plaza is literally a hive of activity whether it be day or night with plenty of restaurants and cafes lining it's sides. Also in the plaza is the museum of Andean Culture which is home to some mummified sacrificed children which were found at the top of some of the nearby Andes mountains. Apparently children were sacrificed and placed on the top of mountains as a gift to the gods and the top of the mountain was seen as the closest place to god. The mummy was surprisingly still in tact and was kept shielded from public hands and cameras in a glass fronted chilly fridge. The museum was worth a visit but a bit on the pricy side seen as not everything was translated and there were no guides on offer. Our hostel was Salta Backpackers and also had a pool to chill out by and evening meals were prepared each evening, you could either go for the basic free meal or upgrade to the special e.g. another tasty asado. The group of people in the hotel were a good mixed bunch and we were even able to watch the Wales v Ireland 6 nations match in the tv room with some Aussies laughing at our excitable celebrations at the end! The town also has a cable car to the top of cerro San Bernardo which makes a good viewpoint of the surrounding area and the walk down the hundreds of steps is a lot easier than the walk up!
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4 hours north is the small town of Tilcara nestled in an arid valley full of giant cacti and surrounded my multicoloured layered mountains. Our hostel the rustic La Albahaca and was up the top of a steep cobbled street, but with a great “panoramic” view from the terrace area. The town is still developing as a tourist destination but the town square was a hive of activity when we wondered down that evening, with market stalls on all sides with a few restaurants and bars around. This town was probably the first real place so far where we had no choice other than to try out our best Spanish as English was non existent and had a really nice atmosphere with people up late eating and drinking. Other than soaking in the surroundings we had planned to visit the strategical positioned Pre Incan fort city of El Pucara well positioned on a hill in the centre of the valley but first we opted to walk up to the recommended waterfall for some great viewpoints. This was our first real taste of altitude and therefore made the walk up the mountain a bit of a challenge but great training for activities to come. The views on the way up were nice and walking through the arid, giant cacti landscape was something we hadn't experienced before, Sian can also testify that those cacti were definitely sharp. Eventually we reached the top only to find out we had to descend back into a small Gauge called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). After following the river we finally find the water fall!! I suppose any waterfall in an area as dry as this is bound to be an attraction but a nice walk up to it. After working our way down we head to the Pre Inka fortress, walking through the partly reconstructed residential buildings and to the reconstructed pyramid temple at the highest position with great view up, down and around the valley, not sure about the authenticity of the temple construction but obviously in a dominant location. The next day we planned to move west to the village of Pumamarca on the “main” road to San Pedro De Atacama, Chile to catch our bus, but we find out in the bus depot that the road west has suffered from flooding and has ripped half the road out. Not ideal as buses across the boarder here are not regular and with limited Spanish our hostel owner and his English speaking friend helped us out but nothing could be guaranteed. So the plan was to get the 6.30am bus and hope the local bus could get through and the international bus coming from Salta could meet us, so after a Llama pasta bolognese we got an early night.
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Leaving the hostel in the pitch darkness we jump on the local bus and sure enough make it to Pumamarca with the mountain of seven colours over looking the village. We had time to burn so hung out in the square as the sun came up waiting for anywhere to open for breakfast. By chance on an adventure to find the bus stop, we smell out a bakery still glossing the warm medilunas in a sugary glaze plus others delights waiting to be put on the shelves. With a selection of warm pastries we head to the bus stop just out of town and find a parked Andesmar bus locked up, so we found a rock to sit on and have breakfast, even popping in to a near by nice hotel to grab a coffee in turn. We notice a long line of lorries all the way down the road parked up next to the river and a group of police further up the road and eventually people start stirring on the bus, we eventually find out this bus was yesterday's bus and had been delayed all night by land slides further up, but luckily for us there were spare seats on board and the conductor let us jump on and no sooner as we sat down the road block let the first couple of vehicles through including the bus, Result!!!
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The bus journey renowned for its picturesque scenery did not disappoint, starting by rising up the windy road from the cacti filled valleys up and up over the mountains on to the Salt plains towards the Argentinian boarder control somewhere in the Andes range. As we descended to San Pedro de Atacama that late afternoon the heavens opened and hailed so hard to reduce viability to about 10m, in a Desert!!! We finally arrived, and after an inefficient passport control and a vigorous bag search off we walked into town. Unfortunately our free hostel pick up didn’t turn up so after picking up a map, we headed to our not ideally located (but cheap) Iquesa Hostel outside of town and didn’t go far that night.
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The small touristy town is located in the centre of a big wide valley with great views all around with the odd distant snow capped volcano. All the buildings seem to be one storey adobe mud brick constructions rendered in mud and flat'ish roofs, not a problem if you consider this to be one of the driest places in the world. There are a wealth of activities and tours to chose from and the number of travel agencies in town highlights this, we opted for a trip to visit the highest Geysers in the world along with a stop at some hot springs the next day but first that afternoon we headed off on the bikes to the Valley de Luna national park about 15Km west, not close but flat through the surrounding desert. Once you get into the valley the landscape becomes “moon like” and other worldly, there are your classic touristy mapped points of interest, named rock features such as the three sisters and amphitheatre and a couple of large sand dunes but just mainly an interesting place to cycle through. One of the selling points for the van tours is the sun set on top of the dunes, so once the evening begins they all descend on this one spot which did have a great view but we decided to leave the crowds and start back before the event as we actually had to cycle back and there were a few large dark clouds on the horizon. The journey back was great not only was it more down hill than we expected, we got a double entendre of the sun set to the west and a lightning show to the east whilst rolling through the desert back towards the light of town. Fortunately it only started raining hard 10min outside of town so we got back and jumped into a restaurant with an open fire and had nice pizza and a salad.
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The next morning it was a 4am start to get to the worlds highest Geysers, nice and early, unfortunately an hour and a half into the journey the van came to a muddy hault. All the rain the night before had made the road impassable and after an hour of spinning and pushing we got the van free and had to turn back, with sunrise views over the volcano and back to bed the only result of the early start. The reminder of the day didn’t come to much, with the damp hammocks in the hostel court yard very inviting, whilst the sun lasted... but we did rearrange the trip to the following last morning! Unfortunately the Atacama desert was certainly not living up to its reputation of driest place on earth, with rain that evening drenching the mud based town, with the roof of our room (along with most places probably) unable to hold back the rain, forcing us to reshuffle the dorm room in an attempt to keep most things not wet!!! So prospects for the next morning weren’t looking good, in-fact they didn’t even attempt to pick us up, so at 5am it was back to bed instead for a bit of a lie in before checking out! The tour company were very apologetic and a full refund was given so that afternoon we wondered round the drying sodden town, white washed buildings drip stained brown, had some food and headed back to the hostel to collect our bag's, luckily missing the next down pour but again having to rearrange our stuff in an attempt to miss the flood flowing through the reception. These buildings are just not designed for any volume of water, so it was all hands to brushes, mops and scoops to move the water out the front door saving what could be saved. So after helping out we headed quickly down town to catch our next overnight semi cama bus to Arica the border town to Peru.
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After an early, dusk arrival at this “up and coming” sea side city we eventually find our kiwi owned hostel Sunny Days after a wander around and a short taxi ride, where they gave us complementary breakfast at this lovely well run place. Conveniently this was the day of the Wales vs Scotland game and of course they had cable TV in their upstairs kitchen for us to watch the entertaining ESPN Spanish 6 nations program. The first half wasn’t anything worth writing home about but the second started with a Halfpenny try and Earthquake, we thought it was the spin dryer down stairs but we were informed by the Kiwi owner doing his rounds making checks and investigating the noise in the TV room. After the game we headed into town, not a vast amount around expect an overshadowing cliff and lots of sand but it was a Sunday so quite quiet & we had a bite to eat at a 50's themed restaurant and headed back via the diverse market for ice cream and supplies for super. The next morning after a great breakfast it was time to head north to country number 13, Peru!! With some directions from the Kiwi owner we head for the international depot i.e walled enclosure next to the bus depot to jump on either a bus or a colectivo (shared taxi), this wasn’t a hard decision as the cue for the bus was coming out the front entrance, so we splashed out the £2 extra each to eventually share a colectivo with a family of 4, mother and three daughters. After a short ride we arrive at the Chilean boarder and to our surprise the mother asks for our passports, she's was a Chilean police officer and therefore intended to bypass the undulating cue and continue on into Peru. We were told to stay with her two oldest daughters who were fairly confident she would come back with the stamps, and as we reached half way in the cue back she came and off we went over to the Peruvian boarder control. After the usual forms we were in, next stop Tacna.......

Posted by Meurig ac Sian 31.03.2012 13:45 Archived in Argentina

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