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Carry On Up the Andes Travelog

Sunday April 20th to Friday May 4th

Mendoza, Argentina

We want to live here! Mendoza has clean (for SA), wide, tree-lined avenues, posh shops, coffee bars, lots of museums, a good quality craft market, great restaurants, and, of course, excellent wine. There are also lots of colonial buildings and colourfully tiled plazas. Nearly every street has irrigation canals (acequias) which are a nice feature of the city’s indigenous and colonial past. The only thing is that they do get the odd earthquake (the one in 1861 pretty much flattened the city and the 1934 quake didn’t help either).

Mendoza is a university town and the center of Argentina’s winemaking industry. Winemaking goes back 500 years in Argentina to when the first Spanish colonists planted grapes in several regions. The wine produced was for their own “family” use and it wasn’t until the immigration boom of the 19th Century that French, Italian and Spanish settlers began to take enology seriously and brought their countries’ best grapes to grow vines in Western Argentina. But their wines never rivaled European ones. Up until a decade ago, the only famous thing about Argentine wine was it never left the country, it was consumed entirely in Argentina. As the country’s taste turned more towards beer, the wineries had to find new markets. They have recently introduced newer technology and are producing much better wines, some of which is now exported to Europe and the USA.

We did a lot of tasting and drinking and visited a few bodegas (wineries). Most have free tours and tasting. A couple are on the edge of town but they are mainly in the Maipu valley. Between the several that we visited we got a fairly comprehensive guide on how the whole wine process works. From eating the grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon – small and very tasty) to steel tanks, to French or American oak barrels (depending on the intended market) and even the bottling and labeling.

Mendoza is particularly well known for its Malbec grape which produces a pretty good (red) wine. We have now done some extensive drinking of the Argentine wines (all in the name of research of course) and have decided our favourite one is Cabernet Sauvignon and those of Bodegas Escorihuela, Norton, Catena, Weinert and Etchart are pretty good. There are others but we wouldn’t want to reveal just how much wine we actually tried. So look out for them at home and let us know what you think.

One last thing about wine: The biggest wine museum in South America is at Bodega La Rural. It was great. Did you know that they used to put the grapes in the stretched out skin of an oxen, tread on them using their feet and the “juice” would run our of it’s tail hole (bum) – YUK. We’re glad they’ve moved on a bit on the technology front.

Tucuman, Argentina

Heading north it’s much warmer – it’s great to get out of our boots. Tucuman is a big, bustling city and is very important in Argentine history. The city hosted the congress that declared Argentine independence from Spain on the 9th of July 1816. We visited the Casa de la Independencia where we saw the room where the declaration was signed and copies of the declaration etc.

The area has been a big sugarcane producer for a couple of hundred years and is now also big in lemons. However, US trade barriers (they’re protecting the Californian producers) are causing problems for the Argentines.

From Tucuman we took a trip out through sub tropical jungle and then into dry desert valleys with huge cacti. We visited Jesuit ruins and a park with 2300 year old stone totems each depicting human faces, snakes etc and weighing several tons. We visited Tafi del Valle, a cute village where we met our first llamas and see people chewing coco leaves (we must be getting near Bolivia). We then went to Quilmes -- an old Indian city (and the name of Argentina’s favorite beer). This place dates from 1000 AD and was a complex urban settlement that housed as many as 5000 people. The Quilmes Indians survived attack by the Incas, which occurred from about 1480 AD onwards, but could not outlast the siege of the Spanish, who, in 1667 deported the last 2000 inhabitants to Buenos Aires, where they died out. The site has now been partially restored. The buildings had incredibly thick walls and we could easily see why the Indians were such a force and hard to beat. We climbed up the hillside for a spectacular view of their area.

Near Tucuman there’s another wine growing area. It’s particularly known for its Torrontes grape. This produces a light, white, fruity wine – not bad at all.

Salta, Argentina

Still heading north, this is Argentina’s best preserved colonial city. Here we took the teleferico (cable car) up the Cerro San Bernardo for a great view of the city. We tried coco leaf tea – it tasted like green bean juice. Jackie sat for a few hours in an internet café which was called, we thought the name had something to do with the internet, but there was an actual tarantula in the same room. She’s still recovering.

Things about Salta – the school kids all wear white lab style coats and pull little suitcases on wheels, filled we assume with their school books. Police id checks are increased here, we guess because we’re getting near the border.

We took a trip out of town and passed tobacco fields and green jungle. Again, we passed into another valley and the geology totally changes. Red, green, and yellow earth valleys unfold. The colours are amazing (red: iron sulphide, green: copper oxide, yellow: sulphur, blue: copper sulphide). The village of Purmamarca is dominated by the famous 7 colour hill. This striped mound is fantastic – see the photos. We wandered around this tiny Andean village and saw a 1000 year old tree and an adobe church built in 1648 with one metre thick walls and a cacti wood ceiling, pews, doors etc. All around are cute adobe houses built with mud and straw bricks. In this dry climate they last a long time.

We then started climbing up a very twisty and windy road (today we apparently drove around 500+ curves – to prove it one girl was sick). We passed little farms using the same cultivation and irrigation methods that have been used on these steep and high altitude slopes for hundreds of years. We reached nearly 4200 m above sea level then started twisting and winding down to some salt lakes – Salars Grandes, the flat and blindingly white salt bed. It’s rough and hard to the touch and there are pentagonal and hexagonal shapes everywhere. Walking on solid salt is a weird experience.

We then headed onto the Quechua (Indian) town of San Antonio de los Cobres. En route we saw our first vicuna. These are related to the camel family (like the llama) but are rarer and not usually domesticated. They live at high altitudes and are hard to photograph because they are very nervous and run at the first noise. From San Antonio de los Cobres to Salta is a very famous train ride: Tren a las Nubes (The Train to the Clouds). The train track makes countless switchbacks and even spirals, passing through 21 tunnels and crossing 31 iron bridges and 13 viaducts. The trip’s highlight is crossing a viaduct 64m high and 224m long, weighing 1600 tons and spanning an enormous desert canyon. Unfortunately, it was not running on the days we were there.

We also visited another Indian stone town at Tastil. This was similar to Quilmes but nowhere near the scale. These guys fled the Incas. We slept the rest of the way home as it was dark. However, we were apparently passing through more great coloured canyons (they call them quebradas).

The next day it was time to say “adios” to Argentina for the last time as we crossed the Andes to Chile by bus on, yes you’ve guessed it, a very twisty, windy road. We exited Argentina (there’s a tiny immigration post) at over 4000m at the Paso de Jama and passed through the desolate desert landscape of rock, sand and salt lakes.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

We then reached the little sleepy, oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. This tiny place is very dusty (no tarmac roads here), has only mud brick adobe buildings and is full of gringos. That is good and bad. It’s good because there are lots of great hip little restaurants and bars in town, good craft shops and there’s lots of competition between the tour companies. However, it does mean that although we are in the middle of the desert we are now on part of the “gringo trail” and will have to share our travels with foreigners around. Also this is the most expensive place in Chile (and Chile is the most expensive country in South America). The only other place with this many gringos was Torres del Paine park. From here onwards through Bolivia and Peru we will probably see many more backpackers.

The one sight in town is the famous “Mummy Museum”. The museum has a collection of artifacts (and of course mummies) that traces the Atacamena culture through the Inca invasion and Spanish conquest. People have been in this area for over 12,000 years and there are ceramics, tools, lots of pipes and trays for hallucinogenic drugs and some very good gold jewellery. Lots of it was influenced by the people from Tiawanako (Bolivia) and Inca cultures.

The dead were buried in the foetal position wearing clothing and jewellery. They were surrounded by pots and vessels filled with things that they would need in the after life. However, they aren’t “real” mummies in, say the Egyptian sense, it’s just because this is the driest place on the planet that they didn’t fully decompose. You can see their skin, hair, and even their eyes.

The real reason for coming to San Pedro is for sights near the town. The first evening we took a trip out to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). We saw huge canyons where we stood gingerly on the edge being blown by the incredible wind. All around were unusual rock formations, some dusted in a white coating that looked like snow but was actually salt. We walked through a narrow canyon with huge red rocks surrounding us and didn’t speak too loud as some chunks of rock didn’t look too secure. The highlight was a climb up and along a massive sand dune (actually that wasn’t the highlight as we huffed and puffed all the way) but the sunset at the top was worth it. We were on top of the world to watch the pinks, reds and violets circle all around us – incredible. Some of the photos turned out great but you really have to see it for yourself to believe it.

The next day we got up at the ridiculous hour of 3:45am in order to get to the El Tatio Geysers before sunrise. At 4310m this is the world’s highest geyser field. We drove in the darkness for two hours and arrived at the field just before the sun rose. These geothermic pools were created by the Tatio Volcano and we are surrounded by steep peaks. We walked very carefully through the field as the crust can be quite thin and it wouldn’t be the first time a tourist had first degree burns from the boiling mud or water. At sunrise water shoots out of the various cracks in the earth’s crust. We saw lots of bubbling and spurting water but none were very high (not like Iceland). However, the steam fumaroles certainly were impressive and as the sun rose the steam surrounded all the tourists walking around. We had breakfast here – our guide heated up cartons of chocolate milk in the hot water pools, others were boiling eggs.

At the geysers we also stopped for a dip in a nice warm pool. The trick was to get in and out of the water quickly, because at this altitude it’s freezing, even when the sun is shining.

Later we headed through some more surreal landscapes to the tiny village of Machuca (4069m). The population is 28 people and 2 dogs. The people here are shy but they did let us photograph their houses. We can only guess that some government official must have recently decided that they should have electricity. The village has one dirt street about 200m long and 5 big modern street lamps.

From San Pedro we headed to Uyuni, Bolivia on a rugged 3 day journey by 4x4. It was an amazing trip but you’ll have to wait for the next Episode for that.

Comments on Argentina

The Presidential elections were on when we were there. There were no problems for the 60,000 extra police they had on duty. The interesting thing is that they hold the elections on a Sunday and it is compulsory for everyone to vote. It only affected us when we went for lunch and we couldn’t have a beer. No alcohol is sold until after 6pm on Election Day.

The people here are pretty disillusioned about their presidents/leaders just now. Unemployment is up to 25% (the statistics seem to vary depending on who is reporting) and 50% of people are living in poverty (although it sure didn’t look like it to us). This is a huge thing for a country that had a very small rich and poor class and had a massive middle class.

They eat really late in this country (Chile too). Most restaurants don’t even open until 8:00 or 9:00 and, if you go in at that time you’ll be the only one there. The restaurants start filling about 10:00. This is fine if you’re a local and take siesta from 1:00 to 4:00 but it’s really tough on us poor tourists who have to get up early and tour all day long.

Buying bus tickets is a pain in Argentina. There are dozens of bus companies in each terminal. They do post their destinations but you have to go and ask each one when, how much and what type of bus. They don’t bother posting that basic information nor is there a central purchasing system. Sometimes there’s an information booth but they rarely have the correct details.

Comments on Chile

There are stray dogs everywhere – thousands of them. Luckily most seem friendly. This is also true of most of South America.

On Santiago (we forgot to tell you last time) – there are many disabled (especially blind) people busking, selling things on the street and begging. We don’t know what the social system is like.

At the Pre-Colombian art museum they had lots of ceramic, stone and metal masks. Nearly all had the face with a huge lump in one cheek. This indicated the chewing of coco leaves. We’ve already seen a lot of this in Bolivia.

Serviettes (napkins): Ok, this may be a minor complaint compared to the bathrooms the size of phone boxes that also have bidets squeezed into them but this situation is getting ridiculous. In Venezuela we commented on how small the paper napkins in the restaurants were. We were amazed when, upon entering Brazil, they got even smaller. Argentina would have to be better, right? No. They plastic coat the paper there so it doesn’t absorb anything. On to Chile and we find even smaller plastic sheets. So, what does Bolivia have for us? Well, we’re giving it away but we went to a fairly nice restaurant and they had small squares of newsprint. We doubt there are any napkins in Peru.

Click here for Bolivia Travelog

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