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Northern Exposure (Argentina)

Salta, Cafayate & Humahuaca


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Finally it was time to point myself in the direction of north and see where the road took me with the first destination to be Salta, from there nothing more than a loose plan of moving towards Bolivia. Arriving in Salta it is difficult not to be seduced by this quaint little city that lacks the energy and tourists of other cities but at the same time retains its colonial come South American charm. From the very random colourful buildings that contrast beautifully with the otherwise bland streets to the church that my friend so eloquently described as the "cupcake church" owing to its icing-style finish this is a place that can't help but feel Latina. Add to that the best empanadas (actually Cafayate ending up taking this one), tamales and humayitas to occupy your taste buds and the popular (and not too shabby) Salta beer to wash it down with there is certainly plenty to fall for.

The weather however wasn’t quite ready to join the party and produced two days of miserable weather with rain, wind or both being ever present. In one of those random travelling moments that you always seem to have I met an American girl that was sitting next to me on the bus that also happened to be staying at the same hostel (a hostel that was entirely run by the resident cat that should have been called cappuccino such are his colours) . We managed to find a couple of hours of just wind and I convinced her to come tomale hunting with me, in search of a place I had visited the last time I was here. This was to become a theme for us hunting for this tomale place and soaking in the charm of the town is about the best (and possibly only) way to dismiss the afternoon. Sadly after two days of hunting I was unable to locate the "mystery" tomale place and we had to settle for some that were not bad but not the best, we did however manage to supplement things slightly with some good icecream - it was easter afterall.

In between tomale hunts we headed out to see a live band with containing some of the hostel employees. This band was different to say the least with four guitars, a base guitar, drums, a violin and two singers contributing an incredible and incoherent amount of noise. If it were just for the noise this would be ok but the fact that there was three different tempos being played made it quite terrible and difficult to pick who could play and who was destroying it.

Next its off to do a tour down south taking in the wine valley of Cafayate, home of the torrontes grape as well as the ruins around Quilmes. A place that is now more commonly associated with the local Argentinean beer rather than the tribes that held off both Inca and Spanish conquests there. The ruins there are well preserved trenched walls and strategically placed lookouts that combined with the flat wide open spaces make it easy to see how it was defended so successfully. Nowadays there is little here and you are left to share the ruins only with the mountains and the thousands of cactii that now populate the area.

Along the way we visited the sites of the Quebrada de Cafayate, containing among other objects castles, frogs, windows and the titanic of which part had coincidentally collapsed the week before! The highlight however was the devils throat and amphitheatre which were the largest and most spectacular of the rock formations. The most amazing thing however was finding a take-away tortilla stand at the amphitheatre some 50+ kilometres from town!

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That night we stayed in Cafayate a quaint little town that is 10 minutes walk from one side to the other but littered with wineries. We managed to take in quite a few wineries despite being thwarted by the strictly observed long siesta and extremely flexible re-opening and tasting hours. Here service is very much a distant second to adhering to the town motto of "go slowly" - seriously nothing happens in hurry in this town. Still we had a nice walk through the vineyards, sampling the wine with some locally made goat cheese and some amazing gourmet empanadas which were the best I have had especially the blue cheese ones.

The next day we returned to Salta and with a little help from a friend managed to finally track down the tomale place that I was desperate to re-visit, Patio de Empanadas. Once again I dragged Megan along and to my delight (and a little relief) they did not disappoint and were nothing short of fantastic.

With the impending northern journey needing to happen sooner rather than later I left Salta and my travel buddy for the elevated pastures of Humahuaca, home to Quebradas at 3000m. Driving through them on the bus was a great trip and well worth the experience. The Quebradas are just as spectacular as those outside of Cafayate.

Sadly with little time left and no bus further north on Sunday it would be but a very short stopover. A very short trip across the border with surprisingly little fuss resulted in me heading to Tupiza that day with a tour to the famous sites of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the agenda. But alas I now have a new motto for Bolivia, “Anything is possible, but not everything is achievable.” With no other tourists and nothing, literally nothing other than horse riding possible for the next day I would continue my journey north, dealing with the obstacles that Bolivia throws at you. With the latest example being a lack of ATM and little money in my wallet and tomorrow being Sunday. With that in mind I thinking drifting back to Potosi on my budget is the next plan of action. The journey to Potosi was a typical local experience with most people speaking quechuan as opposed to Spanish. This combined with a 40 seater bus with 60 people on and the terrible state of Bolivian roads made for a bit of an adventure.

Posted by rhinoc 09:30 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Glacier Hunting Pt II

El Calafate & El Chalten


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After a successful three day trek through the mountains of El Bolson it was time to return to Barriloche to once again ponder the decision between north and south. I met an aussie guy that was headed south and with still a couple (literally by most accounts two) weeks worth of good weather left I decided to once again chance my arm and head south with only a long 28+ hour bus trip standing in my way. Still long bus trips become the norm rather than the exception here and with that successfully negotiated we arrived in El Calafate.

Here the main if not only attraction is the Perito Moreno glacier, the only one that is advancing in Argentina and perhaps the world. Prices here are extortionate – its fair to say the first month has not been at all kind on my budget and heading north really needs to happen soon.

With the prices to walk on the glaciers being lower in El Chalten we decided not to do so now but rather take a trip around the estancias in the region and then a boat trip up close and around the glacier. This turned out to be a great decision because the day was quite good and we were lucky enough to get very close to the glacier and have a massive chunk of ice come off right next to us creating a wave so big that the boat had to move away from the glacier. Ice falling off the glacier is a very common event but very rarely do you see a piece that large fall off and the thunderous sound that it made as it hits the water has to be heard to be believed. Seeing the glacier up close was really quite amazing, 40m high ice blocks are just not something that you see everyday, certainly not in Australia anyway. Taking the route through the estancias allowed us to see some of the local wildlife including the birdlife feeding on the roadkill, with each bird eating in accordance to their place in the pecking order. We also managed to see quite about eight subdued sondors sitting in the field waiting for the wind to pick up since they are too lazy to flap their wings. This would have to be one of the better guided trips I have been on with the knowledgeable guides willing to tell you anything you wanted to know about the glaciers, the estancias and the wildlife.

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With our appetite for glaciers wet we headed slightly north to the small town of El Chalten, a town founded only 25 years ago on the back of some great trekking and a lot of willing tourists. The town itself is nothing much more than 10 streets of stores catered almost exclusively to tourists but it is not for the town that you come. The first day we signed ourselves up for a heavy, 12 hour day of adventure trekking to Cerro Torre and Glacier Grande. This included ice trekking, zip lining and finally some ice climbing to round off what sounded like a great day.

The day however was even better than we expected, starting off before 7am hiking through some beautiful countryside towards the first mirador from where you could see both the Fitzroy and Torre glaciers certainly a remarkable view especially with the sun rising up over the top of it. From there it was a further hour or so of hiking, made much more manageable by the fact that sun had come out and taken the chill off the air. Along the hike we had to cross a river that ofcourse required us to hook our harnesses to a zip line and then shimmy our way across – might as well stick with the adventure theme! Once we arrived the glacier was something to behold, with everything within eyesight dominated by the blue and white hues that defined the magnificent glacier. It was then time to put on our crampons and hike across the ice, something that takes a little bit of getting use to but once you trust the grip on the ice from the crampons it becomes quite easy. The grip allows you to walk comfortably along and we managed to squeeze in almost two hours of hiking along the ice before we found a suitable slope. Once there we grabbed the ice hammers and spent about an hour climbing up the slope, this surprisingly doesn’t take much to get use too and was a great way to further experience the ice. After an hour or so of climbing we had the relatively simple task of going back the way we had come, something we achieved with just the loss of our two guides but figured they would survive ok by themselves. That night we met them back at the bar in town and squeezed in a quick pint to say thanks for what was a great day with guides that made it feel more like going out with your mates.

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The next day was nothing but rain in the morning, delaying the arrival of our friend back from camping. This and some very wet tents put the dampener on camping (sorry but I had to use the pun!), with us instead deciding to make a long day of it and leave for the glacier first thing in the morning. The next day despite the weather not looking much better, a group from us set out on the trail to the Ftizroy glacier. This trek was pretty easy until we got to the last hour which was quite difficult and contains a massive (and frustrating) false summit just when you think you have finally finished. At the top however splendid views of an amazingly turquoise lake awaited along with two quite brilliantly white glaciers. The only disappointment being that the cloud cover prevented the view of Fitzroy itself, however it was still a nice way to round out my time in El Chalten and whilst the clouds were ever present we avoided the rain.

Next for me its back to El Calafate where I’ve got a flight up to Buenos Aires where I will start my belated journey north. With a late plane departure I’ve got one night in BA before I take yet another long bus (~20 hour) ride to another familiar spot Salta.

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Posted by rhinoc 21:30 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

In Search of a Glacier

El Bolson


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After a few glorious days in Bariloche I decided to head south to El Bolson, a place that is supposedly more beautiful and has better hiking options than here. Arriving in El Bolson I have to say it is not quite as pretty as Bariloche, the mountains in the background are really nice but the lack of a lake seems to just take away that ideal location feel.

The town itself had its local market on that day and with a large hippie population this meant lost of interesting arts, crafts, beer and music on display. An unexpected surprise however was that this is very close to the berry centre of Argentina meaning that there were many local jams to try. Luckily for us we managed to pick a hostel that not only made its own bread (proper home made multigrain bread not the usual sweet bread available here) but also its own jam which made for quite a nice breakfast. With the exception of the markets there is really nothing to do here in El Bolson with the town little more than a gathering point for hikers and indeed most hostels being out of the "centre of town". However it is for the hiking you come not the town itself.

There is a quite beautiful national park nearby that you are able to walk/climb through, finishing in a glacier at the highest point and this was where I was headed. The second day here however it was off to do a bit of a warm up and try one of the closer hiking options, finally deciding on the 20+km trail that took me out of town to the Indians head (a rock face that looks remarkably like a face) and some quite nice albeit small waterfalls (after Iguazu I think only Angel and maybe Victoria falls might compare). The trek wasn't that difficult and certainly provided a good warm up for the next day, the start of three day hike to the glacier.

The hike through the national park was beautiful with the first day spent walking alongside a river that was so ridiculously clear (coincidentally called blue river) it almost seemed fake. Strangely though there was very little in the way of fish in the river and despite seeing some small ones I can only think that perhaps it was too cold for the fish here (the water was freezing cold). The river provided a lovely spot to have lunch and it was a nice easy mostly flat hike to the first refugio.

The refugio's are similar to a camp house with a simple kitchen a bunch of mattress for you to sleep on, a fire and little else. You have the option of buying food here as well but we had opted to bring our own and it certainly made things cheaper with food for the three days coming to the cost of about one meal in the refugio. Still they have everything you need and you are welcomed with anything that they have that you require. Also the park is kept incredibly rubbish free which is nice and actually encourages people to collect any they do see and remove it from the park.

The second day was the hardest day with us having to not only walk back almost an hour to the point we would climb from but then climb up about a mile in altitude. We struggled up the mountain with an Argentinian guy that we met at the first refugio and made it up despite him struggling with a lack of energy. The breakfasts are small over here so they really rely on a big lunch about 2pm and a big dinner and since we didn't reach a place to eat lunch until 4pm he was really struggling. Finally after walking most of the day we arrived at the refugio for a late lunch and some beautiful views of the Andes up nice and close. The walk was beautiful though and once we got to the top of the mountain we walked through nothing but quiet rain forrest with nobody else to be seen or heard. A short hour long walk from there took us to the refugio at the foot of the glacier, leaving us with a 1.5 hour trek up in the morning and then a solid 5 hour trek. It was however as we were sleeping that mother nature reared its ugly head and dumped a storm upon us making the path to the glacier too dangerous the next day, leaving us disappointed.

The remainder of the walk down was also very wet with the lovely rain forrest once again a feature, a feature however that failed to stop us getting wet and indeed dumped any held precipitation upon us when the wind picked up! The rain also made the goat trail very slippery and it took us alot longer to get down than we would of liked but we all got down and back to town alright. The arrival in town was met with the purchasing of a couple of beers and some much needed steak after three days of living vegetarian. With the weather looking uncertain for the next few days I decided I would head back to Bariloche because if I had to spend a couple of days in a town I don't think I could have managed in El Bolson. The decision in front of me is the same that it has been for the last two weeks....do I head south or north?

Posted by rhinoc 19:05 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lakes, Mountains and Forrests.....Paradise?

Bariloche


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After developing a solid appreciation of the Malbec grape it was time to embrace the Argentinian summer and head to the lakes district for some outdoor time. The bus ride was tremendously painful, I'm not sure why but both myself and a Dutch girl i met on the bus agreed. Twenty hours is along time to be on a bus but when the bus stops at random places for an hour at a time it makes things longer, as does playing the same 10 music videos back to back for three hours (don't use Tramat is the moral of the story). However the last couple of hours went some way towards redeeming the trip with amazing views of lakes on one side and mountains on the other that continued all the way into Bariloche, the so called Switzerland of South America. This seems to be almost the perfect location between the mountains, the lakes and then the forests in full bloom, this is definitely a place to be outside.

The first day here was predictably poor weather and whilst the howling gale vetoed the biking option it didn't stop us from hiking out to one of the many lookouts on offer. The hike was pretty steep taking us about 20 minutes to go up a kilometre and the lack of a solid path made the hike down a bit interesting. The views from the top out over the lakes to the mountains were really amazing with almost every angle looking like a potential postcard. The view is that incredible that I will be amazed if even an amateur point and click guy like me can't come up with some gorgeous photos.

The second day the weather improved so back on the cards was the biking circuit 26 kilometers of lovely hilly roads doing a circuit around the forests and lakes. This was a really beautiful ride but was pretty hard work in a couple of spots with the hill quite steep leaving most people walking their bikes up. We decided to make our lives a bit harder and do the six kilometre extension out to the Swiss colony for lunch. The bad news was that required us to ride down a dirt road, the good news being that it meant some quite delicious empanadas for lunch with the waffles just not quite looking up to scratch.

My third and final day was my first solo mission here, taking in a hike to yet another of the lookouts, this time closer to town and therefore providing views of the town amongst the surroundings. The hike was pretty hard going with a solid 2 hours uphill through a combination of main roads and goat tracks but the view from the top was amazing, especially with almost perfect weather. I had planned to have my lunch at the top, I had not planned to seriously upset a falcon who seemed quite bemused at my efforts to take a photo of him in attack position as he was attempting to scare me from the area (I guess I must have been close to the nest). After his fourth attempt and getting quite close I decided it was time to stand up and upon seeing how big I was he aborted his attack run choosing to circle above me as I left the area - in the end face was saved my everyone. The rest of the walk was less exciting with a stroll back down the hill completing both the trek and my time in Bariloche this time. Approximately 2 hours south there is another nice little village called El Bolson that I want to visit with apparently better hiking than here.

Returning back after El Bolson was easy as this was certainly a idyllic location and if you wanted to rest for a couple of day this was as a nice place to do it. With a few days I hiked up to the beach within the Llao Llao national park which is a really gorgeous setting that seems to be mostly private as well which adds to the appeal. We also hiked up to sort of the top of Cerro Cathederal which offers spectacular views of the lake, town and Andes. The hike is a fair way out of town and a steep in parts but the it mostly suffers from the fact that it is easier to get to other view points that offer similar views. In truth anywhere around here that you hike upwards offers incredible views of the lakes and mountains.

Posted by rhinoc 17:50 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Welcome to Wine Country

Mendoza


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Time to leave Buenos Aries with the big question being where to head first but with the apetite whetted with steak and wine, the wine region of Mendoza seemed the logical choice. The region is famous mostly for its Malbec grapes but also produces some solid merlot and cab sav's and sampling a few of these felt like a good way to spend a couple of days. Arriving here on the first day I met some American guys and we decided to jump on some bikes and cycle our way around the vineyards sampling the wines as we went. A day very well spent taking in about four wineries and sampling some very tasty gourmet steaks with a little bit of exercise in between to break things up. Despite some issues with the equipment (our British friend had one too many pieces to his bike at the end of the day) we all came back safe and sound. Leaving the valley it was impossible not to grab a bottle for the night complimenting the steak that we had at one of the better restaurants in town beautifully.

Good food was definitely a theme in Mendoza with the two American guys both liking food as much as I do so every meal we had was absolutely superb owing to the gourmet ingredients on offer. We managed to sample quite a few steaks with sauces made from mushrooms, blue cheese and the like. We also found some nicely done calamari and some smoked salmon lasagne of all things. One day after a particularly big lunch we managed to put together a pretty decent spread of assorted meats, cheeses, olives and fruits ourselves that went exceptionally well with the wine that we continued to sample.

The second day from such humble beginnings, looking like a complete flop at 11am actually turned out to be probably the best day there. Phoning a friend took us on a private winery tour where the guide opened the whole place up to us, going through the whole process in detail. He also showed us around the incredibly impressive cellar (if I ever get a cellar together this is my blue print without question) and tasting areas as well as their extensive library. After the thoroughly enjoyable tour the guide then spent about an hour with us going through the wines on offer, providing all the detailed tasting notes. After lightening their wine collection by a few bottles at a great price (probably not going to effect their yearly four million litres of production but every bit counts) we headed home and took in a couple of bottles and a quiet night.

The next day (my last in Mendoza) we decided to get out of city and into the foothills of the Andes. I came here thinking that the Andes were much closer and that some good hiking would easy to organise, sadly this isn't quite the case with most of the trekking being a few hours away. Nevertheless we found a place nearby that we could get some hiking in and spent a good few hours amongst the foothills around a quite spectacular looking river that wound its way through the valley. We also had the opportunity to break up the hiking with some repelling down a rock face right next to a very refreshing waterfall. It was definitely great to get away from the city and out into the country and with that on my mind I decided to head to Bariloche, the lakes district of Argentina with the last month of summer offering the perfect weather for exploring the outdoors.

Posted by rhinoc 16:31 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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