Hola chicos, hace calor, en realidad hace un poco calor, pero el ciel es azul, no esta nevando y me gusta Cafayate. Es un pueblo in el norte casi tres horas de Salta y situado en un valle muy lindo con las bodegas de vino y todo alrededor hay muchas montanas.
Okay, for those non spanish speakers, I’m finally back in the sunshine. It’s still cold enough to freeze the bollocks off a horse at night, but the blue skies are back so I am happy. I left Tafi del Valle and for a while didn’t think the bus would make it out of the valley, it crawled up the frost covered road at a snails pace until finally we broke above the clouds and were on our way. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up three hours later we were driving past vineyards under a blue sky into a beautiful valley surrounded by forested mountains. The contrast was just remarkable.
So here I am in Cafayate which I love. It’s a really small and charming town with a large leafy plaza and quiet streets populated by the most glossy, friendly street dogs I have ever come across. The hostel I’m staying in is lovely and the collective nationalities are Greek, Argentinan, French Canadian and German so everyone speaks Spanish, which actually has been fine. Plus last night Martina cooked everyone Goulash and Macaroni, including a gallon of red wine and a huge bag of doughnuts. We all huddled around the wood burner in the kitchen with my ipod speakers playing, feasting away! Seriously by 3am this morning I was speaking Spanish like a native!
Yesterday afternoon I went trekking through the Quebrada de las Conchas, a huge area of immense and strange rock formations along the road heading north. It was incredibly windy but worth it for some really spectacular views. Most of the rock is either rose coloured or a deep orange and in places different coloured sediments have formed over the years to produce outcrops of folded and twisted multi coloured layers. Tomorrow I have the difficult task of buying woolly socks, finding a sleeping bag and then on Friday I’m off horse riding for two days and sleeping out in the wild. I must be mad!
I think I have accidentally entered another country without realising it. Yesterday I was sitting on the bus winding up through lush green forested hills and citrus groves on the way to my current destination and today the scenery is all white, grey and brown and oh so cold. Tafi del Valle is a small, pretty cute town nestled into a valley completely surrounded by hills and mountains providing it with a rather unique, and apparently unpredictable, micro climate. Yesterday afternoon, when the sun was shining, it was pleasantly warm to sit outside drinking beer and eating empanadas in a cafe. Last night it did get pretty darn cold but I wasn’t quite prepared to wake up and find that it was snowing. It’s not allowed to snow, honestly, I’m supposed to be on holiday!
So sadly couldn’t go horse riding as I’d planned. Luckily the hostel I’m in, Nomade, is lovely. The guys who run it are big Bob Marley and Che Guevara devotees and sit around playing reggae and drinking mate all day. There are a few other Argentian backpackers and a 71 year old American guy from Southern California who has come over from Tucuman to do some writing, so I’ve been practising my spanish, playing guitar and with the puppy, Chichi Mani who is so adorable but a little too fond of biting my fleece! Continue reading
So it’s about 11.30am, I’m sitting at Cuchi Corral, a lookout point high up over the valley about 9km west of La Cumbre. For the next two and half hours I drink mate and sit enjoying the sunshine waiting for a thin length of nylon attached on top of a stick to change direction so that it blows away from the edge of the ledge. Around about 2pm the material begins to flutter in all directions and then, finally, the winds change direction and start to blow into the hillside. And why, you ask, am I aimlessly waiting for the winds to change? Because now, I can go paragliding.
Fifteen minutes later I am strapped into my harness seat, my instructor Fecho is strapped into his and attached to me and behind us, spread out on the ground, is a huge orange and white parachute attached to us via hundreds (it seems) of brightly coloured ropes. Suddenly a guy in front is pulling my harness and we are running down the slope, the wind catches under the chute and pulls us up, higher and higher until we are soaring over the valley far above the heads of those below. “¿Vale la peina?” (Is it worth it?) says Fecho behind me. “Si, si, si!” I reply grinning like an idiot. “Vale la Peina!”
Flying was amazing, really indescribly, wonderfully, breath-takingly amazing. There is enough wind to keep you circling over the valley, twisting and turning above the trees, indefinitely. Once you are airbourne nothing else matters. I forgot that I hadn’t eaten breakfast, that I sort of needed the toilet, that I have another overnight bus journey tonight, everything but the sensation of gliding through the air. I was so preoccupied I even forgot to be annoyed that George Bush is still president, that is the magic of flying! I don’t think I’ve fully come back down to earth yet.
I’ve spent the past few days chilling out in Cordoba, a big student town…in fact I accidentally gate-crashed a graduation ceremony yesterday morning which was quite interesting. It was a nice return to civilisation, lots of people in the hostel, got to watch Liverpool loose to AC Milan, sorry but after beating West Ham in the FA Cup final last year they had it coming! Spent yesterday afternoon visiting an old Jesuit Estancia north of Cordoba with a swiss girl from the hostel, Francie. It was a beautiful chapel and courtyards but, given that it took an hour bus ride and a rather expensive cab journey 14km down a dirt track to get there, not entirely sure whether it was entirely worth the effort but hey, all good fun.
I actually cooked dinner for myself last night. Now I’m not sure how I’ve managed to avoid this for the three weeks I’ve been hostelling it, but finally I had to get out the pots and pans and get stuck in. I got so carried away I even made porridge for myself this morning. Actually the porridge was definitely a necessity after the previous night. Typically how these things go is; you are merrily drinking a quiet beer chatting to people in the hostel and then the next thing it’s 2am and everyone is on their way out to a club, I’m so easily led. This time it was a club called Carreras about 15 mins out of town, we managed miraculously to get through the hoards at the entrance (it is only the English that can appreciate an orderly queue) and inside, I think on the basis that we spoke English, (drunken Argentians really love the English)! I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a packed club in my life, we were dancing like sardines to lots of cheesy music (the Argentinos love a bit of Here Comes the Hotstepper it gets played everywhere!) and then randomly, at around 4am, to an Argentian rock band. Not sure if the whole Indie rock thing quite works in Spanish but the crowd were loving it! Got back at 6.30am, then had to get up at 10.30am to check out, clever no?
Anyway I have gone on another of my random detours and am now in the very cute town called La Cumbre in the Cordoban sierras and I’m off paragliding in the morning! Right, time to go and forrage for food, I tell you, this travelling business is hard work…
Three bus rides and eighteen hours later I manage to arrive in San Agustin del Valle Fertil, a tiny no-man town in the San Juan district. I was tired, I was dirty and I’m pretty certain I had badger breath that could have intoxicated small rodents. So I was over the moon when the hostel I’d booked actually turned up with a sign at the bus station to drive me the five blocks to Campo Base. I was also staying there with an entertaining German guy called Paul who has to be the most accident prone traveller in South America (typhoid, Dengue Fever, burns and many drunken injuries to name a few) and a lovelyÂ Israeli guy Roni whoÂ is obsessed with cooking for us.Â By about 10pm we had arranged a tour for the next day, brought food and wine and had a full on Parilla happening in the back yard with the hostel guys and aÂ feast of steaks, rice and garlic breadÂ to enjoy. Â
Having finally got to sleep at around 1.30am we then had to leave at 8am this morning (I think we actually got up at about 7.45!) to visit the two national parks, Talampaya and Ischigualsto. Talampaya is a caynon that has been eroded between two huge outcrops of huge, sheer orange rock faces which are really spectacular. It almost feels like you are looking at the ruins of some ancient middle eastern city rather than the result of glacial erosion. In true Argentian style they have named all the formations that bear any passing resemblance to an animal, person or object, so with a stretch of imagination you have a camel, a condor and the face of Jesus! OnÂ the way out of the park we spotted several maras, mid sized rodents that look deceptively like large hares until they stand up and walk off on all four legs looking remarkably like top heavy minature deers with a slightly wobbly gait. There was also the odd condor gliding gracefully above us and a vicuna disappearing over the horizon.
After lunch we headed over to Ischigualsto, also known as ‘Valle de la Luna’ with all manner of weird and wonderful landscapes; layers of ancient coloured sediment, fossils, blood red outcrops of stone and strangely eroded rock formations. The skies were blue the small clouds were white and the views were remarkable. This country is full of the most unbelievable contrasts of landscapes. Two weeks ago I was looking at picture perfect lakes and forested mountains, one week ago I was trekking up snow capped peaks in the Andes, two days ago I was walking on dunes of black volcanic rock and today I’m looking across lunar landscapes.
Sadly the only bus out of this tiny place to the next big town leaves at 3am (don’t ask) so we three have just gorged ourselves on another of Roni’s masterful creations and we are checking email before going back for dessert (chocolate melted in bananas!) and the bus station. Sadly the boys are then going up to Tucuman while I am headed south to the city of Cordoba. Time to join civilisation again (and do laundry before I am reduced to wearing my bikini as underwear) before heading north and apparently there’s an interesting spot to go paragliding, now I wonder if that is covered by my travel insurance….
Under the recommendations of the Footprint guide book and my friend Nero from Buenos Aires I decided that I’d done a little too much partying and drinking in Mendoza and set out south to a tiny town called Marlague to visit volcanoes in the Payunia Reserve. Five hours later the bus pulled into the tiny bus station and I managed to explain to the pick-up truck taxi where the Eco hostel I’d booked was. Ten minutes later down several dirt tracks we arrived at two buildings next to a farm which was the International Hostel, according to the sign. As I walked in a guy held the door open for me whilst carrying a freshly skinned rabbit in his other hand, it later transpired that the rabbit was dinner!
I was the only backpacker staying there along with a random but sweet French girl who was working on building another part of the hostel along with four builders who were staying there too. So we all sat around and had a very good rabbit stew for dinner and watched the Argentinan Celebrity Big Brother on TV whilst bemoaning the state of celebrity in our respective countries!
On saturday it transpired that there wasn´t a tourist trip going to Payunia but there was a random geology field outing of 20 or so amateur Argentian geology enthusiasts along with a visiting Volcanologist. How could I resist? It was a bizarre day but everyone was lovely, trying out various english phrases, patiently trying to explain pyroclastic rock formations and calderas to me in Spanish, and sharing their Mate, biscuits and sandwiches with me. Apparently I have been lucky enough to see layers of rocks deposited from a volcanic eruption without lava, due I think to pressure building up beneath water so the rocks just exploded out without bothering with all the meddlesome business of melting into magma first. Of course I may have lost some detail in the translation, luckily I was excused from the multi choice test at the end of the day!
The landscape in Payunia is simply stunning. Huge volcanic peaks topped with snow against blue skies. Vast green olive scrub lands with heards of Guanacos and the occasional Ostrich speeding into the distance. There are huge dunes of black volcanic rock called the pamaps negros with burnt red rocks scattered over the top and occaisional stripes of plants streaking across them. Outcrops of red rocks in the grasslands and turquoise river channelsÂ cutting through deep gorges. Bizarre and very beautiful.
Today my bus helpfully leaves at 00:45 so I have borrowed the most battered mountain bike in existence to cycle the 6km into town to find that, thankfully even in the middle of nowhere, there is an internet cafe open on Sunday! Thank god for technology!
I decided to head away from the lush vineyards and avenues of Mendoza in favour of some more challenging and rugged landscapes. So on Wednesday morning Saskia and I found ourselves at a small mountain refugio tucked into the base of the Andes and about to set off on a five hour trek with an Irishman, Killian, a thai girl carrying a handbag who had to hire some hiking boots, an american guy with worrying professional looking gear and a Brazilian trekking guide called Umberto with a huge rucksack and walking poles. It had snowed the previous night so from the moment we set off we were trekking through four inches of snow and having to follow in the footsteps of our guide. We were also accompanied by Stinky (mini dog), Dorf (even minier dog dragging a large tumour under it’s belly which didn’t seem to bother it!) and Luna (normal but skinny dog). The thai girl was fine and the american guy was struggling at the back all the way up – all the gear, no idea!
It took about two and half hours to reach the peak of Mount Aranales, the smallest mountain in the range at a paultry 3300m but the views from the top were spectacular. We’d emerged above the clouds and it really felt like you were sitting on top of the world. Umerbto whipped out spare hats, gloves and a stove to brew us some tea and I dug out my chocolate and cafe liquor from Mendoza! What more could you need?
Saskia and I were staying the night in the refugio along with a swedish couple, Linda and Stefan. As the sun went down the temperature definitely plummented. We stoked up the fire and had to dry our soaking wet snow sodden shoes in front of it. (Unfortunately our trousers, socks and tops that got dried on the radiator do now have attractive brown shinny burn patches!) Then we wrapped ourselves in blankets, drank wine and played cards until we went to bed.
The next day a lot of the snow had melted and the walking was much easier. This time we trekkedÂ alongside a semi frozen stream to a base camp in the centre of many of the larger peaks, again accompanied by Stinky and Dorf! The views were similarly stunning and all the more enjoyable as my feet were dry this time! There is something about the contrast between white snow, black rock and perfectly blue skies with the clouds rolling away below you that defies description…
Imagine, it is three o clock in the afternoon, it`s pleasantly warm with a blue sky dotted with streaks of white clouds and a cool breeze blowing. You are sitting on a small terrace drinking a large of glass of a musky full bodied Malbec with a few friends. Below you stretch out the rows of vineyards turning burnt amber after the harvest. In the distance the Andes with their snow capped peaks stretch over the horizon. And that my friends is the reason you quit a perfectly good job, leave your home and set out across the world with a backpack.
So I`m in Mendoza at the moment, a small relaxed city in the West of Argentina and one of the main wine growing areas in the country. I ran into an English couple walking into town and somehow we ended up having a three hour breakfast near the main plaza and ended up going along to their hostel which was so much nicer than the one I`d booked. It`s a small relaxed place called Hostel Lao, with a lounges and hammocks in the garden and a rather over-friendly Alastian dog that pesters everyone all day to throw his stick for him in the garden.
Yesterday four of us bussed out to the vineyards and hired bikes to visit the bodegas. We managed only three as we decided to cycle to the one furthest away first and some idiot left me in charge with the map reading and we may have taken a slight, if scenic detour. It was such a cute place, called Carinae, named after a star constellation you can see from the region,Â a beautiful cream building set amongst the vines. We decided to pay the extra 5 pesos (less than a pound) to try their best Malbec. Oh my god it was so good. I brought the slightly cheaper option though which I am going to have to drink soon as it`s a little too big to carry around! We also visited a chocolate and liquor bodega which was started by the owner as a hobby 20 years ago. He basically makes odd and interesting combinationsÂ of preserves and spirits. We got to try a few of theÂ combinations and, as a result,Â I am now the proud owner of a bottle of chocolate and cafe liquor which is quite simply delicious and a jar of aubergine pate! We were wobbling a little more on the bikes by the time we returned them.
There were lakes which were stunningly beautiful, then there was food, there was a drinking game called spoons, there was beer, there was dancing, there was Elvis and Shakira and at some point around 6am there were empanadas. Now there is tiredness and hungoverness and I am going in search of banana licuardos!
Okay, banana licuardo done, feeling a little more human and I have just a few more hours left in Bariloche. This place has been a lot of fun this past week. Wednesday was a long trip through the national park and a series of short walks. Driving along the lake you see the snow covered peak of Mount Tronador in the background. We walked to two beautiful slender waterfalls, one in a grove through a forest of bamboo and the other overlooking a sheer drop into the mountains. We also walked to a black glacier, small but pretty cool with a lake covered in ice. I have been temporarily adopted by the boys, Phil, Glen and Gary who were very entertaining all day.
Thursday was a non crazy adventure day, checked email, did laundry and hung out with Craig eating chocolate (a local obession), drinking coffee and watching the Motorcycle Diaries with spanish subtitles. That film is so much more interesting to watch from Argentina than it is back in the UK, especially when a lot of the filing is of places you are in or going to in the next few weeks!
Yesterday the boys and I hired a car and went off to drive the seven lakes route from Bariloche up to Saint Martin de Los Andes. Really beautiful day and a beautiful drive that goes past, well seven lakes. The road is a dirt track for about half of it but the views are stunning. We had a picnic lunch by a farm at one of the lakes with white ducks running around and calfs mooing loudly in the background. Whilst stopping en route back to town with 150km still to go we got a puncture. I start to internally panic and wonder what to do when I notice the boys are merrily getting the spare tyre out of the boot and changing it over. Do they take guys aside when they reach puberty and just teach them this stuff, I would not have had a clue! Tyre changed and we managed to get back in time for dinner at the hostel. After which things got rather entertaining, we moved onto a famous Irish pub in town called Wilkenneys where there was much beer and more dancing. Especially when Craig and I requested Cara Luna, our favourite spanish song from school in Bariloche (everyone else thought we were mad but it’s a fab song!). So three hours sleep and I’m still standing but looking forward to sleeping blissfully on the luxury transport they call buses in Argentina!
Although I’ve loved living in the city for the past month it’s wonderful to be in the countryside again. The bus ride down to Bariloche went surprising quickly. I say bus, it’s more like travelling business class on an aeroplane. Huge comfy seats that fully recline, blankets and cushions, bad american films to watch, meals and snacks brought around by the on board steward and even wine with dinner. This is definitely the way to do a 20 hour bus journey!
Bariloche is beautiful. And to say that just doesn’t begin to describe it. The town, which is like a quaint austrian ski resort, lots of wooden rooves, gift shops, outdoor adventure places and chocolate cafes, is situated on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi in the nacional park of the same name. Perfectly deep blue water stretches across to distant mountain peaks, the tree lines just beginning to turn darkest amber and streaks of the first snowfall on the year twisting between the peaks. It is simply stunning!
After arriving on Sunday I went exploring while Craig was meeting his new family he’s staying with here for his spanish course. In the main square loads of locals bring down their huge Saint Bernard dogs and puppies. Oh my god these puppies are so cute, I went up to chat to one of the guys and practice my spanish, it did backfire a little as I ended up having to talk myself out of a coffee date with a 50 year old guy but it was fine! The puppy fell asleep in my lap, maybe I can smuggle it home…
Yesterday I caught the local bus along the side of the lake to a place called Llao Llao where you catch a boat out to the islands in the lake. I ran into one of the guys from my room in the hostel at the bus stop, an Israeli guyÂ called Elan so we decided to join forces for the day (!). Once over on Isla Victoria we decided to leave the group and walk around the central part of the island for two hours. Somehow we ended up totally off the paths and clambering up through the woods to see the views from the top. After nearly two hours we decided to trace our steps back and managed to get back in plenty of time for the boat. Took loads and loads of photos, everywhere you look is just like the perfect picture postcard and although it is pretty darn cold it is beautifully sunny.
The boat continued on to Parque Nacional Las Arraynes, a forest of myrtle trees with unreal looking cinnamon trunks, very mythical. And then a picturesque hour boat ride back to the puerto. I was knackered by the time I got back to town,Â discovered my room had been taken over by four highly amusing guys from Birmingham and Dublin who informed me there was a water-saving initiative going on that day, so a minimum of two people had to shower together at anyone time! Anyway, we ended up drinking beers in the hostel bar (1 poundÂ for a 3/4 litre bottle of the local Quilmes, how good is that!) and me loosing disasterously at shit head until dinner! The hostel by the way is really nice, comfy, clean, with bar, free meals. I kind of feel like I’m cheating a little at the moment. I mean surely I’m supposed to be travelling on crowded buses with chickens and livestock and staying in run down shacks with no flushing water, not fully reclining seats on long journeys, on board meals and comfy hostel beds that get made up for me every afternoon?