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Crossing the Andes ... to the Brazilian beaches Nine months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, bolivia, Argentina and Brazil


ARGENTINA | Sunday, 29 April 2007 | Views [1315]

Buenos Aires

Well, it´s true what they say about Buenos Aires.  It definately has a European feel to it.  Only on a grander scale than I´d imagined, with huge highways cutting across the city and tall buildings looming over the pedestrians below.  We spend a few days exploring the capital, from the cobbled streets of arty San Telmo where antique dealers work alongside  couples dancing tango and dreadlocked hippies selling jewellery and bags, to the hip Palermo with its trendy street cafes, shopping malls and couples dancing tango in dance halls (where we get our baptism in Tango too).
The rich and powerful Argentinians of history are laid to rest in La Recoleta cemetary, in elaborate tombs laid out like streets of wealthy terraced houses.  We pass by one of the many resident stray cats tucking into a fresh pigeon as we head to the only name on the list we recognise.  Eva Peron´s grave is the star in this morbid tourist attraction.  It´s a subtle plaque marking her place with her family, and relatively inconspicuous bar the crowd of tourists following the guided commentary.  We discretely listen in as the heavens begin to darken above us.  The downpour soon begins so we head to the shelter of MALBA, Buenos Aires´ answer to the Tate Modern.  Smaller but equally obscure.
So, the Vegetarian Issue ... it´s now almost 20 years since I took the vow and I´ve managed to stay pretty much meat free for the trip, even faced with the ´choose the chicken part´ menus in Bolivia (I picked egg).  But this is the land of the gaucho.  Siga La Vaca is calling and my tastebuds are craving for a taste of the flesh.  So what´s a girl to do?  Opt for an all you can eat buffet and introduce the cow to the grass.  Just a taster for now.  But it tastes good.  Etienne devours the rest of the herd and we head into the night for tango class.  You gotta love the Argentineans.

Parque National los glaciares (El Calafate & El Chalten)

We fly south to Patagonia, on a cheap shuttle flight that makes hourly stops.  We stepoff in El Calafate with the sun shining, the breeze warm and a queezy feeling in my stomach, which isn´t sure whether it´s going up or down.  And we head to a parilla for more meat on a stick.  After dinner (before dinner, after lunch, before lunch) we´re followed around by huge friendly dogs.  Smart strays who´ve realised that accompanying you like your chosen pet gets them fed.  And fed well judging by the size of them.  
We take a walk to Lake Argentina as the winds pick up.  It´s a beautiful scene with autumn tinted reeds blowing at the edges of turquoise waters and birds flying above on a treadmill in the sky.  But it can´t even begin to compare with what awaits us.  The Perito Moreno glacier is just breathtaking.  It is immense.  It stretches beyond my panoramic view and from the waters edge it towers high above.  And it is a creamy blue colour, melting into a turquoise waters at its edge.  Despite the now torrential rain and gale force winds, we continue the tour on boat to get a closer view.  It´s freezing and we´re soaked through to the skin, but we brave it out on deck until numbness starts to take over.
Despite our intentions to cross into Chile, we end up a few hours north in El Chalten (hit the alarm clock snooze and the bus leaves without you).  The journey is beautiful.  Along the shores of turquoise waters set in the vast dry steppe stretching out to the horizon.  We arrive at the foot of Cerro (mount) Fitzroy.  The town is small and sparse, with a small selection of accomodation options and a few tiny grocery stores (the contents of which would present a challenge on Ready, Steady, Cook!).  We somehow find ourselves in a flatshare arrangement with Rob and Carol.  She is an insane athelete, the recent winner of a 100 mile (yes, one zero zero) race, and he is her more physically challenged entertaining boyfriend!  They´ve just run 2 marathons, one in Ushuia and one in the Antarctic (yes, the A N T A R C T I C).
For a week, we trek for an average of 6 hours every day along various trails that start at our doorstep.  Rob and Carol leave the house about 4 hours before we wake up, so it´s just the two of us.  The landscapes are stunning, with forest covered hillsides hiding woodpeckers and wild hares, rivers snaking through wide valleys, and glacier lakes full of tiny icebergs.  Sometimes it´s a tough uphill climb (especially with my rib still repairing itself) but the reward of reaching a peak where we can look out across Patagonia with fossils in the ground under our feet and whisps of snowclouds above our heads makes it all worthwhile.  Oh, and tucking into cheese and salami sandwiches (yummy, meeeaat, mmmm).

Ruta 40 (Los Antiguos, Esquel, El Bolson & Bariloche)

Following in the footsteps of Che, the hop-on hop-off bus leads us north along the gravel track of Ruta 40 (it also breaks at a road cafe in the middle of nowhere where I get to kiss a Guanaco - no tongues).  In Los Antiguos, we tour the cherry farms and buy sweet raspberry liquor from the only man in town not wearing a beret (we never did get to the bottom of that idiosyncrasy).  Further north, we take a 4x4 tour from Perito Moreno to Cuevas de los Manos.  Juan, our rude boy guide, has suped up the jeep with so many interior blue lights that it feels like travelling in a solarium.  It´s a strange contrast of history and future.  The cave, high above a canyon, was inhabited by people 10,000 years ago.  It´s covered with ancient cave paintings of guanacos, ostriches and hundreds of hands.  Apparently the paint was made by mixing coloured earth with urine and was then blown from their mouths.  The guide compares it to the modern day Japanese who she tells us drink their urine for its health benefits (I shall be having a little conversation with my Japanese friend when I get home).
Continuing the unofficial Che pilgrimage we arrive at Esquel and invest in a Mate.  It´s the national drink of Argentina - basically a special container from which you drink the tea of yerba mate leaves through a silver straw.  Legend says that the Goddesses of the Moon and the Cloud came to the Earth to visit, but they instead found a jaguar that was going to attack them. An old man saves them, and, in compensation, the Goddesses gave the old man a new kind of plant, from which he could prepare a "drink of friendship".  And so the Argentineans carry around flasks (like old people in the UK) and pass around these hot drinks like sharing a bong.  For us it´s novel.  And helps us camouflage a little (or amuses the Argys that the gringos have learnt to make mate).
We take a tour to Los Alerces national park, a series of long lakes surrounded by beautiful green forest.  As it turns out, we seem to have chosen a popular destination for the over-60s.  We stroll through the northern part of the park, taking plenty of breaks to catch our breath, pull up our stockings and wait for Mavis to catch up, before boarding the ferry to get a view from the water´s edge and each the ultimate attraction - aptly named El Abuelo (grangfather), a 4,000 year old tree.  We decide to let the group leave without us and check into a lodge on the lake´s edge, joining an elderly couple and a fat ladrador with a wooden sign around his neck asking people not to feed him ´por favour, no me alimenta´.  The wife takes a fancy to Etienne and chats with ´Francito´ (the little french one) whenever she gets the chance.  We hitchhike to the start of trails, riding in the back of the bread delivery van with pumping dance music and blacked out windows, and find that we´re the only people on the paths.  We pass fields of grazing sheep, climb hillsides covered in wild flowers, and cross streams where we fill our water bottles and take a break to eat lunch.  We lose ourselves (really, we got very lost) in dense thicket and eventually emerge at a waterfall covered head to toe in spiky seeds shaped like mines.  Heading back, we pick blackberries at the roadside and get covered in the dust blown into the air by passing cars and buses.  Time to get back on the backpacker route.
We take a day trip to travelin, a welsh settlement town that still holds onto its heritage.  The street names are typically Argentinean and it´s disappointing not to see signs written in unpronounceable gallic.  But there are Welsh teahouses so we stuff ourselves with sandwiches and cakes watered down with a good brew.
Our next stop on Ruta 40 is El Bolson, a hippy town where the evolution of crafts has led to an small forest of trees carved into all manner of people, animals and abstract ideas post the last joint.  From here we set out on a 2 day trek, spending a night at a refugio in the mountains (I am avoiding camping at all costs).  At times it´s an almost vertical climb, at others we´re just rambling through forest.  It´s all very beautiful although difficult to take in while I´m struggling to breathe and sweat is dripping between my shoulder blades.  When we arrive at the glacier, I forget I was ever tired.  Until I lie down on the thin mattress in my sleepingbag and pass out, sleeping soundly despite the loud, gutteral incessant snoring from one of the other 19 people in the room.  Woken early by the sun streaming through the window and 19 people zipping open sleeping bags, I click my hip back into place and we have breakfast next to the beautiful setting of forest and mountain and glacier and sun before setting off.  We take a longer downhill route to return, stopping for lunch at the crystal clear blue waters of Rio Azul.  Flowing down from the glacier, it´s icy cold despite the hot sun so no swimming with the frozen trout now.  We follow the horse trails the rest of the way to the pub marking the end.  I rescue a tiny field mouse from the playful claws of a cat and settle down with a good pint of home made brew.
I don´t know what I was thinking when I got dressed this morning.  We´re cycling around the lakes of Bariloche in the Parque National Nahuel Huapi (happy nappy), climbing steep hillsides and speeding down the winding roads, and I´m wearing a pair of skin tight jeans.  Even on the flat I´stretching the denim to keep up with Mr Tour de France.  There are no segregated cycle lanes and we´re edged off the asphalt by oversized cars and chased back on by oversized dogs.  Nonetheless the setting is beautiful and there are enough miradors for regular de-saddling and reshaping.  After 4 tiring hours we head back to the hostel to rest our legs.  We meet our new room mate - a 50 year old man greets us in his Y-fronts.  Unsure what to say or do, we make polite conversation and escape to the local irish pub for a refreshing pint.  The next day is spent attempting a beautiful trek through a popular winter ski resort to a lake high in the mountains.  We pass the ubiquitous Israelis carrying backbacks twice their size and greet the returning early birds - ´falta poco´ -  as we climb the final stretch.  Again, as we´ve come to expect from Argentina, the reward of reaching the top is worth all of the pain in getting there.  Time to head back.  I choke on a fly and almost collapse a lung.


My relationship with wine began with a bottle of Lambrusco as a teenager and has not developed much in sophistication since then.  I am not exactly a wine conoisseur.  But Mendoza´s principal industry being wine, it looks like I´m about to get an education.  We hire bikes to tour the bodegas, starting the day at a working museum where we can follow the grapes through the whole process right up until I have a glass of red in my hand.  And a white.  Delicious.  Then it´s back on the bikes and onto the next.  And repeat.  And tehre´s a chocolate liquor somewhere along the way.  And olive oil. And more wine. And the 12km ride back to the shop!
Mendoza has the best tenedor libre (all you can eat) in the whole of Argentina.  A huge dining room where you select from hundreds of different salad, potato and pasta options, have fish and meat cooked to order and gorge yourself on all manner of puddings and icecream.  We pay 3 pounds and roll ourselve away.
We take a few days out to recover our health, bussing to a tiny village at the base of Aconcagua national park.  The star attraction in Puente del Inca is the stunning colours and incredible rock formation that creates a natural bridge over the river, although the whole area is surrounded by mountains of amazing colours watched over by the highest peak in South America.  Tiny villages are spotted along the deserted valley and lonely lorries pass through on their way to Chile.  Naturally we spend the days trekking, meeting more horses and mules than people and watching the condors fly over our heads.  The nights drop below zero so the only thig to do is entomb ourselves in sleeping bags and blankets - wimpy really considering the Argies voluntarily camping in the mountains around.


Before we arrive in Salta, we break the 24 hour bus journey with a night in San Augustine de Valle Fertil and explore the desert landscapes.  The valley of the moon is not as visually impressive as its namesake in Chile although it´s amusing to follow a trail of unusual rock formations with painfully obvious names such as ´the mushroom´.   Apparently it´s a site of worldwide paleantological interest but there are few obvious signs that the dinosaurs once roamed this land and even there most important discovery is officially housed in the Natural History Museum in London. At the Talampaya national park we cycle through a canyon to check out the graffiti left behind by our prehistoric ancestors and encounter animals like the fox who demonstrate an amazing ability to survive in harsh conditions.

I arrive in Salta with parasites.  Nasty little bugs have invaded me and are digging tunnels under my skin.  I´ve had some nasty encounters with mosquitos but this beats even the worst enslaught from my arch enemy.  I can´t be sure where they came from - the hostel was filthy, as was the night bus, and I have an uncontrollable habit of playing with stray dogs.  Given they are biting my ass, I am pointing the blame at the hygiene standard of Hostelling International´s Campo Base.
We hire a car and set out on a road trip of northern Argentina, following the route of the Train to the Clouds through green forest, colourful mountains and the open plains of the Puna.  Bar a few trucks, we´re a lone vehicle travelling across a huge expanse as far as the eye can see, leaving behind a trail of dust thrown up from teh ravel road which covers everything at the roadside in a paint of grey.  It´s a bumpy ride and we push the suspension of the Europcar.  At the height of over 4,000 metres we reach the Salinas Grandes.  These salt plains are not as expansive as those in bolivia, but the landscape changes faster and thereby creates a starker contrast.  Plus this time I get to see the spectacle dry and experience the blinding sensation of the bright whiteness.  We bend ourselves into shapes for the camera and get back on the road. 
The altitude drops quickly as we drive to Purmamarca through mountina ranges of purple, blue, green, red, yello and orange.  The little village is based at the foot of the Cerro de Siete Colores (mountain of 7 colours) and is a technicolour dreamcoat for geologists.  It really is a very cute, picturesque place with a magical feel to it.  We walk to a waterfall hidden away in the elbow of one mountain and bathe naked under a waterfall before wandering aound the crafts market.  I take the wheel again and drive on along a beautiful road that winds through dense cloudforest.  It is a rally of death.  I brake quickly to avoid a suicidal dog, but my reaction is not as quick when a flock of birds cross in front of us and a wing collides with the windscreen.  Beautiful butterflies are fllowing a similar fate so I slow to almost snails pace (although probably still caught a few of those too).  I´m trying to minimise our impact on the environment we´re invading but it´s a difficult assault course.  We pass a man beating a snake on the road and I accept defeat; a bag of nerves.  Etienne has to take over.  I close my eyes and hope we´re not the next victims as cars race around the bends and barely slow to pass us on the narrow one-lane stretches.  In San Lorenzo we hire some horses and take a more ecologically friendly visit into the forest.  The horses are disobedient and walk at their own pace up against the trees and hedges at the side of the road, battering us with branches and covering us with cobwebs from giant spiderwebs (at which point I totally freak out to the apparent amusement of the guide).  Nature 1 - 1 Us.


We fly to iguazu and check into a smart hotel.  Nothing but total luxury for the boy´s birthday.  Unfortunately the rains ae coming down so it´s not quite the lounging by the pool drinking cocktails that we´d imagined - although picking grapefruits from the trees and tucking into them in front of a movie in English is a pretty good alternative.  Little things, like English, can be so pleasing when you´re travelling.  The rains have made the falls spectacular (although it´s tough to imagine them being anythign but).  We spend 2 days at the national park, viewing the whole stretch from above and getting soaked from underneath.  They are nothing short of phenomenal.  We cross a wide tranquil river until we reach the Garganta del Diablo, where millions of tons of water tumble over a sheer drop in the earth´s plate.  It´s astonishing.  And deafening.  And cold and wet.  A specially constructed pathway takes us along the top of the falls where we follow the inevitable destiny of the rivers and streams that join together in a sudden vertical drop.  And then there´s the pathway underneath which is perhaps more picturesque, with rainbows appearing in the spray created by the falls.  Although equally as wet.  It feels like an amazing priviledge to be here.  The falls are one of the most beautiful things I´ve ever seen, set in a frest abundant with life (coaties, monkeys and butterflies that settle on your clothes).  We cross to the Brazilian side to get a panoramic view from a little distance away before leaving the falls, and Argentina, behind.

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