March 28, 2012

The Road to Uyuni

From Salta, we took a 7-hour overnight bus to the Argentina/Bolivia border town of La Quiaca, with two other couples from Australia and France that we met along the way. Once we got our visas and passed through immigration, we took another 2 hour bus ride to Tupiza, Bolivia

We arrived on a special day in Tupiza because there was a parade celebrating the Dia del Mar or “Day of the Ocean”. That’s funny, we thought, because Bolivia doesn’t even border an ocean. It turns out that they were celebrating the day that Bolivia lost the war against Chile, which in turn, cost them their ocean border. I’ve never heard of a parade for losing a war.

The Tupizans were out in full force and the parade route was packed 3-5 people deep. It’s a good thing that Bolivians are, by nature, extremely short people. Steve was at least a foot and a half above everyone else in the crowd.

Tupiza was the starting point for our 4-day four-wheeling tour through the Bolivian countryside, culminating with Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flats.

Day 1
It was time for introductions. Gemma and Dave are best friends from the UK who have been traveling around South America for three and a half months. Tours are booked with 4 passengers, and we were incredibly lucky to be paired up with these guys. They are super laid back and easy to talk to. After 4 days in a car together, we became fast friends.

Milton was our 28-year old driver and guide. He’s a Tupiza native and has been touring people to Uyuni for 10 years. He speaks very good English and has an impressive collection of American pop hits from the 80s and 90s. There were 3 trucks in our convoy…Milton’s brother and cousin were the other two drivers.

Natalia was our cook extraordinaire. When not preparing meals with the two other cooks, she sat in the back of the truck knitting, chewing on coco leaves, or napping. She’s a very sweet lady.

And last but not least, our trusty Toyota Land Cruiser.

These trucks were comical. Ours had about 300,000 rigorous kilometers on it. The drivers were constantly checking the suspension, engine and tires. The windshield wipers didn’t work. The locks froze overnight. To get the windows up, we had to pull up on the glass with our hands at the same time as pressing the button. One morning we saw one of the drivers pumping up his truck’s tires with a bike pump.

From Tupiza we traveled about 7.5 hours over 200 kilometers. First we stopped at Quebrada de Palala to view the needle-like red rock formations.

From there we entered El Sillar or “Valley of the Moon” where erosion has caused the countryside to look like a lunar landscape. This is llama farming country. The llamas are farmed for their wool and their meat, and to our surprise, were wearing colorful tassels on their ears. When we asked Milton what the tassels were for, his very matter-of-fact answer was, “fashion”.

Along the drive we passed through several tiny llama farming villages of no more than 200 people, and eventually arrived at the village where we would spend the night. At 13,780 feet, San Antonio de Lipez sits at the base of Volcano Uturuncu.

We had time to hike up the hillside and play with some of the local children before our dinner of hot vegetable soup, Bolivian meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

After dinner, a local 10-year old boy sang us a couple of traditional Bolivian songs. He was cute, but his guitar was so incredibly out of tune that it was terribly hard to keep a straight face.

Milton came in to deliver the bad news that our call-time for the next morning would be 4:45am. We were in bed by 8:00pm on a mattress made of hay and under a heap of thick wool blanks that felt like they weighed 15 pounds.

Day 2
Over 10 hours, we covered 300 kilometers. We started out in the morning while it was still dark and got to a silver ghost mining town right as the sun was rising. This tiny town used to have 27 churches because people would change partners frequently and get married every few days.

After a long drive through arid boring land, we entered a national park and arrived at Kollpa Laguna where we swam in the natural hot springs with a stunning view.

After lunch we drove to Laguna Verde, where the water is naturally colored by the high concentration of arsenic and magnesium. The mountain in the background is so close to the conditions on Mars that NASA uses it as training grounds.

The next stop was in a geothermic area called Sol de Manana or “Sun of Tomorrow”, where we were free to roam around the geysers and bubbling mud.

This was the highest either of us have ever been – 5,000 meters or 16,404 feet. To give you some perspective, the highest mountain we’ve ever hiked in Colorado was 14,440 feet. Milton and the Land Cruiser did all the work to get us there, but we were out of breath even walking around or bending down to take a picture.

We ended the day with Laguna Colorda, where algae make the water red and there are islands of ice and borax. 20,000 flamingos call this lagoon home, and Steve even spotted an egg on the shore.

We ended the night at our little village trading music with Milton.

Day 3
We “slept in” until 6:00am and our first stop was Deserti de Siloli to play around on rock formations that have been shaped by the strong winds in this area. The most famous rock  is Arbol de Piedra or “Stone Tree”, which is predicted to topple within the next 500 years.

Much of the morning was spent driving through the desert to visit more lagoons. There were several times when it felt like we were in a real life car commercial. Then it was onto Valley of the Rocks.

In the afternoon we drove past fields of bright red, yellow, and green quinoa farms. We ended the day at Uyuni’s Train Graveyard.

Day 4
Another early morning, but it was worth it for the grand finale. We arrived at the Salar de Uyuni in time for sunrise.

The Salar sits at approximately 11,480 feet above sea level and is the world’s largest salt flat covering 12,000 square kilometers. The salt is 33 feet thick and feels like crunchy snow when you walk on it.

At the entrance of the Salar, there are square plots of salt that families own and mine.

This area is mined not only for salt but also for lithium. In fact, this is the world’s largest concentration of lithium. As the demand for lithium in batteries continues to grow, we wonder (and worry) about how the increased income will affect this area.

After sunrise we had breakfast at a hotel made entirely of salt bricks…even the tables and chairs. Then it was off to play in the white stuff.

March 24, 2012

Argentina Recap

Argentina is a big country whose differences in landscapes and people remind us of the regional differences we see in the United States. From the jungle of Iguazu Falls and the European feel of Buenos Aires to the farmers in Mendoza and the sheer geographic beauty of Salta (not to mention Patagonia which we didn’t even get to see), Argentina’s got something for everyone. That said, if you’re in the hunt for a strong South American culture, Argentina will surprise you. It’s quite westernized.

Also, don’t be fooled by the Argentinian currency crisis of 2001. It’s nowhere near as cheap as we had heard about and expected. They have rampant inflation, and prices have doubled in just the last few years.

Parilla – a restaurant that cooks on a large grill and whose menu is heavily favored towards the Argentinian staple…meat. We’ve eaten everything from beef and lamb to goat and llama. For the record, llama was quite tender, lean and tasty. We’ve eaten so many steaks that we’ve lost count, but depending on the region and the restaurant, the experience seems to differ. Most of the steak we’ve been served has been very fatty compared to American standards. To Argentinians it doesn’t matter…they eat everything straight down to the bone. Sometimes the steak is topped with an egg over easy or coarse salt…perhaps a homage to times when freezers didn’t exist? Most of the time our steaks have looked as brown as medium-well, but tasted just as tender as medium-rare. Our very best steak was at a restaurant in Salta called Dona Salta.

Asado – a meat sampler from every part of the cow, including some Argentine specialties such as Morcilla (blood sausage). Available at parillas.

Pizza & Pasta – Buenos Aires specialties (behind steak, of course). 

Empanadas – sometimes fried but more often baked in the oven. They come stuffed with so many different fillings that the restaurants need a way to tell them apart, so they’ve created a folding nomenclature. Just like a candy box lid that helps you decipher which flavor you’re choosing, the empanada flavors are designated by a diagram.

Canelones – rolled up spinach, chicken, goat ricotta and tomato sauce.

Humita – similar to a tamale, although there must be a difference because restaurants had both on their menus.

Hamburgesa Napolitano – a hamburger patty without a bun topped with salsa. When it first showed up to the table I was skeptical, but it was surprisingly delicious!

Pan Relleno – bread filled with meat, cheese, egg, tomato, etc. just like the salgados in Brazil.

Roquefort – a special form of blue cheese, which is mild and tasty.

Dulce de Leche – a caramel spread that Argentine’s must have pumping through their veins. It takes up entire shelf sets at grocery stores and is a breakfast staple to be spread on anything and everything.

Alfadors – a cookie sandwich with a layer of dulce de leche spread in the middle. Sometimes the cookies are plain and sometimes they are covered with chocolate, white chocolate or even powdered sugar. We have tried every kind…including double-stacked and triple-stacked.

Pochoclo de Quinoa – we love quinoa for all of its great nutritional properties, but we had never even heard of it being popped before. They pop it just like popcorn and add either a salty or sweet flavoring.

Ice Cream – there are lots of ice cream shops in every city we visited. Our favorite was a chain in Buenos Aires called Freddo. They had a promotion going called “minicucu”, which was a small cone for only 5 pesos or $1.25. The catch was that the only flavor you could order was…not a shock…dulce de leche. We tried other flavors throughout Argentina like Super Dulce de Leche (Dulce de Leche with carmel swirls) and Malbec ice cream in Mendoza.

Medialunas – half moon shaped croissants lightly covered with a sugary coating. They’re eaten for breakfast with a café con leche.

Café con Leche – one of 5 different ways of serving coffee in Buenos Aires. The other 4 are served in the tiniest coffee cups ever and ordered throughout the day. Café con Leche is only option that is decently sized and is only supposed to be ordered for breakfast. We defied the breakfast-only rule and most certainly pegged ourselves as tourists. We even enjoyed a cup in Argentina’s oldest coffee shop – Café Tortoni. Buenos Aires has a passionate café culture. Even if it’s a workday, people go to a café and take as long as they want to enjoy their coffee. We didn’t see a single person walking around the streets carrying a coffee cup. We wondered how Argentinians must look at us in disgust when they come to a place like New York City and see mobile coffee drinkers.

Submarino – a warm cup of milk and a chocolate bar. You stir the chocolate bar in the milk until you get lukewarm hot chocolate, or chocolate milk, depending on how you look at it.

Vino – It’s all about Malbec (red) and Torrontes (white). Especially in Buenos Aires, they are not shy about filling the glass all the way to the top.

Beer – with the exception of Salta (where the beer brand is creatively named “Salta”), the beer that completely dominates store shelves is Quillmes. Whether you’re in the grocery store or at a restaurant, you have to go big with a 1 liter bottle. If you’re lucky, you might get a fancy liter-sized koozie like this...

Fernet & Coke – an alcohol mixed with Coca-Cola and ice that tastes like a herbal black licorice combo.

Mate – we tried it with Mary in Buenos Aires and it tasted like we were drinking a cigarette. In Mendoza we tried other brands that had herbal or lemon infusions, and they were smoother. Mate can be taken with or without sugar, although it’s believed by some that mate with sugar is not mate at all. My friend Matt from the UK reminded me to point out the pronunciation…“mah-tey”.

Tang – it seems that Argentina is self-sustaining the Tang business. There are many different flavors, and it’s common to see people deliberating about which flavor to get.

The usual suspects – horses, cows, sheep and goats – but the llamas left the greatest impression. We also saw some condors flying off the mountaintops outside of Salta.
Stray dogs should be their national animal.

Recommended places, if you’re looking to do the hostel thing:
  -  Hostel Bambu Mini (Iguacu Falls) 
  -  Hostel Empedrado (Mendoza)

  -  “Cama Suite” overnight bus ride from Iguazu Falls to Buenos Aires 
  -  Staying with and spending quality time with our old friends, Chris and Mary
  -  Buenos Aires parks, dog walkers, neighborhoods, tango, Recoleta, and Boca Juniors
  -  Katie’s Spanish lesson in Buenos Aires 
  -  Lupan de Cuyo wine tasting in Mendoza 
  -  Salta’s churches, MAAM and countryside

Thieves don’t necessarily look like thieves. While Katie was taking a private Spanish lesson in Buenos Aires (on the empty 2nd floor of a Starbucks mind you), two well-dressed business women came upstairs and sat right behind her. A minute later, one woman had reached her arm inside Katie’s chair from the back and attempted to steal her purse which was sitting between her thigh and a wall. They aren’t very graceful, are they?! The purse fell to the floor, but Katie was able to grab it back and the women scurried away.

We’ve come to the conclusion that Mendoza is a city of have and have-nots. If you have enough money to buy yourself a blind eye, you might not even notice the roughness of the city. But if you’re a backpacker or someone on any kind of budget, maybe this shouldn’t be on the top of your list. Also, we would not recommend biking the wineries of Maipu. If you’re going to spend the money to come to Mendoza, you might as well spend a little more and get a driver to take you around.

More time: Patagonia (nature), Cordoba (city), Rosario (people)

Once we left Brazil and arrived in Buenos Aires, the heat became much more manageable. By the time we got to Salta, it was borderline cold at night. What a difference a month makes.

We have learned not to trust the weather forecasts at all. It says it’s going to rain almost every single day, and it never does. After being spooked on a couple of occasions, we promised each other that we wouldn’t make any more decisions based on the weather forecasts. We haven’t been burned (yet).

We both got colds in Buenos Aires and then Steve caught another cold, just a week and a half later, in Mendoza. Other than that, no health issues.

Katie’s Spanish is coming back more and more every day. I know that my high school Spanish teacher is reading this blog. I’m trying to make you proud, Mrs. Worbis!

March 23, 2012

Salta Side Trips

Not only is the city of Salta very nice, but it’s also a great jumping off point for trips to surrounding towns. The little towns themselves aren’t the major draw…it’s the drive to get to them that are so special. We booked 3 separate daytrips with a great tour company called La Posada.

Our first daytrip was to Cachi, a 3-hour drive south of Salta. To get there, we had to take a harrowing unpaved road that winds its way up to over 11,000 feet.

The landscape along the drive was incredible. It’s the perfect marriage between Colorado and Arizona – a mix of huge green hills, red rocks, snow-capped mountains, cacti, and wildflowers all rolled into one. Once we got off scary Bishop’s Road at 11,342 feet, we passed through La Cardones National Park where there are (conservatively guessing) maybe a million saguaro-type cacti set in front of colorful rock formations and mountains.

We stopped on the side of the road to buy some jam and popped quinoa from local vendors. We also saw a hillside where farmers were drying their red peppers.

Cachi itself was extremely small, but it had a couple of charming sites. The first was a cemetery set on top of a hill with tall grasses waving in the breeze amongst the colorfully decorated graves. The second was their old church, whose ceiling was made of cactus wood.

Our second daytrip was to Cafayate, another 3-hour drive south of Salta through the Quebrada de las Conchas or “Seashell Gorge”. This gorge reminded us of Arizona but more colorful, with rocks that were red, white, yellow, green, brown and even blue.

Wind and rain erosion have created interesting rock formations along the drive such as La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), El Sapo (The Frog), Las Ventanas (The Windows), Titanic (duh…Titanic), Los Castillos (The Castles), and El Fraile (The Friar). Once again, there were cacti everywhere…some with at least 15-20 large arms.

The highlight of our day was getting to feed some llamas. I just love these animals. They’re docile and always seem to have an inquisitive look on their face, which is very endearing.

Cafayate is also the world’s largest producer of Torrontes wine, a white varietal that smells sweet but is dry to the taste. We visited the oldest winery in Cafayate before turning around and driving back through the breathtaking gorge.

Our last day-trip was to the Jujuy (pronounced whoo-whooey) Province, north of Salta. It rained the entire drive up and the gorge was socked in with fog. Eventually the weather lifted and we got to see Jujuy’s famous "painted rocks".

Of our three side trips, the Quebrada de Humahuaca gorge in Jujuy is the only one that’s been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We found that surprising because it was our least favorite. There are power lines everywhere and we didn’t like the towns of Purmamarca, Tilcara or Humahuaca as much as Cachi or Cafayate. On the plus side, we did get to pay a visit to the Tropic of Capricorn.

When it comes to Cachi, Cafayate and Jujuy, it’s not about the destination but the journey.