South America Part VII - Argentina

The Antiplano of Bolivia impressed us as shades of brown and gray. As we descended in altitude to the canyons of Argentina the greens seemed more vivid than ever. We arrived in Salta about 26 hours after leaving Oruru, Bolivia and were greeted by Jacaranda trees in bloom (see Photo #1). The ground was a carpet of purple from the fallen blossoms. Our hotel was only 2 blocks from the bus station. Since Argentina had adjusted their currency in April, 2002, we anxiously waited to see if prices are as cheap as we had recently heard…and they are. Our hotel was $12/night with a continental breakfast and swimming pool. Now that’s the life!

It never takes us long to stash our things and take off exploring in a new city. We found several nice sidewalk cafes in which to waste our time. While sitting at one we saw a heart-warming scene across the street at a cab line up. Whenever there is an intersection that brings a lot of cab business, the cabs will line up and wait their turn with their next customer. When it is time to move up in line, the cabbie will get out and push his cab up one place in line. That day there was an enterprising man who obviously was the victim of Downs Syndrome. He must have been in his 30’s. He had decided that his job would be to help the customers…open the cab door for them, and help the cabbies…push the cab when needed and chat with the cabbie. He would also direct traffic (so to speak) by waving his arm and pointing to the corner when it was time for another cabbie to move up. The cabbies seemed to know him and most of the time he got a tip from the passengers. What a delightful scene to watch!

We had hoped to take a world famous train ride here in Salta, but were disappointed that it was booked for the next two weeks. Because we did not want to schedule anything ahead and be stuck to that schedule, we faced a similar disappointment several times in the trip.

We wanted to work our way south to Mendoza and decided to go through a very small wine town, Cafayate, on the way. Cafayate proved to be a good choice with an interesting visit to a local winery. We were rather surprised to see that the total operation at this winery, Domingo, used metal tanks for the storage rather than the older method of wooden kegs. The wine? It was fantastic. They specialize in this area in a Malbec red wine and a Torrontes white. These are wines that are well known in France where the climate is similar to central Argentina affording the needed grapes a good growing medium.

We were in Cafayate only a half day and then on our way south. We had to catch the bus over the mountain to Tucuman at 6 AM when it was still dark. In the beginning we wound our way through very small villages picking up locals and letting them off. As light came we were on our way up the mountain. Most of the stops brought very young children from the age of 4 to the age of 10. Each time the bus stopped the children would climb up the big steps and stop to smile and say “Buenos Dias” to the driver. After a while we were all saying “Buenos Dias” to them and laughing as we said it. The children were all excellently behaved on the long ride up and over the mountain. Over one of the rises we saw several women waiting by the side of the road. Here the children climbed out and were hugged by their teachers as they arrived. Photo #3 will show you their departure from the bus.

After stops in two other cities we arrived in Mendoza on the tourist-trod path from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The streets of Mendoza are delightfully shady and cool. This was a big surprise to us as we had traveled through some very hot and uncomfortable desert area. The streets are all lined with huge trees that are watered by a canal system that runs through the whole city. The water is brought down from the mountains and is also the support for the extensive wineries in the area.

We arrived on a Sunday so it was very quiet in the city. It turned out that Monday would be quiet as well because it was “Discoverer’s Day”. Yes, they celebrate that early October holiday as well. We enjoyed our Monday walking through the park to see the activities.

Volleyball seemed to be the favorite pastime. Groups of families and friends were gathered with their picnics, and the favorite beverage…Argentine wine. Early the next morning we were aboard the international bus from Mendoza to Valparaiso, Chile. Sander was dressed in his shorts and sandals and Jane with her sweater only in the carry-on bag. We drove by numerous fields of grapes and then started to climb once again, higher and higher, colder and colder. That was OK as we were in the bus and quite comfy!

As we have said before, “Part of the adventure of our style of life is in not knowing what to expect from hour to hour.” We often have to pay for that adventure as we did at the top of the mountain at the border to Chile. The bus entered a huge shed – totally necessary, as it had started to snow quite hard. Under this cover were another 5 buses and several trucks. The bus conductor had come to each of us to collect a tip for the baggage handlers. What’s that all about?

Chile is the primary exporter of fruits to South America and Central America. For this reason they are very careful at their border about the animal and vegetable products that enter. All the bags had to be unloaded from the bus inside the shed. Each group of people entering had to line up in front of their pile of luggage while a specially trained dog climbed all over the pile sniffing each piece. The whole procedure took about 45 minutes and you can bet that we were shivering before the whole thing was over!

Shortly after the border we descended the mountain. Look closely at Photo #3 and you will see the fascinating bit of road that we descended. There were 13 hairpin turns total. Shortly after descending a man was allowed aboard the bus selling empenadas. These are little pastry snacks with cheese or meat in them. In Chile they are closer to a pastry meal. Because they were fresh from the oven and still warm, one could not resist buying due to the fragrance alone! After the cold of the shed it tasted like Heaven. Inside is a meat sauce with potatoes and onions, hard boiled egg and (just when you least expect it!) a black olive with the pit still in. Now we saw gorgeous huge yellow buttercups too growing out of the rock of the cliffs and then sometimes in fields of them. It was a pity that Jane was not able to catch any of them with the camera from the moving bus.

We arrived in Valparaiso about 2 PM – new country, new currency, new culture. Some things don’t change. In the bus station were the same hawkers of hostels and pushy taxi drivers. Of course they have to make a living too. The saying is, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat!”

Actually, we were to find that Valparaiso is a unique city, one that you could explore for weeks and still find something new.