Saturday, April 30, 2005

Off to Bolivia

Tomorrow I leave for a three-day tour to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world, followed by at least a few weeks in Bolivia. You can check the link to the Salar de Uyuni photos on the sidebar for a glimpse at what I´ll be doing for the next three days. I´m not sure how much internet access I´ll have, so I may not be able to update my website for a while. While I may pop back in to northern Chile sometime down the line, my travels in Argentina (at least on this trip) are, sadly, over. This leaves me reflecting on my favorite places and things about that country. I spent about two months there, and definitely got quite attached. Therefore, I present you with the top five things I will miss about travelling in Argentina (besides the amazing landscapes and cities and geological features):

5. Fútbol mania...the nationwide love of Buenos Aires´ top teams, Boca Juniors and River Plate (especially Boca), despite the existence of many talented local teams. Also, the ability to make instant friends with strangers simply by expressing admiration for that soccer god, Maradona.

4. The national drink, yerba mate, or mate (pronounced MAH-tay)for short. I actually never developed a taste for this very strong earthy-flavored tea, but Argentinians (and Uruguayans and especially Paraguayans) drink it like it´s going out of style. It´s got a nice cozy feel to it, in the way the special mate cups are passed around between friends and occasionally strangers. You add the leaves to the cup, fill it with hot water (which you carry around with you all day in a thermos) and drink it through a special straw which filters out the leaves. You have to drink it all the way to the bottom, until you hear the air sucking through the straw, before you can pass the cup on.

3. The beautiful Argentinian accent: with it´s elongated vowels, it´s ch-j sound for "y" and "ll", the use of "vos" instead of "tu", and the greeting or exclamation, "che!" meaning "hey!" or "say!"

2. The extremely friendly Argentinians, especially the way, when you thank them for something, they sometimes protest, as if you had offended them. Me: "Gracias." Shopkeeper: "¡No! ¡No! ¡De nada!"

1. Parrilla: steak, steak and more steak. Red meat as far as the eye can see and I love it. Yes, of course you can get steaks in other countries, but in Argentina it´s the specialty and I tried to partake as often as I could. Mmmm...It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Stars & Geysers

Please forgive any misspellings and non-sequiturs in this post. I got up at quarter to three this morning for an excursion to see some sunrise geyser activity at El Tatio, at 4200 meters above sea level, about two hours from San Pedro. While there were no Old Faithful-type geysers shooting into the air, the scene was quite impressive. Hundreds of bubbling and spurting holes in the ground letting out towers of steam and creating colorful mineral deposits. It was very cold, around freezing, but the tour agency provided breakfast and when the sun rose it started to defrost the chill in our bones. If that wasn´t enough, there was a thermal bath to swim in. The idea of getting into bathing suits in the chilly weather wasn´t that appealing, but how often to you get the chance to swim in a naturally-heated pool at 2.5 miles above sea level?

Yesterday evening´s star-gazing expedition was one of the most interesting and educational things I´ve done in a while. Our guides used the coolest, largest laser pointers I have ever seen to point to individual stars to show us constellations and other features of the sky before the moon rose. We checked out lots of celestial bodies, including galaxies, stars, and planets (Saturn´s rings and Jupiter´s moons) with super-high-powered telescopes. I can now finally identify the Southern Cross, and use it to navigate, if ever I found myself on a ship in the southern hemisphere with no navigational equipment. I saw Gemini, Libra, Scorpio, and Virgo, and learned how these star signs relate to the Chinese calendar (e.g. Year of the Rat). I watched the moon rise through a telescope, close enough to see all the craters. I also learned about how our view of the stars differs in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and how it changes with the movement of the earth. I learned so much that there´s no way I´ll ever be able to remember it all, but suffice it to say I now look at the night sky (which is beautiful and clear out here in the desert) in a completely different way.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

All signs pointed towards me not making it here to San Pedro de Atacama: first, the bus from Salta on Sunday was full, so we had to wait until Tuesday (which turned out to be fine, as there were movies on TV in the hostel, and Salta is a very nice place to kill two days, even if it has no decent digital cameras for sale, grrrr). Second, the man from the hostel who sold us the tickets said the bus left at 7:30 AM and I didn´t think to check them until 6:45, when it turned out the bus actually left at 7:00. An extremely rushed packing job, speedy taxi ride and sprint into the bus station at 7:01 ensued, to find the bus still there with the driver tapping his pen impatiently on his clipboard figures, the one time I´m late for a bus on this continent is the first time it is actually ready to leave on time. But strike three was when we arrived at the Paso de Jama (4,200 meters above sea level, border of Argentina and Chile) and were informed that the pass through the Andes was closed due to snow, until further notice. We wound up spending around 26 hours in that godforsaken place, buying cookies and snacks from the local woman who rode in on her bicycle to sell us her wares, watching movies on the bus, playing cards and getting to know the argentine, chilean, american, australian, brazilian, irish, and zimbabweans who were our fellow captives. All things considered, it wasn´t too bad, especially since the altitude didn´t pose any problems, the bus company gave us dinner and breakfast, and when we could find places against the customs building which were sheltered from the wind, it was actually pretty warm in the sun. And hey, it was one night when we didn´t have to pay for a hotel.

So anyway, here I am in San Pedro de Atacama, a town of 2,000-and-something residents and what must be nearly as many tourists, where every single business is a tour operator arranging excursions into the nearby desert and salt flats. As much as I usually hate this kind of touristy place, somehow I like it here. It is surrounded by mountains and desert, and you can turn a corner and see a huge volcano looming over the dirt streets and whitewashed buildings of the main square. Tonight we are going on an astronomical excursion to learn about the stars in the Southern Hemisphere. It should be fun, although the tour is in French! (I swear, if this keeps up, I´m going to wind up speaking Spanish with a French accent).

I should be able to post some more before I take off for Bolivia on Sunday, hopefully with some photos of tomorrow´s early-morning (4 AM!) expedition to see geysers in action, as well as my top-five (or maybe more) list of things I will miss about Argentina.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Photos Now Available!

I have finally been able to upload some photos from the past few days driving around Northwestern Argentina. It´s a small selection and doesn´t do justice for the beautiful things I´ve seen, but hopefully it will give you an idea.

Click here to see all the photos.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Northern Argentina

Over the past few days I have seen some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life. I´m in the north of Argentina, and for the past four days I´ve been driving around in a rental car with three friends and visiting the areas around Salta and Jujuy (a pronunciation challenge: the Js are pronounced at the back of the throat with a sort of clearing-of-the-throat sound). The road goes up and down through green mountains, brown and dry valleys filled with cacti, and incredible red, orange, yellow, brown and green sculptures made from erosion of the earth. We had to stop the car all the time to get out and take pictures, and occasionally take a little hike up amongst the rocks. We visited small villages (with great names like Cachi, Cafayate, Pumamarca, and Humahuaca) and ate at local restaurants; we even tried llama! We drove over mountain passes at 4,000 meters above sea level, and happily experienced no nausea or headaches as is known to happen at high altitudes. Today, we drove 5 hours on rough unpaved roads to the hidden town of Iruya, nestled on a hillside far from everywhere. Right now I am at the border town of La Quiaca, just across the way from Bolivia, where I hope to take a little stroll tomorrow morning. It´s definitely been some of the best days of my trip so far. Hopefully soon I´ll be able to upload some from somebody else´s camera, as mine is well and truly gone. In the meantime, here´s one I found online of the Mountain of Seven Colors, which we saw yesterday in Pumamarca.

I noticed something the other night and thought I was crazy, but as it turns out I was right; so here is your first piece of Southern Hemisphere Trivia: the moon is backwards down here. Somehow, I didn´t notice this last year in Australia, but the phases of the moon move from left to right in the Southern Hemisphere, instead of from right to left. Also, I recognized the constellation Orion in the night sky but thought it looked funny. That´s because it´s also backwards (or upside-down, or something). It makes me feel like I am truly in another world.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

No Cactus Photos Today

Tucumán was a nice city, one of the first cities founded in Argentina (founded in 1565 as a major stop on the route to export silver from the mines in Bolivia). It´s also of historical importance, because it was there that on the 9th of July 1816, independence from Spain was declared. I got to see the room where this happened, and the desk where the declaration was signed, which is more than I can say for my American historical tourism, having skipped the visit to Independence Hall when I was in Philadelphia in December. Tucumán also holds a plethora of churches, all very ornate, and quite busy. I´ve noticed as I move northwards that people are more demonstrative of their faith, and there are more offerings of flowers, people crossing themselves in the street or in their cars as they pass in front of churches, and fervent praying of people of all ages than I have noticed elsewhere. Also (and let´s be honest, of more personal interest to myself) Tucumán has a lot of fine establishments for shopping. Not that I bought anything--my backpack is already full--but it was nice to have a look.

Today´s adventure, through countryside filled with ancient artifacts and many extremely tall cacti, began today with a 7 AM bus to Tafí del Valle, a cute little town at 2,000 meters of altitude, and neighbor to a park filled with Menhires, tall rock figures planted in the ground by the Tafí people two thousand years ago or so. The Tafí worshipped Mother Earth, or Pachamama, and valued fertility and virility, which is obvious at the first glance at these, er, upright figures. Next stop was Amaicha del Valle, a brief stop on the way to the Ruinas de Quilmes. Hiring a taxi turned out to be the most economical choice for us as we were three--me, Lauren, a Canadian we met in Tafí, and Thibaut (still reeling from his home (soccer) team, Olympique Lyonnais´, loss yesterday in the quarterfinal of the Champion League tournament, but buoyed by several resounding ping pong victories in the hostel last night). The Quilmes were a native society which was displaced from their home in the mountains by Spanish settlers and moved to the Buenos Aires area, dying in masses from disease and starvation along the way. It´s amazing how sad and shameful stories like this are shared on so many continents by so many colonial groups. The Quilmes name lives on in the name of two cities and the country´s most popular beer.

Unfortunately, upon arrival in the ruins I realized that a bit of a forgetful streak I´ve been on recently--having left a bag and a fleece vest behind in two different cities in the past 6 days--took a turn for the worse...somewhere between the Menhires and the ruins, I left my camera behind. It´s either in a taxi or on a bus, and I still have to make some phone calls to try to track it down, but either way I fear it is beyond hope of recovery. Despite feeling like a first-class loser (literally), I have to say I feel relieved and extremely lucky that only yesterday I copied all my photos from my full memory card onto CD, so thankfully none of the pictures of the past month have been lost. But it looks like I´m in the market for a new digital camera, so suggestions are welcome! (Just don´t suggest the Nikon CoolPix 4300, which is what I already had, and was planning on replacing soon anyway).

Monday, April 11, 2005

More Blog Changes

FYI, I have changed the link on the sidebar (formerly called "How´s the Weather?", so instead of linking to the weather where I am, it simply tells you where I am and, if I can find one, gives you a link to a tourist information site for that place.

Moving Northwards...

I am pleased to report that the horseback riding expedition was a great success. We (four of us, all women) rode through the "pre-cordillera", or foothills of the Andes. They have a funny kind of soft rounded shape and from a distance they look like someone took a pile of reddish-brown sand and dumped it in a pile, then dragged their fingers down the side of it in a wiggly line kind of pattern. It´s a semi-arid zone, so the plants are deserty and dry and extremely sharp, as one of the girls in our party found out when she ran into a low branch and got two spines in her head! I also had a little adventure, when my saddle came loose (luckily when we were standing and not moving) and it slipped to the side and dumped me off! So, I have a few bruises but nothing a tough girl like me can´t handle. In the evening we arrived at a little house, seeming quite rustic with chickens, geese and donkeys in the little garden, but fully equipped with electricity to power the fridge, computer and stereo system. We rested there after our long day, and soon enough a van pulled up with a handful of young cowboy-types who unloaded to cook us dinner. Excellent! So it wasn´t the real ranch experience I was expecting (feeding the pigs and lassoing the cattle) but was perhaps better: the guys sang traditional gaucho songs and taught us the Grito Cuyano, or "Cuyo Yell" (Named after the region around Mendoza), which accompanies the songs. Basically it goes like this: "Wooooooo-hooo-hooooo!!!"

Funny enough, I actually had the chance to hear the yell in action just a few days later. I went to the small town of San Augustin de la Valle Fertil (or normally called Valle Fertil) to visit two national parks, and discovered that an annual festival was being held there for two days, with live music, traditional dancing, and the pageant to choose Miss Valle Fertil (I was excited that this year´s winner is named Jessica). The festival started both evenings at 11 and continued into the wee hours of the morning, and my hotel was only a block away from party central. This resulted in me being woken up at 4 in the morning by the Grito Cuyano and the traditional music it accompanies, which, let me tell you, is a lot less quaint when it keeps you awake when you really would rather be sleeping. There were even people still stumbling home at 7 when the bus showed up to go to the national parks, Talampaya and Valle de la Luna, both of which were worth a look, containing strange eroded sandstone sculptures in a desert landscape which, according to our guide, gets only 20 minutes of rain per year.

Right now I´m in La Rioja, killing time before a 3:45 AM bus to Tucumán. I´m with a French friend, Thibaut, who I originally met in Chiloé and again in Mendoza, and who is following the same route as I am. It´s been an adventure getting here, as after we saw the national parks we got dropped off at a crossroads in the middle of absolutely nowhere at 5:30 PM to wait for a bus that would arrive at either 7 or 8 PM depending on your source. As we should have known, it arrived at a little after 9 PM, by which time about 15 cars had blazed by refusing our outstretched thumbs. Oh well. I´m enjoying the small towns and being off the beaten path (we have seen only one other non-Argentine tourist in the past three days!) Plus, it´s finally getting hot, and I have stowed my winter coat in the bottom of my bag for the first time in nearly two months. I´m happy to see my summer clothes again, and learning to appreciate the afternoon siesta to take refuge from the heat.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mendoza, Argentina

I have been spending the last five days just hanging out in Mendoza, which is a really nice small city, the center of wine production for Argentina (which makes it a really nice place to "just hang out"). When Darwin was here in the 1830s, he said "to my mind the town had a stupid, forlorn aspect". I´m going to go ahead and disagree with you on that one, Charles. Of course, Mendoza was completely destroyed by an earthquake and fire about 30 years later, and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Like almost all Argentine cities and towns, it´s built on a grid system, with wide streets lined with tall plane trees, which is in fact really reminiscent of Aix-en-Provence, France, where I spent my Junior Year Abroad. One funny thing is that many of the streets have the widest, deepest gutters I have ever seen. Gutter isn´t actually the right word, they are more like trenches, or moats. Some have to be nearly 4 feet deep and two feet wide. You really have to watch out, if you´re not careful you´ll fall in and break an ankle or chip a tooth on the other side. I´m surprised they don´t occasionally lose small children or dogs to the rushing waters which flow through some of them.

I took a really interesting wine tour the other day, where we learned how the grapes are grown and where the flavor and body (tannins) come from on the grape. Then we learned how to taste wine, what you look for in the way the light shines through it, and how to swish it around your mouth like a pro. So watch out, no more box wine for me, only vintages with a sophisticated bouquet.

Mendoza is also really near the Andes (and was used as a base for Jose de San Martin, when he crossed them to liberate Chile and then Peru from Spain, thereby having a street named for him in every single town in Argentina, along with statues, plazas, parks, etc) and today I am off to see the tallest mountain in South America, Aconcagua. Tomorrow I leave early for a horseback riding adventure with real gauchos! I´ll be back in a few days, hopefully with some nice photos of the adventures.