I haven’t written in a while, and I have some time to kill on a Bolivian bus, so this may be a bit long, but I feel like I’ve had a lot happen since the last post. I spent a few more days in Mendoza after Dad and Sarah left but I laid low for the most part. I stayed in Mora International Hostel , which had a cool open air layout. The downside of that is the inability to keep mosquitoes out. Add to that the fact that our room had no AC, so keeping windows open was necessary, and you get into a tricky situation. There’s not a much worse alarm clock than a mosquito biting you in bed. And I’ve always had blood that, to mosquitoes, is some sort of combination of honey and crack, so it was open season. No Zika contracted…yet. I went to the bus station the day before leaving to buy my ticket for the 20-hour journey to Salta. The lady showed me the options, and pointed out one bus that was offering a promo price. I always jump at a deal, not worrying to much about the quality of the bus at the time. This would be my third overnight bus, and I’ve had both good and bad experiences on the other two, so I never know exactly what to expect. But I walk on this bus and the entire bus is filled with luxury leather recliners. I’m talking an actual comfortable seat that belonged more in a home theater than an airplane. It damn near brought a tear to my eye. It may seem simple, but it’s hard for me to describe what kind of morale boost it provides when you get a little unexpected gift like that. So, I rode in style and got a decent night’s sleep as I continued to head northward.
Wide-eyed and full on average bus food (nice seating doesn’t mean complete first-class service), I checked in to La Covacha close to Salta’s city center. That afternoon, I just killed some time walking around the city’s main square. Here is where you begin to see the Spanish influence in Northern Argentina, as all the cities are founded around a central plaza, all featuring the main church on one side and the cabildo (city council) on another side. But the most interesting feature on this square was the MaaM (Museum of High Mountain Archaeology). It’s a small museum, but it is one of two museums in South America that share a common display. High in the peaks of the Andes near Salta, the Incas would perform rituals where they would sacrifice their best-looking children for the gods, and bury them on the mountain tops alive after a wedding ceremony. This museum actually has the mummified remains of three children (which were preserved well due to temperature and climate on the mountain) on display in their natural state. Definitely a bit creepy, but very interesting to see. And maybe the one time in history where it pays to be a little on the ugly side.
Salta is also the home of some incredible local quick eats. The empanadas were good as expected (probably the best I’ve had in Argentina), but their tamales were the true hidden gem. Corn (so it’s healthy) flour stuffed with meat, onions, and more wrapped and cook in corn husks – just a little small helping of greatness. They are certainly one of the foods I’m going to bring back to the States and figure out how to make at home. The last night, when I had no real plans, the owners of the hostel invited me to join their family in an asado on the rooftop terrace. Well…actually…a girl that was staying in my room invited me and at that point they kind of had to go along, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And as usual, it was an absolute feast. A potato salad and mixed greens accompanied serving after serving of grilled meat and plenty of red wine. Near the end of the night, the conversation switched to the women’s rights protest in Buenos Aires over their ability to sunbathe topless. As more wine was consumed, the speed of their speech increased as well, so I didn’t understand all of it. But ‘tetas’ is easy enough to translate and hand gestures universal, so I picked up on enough context. Everyone seemed to be pretty pro-sunbathing. I’ve always been a women’s rights activist and it won’t stop now.
The next day, I called a bit of an audible on my original plan due to some recommendations, and headed 4 hours back south to Argentina’s second biggest wine region, Cafayate. The drive down through Quebrada de las Conchas is known to be very scenic, but what they didn’t tell me was it was full of hairpin turns and the buses are still intent on making good time. This trip has had its highs and lows, and losing my lunch in a coach bus bathroom qualifies as the latter without a doubt. As I try to always look on the bright side, I just see it as making more room for empanadas, tamales, and vino.
I checked into Casa de Huesped, which was a simple hostel but had a really cool layout. Their outdoor seating area, featuring breakfast tables and a few hammocks, laid underneath grape vines which the hostel uses to make their own homemade wines. The next day I set out to do some tastings at some of the local vineyards. I hit 4 in total, with El Esteco being my favorite, but these 4 kept me much more sober than the three in Mendoza…these were actual tastings instead of full-glass samples. I enjoyed the wines and vineyards of Cafayate, but I still prefer the ones we visited in Mendoza if I had to compare the two. For starters, I prefer red wines, and Cafayate’s specialty is the torrontes grape, which produces a white wine anywhere from semi-sweet to dessert-levels of sugar. Secondly, the Mendoza wineries were more equipped to give tours and happily showed off their craft and knowledge, whereas the Cafayate wineries seemed to give the tours out of necessity, almost reluctantly, than out of desire. One advantage Cafayate had was its surrounding scenery. The town sits next to the base of the mountains, which allows for a great visual while sampling. All that said, I’m definitely glad I came and would recommend it for wine lovers and amateurs alike. Accomplishing what I wanted to, I left after two days to head back north on plan, bound for the northwestern most province in Argentina, Jujuy.
With Carnaval approaching, I knew I wanted to be in Jujuy to celebrate due to its reputation in Argentina. There are several towns in Jujuy that offer Carnaval celebrations, but I settled on Tilcara as it seemed to be the most popular from what I gathered. This time of year, people from around the country storm this otherwise small town, and it becomes very crowded. Online, I could only book a hostel through Saturday morning (the main party being Saturday) so I figured I’d just figure out that day as it got closer. On Wednesday and Thursday I went on a few hikes around town. I went to Pucara de Tilcara, which is a collection of ruins dating back to the 12th century, and were rediscovered in 1908, with a lady from Buenos Aires also traveling solo. It was cool to explore the ruins, but I did find it a bit odd that the highest point on the mountains was a monument, dedicated not to the ancient settlers, but to the archaeologists instead. The next day I hiked solo to Garganta Del Diablo, a rock formation created millions of years ago by shifting tectonic plates, with a waterfall at its peak. Although my favorite view was on the way down, looking across the valley at the multi-colored mountains (due to the different mineral types formed over the years).
Over Thursday and going into Friday, I experienced probably my first bout of real homesickness. Not to the extreme of ‘get me out of here now’ but I started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was just kind of in a funk. It had probably been two weeks since I had spoken more than a sentence or two in English, and that wears on you. Due to some indecisiveness on my part, I had little success finding a place to stay Saturday night, and had started to plan to leave for Bolivia Saturday morning (thus missing the party and the reason I was there). Just a bit of a cold streak if you will. But as things tend to do, I got a little momentum on my side going into the weekend. On Friday afternoon, a girl at the hostel told me she saw another hostel with availability for Saturday night, so I was able to book that and stay as originally planned. A good crew checked into the hostel Friday night, and we had a blast at a local peña, a restaurant and concert in one with folkloric music, including some sort of horn that was 8 feet long. Plenty of cerveza and dancing to go around.
I checked out on Saturday morning to go to my other hostel, and Jan, a French guy from my previous hostel, joined me. He had to run around to chase down his friend so I was kind of just hanging out when a few of the others at the hostel invited me to join them at the party. I couldn’t turn that down…sorry Jan. We got there as it was just getting ramped up. It was situated in an open field with some big speakers and a bunch of vendors. Before long it was shoulder to shoulder and all hell broke loose. The best way I can describe it is I got to act like a kid again. It’s an all-out war, with the weapons being paint, spray foam, and handfuls and handfuls of powder. I’ve said it before but I think it’s important that regardless of how old we are, we still find time to let loose and play. This hit the spot. I don’t know anything about Brazilian carneval, but this would be tough to top.
Now all I had to do was take a bus to the Bolivian border, buy my visa, and then take the 2nd bus to Tupiza, about 2 hours north. Easy enough, right? I knew beforehand that this could be tricky for a few reasons. First, Bolivia is one of the few countries in South America where people from the US need to pay to enter (reciprocity for us charging Bolivians) and second, a yellow fever vaccine, which I don’t have, is technically required. I knew you could pay the fee at the border and didn’t have to do it beforehand. The tough thing is you must pay in USD and have exactly $160 because they aren’t giving you change. I did some reading and people said there was an ATM at the border that could give out dollars. Cool…just need to find that ATM. So, I’m going through the process, filling out the paperwork, and I get to the grumpy lady that wants the money. I tell her I don’t have it, I need to find the ATM, and here comes a lot of confusion. She doesn’t really understand me, I don’t really understand her, she has my passport and tells me I need to pay before I get it back, I tell her I completely understand I just need to find that ATM, she mutters something else. Eventually someone else in line says go ahead into Bolivia and get some money and come back. Looking back, I’m sure I was in the country 100% illegally (allegedly). So I wander in, without passport, to go find an ATM. Of course, the one in town only gives out Bolivian pesos, so then I need to find an exchange house to rip me off and convert them into USD. I go back to the office, cash in hand, and there’s someone else working there. Great. I tell him my passport is here and I need to pay for my visa and he starts looking for it, nervously, without any success. To make a long story just a tiny bit shorter, I end up jumping back and forth between two offices a few times, recompleting paperwork, and getting a new stamp because my previous one was annulled (which I’m sure will make me stand out to every future immigration officer I meet). Almost four hours after when I arrived at the border, I legally entered Bolivia again and got on my way. Stressed out, I went to buy a beer from a street vendor and it was about 65 cents. Then I remembered why I’m in Bolivia. Should be a fun few weeks.
But with that I say goodbye to Argentina. A country in which I’ve spent 5.5 of the last 7 months, and they’ve been a blast. Many Argentines that I met said I’ve seen more of the country than they have, and I just look back and appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to accomplish that.