Travelling can take some interesting turns. It is full of pleasant surprises and some disappointments.
Your perception of a place is often affected by preconceived ideas. These preconceived ideas and images are created from information received from guidebooks, from fellow travelers, the media and your own thought patterns. It is influenced by what you have previously seen, where you have just come from, your likes and dislikes, your mood at the time, and of course the direct experience you have in a place.
Mendoza had always been on our list of places to see. It is the heart of Argentina’s wine district. If you buy a bottle of wine from Argentina it is likely from Mendoza and is usually really good. Even the boxed wine which most wine critics wouldn’t touch in our countries is really good and cheap as an extra bonus.
We had not researched much about Mendoza. We usually get into an area and then decide want we want to do. Our preconceived images of the Mendoza wine region were of rolling hills full of grape vines in a very tranquil setting. As we drove into Mendoza itself we passed through the wine country. There were no rolling hills; only flat land and the wineries were amongst industries and very close to the town. Our romantic image dissolved.
We spent 2 nights in Mendoza itself, opting once again for a hostel due to there being no campgrounds close to the town. Luckily this time the hostel had parking.
Our first task was changing US dollars into Argentine pesos; as we were now back in Argentina playing “the money game”. The next day we had housekeeping tasks to complete. Also, we were very aware that Keira had been doing a lot of adult activities, so we decided to take her to the local zoo as a treat. Keira did love seeing the animals. However the whole experience was very disturbing for us all. The animal’s habitats were very small, they smelt, there were too many animals to an enclosure, and the animals were pacing and not eating their food. We only saw one zookeeper whilst there.
Later we found out from locals that there is a movement to either close the zoo or move most of the animals to another zoo and just keep species native to the area. We vote for closing the zoo.
During our stay in Mendoza we went back and forth as to whether we should visit the wineries. We thought we should because we were there and that is what you come to Mendoza to do, but it that a reason to see a place? In the end we decided to give it a miss.
Mendoza the town itself was a nice town and we enjoyed exploring its many plazas. Keira has become our social director, introducing herself to everyone in the hostels. It is an opportunity for her to be around English speakers. Her little voice can be heard throughout the hostels as she shares information about our trip with fellow travelers. Most travelers love it, as they rarely get a chance to mix with children.
Our next destination was Salta province in the north of Argentina. We had 3 long days of driving to get there, but there were several points of interest along the way.
Ischigualasto National Park was our first stop. It is also known as Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon), as parts of the landscape appear moon like. In the park they found many dinosaur fossils from the Triassic period. It was once an inland lake and riverbed. The rock formations in the park are very interesting. Our favorite was the bochas, balls of rock that are formed from pressurized gases.
We camped in the campground at the visitor’s center. Even though it was windy and cold we were happy to be camping again.
Another long day of driving took us through many small towns and desert landscape that resembled New Mexico. The locals were even drying chilly peppers and were using mud ovens to bake their bread. Night 2 we stayed at a small town called Chilecito, finally arriving at Cafayate on day 3.
Just south of the town we visited the Quilmes ruins. It is a pre-Hispanic settlement dating back to 1000 AD. It housed about 5000 people.
We were pleasantly surprised arriving into Cafayate. Here was our romantic vineyard area, a beautiful valley, Spanish type architecture and rural setting.
Cafayate is also known as a top wine region. It has some of the highest vineyards in the world. The town itself was quaint with a lovely town plaza, some nice cafes and restaurants and a really relaxed atmosphere. Whilst there we visited wineries, completed wine tastings and visited a goat farm where they made incredible goats cheeses. The wines from the area were high quality and cheap in comparison to prices back home.
The area is also known for its 2 canyons, Quebrada Cafayate and Valles Calchaqui. We completed a day trip to Cafayate canyon, which provided some amazing scenery with red rock canyons and rock formations.
We met many interesting fellow travelers in Cafayate. We were lucky to cross paths with a Dutch couple Els and Garret. We were all travelling the same way so we travelled together, wild camping for 2 nights, sharing stories and meals.
The trip with Els and Garret took us up the other canyon, Valles Calchaqui. It is actually Ruta 40 which we had followed on and off throughout Argentina. The scenery was again spectacular.
We parted company with Els and Garret. They were heading towards the Chile border to the west and we were heading northeast to the city of Salta, so Mike could complete some work and we could complete “housekeeping tasks”. We were sad to be parting with them, and hope our paths will cross again.
The drive to Salta took us over another high pass 3700 meters. I know I keep saying the scenery was incredible but it was, and has been throughout Argentina.
Arriving in Salta, we opted for a hostel to have Internet for Mike’s work and to be close to downtown. Mike has worked, Keira and I have just relaxed and we have completed the usual chores that accumulate after wild camping for a time, washing, money changing, repairs, and grocery shopping. Mike also had to find a dentist to get a tooth repaired. All of these tasks take time and extra effort in a foreign country.
We visited the Museum of Anthropology in Salta. It was an impressive museum, housing the mummies of 3 children found in the area, dating back ~ 540 years ago.
A check engine light has turned on in the car in the past few days, and we have a vibration upon initially starting the car. We are hoping it is nothing, but we are now awaiting a diagnostic consult from Toyota.
Our plan now is to head further north for a few days and then cross back into Chile to San Pedro de Atacama. All this will be dependent on the news we receive about the car in a few hours. We will keep you posted.
Our trip so far is everything we hoped it would be and more. We are thoroughly enjoying the experience.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Mike's laptop, giving him the ability to work on the road.
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike-meeting Garret and Els/Cafayate to Cachi ; Keira- visiting the goat farm/getting a doll "Elsie stripes" from Els and Garret ; Riss- Cafayate and Cachi/meeting Garret and Els
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-dealing with another car problem; Keira- getting out of bed ; Riss- making the desicion not to go to Iguazu falls
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- parillas again, plate full of a variety of grilled meats/wine in Cafayate, Keira- papas fritas with lots of salt (french fries) ; Riss- warm cheesey flat bread that my stomach tolerated/goast cheese from the farm
BEST CAMPING SPOT: wild camping spots with Garret and Els- good locations, great company
Mike was not impressed, "is nothing sacred?"
Santiago is the capitol of Chile and home to ~5,900,000 people. It was a culture shock for us entering such a big city after the desolate areas we have been travelling through in the past few months.
Driving into big cities always poses challenges for us. Firstly there are no camping options so we need to find a hostel, which is always more expensive. Not only do we have to negotiate the heavy traffic but also we need to find secure parking for our vehicle. The Garmin GPS has been worth its weight in gold. Plug in an address and it navigates for us taking into account the one-way streets, which are in every town in South America. Parking is a little more difficult, as most parking garages only have a clearance of 2 meters or less. Priscilla needs a clearance of 2.5 meters. Usually we book a hostel ahead of time and ask about parking in the area. Then it is a matter of walking or driving the surrounding streets to check the clearance.
We opted for staying in an apartment in Santiago, (run by Andes Hostel) as we had Jeff and his friend Barbara to share the costs. After about 30 mins searching we found a secure parking lot with adequate clearance.
Cities for Mike, Keira and I are usually about seeing the major sights, restocking supplies, accessing US dollars, catching up on internet and “skyping” with friends and family.
Santiago offered an additional treat of good restaurants. We literally ate sushi for lunch and Thai food for dinner everyday we were there. Oh, and as much as I hate to admit it, I went to the evil empire of Starbucks so I could get a decaf, soy latte.
I think I gained a pound each day!
The highlights for us besides the food, was seeing the Pre-Colombian museum and people watching in the main plaza.
The Chilean Pre-Colombian art museum had an amazing collection of ceramics, textiles, Chinchorro mummies and statues spanning 4500 years of Pre-Colombian civilization. It was very impressive. Watching the street performers in the plaza was fun too. The architecture in Santiago was very mixed with 19th century churches and government buildings sitting alongside high-rise buildings. Although busy it felt a little less hectic than Buenos Aires.
The other experience I repeated was a trip to the hairdressers, which I had also done in Buenos Aires. It is always a little daunting going to a hairdresser in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language well enough to explain exactly what you want done. I always hold my breath whilst there, and resign myself to being OK with having orange hair or platinum blonde streaks.
In Buenos Aires they did an OK job, with highlights a little on the orange side. The hairdresser at the Santiago salon was great, as she got a couple of other people to help with translations, however I still had no idea how it would all turn out. The whole thing was not a relaxing experience, as this was one of the “trendy techno salons”. That basically means that they play techno music at full volume and this one even had a DJ for part of the time I was there. Four hours later, my hair was revealed, and I actually really like it. It is one of the best hair colors that I have had. So I left happy but with a really bad headache. Stay tune for “hair by Lima, Peru”.
Our next stop was Valparaiso, ~ 2 hours north west of Santiago. It is a port town of ~283,000 people, which is set into the hills. The streets are cobbled stones and are very steep. There are ascensors (tramway type cars) at strategic points, which take passengers up steeper sections from the flat port area to the Cerro’s or hills. We rode the Ascensor Concepcion, which is one of the oldest ascensor. It did look old and was extremely jerky as it made the climb. Keira’s cries of lets do it again, lets you know that it felt more like a ride in a theme park than a mode of transportation. We stayed at a hostel called Luna Sonrisa in Cerro Alegre district, parking the car on the street outside which ended up being totally safe.
Valparaiso is known for its colored houses and murals (artistic graffiti). It is a world heritage UNESCO listed site. The streets in Cerro Alegre and Concepcion are where most of the street art is displayed. Literally every third building has murals painted on its walls. The creativity extends to some of the locations they are placed also, like roofs, steps, doors, and gates. Some of the artwork is really beautiful. Unfortunately other not so nice graffiti, which can be seen in all towns in South America, is here too.
We really enjoyed our time in both cities but we were eager to move on. We would be crossing the border to Argentina again for the wine country of Mendoza and northern Argentina. Saying good-bye to Chile for what could be the last visit.
The Portillo border crossing to Argentina via a pass through the Andes Mountains was certainly interesting. The landscape was amazing and unlike any other we had experienced so far on this trip. The mountains were treeless, and mostly shale but were vivid colors of reds, pinks and shades of grey and brown. It reminded us of areas of Tibet we had travelled through. And in actual fact parts of the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” had been filmed in this location. There are many tunnels through this area, including a long tunnel called the international tunnel that takes you across the border.
The pass itself is 3834meters (12674 feet). Most of that climb is done in the space of 5 kms. This feat is accomplished through a series of very steep and very tight switchbacks or hairpin bends. The photo of the GPS reading may give you some idea of the steepness. The road is full of trucks; mostly going very slow due to heavy loads and passing is difficult. Priscilla took it all in her stride.
Border crossings are different at each location. Just when you think you know the process, something changes and you are thrown for a loop. Usually when exiting a country, you do your exit paperwork in the country you are leaving. This time for us that was Chile. However when we approached the first checkpoint where trucks were stopped they waved us on. Next thing we knew, we had passed across the border with no exit stamp. We had stopped before the international tunnel to check with a guard and he had assured us that all paperwork was done in Argentina, but we were still not sure. Descending from the pass, we found a building off to our left that was the immigration point. It was set up totally different to all the others. This was like a tollbooth inside a building where you drive into and pass through 2 booths to complete the paperwork. We realized then that there were 2 people in each booth. One from Chile who stamped our passports out and one from Argentina that stamped us in. At the next booth, the Chile officer took our car temporary import permit to cancel it and the Argentina officer completed our new temporary import permit to enter Argentina. It was all completed very efficiently. The customs officers since we were going into Argentina did not check the car for fruits and vegetables (entering Chile is more strict) but they had Mike open the vehicle because they were curious about our set-up.
We realized that the border was set up this way because of the steepness of the pass, the high altitude and for the harsh weather and winter snows.
We knew coming on this trip that being a family would sometimes be an asset, and certainly at border crossings it has been. Even the sternest official can’t resist the charms of a 5 year old.
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.