South America 2012-2013: Salta, Argentina

Okay, "death bus" is vastly unfair on any level, excepting the fact that the bus from Córdoba to Salta takes about twelve hours. And that's the fast one, which I'm on. It's also the one where all the chairs flatten to 180 degrees, each seat compartmentalized inside its own little rectangle comprised of hip-high walls found at the "bed"'s head and foot. This is great, or it is if you are no longer than said distance between head and foot. I'm not.

Better still, I can easily suffer the nostalgic succession of 80s videos that introduce the journey. These are such gems as Rosanna, or a Newton-John number from Grease. Sure they're cheese, but it's a flavor of fromage that I grew up with. Topping this descent into bus-dom luxury, the lone movie, Argo, is both not dubbed and even decent. It miraculously lacks the expected piles of blood and gunfire that one assumes are mandated by law aboard Latin American buses. And to think that I receive all this at a 20% discount, making the seat cost the same price as coach! I love the switch to the off-season!

All the above makes for a perfectly calm and welcoming entry back to Salta after about a decade and a half. I wake up aboard my cruising vessel of cush', floating high above in the upstairs section feeling refreshed. With less than two hours to go, I remain fully reclined as I take in the verdant green dawning outside. The sky's clouds and the goodly-sized mountains to both sides take on pastel hues as I am handed a coffee. Okay, there's THAT one shitty detail - it tastes like sugar with coffee candy dumped within - but that's it for the naysaying, I swear. Closing in on town, then after passing a luxurious gated community I'm 100% sure was not even a thought a dozen years ago, we shortly pull into the large, clean terminal. It similarly was perhaps only a twinkling in someone's eye last time I was in town. Salta la Linda, I am yours... again!

A taxi next brings me to my hostel in moments, a last-minute recommendation from a Brit couple who passed through my hostel my last night in Córdoba. The amazing thing, of course, is that there's even a choice. Back in my first year visiting Salta, there were NO hostels. In one of the two ensuing years appeared the first, the (in?!?)famous Backpacker's. Now there's a Backpacker's 2 and 3, I believe, plus something like 50, 100, or 200 others. I have no idea what the count is, but Salta is 100% on the South America tourist map these days. I'm naturally and truly curious to see how the town has changed, beyond visiting my "Argentine family", of course. In the roughly dozen years of my absence, I know fully well that THEY have changed - all have paired up in a permanent way and are sporting hijos these days. I think there are eleven children by last count. The plan is to verify this shortly.

Meanwhile, arriving in the morning means not taking too long in getting going for a walkabout. I'm more than ready to take advantage of the fact that the air is cooler than in Córdoba while still pleasantly warm. Apparently a number of rains have been erupting in the afternoons to keep things this way. Cheers to them, I say, and thus off I go. First things first, of course: I intend to immediately get my hands on some local empanadas, tamales, and humitas whilst inspecting the town's changes. (Here let me inject a note, specifically noting that the napkins found everywhere in Salta are the same worthless waxpaper-inspired scraps of paper that are found throughout the entire country. Will SOMEone please do something about this?!? They don't absorb SHIT, merely serving as vehicles of swipe instead.)

On first glance, I would say Salta remains much as it was fifteen years prior, now however with more gloss (i.e. fresh paint). This is fitting, since this was the most colonial city in Argentina and it obviously still is. There's no shortage of grand facades and bulging balconies, many happily restored to some measure of former grandeur. On the other hand, there's an epic amount of evidence that there are surely a lot more hostels, hotels, car rental shops and so on. I take notice of a couple of large casinos I don't remember from before. To all this I go a bit camera-happy in the process, ALSO remembering that I didn't have a digital camera the last time around. Click. Click click.

One consequence of this snap-happiness comes quickly, when some fruit vendors immediately make some hissing sounds when my camera is vaguely pointed in their direction. True enough, one can't help but note the distinct presence of Andino folks here, those descendants of the former Incan empire which stretched well into this part of Argentina from Peru and Bolivia. Hereabouts it's called the Puna. Discriminated against here to some degree, many of these ex-Bolivians (or the essentially Bolivian-cultured Argentines from the northern pueblos between Salta and the border) often hold the lower rung jobs in society. They're hissing violently to let me know that taking their picture is a no-go, fortunately something I don't particularly want, anyway.

The crap-job thing, of course, often happens with a plentiful illegal population. The picture-taking thing is something else, however. For those that actually hold the belief - and are not looking for a means to charge some pesos - the taking of a picture means the potential robbing of a soul. So it's been since Inca and camera (and I believe mirror as well) first met. No, I don't get it, either, but sure enough I'm asked to show what pictures I just took by one of the vendors. He jumps onto the sidewalk to get in my way (sort of), to which I best decide to humor him by displaying the latest one. Of course I know it couldn't possibly have them in it, since I was aiming at a balcony, but I later chuck the one that incidentally DOES have some of them in the foreground. Meanwhile my disappointed friend returns to his cohort as they soon take to snorting at me for my audacity. To this I immediately retort aloud, saying that I didn't find them all that interesting in the first place - to which they scrounge up some modest curses. Ah, sharing the love! But honestly I don't, vastly more interested instead in why SOMEone doesn't begin to bury the spiderwebs of phone and electricity lines that are marring my beautiful shots. Priorities!

My BIG priority, of course, is to see my Argentine fam. This starts with the most likely candidate, the joker of the family named Maria Marta. She's three kids into her marriage these days, but the last time I saw her she was something like 16 or 17. She hasn't changed in the least, fortunately, except now I can play with her similarly-precocious kids (Felipe, Delfina, and Nahuel-not-Huapi) while drinking the Paraguayan-inspired tereré. I don't remember this cold maté, juice-infused concoction from back in the day, but it goes down quite nicely. Her ready-to-pop sister-in-law comes by a bit later, toting the real thing (bitter maté, I mean, and hot!) while also bringing a cousin in tow. Their appearance manages to set things back on a more traditional traditional track: Maté and family. Now all that's missing is the asado... which we soon begin making tentative plans for.

Indeed, it's not long before I see sister Dolores (who I stayed with the first time) and her family of four (kids!). We have a couple of meals at their large house, located in another surprisingly-gated community (I'm given the third degree about who a slob like myself could know inside) that is on what I used to remember as a tranquil country road that connects nearby San Lorenzo to Salta. It's now effectively a highway, lined with billboards and such. Her husband Germ´n and I can now get along famously well, talking politics and such now that the jealousy of my former stay is long gone (Hey, I was chasing her friend back then, anyway!). But mostly I get a royal kick playing with her brood (Catalina, Juan Cruz, Helena, and Trini), especially tiny Helena. I immediately take to calling her "Hache" ("ah-chay", or 'H', since she repeatedly reminds me that her name is Helena with an 'H'). Yes, this is a long way from my first times in Salta, where I only went to the family house and saw brothers and sisters minus spouses and kids. The parents didn't live in Madrid then, either, as they have been now with two of the brothers (Carlitos and Martin) practically since the big financial crisis of 2001.

Of the others in town, I get to see Marcos once for a lunch at that same family house. He's now caretaking it with his wife Irina, along with their two chilluns Santiago and Felicitas. We catch up over a long meal and maté. As for the remaining sister, Maria Ines, I leave her for a surprise visit. She coincidentally lives all of a few blocks from my hostel, with her man Diego and young ones Paz and Candelaria. She's a woman now, of course, no longer a teen who keeps bringing me her small keyboard to play tunes for her. She's in the process of making a go of making the famous Salteñnas empanadas and pizzas for delivery only, and all by word of mouth. To date it's a modest and growing success, but they hope to soon have a piece of land where they can permanently erect a mud oven. That should do both dishes - and any new oven-focused ones - the most justice possible.

Outside of family matters, I make it a daily point to waltz about the city a bit. Early on, I take in two museums, the MAAM (High Andean Mountain Museam) and the MAC (Contemporary Art). Both are located on the now-more-handsome-than-ever main square, and neither existed when I last tread Saltan soil. One sets ya back about 40 pesos, the other is free. There's also a coffee shop I remember from before, Van Gogh, which obviously must come in between.

The first mentioned of these two museums has become world famous, of course, the final site (for now) of three mummies found on the nearby volcano Llullaillaco (Zhooh-zheye-zhah-coe, at 6700m the tallest volcano in the world). Each of this trio was a noble child who was drugged to fall asleep... before being buried alive on top of a frozen peak. Must have sucked, but then again, maybe the drugs were a great ride... Anyway, the idea was to keep the gods happy, a lengthy celebration which first included bringing the anointed to faraway Cuzco to see the head Inca and back.

These days they represent a somewhat controversial draw for the city. They can't be returned to their former tombs, of course - these days all the peaks have been or are being scoured for similar discoveries, to which there have been similar if less spectacular other finds - but burying them would end their freakish situation of being awesomely-preserved bodies available to science and archaeology. So, for now, in the museum they stay with plenty of at least lip service to their being respected. Glad I don't have to choose!

As to this present day reality of their display in the museum, the light with which to see them is kept altogether rather low. Only one of them is shown at any time, too (which is a bit of a bummer and a surprise to most us gawking tourists). Beyond the actual bodies, one can also view their accompanying like-preserved gifts for the gods. They are all kept more or less still together in the climate-controlled section of the museum. The gifts/traveling gear are likewise a bit difficult to make out, but fortunately all have been photographed with excellent light and enlarged elsewhere in the museum. The descriptions are more than adequate (including those translated into English, miraculously with few mistakes), too, so one gets a pretty good idea of the Incan footprint in Northern Argentina beyond merely the greater network of Incan roads. Not a poor way to spend over an hour at all.

As for the contemporary art museum, it gets a lot less play. An annual collection of the supposed best in the area are on display, and at the price of free I'm certainly ready to give them a whirl. Some do catch my eye, and I'm pleased that almost none journey toward the land of the really abstract. I'm not good with paintings of 2-d boxes and circles and trying to derive meaning from them. One particular exhibit dedicated to humans and pressure/anxiety is well-received on at least my part.

Only later do I also take in the following: a fine arts museum (a recent entry to the scene as of 2007, with an impressive exhibit dedicated to local artists), the house of culture (sporting a large collection of ancient black-n-white photos in homage to the upcoming Bicentennial of the Battle of Salta), the former society club/culture house in its handsome Paris-inspired edifice (with funny quotes of debauchery and costumes both related to the soon-ending Carnival), the former seat of government Cabildo (the city history from pre-Columbian times to present, in a massive old building complete with courtyards and such - the best-preserved such in the country) and the House of Hernandez (on the main pedestrian street of Florida, it houses a random collection of old building facade parts, plus a couple dozen massively-enlarged photos of the surrounding Puna highlands and desert - stunning).

But then that almost about does it for the cultural offerings of Salta in town, or at least as far as my interest goes. One can only look at so many old clocks, nails, doors, and city plans. Yes, I'm happy and hopeful that all such are preserved, but in many cases it's hard to summon great interest beyond what is truly novel and imposing. Us humans can be frighteningly simple that way. No, I intend instead to almost single-mindedly focus on eating plenty of their famously small and delicious empanadas, plus the equally-lovely tamales and humitas, while ALSO catching some local peña (folkloric) music and red wine.

I do all of the above in multiple visits to the main square (where the owner of one joint comes to expect me), the Casona del Molino (where tables are occupied by competing folk musicians who belt - and I mean BELT - out tunes while everyone eats) and Casa de Guemes (a local hero's former digs). At the latter I encounter a musician I remember from fifteen (!) years prior, Matias Zurdo - the Lefty. He holds sessions of tale interspersed with song these days, but I remember him playing at the old Backpacker's Hostel for us few assembled tourists at the lone patio table. Back then he similarly filled the space with quality voice and guitar, to the tune of massive jugs of red table wine, but the hostel owner would stand in front of the exit door with his arms crossed lest any of us think of leaving. Funny, uncomfortable, entertaining - I remember THAT quite well, a regular occurrence at that first hostel that was trying to learn the hostel business if by strong-arming us with culture.

Nevertheless, the OTHER reason beyond family and culture for which I've come to town is... to get out of town. The plan is to find like-minded tourists in my hostel, something which I'm able to do after my first few days in town. A couple of Belgian girls have had a spate of bad luck with their credit card and the local Hertz car rental agency, so they've thrown in the towel to see the outer-lying attractions via dreaded tours - until I come to the rescue. My credit card lacks the white horse effect, to be sure, but it does the trick to find me splitting costs on a spin of a few nights in the area.

So now here comes the joy of driving in Argentina. Sure, one belga (Belgian) wants to be behind the wheel a bit to alternate with me, but it looks certain that I'll get all of the fun that is city driving. This starts right away, as I haltingly depart the city. Although the maze of one way streets is theoretically governed by traffic lights (which are generally obeyed) and the right of way to the right (which is usually not paid much heed to), I'm extra cautious toward all things untoward. This entails getting beeped at here and there, but I'm well aware of how this system works mostly by bravado. It's easy when one arrives at an unmarked intersection well ahead of any crossing cars, but otherwise it's a matter who has more nerve - or size. This is confirmed by any and all Argentines to whom I address the question. All laugh in confirming the reality. This is, not surprisingly, awfully reminiscent of Southern Italy. Everything in Argentina I think is whacked I blame on Italy. It's AWFULLY convenient.

We amazingly escape Salta unharmed, shortly taking the back/old way to Jujuy (pronounced *cough*-*cough*-ooey, to the amusement and/or dismay of many a foreigner). This is along Ruta 9, here a pleasantly twisty and lushly green track that takes a couple of hours of dodging the random oncoming vehicle. This is mostly interesting on account of the pavement being roughly wide enough for one vehicle - while sporting a line down the middle that suggests two. Poor Tine, meanwhile, is suffering stomach problems that has her on the verge of vomiting the entire way without the distinct pleasure of being able to do so. Even an extended stop with me pantomiming an Oscar performance of shoving finger down throat doesn't help. It's a mental thing which would easily be solved, of course, if she were Roman... Italian! Anyway, we thus make a few such stops as we climb, climb, climb through the narrowing valley. Finally we squirt through a pass, to quickly find the road improving and enlarging as we cross into the province of Jujuy via a similarly broadening valley.

Near loogie - I mean Jujuy - town we get confirmation of what we already know: Everyone's heading north for the final days of Carnival. This was true on Ruta 9, where we were passed more times than (thankfully!) there were opposing cars to contend with, but now we are in a massive traffic jam. The situation is not aided by road construction, either. Still, we plug along north toward the Bolivian border, enjoying increasingly startling views of cacti and colored mountains of exposed dirt. We slowly put kilometers between us and (San Salvador de) Jujuy.

Along the way, meanwhile, are various vehicles disgorging folks stopping to eat and drink mate as a respite from the slow motion; others - always Andino - forthwith begin their partying and drinking to celebrate Pachamama. Verily, an authentic variation of Carnival exists here in the Puna region. It mostly seems to involve mounding up some rocks, usually with a corn stalk sticking out the middle, and everyone drinking chicha to stare at the woesome creation. The rest of it apparently concerns using flour or spray foam to cover one's face, in theory so that the devil scurrying up from below won't recognize who the hell you are when he pops out for a look. Okay, sure. Anyway, mostly these days it's about the drinking. Or so at least I'M quite convinced. The upshot in 2013 is that MANY Argentines and (now) gringos alike come up to participate in what is a huge street party in a number of the northern pueblos. Back in the day I think I was about the only of the latter (gringo), but that too has changed along with Salta's hostel count.

One of the main towns for Carnival is Tilcara, fortunately only beginning to stir toward maximum revelry as we approach it. I suggest entering the burg while we still can, the operating theory being that we'll also be likely able to exit it as well if being ever-so-prompt tourists. By now my two companions have recognized that I'm serious on this matter, even if perhaps my favorite topics are feces related... did I mention that they were throwing cowpies at times for carnival in Ecuador? Hmmm.

ANYwho, we take this brief opportunity to meander about a bit on foot and car, debating if the marvelously-colored hill facing us was the famous Cerro de Siete Colores (Seven-Colored Hill), all the while taking photos that specifically do not include individuals in traditional hat and poncho. It's hard to resist, it really is. The drums and foam have begun in the meantime, but we leave with only a bit of incidental spray on the car to show for the wear. This last point is kept emphatically certain by our maintaining all of the car windows closed. Yes, our expectations will only be geared on scenery for this go-round - in only mainly because we can't get involved in the all night partying if we want to find a hotel later (impossible) or cover some distance (ditto).

Such is the plan as we continue on toward Humahuaca and then Iruya beyond. The valley broadens as the cacti and colors multiply. The foliage, in turn, dwindles as we gain altitude alongside a wide riverbed. We all fretfully note the increasing thunderheads in the distance. Soon enough, a lonely cemetery is fortuitous both for taking unhampered pictures AND because a cactus is actually going into bloom. That happens only something like once in a hundred years, and it will turn out to be our sole such example on the entire trip. Unavoidably, naturally, of course, wouldn't ya know, some dogs spot us from across the road. They eventually cross to hamper our will to some small effect. Funny how they can prompt getting a move on with such a simple thing as snarling, yipping, barking... and showing bloodlust in their eyes. We next hear some yelling from the couple of folks they ostensibly belong to, gesticulating across the way in what appears to only be desert. If they are calling the dogs back, or are telling us to cease and desist with the photo-taking, we have no idea - but back to the desolate stretch of bitumen we go.

Humahuaca comes and goes, not terribly interesting from this main highway, or not so beyond a couple of communities on its outskirts which are an Argentine version of Allentown. Each has the exact same footstamp, only varying in that the chimneys are alternately painted with Che Guevara and some guy I take to be a famous goucho. Maybe it's the famous Difunta Correa, of the red shrine fame that is now seen all over Argentina. The story is that a mother dies in the desert and her son lives on by suckling her blood/milk/something from her breast or something. Then he croaks, too, and this is inspirational to one and all. Yeah, weird, but apparently the cult is growing and they haven't as of yet started sacrificing goats, chickens, or humans yet. [Oops, here goes the fun: a short search on the net reveals that Face #2 is famed Bolivian revolutionary figure Tupac Amaru (named after the last Incan ruler, to boot). Let's just say he was a proto-Gaucho, shan't we? Yes, we shall.]

Our parade of pictures continues now as we head off the main road toward Iruya... and then head back to it again five minutes later. This dirt track we've founds ourselves on is getting nigh on impossible to negotiate. Just ahead, with another sign, we make out the CURRENT dirt road to Iruya. Ah. Ha. Ha ha ha. Silly us. In moments, then, we are gawking at llamas that apparently are begging to be photographed. Less friendly are the three vehicles that blow by in a storm of dirt: I try to wave them down for some kinda update on the road conditions ahead. They stare at me as if I'm smokin' crack - or bad coca leaf, undoubtedly - as they blow by. So that's how it's to be, huh?

Well, sorta. We shortly hit a remarkably unremarkable town to see if our little Chevy Corsa will make it across the river. And?... Yes, it barely does, even as some guy in a pickup truck splashing through in the other direction indicates "No problem!" Well, mebbe. Onward! Next I blast our way through another dozen kilometers of hard-packed clay road, only to find us making our second and last river crossing as night begins its descent. We manage this one as well, but shortly consider what MIGHT happen. As in this: If it rains, we'll be stuck on the wrong side of the river. Poopie on that! Iruya might turn out to be cutely pleasant and all, but it's one thing to HAVE to stay there indefinitely when we have visions of salt flats and wineries ahead. Hmmm. I shortly make a couple of 3-point turns to effect reversing course, soon again just barely plowing through the rivers in anticipation of impending doom in the form of rain.

Now it's something of a race against the dark as we head on the way back south again, toward Purmamarca. We briefly enter Humahuaca, but again Carnival is growing lively enough to make us think better. Uh, bailing! Soon, too, begins a hard rain as we head into the ever-heavier traffic that is streaming north. Well, make that merely teeming in a northerly direction. They're not going very fast. By the time we're apparently nearing our destination P-town, meanwhile, the raining is dumping and it's pitch-freaking-black out. This is not a particularly illuminate portion of the planet. Thus I'm pushing my nose into the windshield, trying to use my bright lights whenever possible to see whether any drunken Carnival clown is going to wander in front of us - for a extremely short journey to the afterlife.

Needless to say, we are very happy to hunker down in the first restaurant we see in Purmamarca. Excellent food and a clean bathroom go FAR beyond a long way toward ANYthing, we figure. However, try as the barman might, he can't find a single bed for us in this tiny town. And he calls ten of them. Purmamarca's at 100%+ occupancy; we are suggested to head the hour back to Jujuy. Sigh. With low hopes, I drive us several blocks further into town and suggest to my fine female friends that they knock on some of the possible doors suggested to us as slender-hope leads toward salvation. My theory is that A) girls are received better than boys and B) blonds have more fun. I mean, blonds get better responses in areas where there are, like, none. And we have a real blonde - thanks, Tine!

Bingo. We eventually have a couple beds. Nevertheless, neither girl - shockingly - is willing to sleep with me to let the other have the more comfortable single. Soon we are snoozing away, sadder for the missed experience. Well, maybe that's just me and the booze speaking as I write this. In any event, the light of dawn brings the proper light of day, - right about after my realizing that I'm sleeping in a room that is a dark tomb night or day. I'm also co-habiting with a couple who are probably wondering when some gringo appeared in the other bed in their room. Uh... HI!

At the crack of nine, then, we get up to wander about and take pictures of a very, very picturesque Purmamarca town. The reds, oranges, pinks, and yellows of the surrounding hills contrast exceedingly well with the random Pachamama displays left among the litterings of empty spray-foam cans. In no time, too, a crafts market has packed the main square as tourist buses stack up on the town's periphery. Maybe, just mebbe, this place isn't a secret. Spurred to action, we finally grab some food and get ready to bail out as the sun becomes more intense as well.

To that end (the weather), things both improve and deteriorate. On our way to the Salinas Grandes, we shortly find ourselves chugging under a relentless sun as we lose speed in the curves. We soon open vents and kill the A/C to enjoy a thinning air that gets only fresher. We top out well over 4000m of altitude, that only after a dizzying array of beautiful views of hills and mountains of different color and erosion patterns. Immediately thereafter we drop the amount necessary to reach the salt flats and, outside of narrowly not killing an alpaca that decides to wander in front of us - and while getting info from fellow travelers to turn back after the salt flats on account of road closings and difficulties ahead - that's what we do.

THE SALT FLATS! Well, the Salar de Uyuni they are not by any grandiose measure, but they still are pretty cool. The hundred other tourists or so that are in the area also seem to think so. Everyone's kicked off their shoes and gone walking out onto the salt bed, our feet soon shuffling through only about a centimeter or two of water. This is the good side of the previous night's rain, giving rise to decent views and pictures with reflections galore. Indeed, if the area wasn't a working salt mine - complete with long linear gouges to extract said salt - it'd be ideal for such photo shoots with a minimum of walking about necessary for the desired cropping.

But it's a neat spot any way you look at it, if only excepting the fine salt which accumulates on our legs. Luckily, the stuff stays clear of my fine whiter-n-hell ass: I offer my moon-sized opinion of the place, undoubtedly a boon to all. To this extraordinary effort, Gwendolyn vows to never equal the measure. Tine, more hopefully, wavers on the fence, and likely is still there to this day. Where's the love? Chickens! Sigh.

In any event, we've got a long way to go to next make tracks toward Cafayate. We double back toward Purmamarca, then head south on the mighty highway previously bypassed to eventually gain Salta. A gas stop in Jujuy brings a small measure of stress to the affair, especially as a couple of hoped-for stations don't materialize in Tumbayo or Vulcan as our gas tank needle creeps ever lower and the warning light becomes steadily lit, but we do enjoy the speeds available on the big road. Granted, the scenery is as boring as many a Midwest U.S. Interstate for almost the entire distance, but the time saved is not to be denied. I am naturally passed by many a foolish risk-taker in this venture of blazing south, especially after the road becomes only one to a side. You kind of hope at times that these bastards would get theirs - if it didn't entail the necessary fireball of a spectacular crash.

Returning to Salta city, meanwhile, is a bit of a clusterfart, mainly because the highway suddenly terminates as we head into its southern backside. Oops! After a few times asking questions, plus a wrong way stab down a one way street to keep things interesting, we eventually are again heading properly south. Before long we are in a pretty valley, one that only becomes more so... before we can't see it anymore. Hello, night! So much for the famous Quebrada de la Concha viewings.

It's also somewhere along this route that I advise the girls that we might want to short-circuit our plans regarding Cachi somewhat - unless we plan to spend every waking moment of this 3-night trip in the car. A half hour of discussion in Flemish - and I'm steadily getting better at deciphering this tongue thanks to their random use of French phrases and my crumbling wreck of remnant German - leads to agreement: ciao, Cachi! (I was pretty sure I did NOT hear "Let's dump his sorry American ass!" somewhere in there, although I was listening intently for evidence of such wicked Belgian plotting.) We still have a couple hours of dodging oncoming idiots who never turn off their high beams, however.

And then... then... it's hello, Cafayate! Finally!: We roll onto an absolutely packed main street, soon parking the car and getting a late bite of local fare alongside a folkloric bar that we have no trouble hearing clearly. The speaker placed out on the sidewalk rather ensures that detail. As for the entrees, if not empanadas (pastries stuffed with spiced beef, cheese and onion, or chicken), tamales (mushed corn with spiced beef in the middle that is wrapped in the husk for cooking), and humitas (typically sweeter mushed corn with a cheesy middle that is also wrapped in the husk for cooking), why not the stewy locro, with its goat, beef, potato, and corn bits? Indeed. However, finding a hostel with enough beds for us proves slightly more difficult. Again this is managed when the girls are put to walking the streets. Is that a double entendre? Well, I do d'clare: jes' sue me!

Morning in Cafayate some hours later means only one thing to us: walking. We're tired of our trusty little car friend - and it HAS treated us well, even if necessarily ignoring the growing rattle it's been showing off, likely due to our dirt road rumblings - and we're unanimously ready for a resting spell. This effectively turns into rambling most of the quainter, inner streets of Cafayate before finding a bodega to hole up in for a quality lunch. The girls do the usual brief winery tour while I talk Argentine and Colombian politics with the waiter/bartender interspersed with some tunes on the horn. This is more like it. The bottle of wine with lunch that comes next caps an overdue, leisurely morning that lasts into the early afternoon.

NOW we are ready to check out the Quebrada de la Concha that we missed all of a dozen-plus hours before. Granted, I saw it years ago on a tour of a couple days, one consisting of all of me, a guide, and a young woman from Buenos Aires ALONE IN THE ENTIRE CANYON! - those days are long gone! - but it's still every bit as beautiful as before. Here again we take in shades of red, orange, green, and purple, but the formations are vastly different and more intimate than those seen north of Jujuy.

The chief of these to me, of course, is the Anfiteatro. Not for nothing do I have a trumpet with me and yes, it is indeed still something of an amphitheater acoustics-wise. I'm shortly belting out any tune that comes to my head that sounds grandiose, all done while sucking down gobs of water. We are in a desert, after all, but a trumpet fares best in a swamp. Between gulps I nevertheless enjoy entertaining those who hang around to give a listen, focusing on my slower Arab-styled classic or jazz tunes (think Miserlou, Caravan, etc.). I'm regardless parched come the end of the session, happy both that my Belgian crew has patiently waited me out and also that we've agreed ahead of time to stop for any piss or vomit breaks necessary or even merely imaginable. Yes, there ARE consequences to downing a liter of water in something between a half and a whole hour. By the way, too, there are some kind of parrots living in this high, walled-in centerpiece of erosion. They're even cute. But really, that trumpet guy is the shit.

The rest of our passage through the Quebrada is nonstop and gorgeous. Plenty of the highlights are even given names so the cars know when to stop. But pictures do them better justice. (See above.)

Now on our "terminal" trip north, again we find ourselves wondering where our next place to crash will be. According to the map, the Dique Cabra Corral - a massive dammed lake with supposedly zillions of tourist options - seems a likely choice. We get there with light still in reasonable supply, perfect to catch a sunset over the lake as we eat fish and drink more of Nanni's wine. The tourism bit makes sense from this vantage point - we see a few sailboats come in as a jetski scoots out to pleasant pollute the place with its sound and spew. Quite a few folks fish from the dock below our perch, too.

As for lodgings, well, that's not so great. Out of the few choices we try between the Dique and Salta - and there are only a few - we find that it's either price or availability that's going to shut us down. So we eventually find ourselves all the way back in Salta, scrambling easily (and thus fortunately) to a hotel suggestion from our former hostel hosts. We gratefully plop ourselves into a nearby room for three that also will house our car for the night. Done - and the girls are successfully off to continue their travels in Patagonia shortly thereafter.

Some days later, I've worked at getting another trip into the offing. Like the Belgian special just completed, it'll also be a jaunt to some territory I've covered before - the Calchaquies Valleys in the vicinity of Cachi. All I remember from that tour (which included Cafayate), however, is a long-spiked cactus, a really straight road, plus the cactus-roofed church in Cachi. Still and all, I know it'll be good stuff worth repeating, and fortunately I'm able to convince a couple of guys in the hostel of the same. These are namely Canadian John from Alberta and Klemens from Stuttgart, Germany. Again I'll apparently be doing the city driving while trading off with only one other driver in the car; again we'll have a Chevy Corsa to do the honors. This time it's white, sure, but otherwise I can tell no difference - outside of there never being a rattle (yet!) to frown over fretfully. This is called progress.

Right away we get to it on this 2-day spin, heading south to El Carril, next turning right toward Cachi. We pick up our necessary jug of water and bottle of wine before continuing and shortly leaving almost all vestiges of civilization behind. Now we are venturing into the wild, ain't we now? Well, we're surely headed into the great wide open, anyway. But first we must pass through a small tropical rain forest to do so. To that end, and after squishing through some lush greenery in a tight canyon for a short spell, we finally cross a steel bridge. This denotes our official passage to the outside of the Lerma Valley. The muddy river, now to our left, is a broad, sloppy plain that will continually narrow as we twist and turn our way up 2000-3000 meters or so. Look it up. I think that's about right. More or less.

Again the air gets cooler with the ascent, but at least we're not the guy stuck in the riverbed with his pickup truck. That CAN'T be any fun in the middle of nowhere. No, we just have to pass the random car moving even slower than us while taking in the views - when not getting passed ourselves. Neither happens much, actually, but it's always interesting when there is a truck and a hairpin turn involved. As for the road turning into a dirt track - albeit a well-maintained one - THAT merely spurs a desire to pass and not be passed on. Who wants to suck up that plume of dirt?

Said dirt, by the way, is turning ever more red. The evidence of erosion is not only apparent in the handsome formations we increasingly see to our sides above, but also in some of the aforementioned turns. There's water to cross through in a number of them, even, each time emitted at a trickle from a mucky mess that suggests this road gets a lot more interesting when it's raining or immediately thereafter. In fact, I kinda vaguely remember some of this when on that "fateful" trip over a dozen-plus years back, when guide Osirio needed every bit of his modified pickup truck at times. It also had some sorta glass-bubble tourist compartment in the back, where us two tourists were able to choose between perhaps 10 seats at any time. Ah, memories!

Outside of meandering onward, and our car grunting to the top to leave the concept of greenery behind, I also remember what comes next: cacti and the Tin Tin. The former are found in various forms of saguaro that I am familiar with from Arizona, although some can sport needles the size of my forearm! I deposit a little blood - I think all three of us do - in struggling for an appropriate souvenir. As for the Tin Tin, it's still a straight patch of road through the desert. I somehow remember it being longer. Hmm. Maybe I was just wee kid then? Isn't that how that goes? Surely.

Eventually we come to our first real crossroads since El Carril, where one can turn north toward La Poma and San Antonio de los Cobres - which we would love to do if our car could actually take the pounding and lack of appropriate clearance, or the road wasn't closed at times due to landslides - or south toward Payagasto and Cachi. South it is, yep, and we shortly stop at our first winery to both imbibe a little vino while shooting pics of all things mud. Somehow a predatory bird gets into the mix for some close-ups (and thank ye very much, birdie!), but mostly we are just pleased with the fare - until the flies descend en masse. Grub-wise, I get a hunk of lamb with a few of the biggest bones I've ever seen on my plate. It's very tasty, regardless - said bugger did not die completely in vain.

With full bellies, then, we mosey on toward Cachi, now with John driving to give me a rest. All the while Klemens will continue in the backseat, quietly absorbed with his task of shooting something like 1000 pics in two days. [He'll fall short of four digits, fair enough, but not by a colossal amount.] As for the lay of the land, the River Calchaquies is now to our right under some bluffs. There it will stay for a while as we tack on the remaining kilometers to Cachi. Then... there she is, in all of her colonial mud brick and cactus goodness. Cachi-ville. Pueblo! Whichever: No one's around, so we just walk around a bit while deciding to continue forging on toward one of the next towns to pass the night. Will be Angastaco? Or just Molinos?

It doesn't matter. Really, this is ALL about a feast for the eyes. Random abandoned and maybe-abandoned-maybe-not settlements abound, even if they are often spaced few and far between. The town of Seclantas offers some of the best of these rustic visual moments, but it doesn't hurt either that our views to the distance are broad and long. A flat-seeming valley floor, one almost invariably littered with cacti, offers proper relief/contrast to the hills that pop out of them; to one side, too, sometimes appear the snow-capped peaks of the Nevado de Cachi (and this on a day past the peak of summer, so I guess the white stuff sticks around). The eyes suffreth not. Uh, knotte?

Molinos eventually comes our way, only some few dozen kilometers away from Cachi that takes toward an hour-and-a-half to cover. Yet, fair enough, this includes a section of blind turns that allow the width of about one car. Whatev', Molinos will be where we call it a day. Night isn't far off, plus we have to backtrack all of this the next day. We happily find a place to suffer our presence, then walk the tough streets of Molinos. We discover that there is somehow (!) a frou-frou place charging $250/night in town (granted, it IS the ancient hacienda, but also note that this IS Molinos), the church is quaint as all get-out (including a standing-only crown on a Sunday night that pushes out beyond the church door), the super-tidy park is a nice place to play some quiet trumpet and write, staring at a passion fruit means that it will be given to you, and, most importantly, the state/province is quite evidently and verifiably shelling out some oodles of cash to restore the entire colonial area quite nicely. Kudos! And that's a rocking night in Molinos summed up.

Perhaps it's just such excitement that gets us up out and early enough to return toward Cachi with good morning lighting. For the effort we add in a detour over the river Calchaquies to take in Seclantas proper, a cemetery and bucolic main square being the main draws as usual. It's just that this time we get a bunch of parrots to keep us company - well done, birdies! Then, leave S-town behind, we play tag with an old Mercedes truck all the way back to Cachi, alternately passing and being passed as photo opportunities arise. That's the way it's done with the sun in a new position to start the day. Yes, we have taken to the role of tourist in all its officialdom rather adroitly.

Cachi is, again, its pretty colonial self. We appropriately waltz about town some more in between coffees and lunch as a consequence. Still, there's really not much to say in such voyeuristic enterprises, although we do make a stab out of town to hopefully check out a winery. For his part, John is keen to try every wine in the area, a noble endeavor to be sure, but to the same point he'll face an eternal uphill battle in trying to convince me that most (if not practically all) the pricing of wine is marketing and imagery. Maybe his case would improve if he snipped off the silly Canadian flag on his backpack, still a rather ubiquitous badge of Canadian dishonor that many beyond your run-of-the-mill "United Statesean" can see is a rather obvious chip on the shoulder. But I similarly realize that has as much chance happening as his admitting that maybe the scientific consensus of what's going on with the Alberta oil sands has its environmental costs - whatever the good times they set to rolling in his hometown-former-backwater of Calgary. Yes, we've had some fun discussions of items U.S.-Canada, although probably much more in agreement than not. Klemens, meanwhile, blithely shoots away - an unstoppable force of picture-taking. Nevertheless, we'll all be glad later that his camera is the one with a decent zoom! Them birds can appear AWFULLY small on (digital) film later!

Anyway, that's really about it for our grand voyage. With the day moving well on, we punt on heading up north from Cachi toward La Poma. We're not up for the backtrack. Instead, we head toward Salta in a somewhat leisurely fashion, stopping for ever more pics here and there until the batteries run out in all of our cameras... and soon the cellphones as well. That effectively puts an end to the higher level of gawking we've been up to. Salta, we're all yours again!

Back in town, I'm up to more of the same for the duration of my stay. I happily enjoy the company of the three brothers who run the hostel La Posta (one's just visiting, Julian, the others are in for the long haul - Ariel and Cristian). We ramble through Argentine politics (I'm always happy to hear the rare agreement that the Falklands issue is merely stupidity and greed with a mix of recklessness), the cumbersome details of running a hostel (and there are many, and many hassles), etc. All of this is the usual run of the mill for me, albeit this time with Fernet-cola or wine in hand and sometimes out front to salute any passers-by - especially the cuter ones. We also hold one particularly delicious asado.

A number of guests come and go over my two-and-a-half weeks in town to compliment my re-acquaintances with my Salta family. There's a talented couple from G. Britain-S. Africa, Chris-n-Em', looking to find where they'll end up living one day (the last time I met such, they ended up in Sydney, Australia...), one providing proof that cryptic crosswords are devilishly hard while the other pumps up Durban, South Africa enough such that I realize I need see it if I ever get my rear down that way. Jeremy, a French pilot, is similarly looking for a place to end up. His search for airlines to work for looks to be a difficult one, however, given the current economic situation, but he doesn't appear particularly perturbed. Naturally, he continues the Toulouse connection that seems to be the French flavor for me this year. Meanwhile, in a similar sense of looking for "a place", Calgary John is heading north for a place to settle in for longer-term Spanish lessons. I decide to not deface nor remove the silly Canadian flag on his baggage.

To all of the above and more, I happily permit the continual drainage of my brain to the extent possible possible about the wonders to be found north of (or south in) Argentina. Admittedly, I rather happily won't be enduring neither the transport nor food of Bolivia and Perú myself (although yes, I do hear that some Peruvian cuisine can be a wonder to behold - it's just that I've never had any to date, cheerily awaiting a sumptuous correction), but the prices will certainly be right. Maybe someday, again - who knows? The Andean countries over the last fifteen years all sound like they've both changed drastically and stayed the same over the years. Such is what I continually hear from other travelers coming from those parts.

As for Salta, some things stay the same and some change, too. Outside of the improved upkeep of so many of the beautiful buildings in town, the plazas are now in great nick as well. They've obviously been nicely restored and had statues and monuments added in abundance. The cobblestone doesn't suggest broken ankles, and somehow the pigeons - of which there are MANY in the central plaza 9 De Julio - haven't learned to leave shitpiles that should more faithfully bely their vast numbers. There's even a square ring of lemon trees about the plaza, leading me to wonder who harvests them - I see a lot of green fruit. I also see the usual number of sleeping dogs, naturally, plus I find myself remembering well from years ago - and even commenting on - the wise use of using broken pottery to make the paths in the parks. The orange chunks are well crushed to a comfortable level these days.

One thing I don't particularly recall is the amount of hawking going on. On the one hand, there are the numerous hippies merely moving through town with dreams of a life supported by making jewelry of all types. One sees them from Mexico to Cape Horn. Their wares are certainly pretty and appealing enough for those that go for that kind of thing, THEIR only problem being that the competition is vast and likely cutthroat when it gets down to the bargaining. The more pesky hawking is what is really just begging, something which always (it seems) occurs when you are sitting to eat at a pleasant table at the plaza. Who knows the reality, of course, but it really doesn't look like anyone is starving of those who come by to pester one and all at the greatest moment of guilt possible - when you are stuffing your face.

For what it's worth, allow me here to note and remind that Salta resides in the region where siestas still reign supreme. So forget about getting anything done between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., unless that thing is eating or drinking. These business hours are not stretched, either, so one should expect a massive (and enforced) shutdown at 2 p.m. with lines forming at certain stores before 5 p.m.

Beyond that metric reality, on the plus side there's now also a goodly number of tourist police around and about these days. Their presence is something which will only be heightened according to my hostel sources. A number of them are perched in metal booths above the fray in the pedestrian zones; NONE of them has the patches of their uniforms more than minimally sewed on for some reason. Beyond them, apparently some 1000 surveillance cameras will shortly be installed in the center areas, too, adding to a sense of security I remember being somewhat lacking when heeding the warnings of my friends years ago. The hike up San Bernardo Hill during the day and traversing San Martin Park at night are perfectly fine things to attempt these days, for example.

Finally, some hundred of empanadas and a dozen (each) tamales and humitas later, not to mention a 100% successful test of the local tapwater with my belly, the time has come to wave Salta goodbye. I've finished Greene's The Man Within as I take on John Irving's Son Of The Circus to replace it and accompany my continuing trek through Llosa's Pantaleon y las Visitadoras. I change a few more dollars in the main plaza with one of the two omnipresent money changers, now for 7.4 with the man accepting torn and mangled bills (granted all of only $42) that I've never seen accepted anywhere in Latin America. My feeling that another financial crisis is on the way only grows.

But most importantly I'm left with a significantly stronger impression of Salta than previously held: I easily can imagine coming back for a good spell. Who knows, between Salta and Córdoba an alternate existence might be happily had. I muse away... but for now I've got another cama-suite bus awaiting me. So it is on a Saturday night that I find myself reveling in an available WiFi internet at the bus station, waiting aboard my bus as the videos of break-dancing Koreans entertain and entreat me in their rather peculiar way to begin the journey back south. The movie to come later, New Year's Eve, is eminently forgettable, but I'm leaving one happy place to rejoin another - who cares? Back to Córdoba!

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