I'm finally on my way. Three hours in, the Toronto - Santiago flight brings to mind Doctor Who's the Silence. So what does a bony-faced monster with a frozen mouth have to do with being sealed inside a flying metal can? The Silence leave no memory trace. They can plant an idea in your head, but once out of sight, all memory of them is gone. The doctor's companions mark themselves when they see a Silence (like the fellow in Memento) as a way to remember each encounter. Flying is like this; a horrible but forgettable experience.
This afternoon I arrive in Buenos Aires and take a cab to Palermo Hollywood where I've rented a 15th floor apartment. This unofficial section of Palermo is called Hollywood because of its popularity with video production companies.
I find I've rented a great apartment: modern and roomy with a nice balcony and great city views. I like the cement floors and colored and stamped cement ceiling. Even a pool and gym on the top floor.
The pictures are, of course, from the apartment.
Breakfast this morning is at the restaurant/bookstore/art gallery shown here, a couple doors down from the apartment.
Today I walk through Barrio Norte and Recoleta, to the Plaza de Mayo in Microcentro with its pink presidential palace. The 'mothers of the disappeared' march every Thursday to remind us of the disappearance of their sons and daughters during the 1976-83 dictatorship. This being Tuesday there are no mothers but there is another protest taking place and the police, while present, just observe.
As to the comparison with Paris. Some of the architecture, the feel of the apartment-lined streets, and the occasional little dividers separating street from sidewalk - posts or metal balls just big enough to trip on - bring to mind a worn, neglected Paris.
Buenos Aires' sidewalks are terrible. In all but the toniest neighborhoods the sidewalks have been torn up for construction or repair and never restored. I wondered if the sidewalks are responsibility of the government, which has no money, or of property owners, in which case there is no code enforcement. Dog poo, broken tiles, gaping holes, pipes, wood, you have to continually look down when walking the sidewalks of Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America.
Tonight I walked a few blocks to grab a late dinner - Palermo has many tempting restaurants - when I encountered forty or fifty young demonstrators on Ave. Santa Fe. The police stood back and observed as the students unfurled their long white banners. The protesters entered the street when traffic stopped, unfurled a long banner, then retreated when the traffic light changed. I don't know what the protest was about and the only word I recognized was 'fascist.'
Buenos Aires is the capital of a nation where dictatorships and revolutions are recent history. It is also a nation that saw the rise to power of a charismatic young woman who championed the sick and the poor and who worked to grant women the same rights as men. As is so often the case, our heroine died too young.
Today I visited the Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires' most exclusive patch of real estate and the resting place of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, better known as Evita.
Evita's tomb is not the most impressive in this city of the dead, but it is the most visited. And even if this Necropolis lacked its most famous inhabitant it would still be worth a visit. Block after block, this city is composed of stone buildings of varying sizes,shapes,colors, and designs, each containing one or more caskets as well as photos, flowers, and plaques celebrating the memories of its inhabitants.
A downside to renting an apartment away from the tourist area is that few people here speak English and my Spanish is pretty much limited to 'habla usted ingles?' and 'donde esta el bano?' Hell, even writing Spanish is hard as the bloody autocorrect keeps changing what I type. I am up to Adjectives 1 in Duolingo's Spanish lessons app and autocorrect thinks pinguino should be penguin, which it is, but Duolingo wants the Spanish word so I lose lesson points.
I wonder how useful it will be to know the Spanish word for penguin?
Nevertheless, I press on with my attempts to communicate with the portenos. I plan what I need to say using a Spanish - English dictionary and Lonely Planet's Latin American Spanish phrasebook or, if I've wifi, Google translate. But often my carefully planned Spanish sentence is greeted by a response that is not one of 'si', 'no', or 'gracias'. At this point I'm screwed.
For example, after a long walk today, with temperatures in the high twenties (C) and humidity hanging in the air, I stopped at an ice cream shop to ask for an item straight from the menu, dulce de leche. Simple, eh? But no, the very polite and patient fellow behind the counter replied with a torrent of Spanish. He wanted to know the size of my order. I pointed to the large bowl. Then he wanted to know what flavors as it turns out the bowl holds three scoops and of course no one would order three scoops of the same flavor. Round and round we went, he gave me some ice cream to taste, and we eventually came to a decision that i' d have one each of chocolate, vanilla, and, what I really wanted, dulce de leche. The process is a bit embarrassing and frustrating and exhausting, but I guess that is what it takes to use a foreign language. The effort was rewarded: the dulce de leche ice cream was delicious.
As I was riding the D-line on the Subte (subway) to check out the cobblestone streets and crumbling mansions of Buenos Aires' San Telmo neighborhood, a man walked down the aisle of the subway car and placed a rubber-band-bound bundle of pencils in the lap of each seated passenger. My bundle was labelled 5 pesos, about 75 cents.This was accompanied by a non-stop narrative that I didn't understand, given my limited Spanish. Each passenger accepted the bundle and left it on their lap. Before the next stop, he walked back through the subway car, collecting his pencils as he continued his narrative.
At the next subway stop, the man was replaced by a young woman who walked down the aisle and placed a tissue pack on the lap of each seated passenger. Unlike the man, she never said a thing. Before the next stop she walked back through the car to collect her tissues.
I didn't purchase the pencils or the tissues, and now I wish I had.
My last full day in Buenos Aires. It is warm and humid and my energy level is low. I walked a different route to Plaza de Mayo, where I visited a museum I'd missed earlier. Surprised to find the Plaza largely empty, the lack of people made walking and picture-taking easier.
I don't see many camera-toting tourists. The few I see have small cameras in contrast with Europe and North America where a lot of tourists carry big Nikons and Canons. I don't know if I stand out or not, and I wish I didn't care.
My last task tonight (aside from choosing a restaurant) was to buy a better corkscrew as the one I packed is crap. I've been using a corkscrew i found in the apartment. I soon found a better corkscrew at a small Carrefour mercado on Avenue Santa Fe. I know, this is boring, but I what is interesting is that i gave the cashier two twenty-peso notes for the AR$36.99 item and he gave me a 5 peso note change. This wasn't a mistake; coins are in short supply so many businesses round.
Coin shortages are just one aspect of the problematic Argentinian economy and it impacts travel somewhat but this will have to wait for another post.
Even though I've grown accustomed to walking Buenos Aires' streets, dodging pot holes, pipes, abandoned lumber, and dog poo, I think that i am ready to head out of the city to Tilcara which should be very different.
Salta, settled in 1582, is an Andean city of half a million people in northwest Argentina. It is a popular base for exploring the local parks and Inca ruins. It will also be the start of the cross-Andes bus ride that inspired my trip.
I'm not supposed to be staying in Salta tonight; I should be on an overnight (20 hour) bus from Buenos Aires to Salta then continue on to Tilcara on Tuesday but this morning plans changed and I flew to Salta to spend the night in a hotel. The hotel, Ankara suites, is modern and tastefully decorated, though the staff speaks little English. Lucas, who checked us in, was well dressed in his dark suit. Argentinians dress better than north americans, who think nothing of leaving the house in sweats, t-shirt, and trainers.
If only I'd paid more attention in high-school Spanish.
I've not seen much of the city yet but it looks to have a charming colonial downtown surrounded by nondescript sprawl. Sometime i'll have to write about eating in Argentina, perhaps when my trip is done, but what i will say is that South American food is a bit bland for my taste. Argentina is said to have been settled by Italians who speak Spanish (I am, of course, rudely ignoring the indigeneous people) , but they seem to be stuck in a pre-spice time period, perhaps that was the state of European cuisine when they immigrated.
My wifi connection is cutting in and out so that is it for tonight.
I missed the morning bus to Tilcara so ate lunch on the square in rainy, green Salta. Plaza 9 de julio is lined with charming old buildings fronted by covered walkways and sidewalk cafes. As I ate my pizza (South America's unofficial dish) and flan smothered in my new favorite flavor, dolce de leche, I turned away a few men and children who approached to sell me stuff. But I did give away half my pizza to a couple of hungry guys .
The police in Argentina remind me of Italian carabinieri in the style and fit of their dark uniforms - a very sexy look. If I have to be arrested...
I must talk about the dogs. There are loose dogs everywhere, which reminds me of Turkey. (Istanbul teems with cats, too.) They seem benign but I keep my distance as I can´t help but flash back to the dog pack that threatened Paul and me in Alacati. I think we only avoided needing rabies vaccines when a local came to our rescue by scaring them off.
The road from Salta to Tilcara starts in green farmland and passes through many nondescript towns. A lot of the homes are topped with exposed rebar like I saw in Peruvian construction and I wonder if it is also to avoid a completion tax -- my Peruvian guide told me homeowners claim the buildings are still under construction years after they´ve been occupied.
After four hours the bus arrived in Tilcara, a half hour late as the driver stopped at the bus repair shop to have the a door fixed and to do other stuff I couldn't see. It was almost dark when i arrived but my initial impression of Tilcara is very positive. The altitude, 2500m, will take a little adjustment.
It is midnight and I am tired and I am sitting outside in the dark where i have but a weak wifi so until tomorrow signing off.
I´m staying in Tilcara for four nights. Tilcara is a small (4,000) Andean hillside town overlooking a broad river-carved valley and surrounded by dry red-rock mountains. The morning sun on the rock reminds me of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. The buildings are adobe-like and roofed with bamboo and cement. While geared towards tourists, the narrow streets, shops, and cafes are very tasteful and the town bustles with locals shopping and eating. I think most of the tourists are Argentine though I met a Canadian from Tokyo staying in my hotel.
The Patio Alto hotel's architect took the local design cues - brick, cement, stone, bamboo - then reinterpreted them with spacious modern comforts, colorful tiles, metal, and visual surprises. Every space, every piece of furniture, every light fixture looks great. I´m reminded of the Kelebek Hotel in Goreme, Turkey, another beautiful hilltop work of art. My only complaint is the spotty internet.
I guess at this point you think I like Tilcara, and you´re right: a beautiful location, a cool breezy high-desert climate, and a charming town with plenty of cafes and restaurants, all surrounded by colorful hills with hiking trails. Everywhere I look I want to pull out my camera and take a picture.
After a breakfast (desayuno) of coffee, granola, and fruit, I pick up a picnic lunch from Pat, the helpful, English- speaking hotel manager, borrow a walking stick, then set out to hike to a nearby canyon and waterfall.
Garganta del Diablo (Devil's throat) is about 6km from Tilcara. My plan is to get there and back by midday so as to avoid the chilly afternoon winds that sweep down the mountain.
The trail is not particularly steep and junctions are well marked (in Spanish) but I can feel the altitude. As I hike up the mountain the plants change from grass and scrubby trees to flowering sage and cactus plus many yellow flowers.
The trail follows the Huasamayo river which is Tilcara's water source. At the slot canyon, the Devil's throat, much of the river water is routed into an open channel which is collected and then fed into Tilcara. Most of the town's buildings have rooftop water tanks for storage and pressure.
The trail is shared by tourists (Hola!) and locals driving burros laden with stuff. I feel like a rich gringo trespassing on their land, with fancy hiking clothes and a camera that costs more than they make in a year, two years, who knows. But later I read that the locals want tourists who bring money to their community so my discomfort is eased though only by a small amount.
The hike gives expansive views of the surrounding mountains which feature a lot of water-carved geological features and a beautiful band of red-rock, all of which continues to remind me of one of my favorite places, Death Valley. Mornings are especially beautiful as the sun gradually highlights the bands of white, brown, and red rock.
Once I reach the trail's highest point (about 3000 m altitude) I check in at a small station manned by a friendly local. I pay ten pesos then sign in. He then walks me around to explain (in spanish) the path from this point to the falls. I know this because he gives me a Spanish/English pamphlet so I can follow along.
I then climb down from this overlook to the riverbed. The falls are up the river. Unfortunately, the last short bit to the falls involves several river crossings and I'm not interested in getting wet, so I stop to eat lunch and take more pictures. I'm not actually disappointed; I've seen a lot of waterfalls. The beautiful mountains, the plants, and my friendly fellow hikers are enough for me.
The hike down is easier than the hike up, of course, and I arrive back at the hotel just as the cold winds start up. Oh and please excuse typos and grammar as the Internet is slow - satellite? - so I am writing off line then transferring to this blog. Ciao!
Tilcara was enveloped by fog when i woke this morning , but the fog soon blew away and was replaced by a clear blue cloudless sky.
A hike is a good way to start the day so I set out to climb a nearby hill that overlooks the city and the river valley. The last short section of rocky trail was steep and exposed but the climb is rewarded with spectacular views all around. I am glad to have a polarizer to filter out some of the glare but I kick myself for leaving the fisheye lens in the room. Damn!
Morning and evening are best for photography but it is so damn hard to drag myself up a mountain before I've had coffee. I remember an early morning photo walk in Prague when the light was just perfect but I had a coffee maker in the apt and the city streets didn't involve any heavy climbing. I was just around the corner from the Charles´ bridge, a very photogenic spot. I´m just not that serious a photographer.
Next I walk maybe a km to Pucara de Tilcara, the site of the original Tilcara settlement. This pre-Hispanic (I keep thinking prehistoric) town was occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries, so it was abandoned once the Europeans showed up. The Europeans sure did a lot of pushing others around, be it in South America or North America.
Pucara is now an archaeological site with ancient buildings, squares, and tombs. Some of the buildings have been rebuilt as they were when occupied. Aside from the stone walls, not that much has changed
The roof design, which looks a lot like current Tilcara construction, features bamboo - like reeds covered in dirt and suspended by what I think are logs but I cannot figure the source of the logs. There aren't any big trees here. Then I realize the logs are dried cardon cactus which resemble giant saguaro of the southwestern US.
The stone remnants of this city, well positioned on a cactus-covered hill overlooking a river valley, bring to mind Machu Picchu, though the Peruvian city is far more interesting in terms of size (MP is much larger), location (MP is on a spectacular mountain-top), and construction (MP's cut and fitted stonework, water system, and terraces are still impressive today). In other words, Pucara is well worth the visit if you are in the area but don't travel to Tilcara just to see the ruins. Machu Picchu alone makes Peru worth a visit.
Afterwards I walk back to town for a lunch of empanadas and ice cream. The dolche de leche ice cream is far far better at Freddos in Buenos Aires.
I stop in at the museum that shares a ticket with the archaeology site. What little that is in English tells the story of the early inhabitants: hunter-gatherers evolve to farmers evolve to city dwellers evolve to being overrun by westerners. I think I´ve heard this story before.
Tomorrow it is back on the bus to Salta (yes, I am backtracking a bit) then over the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama Chile, the driest place on earth. I am still trying to decide whether to be adventurous and take the overnight bus from San Pedro to Santiago or shortcut it with a flight from Calama. The problem is that one cannot buy a Chilean bus ticket without a Chilean credit card. The sleeper seat I want might be gone by the time I´m in that country and, if so, that will make the decision for me. Ciao.
The downside to staying in a small town in the Andes is the limited cuisine, and by limited I mean llama. I've had llama pate, llama stew (locoro), llama stuffed empanadas, and grilled llama (asado). I've yet to encounter llama pizza or dulce de llama but maybe I've not looked hard enough. Mind you, llama has a mild taste and can be tender but I'm ready for a break from llama.
I've left Salta for Tilcara and today I return to Salta. As I walk down the hill to the Tilcara bus station I see bands practicing, streets blocked, dreadlocked backpacking kids looking for a hostel or campground with space, and police are everywhere. You get used to seeing police when in South America. This is the eve of carnival. Every hotel, hostel, and campground is booked and the bus companies have added extra runs to bring people to town. Part of me is sorry to miss it but mostly I am glad to get out before the crowds take over and the noise begins. Little do I know that I won't totally escape the crowds.
The ride south in the second floor front seat of the bus provides a perfect view of the red, green, and brown rock mountains that line each side of highway 9. A couple of towns gave hills covered with tombs. I take lots of pictures and listen to happy Spanish music in the near-empty bus. I am also munching Argentine Oreos that are similar to but not exactly the same as the north American version.
Once we pass Jujuy, the mountains are gone and it is mostly flat green agricultural land broken up by the occasional small town. The towns are dusty and poor. The bus driver impresses with his skill at maneuvering the giant double decker through the narrow streets of the towns, sometimes backing up or waiting for others to back up, scraping on low hanging trees, and sometimes there is a loud bang when a fruit-laden branch hits the bus.
6km short of Salta, stopped in traffic at a toll booth, I look down to see the driver's door open and both drivers are on the side of the road, talking on their phones, and horns are blaring as traffic passes around us. The bus has broken down. A few minutes later I am off the bus, queued to get my checked bag, toll workers stopping traffic so the passengers can safely walk on the highway. Another bus is stopped a short distance behind us so I get on the second bus and am back on my journey.
So what about the revolution? I'll write more about the Carpe Diem B&B later and I still haven't written about Tilcara 's cuisine (preview: llama) , but I want to talk about the activity in the square tonight. As I eat pizza and beer at a sidewalk cafe about 30 or so demonstrators circle the square holding signs and pictures of young men and women. The only words I understand are narco-terrorist. Soon on the other end of the square an orchestra starts playing Beethoven before a seated crowd of a hundred or more. And then, another much larger group of marchers drowns out the orchestra, and I make out the chant "the people, united, can not be defeated..." but in spanish so I may be wrong about the words but I recognize the chant. All of this takes place among a festive mass of happy shoppers and tourists snapping pics (I photograph and film, too) and lots of police standing around looking a bit bored. I gather that this is not unusual but it is fun though maybe not if I understand what it is about.
Carpe Diem is a European style B&B in an old Spanish home. Silke and Riccardo, the hosts, speak a multitude of languages and are gracious but reserved. Though presenting nothing more than a door on a busy Salta street, the spacious home but a short walk from Plaza 9 de Julio, features many comfortable sitting areas as well as a spacious garden. I was a little cool on the Place at first but I have grown more pleased with it.
After a breakfast of cold cuts, fresh bread, cheese, and cafe au lait, I head to Salta's Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM). The museum is famous for one thing, the Llullaillaco children.
In 1999 archaeologists found the preserved remains of three Inca children buried 500 years earlier on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m mountain in the province of Salta. The Inca, revering the sun and the restless volcanoes, sacrificed their children by leaving them to die on the tops of mountains. Theses three children, one of whom is on display at MAAM, were 6, 7, and 15 years old. On the day of their burials, each was dressed in fine clothes, married to a member of another clan to cement clan-clan ties, then buried alive after drinking an alcoholic brew so as to put them to sleep.
The story makes me wonder about the actual pre-burial process. Climbing to 6700 m (21,900 feet) is no walk in the park. This is a very far distance, icy cold and low in oxygen regardless of time of year. Where was the ceremony, at the top of the mtn? Did the kids know what was to happen, when did they start drinking? It is all very curious.
The museum is controversial with some. They don't like their ancestors to be disturbed.
Later in the day I walk about twenty three city blocks to a large market for artisans. Based in an old mill house, the items sold have been certified (no factory-made junk) and prices controlled, whatever that means. Today the market is also hosting the first day of carnival celebrations with live music by native people as well as face painting and a lot of glitter/confetti floating about, which is also popular in Tilcara.
Tonight I eat dinner at a French-ish restaurant. Paul eats ravioli and I have chicken. No llama today. Towards the end of the evening the cook (complete with cook's hat) walks out to talk to each dinner guest. As I walk back to the B&B I pass a large old building running occupying a whole city blocks, a convent, and in front are several setsof newlyweds having their pictures taken.
Salta is an interesting city. A bit worn but with enough charm and variety to offer several days of enjoyment for the traveller.
My last full day in Argentina. Salta is quiet on this Sunday morning. I walk by a market selling handicrafts and tourist kitsch. If i buy anything it's gotta be small, light, and unbreakable and so far I've resisted all urges. It helps that I'm not much for shopping.
Next, I walk up Cerro Saint Bernardo, a hill about 500 m above the city. The stone steps feature the 14 stations of the cross. At the top is a park, restaurant, mtn bike rental, and, curiously, stationery bikes and weight machines should you want to work your upper body to match the lower body workout from climbing the hill. From the top I take a few pictures at the overlook then jump on a teleferico (cable car) for a fast ride down then reward myself with a dulce de leche - my new favorite flavor - ice cream.
My opinion of Argentinian meat has been restored: tonight's dinner at a nearby steakhouse, El Charrua, is excellent in every way: service, ambiance, food, and cost. And with the bill came free shots of lemoncello.
I finally nail down transportation from Calama to Santiago. After every credit card attempt failed I book a flight - no bus, unfortunately - with PayPal.
Tomorrow morning I catch the 7am bus for an 11 hour journey over the Andes, crossing via the Paso de Jama (4,800 m or 15,780 ft) into Chile. Ciao.
This morning I took the 7am Genesis bus from Salta to experience: the thrill of a bus driver passing in no passing zones on hairpin curves; the headache producing altitude of Paso de Jama; the maddeningly inefficient Chilean border patrol; the fun of seeing vicuna graze at the highest altitudes; and the surprise to find a transportation company that serves food worse than Air Canada.