After satiating myself on the Waters of Iguazu, I took out my guidebook, my massive map of South America and my trusty notebook, to plot my course to Bolivia. I had missed roughly 5 weeks of meeting points with Alyssa, something she was NOT pleased about, and we had eventually decided to make a final attempt in La Paz. It was now imperative that I make it on time. The problem: How to get there?
As the continent widens the further north you go, so too the Gringo Trail begins to split into multiple streams. I had roughly three options:
1) Cross Iguazu again into Brasil (legally this time) and take a 5 day boat up through the Pantanal (world’s biggest wetlands) to Bolivia. Pros: Snorkeling with paranha and wrestling caiman.
2) Cross into the Northern Argentina scrublands and traverse the kaleidoscope of canyons northwards. Pros: cheapest and quickest.
3) Head to the Chilean Atacama, the world’s driest place, and rent a jeep to take me across the desert to the Bolivian salt flats. Pros: sandboarding, salt lakes, and desert bonfires.
Needless to say, much to the chagrin of Alyssa, I opted for the long way around through the Atacama desert and into the Salar de Uyuni. I headed to Salta, the Northern-most city of Argentina, to pay my final respects, and after a couple days spent hitchhiking through ancient ruins and ancient(er) canyons, I booked a ticket to head West towards the Atacama.
Salta, Quilmes and the Quebrada de Cafayate
I arrived in Salta in the morning, alter what felt like a ridiculously short bus ride (only 22 hours… nothing!), and found myself a place to stay. Salta itself is far more similar to what I expected of South American cities. It has narrow streets, loud buses, cheap living, and a much higher mestizo to European population ratio. The food just may have traces of spices besides salt and oregano, and the people are slowly losing the castellano way of pronouncing the “ll” and “y” as as a “j”. (not really J, but I can’t figure out how to type the appropriate sound). The nightlife is good, and the daylife is cheap, so all in all, not a bad place to stay for a while and take in the culture. However, I don’t have a little while to spend, so after walking the streets, and climbing the hill (it seems every city has a hill with a mirador to showcase the city), I talked to the people in the bus station and figured out the best way to Cafayate in the morning.
Cafayate is a town about 3 hours south of Salta, in the mouth of a canyon and the outskirts of a desert. For some reason they make really good wine here, especially whites, and the town itself, situated in the mouth of the canyon, is quite picturesque… and dirt cheap. Score. After spending the evening touring the town's bodegas (wine cellars) I spent the night in a hostel “downtown” for 20 pesos, the cheapest yet, and caught some tight zzz’s in anticipation of a long day.
The following day started later than expected (not a surprise, really), with a local bus heading south towards an old civilsation’s ruins. Called Quilmes, I felt it appropriate to visit them, since for almost 2 months I had been drinking a beer named in their honour. I got to the dirt track that led into the ruins along with 4 other tourist backpackers from Cafayate. An old man, leaning on his rusted pickup and chewing on tobacco, greeted us with a toothless smile. Would we like a lift to the ruins, he asked, just 5 pesos. Otherwise we would have to walk 5 km down the track. In my mind I heard an eerie music playing like the beginning of a bad horror movie. 5 young people, just met, all with radically different personalities (judging from the look of us) jumping into a pickup and driving down a dirt track. Yep. A horror movie plot if I ever saw one. And here I was, just the day before, lamenting to a friend that my trip was so far too smooth a trip, and that, as a Camacho, I needed something to go wrong if I was to believe it was real. This was going to be it! Taking a good look at the other folk assembled there, I was pretty confident that I would be the one to survive the upcoming slaughter. One character always survives. So we got in the pickup and I waited for fate to dish out the worst.
After a couple minutes, we anticlimatically got out the tray and paid the toothless man his money. Me, begrudgingly. The ruins were pretty cool. The Quilmes people lived alongside the Inca at the southern end of the Empire, and their civilisation only collasped alter fighting several decades of war with the Spanish. They were then completely slaughtered, and the remaining 4000 forced to walk to BsAs without food or water... needless to say, they didn't survive. The site I went to was their final stand, the last fort to fall back in the 1600s.
After climbing yet another hill, and chilling in the desert for a while, I began the trip back to Cafayate by dedo: finger. Not too long down the dirt road a couple of porteños picked me up and I joined them back to Salta (stopping in some bodegas on the way). By the time I got back to Cafayate, I was emboldened by wine to try and make it all the way back to Salta that night, thus giving myself a day headstart to Bolivia. I booked a ticket to the Quebrada de Cafayate, (The Gorge between Cafayate and Salta) and headed into the canyon.
It is a beautiful place. One of the coolest places in Argentina so far, which is saying alot. I thought alot about rocks, and art. Bizarre thing to say, I know... but in the straitions of the rocks you can see the earth literally folding and faulting, which reminded me of Miss Perkins geography class and having to draw tectonic plates. And the colours, holy shit... the pictures do NO justice. There are hundreds of shades of red and brown and yellow and green. Its like an artists dream.
After walking through another Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), I donned my backpack and hit the road with thumb extended. The sun was setting pretty fast over the western edge of the quebrada and I was just beginning to be worried I would be stranded when a couple of aging hippies picked me up. The man saw me and laughed loudly. You’re the guy from the bathroom! Hey, Honey! This is the kid from the bathroom! (Quick flashback: In the bathrooms of the ruins, I went to pee and standing right next to the urinal butt naked was this guy, apparently changing his clothes) Shit. I was now stuck in the car with creepy-old-naked-man and his wife. Both turned out to be truly, and refreshingly, nice people. Fuly dressed, creepy old naked man wasn't so creepy, and was actually quite a jokester, judging from the fact that he and his wife laughed the whole way to Salta. I didn't catch alot of these jokes, but the atmosphere in the car was great nonetheless. A whirlwind trip well spent.
I booked my ticket to Chile today, after another half hour of phone consultation about passports and visas. (The Chilean customs people are alll jackasses). I leave tomorrow with a mix of emotions.
I will miss the asado, the good wine, the epic scenery and the castellano accent (which I think I might be cursed with)
I will NOT miss the constant lack of coins, the long bus rides and the complete lack of spice (if you go to a restaurant and there are 2 salt shakers on the table... both of them will be salt. Pepper of all sorts does not exist here)
Argentina will have a nice little place in my heart forever, and I am almost sure I will return at some point in my remaining 56 years of life. I Am sad to leave this place behind, but excited to continue my journey upwards and onwards!
So... ciao for now, Argentina. Buena Onda!
- A Note on Pictures: I have currently taken 2000 pictures. A lot of them are just me playing around with the settings of the camera, and are thus shit. I upload what I can, but its very slow, so not a lot go up. I also don't like putting too many photos into the blog itself, as I find it distracting. SO! If you haven't already figured it out, there is a photo gallery on the right of your screen. I suggest you view the pictures in Large format, since although often they dont truly catpure the reality of the place, when it comes to pictures, bigger is always better.