Lo Siento Salta

18 April – 21 April, 2018

Not all travel destinations feel the same, some resonating more than others, whether in your home country or abroad. Some destinations will surprise us, with treasures found beyond tripadvisor reviews, while others, even after all our research, will fall short of the mark.

“Lo siento, Salta, ¡no estamos tan interesados ​​en ti!”

Sorry Salta, we’re just not that into you!

Looking back, I’m not sure what we were expecting from Salta, the stop before our final Chilean destination, but it just didn’t do it for us. Perhaps it was because Salta came on the heels of Mendoza, a city that captivated us.

Salta, relatively the same size as Mendoza, has been described as the most visited colonial city by tourists in northwest Argentina. As we sped away from the bus station in our taxi, it looked nothing like the lovely city we had just left, feeling more like a tired, worn sister to Mendoza. Gone were the lovely storefronts and cobbled walks, replaced with crumbling facades, peeling paint, and trash in the gutters. Many streets were blocked off, causing our cabbie some anxiety, which he expressed from his open window, to anyone who would listen. The city was noisy, dirty, crowded, chaotic, and everyone around me seemed to smoke, none of which was a positive start to our visit. Ironically, we had the best hotel stay of our entire trip here and the best view of the city from our 7th-floor room.

Best view of Salta from our hotel window.

And in fairness, we discovered many more attractive neighborhoods once away from the bus station.

Each day we walked the city streets, looking to feel something more, something that would grab us and draw us in. One little gem, food-related of course, was discovered at La Tacita restaurant, where the most delicious empanadas and humitas (think tamales) can be found, along with the most engaging owner, Porfidio. His little family restaurant and tasty creations raised the likeability meter of Salta for us. We also discovered a lovely vegan restaurant, Chirimoya.

Salta is an interesting juxtaposition, with shop owners washing down walls and sidewalks in front of their businesses alongside people tossing wrappers and cigarette butts into the streets and little tikes dropping their britches and peeing into the gutters. No one seemed to bat an eye, except me, whose eyes were a bit bugged-out before our stay ended.

Not all was a loss however, as our lack of interest in exploring more of the city allowed me to play catch-up on processing photos and gave us time to research and book tours for our next stop.

We left Salta via a double-decker bus, this time with front-row seats on the upper level. No more overnight rides (yay), just interesting scenery to entertain us. The landscape slowly changed from lush green to high desert, with saguaro-like cacti dotting the hillsides.

The road seemed to fold in on itself many times as we slowly crept up the mountain, traveling from ~ 4,200 feet up to 13,430 feet (4,170 meters). The effects of altitude greeted many of us as we stepped off the bus at Chilean immigration. We crept further up the mountain before we made our final descent, topping off at 15,820 feet. All I kept thinking was “I’ve got to find me some coca leaves”.

Next Up: Our final destination (and one of our most spellbinding) – San Pedro de Atacama

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A European Vibe ~ Mendoza, Argentina

12 April – 16 April, 2018

After six weeks, and with Malbec on our minds, we were ready to trade the wild Patagonia winds for a warmer climate. To make this change all the more enticing, a mixture of rain and snow was falling as we said adios to Bariloche. We loved our time there, but we were ready to soak up some rays in Mendoza. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t looking forward to was another long bus ride, this time leaving at 1:00 pm and arriving the next morning at 9:00 am. The scenery of snow-capped mountains and the ever-changing hues of the Limay River made the trip palatable.

The hotel we booked, Hotel Raices Aconcagua, is a lovely hotel in the heart of Mendoza. Plaza Independencia, which the city is centered around, is nearby, with four small plazas located two blocks off each of its corners. Something unique to Mendoza is the exposed stone trenches that run alongside many streets, irrigating the graceful trees lining the sidewalks. I can only imagine there have been a few injuries from people tumbling into those trenches in the darkness of night.

Walking around Mendoza, feeling the glorious warmth, we were reminded of a European city, particularly the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, with paved pedestrian walkways and beautiful boutique storefronts, although Mendoza is a much younger city than Rome. Having suffered a devastating earthquake in 1861 that claimed over 5,000 lives, it hasn’t been that long ago that Mendoza was rebuilt, this time with wider streets and sidewalks, large green spaces, and urban designs that better tolerate seismic activity.

Although we knew that there was much more to be seen in Mendoza than through the bottom of a wineglass, we decided that our first tour would be a winery/biking adventure. As Mendoza is considered one of the “Great Wine Capitals” in the world, we were anxious to taste some of the wines for which she is famous.

There were many options to consider when biking out to the wineries, but in the end we opted for a self-guided bike tour, wanting the flexibility. We took the local bus out to the small town of Maipu, then went to Maipu Bike Company, recommended to us. They provided a map of the wineries, recommendations and cost of tastings, and booked a guided tour/tasting at one of the more popular wineries. We were also invited back later in the day for happy hour. Not sure this lightweight would need more wine but we kept that open as an option.

The bikes, although a bit dated, were functional, and we were given helmets. The only challenging section of road was after we left the safety of the designated bike path, which dwindled to a narrow road that had to be traversed with the motorized traffic. We made the decision to vacate the pavement when traffic started to crowd the roadway, as I had read a tripadvisor review the night before that was a bit scary. When traffic subsided, we pedaled to our next stop and arrived at each of our destinations safely.

Our first stop was Tempus Alba Winery, where we did a self-guided tour and finished with a relaxing wine tasting. We were pleased to have the patio to ourselves, overlooking the vineyard, a wonderful way to start our day. And we walked out with a bottle of their Malbec for another day.

Mevi Winery was our second stop, a boutique winery, where we did a tasting and enjoyed lunch on their patio.

Entre Olivos was our stop for olive oil tastings, condiments, and liquors. We brought home a jar of stone-ground mustard with Chardonnay…very tasty.

Trapiche, one of the largest and most popular wineries, was our final stop of the day. We did a guided tour, accompanied by several tastings, all very good. We took an alternate route back to Maipu Bikes, with much less traffic, and found that yes, we did want to participate in a quick happy hour next door.

Very rudimentary but it works for a happy hour, and the homemade wine was pretty good too!

This was a great way to see some of the wineries at our own pace.

I had read about an Andes Photo Safari tour that would get us into the mountains, give us some history of Mendoza, and almost guarantee us some wildlife viewing. It seemed like a wonderful way to get away from the city and give us a healthy dose of nature. Timothée, our tour guide, picked us up at our hotel, where we learned that we would have a private tour…yes!

Our day started in the protected Reserva Natural Villavicencio, where I was assured that I would see guanacos, a member of the camelid family, native to South America. To date I had only seen them from afar, so I was counting on Timothée, and he delivered guanacos, as well as rhea, a distant relative to the ostrich, seen from a distance, while condors circled far overhead.

A South American gray fox graced us with his presence, walking up to the truck. Timothée wouldn’t allow us to get out as this little guy had most likely been habituated to humans and was looking for food. I had to practically get in Timothée’s lap to get the shot, as the fox was on his side of the truck.

Views of the Andes and Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia, could be seen throughout the day. Standing at ~7000 meters (22,837 feet), it is the tallest peak in the Southern Hemisphere and sits completely within Argentina, 70 miles from Mendoza.

We continued climbing to Paramillos, up to 10,300 feet on the 365 Curves, also called Route of the Year, or Caracoles De Villavicencio. At Paramillos we stopped to visit the old Jesuit mining settlement and the ancient colonial road, built in the 16th-century, which led through the mountains to Chile. It was the only road available at the time for José de San Martín, one of Argentina and Peru’s primary liberators from the Spanish Empire.

After a brief history lesson we headed to Cerro 7 Colores and hiked around the colorful hills, whose colors were enhanced by various minerals in the soil.

Lunch was an authentic kid goat barbecue at Parrillada El Rancho Restaurant in Uspallata. We had not seen so much meat, and so many varieties in one sitting, brought to our table on a cast-iron grill, kept warm throughout the meal. A nice bottle of Malbec appeared, compliments of our tour guide, whose wife works at one of the Uco Valley wineries. Without the meat we would have had a full meal, with empanadas, salad and appetizers. I wonder if the locals eat this much at every meal.

This is a great tour for anyone wanting to experience the beautiful mountains surrounding Mendoza.

General San Martín Park was on our agenda for the following day, to work off some of the calories we had consumed. It is a 970-acre park within the city, giving us plenty of space to stretch our legs.

Terraza Jardin Mirador, a rooftop garden at the Mendoza City Hall, was to be our last activity in Mendoza. Not expecting too much but hoping for some exercise and a few city views, we were both  pleasantly surprised.

With one last overnight bus trip to look forward to (ugh), we turned our sights to Salta. Although the bus system throughout Argentina and Chile has been top-notch, I may not want to get on another bus for a long time after this adventure!

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Chocolates, Microbrews & Heart-stirring Landscape ~ San Carlos de Bariloche

5 April – 10 April, 2018

Another travel day, another bus ride, the best way to be transported from one beautiful landscape to another in Patagonia. Once again we would find ourselves crossing from Chile to Argentina, adding another stamp to our well-used passports.

The double-decker bus that took us over the Andes, then got grounded at Argentina border control.

As we crossed the Andes, the weather changed from brilliant blue skies to a wintry wonderland but as we dropped back down towards Argentina the blue skies returned. Upon arriving at the border control point, we found ourselves sitting in a closed bus, with no explanation about why we weren’t heading into the immigration office. After a lengthy time we learned that the power was off in the office. Our choices: (a) wait for an oil tanker to fill their empty generator or (b) determine the protocol for clearing people through immigration manually. Since no oil tanker appeared to be coming, someone decided after a two-hour wait that we didn’t look like hardened criminals transporting drugs. They ignored our bags, stamped our passports, and we were on our way.

Autumn has arrived in Bariloche!

As we got closer to our destination, the sun came out and big billowy clouds hung low over the deep azure lakes we passed, an inviting scene.  But when we stepped off the bus in Bariloche, it felt like winter had arrived, as temps had dipped into the 30’s…brrrr! Cooler temps would be in the forecast our entire visit, although we did have many sunny days.

Our taxi driver deposited us at Hotel Milan, where Pablo, an engaging staff member, directed me to a pharmacy, as I realized I wasn’t going to shake this sinus ‘thing’ on my own. I gave my symptoms to the pharmacist (no doctor visit required) and was given throat lozenges and antibiotics, the latter which I abhor, but I reluctantly admitted I needed in order to kick this thing.

Since it was late in the day we decided to settle into our room and relax. I was now beginning to sound like the barking sea lions I had photographed on Isla Marta earlier in our trip and Terry worried that my refusal to lay low would result in my first-hand knowledge of a Bariloche medical clinic. He said it was either that or he might have to go searching for a priest who could perform an exorcism, as he had never heard, in all our years together, anything like the sound coming out of me. 🤪

It’s hard to keep a good woman down (haha), so the next day I was ready to learn why so many tourists were drawn to this lakeside city. I had read that Bariloche is known for its decadent chocolates and its microbreweries and I intended to take full advantage of both, certain I would need both to heal. 😉

San Carlos de Bariloche, better known as Bariloche, lies in the foothills of the Andes, on the southeastern shore of Nahuel Huapi Lake, located within the park of the same name, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina’s first. Bariloche, in the indigenous Mapuche language, means “people from behind the mountain”.

During much of the 19th-century, this area had a stronger connection to Chile than Argentina. It was the work of Francisco Moreno, aka Perito Moreno, a prominent explorer and academic, along with the military campaign “Conquest of the Desert”, to claim Bariloche for Argentina. This campaign’s intent was to show Argentine dominance over Patagonia, which was then inhabited by indigenous peoples. In the 1881 border treaty between Chile and Argentina, the indigenous Nahuel Huapi decided to be recognized as an Argentine province.

If Patagonia were to ever become independent, San Carlos de Bariloche could be its logical capital, as it is the Lake District’s largest city, and the gateway city to Nahuel Huapi National Park, the Mapuche name meaning “tiger island”.

Alpine-styled Bariloche has grown from a cattle-trading center to an international tourist destination, with skiing in the winter and sun-bathing in the summer, which has boosted its population considerably, to 122,700 present-day.

In the 1990’s Bariloche made a name for itself when international headlines broadcast that this thriving tourist city was a “haven for Nazi war criminals, such as the former protection squadron SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke and SS Officer Reinhard Kopps, known in Argentina as Juan Maler.” Priebke had been the director of the German School of Bariloche for many years. Fortunately for Bariloche, these headlines have not seemed to diminish their tourist trade.

For us, the only way to see the Nahuel Huapi and Lanín National Parks was by rental car, which we did during a day trek. We had read about the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes) so decided this would be a good way to experience the parks and see some of the lovely towns along the way.

Both Nahuel Huapi and Lanin National Parks encompass arid steppe, alpine forests, and volcanic summits, with deep-blue finger lakes dotting the landscape. Nahuel Huapi connects Chile and Argentina via a series of scenic roads and waterways and Monte Tronador, a gigantic dormant volcano, straddles both nations.

Villa La Angostura, a small town lying on the north shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, begins the route, a lovely setting with many restaurants and upscale boutique shops. San Martín de Los Andes, 260 km from Bariloche, was our final destination. Barely a century old, it has become one of the Lake District’s most fashionable resorts.

Taking the local bus to the edge of the city is a wonderful way to see Cerro Companario and hike in the Llao Llao Municipal Park, provided you have the patience to get the Sube bus card. You can ask and you will be told where to purchase said card, but don’t expect to find it the first few places you are told to go, and then you have to find out which store will load money onto your card, which of course is not the same place you purchased it, silly you. But persevere, (and don’t tell any of the locals where they can go) and you will be rewarded with some beautiful scenery.

Lago Moreno in Llao Llao Municipal Park

We have always felt that, along with the scenery, the locals you meet during your travels leave the greatest impression, and Bariloche was no exception. The person who stood out for us was Pablo, the man behind the desk at Hotel Milan, who also works as a private English-speaking tutor for Bariloche professionals.

Me and Pablo, our unexpected Spanish teacher. 🙂

Not only was he warm and welcoming, he provided me direction to the pharmacy I needed, and gave us our daily Spanish lesson, including some of the local slang. We looked forward to seeing his smiling face daily, and he kept us on our toes. Since I believe he will be reading this blog post, to Pablo we say: “Comó te va? Muchas gracias por su amabilidad. No serás olvidado.”

International travel would not be complete without experiencing local food and drink, and that meant chocolates and microbreweries. Although we didn’t try more than one chocolate shop, RapaNui rose to the top of our list after popping into a few stores. Not only is their chocolate list extensive, they also have an amazing ice cream shop, a café, and an ice-skating rink under their roof.  As for the breweries, our choice was based somewhat on hours of operation, but after we had gone to Manush and Bachmann, we went no further, their beer and food was that good.  La Familia Weiss, a local restaurant recommendation, was also a stand-out for us.

Bariloche was on our travel radar before we started our Patagonian adventure, thanks to our friend Josh from Yellowstone National Park. We would not have wanted to miss this magical city.

Next Up: Toasting Mendoza and her fine wineries

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No Man’s Land ~ Argentina or Chile

24 March, 2018

This post could have just as easily been entitled “Are We Nuts?” 

One of the biggest challenges when doing your own planning for a trip to Patagonia is connecting all the transportation dots. Given its remoteness, this is not a task to take on lightly. Even during peak season, bus and ferry schedules can be a bit sketchy in the interior of Chile, but move into the shoulder season and it is anyone’s guess if the bus or ferry lines run on time, if there is a bus or boat running more than once a week, or if there will be one available at all when you arrive at your destination. Since we both wanted to venture into the interior and travel some of the infamous Carretera Austral, it was particularly important to connect the dots so as not to get stranded. Complicating this matter is that you can literally read through countless websites and forums and get conflicting information.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and boats is Terry’s specialty when planning our trips. He will tell you I don’t know which way is up most days so he just refuses to relinquish this part of the duty. I am relegated to accommodations and activities, which frankly I think is a lot more fun to plan anyway.

While doing some research during a very windy, rainy day in El Calafate (have I said how wild the Patagonian weather can be?), Terry got a somewhat panicked look on his face. Upon reading yet another website, it appeared there was no public transportation available from Los Antiguos, Argentina to Chile Chico, Chile.  Los Antiguos is a remote border crossing so it seems the only way to move from one country to another is on foot or putting out your thumb. We had often read that hitchhiking is commonplace in Patagonia, but I had said this wasn’t something I wanted to do. Seems I was about to reconsider that decision.

But I digress for a moment…

While planning our trip, we packed no less than three separate times, using various bags, whenever our route changed. Since we weren’t able to book the refugios we wanted in Torres del Paine National Park, I set aside my backpack, opting for a roomier bag that still allowed for shoulder straps, although not near as comfortable as one’s own fitted backpack. One of our travel rules has been that if one of us wants to bring something that the other might find unnecessary, that person bears the burden of carrying said item(s). For me it was our vitamins and some creams and lotions I couldn’t leave behind. For Terry it was the electric toothbrush. My choices necessitated a roomier bag. When I discovered I might be carrying all my bags across a remote border crossing, I thought I might live to regret the decision to displace my backpack.

So, during one of our rest days in El Chalten, we laid out our belongings, and with the mind of a backpacker looking to shave ounces from her pack, I proceeded to set aside items I thought I could do without. Jackets, earmuffs, and gloves were set aside, and bottles of this and that discarded, with the hopes of replacing them. My full-size deodorant mineral stone soon became a mere shell of itself as I broke away the plastic container and cut it in half. I was not budging on the supplements however. 😉

At 9:30 the next night we hopped on our overnight bus to Los Antiguos, not knowing what to expect in the morning. It’s a wonder we got any sleep but the bus tires on the pavement seemed to do the trick. I awoke to watch the dark golds and oranges of dawn diffuse across the Patagonian steppe, softening to rose and violet, with a promise of a beautiful day unfolding.

We pulled into the bus station and were able to catch a taxi to the border, 2 km (1.2 miles) away. And that is where we knew things could get interesting. We moved through Argentine immigration, then stepped outside with all our bags. A long, lonely road stretched before us, 7 km (4.2 miles) from the Argentina border to the Chile border, a section of road dubbed “No Man’s Land”. Well, at least it was flat, paved, and the sun was shining. We looked at each other and said “let’s do this”.  About 15 minutes into our walk, Terry turned to me and said “you are a good sport”. I smiled and turned back to the road with the thought of  “remember this when you find my personality less than pleasing.”

In another 15 minutes we saw a car on the horizon and Terry stuck out his thumb. A smiling young couple in a beat-up jalopy opened the door and welcomed us. Our last hitchhiking experience had been decades ago and our only hope was that their backfiring car would make it to Chile. It did and they could not have been nicer.

Another trip through Chilean customs and immigration and we headed down the road the 5 km (2.5 miles) into Chile Chico. A collectivo (van) picked us up within 20 minutes and delivered us to our lodge. Life is good, particularly when in the presence of kind strangers.

Note to self: When given a choice, always go with the backpack. 🙂

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National Trekking Capital ~ El Chalten, Argentina

17 March – 22 March, 2018

Although we enjoyed our time in El Calafate and hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, we were looking forward to experiencing the trails of El Chalten, in the northern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, and the best news of all, there was sun in our forecast. Another early morning bus ride, this one only three hours, and we were there!

Los Glaciares National Park peaks, seen from the park service office.

There have been a few places where we carved out some extra time, as we knew Patagonia was moody, the weather changing often during the day. El Chalten was one of those places and we spent six days enjoying her laid-back atmosphere.

We had read on several forums that if you only had one place to hike in Patagonia, El Chalten should be the place. Trailheads are at the edge of town and the national park is free. Contrast this to our time in El Calafate, where we had a 2-hour commute to the park and the entrance fee was $38 per person. What’s not to like?

As we made our approach into El Chalten, the granite needles of Fitz Roy rose from the surrounding landscape, a watchful sentinel over this quaint little town. This mountain has become a symbol for Argentine Patagonia and became even more so thanks to Yvon Chouinard. After his successful summit of Fitz Roy in 1968, with a USA team, he used its shape to inspire the logo for his clothing brand, Patagonia. At roughly 11,200 feet above sea level, Fitz Roy may not be the highest peak in Argentine, but it is considered one of the most technically challenging climbs on the planet, due to its vertical granite cliffs and how quickly the weather can change. To give an idea of this challenge, Everest averages 50 successful climbers per year, Fitz Roy only one.

El Chalten is an eclectic little town, easily walkable, with a permanent population of 1,100. But with the recent paving of a highway leading into town, it’s growing so rapidly that some feel it will become the next Calafate, with spiraling real estate prices. It reminded me a bit of Gardiner, Montana, some roads paved, some still gravel with their fair share of potholes, a very interesting place.

We had three glorious days of mostly sun and little wind, giving us many opportunities to hike, to see Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre up-close. Our hostel, Pudu Lodge, was situated on the edge of town, with access to many of the hiking trails just a block away…perfect!

Scouting out interesting, local restaurants is part of the travel experience, and El Chalten has a fair number of cafes, given its size. We had heard about the German owned La Cerveceria from Backpacker Steve, whose website we researched often during our trip planning.

They brew their own beer, which is the reason he encourages travelers to go. Yes, their beer was tasty, but their menu, although limited, was so enticing, we found ourselves going back time and again, four to be exact.  What we discovered was a quirky little eatery that featured all things homemade, beer to breadsticks and everything in-between.  We loved the local stew, locro, the salmon ravioli, the vegetarian empanadas, and the butternut squash stuffed with sautéed vegetables. For a country that relies heavily on meat, bread, and cheese, this was a delicious diversion. And the staff made us feel like family each time we walked through the door.

El Chalten was everything we hoped it would be, and I finally found a couple of Patagonia’s more lovely residents.

Next Up: Long Night’s Bus Ride

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