Friday, January 29, 2010

Heaven and hell

La Pedrera
Our few days in La Pedrera were unquestionably beautiful and serene. The town is as laid back and lazy as we could have asked for on a beach holiday! There are two beaches to vary the routine - one with waves that had the ability to easily toss us around with their strength (instead we spent most of the time just watching the surfers). The other beach was stocked with people as the surf was much gentler and the swimming was good.

Picturesque beach in La Pedrera!

The days were very nice. And then we had to return to the hostel...the hostel from HELL!

I know that very few of you will have sympathy for the whining that is about to happen here. Yes, we were on a beach, yes we are not returning to a day job (yet)...
YES, we appreciate all of that! But it still doesn't change the fact that in the middle of our life-cation, we became super excited at the prospect of a relaxing beach vacation. And it also doesn't change the fact that we have the capacity to be super disappointed when things don't work out according to plan.

It seems as if every Argentinian and their dog was also in La Pedrera for their summer holidays, resulting in prices being driven up, and availability way down. We locked into a decently regarded hostel (El Viajero) for 4 nights (paid in advance). It is one of the most expensive hostels we have ever stayed in, but we deemed it worthy enough - who really cares what it's like anyways, as long as the beautiful beaches are nearby, right?

WRONG! What a nightmare this place was, and how quickly our beach getaway went downhill.

We felt very out of place, even unwelcome, by the staff. They were snide and unhelpful. The room was unbearable. We had a choice between either dealing with muggy heat, or opening the screenless window and dealing with a severe bug infestation. We chose muggy heat and suffered sleepless nights (and STILL many mosquito bites), before finally giving in to sleeping pills and cold showers in the middle of the night. We were relentlessly careful not to touch the walls that were covered with many squashed bugs from previous tenants. Finally, in order to keep the hundreds of ants from crawling under our door and all over our room, Pete ingeniously placed some peanuts a few feet away from our door which drew their attention away from harassing us.

After the second sleepless night, we asked for reprieve in the form of allowing us to leave early with a refund for unused nights, or at the very least, a fan. Their policy did not allow for refunds. Fans were supposedly "on order". Why on earth an accommodation would not put fans in place before summer (and high season) is beyond me? And why would they want disgruntled visitors to stay on and become more miserable?

Do they not know who we are?? (HA!)

We endured the last couple of nights there with chemical assistance (beer and sleeping pills). On both nights I enjoyed cold showers before bed, and then again during the middle of the night when I woke up and the sheets were soaked with sweat. Those four nights in total were easily the worst of our trip.

And so, after all this said, if you still don't have any sympathy for us, then please at least have it for Pete...having to deal with his sleepless and miserable wife. It wasn't pretty.

La Paloma
Just 12 kms from La Pedrera, we spent two nights in the bigger and more touristy La Paloma. Wanting to give ourselves a treat, we upgraded from a trashy hostel to a rundown hotel! Gone was our need for sleeping pills and ant-diversion-techniques! The room did have a fan (although it wasn't the greatest, so I still ended up with middle of the night showers), but all-in-all, it was a big step up from the previous place. And, best of all, it was directly on another beautiful beach!

With umbrellas, chairs, and towels provided by the hotel, we felt like we were in heaven. Our days were spent without a care, alternating between sun, shade, and surf.

Our evenings were just as beautiful as our days. On our first night, we witnessed the most unbelievable sunset either of us has ever seen. So much so, that some of the Argentinians behind us even applauded as the sun finally set. It was, very, VERY amazing.

Canadian influence?
There is one thing that I must mention here. In every restaurant we have been to in Uruguay, a "Chivito Canadiense" has been on the menu (which translates to a Canadian steak sandwich). Finally, in La Paloma, our curiosity got the best of us and Pete ordered it.

It was a large steak sandwich, complete with a fried egg, fried ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato. Essentially, a heart-attack on a plate. Now, why this sandwich is called "Canadian" (I've never seen it on a menu in Canada!), or how it has made it's way onto every menu in Uruguay, I would be very interested to know!

We left the touristy beach resorts behind and began our trip back down the coast with a stop in Montevideo, Uruguay's capital city. We allotted only one night here, in the interest of getting to spend more time in the town that stole our hearts when we first set foot into Uruguay (Colonia).

It was quite a slap in the face to be back in the city, amidst the aggressive traffic and noise. And once again, we found ourselves in a less than desirable hostel...a weird place with twisty halls and little stairs - the roof in our room is only 2 inches taller then Pete's head. We are beginning to think that perhaps this is just the way things are in this country. All the more reason for us to set-up shop here? Hmmm...

We got in late, thanks to missing our first bus out of La Paloma, so we really only had time for dinner and a short walk down La Rambla, a promenade along the beach on which the city is situated. The cityscape was quite a spectacular view at dusk:

We slept fitfully in the hot room, and are up early this morning and ready for another short, 3 hour bus ride back to Colonia. We are rounding off our venture into Uruguay with 2 blissful nights in a room with air conditioning (this was a MUST when booking!) We are also excited to meet up with our American/Canadian friend Kylee who is also passing through (we met Kylee in Sucre). And then our beach vacation is officially over...back to our life-cation. Sigh.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Yesterday marked exactly 5 months since we left home, and we have already logged a total of 60 posts on this blog!

I have to say, that I am severely running out of adjectives to use after so many posts. And I am sure you are tired of reading how "beautiful" or "amazing" or "incredible" that things are. But, what else can I say? Every place we see introduces us to something new, whether it be a "beautiful" view, an "amazing" new friend, or an "incredible" experience.

And now that we are a few days into Uruguay, I wish that I had new, more expressive adjectives to use for how we feel about being here. Is it possible that if I just add the word "very" to the front of all the others that it will have the intended effect? Probably not. But, it is the best I can do without downplaying the significance of every place before this, or all the other places we have yet to visit. If I use "very" this time, then perhaps I will have to use "very very" if we find a place to top this.

Pete and I came on this journey with a few objectives in mind. One of them (not sure that everyone knows this?) is to potentially find a place to set-up shop. We are interested in finding a place on or near a beach and open a bed & breakfast. We aspire to permanently drink wine on the beach while watching the sun go down, and to never have to shovel snow again. For us, this is our definition of happily ever after...

And we now have our first contender to set up shop! We came to Uruguay with few expectations of this small country, but it has blown us away thus far. Our first two nights were spent in Colonia del Sacramento, a one hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires across the widest river in the world - the Rio del Plata. The historic downtown of Colonia is another UNESCO World Heritage site, complete with cobblestone roads, a gated entrance and brick buildings restored to their original brilliance. All development is kept in check via a town "good taste office" which rules on whether any additions are indeed in good taste! It is a major tourist attraction (mostly for Argentinians), yet somehow still manages to keep it's very laid back charm.

The gate to the old town

Not to mention, a 5km stretch of beach along the river! It is "very" beautiful. We liked it "very" much.

We spent our one full day on this beach, quite undisturbed! We followed it up with an evening out at a waterside restaurant, watching the sun fade on the water while enjoying some cool drinks and a delicious dinner. Does it really ever get better then this? We are "very" much in love with Colonia.

Yesterday we packed up again and spent 5 hours on the bus, moving up the eastern coast. We are now passed the river and directly on the Atlantic Ocean, excited for the more spectacular beaches that all the pictures have promised us. We blew past all of the popular beach resorts in favour of a more laid back (and cheaper) locale and find ourselves in La Pedrera, a very small, hippy beach town. We feel a little out of our element - we have seen very few gringos, and we also prefer to walk around town with most of our clothes ON, thankyouverymuch!

We have four days in this town, which will likely be quite enough. The hostel is a little scabby, and I spent a good 1/2 hour last night in an epic battle with a monster bug in our room that refused to die. There is no fan in our room, and no screen on the windows, so we are choosing to endure the muggy heat instead of further bug infestation. Very little sleep was had last night.

But, there are BEACHES! Anything can be endured for beaches. Especially "very" beautiful, amazing and incredible ones. Whether this town is a potential to setup shop is yet to be seen, but we have a few more places to explore...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Buenos Aires appeteazer

There have been a few places along this journey where either Pete or I have looked at the other and said: "Holy shit. I can't believe we are in X!" This has happened probably less then you might think, as many places we have visited we had never even heard of before we got here. But every once in awhile, this feeling hits us like a tonne of bricks...

Holy shit, I can't believe we are in Buenos Aires!!

Visiting Buenos Aires has been a longtime dream of mine - I've always wanted to dive into this large, cosmopolitan, European city of South America that everyone loves. And after almost five entire months since we left Canada, we made it here.

Another lengthy overnight bus trip from Puerto Iguazú brought us into the city mid-morning on Friday. I had actually found myself looking forward to the 17 hour trip - not only have we found a seriously comfortable way to travel, but it saves paying for a night in a hostel! However, as the law of Murphy goes, as soon as you get comfortable with something, it changes, and this bus ride was not our most enjoyable. A last minute bus change meant less comfortable seats, the dinner was only made better by adding copious amounts of mustard, and we were seated near the only bathroom, which meant constant interruptions from the many people who visited. The only saving grace was that we finally got a decent movie (Quentin Tarantino's latest, Inglorious Basterds), but then they followed it up with Disney's Princess Protection Program. What kind of a line-up is that?

Regardless, we made it. But after only two days we leave again as we are booked on a ferry to Uruguay. I wish I could say that we made the most of this time, but our first day was spent in recovery from the bad night before, plus from the many hours we've spent on a bus and generally just rushing in the past week or so. We were also frantic to get some planning done for the next stage of our trip (we are touring this area in the height of summer holidays, we have no choice but to book in advance to secure rooms).

We did however, need to eat, and part of experiencing this great city is indulging in the many fantastic restaurants! Luckily, we are withing walking distance from a few good ones, and we were very happy to indulge in something other than steak, pasta and pizza (menu mainstays across this country).

We woke up yesterday well rested and ready to explore this section of the city. We stayed in the historic neighbourhood of San Telmo - famous for the severe fighting that took place during the early 1800s between Britain and Spain. We decided to follow a walking tour guide from Lonely Planet and ventured out on some of this areas most notable streets.

We fell in love with the traditional streets just around us. We loved the sounds of the cars driving by on the cobblestone roads. We loved all of the original colonial architecture, and even the graffiti that decorates much of it. We loved the many, many little antique shops that dot the streets and the quaint little designer shops and cafe's in between them. The size of my backpack dictates that no shopping is allowed...but oh, how I wanted to make it overflow with the many amazing things we found!

Our walk took us into to the city center, and one thing startled us immediately. For the size of this city and it's many inhabitants (around 13 million), it is awfully quiet. It could be because we are visiting on a weekend during summer vacation time, but it doesn't have the rushed pace of other big cities we've been to. For these country mice, that is a big plus. We walked through the main city plaza enjoying the expanse of the buildings and green space almost entirely to ourselves.

The appeal of the buildings and atmosphere was lost though, as the walking tour then guided us down a pedestrian mall complete with a mix of North American brand names that take away from the foreign charm of any place we visit. We were also constantly accosted by people shoving pamphlets in our face for their nearby restaurants. We picked up our pace and got out of this area - we had far to go yet, and the oppressive heat was starting to wear on me.

Well, we didn't make it too much further, and that was enough for me. I started to feel dizzy and very tired - we had walked quite far in the extreme heat (we are in the muggy 30s here), and were also in need of lunch! Resolving ourselves to the idea that we would could just continue our tour on our next visit, we got into a cab and back to our neighbourhood we went.

After a good lunch, lots of water and a long siesta, we got ready for a traditional evening out - it was time to tango, baby! Although the concept of a dinner/tango show has become a totally touristy, kitschy thing to do, we knew it was a must in experiencing Buenos Aires. And there is one very good reason why things become touristy - it is because it is that damn good, that everyone must partake!
While the dinner was nothing to write home about, the show was nothing short of amazing. Incredibly passionate performances by various singers, a tango pair, and finally a flamenco dancer that took our breath away. I had never quite seen anything like it - the flamenco dancer moved like her feet and hands were controlling her, and not the other way around. The whole evening was quite moving and a perfect way to spend a hot, Buenos Aires evening!!

And so, after this little gratifying taste (an appetizer, if you will!) of this glorious city, we are out the door. The beaches of Uruguay are beckoning, but we will be back in Buenos Aires for at least a week in February to enjoy the main course...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Grand Iguazú

~20 extra hours on a bus.............$150
2 nights in an overpriced hostel.....$100
Park fees, lunch and boat ride.......$120

Seeing one of the natural wonders of the world....
Pricey. But still totally worth it!

The Iguazú Falls are hailed as the must-see of South America - a series of waterfalls standing at 72 meters at it's highest point (~20 higher than Niagara Falls), and surrounded by an immense jungle with a lot of unique flora and fauna. The Falls split the Argentina and Brazil border, and so Pete and I planned 2 days in nearby Puerto Iguaz
ú in order to spend one day in each country and see the Falls from the different vantage points.

There are only two countries in South America where Canadians need to pre-obtain visas in order to enter: Brazil and Paraguay. However, research told us that Brazil would "unofficially" allow us to enter for a day without it, just to see the Falls. And, unfortunately, our research was dated and wrong. No longer does anyone get a free order to get in, we would have to purchase a 4 hour visa for $120! Ridiculous!

Other research also told us that if there is only one side to see the Falls from, it's in Argentina. The national park surrounding the falls is well laid out with several kilometers of walking paths allowing many vantage points.

The Falls are, simply stunning. The loud rush of water, the rainbows over the mist, the hundreds of different colorful butterflies, the cool spray over the walkways. The whole experience of our day in the park is something that Pete and I could never forget. Few words can describe it...hopefully pictures help...

And as if just viewing the Falls wasn't enough, we boarded a boat that took us right under the streaming water! It was quite a rush to be taken over the churning water and stop right beneath the Falls - I was amazed that they actually took us all the way in.

For more pictures, click here.

We came a long way to see this spectacular sight, which did not disappoint. Today we are on another long distance bus - 17 hours to Buenos Aires. Only a couple of days there before we get our fourth passport stamp in Uruguay - time to hit the beach!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

¡Salta, la linda!

Salta, the it is known around these parts. When we first got to the city a couple of days ago, Pete and I were not convinced. Another noisy city with crazy traffic. The city parks could all use a facelift and the area where we stayed felt kinda sketchy.

And then, we gave it a chance. We settled in after our overnight jaunt to gorgeous, quaint Cafayate, and put our bias against cities aside. We took it all in, thanks in large part to the guidance of our friend Ruth who knows the city well.

We enjoyed a casual sidewalk dinner listening to Argentinian folk musicians. We rode a gondola to the top of Cerro San Bernardo to get a view of the vast city. We did a bit of shopping, marveling in the quality artisan products we could find - not all the shops were jammed with the typical tourist fare. I felt my eyes well up with tears during one museum visit. We sat at a plaza cafe, doing some serious people watching while the waiter free-poured the liquor. We toured through two jaw-dropping iglesias and marveled at the brilliant indulgences of the Catholic church. We even went up into the mountains of the city's outskirts and did some horseback riding.

We are now believers.

This city sums up what we love about Argentina. Even though the country is quite a bit more modern then, say, it's Bolivian neighbour, it has also retained much more of it's old world charm and culture then it's neighbour to the west, Chile. It is buzzing with energy, and set against a rustic, colonial backdrop. It has been a true highlight in our exploration of Argentina.

The one sad aspect of this stop (besides leaving it) is that we have also said goodbye to two good friends that we had the pleasure of meeting up with during our travels - Gill and Ruth. It is a true fin de una epoca, as we all head our separate ways with little chance of crossing paths again in our South American travels (unless of course, Gill starts stalking us again). It is hard to imagine the road ahead without them.

A few more details and pictures on this unforgettable city...

MAAM - Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montaña
We have done many museum tours in the past five months, but nothing has been as gut wrenching as this one. MAAM houses an understandably controversial exhibit.

In 1999, the bodies of three children were found some 480km west of Salta, near the Chilean border and on the peak of a mountain. From their clothing, accessories and markings they bore, it was determined that they were high-ranking human sacrifices of an Inca tribe. Given the high altitude at which they were placed, their features and everything they wore remained remarkably intact.

Only the boy, aged six, was on display during our visit as all three of them are rotated through on a six month basis in order to ensure preservation. He was displayed in the exact position in which they found him, his hair sprouting up and his skin perfectly preserved. Perhaps it is a good thing that we were not able to see all three as I immediately had tears come to my eyes and felt slightly nauseous on seeing him. It was a very chilling experience, to say the least. It is expected that there are many more such sacrifices yet to be found high on that mountain.

Churches, churches, and more churches!
Not that the pictures can give any indication of the jaw dropping sensation when viewing one of these magnificent buildings in person, but here they are anyways...

The Gaucho lifestyle
A very important icon of Argentinian culture is The Gaucho - that lonesome cowboy who tends to the open ranches with his incredible horsemanship. Who else do you think takes care of all this amazing beef that we love?

It is no surprise then that agrotourism is a huge deal here. People come from all over and pay good money in order to actually stay and WORK on a farm alongside the gauchos. Now, I am all about trying to experience different cultural aspects first hand, but I ain't paying to work nowhere! Also, what would my many farming relatives have to say about the fact that I was putting out my own money in order to work on a farm when they would let me do it for free?

We opted instead yesterday for an afternoon of riding horses alongside a gaucho in the mountains surrounding Salta, followed by a traditional asado (bbq) on the open grill.

I am NOT a horse person, and have only ridden twice in my life, with about 20 years spanning each time. In fact, horses have always scared me for the fact that they seem so uncontrollable. However, if I can jump off a mountain with only a piece of fabric protecting me from free-falling, then I surely can ride a damn horse for a couple of hours!

To be on the safe side, I asked for a horse that was muy tranquillo. I got what I asked for, that's for sure! I got the oldest, slowest and most stubborn horse possible. Up into the mountains we went, and I was always pulling up the rear, to the point that our gaucho had to come back and be sure that I was still with the group of seven. The horse would move only at one pace, and only when he felt like it. He also never liked to stick to the actual trail much, instead walking just far enough off of it to ensure that I was getting thoroughly scratched up by the thorns that lined the side. I'm pretty sure he hated me.

At one point, just after the peak of the trail, I caught up to the group only because they were all stopped. An English girl in our group had gotten off her horse and was crouched on the ground beside. She apparently wasn't feeling very good from something she ate a day ago, and with all the heat from the sun she had to stop as she thought she was going to be sick. Only a minute later she passed out completely for a good 20 seconds while her sister started freaking out trying to revive her. When she finally came to, she was completely delirious and was alternating between apologizing for the delay and asking for help. The gaucho took her on his horse and road her back down the hill for attention.

A scary few moments for all of us, but she was fine when we saw her later, just having been dehydrated and overexposed to the heat. We continued on our way down the hill, rather then waiting for the gaucho to return (as we probably should have). My arms show the reason why as I have a number of scratches from the thorns that overgrew the path on the right, when we obviously should have taken the path to the left!

Riding thru some thick brush

After we made it down, we had another quick ride on more open road where the horses could really move (mine trotted slightly, but that was all he would give), and then we stopped for lunch. The asado included all kinds of meat cooked up on the fire grill - ribs, steak, chorizo, etc. along with salad and potatoes. It was served on the beautiful patio of the ranch (which was at one time a convent - complete with a small chapel inside). All in all, a gorgeous day and we were pretty glad to spend it all outdoors before what we have coming up today...

A 23 hour bus ride for only a 2 day stop! Our longest trip yet, but the destination will be worth it. We are off to see the Iguazu Falls, which are taller and supposedly more magnificent then Niagara by a long shot.

MORE PICTURES!! A lot to catch up here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Worthy side trip

We arrived in Salta and enjoyed one day, only to leave again the next on a 4 hour bus trip to the small community of Cafayate. We were a little road weary at this point, having already spent a significant portion of the previous 48 hours on buses, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity to join our friends Gill and Ruth on this excursion to Argentina's second most significant wine region that is also the home of our new favourite little grape, the Torrontés.

The drive to and from Cafayate is one of the most unforgettable and breathtaking trips we have ever taken. The road splits the bright red mountains and winds around lush green valleys. I find the varying red mountains to be more spectacular then the snow covered peaks of southern Argentina and Chile, perhaps because they are so very different from what we have at home.

After dumping our bags and enjoying a quick lunch on the edge of the center plaza, we hopped in a cab for a short ride outside of the city to the first winery. By now, you would think we would have learned the lesson to follow through on our gut instinct of skip-tour-and-taste-only-please, but no...we suffered through another dry explanation of the process which only differs slightly from winery to winery. Would it hurt for them to hire tour guides that have even an ounce of enthusiasm for their job? Anyways...

We tasted four different wines with the majority of us favouring the white Torrontés, which is grown only in this region of the world. It has a very fruity aroma and carries through some sweetness to the otherwise dry, clear wine. It has replaced my previous favourite Pinot Grigio!

Winery entrance

The second and third wineries were without tour - taste only! More favouring of Torrontés, and a few bottles were purchased to enjoy later. After all of our wine touring thus far, we do now believe ourselves to be quite the experts. Except for maybe Gill, who on different occasions when inhaling the aroma of the wine, has claimed to smell hints of "tar", "seaweed", and my personal favourite: "rose hand cream on a tea cup". Hmmm. Perhaps she should keep her day job and give up her dream of becoming a sommelier (wine expert).

Next in order was a siesta before dinner! This was no normal siesta for me - apparently my body decided that a two hour nap was not enough, and I slept for 17 hours, straight through to the next morning. My road weariness caught up with me, and I missed out on the dinner of fine cheese, salami, grapes and of course, wine. Thankfully though I recovered in time for the next day and our next destination.

Another cab, this time for an hour out of Cafayate to see ruins from the Quilmes indians - an indigenous tribe that fiercely fought the Inca invasion of the 15th century before finally falling to the Spaniards in 1667. It was restored 30 years ago and is quite remarkable - it is one of the most important archeological sites in Argentina.

Pete atop the ruins

Back to Cafayate for ice cream and a bit of shopping, just enough time to soak in some of the quiet beauty of the town before getting back on the bus to the big city. We wished we had planned to stay a little longer as it is becoming clear to us that one of the greatest charms of Argentina is the many small, vibrant communities throughout, especially in the north west.

But, back we are in Salta for a few more nights, before a mammoth bus ride to see the Iguazu falls. We have a couple of these style bus trips coming up, which may result in a couple more mammoth siestas for us road weary travelers...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Canadians watching fútbol

I am not a soccer fan - I find it to be pretty boring on TV and have never watched an entire game. Pete is trying to get into it as a replacement for hockey, given that we are entirely surrounded by the sport down here.

Yesterday, our friend Ruth and her Argentinian boyfriend Marcelo offered to take us to a soccer game. It is off-season in Argentina, but the big teams from Buenos Aires travel throughout the country playing demonstration games while the league is suspended. We enthusiastically agreed to go, anxious to see what all the fuss is about.

And what a "fuss" it was! The stadium was not even half full, yet the enthusiasm of the fans was overwhelming. Most stayed on their feet for the entire game, yelling chant after chant, waving all sorts of banners, and even setting off the odd firework. And this is off-season!! It was incredible, and the fans easily made it more exciting then any hockey game we have ever been to.

Throughout the game, we couldn't help but continually make many comparisons to our national sport equivalent of hockey. So many differences, eh?

- No drinking alcohol allowed! Can you imagine if beer wasn't allowed at a hockey game? I think the NHL would shut down.

- The best seats in the house were 50 Argentinian pesos, or roughly $14 each.
A far cry from prices at the Saddledome...$40 or so for the cheap seats?

- Die-hard fans were segregated into two sections at either end of the field. At the end of the game, the announcement came that the
Independiente fans were to leave first, the Racing fans were allowed to leave 15 minutes later. This is to prevent any post-game parking lot scuffles! I can't imagine this sort of system ever being implemented in Canada - are we not passionate enough about our game, or are we just too damn polite?

- The half time show did not include scantily dressed girls cleaning the field or fans competing in ridiculous races to win prizes. Instead, the only action we saw was when the riot police came on with their dogs, just in case anyone decided to rush the field.

- One thing I will forever be grateful for at the next hockey game I go to - not having to worry about the huge bugs flying around my head or crawling by my feet! Ew!

We are both so glad to have gone to this game - if only to just get an introduciton to the religion of fútbol before hopefully going to a big league game in Buenos Aires next month.

Oh yeah, and the score of this exciting game? 0-0. There were 2 goals, but both were called back. I unfortunately missed both of them, having instead been keeping an eye on some little critters that were getting too close...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hit and miss

I'm struggling with how to sum up our days in La Cumbre. It has been such a weird mix of good and bad that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this experience (or, lack thereof). Rather than lose a few loyal readers in the process of trying to elaborately map out the details of the last three days, I instead think it might be best to resort to an old-fashioned pros and cons list. Thus, by the end, it may perhaps become clear (at least to me!) whether or not we should declare this visit a success or one instance of where we should have gotten on a different bus.

- La Cumbre has to be one of the most beautiful towns we've ever been in. For those LOTR fans out there, I have even used the word "Shire" when trying to articulate something I could relate it to. Pete and I wandered down some streets that were completely fairy-tale like - lush green trees and plants, perfect cottages with large, perfectly manicured yards. If I were to imagine any place in the world where I would want to see our kids riding bicycles in the streets, this would be it. A town of only 9,000 people, it has everything to offer in a completely homey atmosphere.

- We are obviously not the only ones who have this view! La Cumbre's residents include many ex-pats, people who have had the same reaction as above and decided to take root here. While that has it's pluses (we've visited both French and Thai restaurants - a nice change from the usual Argentinian fare!), it also has it's minuses. For traveler's who want to experience "real Argentina", this isn't it. This is where the rich Argentinians from Buenos Aires or Cordoba have second homes (for relatively cheap), and where other nationalities buy property for a deal.

- Beautiful hostel - a large older house, well maintained and on a huge piece of property. Our room is spotless and the setting is the most tranquil we have been in.

CON - The hostel is run by the family of five that lives here as well. Feels like we are imposing on their space, especially when it comes to sharing the kitchen.

PRO - La Cumbre held the world paragliding championships in 1994, so it is a natural place for Pete and Aafke to take their second, much-anticipated plunge. The landscape here is so lush that it would be much different than our jump over the browns of Mendoza. The drive on the bumpy road up the mountain was worth it just for the view alone:

CON - You want HOW MUCH for paragliding during high season? Pass.

PRO - Aafke stayed with friends in La Cumbre that had moved from The Netherlands last year. They have been most gracious to all of us - having us over for coffee and lunch, driving us to a nearby hotel to enjoy their pool for the afternoon, taking us up to Cuchi Corral (the paragliding site). We are always so grateful for generous strangers who become friends.

- Aafke, Pete and I were all very excited at the prospect of finding our way to the nearby town of Jesus Maria to take in some of the Gaucho Festival - Argentina's equivalent to the Calgary Stampede! We were trying to think of how we could get there (an expensive car rental or dealing with a bus route that would be a bit complicated), when our new friends offered to take us as they wanted to see the Festival as well. Problem solved! We arranged for an extra night in La Cumbre and were up early to be at their house in time to get in a full day of rodeo action. We were overwhelmed with disappointment when just ten minutes before our departure, they had changed their minds about going. Having already made other commitments for our next leg of the trip, it is too late to try and fit it in another day. I guess we will never find out if the bulls are as brassy or the broads as boozy in Jesus Maria as they are in Calgary.

All in all, this little side trip wasn't a total failure, but 4 days here was probably 2 days too many, and missing the Gaucho Festival is a big disappointment. Back to Cordoba tomorrow afternoon in order to board another overnight bus - this time to the much anticipated city of Salta! Many of the people we have met traveling have commented that Salta is one of their favourite stops in all of Argentina. Pete and I have even been debating sticking around in Salta for awhile... we shall see when we get there...STAY TUNED!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Country Mice

From small town relaxin' to big city sweatin'...Monday afternoon we begrudgingly left Alta Gracia and rolled back into Cordoba.

And two nights in Argentina's second largest city was enough for us. The streets downtown are narrow and crowded, the traffic is frequent and loud. Our hostel was pleasant enough and remarkably clean (especially given it's immense size). But after only a few hours in the city, these country mice were ready to get on the next bus out.

We realize that we were being terribly unfair to Cordoba. There are many incredible sights to be seen - museums, immense churches, art galleries. In 2006 it was given the distinction of being the "cultural capital of the Americas" for good reason, and we didn't even give it much of a chance. However, we don't take all the blame.

Besides the crowding effect of the noise from the busy city - the extreme heat was completely intolerable - a muggy 43 degrees!! I realize that many of you will have no sympathy for us having to deal with extreme heat while it hovers around -30 back home, but SERIOUSLY, it was near impossible to take. All I wanted to do was strip down and lay flat out on the bed while the fan above me spun at full speed. And I did do that for much of the time!

Anytime we ventured out, we were sure to never be far from somewhere air-conditioned. We enjoyed a movie in a nice air-conditioned theater, walked through a mall just to cool down, and dipped into stores or coffee shops when necessary to escape the hot pavement. Pete actually said at one point: "Let's not walk down that street, it looks too sunny."

We did our best to take in some of the sights, with some failures (thanks to our dated version of Lonely Planet!) We went to see the restored Jesuit Crypts, but missed the opening hours due to some misinformation. We then wanted to take in the Museo de La Memoria - a museum dedicated to Argentina's military dictatorship - only to find the building torn down. We were pretty disappointed, especially given the sweaty effort it took to get to these locations.

We did, however, get to see some of the city's beautiful colonial architecture. We have heard from many people that Argentina has a very European flair, and we never really felt it before getting to Cordoba. It is a genuine mix of old and new, which is why it is a popular tourist destination. Another time...another temperature...and perhaps we will more thoroughly check it out.

Today we continued our trek north with another short bus ride to La Cumbre, a small town that is world renowned for it's paragliding. Aafke will be joining us once again tomorrow, and thus there is talk of more paragliding or perhaps even skydiving (I, however, choose life, and will sit this one out). Thankfully, there are plenty of other things to do in this little town to keep me occupied while they throw themselves out of a plane. Even if it means just sitting in our quaint, charming hostel and listening to the birds chirp outside our window, while the temperature hovers at a more tolerable 25 degrees. This country mouse is happy again.

A few pics of what we did see in Cordoba!

Iglesia Catedral

Inside Iglesia Catedral

Parroquia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus de los Capuchinos
Notice the missing steeple? It's omission was on purpose to symbolize human imperfection.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Off the path

We left our subpar living arrangements behind in Mendoza and decided to step it up as a New Years treat for us both! First up, a ten hour overnight bus trip, in nothing less than first class.

Bus travel is really done well in Argentina. First class meant fully reclining seats, a flat screen TV and a full service menu with wine. Being that the bus left at 10:30pm, the only thing I really took advantage of was the fully reclining chair, but it was still totally worth it (Pete, however, took his fair share - and mine - of the free wine!) Given that it was only about $8 more for each of us, you can count on us going first class the rest of our way thru this country.

We arrived in Cordoba at 7:30am and hopped on another 1 hour bus to the small city of Alta Gracia for two nights. We continued our "New Years treat" to ourselves by booking into an actual hotel (not a hostel) for the first time since we left home. We were thrilled to see the immaculately clean room, and the matching immaculateness of the outdoor pool. Our little piece of heaven for a couple of days.

Apparently not everyone thinks of Alta Gracia that way, especially the locals! Twice on our first day, we had residents ask us WHY we had gone out of our way to visit this city - they were pretty shocked that we were here strictly as tourists and not just to visit any friends and family.

And after our two days here, I think they are underselling their city. It is very much off the tourist path, but it is a perfectly laid back and quiet place to recharge for a couple of days. There are many beautiful parks and interesting statues, a Jesuit Estancia Museum that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also the childhood home of revolutionary Che Guevara which has now been turned into a museum. Lots to see and do, and we easily filled our two days!

After a quick nap in our immaculate white room after our arrival, we took in some sights and explored a bit of the town, but we were foremost in search of where to go to see the world famous Dakar Rally as it rolled through! For those of you who don't know what it is (I didn't!), Pete explained it to me as the Super Bowl of rally racing for all kinds of vehicles - cars, motorbikes, quads, etc. It happens annually since 1978 (usually from Paris to Dakar), but is being held in South America for the second time. Starting in Buenos Aires on New Years Day, the race will go over the Andes into Chile to finish in Santiago. This is apparently quite a big deal, and Pete was determined to bear witness to it!

The tourist info office advised us where to go, which we in turn advised a cab. We thought it was on the edge of town, and had no idea that he would be taking us 20kms outside of it. We were dropped off at a highway intersection where a couple hundred people gathered to watch and cheer as the vehicles drove by. And, that's all it was. Watching and cheering. Hmm.

Pete was enjoying himself and took some great pictures - instead I found a nice spot in the shade of a billboard beside a very nice, older Argentinian couple. After standing there for only a couple of minutes, the man went to his car to bring me an extra chair to sit on, and offered me some cold water. They were so friendly and generous (a very big characteristic of Argentinians, we have found!) and cute to watch as they dolled out snacks to their grandchildren, sang along to the songs on their transistor radio, and even tried to show me what some of the native plants were in the bushes behind us. I really enjoyed my afternoon with them, but as the day wore on, Pete and I decided we had to deal with the looming problem in front of us - how on earth were we going to get back to town?

We were 20kms out of the city with no phone and no taxi stand nearby. Walking would have been very difficult in my flip flops and with no water in the 30+ degree weather. Thus, we did something neither of us have ever done before - we stuck out our thumb and tried to hitch a ride back! It took only about 15 minutes, and an old pick-up truck inhabited by a young couple stopped to pick us up. We rode back to town in the open back of the truck, once again treated to the easy, simple generosity of these people. We were very grateful!

We ended our day with a dip in the pool at our hotel...very luxurious for this grungy traveling couple!

Our second day in town has been dedicated to checking out the museums. We started out with the museum of Che Guevara - housed in his actual childhood home of 11 years, and just down the street from our hotel. Pete and I were both very excited for this visit as we have read an awful lot about Che, and the museum did not disappoint with many pictures and relics from his childhood and later years.

For those who know nothing about Che (Margo), check out this website by clicking here (Margo). Everyone should know who he is. Margo.

On our way to the second museum, we found a little store with all the ingredients necessary for an awesome picnic in the park - bread, different cheeses, sausage, and wine! Love the lack of open alcohol rules in this country!

A beautiful place for a picnic

Our last stop was a museum in a former Jesuit Estancia - a large ranch built and operated by the Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century to economically support the first university in Argentina. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and has a beautifully preserved residence and church.

This whole area of north western Argentina has been largely influenced by the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century, to which I know very little about, except that they arrived to bring Catholicism to Latin America, but were kicked out by the King of Spain in the late 18th century. I've added it to the list of things I need to research - this is a problem I have found with traveling, it raises far too many questions that I must answer! That list is getting awfully long...

Tomorrow morning we are back onto the bus to Cordoba for a couple of nights exploring the bigger city - back on the tourist trail! Some of our favourite spots we have seen so far are those that we venture off the path to explore, and Alta Gracia has been no exception. Perhaps it is a good thing that the locals "undersell" their town, in order to keep it a "find" for those who are willing to look for it...