Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hunhuamaca, Jujuy, Salta, Cordoba and Rosario, Argentina

Jujuy, Feb 2, 2008

Two hours north of Salta along the road to Bolivia is the small town of San Salvador de Jujuy. The book rated it as a place to visit. It isn’t! We met a very nice couple from Alaska and traveled with them on the bus to Jujuy where we found room in the Chung King (yes, you read that right) Hotel.

The basilica church was built in 1546 and a few other old buildings date around that time. Today a small pedestrian street lined with shops offers goods for sale. A small park with the church and the old city hall are the only two old colonial buildings that are worth seeing.

Our plan was to visit Jujuy, then Huamahuaca in the north, returning south to visit Tilcara and finally return to Salta. Plans do change. The bus north was to Huamahuaca; however it stopped in Tilcara where it emptied all the passengers out.A bus to Humahuaca will be here in 20 minutes. After 2 hours it finally arrived not at the terminal where we were all waiting but a bit out of the way. We dragged our luggage (no taxis in town) down dirt and rock roads and boarded the bus which was full so we were forced to stand (another word for being thrown about) for the rest of the trip to Huamahuaca. Finally arriving during the biggest weekend of the year for tourists (“Carnival”) and almost dark, Ted set off to book hotel rooms. None available in town! Kids with backpacks wandered up and down looking for a room. There is a tent camping site which was full. Finally a friendly woman sent Ted a bit out of town, about half a mile or so, where a new hotel is under construction. They had rooms but the bathrooms aren’t finished. Shared bathrooms outside. Being high in the mountains, 9000 feet above sea level, it was quite cold. Going outside in the middle of the night to find a bathroom in freezing cold was not in my original plan, but plans do change.

After we dropped our luggage off, we strolled back to town to find food. Canned snow is the big seller during “Carnival”. Kids run through the streets squirting each other and sometimes the unwary tourist. The streets were littered with empty cans and every shop and vendor had stacks of cans to sell. The town square, with a very picturesque stone church, was filled with visitors. Next to the square are steps leading up to the Monument of Heros of Independence with many people sitting on the steps waiting for some fun to start. Several jugglers were practicing while kids ran and played. A small alcove with local crafts offered “Lama sweaters”, pots, Mate cups and other items.

On the little streets leading from the square, shops catering to tourists or restaurants sit between homes. Many of the houses have been painted and cleaned up but as with all small poor towns, many are in need of repair. We hung around for awhile, but nothing much was happening and it was getting colder and colder, so we went back to the hotel.

From Huamahuaca we took the bus back to Jujuy (had a flat tire on the way) and then another to Salta. The area around Salta lies in the foothills which are just east of the Andes. The area is high desert with canyons of incredible beauty. Rocks are pushed up, bent and fractured. Millions of years of water and wind have carved the rock into wonderful shapes. Layers of iron rich rock, sulfur, copper and other chemicals have created a painted panorama of red, brown, green, white and yellow. The landscape is very much like the Painted Desert of Arizona.

Back in Salta we took a day trip to Cachi through another set of canyons. Since it had been raining for two weeks, large streams crossed the road and in several places, washed part of the road away. This in itself isn’t bad except we were on a very winding road with deep gorges on the sides. Quite often, we were forced to stop while bulldozers, which operate 24 hours a day, cleared debris from the road in order to make it passable. The road switched back and forth, climbing up and up. At the highest point on the road we were at 12,000 feet. For some 45 miles, the road is dirt and gravel. Known as the Cuesta de la Obispo, the Bishop’s Trail, this road has got to be one of the most beautiful and exciting roller coaster rides on the planet. Once at the top, we found ourselves on a high plateau, flat for miles and miles around; high desert full of saguaros. Here the road was again paved and we drove for about an hour until we descended into the valley in which the town of Cachi lies. On the other side and looming above the town are the first mountains of the Andes, with the snow covered peaks of Nevado del Cachi rising to almost 21,000 ft. Very impressive!

We spent 4 hours wandering about Cachi, taking in the scenery and eating lunch at an outdoor café, until our return bus arrived. Then we returned back through the gorgeous scenery getting a slightly different view of the mountains covered in lush green vegetation and the Calchiques river, a silvery ribbon in the valley far below.

The next day we went by bus to Cafayate and after checking into the hostel, took a tour in a landrover through yet more canyons, bumping up into dry river beds strewn with green copper rocks, more layered rocks, dry waterfalls and more cactus. A trying day but not to be missed. Parts of this valley of the Calchiques River are very reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Monument Valley, and, again, The Painted Desert; all on a much smaller scale, though grand enough for anyone.

From Cafayate we took a bus to San Miguel de Tucuman which climbed up through the desert into the clouds at 10,000 feet. Then down through thick jungle where the trees were covered with vines, bromeliads and orchids. It was more jungly than even Costa Rica. Finally the bus drove through miles of pasture land, the start of the Argentine Pampas, where the weather was warmer. In three days we had traveled from Arizona, to Costa Rica, and now we were in Kansas.

Tucuman is a very big city but didn’t offer much besides a lovely central square with some fine old colonial buildings.

From Tucuman we traveled to Cordoba which again didn’t offer anything new or interesting. On to Rosario, a very pleasant city about 4 hours from Buenos Aires. We arrived on Sunday and spent several hours walking along the pedestrian street where all the shops were closed. The city is an important port on the Parana River for shipping produce from the many farms and factories. Along the river a park stretches almost as long as the city itself. At one place they have erected a large modern monument with Greek-like statues and an eternal flame to honor the first raising of the Argentina flag. Rosario is in many ways a smaller, quieter version of Buenos Aires with its parks, its monuments and the old colonial buildings. Finally we finished by walking the pedestrian street when the shops were open and dined at the exclusive restaurant “Mc Donald’s” after enjoying Rosario.

The area north of Rosario was once home to the Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas. At the end of the 19th century, hundreds of Jews from Russia and Poland, escaping pogroms, managed to find themselves in Central Argentina. With the help of Baron de Hirsch, a Jewish Philanthropist, they received enough money to start their own farms and ranches. Just imagine it, a bunch of Chassidic “Christ Killers” plopped down in the midst of the Catholic Indio Pampas. After a somewhat difficult start, the 2 communities actually got along quite well, with the Jews learning Spanish, and the natives speaking Yiddish. Today, all their descendants are doctors and lawyers in Buenos Aires and Rosario and all that remains are a few old decrepit synagogues overgrown with weeds. There was nothing left for us to go visit.

The whole area from Cafayate to Buenos Aires is in the “Pampas”, the agricultural center of Argentina. About as large as the center of the U.S; cows, sheep and horses share land with corn, soy beans, haystacks, silos, small towns, farm equipment and factories. Surprisingly, we saw no wheat growing. As we drove through, for 3 days, we thought that we could be driving through Kansas, Iowa, or Nebraska; just as flat and just as big.

Finally, after almost a month of traveling, we returned to Buenos Aires and the Alkimista Hostel, where the vast bulk of our luggage was waiting for us. We expect to remain here for a week or so, catching our breath, and then on to Chile.

Asuncion, Paraguay to Salta, Argencina

Paraguay Jan 28, 2008

Leaving Rio on a Crucerro del Norte bus, we had to book for Puerto Iguazu on the Argentina side. From there, local buses cross back into Brazil and then Paraguay. The bus itself stops in Foz on the Brazilian side but we weren’t allowed off. We then had to go through the Brazil immigration, then the Argentina immigration, and arrived at the terminal during a downpour. After waiting for over 2 hours for the local bus which runs every 20 minutes and night falling, we decided that we’d spend the night on the Argentina side and cross in the morning.

Early the next morning, Monday Jan 28, we caught the local bus which took us back to Argentina immigration for the second time in two days and then to Brazil immigration, finally entering Paraguay at Cuidad del Este. Our plan was to visit the world’s second largest dam just outside Cuidad del Este. The bus drove straight through, leaving us to backtrack in the rain to find the Paraguayan immigration. We had purchased our visas in Buenos Aires but needed our entry stamp. That done, we walked a few blocks into Cuidad del Este which is nothing more than a huge disorganized shopping bazaar that caters to 30,000 visitors from Brazil and Argentina every day for “duty free” shopping. Needing to find an ATM machine, it took several minutes and a group of taxi drivers to finally understand us. The ATM machine is located in a bank hidden among a few office buildings with no names. After getting Paraguayan Guaranis (money) we bought our bus tickets to Asunción.

Asunción has 1 million in population, several shopping malls, old colonial houses and not much more. We stayed in a private home, the Pension de Silva where they have converted about 8 bedrooms into rooms for rent. The ceilings are at least 20 feet high and the patio has 3 sofas and 6 chairs plus several other tables with 4 chairs each. A large 12 seat table plus china cabinets and large TV occupy a corner and still provide plenty of room for more.

Paraguay is a lovely country caught by crippling economic corruption and a political party that has been in control for 75 years.
It was four times as large as it is today 150 years ago. A major war with Brazil and Argentina resulted in all males over the age of three being slaughtered and Brazil together with Argentina carving and claiming most of Paraguay. The U.S. is pouring money into the country to form a wedge between leftist governments in South America and is making the politicians very very rich while the sidewalks, building, schools, roads, etc. continue to decay. So what’s new?

The next morning we went in search of the fabled boat, the Cacique II for a trip up the Rio Paraguay into the Pantanal. After asking many people, we finally found it being loaded with all sorts of food and beverages. All 3 cabins were booked for the week. We could sleep on deck in hammocks, but if we waited around a week until next Wednesday, we might get a cabin to take us up to Conception. There we would have to wait 4 or 5 days and hope a boat was leaving to go north. No guarantee! After talking with several travelers who had attempted to go upriver, we decided that it was best to head back to Argentina and visit the painted deserts and canyons around Salta.

Back in Argentina Jan 30, 2008

Entering back into Argentina we passed through immigration but didn’t get our passports returned until all our luggage had been taken off the bus and run through an x-ray machine. As they didn’t seem to mind that I had fruit in my bag, a no no, I don’t know what they were looking for. The bus from Asuncion took us to Resistencia where we booked an overnight bus to Salta, a Flecha bus. Not one of the very good ones but okay. On trips of less than 8 hours, the busses have 4 seats across instead of only 2 and 1, so they are narrower.

The landscape changed from lush green to brown rolling hills and finally into high desert. The hills were covered with low desert shrubs and hundreds of Saguaro cactus and a very low, flat growing type of Prickly Pear. We had always heard that Saguaro cactus only grows in the area outside of Tucson, Arizona and the Sonora Desert and that they are more or less endangered. Not in Argentina, there must be several million growing in the high desert. Many of the tourist items and small tables are made from the wood.

Salta is a really beautiful old colonial Spanish town with streets a mix of asphalt and old cobblestone. The large central plaza opens out into a pedestrian street with many shops of all types. The difference in the population from Buenos Aires is very apparent, many people of Indian heritage which gives a different flavor to Salta. We thought about renting a car but found out that the insurance isn’t really cheap; it comes with a deductible of $1300 USD.

Most of the hotels were booked because of the local “Carnival” but we found a newly refurbished and clean room with private bath for only $16 USD, but it was a ways from downtown so we spent a bit more on taxi fares.

We had neglected to change our Paraguayan money back into Argentinean pesos and found that no bank would change it, forcing us to wait until Buenos Aires and hope for the best.

Most of the town action occurs at the lovely town square. There couples and families congregate evenings. Restaurants and sidewalk cafes are full and parades, dances and the local “Carnival” brings Indians in traditional dress out. A couple of “Gauchos” walked around drumming up business for a restaurant but were more than happy to pose for the tourists.

A cable car runs from one the many parks up to the top of a mountain with fantastic views. Ted took the cable car while I visited all the tourist shops. After, we wandered through the main plaza, arriving just in time to witness a children’s parade. Some children wore costumes while the majority marched in street clothes. Many mothers accompanied the children.
The parade ended by the park gazebo where music blasted out; older kids mixed, danced and enjoyed. Suddenly Indians in brightly colored dress with elaborate headdresses began to congregate at one corner. Placing their feathered headdresses on a rack, they encouraged the children to touch and examine, some children trying the headdresses on. The biggest headdress had a stuffed Capybara mounted while several of the smaller ones had Armadillo shells mounted. After awhile, the Indians performed a dance back and forth in the plaza.

Walking around one of the city’s several parks, we spotted a small wooden boat shaped like one Christopher Columbus might have sailed in. An Ice Cream Boat, complete with ice cream cones and an assortment of flavors. Many stalls were set up selling all sorts of tourist delights. The ever present stalls selling a wide assortment of “mate” cups. These cups are made from horn, silver, gourds or rock. In each cup a silver straw with a filter rests. “Mate” is a sort of herbal tea that is stuffed into the “cups”, hot water from thermoses that almost all Argentineans seem to carry with them, is poured over the herbs and the drink is sucked up the straw. I tried a “Mate” tea bag but have yet to try the cup full of packed herbs. It tasted like Green Tea.

Several small malls are entered from the Plaza walking street. One had a large display of painted Saguaro Cactus, painted in fanciful colors and adorned with humorous or imaginary colors.

Salta has a museum where three mummies from high in the Andes have been brought, one on display and two in the freezer. The mummies, all children, were sacrifices of the Incas and were all royal children. With the children were small dolls, bowls and other items needed for the journey to the Gods. Because they were basically “freeze dried”, the children’s bodies and their clothes are in very good condition.

Next: north on the Bolivian trail to Jujuy.

Iguazu Falls through Rio

Iguazu Falls, Argentina Jan 17, 2008

At one time Argentina had a good rail system but through the years with the political problems, the rail system has degenerated into a few tourist trains that aren’t connected and run through local areas only. Buses have taken over, running throughout South America.

There are literally hundreds of bus companies in Argentina. Local, long distance and international. Buses from Buenos Aires daily cross into Chile, Bolivia, Brazil and as far away as Peru. Of course, there is no central information with any type of schedule which means that the traveler must walk up and down the terminals looking for signs posted among posters, advertising destinations. Bus companies can have two or three locations in each terminal but each location sells tickets only to certain cities. You can’t buy a “Flecha Bus” ticket to Salta from location 23 or 46, you must walk down to location 98. Choice in buses range from the “coche” to “Cama Suite.” “Coches” are the local buses with boxes and luggage strapped to the top. “Camas” can have 3 or 4 seats across(3 seats across being larger and more comfortable for the larger traveler), double deckers with toilets, seats that lay back almost flat and big front windows. The “Semi Camas” serve food and drinks, and the “Cama Suites” or “Cama Executivo” have seats that flatten into beds, serve food with wine or beer and are very luxurious. Bus terminals in big cities are like small towns, usually clean with restaurants, banks, shops and in Cordoba, a supermarket. The Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires may well be the largest bus terminal in the world covering almost 5 city blocks with spaces for 75 busses at a time. Terminals decrease in splendor in proportion to the size of the town until only a shop front selling tickets.

The trip from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina took 20 hours and was very comfortable in the “Semi Cama” bus. Comfortable seats, good food and an awesome view (we were in the front 2 seats on the upper deck, a location we tried to get all the time.) The landscape from Buenos Aires changes from flat to rolling hills, forests with logging and all a lush green. We arrived in Puerto Iguazu where we had reservations at the biggest and best hostel (Hostel Inn) we’ve every seen, set in a park-like setting. A large establishment with internet, pool, tours, etc. the hostel arranges buses to and from the falls with a packaged lunch.

The Argentina side has built bridges and walkways over the actual falls. We started our visit by walking along a metal bridge, built from island to island to see Garganta del Diablo (the devil’s throat), a large hole where the falls begin. A small train takes visitors from the entrance to the top where it is a short walk to the bridges to see Garganta. From there, the train returns, stopping at the beginning of either the walk above or the walk below the falls. As the day was overcast, the weather was warm but not too hot. The falls are multi layered, marvelous and not as wet or as high as Victoria Falls, though, at almost a mile and a quarter wide, they are the largest waterfall on earth. Restaurants attract coati mundis regularly to visit as a ‘clean up crew.’ Large lizards slink under tables and in planted areas, cleaning up anything left by the coati mundis.

Puerto Iguazu on theArgentina side, is a very small town. We had arrived on Sat. afternoon and went walking on Sunday. As elsewhere in South America, everything was shut, closed metal gates prevent any widow shopping. On the other hand, Foz de Iguazu on the Brazilian side, is a very large city which borders both Paraguay and Argentina.

That night at the Hostel Inn there was a barbeque and floor show, a real Brazilian dancer and overly-loud music with an obnoxious MC. The show was aimed for the young males of the group as the gyrating, half naked dancer invited young males onto the stage to teach them how to shake their bottoms. Soon the older guests melted away, leaving the floorshow to the younger crowd.

Next day we crossed into Brazil to view the falls at Foz Iguazu, where the visitor sees an overview of the falls and the bridges (crowded with hundreds of visitors) that we had been on the previous day. Each side of the falls has its own magnificent views. Trees along the walkways were heavy with bromeliads and orchid plants as mist from the falls provides a constant source of water. Only a few of the bromeliads were in bloom and none of the orchids. It must be spectacular when they are blooming.

Next to the Foz entrance is a Bird Park where hundreds of South American birds are kept and a few from Asia and Africa. We wandered around, marveling at the colors and varieties of species, seeing some species that are new to us. There, I was privileged to be able to hold a South American Anaconda and a Macaw. Being able to touch animals is always a highlight of any trip.

Rio Jan 22, 2008

On the Pluma Bus we rode overnight from Foz de Iguazu to Rio through rolling green hills and fields of crops, riding through several very cute little colonial towns on an excellent road. As in Argentina, we went through numerous toll stops and on one occasion, stopped while the police boarded the bus looking for someone or something. Most of the farm houses we passed looked like modern houses and even the poorest ones had satellite dishes.

An interesting phenomenon that we observed was the Fire Rainbow, a rainbow that formed in the clouds without any rain. I tried to get pictures but they aren’t as great as they could have been had we not been on a moving bus. Most of the tourists were busy snapping cameras while the locals just looked at us strangely.

We had been told that Rio was always steamy hot but found that with an overcast sky and a few showers, it was pleasant. Not knowing what conditions might be, we had purchased two cheap ($5) sleeping bags. We used them on the air-conditioned bus and again at night during our brief stay in Rio.

Our hostel in Rio was in an upgraded favella. Upgraded means some brick walls, some stuccoed walls, lots of hills, lots of children, dogs and lots of garbage. To us, it was a slum. The hostel was run by a woman who seemed nice until we paid her. After that, she couldn’t have been nastier, threw our breakfast down on the table, snarled answers back, and finally at the end, threw open the door and screamed at us “OUT!! OUT!!” Never did figure out what we had done to create such behavior.

The hostel was located above the part of the city known as Santa Teresa, a barrio of winding streets climbing up and down the hills and lined with some of the most interesting old houses in the city and affording marvelous views both down to the port and up to the hill known as Corcovado (the Hunchback), 2500 ft. high with the famous Statue of Christ the Redeemer on top. There is an old tram line which goes up the hill from downtown. It figured highly in the movie “Black Orpheus”. Orpheus was a tram driver. Today it’s the cheapest ride in the city, only a few pennies, which means that it’s always packed with locals and tourists. Those that can’t get seats hang off the sides, back and roof. It reminded us a bit of the San Francisco cable cars only more extreme.

To reach the hostel we took a taxi to near the top of the mountain, climbed some of the way dragging our suitcases, up steps, through cement bags and garbage finally reaching the top where we had to pull our suitcases down a long rambling cement way, across more garbage, over and through a yard, on a wooden path about 12” wide, down some steps and finally to the hostel. Our bed mattress lay on a base made out of plastic bottles held in place with a taped cardboard box. The view from the balcony was worth all the climb and bad vibes. Overlooking the bay and Sugarloaf Mountain, we couldn’t have asked for better.

Our search for a restaurant took us back up and down to find a good German restaurant and 2 rather bad local places. Next day we tried climbing down the mountain and vowed “Never again!” Finally we found a house in the favella that served microwaved pizzas and beer for a few reals (Brazilian money).

For the three days we spent in Rio we rode the metro system and local buses. One strange thing about Brazilian buses is that upon entering, everyone must pass through a very small turn style. I had trouble and Ted found it almost impossible to pass through. It wasn’t only us; the heavier Brazilians really had a time pushing their fat bodies through with shopping bags and purses causing additional problems.

Everywhere in Rio it is dirty and cries out for a paint job except for the tourist beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema. The city is built in the middle of a jungle and mildew covers just about everything. Graffiti adorns every wall, sometimes up to the fourth floor of buildings. Everywhere strangers came up to us to warn us about hiding our cameras. I did, which is why you won’t see many pictures of Rio on the picture web shots. Ted continued to shoot and we didn’t really have any trouble but it did give us an uneasy feeling while we walked the streets.

On our final day we visited the botanical gardens which are very nice with large bromeliad and orchid houses. A treat for us was a family of marmosets running across the beams in the bromeliad house. At the entrance to the park, we were waved inside as senior citizens get in free. How did she know we were senior citizens?

Rio was a very big disappointment. Not only is it expensive, it is dirty, unfriendly and except for the beaches and the views from above, has nothing to offer in the way of sights. Poverty seems to penetrate every street, every house and every building outside of the beach areas. And this is the rich part of Brazil. We certainly won’t recommend it as a place to visit.