Saturday, November 9, 2013

Traveling in Argentina

Curious woodpecker in the mountains
After our six weeks of volunteer work in Salta we are now exploring the northwest corner of Argentina, and enjoying wonderful weather, good food and wine, comfortable lodgings, and long hikes in interesting and beautiful mountains and valleys.

Our last few days of work in Salta were quite hectic. Lin made purchases of educational games and books as a donation to the foundation where she was working. Sandy gave his final lessons and established plants in the garden at his two comedores. We both had touching farewells and presentations of mementoes. We hope that our work will have a more than transitory effect – certainly the signs for sustainability are good. We also had an enjoyable farewell lunch on Saturday with our FSD friends.

We have been struck over and over with how safe Argentina feels and how friendly the local people are. In the little town of Cafayate where we stayed for three nights, doors are rarely locked and bicycles are left leaning against trees or walls apparently without any fear that they will be gone when the owner returns. 
Confusing keys
Argentinian house and room keys are rather peculiar…they appear symmetrical, but they only “work” if inserted correctly in the lock. We have had two incidents when we could not get into our lodgings and had to climb in through the window. At our home in Salta the lock was “stuck”, but luckily there was someone inside who kindly opened the shutters and passed out a chair which we put on the sidewalk so that we could climb in through the window. It was a little trickier in Cafayate, where the hostel owner had forgotten to give us a key and had locked up for the evening. No one answered our frantic hammering and shouting, so eventually Sandy removed some screen and squeezed into our room through the window. Several people saw us but nobody seemed to think it was out of the ordinary.

Getting ready to sample some local products
Cafayate is about 3 hours from Salta on a bus which takes you through a spectacular canyon to a high dry valley that boasts 320 days of sunshine a year and a large wine industry – reputedly the highest vineyards in the world with some at over 2000 meters (6,500 ft.). We spent our two days there hiking up the sides of the valley through vineyards and desert-like scrub, and visiting bodegas, wine bars, and a museum devoted to wine and grapes. They are famous for a strong white wine that smells fruity and tastes dry and crisp called “Torrontes”, which we had never tasted before we came to Argentina, and we have become big fans. We hope we’ll be able to find it in the US at an affordable price. Here it is the equivalent of US $3.50 a bottle, though some are much more. 
Loud parrot
Cafayate also had some interesting bird life, including a nonstop screeching chorus of rather dull-colored burrowing parrots, which descend on the town at dawn every day and go back to their nests in the mud cliffs of the canyon at 5 PM sharp.

Our second stop was Tafi del Valle, even higher in altitude, and accessed by bus over a somewhat terrifying 3000 meter (10,000 ft) mountain pass appropriately called “Infiernillo” (Little Hell). Tafi is a spread out little town of mostly summer cottages, where people escape the heat of the pampas. It is very green. We are regularly surprised by the amount of water, streams and springs in areas which seem to have little rainfall. Most of the rain appears to fall in the mountains and then flow underground down into the valleys. As a result there is plenty of pasture for horses and cattle and water for lawns and gardens. Again we spent our days on long hikes in the cool mountain air. We are nearly always the only people walking on the trails, though we regularly see local people in small adobe houses and farms. On one hike up to a beautiful waterfall we were thrilled to see two huge (10 ft. wingspan) condors soaring above us. 
Jesuit cheese
We also happened on a small “estancia” founded by the Jesuits in 1779, where they still make delicious cheeses from the milk of the local cows. We could not resist buying a half-kilo cheese and eating large chunks then and there. Local buses to and from the high valleys stop when flagged down and are full of friendly people curious to see two elderly gringos with backpacks. Another walk along the shore of a small lake took us to a huge cemetery with graves covered in vividly colorful plastic flowers, most likely especially abundant because the locals have just celebrated the Day of the Dead. 
Menhirs, from about 1,000 BC
In a small town with an archaeological park we saw over 100 “menhirs”, of which the meaning and purpose has been lost in time. They were quite similar to menhirs we have seen in Brittany, but not so old – the Stone Age went on far longer here than in Europe.

Today (Saturday) we traveled from the high mountain valleys down into the plains for a long bus ride through endless countryside – with a few cultivated areas and some with huge herds of cattle. It really brought home how empty this country is with only 40 million people in a country with 1/3rd of the area of the US, and most of them live around Buenos Aires. (Argentina has 38 people per square mile compared with the UK’s 650 and the US 84). We spotted three greater rheas – huge flightless ostrich-like birds nearly 6 feet tall in the shade of a tree. Pity we couldn't get a photo.

Tomorrow we are off to Cachi -- another small mountain village -- for more hikes and relaxation before spending a couple of days in Salta and then heading home.

Argentina is full of freely wandering animals, like these horses

...and these donkeys, near our favorite icecream shop
...and this fierce looking bull, which turned out to be quite docile.

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