A Month of Desert Discoveries
Our bus ride from Bariloche to Mendoza was probably the best we will ever have. It definitely raised the bar, which then came crashing down throughout the following weeks. The food was delicious, the movie selection included a comedy and a drama (both in English!) and the whole bus even played a game of Bingo, with a bottle of local wine as the prize. We hadn´t paid any more for that bus than others, but we certainly felt spoiled. And it was a good thing because the ride to the popular city of Mendoza, right in the heart of Argentina´s wine country, was 20 hours long. We arrived in Mendoza in good spirits, (after all, our time in Bariloche had been well beyond our expectations), but 1 hour in the new very hot, very crowded city left us wilted and cranky. We were staying at a hostel that we, oddly, found on Couchsurfers, but within one day, we knew we wouldn´t need to stay long. Mendoza usually gets a pretty good rap, and for a city we have to admit that it isn´t that bad, but the contrast with Bariloche was too stark for our liking. We spent our whole first day outside of the city, where, like good tourists, we rented bikes and biked around the various ¨bodegas¨, learning about and sampling local wines. It just happened to be our anniversary, so we ended our first night with dinner at a fancy restaurant in town. Shopping, food, and wine are Mendoza´s strong points, so our first day went over quite well. After a little research, we quickly made plans to spend the next few nights a couple hours outside of town, near Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. I had never seen a mountain higher than 15,000 feet, so I was eager to see what 22,837 feet looked like ¨up-close¨, and we were keen to escape the hot, crowded streets of Mendoza.
Our trip to Aconcagua was close to perfect. The whole area around the mountain itself is heavily protected, and costs tourists an arm and a leg to enter, so instead of hiking to base camp as we´d planned, we crossed the street and spent the next 3 days exploring the ¨unprotected¨ mountain range facing Aconcagua. We were now much further north in Argentina, and though our riverside campsite was surrounded by mountains, we were inarguably in ¨high desert¨. Everything looked different than it did in Patagonia, but it was equally stunning. The ground was covered in sharp rock and millions of tiny cacti, there wasn´t a plant in sight over 2 inches tall, our animal sightings included jack rabbits and wild horses, and the mountains on either side of our valley ranged in color from teal to purple to bright red. Even the river that flowed through the valley started out a milky yellow color, and eventually joined forces with another to become murky burnt-red. A far cry from the crystal clear waters and vibrant green mountainsides that reminded us of home and defined the lake district that we had come from! In 3 days of exploration we never saw another person, and when we did finally return to Mendoza late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, we felt recharged and content, scenes of alpenglow and glittering stone dancing in our heads. Unfortunately, Mendoza let us down once again. The city had gotten even hotter while we were away, and between a lack of air conditioning and the hours of fireworks that Argentinians were setting off to celebrate, we hardly got any sleep at all. It was well enough, because the next day we hopped another 20 hour bus, and traveled even further north, this time to the charming town of Salta.
When we arrived in Salta it was early morning and we walked the peaceful, clean streets with a sense of wary satisfaction. This town seemed like a big improvement over Mendoza, and we celebrated this fact with café con leche and medialunas (coffee with milk and croissants) at a classy cafe near the town plaza. For Christmas, my mother had treated us to a night in a real hotel, with a pool!, so after some further exploration of the city, we made our way ¨home¨ and spent the remainder of the hot afternoon swimming and sunbathing. To our dismay, as the hours went by, the city of Salta filled with nearly as many people as Mendoza, and we were once again considering an escape plan. We knew that there were some outlying towns south of Salta, and we had heard wonderful things about the must-see scenery, but we weren´t ready to spend more money on tourist-oriented buses. That´s when we decided that we would get up the next morning and give hitchhiking our first shot. If there was a country to hitchhike in it was Argentina, and we knew this route was especially well-traveled by tourists. The whole plan went forth without a hitch (I just had to!), and by 5pm the following afternoon we arrived in the delightful town of Cafayate, 4 hours south of Salta. The ride had been astonishingly beautiful, with scenery that reminded us of Arches National Park and included yellow rock ¨fins¨, red-rock caverns, and crumpled looking cactus-covered hills. We ended up spending 3 nights camping in town, exploring waterfalls, being stranded in a torrential downpour while the town quickly flooded, and swimming in one of the largest public pools we had ever seen. Cafayate was our kind of town, and it was hard to leave. Eventually we packed up and hitched our way to Cachi, the next town along the route. Another beautiful drive and a another beautiful, if not a bit sleepy, Argentinian desert town. We only spent one night in Cachi, as we felt ourselves getting a bit eager to leave Argentina and make our way northwest to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Unfortunately, though our final hitch back to Salta went well, we arrived in the big city on New Year´s Eve, and the bus ticket offices were all closed that day and the next. Against our will, we made the most of yet another hot, crowded holiday in Argentina, (at least we were camped in our tent next to a massive public pool), and rejoiced when the morning of January 2nd rolled around and we were finally able to hop a bus across the border to Chile.
We never really had the chance to fully discover Chile. As our plans evolved, it became clear that only northern Chile would make the cut, and then the more tourists we talked to, the more we learned just how expensive northern Chile was. In the end, we only spent 2 nights in Chile, in the highly touristy, but remarkably fun and charming, town of San Pedro de Atacama. Despairingly, prices in San Pedro were actually equal to prices in the states. The cheapest accommodation we could find was a plot of ground to lay our tent for $20 USD a night. We desperately wanted to take in the desert landscapes surrounding the town, but tour company´s prices were also sky-high. In the end, we rented bikes for a half-day and biked 22 km through the desert to Laguna Cejar, a very salty lake that we had heard you could float in. We had a fabulous time swimming and floating and returned that evening ready to once again pack our bags and move on. We had booked a 3 day, 2 night tour of Bolivia´s famous Uyuni Salt Flat that left the next morning, so with only 12 hours remaining in Chile we treated ourselves to the country´s famous drink, the pisco sour, and headed back to our humble campsite.
Our tour of the salt flat, and the many geysers, lakes, and hot springs in the surrounding area, was an unforgettable experience. We were with a group of 12 tourists, split amongst 2 jeeps, with a guide in each. We saw thousands of pink flamingos spread throughout mineral-rich lakes that took on hues ranging from red to yellow to teal to moss-green. The salt flat itself is a must-see sight. It is hard to explain in words the way the horizon melts away and leaves you wandering around as if in a dream. The perfectly fluffy clouds that filled the sky and the water on the salt that created a surreal reflection both provided the opportunity for photos that played with illusion and perspective. Our tour ended in Uyuni, Bolivia (we had the assistance of our tour agency in crossing the border which made it a quick and painless experience) where we stayed for a couple nights of adjustment and exploration. We didn´t even need to see the cheaper price tags or smell the broaster chicken to know we were in a new country, we could feel it in the air. For one thing, we were getting rain every day, in stark contrast to the many hot, dry days we had experienced in Argentina. The locals were all soft-spoken and kind, and many women walked the streets in their traditional indigenous garb, complete with black hats perched atop their long braided hair. Once we felt ready, we boarded another bus (our first in Bolivia, and not the horrid experience that people had adamantly prepared us for) and headed for the city of Potosí.
We ended up spending a week in Potosí, partly because there is a lot to see and do there, and partly because I got sick from street food and was unable to travel for a couple days. Potosí is famous for the mountain that it is built alongside. In the 16th century, silver was discovered in the mountain and for the following few decades the town´s plunder supported the Spanish crown, while quickly becoming the largest and wealthiest city in all of Latin America. When much of the silver ran out, so did the city´s era of prosperity. The city that we visited is riddled with poverty and manages a surprising number of contradictions. During our time there we took an informative and depressing tour of the still-working mines, where we learned all about the horrid working conditions. We also visited some hot springs and tried out a bunch of the local street food. I ended up paying for my boldness with a couple days of sickness, and quickly became one more person who is weary of the food and drink in this beautiful country. We left Potosí anxious to arrive in Bolivia´s constitutional capital of Sucre, where we had planned to take 2 weeks of Spanish lessons.
Our time in Sucre has been filled with nouns, verbs, conjugations, and homework. Don and I take private lessons for 4 hours every morning, and then spend most of the rest of the afternoon resting from the mental exhaustion and doing homework. The city is growing on us (most people consider it Bolivia´s most beautiful), and we are happy in our cheap little run-down hostel where we spend much of our time. We know we are both learning a ton, but it is not an easy endeavor, and all we can do it trust that he next 8 months in South America will continue to teach us more. We plan on spending quitea bit more time in Bolivia before we make our way to Peru and the world-famous site of Macchu Picchu. Bolivia, despite suffering from a weaker infrastructure and a lot more poverty, is a country rich with history, culture, and beauty. We look forward to seeing more, and possibly even working for a time at an eco-campground outside of La Paz.
For more photos and stories of adventure, please visit our personal blog at: life-well-traveled.com!