Last time I wrote a blog we were in Mendoza, Arentina, suffering from the heat and overwhelmed by crowded streets. In the last 2 1/2 weeks we backpacked around Mount Aconcagua, spent Christmas in Mendoza, traveled to Salta, spent New Years in the quaint town of Cafayate, hitchhiked around a picturesque desert valley, traveled to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, floated in a salt lake, and completed a 3 day tour of the salt flats, leaving us catching our breath in the high-altitude town of Uyuni, Bolivia. To us it feels like months have gone by, and every day I have fretted over when and how I could write a blog. There has been so much to say, and so little way to say it. Computer access is dodgy when you´re either camping every night or staying in highly touristy towns with lines out the door and high fees at internet cafes. Needless to say, I am happy to finally sit down and recap what has been a memorable, adventurous, and incredibly rewarding couple weeks.
We took off for Mount Aconcagua on Sunday, December 22nd, anxious to leave Mendoza for a few days and hopeful that high elevation would mean lower temps. It didn´t take long to escape civilization and watch nothing but rocky hills and flat desert scapes roll by. Our first stop was the touristy Puenta del Inca, where we took a few photos, ate an overpriced empanada snack, and then began a sunny walk further down the road to the park entrance for Aconcagua. We turned one corner and Aconcagua came into view, in all her glory. Like most massive mountains, she didn´t look THAT tall from where we stood, and we remarked how silly it was that we weren´t climbing to the top. Of course, in actuality, at 6,962m (22,841ft), the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas is not walk in the park. And it isn´t cheap either! At the entrance to the park, we learned that even to hike to the base camp and back in one day would cost $38 USD, and that didn´t include camping. If we had wanted to climb to the top, it would cost us $700 USD each. So instead, we crossed the street, forded a rust-red river, and began hiking up a ridge, with hopes of finding a secret place to camp. The valley that we discovered blew our minds. We ended up spending 2 nights and 3 days hiking around our own private reserve, complete with a mineral-rich river, crsytal like rock formations, an abundance of high-altitude cacti, and a whole mountain range that beckoned us further away from civilization. For 3 days we never saw another person, but were visited by many wild horses, and even a few hares. On day 2 we climbed for a few hours until we were standing near the base of the snow-covered mountains that were visible at a distance from our creekside campsite. We found the source of the rushing river that formed the valley, and were surprised to find that it sprung directly from the ground! When we finally packed up and returned to the road on day 3, we decided to pay $3USD per person to hike a little way into Aconcagua´s park, but were more delighted to see the mountains opposite, where we had camped, than the massive mountain that we were paying to gaze upon. It turned out ¨our¨ mountain range was called Tres Gemelos, which means 3 Twins, and it is a place we will never forget.
We got back into Mendoza on Christmas Eve, and after showers and unpacking, shared a late-night asado with a few people at the hostel where we were staying. Unfortunately, the night was incredibly hot, we were without air conditioning, and Argentinians celebrate Christmas with hours of fireworks and late-night partying, so we didn´t get much sleep. The next day we woke early to catch a bus to Salta, Argentina, about 19 hours North. We spent all of Christmas Day on the bus, but didn´t mind since we knew everything would be closed throughout the country anyway. Our first impressions of Salta were much more positive than Mendoza; the town was still large, but it was a bit cooler and had a lot of charm. For Christmas, my mother had treated us to a hotel room with a pool, so after exploring the town by foot for a few hours, we dedicated the rest of the hot afternoon to swimming, eating, and relaxing. For dinner that night we walked to the town´s huge indoor market and picked up a pizza to go. It was a great way to spend our first day in Salta.
The next morning we walked less than a mile to the base of Cerro San Bernadino, the town´s biggest park and a great escape from the city. We followed hundreds of steps to the top of the hill, where we found an impressive waterfall feature, a free outdoor gym, and spectacular views of the whole city. There is also a gondola that goes to the top, but we were all about getting a little exercise. After hiking back down, we grabbed our luggage, took a bus to the south end of town, and began our very first hitchhiking adventure. Besides having to walk a few miles to actually get out of the city, we were actually quite successful. The first lady to pick us up let us ride in the back of her truck, and drove us the first 1 to 2 hours toward our final destination of Cafayate. She was incredibly nice and helpful, and even offered to let us stay at her place if we never found a ride the rest of the way. Fortunately though, we were picked up by a local in a white van (only a little sketchy) and driven the rest of the distance into town. The drive to Cafayate is full of marvelous sights and impressive rock features. Much of what we´ve seen in the last couple weeks has reminded us of Moab and Arches National Park, and this drive was no exception. We were relieved when we arrived in a small, charming town with a few restuarants, a pleasant central plaza, a massive public pool, and cheap camping. We decided immediately to stay a few nights before moving on.
For us, Cafayate is the perfect balance between being on and off the beaten path. The town is a bit touristy, but the fact that it is more challenging to get to, and that many people choose to pass it up, gives it a much more relaxed, local feel. On our first full day in town we ate breakfast at a bakery, swam all afternoon in the town´s huge public pool (only to be surpassed in size by the pool/lake we found in Salta the following week), went wine tasting at one bodega in town, and then enjoyed dinner and wine at our campsite in the evening. The next day we went for a long hike up to some waterfalls and swimming holes that we had read about in our guide book. What it didn´t mention was how much of a scramble and climb the trail would actually be. We made it to the top after a few hours, swam in the water, and then began a quick retreat because dark grey clouds were quickly rolling in. Toward the end of the hike, on our way back to town, the rain began, and we would have been soaked through in minutes, had a taxi not conveniently driven up and offered us a cheap ride into town. It was a good thing we took it, because by the time we got to town, we witnessed the incredible flooding that happens in a town without a drainage infrastructure. We got stranded where we were dropped off, with feet of rushing water filling all the streets. When it finally began to subside, we crossed the street and enjoyed a few scoops of wine ice cream. We bought red (Merlot), Torrentes (white), and chocolate and indulged in the goodness. When we got back to our camp, everything had flooded, so we cleaned it all up and dried everything out in the post-storm afternoon sun, and then enjoyed another campsite dinner.
The next day we hitchhiked out of town, and onto the next small town of Cachi, where we planned on spending another night camping. We were picked up almost immediately by two nice tourists in a rental car, one from Morroco and one from France. It was a great 4 hour trip on winding dirt roads to the small, and much more ¨off the beaten path¨ town of Cachi. The word we decided that best describes the town is ¨sleepy¨, but we enjoyed our time there, and were content to hitch back to Salta the next day. We were once again picked up by some nice tourists in a rental car, this time the driver was from Switzerland, and driven about 4 hours through indescribable landscape. We were dropped off close to Salta´s large public campground, where we witnessed the largest pool we´ve ever seen. We weren´t that happy to be back in the city, but we set up camp, swam, and began making a plan for leaving Argentina. Originally we had planned to hitchike to Chile, but after a week of it, we were getting tired and decided to succumb to the expensive bus ride. Unfortunately the bus didn´t leave for two more days, so we spent New Year´s Eve and New Years exploring Salta a bit more, and waiting for the bus lines to open and sell us our ticket out. If there is one thing we can say about Argentina, it is that they really know how to party. We rarely got full nights of sleep, because in every town, for every different occasion, there seemed to be a very loud, very late party. New Years was of course no exception, and true to form, Argentinians went all out with over an hour of fireworks coming from all directions, and then loud club music filling the rest of the night (and all of the next day). Our ride to Chile finally came early in the morning on the 2nd, and we were more than a little excited to be moving on to our next country. The bus ride took most of the day (partially because of the long border-crossing process), but we made it to San Pedro de Atacama by late afternoon.
San Pedro is a really fun, charming desert town, but it 100% tourist-driven, and therefore VERY expensive. After hours of searching the 12 streets that make up the town, the cheapest accommodations we could find were $20USD per night for camping. We decided the best we could do was enjoy our only full-day in the town, and then leave the next day for our 3 day tour of the salt flats. We knew everything would be more affordable once we got to Bolivia. San Pedro is surrounded by over 20 incredible sights, but almost all of them are only reachable by tour. We finally decided we would rent bikes and bike out to Laguna Cejar, which is a very salty lake that you can float in like the Dead Sea. It was a great choice, and the long bike ride on dirt roads and unique swimming experience left us feeling satisfied and very burnt. That night we went out for pisco sours and pizza, and quickly fell in love with the drink that Chile and Peru both claim is their own. We are happy there will be more opportunities to drink them again! The next morning we began our first ever all-inclusive guided tour, the 2-night, 3-day trip to Uyuni, past geysers, lakes filled with flamingos, hot springs, and of course Bolivia´s famous salt flat. Overall, the tour was a great experience. We had a great group of 6 people in our jeep, our guide was kind and helpful, the food was tasty, and the sights were out of this world. Unfortunately, due to rain, we couldn´t do the entire tour as planned, but in the end we spoke with the tour company, and they made things right. The salt flat floods in rain and our guides decided to take us around the flat instead of on it, only driving on it for a few hours on the last day for pictures. The second night became very interesting when our entire group confronted one of the guides about the place we were staying. We had been told we would be at a salt hotel, but instead we were at a tiny, run-down hostel in the middle of nowhere. No other tourists were there, and our suspicians only grew when our guide started to change stories and withold information. To make a long story short, the experience brought our group closer together, we resolved things with the guide, and ended up having a very fun night of drinking wine and playing cards. The salta flat cannot be described in words or through pictures. We truly believe it is a sight everyone should try to see once in their lives. The water on the salt reflected the sky and the horizon disappeared completely. It felt like you were walking in the sky, and it was worth everything it took to get there.
Our tour ended yesterday in the small Bolivian town of Uyuni. Though hundreds of tourists come through this town every day, it is far more affordable than San Pedro, and has a much more local feel to it. We like it here and are happy to be staying an extra day before moving on. Plus, I have finally found time to write up this blog! Blogging is a process, and I am getting to a point where I have a decision to make. I began this blog with the hope that it would attract many readers and would become a source of information and entertainment for many people whom I might not ever meet. But as the weeks have gone by, I have realized it is more of a journal of our trip, directed toward interested friends and family, than anything else. If I want it to be more than that, I will likely need to carry a computer with me, blog much more frequently, and direct the content more toward travel in general, and away from Don and I in particular. Otherwise I will probably stick to once a week, and continue to detail our experience like I have here. This is a decision I am still working on, and if you have thoughts, I would appreciate any feedback you have. (You can use the contact tab on this site to write me.) Tomorrow we travel east to Potosi, a city ¨rich in history¨, literally, and then onto Sucre for a couple weeks of Spanish classes. So far, we like Bolivia, and are anxious to see more of what many term South America´s most mysterious and exotic country.