Salta to Humahuaca

From Salta you can do several trips in the surrounding country side. I had been told about a two-day trip to the north and a three-day trip in the south.. Looking at the map we saw that the Northern trip was ‘only’ 700km on a good road. We decided that this should totally be doable in a day.. It is doable in a day. However, two days is better as it will give you more time to enjoy the scenery and allow for more stops.


The most northern point we were heading to was the rainbow mountain of Humahuaca. On the way there we stopped in Tilcara for a very nice stew for lunch and to visit the Incan ruins of Pucara.. The ruins are visible from afar and show a very interesting pyramid in a style I had never seen on an Incan site before. After paying the entry fee, we got a leaflet explaining the ruins and the advice to “read up on the site as we moved from place to place”… Once I reached the top and the pyramid, I understood why.


The pyramid was built about 80 years ago to honor the archaeologists that discovered the site. To make room for said pyramid, which was built in an central American style that has nothing to do with the Incan culture, several buildings and the city square were destroyed. The leaflet adds that the pyramid has been left standing to show the evolution of archeology over time and that this is a praxis that would certainly no longer be practiced today.. No kidding.
From Tilcara we continued on towards Humahuaca, while the scenery grew consistently more incredible. We arrived at the rainbow mountain shortly before sunset, which is probably the best time to visit. The setting sun lights up the colors of the mountain and wihle we had problems identfiying the 14 specified colors, there certainly are a lot of them.


The road back was mostly in the dark, which was a pity since I would’ve definitely enjoyed looking at the scenery again and a stop in Pumamarca would’ve been nice as well.

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But live and learn.. And learn we did, or almost.. We decided to do the southern loop not in a day.. But in two days. Three days, as advertised, would’ve been nice as well.

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Salta la linda

Salta is named “Salta la linda”, Salta the beautiful.. While there are a few beautiful buildings, notably around the main square, the walk from the bus station to my hostel seriously left me wondering how it happened to come by that name. I’m still not sure I would call Salta la linda.. What is safe to say though is that the surrounding countryside is absolutely amazing. But more on this later. I arrived in Salta very early in the morning.. I had been sleeping on the bus and completely failed to notice that we had arrived until the bus driver came up to ask me to please leave his bus so that he could go sleep now.


After dropping of my luggage at the hostel I went in search for a coffee and found the central square.. It was already guessable that something was going to happen soon. So I stopped by the reception of my hostel to find out that the next day would be the biggest assembly of gauchos, the Argentinian cowboys, in the streets of Salta to honor General Guermes whose battalions of Gauchos played an important role in winning Argentinia’s war for independence. Some 4000 Gauchos were expected to parade through the street.
In the evening big fires where to be set up around the monument in his memory and the Gauchos would be spending the night there. Once again I had arrived in the right place just at the right time without planning for it. We went to see the silent watch of the Gauchos at the monument that evening and saw already plenty of horses, gauchos, but also cooking pots and general merriness.. It is a big get-together after all.

The next morning the Gauchos started parading past the monument at about 7am.. When I got up at 10am, they were still going strong.. It took until roughly 2pm for all the Gauchos to ride past the monument and honor their hero. It was an impressive sight to see (although it gets a bit repetitive after a while and there’s really no reason to stay there for 5 hours). Contrary to what we believed, after the parade everything was over. No more celebrations or activities. Nothing was left except an impressive amount of horse shit on the streets.

One thing that was definitely more pretty in Salta than elsewhere, were the clouds. They frequently appeared in rainbow-colors all over the city.

Another thing we discovered in Salta was that Argentinian cuisine actually has more to offer than steak and empanadas. In the North we finally discovered local dishes that actually included actual vegetables.. Not just potatoes. Even though we had more options to try now, we kept returning to the empanadas.. Salta has a few amazing empanada spots and even if we all swore we had had enough empanadas for a life time, when it came down to deciding where to have dinner, we religiously returned to la casa del oro, to have some more.. They were just that good.

Posadas

To split up the trip from Iguazu to Salta I decided to stop in Posadas, capital of the Missiones region. Named so because of the Jesuit missions that used to exist in that area. I arrived late at night and picked the hostal closest to the bus station. It turned out to be a great option. The owner of the hostel happened to also be a baker/cook for the bakery next door. Lovely smells permeated through the entire hostel and there was always something interesting cooking. In addition the lady of the house was always around and had time to spare for a short chat. My guide book said that the best maintained ones are in Paraguay, so I had the plan to cross over into Paraguay that morning. However, since I was slept in, this was not an option anymore.

Instead I went to the ruins of San Ignacio. It turned out to be a great choice. While there is not much left standing of the mission itself, the panels distributed all over the site are very informative and give a good overview of how life used to be.

The Jesuit missions stand out because they did not try to force the indigenous population to adapt to the Spanish way of life, but rather the Jesuits adapted in large parts to the way of life of the guarani. Case in point, the official language was Guarani and not Spanish in the missions. Of course there were attempt to convert the tribes to Christianity, but without ultimatums. The tribes had their own council which took decisions and they benefited from living inside the mission as they were protected from robbers and more.

The Jesuit missions actually were so progressive, the Spanish crown soon noticed this and voiced their displeasure. Since the mission failed to comply with the demands of the Spanish crown and make the tribes into good catholic subjects of the Spanish crown, the Jesuit missions where disbanded and left abandoned in the 18th century. Today there is only a few walls and stones left, showing what once used to be. The ruins are not the main point of interest here, but the way of life they used to have absolutely made it worth a visit for me.

Iguazu Falls

After a lot of back and forth I finally made it back to South America.. My initial plan to change my flight back from Santiago to Buenos Aires failed because the price was just insanely expensive, but then British Airways canceled my flight and suddenly they were offering me to rebook for free (or almost). So I ended up getting what I wanted with just the tiniest amount of heart attack after learning with less than 24h advance that my flight was cancelled, being rescheduled on a later flight, then being rescheduled again because that flight had three hours delay and I would’ve missed my connecting flight. I guess it’s a good thing that British Airways apparently flies Frankfurt – London every 15min.
So I ended up doing 6 hours of train, followed by 18 hours of flight, followed by 18 hours of bus to reach Iguazu.. For some odd reason I was completely exhausted when I arrived at 9am and in no position to do any sightseeing whatsoever. Instead I spent a day sleeping. A good thing, because the rain was intense and didn’t let up until the early morning hours the next day.


The next morning I got an early had start because I woke up by myself at 7 am.. I still managed to linger around until 9:30 before setting off to the Argentinian side of the falls.. The weather wasn’t quite as good as claimed, but about a hundred times better than expected. Namely cloudy with some sunshine.. The introductory leaflet handed out at the entrance mentioned I should definitely bring sun screen, a hat and mosquito repellent. I had none of those,but luckily I also needed none of those. It’s winter now, with some very humid 5-10 degrees the need to undress is completely removed. The intermittent clouds also assured that I didn’t need sunscreen.

My guide book had noted that there was an eco-hike one could do instead of taking the train. For one because it’s faster than waiting for the train and second because you were b

ound to see so many animals. The site is clearly setup to accommodate masses of tourists. Streets that are a couple of meters wide, the alternate roads to the train treks,and so on.. But I was visiting with maybe a hundred other people and there were no queues nowhere. I still did the eco-hike as it turned out to be a 650m foot path through the woods.. and I wanted to see all those animals. I ended up seeing none. I felt cheated, but soon enough the coaties showered their faces everywhere.. I had been too early, they only come out to steal your lunch (quite literally).

After the first disappointment and subsequent reconciliation it was finally time to go see those falls… I had been hearing them for quite a while, but hadn’t seen any yet. First let me say, they are so big you will never be able to see them all. I got lucky in the sense that the waterfalls were particularly strong due to the heavy rainfalls the previous days.I most also say that I really liked the reddish color of the water. I got unlucky because the water level was too high for me to access the San Martin island in the middle of the waterfalls.. While the excuse “The beach is inundated so we can’t land there” sounded really like a minor problem that could easily be solved with a “steg”, I later saw that in addition most of the paths on the island had been turned into rivers. Oh well.


I kept walking from one waterfall to the next, always more amazed, always eager to see more. Apart from the loop on the island, the park offers two more loops which allow you once to see the falls from below and once from above. They’re both amazing, though the upper one is slightly more impressive as it gets you right on top of the Gargantua del diablo, the devil’s canyon a u-formed set of waterfalls where the water is catapulted back up so high it seems to connect to the clouds. It also manages to rain on you from every direction. Even from behind. Bring waterproof clothing.. I didn’t.. and I even managed to return the next day and forget it again. I’m just gifted.


The next day I as going to the Bresilenian side of the falls. As many have said Bresil has the view, Argentina has the falls. What you could see from above or below the day before you can see from the opposite side from Bresil in all its glory. The plan to go very early, didn’t pan out because at 9am we were still enveloped by fog. The fog only lifted around 10:30 and made way for an almost cloudless sky.. Except the one in front of the sun obviously.. But even that gave up after a while. Luckily. The waterfalls soaked me completely and with the sun, the ocld was barely tolerable. Even my waterproof shoes had to yield.. They are not equipped to withstand two liters of water being dumped into the shoe from above.

Rapa Nui – Relaxing

 

One thing that makes this island so special is the layed back and relaxed vibe everything has. A lot of time was spent idling at the coast, looking into the distance. Enjoying the view, taking pictures of sun rises, sun sets and the moon. Driving around the island. Visiting and revisiting the sights I particularly liked. There is one lovely beach, but it is on the other side of the island, unfortunately. My attempt to swim in one of the natural pools close to the town ended with a lot of bruises, as I ran into rocks in all directions. The weather permitted for some nice tanning though, as did the large garden in which our tents were pitched. Add to that a nice beer in the evening and eating your self cooked dinner with a view onto the waves breaking, quite spectacularly, on the rocks and life is just perfect.

And then comes the sun set…

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Rapa Nui – Hiking

 

Rapa Nui may be a small island, but it consists of a good dozen individual (now extinct) volcanoes. Plenty of ‘mountains’ to climb onto then. The most spectacular is easily Rano Kao, the volcano right next to the only town on the island. It has a huge crater of almost 2km of diameter and a lake has formed inside the crater, with plenty of little islands.

From here the view onto the Sea and the islands relevant for the bird man cult can be seen. Turning around, one can see the entire island with its volcanoes and the green-golden grass. This is a lovely 2-3h hike that ends at the Orongo village. Main cultural site for the bird man cult, it happened to be booked for a documentary on said cult on the day we were visiting. Therefore we got to see plenty of people in the traditional… well, it’s hard to call it clothing.. make-up maybe? A really cool sight! A part from the actors, I really enjoyed seeing the houses. They’re barely chest-high and were only used for sleeping as day to day life happened outside.


The second hike I did, was up to the highest volcano of the island, Maunga Terevaka. From there you can look over the entire island and enjoy watching wild or semi-wild horses. It is also a popular spot for guided horse back riding tours. This allowed us to see the wild horses trying to mess with the tours.

Once they got too close, the guide chased them off,only for them to make a big circle and come back from the other side.. Very amusing. The way back to town from the volcano can almost be considered its own hike. It leads along coast past some fascinating caves. Such as the banana cave, named for its little sheltered garden with banana plants and the window cave, named for its two openings towards the ocean. Most of these caves formed as lava tunnels and in case of the latter, the lava ended up plummeting into the ocean. The path also leads past several Moais in more or less restored states.. Some of which we were unable to identify at all.


The final hike I did was up the oldest volcano of the island: Poike. The hike is obviously rarely done. I had to fight my way through bushes on several occasions and would’ve enjoyed carrying a machete numerous times. I wanted to do this tour as a guided horse-back ride, but couldn’t find an operator willing to do this for a single person.. Luckily I had maps.me with me, so that I could find a number of the advertised and sometimes hidden sights anyways. In particular the Make Make deity, carved into the stone with an open mouth to collect rain water was really cool. I did not figure out how to get into the virgin cave, as the path got treacherously close to the cliffs and I didn’t see the path leading to the cave. But that is part of what makes Poike so nice: It feels like you have the island to yourself. Nobody will cross your path, especially since there is no path for large parts.

Rapa Nui – Easter island

The Easter islands, creatively named like this as they were “discovered” on Easter were not uninhabited. Therefore they had a name before being named and this name is today regaining popularity. After almost being wiped out due to several reasons, among them their own megalomania and slave ships.


It is believed that the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui arrived any time between the 8th and the 13th century from Micronesia. They started building the Moai, the gigantic statues shortly after, slowly killing off the entire forest on the island. By the 15th century things started to get dire. There were only a few trees left, land went dry and people started killing each other for food. The Moai culture started to decline and a new cult emerged: The birdman. The leader of the clans was now elected by a competition: People would swim over to a small island in front of Rapa Nui and camp there. Whoever could bring the first egg from the migrating birds back got to be leader for a year.


Nevertheless the Moai remained important in their culture. The statues look onto their people and transfer their energy to their descendants through their eyes. So every time there was a war going on between different tribes, they would go and destroy the Moais of their opponent, weakening them in a way. This is the main reason why almost none of the Moai were still standing when Rapa Nui was “discovered”.


This discovery did the rest, European traders brought the flu and other illnesses, killing many. Then the slave ships came and took about 1500 people to Peru, leaving behind less than 100 people. Chile complained about this theft of their people and eventually the view surviving slaves were returned to Rapa Nui, bringing smallpox to the island. At the end of the 19th century only 100 people survived.
It took until the mid of the 20th century before some positive developments happened in Rapa Nui, but today the culture is alive even if a lot of the (oral) history has been lost. This is particular unfortunate, as the Rapa Nui are the only culture to have developed their own writings in the pacific. It was not used to write down their history and myths.
The Rapa Nui have their traditions and their own language and as of a few years ago, they are also in charge of the national park and decide which parts are accessible to tourists and which aren’t. (Much to my disappointment.. One of the hikes I wanted to do was closed off, because of that.. The park ranger made it very clear that if it was up to him I’d be more than welcome to go, but he really didn’t want to put up with the complaints he’d get if the locals saw us walking on that path)

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Today the island mostly lives of tourism and for a good reason. It’s a very relaxed little island, with the intriguing statues to see, the stone carvings and a few very cool caves. I also ran into one of my childhood heroes on that island, at least indirectly. Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian archaeologist and adventurer, spent some time there exploring the Moai and came to the, now considered unlikely, conclusion that the Easter Islands were populated from South America.

Valparaiso

I did an organized trip from Santiago, which was probably a mistake. The tour advertised walks around the most famous parts of town, plus driving to around the upper parts and visiting several viewpoints. But, since we had to wait around for a few people to show up then search for a toilet and have lunch, in the end there wasn’t much time left for Valparaiso.


The little of Valparaiso that I did see, made me want to explore more in depth.. Maybe another time. Valparaiso is famous for its street art and for its steep roads. The former made me regret taking a driven tour, the latter certainly made me appreciate the car. If one wants to walk around the city, but avoid the steep roads there are plenty of cable cars to use. Ironically those cars were built to be plane, so they look quite experimental, with one end being on high stilts while the other end sits on the ground. For just a few pesos they’ll take you up or down.


Valparaiso has a long german tradition which shows itself in the German churches, German construction styles and the “Bomba Germania”, which isn’t a German bomb, but rather the German firefighters who were founded back in the 19th century here. Their fire trucks also still say Feuerwehr and have the little German eagle on the side. But Valparaiso clearly has other influences as well. There are anglican churches built by the English. There’s an Italian square with four statues representing the different seasons, which were donated by the Italian state.

There’s Spanish, Dutch, and so on and so on. Everyone seems to lay claim to some part of Valparaiso. And finally there’s something that reminded me a lot of home:


But since the city is so separated into the different hill sides, it’s not like there’s a lot of dispute. Everyone seems to have their own little mountain top and is satisfied with that. The thing that unifies the city then are the graffiti which are present everywhere.. The story goes that the artist will ring your door bell and explain to you the idea he has for your boring white wall and if you like it, he’ll paint it.. If you don’t, he moves on and another day another person may come with a new proposal. Quite different from graffiti on his side of the pond.

Santiago de Chile

I came to Santiago not expecting much. People that had been to Santiago and Buenos Aires told me that Santiago couldn’t compete with the liveliness and offers that Buenos Aires had .. and I had already not liked Buenos Aires much.. It might’ve been the temperature, a nice 15 degrees rather than 36. It might have been the fact that I was coming there completely relaxed, rather than from the stress predating the start of my trip. Either way.. I really liked Santiago.. I like the way it bustled with people, the noise level in the market and being pushed round in the main streets.


I also got quite lucky with the one day I was visiting. I had just started walking from my hostel towards la moneda, when the exchange of the guard happened. Now I’m not a big fan of military (or in this case police) parades, but if it’s free and you just happen to be there.. Why not? So I watched the guard walk into Moneda and noticed that everyone had their best uniform on, including the horses and the dogs.. As I would realize later, this may not have been because of procedure but rather because people in Santiago seem to genuinely believe that a dog will be cold otherwise. I saw many dogs that day, all of them wearing some kind of cover to protect from that 15 degree (Celsius) cold.

Next I made may way onto the main plaza and there I was greated with a lot of people in indigenous clothing. It turns out that that day was the national meetup of the Chilean (? or maybe just local?) tribes. So plenty of people in all kinds of traditional clothing had met up and were talking to each other and to the police. Very interesting to watch.

After that the tour of the main sights was quickly done, the cathedral and some of the buildings I noticed here and there. And, of course, graffitis.. Valparaiso is the city famous for it, but it has spread over to Santiago and you can see some truly beautiful pictures along the way.

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Another thing that Santiago has to offer is museums. In more or less historical order, I visited the pre-columbian museum, the national history museum and final the museu de la memoria, retracing the dictatorship of Pinochet and its ultimate demise. I learned much that day, although a lot of it was really quite depressing.

Mendoza

Before talking about Mendoza, let me just mention that the drive from Santiago to Mendoza is absolutely breathtaking. It also happens to feature the highest mountain of South (and North) America the Aconcagua with its broad wide shoulders. It should also be visible from Santiago, but due to smog, clouds and dust it rarely is. But as soon as you leave the city you can see it sitting there. The road slowly winds up in to the mountains to end in a collection of overlayed, steep hair pin curves giving an impressive view. imageShortly behind the highest point, the border crossing forces the bus to stop and gives you between 20minutes and 4hours to enjoy the view.. So better be prepared. There’s not a whole lot going on, except to wait your turn. The usual questions about endangering Argentina with an half eaten apple are asked and, even if you answer wrong, you’re usually allowed to continue. I smuggled half a clove of garlic into the country this way.
The road back down to Mendoza is much less steep, but just as pretty. The mountains vary in shades of red and yellow, there’s almost no vegetation and the rocks get quite creative in their formations.

Mendoza itself is about as far from the mountains as Santiago.. But less smoggy, therefore the Aconcagua can actually be seen, behind a veil of fog.. It’s not like there’s no smog at all. The city itself has little to offer, but that didn’t matter since we were there mainly for the wine regions around Mendoza. After checking out the prices for the guided wine tours, somewhere north of $100, we decided we could do our own. One can take the public bus to Maipú, rent a bike there and tour the closest wineries. We’d also been given the tip to take the back roads as they were less busy. So at the first occasion we took a left turn and started driving into the country side. It didn’t take long and a lady stopped us to tell us that this is very dangerous and we should return to the busy road because it was “prettier”. After much consideration we decided to go ahead with the initial plan and turned onto the back road, away from all the cars. It turns out she was right, in a sense, because 5min later I had a flat tyre. The thorns lying all over the road had perforated my tire in about 15places.. Too much for the “anti-flat gel” to act fast enough to keep the air in. But almost immediately we had people surrounding us, offering to help and not 20min later we were back on the road.


A sunny day, lots of good wine, great company. What more can one wish for. We stopped at three wineries and something, somewhere was nagging in the back of my head but I couldn’t figure out what. The first winery had a little extra treat, an owl was sitting at the entrance looking out for us.

Meanwhile, I liked the wine at winery viña el cerno so much, that I decided to buy a case of it to bring home. A slight lack of sobriety might have been a factor in this decision. Finally at the last winery, we were already quite drunk, something clicked and I decided to ask the local owner what the rules were regarding blood alcohol while riding a bike.. She just looked at me and said “Don’t you worry, we have an agreement”.. Not quite reassured by this, we set off into the sunset, this time on the main road to avoid any flat tires.

 

It didn’t take long for the first police car to arrive and, much to my consternation, it slowed down and started shadowing us. Even though we were on our best behavior and totally driving as if we weren’t drunk! Still, the police car followed us for a good 10 minutes before finally pulling over and stopping. Much to our relief. We drove on and noticed, soon after, that we must have passed the bike rental. We had gone to far. So we turned around and saw from a distance, that the owner of the bike rental was having a lovely chat with the police car that had been following us! They had only stopped because we had reached our goal… But we failed to notice!