Salta Cachi Cafayate Salta

The southern loop is Salta – Cachi – Cafayate – Salta. We thought we would be able to do the 300km from Salta to Cafayate through Cachi in a day.. We didn’t count on the absolutely amazing country side there, that forced us to stop so often. We also didn’t expect to be detoured through the river. But that just made it more of an adventure! Even though we had really bad weather in the morning and did a good part of the first day in the clouds. Going west from Salta towards Cachi, the first valley to cross is quebrada del escoipe.

A real surprise in the otherwise arid country: luscious greens, large grasses and water everywhere.. From there you start climbing towards the pass at 3300m. My guide book said the scenery was beautiful.. We had dense fog and could barely see the street ahead of us.. valle encantado, the enchanted valley, was just white for us.. But once we reached the pass, everything cleared up.. The clouds were stuck on the mountains and we had clear views and sunshine on the other side onto the altiplano of Cachi Pampa, so named after the Cachi people living their a long time ago.

On that altiplano you have the “recta tin tin”, or “straight tin tin”.. Kilometers of an absolutely straight road bordering the mount tin tin. We reached Cachi around 3pm, just in time for lunch.. and had some of the absolutely best food in all of Argentina at Oliver’s. The local stew called locro, full of different meats and crushed corn. In good South American style, the lunch took about an hour to arrive though and we already knew we wouldn’t make it to Cafayate that day.. Over 150km were left.

So we decided to stop 50km down the road in Molinos. A small village on the road. It’s a peaceful place with a few hospedajes and restaurants. The lighting is minimal (except on the main roads), meaning night time photography is going to be perfect. We set out after dinner (in good Argentinian style this was around 11pm) to take some pictures. It came to an abrupt end when we started hearing noises behind us and weren’t sure if this was a puma or a dinosaur trying to eat us.

The next day we continued on towards Cafayate through the national park las flechas. A park full of rock formations pointing straight upwards. Absolutely surreal. From there it was just a few more km to Cafayate, where we had a fashionably late lunch again. Empanadas, once more.. And they were so good!

From Cafayate back we took the main, paved road to Salta through the quebrada de las conchas. It took us a mere 3 hours to cover about 50km, stopping every few kilometers to look at the amazing stone formations and in one case the impressive colors displaying in the mountain range. We reached the end of the quebrada de las conchas just as the last sunlight vanished.

The rest of the road was driven in the dark and while the guide book said that the German valley was pretty, it also clarified that it was “just pretty and not spectacular”. After the last two days we didn’t feel too bad about missing it.

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.

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.

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!

San Martin de los Andes

San Martin was a bit of a bust. Recommended as a base for several multi-day treks in my guide book, the national park office and the tourist office in San Martin hadn’t heard of any of these and really couldn’t give me any pointers on how to get to the starting point. In addition, I got some impressively wrong information on bus connections that made me decide to only stay one night in the town.


The town itself is actually quite nice, as was the hostel I was staying at. It had the same kind of peaceful and relaxed vibe Futaleufu had. But the only “activity” there was a 3km walk to a local viewpoint over the lake San Martin was bordering. While pretty, it surely isn’t enough to warrant a visit.


In the end though, San Martin was unavoidable. For one the road between Bariloche and San Martin is known as one of the prettiest in Argentina. There are two options to get from Bariloche to San Martin by bus: Fast or scenic. The scenic road, also known as the seven lakes circle, drives through absolutely stunning countryside that would probably be better enjoyed with a rental car. However, if you don’t plan on returning to Bariloche (as we didn’t), the bus is a much cheaper option and the view is the same.. It’s just that you can’t stop.


For four hours the bus drives through the mountains, past seven lakes (who would’ve guessed), with the last lake being the one San Martin coasts.
Secondly: The direct road from Bariloche to Pucon was, once again, closed due to snow. The only pass remaining open in that area was only served by buses starting from San Martin, so I never really had the option to avoid it in the first place.

Laguna negra

This was the second half of the 4-day-hike I had wanted to do. The original path from Laguna Jakob to Laguna Negra was covered in snow and inaccessible. The alternate road started in the swiss colony, so I made my way back there already making plans on catching up on those beers I had missed out on the previous day. The idea of nice cold beer after a long day’s hike seemed great. Plus I’d be taking the bus home, so no need to be sober. Unfortunately life had other plans. None of the bars and breweries in Colonia Suiza were open, which actually turned into a serious problem when I was looking for a toilet. In the end I had to ask at a school if may enter theirs.. I did not expect the place to be that dead just hours after I had seen it completely overrun by tourists.

Then, finally, I could start on the hike. Contrary to the first part, this hike starts with a steep uphill section. In the woods. Again I was reminded of my friend and had to whole-heartedly agree with her. Stupid trees blocking the view. Luckily, the higher you get the fewer trees there are. And, admittedly, the trees with their red and yellow leaves make quiet a big contribution to the view. Still.. Wouldn’t it be enough if they were on the other side of the valley to look onto? Why do they need to be along the path as well?


The second half of the hike climbs alongside a huge, seemingly unsurmountable cliff. The water of the laguna crashes down in two long waterfalls slowly digging itself into the stone. At the top you’re greeted by a ragged scenery and a strong wind. The laguna negra is very different from the one at refugio frey. Where Refugio Frey and its laguna are located in a small valley, with trees and gras surrounding it, the laguna negra is surrounded by steep dark cliffs. I thought refuge in the refugio almost immediately to warm myself up and enjoy a hot coffee.. After having recovered a bit I explored the area a bit, but didn’t get too far. Between being blown around by the wind and the complete lack of tracks, I decided to stay put for a while before heading back down.


It still amazes me how different the same scenery seems on the way up and the way down. A slightly different viewpoint changes everything and even though I left the refugio before 2pm with plenty of time to get back to the bus stop by 6pm. However, I really only started on the hike back down around 3pm and still stopped every couple of meters to take pictures. Suddenly I found myself with one hour and 5km left and had to seriously hurry to catch my bus.. In the end I made it with about 3 minutes to spare.
I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to lose two hours on the way back down, I must’ve hit a time warp somewhere. It’s the only logical explanation. Surely I didn’t take that many pictures.

Circuito chico

Hiking is all nice and good, but there can be too much of a good thing. Not mountains of course, mountains are always awesome. So I decided to see some mountains by bike instead. Of course, for me, that means seeing mountains at a distance. I’m not a mountain biker and I seriously dislike climbing inclines with a bike. The circuito chico is a 27km loop close to Bariloche, ideal for biking. On the way to the circuito is the …. Which I had been told is among the best views in the world as selected by national geographics. Arriving at the foot of the mountain and keeping in mind my decision not to hike, I directed myself to chairlift. Seeing the prices was all the excuse I needed to hike up after all.


Reaching the top, I had to admit that I had chosen a bad day to come. It was very cloudy and my optimism that the weather would accommodate my desire for clear skies was unwarranted. Even with some of the mountains hidden in the clouds, the view was quite impressive. Water, mountains, forests made for a colorful combination. I stood and watched for a while, until I noticed the heavy clouds closing in at a distance. Keeping in mind that I still wanted to cycle the 30km’s I went back down and walked over to the bike rental. There, to my surprise, I found another drawback of traveling of season: Rather than closing at 7pm, as was advertised on the flyer, they were closing at 5. Meaning I had just under 3 hours left to do the circuit. Including the planned lunch in the swiss colony… I really have a knack for making things stressful. In particular my holidays.


The bike rental all seems to have absolutely zero faith in their renters. At first I thought he was being ironic when he told me to always brake with both brakes and to pedal forward to go forward. But then I saw that the map they handed me included instructions on which gears to use for uphill/flat/downhill. The flat section seems a bit superfluous as there was no flat bit anywhere, only up and down.
The first hill to conquer is the hardest, but it also yields the nicest view because there’s a natural opening at the top with no trees. During this ride I thought back frequently to a friend traveling with me back in Cerro Castillo. She had left us with the words “I can’t take those trees anymore. They’re everywhere and keep blocking my view”. During my stay in Bariloche I started to seriously relate to her feelings and in particular during the bike ride I was often left with the feeling that the view would’ve been amazing if it hadn’t been for the trees blocking it. And those trees didn’t even have any amazing foliage. They were all green.


Even though I was already short on time, I decided to stop at the swiss colony. Mostly because the food there had been recommended to me two months prior when I was still in El calafate and it sounded like an experience. The curanto is a typical dish cooked in the ground. A layer of leaves is burned, meat, vegetables etc are put on top. Another layer of smoldering leaves is added before earth is added on top. Four hours later the earth is removed, the food extracted and served. It has a nice smokey taste with some notes from the leaves. In particular my apple tasted absolutely delicious.

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After being served a selection of meats cooked curanto style a waitress came up and asked me if there was anything else I wanted. I asked if they also had vegetables and she said “Of course, we have everything”. So I let my mind run wild.. Some eggplant would be great or zucchini. Maybe some mushrooms? She turned around and came back with a plate containing a potato, a carrot and an apple.. I’m still confused by this selection of “vegetables”.

The lunch was nice, but it took almost an hour. So when I left the place, I only had about an hour left to do the second half of the circuit, which means that I wouldn’t have the time to stop at one of the breweries that seemed to plaster the way. Maybe it was for the better, don’t drink and drive!

Refugio Frey

This is part of the 4 day trek that came highly recommended by a good friend. The first leg of the trek takes you to refugio frey, a small mountain hut next to a small lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The hike up starts at a not quite picturesque skiing station and takes you along the mountain. My initial plan to use the ski lift and get a head start was crushed by the fact that the ski lifts weren’t running anymore. Again, a drawback of travelling off season.

However I might’ve chosen not to ride the lift anyways as the mountain tops were covered in clouds. So I set out on the traditional path,wondering if I’d have a view of anything at all… As so often, luck was on my side and by the time I reached refugio Frey the clouds had dispersed and I had free skies. At refugio Frey there’s a whole bunch of small little excursions you can do. Which is a good thing, as I had once again made the mistake to believe the times given by the national park office and therefore arrived at noon at the refugio (when I planned to arrive at 2pm). I shortly entertained the notion of doing also day 2 of the 4 day hike. So continuing on the road to refugio Jakob I made it all the way to the next lagoon a little higher up. It turned out to be the first lagoon I was seriously disappointed by. Maybe also because the one of refugio Frey was so pretty. In any case, the climb and the lagoon seriously made me reconsider the idea to rush all the way too the second refugio and I ended up turning around to enjoy what I already knew was incredibly pretty scenery. On the way back down, I could enjoy what I’d missed on the way up: The view onto refugio Frey from a height. Always turn around, the best views might be hiding behind you!

After surrounding the laguna Tonchek at refugio Frey and taking in the view for almost an hour, The second route I took, took me to a viewpoint into the next valley. Lots of reds and greys from the foliage and the mountain peaks. It totally made up for the somewhat failed excursion to laguna Schmoll.

Back at the refugio, I ran into some of the volunteers from my hostel and they told me about this alternate route down, which would allow us to walk along lake Menendez and, in addition, have us reach a bus station where the busses run more regularly and are less expensive. How could I say no!?. What they failed to mention was the additional 10km it added to the hike and by the end of the day, I was getting really tired.

Bariloche

I left El Bolson for Bariloche on Easter Saturday with the goal to celebrate Easter in the chocolate capital of Argentina. Little did I know, that all Easter celebrations are done from Thursday to Saturday and Sunday is the travel day as Monday isn’t a holiday here (as it is in Germany). I managed to not only arrive after the celebrations but also when the good weather switched to bad. Therefore my first target was to get a new jacket, which ended with a very grumpy me, a significantly lighter wallet and a mediocre jacket.. Argentina apparently has protective import taxes on clothing and similar, so what would normally be a 50$ jacket ends up being 200$. And I didn’t really want to go for the 200$ jacket at a 600$ price.

Unfortunately, the only way around this is apparently to go to Chile. But, the direct border crossing from Bariloche to Pucon had unfortunately closed the weak prior due to snow and the rain and cold winds, didn’t really tempt me into just toughing it out until I reach Chile.
There are downsides to traveling outside of the peak season. Another downside is that the hostels are getting emptier and emptier and you will occasionally find yourself by yourself when you’re really looking for some company. Fortunately, the hostel I ended up at had a big group of voluntary workers manning the reception and having big cooking parties at the hostel every evening. So even though the hostel was empty, I had plenty of company of great company. In addition, since they all enjoyed cooking we also had home made bread and jam every morning.IMG_20170420_220457
Yet another downside of traveling off season is that the nature parks totally unreasonably will close down trails because they’re snowed in and refugio’s because they’re snowed in.. So I had to cancel my plan to do a 4 day hike and split it up into two single day hikes instead.. Cutting out some of the trail I initially planned to do and rewarping it into different treks.

IMG_20170416_145942On a positive note, chocolate never goes out of season and I had so much good chocolate in Bariloche. I could not stop buying more. and more. and more.

I also finally figured out what a submarino, or submarine is. It’s much more innocent than the German counterpart (A shot of vodka in a glass of beer):

It is a chocolate that is submerged into hot milk: