Monday, 9 July 2012

A taste of Chile and Argentina: The Atacama Desert and Salta to Tucuman

Oh dear it's been a while since my last update. We've been on the move a lot more than usual but I've also been procrastinating a tad. Time to catch up!

I left off last time describing the fiasco that brought us into Chile from Bolivia. Despite the ridiculous delay at the border, the drive to Calama was quite beautiful. More of the same colorful mountains and vast open plateaus of the altiplano with the odd smattering of snow sparkling in the brilliant (but not warm) sunshine. Finally we arrived in Calama, wide-eyed, appreciating in the stark contrast between this bustling metropolis and the desolate region from whence we'd come. Unfortunately, the resurgence of civilization brought with it higher prices and difficulty finding accommodations in the budget category. We wandered into several hotels that turned us away on account of having zero vacancy. Part of the reason for this is the nearby copper mine; transient workers book up rooms for months at a time, especially the most economical options. Hmmm, sounds like someplace I know in northern Alberta... We finally found twin beds at a small hostel that had annexed a building down the street. Only 27,000 pesos for the night! That works out to about $57 Canadian. Might not seem very expensive considering hotel rates at home but that's double what we've been paying for the majority of our trip. So, relatively expensive. And this pad didn't have a private bathroom or much of anything with respect to amenities. (Side note: it's pretty awesome holding a wad of $10,000 and $20,000 bills in your hand even if they're only worth 1/500th in CDN$. It's fun ordering thousands of dollars worth of food too.)

That evening, while meandering around the center of town in search of a place for dinner we encountered a sushi restaurant. The first sushi place we'd seen since Lima. How could I deny Chris his favorite food after having been deprived for so long? I, on the other hand, have nearly constant access to my favorite food. Pizza is ubiquitous throughout South America. Of course it varies in quality and we've only had a few notable ones (mmm Bodega 138 in Cuzco), but whenever I have a hankering for a slice I never have to walk more than a block before reaching a pizza joint. Even in tiny Bolivian towns! Sushi hasn't quite become all the rage here yet. Maybe that's a good thing considering the stringent hygiene and storage requirements for sushi. Hygiene hasn't quite become all the rage in South America either.... Anyway, we had sushi in Calama. And it was pretty good. Chris was very happy.

Our reason for travelling to Calama was to visit the Chuquicamata Copper and Molybdenum Mine - the world's largest (but only second deepest, aww damn you Utah) open-pit mine - and it almost didn't happen. We went to the city tourist office to inquire about the tour and were told that all the spaces were filled for that day and the next tour wasn't until Monday (which would've meant spending 2 more expensive nights in Calama). Picking up on our not so subtle disappointment, the very nice lady at the info desk suggested that we come back at the tour's departure time and see if any spaces had opened up. She thought these two French people might not show up. Must've seemed flakey. They were probably just displaying the standard level of French aloofness that she took as being noncommittal. (Wow, these are important details...) So, we went for lunch and when we came back the very nice lady said there was room for us after all and put us in a taxi to the mine's visitors' office in another part of the city.

After donning the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) - fluorescent orange vests and hardhats - we boarded the fanciest bus we've seen in 6 months of travelling and left the city for the abandoned town of Chuquicamata. All the infrastructure remains, including housing, restaurants, theaters, and parks but the town's inhabitants were evicted partly because of environmental concerns due to the nearby mine and partly to make room for the mine's expansion. Following a brief information session held in an old bookstore converted to mining museum we were transported into the mine site to a viewing platform overlooking the pit. It was incredible. Chris's enginerd side was thoroughly impressed but even a layperson like myself was amazed by the sheer magnitude of the operation. And I've been behind the scenes of the Alberta oil sands operations! A lot of the machinery is similar. Similar scale for sure.

Chris looking rather enginerdy during our visit to the Chuquicamata copper mine near Calama, Chile.
Though probably not as enthralled as Chris, I was definitely more interested in the mine than this picture portrays.
Way across the pit are the massive haul trucks and diggers, comparable to those used to mine the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta. They look tiny! That's how big the mine is.
For scale reference, our coach bus and an approaching haul truck.

On the bus ride back to Calama there was one chick that kept hounding the guide with questions in Spanish, shoving a hand-held recorder in her face and furiously scribbling notes. I couldn't fully understand the discussion but her whole attitude oozed some sort of environmentalist agenda and she kept interrupting the guide in an argumentative way. Not that I have a problem with asking environmental questions. But I felt bad for the guide who clearly didn't have the details the chick was looking for but still suffered a sort of martyrdom on behalf of the company.

We made it back to Calama in time to catch a bus out to our next destination - San Pedro,  an oasis town smack in the midst of the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert (is it just me or do we seem to visit a lot of extreme place? deepest this, driest that....). Average rainfall in the region is only 1 mm per year but it's reported that some areas have not had any rain in hundreds of years. Hundreds of years!! This extreme aridity coupled with the near absence of light pollution and radio signal interference (because almost no one lives there) make perfect conditions for astronomical observation. This was our main reason for visiting.

The town itself has a strange bohemian vibe, consisting mostly of white-washed adobe buildings that exist to support the growing tourism industry. Luxury accommodations costing several hundred dollars per night are interspersed with trendy restaurants, tour companies, and souvenir shops. It seems to be the cool place for young Chileans to go work, judging from the multitude of hipster-esque twenty-somethings running the town. Sort of like Banff or Jasper back home. But less Aussies. A notable idiosyncrasy of San Pedro is that there are no official bars - in fact, it's not permitted to serve patrons alcohol alone. Surprisingly, this doesn't mean you're forced to order food with your beer or wine. It means the establishment is forced to provide a snack if you just order drinks. I rather like this system. Free snacks! Although, I'm sure they recover costs by charging more for the drinks. Meh.

Chilean doppelgangers of Jill and Modest's cats.

We managed to find a reasonably priced hostel called Eden Atacamena with rooms built around a rather desiccated courtyard garden. The hostel was home to the doppelgangers of Jill and Modest's two cats back home (Chandler and Jasper). Hence, Chris adopted them immediately. And they adopted him in turn, offering him freshly killed (or not quite dead) mice and birds they caught. Lovely.

We ended up spending 5 nights in San Pedro. Not because we fancied it immensely. It was actually very cold and I was sort of anxious to move on to warmer (and cheaper) territory. The reason we stayed was because the one ATM in town was out of money when we arrived and wouldn't be filled until Monday at the earliest. We didn't have enough money to cover the cost of the hostel and buy bus tickets to get away without withdrawing more cash. So we had to wait and hope there would be cash after the weekend.

Highlights of our time in San Pedro included me getting food poisoning (okay, that wasn't really a highlight but it was a significant event, trust me), visiting one of the local space observation stations for some epic star gazing, and a particularly deplorable attempt to bike through the Valle de la Luna.

Our tour to S.P.A.C.E. (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations - yah, talk about a great acronym!) was the true highlight. We were bused out to the site at about 9 pm, wearing as many layers as we could fit into and still be mobile knowing that we were about to spend 2+ hours in the freezing cold. The astronomer that lead our tour was amazingly well-spoken and engaging. Despite shivering for the latter 2/3 of the tour we really enjoyed his overview of the constellations and brief history of astronomy. We were able to look through more than half a dozen telescopes to see stars too faint to observe with the naked eye, star clusters, nebulae, and Saturn in all its ringed glory. I was also blown away by how visible the Milky Way was out there in the middle of nowhere. Even brighter and more densely populated with stars than when we'd seen it during our tour of the remote parts of the Southwest Bolivia.

Shot of the night sky and outlines of the telescopes we got to use during our tour at S.P.A.C.E.
The other major tourist attraction near San Pedro is the Valle de la Luna - an area of crazy rock formations that resemble a moonscape. There are also parts that have been compared to Mars and were actually used by NASA as a testing ground for some of their Mars landers and microbiological sampling instruments. We had the bright idea to rent bikes and cycle the 16 km road through the protected area instead of paying for a tour. First we did a short ride towards the river in search of a quebrada that was supposed to be really scenic and good for biking. We didn't have luck locating it but the river valley was quite pretty with all it's red rock walls.

We then set out for the Valle de la Luna as the sun was high in the sky and there was not so much as a tickle of a breeze. In short, we failed, barely making it past the park entrance before fatigue and major discomfort from the poor quality bikes resulted in us giving up and turning back. We did get a glimpse of what's left of an enormous sand dune that collapsed during an earthquake a few years back. Sad to miss out on what was probably a very picturesque natural landscape but we were truly suffering and the road went steeply uphill past where we took a break for lunch. Oh well. 

Some terrain just inside the park entrance to the Valle de la Luna.

The bumpy road that made for sore bottoms on our not-very-cushy bike seats.
Visible in the distance is Volcan Licancabur - we saw this peak from the other side in Bolivia at Laguna Verde!

View from our lunch spot and the place we gave up on the ride. 

Still recovering from food poisoning and now my butt and back are killing me! Life is tough.

We left San Pedro en route for Argentina after waiting on a dusty street with other bemused travelers for nearly an hour past the departure time noted on our tickets. The bus finally arrived and we were ushered onto it without any explanation for its tardiness. We got our Chilean exit stamps before leaving town - much faster process than our experience coming into Chile. The Argentinian border control took a bit longer but that was mainly because they couldn't get their fancy luggage scanner up and running so they had to start with manual searches. Still, far less painful than the last time we crossed a border and we were back on the road soon enough.

The drive from the border to Salta was unreal. Every time I think I couldn't be more blown away by the natural landscape we travel to or through another mind-blowing place. To reach Salta we had to descend more than a kilometer down from the altiplano to the subtropics. We spent nearly an hour on switchbacks coming down into a gorgeous valley with rainbow colored mountains, perfectly lit by the setting sun, bordered by ranches. Cows!!! I was already salivating thinking about the steaks I would soon consume. About halfway down the slope I noticed a strange sensation of stickiness on my skin and suddenly I realized what was causing it - humidity! Oh sweetness, we were back to a place with moisture!! And warmth!

After 9 hours on the bus we were famished so we decided we'd kick off our visit to Argentina with a parilla - basically barbecue. We found a restaurant near our hostel and had just settled in to examine the menu when Chris gasped and started laughing at something out the window. My first thought was, what? More doppelganger cats? Then, through the door came Colin and Michelle, the couple we'd shared a jeep with on our salt flats tour! Hah! What a splendid coincidence that we should cross paths with them again. We made plans to hang out the following day since they were just on their way to cook some dinner at their hostel.

Salta was a nice city with lots of colonial architecture and very modern buildings/stores as well. I treated myself to some luxury items such as a pumice stone and facial scrub - both of which I was in dire need of after too many days in the driest place on earth. We met up with Colin and Michelle to watch the Eurocup semifinal between Spain and Portugal in the afternoon and then went out for a few drinks while we waited for restaurants to open for dinner. We ate at a parilla recommended in our guide book and it was fantastic. We shared several types of grilled meat and sausages, throwing in a salad for good measure (salads are very basic in Argentina, typically consisting of just iceberg lettuce, white onion and tomato). The meat was amazing though. Chris even asserted that the tenderloin was the best steak he'd ever had and that's saying a lot when you come from Alberta.

Relishing the companionship, we didn't want the night to end. So we sought out another bar. Turns out that's more difficult to do in Argentina if you're looking before midnight... we found a little fast food restaurant and asked if they knew where we could find a bar. They told us they were a bar and in our tipsy state we decided to indulge them and took a seat in one of the booths. Turned out they had wine on the menu and it wasn't awful so we stayed a while before moving on to one last venue near the plaza to finish off another bottle of wine and end the night. It was great fun! We met up with Colin and Michelle the next day for lunch to exchange some photos from our salt flats tour and say goodbye before they boarded a bus to Mendoza. Aww it sure was nice to have friends again for a few days!

We didn't get up to much else despite staying in Salta for almost a week. We took the Teleferico (gondola) up a small mountain overlooking the city and wandered around for a few hours admiring the intricately designed artificial waterfalls and gardens. We also got scolded for sitting on a holy monument. Honestly, I didn't notice it was a giant cross until the guard made us get off. The base just looked like a good place to lean! We also enjoyed an Argentine barbecue put on by our hostel, which allowed us to make some more temporary friends. Oh! And I got a haircut! First one in about 4 months.

View from the top of the Teleferico overlooking Salta.

Fuzzy flowers.


As a side note, another pleasant thing about Salta was that you could drink the tap water. So convenient to not have to worry about picking up bottled water for a change!! Apparently we should be able to (safely) drink tap water throughout most of Argentina. Hurrah! One more side note - the school uniforms in Argentina are very strange. The most common are white button-up blazers that look exactly like lab coats! The first time we saw a school yard full of them I thought it was a special science school.... Then, on one of our bus rides we saw kids wearing uniforms that had decals of Bart Simpson dressed like a scientist sewn onto the back. And those were the official uniforms! What the what?

From Salta we went to Cafayate - one of Argentina's lesser-known wine regions, most notable for being the exclusive producer of torrontes, a delicious white wine. It also happens to be one of the highest wine producing regions in the world, located at more than 1600 m above sea level. We'd booked accommodations at a hostel that ended up being on the outskirts of town. The proprietor, Gironimo,a thirty-something Argentine sporting jeans, a flannel jacket and stylish goatee - sort of gaucho chiq I guess - picked us up from the bus stop in his utter piece of $hit car. Seriously, the thing sounded like a 1950s tractor, didn't require keys for the ignition, and the worn upholstery invoked a flashback to the couch I grew up with in the 80s. But Gironimo was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The hostel was alright, nice enough but looked like it had been destined for greater things and then got abandoned to the budget realm for whatever reason.

Being there in the dry season meant the vines were all dried up so it required a bit of imagination to feel like we were truly in wine country. That became a lot easier after a few glasses of wine though. We visited a few of the wineries that had bodegas in town and, once I learned the Spanish word for tasting (degustacion), enjoyed sampling their torrontes, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon. Our favorites were the wines of Nanni. Don't think we can get it at home, sadly.

Me in the vineyard at Domingo Hermanos.
We stopped in Tafi del Valle for one night en route to Tucuman. Our guide book described it as a popular getaway for Tucumenas and we were attracted by the possibility of biking towards Tucuman and stopping at some of the great swimming holes along the way. Once we arrived it was eminently clear that we wouldn't be participating in any outdoor activities that involved less than 3 layers of clothing. It was so cold!! Considering that this is their winter it wasn't nearly as bad as winter at home but it was definitely too cold (not to mention too dry) for swimming or even biking really. We also had a hard time finding a budget accommodation so that basically settled it that we'd only stay one night. Tafi is located in picturesque valley near a big lake and there are numerous acreages dotting the rolling hillsides. I bet it would be really nice there in summer. We did a short hike up the Cerro de la Cruz before catching a bus to Tucuman in the afternoon.

The drive to San Miguel de Tucuman involved coming down out of the mountains and it was clear there'd been a lot of landslides in the past few weeks. Crews were busily clearing debris from the road and there were several spots where the road was reduced to one narrow lane with a gaping ravine visible over the side of the tattered edge of what remained of the second lane. We also saw a massive bolder that had evidently fallen down the side of the mountain and was now perched precariously above a bend in the road. Eep! We made it to Tucuman without incident though.

Tucuman is one of the biggest cities in Argentina - number 5 if you don't include the megapolis of Buenos Aires where more than a third of all Argenines reside. It has a colorful colonial history and prides itself on being the location where important documents declaring Argentina's independence were drawn up and ratified in 1816. In fact, July 9 marks Argentina's Independence Day and we arrived on July 6, the Thursday before this important occasion. We were worried about whether we would find accommodations over the weekend after reading that celebrations in Tucuman are particularly intense due to the historical significance of the city and the nation's independence. We found a hostel barely within our budget range that had just one room for that night but couldn't guarantee the following 2 nights and definitely didn't have anything available on the Sunday (Independence Eve). The room was right behind the reception desk, adjacent to the front door. Ugh. We decided to suck it up and stay there at least for the one night and let fate (availability of the room for the following nights) decide whether we remained or moved on.

As fate would have it, the room ended up being available for 2 more nights. However, it turned out we were dead wrong about why the hostel was so busy. In fact, it had nothing at all to do with Independence Day. Nope. The hostel was fully booked by troupes of drag queens who'd come to Tucuman to participate in an annual Drag Queen competition. Yep. They were hilarious. At first.... We giggled watching them practice their dance routines over and over, put finishing touches on their outlandish costumes, and fuss over their hair and makeup. But the comical nature of the situation soon transformed to rage when the divas stayed up ALL night nattering, laughing, and clickity-clacking all over the tile-floored building in their 6-inch stilettos. Worst.Sleep.Ever. On this trip. We dragged ourselves out of bed, looking and feeling utterly like zombies and found several of the queens still up, looking pretty and perky as ever. Gah!

Anyway, that was really the only story worth telling about our time in Tucuman. And we don't even have any pictures!!! We didn't do much else besides figuring out plans for our next destinations, which mostly involved me struggling not to be as self-centered as the drag queens in demanding to be "somewhere not shitty and not on a bus" for my birthday this coming week.... We tried to do some clothes shopping but were foiled by the Argentine practice of afternoon siesta during which the city becomes a veritable ghost town and everything is closed for 4 hours or so. Furthermore, being the long weekend, absolutely nothing was open on the Sunday.

We boarded a 12 hour night bus to Resistencia and were actually exhausted enough to sleep for most of the ride. I suppose we should thank the drag queens for keeping us up the two nights before? hrrrmmm.... Tonight we will see what Independence Day celebrations transpire in another fairly large Argentine city. This morning there was a parade featuring marching bands, traditional costumes and dance, cowboys, and a line of backhoes and dumptrucks.... Interesting. Alright, it's 7:30 so the restaurants should be opening soon for dinner (apparently Argentina is made for night owls - dinner is usually at 10pm but you can find some places open earlier and the bars don't open until midnight - this explains the need for siestas).

1 comment:

  1. I'm guessing it was "good steak withdrawal" for him to think it was the best ever :)