About a year ago I started planning a return trip to South America to revisit some of the places that I had experienced in 2010. I also added a few extra locations to my wish list and the itinerary developed from there.
  • Day50

    Back Where it All Began

    June 16, 2018 in Australia

    There is absolutely no denying the fact that South America is a LONG way from Australia. No matter which way you look at it, there is just no easy way to complete a trip that takes you almost halfway round our planet. You just have to face it with as much fortitude as you can, hoping that the discomfort of the long flight will soon be forgotten once you get home.

    For Paul and I the long journey began at 11.30 pm the previous evening. That was when my alarm rudely awoke me from a sleep which I had only just descended into. I switched on the light and staggered out of bed. At that time I tried hard not to think how many hours would pass by before I would again be able to lay my head on a pillow.

    By 12.30 am Paul and I had checked out of our rooms and were waiting in the foyer for our driver to take us to the Buenos Aires International Airport. Outside in the street the massive TV screens were still shining brightly, showing that the Big Apple is a city that never really sleeps. I just wished that I could.

    Right on time the ordered car arrived to collect us. It was not a taxi, in fact I am not exactly sure what it was. The hotel had organised it and had also guaranteed us a fixed rate for the trip to the airport. I didn't really care what it was, at least it was clean and comfortable and the driver seemed to know the way to go.

    About 45 minutes later we were dragging our bags into the terminal. This was the part we were both dreading. Somehow we had arrived a little too early for the check in to open, meaning that we had to sit and wait for around an hour. It was the first of many such waits that we would have to do before our trip got underway.

    When we finally fronted at the check in desk I asked the girl if we had both been given aisle seats as we had asked. She looked up, smiled and asked "Would you like exit row seats ?" For me, that is a bit like asking if I would like an upgrade to business. "Of course", we answered in unison. She ripped up our previous boarding passes and issued us the new coveted "exit row" tickets for the long flight from Santiago to Melbourne. I could not help but think that we had hit the jackpot.

    At 5.00 am we caught the first flight from BA to Santiago. The plane was only partially full, so we were both in relatively high spirits.These high spirits quickly sank once we landed at Santiago (Chile) and settled down to a six and half hour wait for the next flight. This would have almost been bearable if the flight had not been delayed, extending our wait to 7 hours. I kept encouraging myself by the fact that, when I finally arrived in the plane, I would have a luxurious exit row seat waiting for me.It didn't quite work out that way.

    Eventually we did get access to the plane and yes, I did have an exit row seat. The problem was that it was squeezed in alongside the huge door. The body of the door took about half the width of my seat. Although in theory I could stretch out my legs, in reality I could only do that if I sat sideways in the seat and buried my head in the luxurious soft steel panelling of the plane door. Comfortable it was not, but I could not blame anyone else. I had actually asked for this seat.

    In order to sit myself in this diminutive space, I had to reverse backwards and carefully manoeuvre my rear into position. Then fumble around trying to retrieve the ends of the seat belt. It was not easy. Ahead lay fifteen and a half long hours in the steel sarcophagus.

    The direct flight from Santiago to Melbourne probably follows one of the most remote flight paths on the planet. The route begins by heading almost due south from Santiago, flying along Patagonia, past Ushuaia and then continuing another thousand kilometres or so across the Drake Passage towards Antarctica. For most of the next ten hours the plane is flying parallel to the coast of Antarctica.

    From time to time I would bring up the flight map on the screen. When I saw our position, so far from the closest civilisation. I tried not to think about what would happen if the plane had to make any sort of emergency landing on the ocean. The chances of any sort of rescue mission so far south ? Absolutely zero.

    Gradually the time ticked by. Gradually my backside lost all feeling. I tried to ignore the DVTs that were probably growing in my veins with each passing hour. At least I was getting closer and closer to home.

    I could understand why the route of the plane took it a thousand km south of New Zealand, but it was harder to understand why the pilot decided to skip Tasmania altogether and head towards Adelaide instead. After almost reaching the proverbial City of Churches, the pilot apparently realised his error and abruptly executed a right hand turn towards Melbourne. To say I was relieved when we finally touched down at Tullamarine would have been a vast understatement.

    I extricated myself from the seat, staggered to the exit door and out into the frigid night air. At first I thought we had maybe landed in Antarctica after all, but then I was told that Melbourne's weather has been like this ever since we left the place five weeks earlier.

    When passing through Customs I admitted that I had purchased a set of wooden pencils in Argentina. They were to be a present for my grandson. They turned out to be a gift for the Australian Customs Office instead. Oh well.

    It was a wonderful feeling to see Maggie waiting for me at the exit. All that remained was to survive the Monash Freeway and I would be finally home at last. It poured with rain the whole way home. Ah, the wonderful experience of winter in Melbourne ! It seemed strangely familiar.

    By 10 pm I was snuggled into my own bed and happily drifting off into an exhausted sleep. The tortuous flight was already fading into memory and I was starting to think ahead to our next adventure in three months time. Travel is like that.
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  • Day47

    The Final Day in The Big Apple

    June 13, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 9 °C

    They say that all good things must eventually come to an end. This trip was most certainly a "good thing", but now the time has come for it to draw to a close. The weather in Buenos Aires is now cold and grey - a far cry from the hot and sunny days we experienced in Peru at the start of the adventure. We do not need any reminder that winter is now truly with us and that those sunny days are just a memory.

    This morning we took a final walk around this city, passing by the famous Casa Rosada on our way to the docklands region. The last time I walked this route the sun was shining brightly and the streets were thronged with people. This time the winter chill has kept the crowds out of sight. Those few that have braved the elements are bundled into winter gear and thick coats. The docklands which were previously alive with so many people were almost deserted. Maybe this is another message that the time is right for us to return home.

    Tomorrow we leave the hotel in the wee small hours of the morning to begin the long journey back home to Melbourne. Paul and I have been going over some of the highlights of the past 5 weeks. It truly has been full of so many sights and experiences that I think it has exceeded all of our expectations. It is probably unlikely that I will ever return to South America, but I am so glad that I had this opportunity to share this trip with so many wonderful companions.

    Now I am ready to go home and take a well earned break before the next adventure on the Compostela de Santiago.
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  • Day46

    A Visit to Evita Duarte

    June 12, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☁️ 8 °C

    I guess it had to happen sooner or later. Ever since we had arrived in Lima about 5 weeks ago, we had not experienced a single wet day. Not a single one. Not on any day of cycling. Not on any day of trekking to Machu Picchu. Not ever. In fact, on most days, we did not even see a cloud. It was uncanny.

    It was only a matter of time before that incredible run of good fortune had to come to a close. That day was today. Paul and I had previously decided to revisit the Recoleta Cemetery and the famous La Boca region of the city, however when I looked out of my window early in the morning I was not rewarded with the normal view of cloudless blue skies. In fact the sky had clouded over and I could even see that the streets six floors below me were a little shiny with recent rain.

    In some respects I was not disappointed. Rain is a normal part of life (especially for a cyclist) and it really would have been almost paranormal to complete the entire trip without so much as a drop from the heavens. I looked for my winter clothes and prepared to leave the hotel, but heard a noise from the streets near the Obelisk. It was a demonstration about to begin. Since I had a grandstand view of the proceedings, I decided to watch.

    In a few minutes a convoy of police vehicles had arrived and disgorged a line of riot police. Soon the police greatly outnumbered the small band of protesters. The protesters did their best to maintain the rage, but it soon ran out of steam and the small band dispersed quietly. The traffic in the streets quickly returned to normal.

    Since the Recoleta district was not too far from our hotel, Paul and I decided to walk. At that time the rain was not much more than a fine drizzle, although it was sufficient to dampen our trousers and shoes. Soon we were wandering the famous cemetery, which is the final resting place of hundreds of Buenos Aires richest and most powerful citizens. The most famous occupant is Evita Peron (Duarte) whose dark mausoleum is still visited by hundreds of people every day. Although she died way back in 1952, aged only 33, her legend has not diminished with the passage of time.

    Paul and I spent some time wandering the macabre streets of the dead, however the rain started falling more heavily and it was beginning to creep into my clothing. It was time to find our way back to our hotel to warm up and dry out.

    In the early afternoon the skies had lightened a little, the rain had stopped and the sun even peeped out a couple of times. We decided to visit La Boca district. This district is one of the more seedy parts of Buenos Aires, but is popular among tourists for its brightly coloured buildings, mostly constructed out of corrugated iron sheeting. Apparently these were originally constructed by the fishermen of the city out of cast off materials.

    The hotel concierge had warned us about walking to La Boca, as the surrounding streets are deemed to be unsafe for tourists. We decided to take a taxi instead. After a few minutes of erratic driving by the taxi man, we began to think that it would have been safer to take our chances with the local muggers. After whizzing through numerous red lights and narrowly missing a group of pedestrians on a pedestrian crossing, we somehow survived to reach La Boca.

    We found that the morning rain had somehow dampened down the spirits of the famous Caminita St. Most of the stalls were closed, the cafes were empty and the place looked even more down at heel than usual. Nevertheless we sat down to a lunch of empanadas and then spent an hour or so wandering the alleyways. Another hair raising taxi ride took us back to the centre of town.

    By that time the temperature had dropped and the wind chill made the place absolutely freezing. It really felt like a bleak winter's day in Melbourne. At least it would help prepare us for the weather we were likely to expect when we step out of the plane at Tullamarine in three day's time.
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  • Day45

    Hello Obelisco

    June 11, 2018 in Argentina

    After so many unforgettable memories and experiences, our time in South America is drawing to a close. After our short time in Salta we had both grown very fond of the place, however we are now reaching the stage where our thoughts are inevitably turning towards home.

    This morning we packed our bags for the second last time. We had been told that our transfer would collect us from our hotel at 7.00 am and that is exactly what happened. A talkative lady walked boldly into the foyer of the hotel and called our names. She introduced herself as Natalie. Or at least that's what I think she said. We have now had so many different guides and drivers that I am starting to get my Jaecos, Raouls and Natalies all mixed together.

    We bundled our gear into the boot of the waiting car, while Natalie explained that it is illegal to carry luggage in the cabin of the vehicle. It seems a little strange where its common for whole families to crowd on board a single motorbike, for cars to highball down the freeways at 140 kph while the driver is happily chewing on cocoa leaves and for all cars to completely ignore double lines to be so particular about where you can put your suitcase. But of course, this is Argentina.

    We found ourselves at the airport in plenty of time and were quickly checked in. The security scan is cursory at best and soon we were seated on our LATAM flight for the 90 minute trip back to Buenos Aires. This was really the beginning of the long journey back to Australia for Paul and me.

    Ninety minutes (and a couple of sleeps) later our plane bounced to a halt, right on time at the Jorge Newberry Auroparque, situated almost in the centre of Buenos Aires. Once again, everything had gone according to plan. We left the plane and made our way to the baggage collection area. Soon the baggage started arriving. I looked out for my distinctive blue bag. People progressively collected their luggage and departed. Paul and I tried not to get concerned, even when the carousel stopped and the trapdoor locked. In all my travels I have never had my luggage go missing and I really hoped that this would not be the first.

    After about 10 minutes the belts started moving again and, to our eternal relief, both of our cases were aboard. All we needed now was a taxi. That was never going to be a problem since there was a tangle of them all fighting for passengers. We were bundled into one of them and charged 490 pesos (about $30) for the short trip to our hotel.

    The absolute centre of Buenos Aires is marked by a huge obelisk. This is the most distinctive sight of the entire city and our hotel was as close to the obelisk as it is possible to be. At least we would never have trouble finding our way home.

    After three nights in this mighty city our adventure will come to a close.
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  • Day44

    The First Stagecoach from Purmamarca

    June 10, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    It was not an encouraging sight. After the numerous attempts to restart the ancient generator, the hotel owner had obviously given up. The motley handful of hotel guests were left sitting in the foyer in darkness. The few sad remnants of the would be breakfast sat forlornly on the table. Outside the wind was kicking up the first of many dust devils. Hundreds of large cacti looked on malevolently from the surrounding hillsides. We certainly did not want to miss our first (and only chance) to leave this place.

    Our instructions said that we would be collected by some form of transport at 10 am. We did not exactly know what form the transport would take - minibus, horse, stagecoach, etc. We weren't really all that concerned. We were more than ready to leave.

    Right on time at 10 am, a mean looking hombre pushed in through the door, looked around the foyer and then said he was looking for "Dawson". I wondered for a minute if I had offended someone and this guy was looking for a shootout in the main square. Fortunately he broke into a half smile, introduced himself as Raoul, and told us to grab our bags. We didn't waste any time. Soon we were were squeezed into a Toyota Hilux 4WD, along with another couple. And you guessed it, they didn't speak a word of English. Not a single word. We were learning that no one speaks English in these badlands of northern Argentina.

    Overhead the sky was completely clear and the warm dusty wind foreshadowed a hot day. We bounced our way out of Purmamarca and soon the view from the rear window was completely obscured by a huge cloud of dust. It had been a surreal experience, but one they we will never forget.

    We were soon back on the highway. Not just any highway but the famous Pan American Highway. This incredible sequence of roads stretches for around 30,000 km, all the way from Ushuaia in southern Patagonia to Alaska. Apart from a small gap in central America you could drive, pedal or walk the entire length of two continents.

    Our initial route took us north along the famous highway, towards Bolivia. In this section the highway follows the path of the Rio Grande River Valley. Since we were going upstream, the elevation steadily increased. My ears popped several times. My drink bottle expanded. We were getting used to these manifestations of rapid changes in elevation, although I am not sure if my lungs will ever really adapt.

    The drive would have been relaxing if Raoul did not have the somewhat disconcerting habit of taking his hands from the wheel and turning around to talk to his rear seat passengers. I am not sure what the official speed limit was, but Raoul seemed to think that 140 kph was a reasonable speed in these conditions. The incredible scenery flashed past our windows. This region really is breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude.

    By midday we reached the comparatively civilised town of Humahuaca. This marked the northernmost part of our journey in Argentina. Somewhere in the morning we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, officially placing us in the tropics. No wonder it was so warm.

    Paul and I, along with our new (non English speaking) amigos found a likely looking restaurant for lunch. Soon we were enjoying a plate of delicious empanadas . These are like small pasties, filled with hot meat or cheese. They are a staple food item in this region, and they really are quite delicious.

    After wondering the plaza and examining some of the "maybe alpaca" handicrafts that were on sale, it was time to climb aboard the Toyota for the return trip down the valley. We had a long way to go before reaching our destination for the evening in Salta. Once again Raoul revved the engine and wound up the speed. The car wandered over the road. Numerous passing manoeuvres were executed right over the continuous double lines. Sometimes his hands were on the wheel and other times they weren't.

    One common sight along this highway were motorcycle riders without helmets. Sometimes whole families were on a single motorbike, with the smallest sitting astride the handlebars.

    "Are helmets compulsory in Argentina ?", I asked. "Of course", Raoul replied, "but this is Argentina". That explained everything.

    Another interesting sight we observed was several heavily laden cyclists making their way slowly north along the highway. I wondered if they had ridden from Ushuaia. I also wondered how far they would go north before common sense finally dawned on them.

    Very late in the afternoon we finally arrived back in Salta. According to my GPS we had travelled almost 400 km during the day. It was a wonderful feeling to be back in familiar territory. By now we had both developed a warm affection for this lovely city.

    After checking into our hotel we walked back to the plaza. The night was uncharacteristically warm. Young lovers sat in the park. The city dogs wandered about, proudly wearing their free jerseys. Music wafted through the streets. Unlike Purmamarca, we would both be sorry to leave this place.

    Early tomorrow morning we catch the first flight back to Buenos Aires. This adventure is drawing to a close.
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  • Day43

    To the Clouds and Beyond

    June 9, 2018 in Argentina

    I think that a lot of people have a fascination with trains. There is something romantic and magical about taking a seat in a nice carriage and then being whisked along while the world passes by outside your window. I cannot recall when I first heard about the iconic “Tren A Las Nubes”, but I know that it somehow found its way onto my radar and stirred my imagination. Part of the original train link from Argentina to Chile, the Tren A Las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) has become one of the 5 most famous train trips on the planet. It certainly is one of the highest.

    The original route of this train took it from Salta to the Polvorilla Viaduct and the journey took around 7 hours each way. Unfortunately the maintenance of the track has now fallen behind to such an extent that much of the original track has become unsafe for the train to travel on. For the past couple of years the trip has been reduced to a 90 min climb from San Antonio de Los Cobres to Polvorilla Viaduct. This means that it is now necessary to take a 4WD to get from Salta to the train station at Los Cobres.

    Paul and I each packed a small overnight bag and waited in the foyer of our hotel for our driver. Right on time at 7 am an unshaven guy wearing a traditional South American hat wandered in and asked for us. Our final adventure was about to begin.

    We threw our gear into the back of the waiting Toyota Hilux and set off in the early morning traffic. We had not gone far when our way was blocked by a number of police vehicles. There had obviously been a serious accident and one vehicle was on its roof. Our driver announced “I have 4WD”, and then proceeded to bounce over the curb, drive along a roadside bike path, through a few ditches and back onto the road. It looked it could be an exciting day.

    One of our previous guides had already explained that “we have laws in Argentina, but well, you see”. What she was trying to say was that nobody really takes any notice of them. On numerous occasions we had seen that double lines on the road serve no purpose at all. They almost serve as an invitation to pass, especially when there is a blind bend coming up. We had also noticed that all our drivers cut off every corner, deliberately swinging onto the wrong side of the road in an attempt to straighten the curves. Since everybody does it, we have (almost) gotten used to it.

    For the next three hours we climbed steadily through a succession of breathtaking landscapes. The scenery here really is on a monumental scale, and it was not something I had been prepared for. The Toyota coped very well with the worst of the roads and we started to relax when the driver explained that he had driven this road something like 3000 times before.

    Along the way we passed hundreds of cacti dotting the barren, rocky hillsides. A couple of tiny, dusty and neglected looking townships completed the picture. We really were heading into true frontier territory. The only things missing were a few tumbleweeds. Once again the skies were cloudless and my increasing shortness of breath indicated that we were heading back up to near 4000 metres in height.

    Finally at about 10.30 be rumbled into Los Cobres and our driver took us to an unlikely looking little café to buy a few empanadas for our lunch. Soon we were at the little station and ready to board the waiting train. After a ticket and passport check (you need your passport for everything here) we were looking for our seats. Due to the world’s strangest seat numbering system, our seats turned out to be in the very last place we would have looked for them. But this is South America after all.

    At 12 noon the Tren a Las Nubes was underway. It immediately began climbing. The big diesel locomotive strained hard to keep the train moving at a steady 25 kph. Paul and I sat mesmerized as the landscape changed outside. We could not believe what a harsh environment this place is, and what an incredible engineering achievement it had been to design and build a railway in this most hostile of places.

    The train slowly moved along high embankments with sheer drops (just as well David was not with us), through deep rocky cuttings and over a succession of steel bridges. The elevation was already too much for the elderly couple in the next seat and they called for oxygen masks. This train is always equipped with oxygen tanks and nursing staff for those who succumb in the thin air. Fortunately our time in Peru had already hardened our lungs and arteries, and we did not feel the need for supplemental breathing assistance.

    The undoubted highlight of the train trip is the arrival at the monumental Polvorilla Viaduct . At 63 metres high and over 200 metres in length it really is an impressive structure. It was constructed between 1930 and 1932 and required a massive 1600 tonnes of steel. We both hoped that it was still inspected for safety from time to time. Due to the narrow gauge of the track, the doubtful maintenance and the sheer height above the ground, the train slowed to a walking pace for the passage across. Anyone suffering vertigo would be advised NOT to look down as this is a VERY HIGH bridge indeed.

    Once across to the other side, the train stopped and then reversed back across the bridge. I guess this is to scare the wits out of the passengers for a second time. It then stopped for a time alongside the bridge for the passengers to sample the thin air, take pictures and possibly buy some doubtful “genuine” handcrafts from the sellers gathered alongside the tracks. We had been warned that most of this stuff is actually cheap counterfeit copies imported from China. Instead of the “baby alpaca” that every tourist is looking for, it is more likely to be “maybe alpaca” instead.

    The journey back was achieved a little quicker. We were going downhill so I guess the locomotive was in cruise mode or something similar. At 2.30 pm we were back with our driver, who had apparently enjoyed a lovely siesta while we had been on the train. With a rev of the engine we were on our way again. Our next stop was the famous Salinas Grandes, the huge salt flats that stretch for over 200 square km.

    After two hours of bouncing over a rough, rock strewn road we finally pulled up at the side of the massive white expanse that marked the salt flats. With no external visual references, these places are famous for people taking amusing photos that distort our usual concepts of perspective and size. With the sun still shining brightly overhead, the glare from the brilliant white salt was quite overwhelming.

    Our final stop for the day was the tiny frontier town of Purmamaca. We rolled into town just on sunset. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It really was something out of an old wild west movie. The streets were made out of inches of fine powder dust. Every few moments a dust devil would whip down the narrow alleyways and stir up a cloud of choking dust that stung the throat and eyes. It looked like it had been a long, long time since any form of rain had fallen here. The surrounding hillsides were liberally dotted with huge misshapen cacti plants.

    The driver dropped us off at our hotel, then disappeared. We really were on our own. Opening the door of the hotel we entered and found a young girl behind the counter. The rest of the place was dark and deserted. We quickly found that she spoke not a word of English. Not a single word. This was going to be interesting. There was no point is asking any questions as it would only have confused both her and us.

    Fortunately she did have our bookings and handed us two room keys. We groped our way down the dark corridor to look for our rooms, while our shoes squeaked alarmingly on the shiny tiled floor. When I managed to find my room I was pleased that it looked clean. I was not so pleased that the room was filled with ear splitting amplified music from a party next door. I have had previous experience with South American all night parties and started to worry if this was going to be a sleepless night. It turned out to be a memorable night, but not for the reason I first feared.

    After settling into our rooms Paul and I ventured out into the town in search of dinner. Our prospects did not look good. The dust continued to blow into my eyes and the music still belched from the party. Although most of the potential cafes looked closed, we did eventually find a wobbly looking place that appeared to be open. We pushed open the ancient door and ventured inside. The place was empty. I half expected to see a sign informing us that smoking was compulsory in this town. I also felt a little vulnerable without a six shooter by my side. We might have to leave the place in a hail of bullets. It was that sort of place.

    We sat down and tried to decipher the menu. You guessed it – not a word of English. We both made a random selection and pointed our choices to the young waitress. She smiled and disappeared. We were still the only ones there about 30 minutes later when our dinners arrived. To our relief the dinners were good and we did not have to fight our way out of the place. The party was still in full swing. I regretted not having packed ear plugs.

    Fortunately the bed was clean and, in spite of the racket just outside my window, I somehow fell into a deep sleep. Some time later I was awoken by a call of nature. I groped for the light switch. It did not work. I was immersed in complete darkness, not able to see my own hand in front of my face. This sort of darkness is seldom encountered in our modern world and I found it quite unsettling. Getting carefully to my feet, I felt around the walls for a clue as to my location. After a couple of minutes of groping, I eventually found my phone and finally had a glimmer of light.

    The light allowed me to find the toilet, but then I discovered that the electricity was not the only thing that was not working. There was also no water ! Perhaps the town had been taken over by bandidos ??

    At least the lack of power had one advantage – the party had stopped. Without electricity their amplifiers would not work. I looked for the time, it was 2 am. When I closed the phone, the darkness returned with a vengeance. I pulled up the sheets and tried to sleep, but it was not so easy anymore.

    The light did not return to my room until 7 am, however the pronounced flicker indicated that it was coming from a generator. I tried to check my emails. Guess what ? No wifi, no Internet and very soon, no power either. The generator had failed. Over the next half hour there were several attempts to restart the generator, until someone obviously just gave up and the hotel was plunged back into darkness.

    I won’t go into detail about breakfast, suffice to say it was almost non existent. Paul and I looked at each other and smiled. We both knew that the past 24 hours would be something that both of us would remember for the rest of our lives. We just hoped that the promised driver would turn up for us as had been arranged. We were very ready to leave Purmamaca.
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  • Day42

    We Enjoy a Salta Free Day

    June 8, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    After more than a month of quite relentless travelling, I always look forward to the occasional "rest day". It is a blessed relief to not have a tight schedule to adhere to, and it also gives an opportunity to make some inroads into that other pressing task of catching up with laundry.

    Once again I awoke to yet another perfectly clear morning. I really could get used to this climate. With its low humidity and perfectly clear and dry weather, it was absolutely perfect for exploring this delightful city on two feet.

    On our previous walks around the city I was impressed to see that all the stray dogs had been provided with lovely warm coats to wear. With the extremely cold nights that you get at this time of the year, I could appreciate that the dogs must have been grateful. I could also believe that any city that showed such compassion for its stray dogs had a lot going for it.

    After breakfast Paul and I headed back to the central plaza. It seems that any exploration of a colonial city must always start with the plaza as that is where all the action always seems to take place. We had heard that the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology had a fascinating exhibit of an Incan mummy and we both wanted to see it. Unfortunately so did about 200 local school children who were already lined up at the entrance. Judging by their behaviour it was evident that most of them must have been fed copious amounts of red cordial before the excursion. Or maybe they just didn't get out much.

    Whatever the reason for their exuberance, we decided that it might be a good idea to come back later in the day. Hopefully the kids might have left by then. We walked through the city to the base of the nearby San Bernando Hill. This small mountain dominates the landscape of Salta and has a modern cable car to take visitors to the summit.

    We went to the ticket office and were delighted to see that there was a special rate for "elderly" travellers. After carrying my senior's card all over South America, now it was finally time to make it pay. And it did. The elderly price was about half the price for "normal" people, so sometimes being ancient really does have its own perks.

    Thus equipped with our special elderly tickets we staggered to the nearest gondola and made our way to the summit. The views down over the city were superb and the neat rectangular layout of the streets was clearly evident. Unfortunately the glorious views at the top of the mountain were offset by the extremely loud music that was blasting from the cable car station. After a brief stay we climbed on board for the downward trip back to the town.

    On our way back to the plaza we found ourselves in a group of high school students. Judging by the nice clothes and makeup they were wearing and the impressive smart phones they were carrying, we got the impression that the town was relatively quite prosperous. We have not seen a single beggar or homeless person since we arrived here and the modern shops and dozens of classy eateries all seem to be doing a very healthy trade.

    Back at the museum the rowdy schoolchildren were nowhere in sight. I walked to the counter and proudly produced my elderly card to get another discount. It didn't work here. Only locals get the lower rate. At least I tried.

    The main exhibit in the museum is an incredibly well preserved mummy that was found on the top of a 6700 metre volcano. I guess it must have been a bit disappointing when the first modern climbing team reached the summit, only to discover that the Incans had been there over 500 years earlier. Not only had they climbed just about every major summit,but had done so without oxygen, modern gear, climbing boots, etc. They had also carried enormous amounts of artefacts to the snow covered peaks and dug excavations to bury their preserved offerings to Patchamama. It was an amazing feat.

    The mummies that have been discovered on the highest peaks are mostly of young children which had bee specially chosen because of their perfect beauty. They were amazingly preserved and the one in the museum at Salta really did look like she was just sleeping. Not only was the body almost unmarked, but the clothing and other items were as pristine as the day she was buried. It really was quite touching to see her beautiful face and the sensitive way her body had been arranged. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures in the museum, but maybe that was not such a bad thing. Perhaps the sleeping child mummy was entitled to some dignity.

    Apparently the Incans did not look on it as a human sacrifice. They believed that they were taking the special chosen one to the highest place where she would be close to heaven and would be able to see out over all the surrounding region. I could not help but wonder if the body should not have been left in peace where she had been placed all those years ago.

    After our time at the museum it was almost time for afternoon siesta. After all , when in Salta, do as the Saltanas do, or something like that. It was a habit that I could easily grow accustomed to.

    Much later in the afternoon Paul and I ventured out for a lovely coffee at a nearby coffee shop and then made our way back to the plaza. Where else would we go ? A gaucho band was getting ready to play. We had arrived just in time for some free lively entertainment. The sun was dipping behind the colonial buildings and the chill was already coming into the air. A lovely dog was enjoying being patted by those listening to the band. It obviously enjoyed the attention and its warm coat would ensure it did not suffer too much when the temperature dropped. Young lovers sat on the seats and cuddled. Everyone seemed genuinely happy. It had been another typical day in Salta.

    Tomorrow we head further north to the very top of Argentina. Another chapter of our adventure is about to unfold.
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  • Day41

    A Lovely Day in Mexico

    June 7, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 1 °C

    Up until now I had never been to Mexico. Along with the Congo, Kazahkstan, Iceland and about 160 other countries I had never had any reason or desire to travel to the land of cacti, sombreros and siestas. You can therefore imagine my surprise when that is exactly where I found myself. Well almost.

    The day began with yet another early start and a long 200 km bus trip to the mysterious sounding Cafayate region of Salta. When putting together this part of the trip, I cannot now recall why I decided to include the Cafayate, other that it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

    After making our way out of Salta, the bus joined the famous "Route 68", apparently one of the most "iconic" national highways of Argentina. Paul and I were both clutching our passports since we had been warned that, on any national highway, police roadblocks are common and everyone has to produce their identity papers. Neither of us had any wish to be sent to some sort of Argentinian salt mine, so we decided to behave ourselves.

    About two hours later we were leaving the flat plateau and entering into a strange, alien looking landscape of huge twisted and raised tectonic plates. Whole mountains appeared to have been lifted and dumped on their sides. Weird manifestations had been given wonderful names like The Titanic, Amphitheatre, Devil's Throat, Obelisk, etc. This was not what we expected to see. If fact I am not sure what we expected, but it wasn't this. In any case, it really was impressive.

    From time to time the bus stopped to allow us time to take photos of the landscape. Each time this happened three young American girls took the opportunity to do what all young Gen Y people now do - take selfies of themselves in front of each and every interesting place. When they got back on the bus they then spent the next 10 minutes admiring every photo. Sad but true.

    As well as the amazing mountains, there were also numerous cacti scattered across the barren landscape. Apparently it only rains here for about 2 months of the year. The rest of the time it really is as dry as dust. At this time of the year every day is clear and sunny, although the temperatures do plummet to around freezing very soon after sunset. It is actually the perfect time of the year to visit. The air at 1500 metres was clear and fresh and the viewing was excellent.

    We were also warned about the various dangerous creatures that live here in the desert. These include Black Widow spiders, huge tarantulas and rattle snakes. Apparently the huge spiders can sometimes be seen running across the road, maybe with a large rabbit in their mouths. On this day we didn't see any, although I would have loved to.

    After passing through the Cafayate Mountain region we finally reached the lovely little town of Cafayate. To our delight it looked even more Mexican than any town in Mexico possibly could have. With the brightly coloured shops, large central plaza (every town has a plaza) and the blazing blue sky overhead, it really seemed magical.

    Paul and I found a sunny cafe and sat down to enjoy a cup of coffee. A few of the local stray dogs were sleeping in the early afternoon sun, while the rest of the population looked like they had knocked off for the daily siesta. After the early start to our day, a sleep would have been very welcome. In any case, we were both really glad that we had discovered this treasure.

    We wandered back to the bus to face the long journey back to Salta. We followed the same route back, however the changing angle of the sun allowed some better photos to be taken. As the afternoon drew on, the gentle rocking of the slow moving bus rocked just about every one on board into a deep sleep. It had been a lovely day.

    In the evening Paul and I wandered to the centre of Salta in search of dinner. Hundreds of people were happily walking the streets. A few buskers filled the evening air with bright music and many of the old colonial buildings were beautifully lit with feature lighting. We both agreed that this seemed to be quite a lovely place to live. We also agreed that the cold was starting to creep up our legs so we returned to the hotel to thaw out.

    Tomorrow we have a free day to do some more exploration of this fascinating city.
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  • Day40

    Back to the Land of the Incas

    June 6, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    It's not easy waking up at 1.00 am. But when your flight is scheduled at 4.50 am in the morning, that is what you have to do. When the alarm sounded it would have been so easy to just switch it off and ignore it. If I did that I knew that the consequences would have been even more dire than our missing the ferry yesterday.

    I rolled out of bed, jammed my luggage closed and made my way down to the foyer. The hotel was situated within the airport precinct, but outside it was dark, cold and deserted. It felt a little strange to have now separated from the rest of the group. From now on it would be just Paul and me.

    At 2.00 am our taxi arrived and we jammed our luggage and ourselves aboard for the short trip to the terminal building. The driver was interested in where we were from (in fact this is the most commonly asked question) and told us that he would like to bring his family to Australia. Since he had previously spent two years in the USA his English was very good. In fact he seemed like just the sort of person who would be an asset to our country.

    We gave him a modest tip for his service and he was genuinely thankful. It was a good way to start the day. When the time came to check in for our flight (it was the first of the day), we were happy to see that very few were lined up in the queue. To our great relief this meant that the flight was only very lightly booked and there were dozens of empty seats throughout the plane. If only all flights were like this.... I propped my head against the window and managed to sleep for almost the entire flight.

    A couple of hours later we were descending to land at Salta Airport. It was still pitch dark outside and the plane braked to an abrupt stop on the short runway. It did not take long for our luggage to join us and we exited the terminal to find a driver waiting for us. We knew it was for us because he had the name "HARRY DAWSON" proudly printed on a piece of cardboard. It was almost correct.

    Soon we were making our way along the quiet streets to our hotel. Although we were extremely early, the hotel managed to find an empty room for us to rest in. We also sneaked our way to the breakfast room to take advantage of the breakfast buffet. In the overall scheme of things, I am sure this is classed a "minor sin".

    Paul and I then decided to explore the city. Our initial impressions were very favourable. The streets were clean, the shops modern and the air was fresh. At 1200 metres elevation Salta is nowhere near as high as we were a couple of weeks earlier and we relished the cool, clean air of the early morning.

    We arrived at the central plaza just in time to hear the music playing. We were soon joined by a large marching band that proudly welcomed us to their city. I assumed that they had heard we were coming and had been patiently waiting to perform for us. Their gesture was surely appreciated.

    Later in the day we were treated to a half day bus tour of the city. We were the only English speaking people on board and the monotone drone of the guide/driver soon had me on another trip altogether - to the wonderful Land of Nod. It was most relaxing.

    Tomorrow morning we once again start early and take a 200 km bus journey to Cafayate. This is a famous region that is located at a significantly higher altitude than the 1200 metre high elevation of Salta. It promises to be a long and interesting day.
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  • Day39

    The Boat Goes Without Us

    June 5, 2018 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    "Well that's the end of my job", I proudly announced as I handed out the final tickets to the group gathered together in the foyer of the Hotel Italiano in Colonia. I must admit that, after worrying about all the complicated arrangements for the past month, it was something of a relief to know that everything had actually gone according to the plan.

    Apart from the early mixup with the name of the hotel in Cusco, everything else had actually gone almost too well. The hotel bookings were always correct, the transports were always where they were meant to be, the guides all knew what they had to do. Now our adventure was rapidly approaching its conclusion. Within a couple of hours our group would begin to disperse and start the long journey back to Australia.

    With our boat tickets and passports in hand we climbed on the bus for the (very) short ride to the Buquebus terminal. Actually it was only a few hundred metres, but the organisers had provided a large bus and guide for this final leg. What could possibly go wrong at this late stage ?

    We bade farewell to our guide and thanked him for the world's shortest bus trip. The terminal was deserted. "Looks like we missed the rush", I jokingly announced. It turned out to be truer than I anticipated.

    With our tickets in hand we proceeded to the Buquebus (ferry) terminal. I allowed some of the others to go before me. Before long I noticed that there seemed to be some consternation at the desk. I then saw David, with his face a lovely shade of ashen, run headlong away from the desk. "Where are you going ?" I yelled. "The boat's gone already", he gasped, "I'm running to buy another ticket somewhere else". I had previously noticed that David does not cope well under stress, and he certainly seemed stressed. I had to investigate further. Meanwhile David continued to huff and puff and run around in ever diminishing circles. I think at times like this, he really needs Carol.

    It turned out that the boat that we had tickets for had indeed departed over an hour earlier than scheduled. While this might seem strange for most countries, it is apparently quite normal for South America. The problem was that nobody had been notified of this random change of plans.

    Of course our problem was that the Rio de la Plata is over 50 km across. The major part of our luggage was still in storage at our previous hotel and most of our group were rushing to get to the airport to catch their flights back to Australia. The presented something of a challenge. I have learnt from many previous "emergencies" that seldom is anything as bad as it first appears. If you remain calm, there is almost certainly a "Plan B" that is available. All you have to do is look hard for it.

    I went to the counter and explained to the staff that we had official tickets from their company that stated that the ferry was due to leave at 10.15 am. As far as we were concerned , the company had a responsibility to get us to Buenos Aires at their expense. They accepted this fact and, within about 45 minutes, we were issued with tickets for a ferry owned by one of their competitors. It was an interesting change of plans.

    With our fresh tickets in hand, we eventually boarded a much smaller, but still perfectly comfortable ferry and were soon on our way again. As it turned out the different ferry had a completely different terminal in the city and the entry to Buenos Aires gave us a new vantage point that we had not seen before.

    We arrived at the terminal to see the familiar face of our guide Sandra, waiting for us. She explained that this happens all the time as apparently the Uruguayans have a very cavalier and somewhat random approach to time zones and are prone to changing without reason or warning. Now that we were all safely back in Argentina, we could afford to laugh it off as just another exciting part of our trip.

    We returned to the Cyan America Towers Hotel to collect our luggage and bid farewell to our fellow travellers. After much hugs and kisses, it was time for the group to finally split. We had shared so many laughs and wonderful times together that it felt a bit like a family breakup. It really was sad to see them go.

    For Paul and I, the adventure will continue for some more time yet. We caught a taxi to our next hotel, right next to the Jorge Newberry Domestic Airport. We will be rising at 1 am tomorrow to catch a very early flight to Salta, in the far north of Argentina. It is actually quite close to Peru and Bolivia and our trip will take us back into the land of the Incas that we had been travelling for the first three weeks of our trip.

    We both need a very early night.......
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