Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Altiplano

Thursday 25 Sept. 2008

Check out of our hostel in Salta early and get to the bus station for our 7 a.m. ride to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The bus stops in Jujuy then enters a dry canyon marked by colorful villages. The canyon narrows and we begin to switchback.


At about 10 a.m. we are on top of a sprawling plateau at 10,000 feet. We continue to climb, gradually, and volcanoes loom in the distance. The climb continues to the Argentine customs checkpoint, which is at 13,000 feet. It´s cold here, and windy. Back on the road, in Chile now, the climb continues past 14,000 feet across a broad plain with almost no vegetation -- though there are signs of life: llamas are browsing along the road and the driver occasionally honks his horn to scare them off.

When we hit 15,000 feet there are small pathces of snow and ice along the road, and the bus steward begins to pace up and down the aisle, presumably looking for anyone having trouble with the altitude. We hit 15,400 feet.


Suddenly the climb stops and we crest a ridge. Below spreads the Atacama desert, the world´s driest place. We descend along a road marked continually with runaway truck lanes. We drop down to 8,000 feet before hitting San Pedro, where we go through Chilean customs. San Pedro is a sandy-street town made mostly for tourists. We check into a hostel and shop around for trips to the Bolivian Altiplano. We find a tour guide we are comfortable with, and the price is right -- $100 per person for three days, the fee including everything except for one night´s lodging and park entry fees. We sign up and have a good dinner.

Friday 26 Sept. 2008

We get up early, have an excellent breakfast and get to the tour agency office by 8. I change our pesos over for bolivianos and we meet Ben and Megan, the Australians we´ll be sharing the tour with.

We get in a minibus and drive back to Chilean customs, then begin the climb back into th Altiplano, turning off on the dirt road marked simply ´A Bolivia.´ We climb back to 13,000 feet and Bolivian immigration. Being Americans, we need to buy another expensive visa, but the immigration guy can´t or won´t sell us one. Instead he wraps our passports in an envelope and gives them to our tour guide and tells us to get the visas in Uyuni, the first real town in Bolivia. We meet our guides: Mario and his wife, who is apparently only called Mama. Mama makes us breakfast while Mario gasses up our LandCruiser using a tank he has tied to the safari rack. There are other tours leaving at the same time as ours, and everyone is in stripped-down LandCruisers, each with huge gnarly tires and gas tanks strapped to the safari rack.


Mario drives the trackless desert and chews on coca leaves while Mama occasionally tells him to watch out for things. The Altiplano rises into a multicolored hue of barren earth and towering mountains. We rise to just under 16,000 feet and make our first stop: Laguna Blanca. The lake is white due to borax deposits, Mario says. Like the others in the Altiplano, it´s teeming with flamingoes and flanked by llamas.


Then it´s on to Laguna Verde, a spectacular sight.


We pass the Desierto de Dali, with its weird rock formations, and stop at a hot springs for lunch, which Mama prepares while I get in the hot springs. It´s nice until I get out, at which point it´s incredibly cold.

At lunch, Mario fixes a leaky tire by taking it off, taking the tube out, plugging the hole with cement, and then putting everything back on and filling the tire up with a bike pump. Then it´s on to an area of geysers and boiling mud pots before dropping down to Laguna Colorado at 14,000 feet.


There is a very simple pension here and we walk along lake before sunset. For fun I decide to see how far I can climb up the mountain behind the lake before the sun sets and after a halfhour have not even reached the mountain´s base -- everything here is on such a huge scale.

I´m having trouble with the altitude, and so is Laura. My nose is bleeding, I´ve got a dry hack, my head is pounding, my ears are ringing, and my fingers and toes keep going numb. Don´t sleep at all.

Saturday 27 Sept. 2008

Cold, though with a warming sun. We have breakfast, though I can´t do anything but drink tea. We pack up and a few miles down the road steam pours out of the hood.


The radiator has froze, Mario says. He was afraid of this. He came outside at 5 a.m and the temp was minus 10 F. I walk away for a while and see how incredibly alone we are.


Mario fixes the problem by taking a coat hanger and wrapping a piece of cloth around it. He dips the cloth in kerosene and lights it on fire and holds the flame by the radiator. After a few minutes, problem solved.

We stay between 14,000 and 15,000 feet and pass Arbol de Piedra


before passing a chain of five lakes, all with flamingoes. We descend to 13,000 feet and ride across a salt flat before crossing a railroad track and coming to a village called San Juan. Mario tells us if we want we can visit a museum here. The museum is closed and he drives off, coming back a few minutes later with the woman who has the key. The museum tells about the area´s history, including the tribes which inhabited the area before the Inca came. They hunted llama and grew quinoa, a high-vitamin cereal that grows, apparently, with no water and in below-freezing temps. The main part of the museum is a mummy dating to 1250 AD which still has clothes, skin and hair on it. Mario tells us if we want we can see where the mummy came from. We walk across town and up a hill to a small shack, where a woman takes a dollar from us and points us up the hill. We follow it to an area full of stacked rocks. In holes in the rocks are mummies, about 30 in all. Some are children, some have had their skulls bound into points at childbirth to show they are royalty, and some are just skulls surrounded by broken bits of pottery.


Back at the shack, the woman shows us pins, hooks, unbroken pottery, arrowheads, hair and cloth taken from the crypts. Back in the LandCruiser we drive another half hour until we come to a salt hotel. A salt hotel is just that. Almost everything, from the bedframes to the bar to the reception desk to the walls to the floors to the tables and chairs, is made from salt. Two boys come in after dinner and play songs for us on a flute and drum. We sleep well in the oxygen rich environment of 13,500 feet.

Sunday 28 Sept. 2008

Up at 5 a.m. Outside see sky lit in a fantasm of stars, so many stars it´s hard to see black sky. We leave at 5:20 and sail across the salt flats -- Salar Uyuni. The sun comes up.


We stop at an island in the salt and climb a hill. Atop it are 36-foot tall cactus that look like saguaro. One is labelled as being 1200 years old. We have pancakes for breakfast and go on, crossing more salt.


We pass an area where men are shoveling the salt into trucks for processing and then a train cemetery, where Bolivia´s oldest trains have been put to rest. Most date from the 1880s.


We get to Uyuni at 4 p.m., get into a hotel, get our passports straightened out, bid farewell to Mario and Mama and the Aussies, and have beer and pizza for dinner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Valle de Cafayate

We´re in Salta, both a city and a province, in norhtern Argentina.

Argentina has several wine regions, but almost all the wine anyone gets in the US is from Mendoza -- also both a city and a province. Incidentally, little wine from Mendoza comes from around the city itself but instead out of town.

Other wine regions here include areas around Cordoba, San Juan and Cafayate. Cafayate is a city and valley south of Salta by some 100 miles. It´s not far from the border with Chile and in the Andes´ foothills and rainshadow.

This area is dry, very sunny and pretty high -- most vineyards are at 7,000 feet and some are higher. A wine shop guy told me some of the highest vineyards in the world are here, and that the altitude (somehow?) made for wines with big alcohol contents -- one bottle I saw registered in at 16.5 percent.

The area is also visually spectacular, with loose forests of saguaro-like cactus, whitewashed villages, and the occasional 19,000-foot mountain with small glaciers on it.

Here are two wines from the region:

Vasija Secreta Cabernet Valle de Cafayate. Did not figure out why it´s labelled ´cabernet´ but this is a common cheapie and went well with a steak.

Bodegas El Porvenir de los Andes Amauta 2004 Valle de Cafayate. A blend of 60 percent malbec, 30 percent cab sauv and 10 percent syrah. Bought in a wine shop in Cachi for US$13 and shows how a modest uptick in price yields spectacular results. Beautiful.

Road to Cachi


Salta at night


Monday, September 22, 2008

Sick in a Great Place

Our 18-hour bus ride went off almost without a hitch. The overnight portion was on a bus which smelled heavily of gasoline. We arrived in Salta as the sun was coming up. What a sight. The bus crested a pass and the city opened up in a wide valley below, bounded by steep mountains, some with patches of snow on their south faces.

All was not well once I got off the bus, however. We had a short breakfast while waiting for things to open up, and by the end of it I was definitely feeling ill. Like being drunk or very depressed or otherwise out of sorts, the feeling is the same: the distance between myself and things in my foreground increase by about 10 percent, the new space is filled with the fuzziness that is sickness.

I spent a full day in bed. Today we got out and saw some of the city: fun, scenic, lots of activity.

Gondola ride above Salta:


Sand dollar from Brazil:


Beach dogs:


Some details to keep up on:

Finished The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. An absolutely fantastic novel full of delicious irony.

Consumed some Cancao Vinho Tinto de Mesa Seco, by Antonio Basso and Filhos, Flores da Cunha, RS Brazil ($2). Brazil does make wine. Most of it comes from a mountainous area a bit north of Porto Alegre, which is the southernmost big city in Brazil. Unfortunately, this wine was absolutely, totally disgusting.

Consumed some Fernet Vittone. Fernet is a popular drink in Argentina. It´s made from water, alcohol, sugar, aromatic herb infusion and caramel. I got a small bottle of this for the bus ride and a mixer of Coke to go with it. I guess hard liquor is not the thing for me. Bad times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Whales, Waterfalls and a Long Bus Ride

We left Torres on Sunday for what was supposed to be a 5 hour bus ride. Turned out to be 8 hours, and I´m sticking a lot of the blame to Lonely Planet, which has been consistently incorrect about a lot of things on this continent ... but more on that later.

We drove along the coast and then to Ilha Santa Margarita, home of Florianopolis. We got off the bus to beautiful clear crisp skies to find the town, home to about 300,000, completely closed. This is not the first time that for whatever reason we´ve happened across a deserted city, but few have been as closed up as Florianopolis. We spent nearly an hour looking for an affordable hotel in the center and gave up. Then we walked a few miles looking for a restaurant open and serving something other than beer and empenadas. Failed on that front too. Slept well in our overpriced room but were woken at 2 a.m. by someone knocking on our door. We ignored it, but scary nonetheless.

Monday morning dawned clear and when we went outside we found the city positively humming. Streets packed, everything open, cars and busses everywhere and people all about. A pretty city, but I felt a bit put off from yesterday and we decided to take a night bus to Foz do Iguacu. We got our tickets and left our packs at the bus station and caught a local bus out to a beach on the east side of the island. The bus left the busy waterfront and climed up a steep canyon. From the mountain crest we could see a lagoon, huge dunes and miles of white sand beaches.

We got off at a village called Barra de Lagoa to find sandy streets and waiters from nearby cafes rushing up to us to show us the menus. We passed on an early lunch and walked on to the beach and took our shoes off. The beach, backed by pines and palms and narrowed by high tide. curved around to the right. Two dogs followed us. We walked for a half-hour as the waves grew. I saw three black rocks out in the water and Laura asked if they could be whales. I said no and suddenly she was running toward the spots, trailed by the dogs. A second later I saw one of the rocks blow water skyward and I was running too. A halfmile later we were abrest of two whales 100 yards offshore, and we watched for an hour as they jumped, blew water, waved their tails and fins and cavorted about.

The afternoon waned and the skies clouded. We took the local bus back and got to the bus station with an hour to spare -- just enough time for a dinner of beans and rice and pineapple juice.

The bus dropped us off 17 hours later in Foz do Iguazu, a busy town of 200,000 12 miles from the famous waterfalls. We had breakfast in the station and took a bus into town, checked into another overpriced hotel, and rode a local bus out to the Brazilian side of the falls.

Iguacu falls is hard to put into words, and hard to compare to anything -- even the inevitable comparisons to Victoria and Niagra don´t come close. It´s a stupendous miles-long wall of falling water, sometimes in slivers and sometimes in magnificent plunges of thunder and spray.

The next day we crossed the border back into Argentina -- good to be speaking (sort of) Spanish again. We took the day off to read on the patio of our quiet hostel and then the next day went back to the falls on the Argentine side. Argentina has their side of the park set up so you walk to the falls through a dense jungly forest, which even though you are sidebyside with what seems like millions of tourists there is still a sense of discovery.

Laura got a fever in the afternoon -- 100 -- and we were whupped by the time we made it back to town. Our next goal is San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a daunting 40-some hours by bus in total. We decided to bite off just 5 hours in our first stretch, getting us to Posadas, a town of 250,000 set along the banks of the Rio Parana and facing Paraguay. Nice, but it´s hugely inconvenient for travelers -- bus station is 3 miles out of town, very few hotels and none which are affordable, and lots of other services seem hard to find. No matter, we´re out tomorrow and headed for Salta, where we hope to do a big smelly load of laundry and take a few days to relax.

Here´s what you´re waiting for: Laura´s pictures





Saturday, September 13, 2008

Torres, Brazil

Good day:

Sleep until 8. (Meaning, we woke up early.)

Walk along the beach.

Huge buffet breakfast, with all the Brazilian coffee I can swill.

Walk along the beach the other direction.

Climb a hill.

Find more hills behind it.

Zone out watching waves.

Feel the wind on my face.

Beans and rice for lunch, beer and a pineapple shake.

Sleepy already.




Friday, September 12, 2008

Don´t Call It ´Sleeping In´

We woke up at about 9 a.m. on our last day in Uruguay and made it down to the hotel breakfast by 10 a.m. It is a measure of just how much we have grown accostomed to South Ameican time standards that waking up at 9 a.m. can by no means be called sleeping in. It´s just when you wake up around here. Steven Hatcher, back in Santiago, told me there is no such thing as the early bird in SA and I´ve found he was right. And so our whole day has adjusted. We eat lunch about 2 and don´t even start thinking about dinner until 8. Once, Laura suggested we eat at 7.30. We couldn´t even find anything that was open that early.

(Photos by Laura of Punta del Este)


We stayed in our hotel yesterday as long as possible, taking advantage of the noon checkout. We had a night bus to Brazil that left at 11 p.m. and would arrive in Porto Alegre at 10 a.m. Even though it was a semi-sleeper bus -- wide seats that recline almost all the way down -- it´s very hard for either of us to sleep on these things, and so even under the best circumstances we arrive bedraggled.

I can truly say I am sorry to leave Uruguay. Although it is likely the most obscure country I´ve been to, besides perhaps Swaziland and Lesotho, it has proven to be the calmest, safest, most relaxing place this side of Malawi.


One thing we have not written about is yerba mate.

Yerba mate is the national drink, I guess you´d call it, of Uruguay. They drink it in Chile, some, and they drink it in Argentina a lot, but no one drinks it like the Uruguayans.

Yerba mate is a drink that tasts kind of like cut grass and dead leaves, although some have generously tried to call it a sort of tea. Here´s how it works: everyone has their special mate mug. It looks like a coconut shell with silver lining on it, and occasionally carved inscriptions. They fill the mug up with the greenish yerba mate and pour in an ounce or so of water when they want a drink. The water is poured from a thermos that absolutely everyone has. Once the hot water is in they drink from a special silver spoon that has a sort of silt trap at the end of it.


It´s fascinating how hooked the nation is on this drink, especially when you consider the taste is, ah, acquired. Kids drink it. Old people drink it. College students drink it. Poor people drink it. Rich people drink it. Some offices have no mate rules, and the businessmen will come onto the sidewalk during their breaks to smoke and sip mate. Bus drivers drink it, people in the post office drink it, and people whizzing by on scooters are drinking it, all of them with the mug in one hand, the silver spoon sticking out of it, and the thermos under their arms.

Our two days in Punta del Este were darkened a bit by low clouds and fog, though we did qutie a bit of walking and some biking. The town is a peninsula with beaches broken by rocky headlands and all of if backdropped by posh low-rises, Mercedes dealers, sushi restaurants and the like. It´s an ``international beach resort,`` or so the guide book says, and if you´re into that sort of thing, great, but it was not really our thing. We did like watching the surfers, and the sea lions, but as far as beach towns go, we liked Pirapolis, an hour back toward Montevideo, more.

Our bus took us into Brazil in what is likely the strangest border crossing I´ve ever had. I actually slept through the whole thing. Normally, if the bus is heading through the border (as opposed to dropping you off and letting you walk through and catch another bus on the other side), the bus stops, all the lights come on, and everyone files off. But this time, when we got on the bus the attendant took our passports, and he ushered the passports, not the people, through formalities in Uruguay and Brazil. If there was any problem, apparently (Laura told me this, as she woke up) the officials came on the bus to take the person in question off and deal with them in the border office. Never before have I never personally had to be in attendance at a border crossing.

We are now in Torres, Brazil, on the southern coast. It´s palm trees and banana trees and a small cluster of skyrises and big dunes and two great headlands on either end. We are trying to keep tabs on the hurricane headed toward Houston, where most of my family lives, and also trying to keep abreast of the situation in Bolivia, where there appears to be a low-grade coup going on. We were planning to be in Bolivia in about two weeks, but now that is looking iffy. Local TV shows rioting and roadblocks, though it´s hard to determine exactly where that is going on and how serious it is. If anyone comes across any good stories on the current situation there, please email them to me at redpinecanyon@yahoo.com

Monday, September 8, 2008


We took a subway, train and ferry combo from Buenos Aires to Carmelo, Uruguay last week. We arrived after sunset and did not have a map of town and wondered for a while if we needed to call a taxi. Usually we don´t like to arrive in a new town at night due to risk of theft and whatnot. Well, we need not have worried about about anything like that in Uruguay, which has turned out to be about the quietest, calmest, most peaceful place I´ve ever been to.

(My apologies, by the way, for the above pictures. Seems blogger.com has a mind of its own when it comes to uploading photos. See www.audipat.blogspot.com for more. The top one is Plaza Independencia in Montevideo. The second is a minor street protest -- very common here.)

We spent two nights in Carmelo and two nights in Colonia. Colonia is especially beautiful -- cobbled streets, brightly painted buildings, Spanish and Portugeuse inspired architecture, long lines of palm trees and sprawling birch and elm trees across the many city plazas.

On Sunday we took a bus to Montevideo, the capital. Montevideo does not hold the same charms as the small towns in the countryside, though it is still interesting ... rather like a watered down version of Buenos Aires. Laura took me to the central market last night for a massive Uruguayan steak.

Washed it down with a damn fine bottle of wine -- Vinos Valente Vino Comun Tannat-Merlot Cno. Los ViƱedos, Uruguay. Cost less than $3.

Finished Steinbeck´s Grapes of Wrath at lunch today.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Quest of the Two-dollar Bottle

We eat out practically every meal, of course, and at lunch and dinner we almost always get red wine. It´s the same price or cheaper than beer and soda and, of course, tastes much better.

I usually go for the cheapest bottle on the menu, which in Argentina was rarely more than $4. At the ¨best¨restaurants, the menu had two or three selections at $4 or less, and once I had a bottle for $2. At the grocery stores, you can usually find these for $1 or so less than the restaurant bottle price.

I´ve become a bit of an expert on $3 and $4 bottles of Chilean and Argentine wine and can now say with some authority that all of them are drinkable and practically all of them are forgettable.

In Argentina something I´ve found interesting is that a lot of wine is coming out from areas other than Mendoza. Mendoza is the big city (100,000) at the foot of the Andes, but Mendoza is also the state the city is in, and most wine which says ´Mendoza´ comes from somewhere in the state, which is fair sized. The state of San Juan, however, also makes a fair bit of wine, one of which I had yesterday and was very good.

A few have stood out:

Vasco Viejo, Maipu Mendoza ... house wine blend, a pleasant sipper, for $3 at Restaurante de Oriente in Bs. As.

Cruz del Sur, Santiago del Estero, San Juan ... peppy house wine, also a blend, at Cafe Harmony on Avenida de Mayo in Bs. As. Less than $3.

Colon Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Bodegas San Juan ... OK, so I messed up on this one. We were at A Dos Manos Parilla in Tigre, waiting for the boat to Carmelo, when I ordered this one for lunch, and I read the lines wrong and though I was ordering the one beneath it. This cost a whopping $6 for a half-bottle (375 ml) and after drinking all that cheap wine the difference was noticeable instantly. This has depth and clarity and nice notes of smoke and black cherry. Good.

We´re in Carmelo, Uruguay just now and hoping to sample some of Uruguay´s reds tonight.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Wine and Beer


Schneider Cerveza Rubia (Argentina)

Martinet Bru 1998 Priorat Mas Martinet Viticultures, Espana (table wine): (very clean tasting and light for a 10-year old

Les Adres 2000 Dom. du Trapedis Rasteau Cotes du Rhone Villages (grenache, carignon, syrah, cinsault): quite approachable