San Ignacio Guasú, Paraguay
The arid deserty landscapes of northern Argentina notwithstanding, the country is proving to be something of an oasis. With a few small exceptions, we’ve loved so much about the 15 countries we’ve visited on this trip, but the thing about Argentina is that it has so many of the little touches in life that make it feel like a world away from its northern neighbours – things that we’d forgotten we missed until we got them back again, like seats on toilets, road signs, and really good chorizo.
Even when you order a coffee at the gas station, not only is it proper coffee, it’s brought to your table with a little glass of sparkling mineral water. Such decadence!
We can’t remember a single border crossing that has brought such a dramatic change in culture as the transition between Bolivia and Argentina. Although sad to say goodbye to Bolivia, we couldn’t help punching the air as we arrived in Argentina. Anyone who has followed the blog for a while will know that there was a very real possibility we weren’t going to make it here in the van. Just to have crossed that border felt immense.
Our first month has involved a feast of gorgeous landscapes in the northern regions of Jujuy, Salta, Chaco and Corrientes. The multi-coloured rock formations of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, weaving through giant cacti at the ruins of Pukara, the spectacular drive from Salta to Cafayate and a precipitous route over the mountains to Tafí del Valle.
But let’s be honest here. The scenery was merely providing a lovely backdrop for what has basically been an eating and drinking binge that’s left us wondering if we should consider colonic irrigation to set us up for the next few months of steaks, cheese and wine.
It’s difficult to adequately emphasise just how bad the beef-eating experience is in almost every Latin American country north of Argentina. For a massive steak lover, three years of tasteless, leathery beef is hard to take. When we bought our first Argentine steak to cook, we couldn’t believe it. Inexpensive, tender, delicious and all washed down with an inexpensive and delicious red wine. Bingo.
It’s still early days, but we’re trying to learn as much as possible about the different cuts of meat, and the seemingly endless wine options. Quite an overwhelming task, I know, but one we are taking on seriously and stoically.
When we splurged on a meal out in Salta, we really went for it by ordering a plate of the three best cuts of beef, done on a barbeque grill. The sizzling platter that arrived was groaning with nearly 2kg of perfectly cooked, melty sirloin, fillet and short ribs. Until then, I don’t remember ever eating a meal and still fantasising about it several days later. It was one of the best we’ve had in our lives and the whole meal, including side orders and wine, cost the same as a single high-quality steak in the UK.
So many treats are such great value for money that our waistlines are in serious trouble. Apart from the steaks there’s the blue cheese, salamis, good bread, nice pastas and gnocchi and, of course, wine – all of which are being brought home by the bagful at the moment.
Travelling around some of the wine-growing regions doesn’t help with consumption levels. In Cafayate even the local ice cream comes in Malbec and Torrontes flavours. There we had a blissful day of touring two wineries, punctuated by a beery lunch with some local empanadas. After a nap we managed to choke down some more wine with some cured llama meat, blue cheese and bread. This is the life of your bog-standard camper-on-a-budget in Argentina.
And that leads me to another big change. Suddenly we cannot move for campsites and other campers. To be in a country where camping is a massive part of the culture makes life a hell of a lot easier. We’ve already started to take it for granted that no matter where we decide to stop there’s probably going to be at least a municipal campsite in the town or nearby, and probably several other camping options on offer.
When we do pull in, our little van is often now a mere twig in a forest of Argentinian white camper vans.
‘Gosh’, we said with a little sniff, ‘we just don’t feel special any more’.
Although we’ve met lots of people during this trip, we have actually spent the majority of our time alone and only sporadically meet other campers, so it’s been great and also been a bit of an adjustment. At Termas de Rio Honda we came across a campground that was unlike anything we’ve seen since Mexico – the natural hot water and warm climate attracts hundreds of ‘snowbirds’ from the chilly south and the sight of rows of campervans as we approached was quite a novelty.
As for the municipal facilities, they are – as you’d expect – there for the public. If you pitch up at the weekend, as we did recently in the city of Resistencia, you can expect to share the space with several hundred people who are spending the day there grilling meat, drinking and playing music for the day and probably the night too.
Another adjustment has been to the ebb and flow of the day. Like much of southern Europe, in Argentina there tends to be a bit more ebb than flow. Then suddenly everyone’s all sparky, going out for the evening just as the mere mortals are heading for bed. The afternoon siesta dictates that most businesses are shut from lunchtime til about 4, 5 or 6pm. There’s also an extra hour of darkness in the mornings, and it seems like no one’s in a real hurry to get going early. So all in all the day feels significantly shorter. I’m sure people are a lot happier and healthier for it, but it can make getting things done quite a challenge some days.
Some mornings we’ve been more than happy to fit in with the slow starters. Although we’re lucky to have been enjoying almost wall-to-wall blue skies for months now, since arriving in Argentina we’ve had some extreme temperatures to deal with. In Tilcara the cold wind was so brutal, one evening we had to retreat into bed with our dinner for the first time ever. In Cafayate, hot dust storms sent us scurrying into the van for several hours each afternoon. In Humahuaca we had to snap the frozen water from the outside tap before doing the breakfast dishes. And in Tafí del Valle, the temperature dropped so low at night we had frost on the inside of the van – another first. Only the hardiest can face getting out from under the blankets before the sun comes over the mountains and starts to warm the ground.
Yet in Salta there was a week-long heatwave that made the TV news – we sweltered in the shade during the day, and could sit in shorts as we barbequed in the evenings. It was hot work driving round the city looking for a solution to the fact that our propane gas system is not compatible with any of the refill systems here. Eventually we found the inevitable guy with an answer, and watched – with some trepidation – as he filled our tank from a gas bottle via a pipe into the side of our on/off tap. If, for some strange reason, you’re not au fait with campervan propane tanks, let me confirm that this would definitely not pass any health and safety test.
In Resistencia we had our first rainy night since around May. We splashed through puddles as we got ready to head for a short detour into Paraguay. After a night in Posadas we headed for the bridge over the River Paraná, which forms the international border between Paraguay and Argentina. Before we left we told the campsite owner we were going over the border. He did a lot of teeth-sucking and warned us how terribly dangerous it would be, which is the default response of anyone from a neighbouring country when you tell them you are going to visit the (poorer) country next door.
It’s true we weren’t sure exactly what to expect, as few travellers go there. As soon as we got over the border we pulled into a gas station to fill up. Four or five young attendants became very excited when they saw our California license plates. They quizzed us about the trip (“did you bring this on a ship?… you what?.. you drove from California?), took photos, and one rushed off to find us a freebie from the shop.
We’ll be back in Argentina very soon. But for a few days at least, we feel special again.
Things we now know to be true: We’ve reached the age when we’re the ones who want them to turn the music down.
MORE PHOTOS FROM ARGENTINA IN OUR GALLERY BELOW!
PERU FLASHBACK: TRIP REVIEW
Since we last blogged, the website Queen of Retreats has published the reviews we wrote of our luxury trip to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, which was provided by travel company HighLives.
You can read Paula’s review, Jeremy’s review, and our overview of High Lives’ wellness holidays here.