Tag Archives: Chilecito

Going with the flow

12 Nov
Bathing capybaras

Down by the riverside: Capybaras bathing in a stream, Parque Nacional El Palmar, Entre Rios, Argentina.

Caraiva, Bahia, Brazil
[by Paula]

As we traversed Argentina for the fifth time in just over a year, it felt like a lot of the things we were seeing and doing were something of a preparation for the next phase – Brazil. Which is where we are now, although we still can’t quite believe we finally made it here.

As we headed back towards the Entre Ríos (‘between rivers’) province near the Argentina/Uruguay/Brazil border, things became just that little bit more tropical – lush landscapes, more exotic wildlife, plenty of rain, increased warmth and humidity, and a sudden rise in the size and volume of the insects that wanted to come and live in the van. The rivers flanking the province – the Rio Paraná and Rio Uruguay – both flowed into Brazil and we were increasingly content to be carried along with them.

But before our time down by the riverside, we had one last date with Argentina’s mountains. When we last wrote, we were on our way to Chilecito, in the hills of La Rioja. La Rioja?… ah, there they go chasing wine again, I hear you say. But no, we were there for its dramatic highland setting and its fascinating abandoned cableway system, which once trundled gold, silver and copper between the mine – up in the sierras at an altitude of more than 4,600m – and the town. An amazing early 20th century feat of engineering, the cableway spanned 40km and had nine stations.

We visited a cute little museum at ‘station 1’ before driving up to ‘station 2’ for some fabulous views and a wander among the cablecar graveyard.

Chilecito 'estacion 1'

The main cableway station in Chilecito is now a lovely little museum

 

Estacion 2, Chilecito

Estacion 2 of the old cableway, Chilecito, La Rioja, Argentina.

We headed down to the sierras around Córdoba, stopping off in Villa de Soto to meet up with fellow road-trippers Betti and John, from the UK. We’d never met before but Betti had responded to my pathetic Facebook plea for some British teabags. A month or so later they were in the vicinity and before we knew it we were meeting up for a barbeque and the ceremonial handing over of a batch of hugely appreciated PG Tips. Aaah…. a lovely cuppa.

Amongst other things we chatted about Brazil, as we were still humming and hawing about whether to make the massive trip.

In lovely Alta Gracia we paid tribute to the revolutionary that graces more t-shirts than he could ever have imagined, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who lived in the town as a child. After wandering the family’s old home, now a museum and photo exhibition, we visited the new souvenir shop across the road. I think they succeeded in ensuring no one was in any doubt that this was the Che shop….

Che shop

Souvenir shop across from Che Guevara’s childhood home in Alta Gracia, Cordoba, Argentina.

 

We took the bus to the bright lights of Córdoba, which was our first cosmopolitan city day in a long while. We made the most of it by pounding the streets, ‘doing’ the sights, and working up an appetite for a proper Argentinian parrilla lunch of grilled meat, with grilled meat and grilled meat.

Córdoba’s massive student population helps to give it that hip edge. The fact that we were so excited by all the cool cafes, antique shops, market stalls and thronging bars made us realise we’d been knocking around in the backwaters for rather too long. To mark the occasion we had a cocktail before heading for the bus back to our provincial campervan.

Bar in Cordoba

Early evening drinks in Cordoba, Argentina.

We were getting some lovely sunny days but the spring weather was still pretty mixed, which only made us dream of Brazilian beaches even more. By the time we left the sierras we’d made a final decision that we’d keep heading east and go for it.

When we reached Santo Tome, on the Rio Paraná in Santa Fe, we were in organisational mode. We had this irrational compulsion to ‘get prepared for Brazil’, as if we were heading for some back-of-beyond third world country. This kind of thing happens to me even when we’re about to cross borders between the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. I start doing low-level panic-buying in case across the frontier ‘they’ don’t have certain foodstuffs or the brand of tea I like. We also knew wine was expensive and more limited in Brazil – into the trolley it goes!

Being addicted to change doesn’t mean you don’t also fear it in some small way.

With Brazil we had all the usual trivial uncertainties, but with the added complication that we don’t speak Portuguese. We were taking on a long drive in a relatively short space of time and had some fairly important things to sort out, which we really wanted to avoid having to deal with in a new language. One of those was replacing our close-to-death auxiliary battery, which powers the campervan lights and some plug sockets and enables us to camp without external power for several days.

Having to do ordinary things like find battery shops, launderettes, mechanics, ironmongers and the like gives us an excellent reason to spend time in ordinary towns. We really enjoyed our few days in the municipal site in Santo Tome, camping alongside seasonal workers and artesans, and pottering about doing our chores. The site was right next to a long riverside promenade, where people jogged, played, fished, and passed the time with friends and the ubiquitous Argentinian mate (a bitter green tea) which most people carry on their person at all times.

The riverside communities have a whole different feel to other parts of Argentina – there’s more languid strolling as smells of fried fish waft around, not unlike a seaside resort.

River coast

The riverside towns can feel like seaside resorts. Rio Parana, Argentina.

We even got the chance to go to an ordinary football match across the river in Santa Fe – a fine battle between two of the bottom teams in the premier league, Colón de Santa Fe and Arsenal de Sarandí. We’ve been to many matches in Latin America and one of the best things about them is being among the fans in the stands, who are as fanatical as it’s possible to be. The drums and singing don’t cease for the full 90 minutes, and goals are celebrated with the ‘hinchas’ (fanatics) conducting songs and chants from below. The hinchas rule the school, draping themselves from the fencing, shouting themselves hoarse at every turn in the game, hanging banners that talk of their willingness to die for their team and draping flags so huge that half the ‘hinchada’ can barely see the pitch. It said something about the, erm, enthusiasm of the Colón fans that they’d had to build a moat between the pitch and the stands.

While we were waiting for our new battery to arrive we took off up the river to Cayastá. At the posh camping there we grilled some steaks and felt all summery as we looked out over to the river beach on a lovely evening. There were some pretty loud splashes in the water after dark. “Must be some massive fish in there,” we surmised.

Next morning, this chap emerged from the water and came lumbering up the beach.

Grumpy iguana

This iguana wasn’t as grumpy as his face suggests. Cayasta, Entre Rios, Argentina.

 

Iguana, Cayasta

Mr Iguana emerges from the river in Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Shortly afterwards his friend came looking for some discarded fish heads, and got lucky.

Iguana's fish head snack

This iguana came up the beach to find discarded fish heads for snacking on. Cayasta, Santa Fe, Argentina.

Despite our love of Argentinian steak, like Mr Iguana, we were pretty excited about being by the river and able to find some fish to eat again.

For our wedding anniversary we headed down the ‘coast’ to a fish restaurant in the tiny village of Los Zapallos. With its sandy streets and sleepy feel, it doesn’t look like the kind of place you’ll find a decent restaurant. But tucked away in the corner of the village, La Vuelta del Pirata has been serving up a well-regarded fish menu since the 60s.

In true Argentine style it didn’t even open til 9pm. We sat down, starving. Señora Pirata (as she will henceforth be known) shuffled over in her cardie, doing one of those slightly scary auntie faces that is both stern and twinklingly kind. Before we could even speak she said: “It’s just fish, fish and fish, nothing else. I keep bringing it out, and you eat it!“. We took this to mean there was a fixed menu, but were a bit too dumbstruck to ask how many courses there were or what the price was.

Great!” we said, “do you have a wine menu?“. She leaned over to our neighbouring diners’ table and grabbed the bottle of white they were drinking. “This is the best one, you can have a bottle of this.”

I asked in a quiet voice how much the wine was, not being comfortable with having to ask the price of something in a restaurant. In a voice a few decibels short of a foghorn she bellowed “IT’S 90 PESOS!“. We were really starting to like this woman – as my dad said when I told him about her, the world needs more eccentrics.

“As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.”

The food started arriving and we wolfed it. Then more came, and more. We really should have asked what the menu entailed, so we could have paced ourselves. By the 8th course I had a haunted, begging look in my eyes, pleading ‘when will this stop?’.

With each course we asked her what kind of fish was in the dish. Oh, she didn’t like the food being interrogated! After the umpteenth time, she waved her arm towards the other diners, shouting “they know, ask them how good the milanesa is, they’re my most regular customers!”. They nodded their approval.

And it was, indisputably, delicious. All gut-busting 10 courses of it. Baked fish empanaditas, pate, fish ‘meatballs’, fried empanadas, breaded clams, milanesa with roquefort, fish lasagne, marinero (filet in batter with pepper sauce), whole grilled fish, and seafood casserole. As she removed the final dishes she cried out, “oh, I forgot to bring the fried fish!”. Señora Pirata’s idea of a joke – I wonder how long she’s been telling that one.

When the bill came, the food amounted to just over £7 (US$11) a head. No joke.

As a special gesture for our wedding anniversary, we slept in the van in the street outside the restaurant and used the pee bottle as a toilet. Romance is not dead.

New battery installed, holes in exhaust repaired and laundry done, we headed across to Concepción, near the Uruguayan border, for yet more admin – such as the quarterly headache of filling the propane tank and paying the fine for having overstayed our Argentina tourist visa, to allow us to leave the country.

We arrived looking forward to some camping on the Rio Uruguay, only to find the river was now on the road, and a guy was paddling around in a boat in what had been the campsite. “All the campsites in the town are under water!” said the helpful tourist information officer. Parts of Brazil were getting so much rain they’d had to open a dam upriver, flooding loads of places alongside it. Oh dear.

Instead we set up base on the city’s shiny new costanera, a safely concreted promenade with some lovely views and sunsets. It was massive, with a free outdoor gym and parking for hundreds of cars, but we had the place to ourselves each night.

Costanera camping

Sleeping on the costanera, Concepcion del Uruguay, Argentina.

 

Water on fire

The sunsets on the costanera were unbelievable.

Jobs done we headed north towards the border, stopping off for a final dose of tourism at El Palmar national park. One of the last major protected areas for the massively tall yatay palm trees, it had sounded lovely when we read about it. But we weren’t quite prepared for the strange feeling of entering a tropical paradise just a few kilometres from the highway.

As soon as we crossed the park boundary we saw fabulous, vivid birds, and hundreds of capybaras bathing in streams and ambling along the roadside. Curious little foxes stared at us from behind bushes, and in the evening little mustacheod viscachas (members of the chinchilla family) came trotting through the campsite looking for barbeque leftovers.

And then there’s those palm trees, looking resplendent in the daytime and posing obligingly before some perfect sunsets. As we made dinner, chicadas and frogs sang all evening. Yep, we were definitely getting that tropical vibe.

El Palmar's palms

Yatay palms, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

Yatay palm

Yatay palm, El Palmar National Park, Argentina.

 

El Palmar sunset

Sunset in El Palmar National Park, Argentina

On the final push to the border, the weather deteriorated again. We re-visited a place we’d loved last year, where we’d crossed the border into Uruguay. This time it was soggy, windy and grey.

We camped in a wet field further north. As fellow campers will know, those persistently rainy, chilly days are the most challenging. There’s often very little you can do, especially if you’ve gone somewhere for the outdoors, like hiking or mountain views. Spending a rainy day in the van is not like a cosy duvet day at home. You can tell yourself it might be nice to laze around in bed watching movies, but by 11am you pretty much want to scoop your own eyes out with a spoon. I’d go as far as to say that spending a rainy, muddy day in a campervan is about as appealing as – and not entirely dissimilar to – a damp fart in a spacesuit.

Rainy day

Urgh.

So our instinct is usually just to try to drive away from it. Even when it’s futile, we feel we are at least using ‘dead’ time to make progress with the journey.

This time, we had somewhere else to go. We were heading to a sunny beach and we’d picked a strip of white sand that was roughly 3,500km away from where we were sat. It was a long way and we really needed to get moving, so we packed up and made for the border.

Days: 1,501
Miles: 43,766
Things we now know to be true: You can never be too paranoid about running out of teabags.

Mooning around

11 Oct Blood moon
Blood moon

Blood moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Alta Gracia, Córdoba, Argentina
[by Paula]

In our previous life, if I read or heard talk of the kind of travelling that was of the fluid, go-where-the-road-takes-you variety, it always smelled faintly of bullshit to me. It seemed liked an idealised kind of travelling, the kind that people liked to think they were doing, if only they could be that relaxed.

We’ve had enough of those kinds of days and experiences now to realise it’s not bull, it is possible – with the luxury of time – to take each day as it comes and not worry about what’s ‘supposed’ to happen. We still love the planning aspect of the trip – poring over maps and deciding what we want to see, but we’re equally prepared to chuck it all out the window if necessity, weather, the van or the mood requires. I have battled my inner List-Making Control Freak (although am still never actually without a to-do list) while Jeremy has tackled his inner Restlessly Impatient, and we have let our inner Fuck Its prevail – well, at least for the most part.

As I write this we are beginning an unexpected four-and-a-half hour wait at the top of a mountain pass because the route is closed til 7pm for roadworks. We won’t make it to where we’re heading but it doesn’t really matter because we don’t have a particular plan or schedule. The British answer to absolutely every circumstance is to make a cup of tea, so that’s what we’ve done. And because this is Argentina, where one can barely move for campsites, we don’t have to stress out about finding somewhere to sleep before dark. The worst that can happen is that we’ll bed down right here with the diggers and dump trucks.

Mountain pass closed

A delay with a view; crossing the Miranda pass to Chilecito, and waiting four and a half hours for the road to re-open…

Now, more than ever, we are travelling without a plan and sometimes it can feel a bit flaky. While we’ve hardly been burdened with high-pressure deadlines over the last four years, until now we’ve always had at least some loose or distant goal to consider. Be that getting to a certain place for the right season, meeting up with the parents or friends, planning flights for a trip home, organising a Workaway placement, trying to get the van fixed, or fitting things around story ideas and work deadlines. The ultimate aim was making it to Tierra del Fuego in the summer. Turned out it wasn’t the summer we planned, but a year later.

Not for the first time since then we ask ourselves, what’s next? And recently the answer has been slowly taking shape as that vast country that we never really planned to visit, called Brazil… more of which later.

Before taking to the road again, our final month in Salto de las Rosas – where we were doing a three-month Workaway placement – also involved an unplanned turn of events. Two weeks before our leaving date, our British host Susan made a sudden decision to return to the UK to live, with Dave and her daughter, for family reasons. After 10 years in Argentina, they would be packing up, selling everything, trying to re-home their six pets, finding a temporary house-sitter and navigating a quagmire of bureaucracy to settle bills, legal stuff and the sale of Susan’s land and three properties. They had less than 6 weeks to do it in. Suffice to say, they had a lot to do and probably needed some help.

While Susan embraced her inner Spreadsheet Maker and got cracking with the plan, we volunteered to stay an extra two weeks and did a quick metamorphosis from wood-cutting grunts into assistant planners / organisers / house-movers / salespeople / cleaners / photographers. The houses, land and almost everything they owned – which was a lot – were listed and photographed. Yard sales were organised and people started flocking to buy all their belongings.

Final selfie

Final selfie with Susan, Dave and Tiv, Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael.

They’ve been through this before – as have we – and know what to do. But I don’t think they’ll mind me saying there were, understandably, moments when they froze into rabbits-in-the-headlights mode and we had to usher them off the highway. We became part-time counsellors and cajolers when needed, which often involved wine, laughing and sporadic outbursts of swearing.

With a necessary detachment we dragged things from cupboards, emptied shelves, lugged furniture and helped sort things into priorities. My inner List-Making Control Freak was released so it could be free to do things like help boss Dave into making an inventory of his mountainous collection of musical equipment and gadgets, or deciding which of his 345,000 computer/phone/amp/unidentifiable cables he was taking to the UK with him.

It was really hard for them to be getting rid of everything, with so little time to process the emotional upheaval of the move. We fully empathised with their biggest worry – leaving the two dogs and four cats behind. In the end, their lovely neighbour agreed to house-sit and take care of all the animals – phew.

As our departure approached, they were exceedingly generous in handing on plenty of useful stuff to us, plus a never-ending supply of food. We had some drunken farewell meals, a hungover asado with friends Malcolm and Sue, and stocked up with a couple of cases of their La Fraccion Malbec for the road. We emptied the house we’d been living in, gave it a final swish of the mop and drove off somewhat heavier-of-van than before.

It probably took a week or so for us to completely re-adjust to full-time van life again, and we’re very much back in the swing of things. Getting used to the relative lack of space, privacy and cleanliness takes a wee while, but we soon forget what it’s like to take these things for granted. It helps that the weather has been getting progressively warmer (albeit still peppered with some grim grey days) and we have summer stretching ahead of us.

Freelance HQ

Freelance HQ, aka The Van, Tunuyan, Mendoza.

During a stop in Tunuyán, in the Valle de Uco wine valley south of Mendoza, we were finishing off a work project at a campsite near the town. As we were cooking one evening, Jeremy said: “why is the van shaking?”.

It was rocking, fairly decisively, from side to side.

“Maybe it’s the wind,” I offered. Only it wasn’t windy.

With hindsight, it seems ridiculous that in the few seconds that followed we considered that someone was outside rocking the van for a joke, or perhaps an animal had got underneath (in our defence, the last time we had a mystery rocking incident, it was due to a huge pig scratching itself on the underside of the van).

Jeremy leapt out to have a look, and quickly realised all the trees were swaying in unison and the ground was shifting from side to side with remarkable force.

“It’s an earthquake!” he yelled.

I jumped outside and we just stood there, quite dumbstruck, for maybe one or two minutes as the ground quietly heaved, and we did little involuntary surfing motions. It was the first time we’d experienced a major earthquake, and it was rather discombobulating. It was obvious it had been a big one, and luckily we had internet access to check. It was quickly reported to be a massive 8.3-magnitude earthquake that had struck off the coast of Chile, nearly 300 miles away on the other side of the Andes. There were some big aftershocks, and most of the evening was spent on the internet, following events over the border.

When we left there we still hadn’t decided where we were going. Despite having three-and-a-half months to think about it while we were in Salto, we still didn’t seem to have a clear travel plan. We decided to head to Potrerillos, as it looked like an area that would be a nice drive with potential walking.

Potrerillos, Mendoza

Great landscapes around Potrerillos, Mendoza, Argentina.

We wondered why there were so many large groups of youngsters at the campsite. Frankly, that never bodes well for a peaceful night, but our fears weren’t realised. A couple of days later, in Luján de Cuyo, we noticed that the supermarket alcohol aisles were roped off because all sales were banned for four days during the ‘Día del Estudiante’ (students’ day). Hmmmm.

We’d booked a fancy meal at a winery for my birthday the following day, so headed to the nearest campsite we could find. We were clearly out of practice because we decided to pitch up at this place despite the glaringly obvious ominous signs:

a. large group of students. b. large amount of booze and c. excessively large speakers.

We were very keen to shower because of our impending posh restaurant plans, but had to battle for a slot in the one, dirty, wood-fired shower that was being hogged by all the students (since when did they wash anyway?).

There followed one of the worst night’s sleep we’ve had on the trip – really shit, booming music that just never ended. I try to be zen about these things, but that usually expires by about 2am. Normally 4am is the latest these parties go on to, so I waited. By 5am I was near to tears and feeling like the next day had been spoiled. We got up, packed up the van as best we could and moved to a spot that was as far from the music as we could find. I think it finally stopped about 6am, and we got a few hours sleep.

Sometimes our life is one of quite strange contrasts. We got up to a cold, drizzly, day and slopped around in the wet, grumpily trying to get ready and pack up the van. We flattened our bed-hair in the decidedly rustic campsite bathrooms and sprayed on lots of deodorant. By midday we were dressed up and shiny, looking like normal members of society. At the Ruca Malen winery and restaurant, the previous night was soon forgotten as we tucked in to a gourmet five-course tasting menu with paired wines. It was a phenomenal, innovative meal with lots of seasonal vegetables and fresh tastes, but they still had the sense to include a sublime Argentine filet steak.

After sleeping that off we finally settled on our next destination. Only to completely change it as we looked at the map again during a milanesa sandwich road-stop. We turned and headed for Sierra de la Quijadas national park, which we’d never heard of but were drawn to by descriptions of its red rock landscapes and wildlife.

At the park’s perfect little free camping area we really got back into the groove, remembering why we love to be out there with nature, living the quiet life, and going to places we didn’t know existed.

Sunset camp

Camping at Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

Jeremy, Sierra de la Quijadas

Jeremy hiking in Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas, San Luis, Argentina.

We saw maras for the first time (large rabbity looking rodents that belong to the guinea pig family), loads of little birds came to visit – some cheekily coming into the van to look for crumbs – and we got one of our best close sitings of a condor during a fabulous hike through the park.

At sunset we walked along to a viewpoint to watch the rocks turn a fiery red.

We were just talking about how we loved going to these peaceful places as we headed to another desert park further north, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. But as we arrived there was a queue of traffic and huge crowds of people. It was closed for a running event, so we wild camped nearby for the night and waited. Arriving first thing Sunday morning, there was a another queue of traffic waiting to get in before opening time, which is really not a very Argentinian thing to do. What the..?

After a bit of discussion at the ticket office, we gathered that it was a special day because of the upcoming supermoon/lunar eclipse event that night. Having not kept up with our lunar news, we had no idea! The campsite was packed with moongazers and TV crews, but it was a fun atmosphere.

Weirdly, the only way to drive around the park is as part of a convoy – packed again, but well worth it for its lunar-style landscapes, rock formations and amazing colours. Again we wondered how we’d never heard of the place.

'El Submarino', Parque Provincial Ischigualasto

‘El Submarino’, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon, Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Little Jeremy, Ischigualasto

Jeremy is dwarfed by yet another bizarre rock formation at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

Driving through Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina.

That night we took our tea flask and headed to a rocky spot to watch the moon. It was a clear starry night and we got a great view of the eclipse, which turned orange by about midnight.

For the first time in ages, we hiked in super hot weather, dodging giant cacti and really feeling like desert rats again.

From there we decided to head north to La Rioja province and the town of Chilecito. It wasn’t too far but we did have to negotiate a winding mountain pass on the way. As we took the turning towards the pass we saw an ancient-looking sign saying the road was closed for construction.

We asked the village police sergeant about it and he said that some traffic was still being allowed through, but we’d have to drive up there and ask. We stopped to talk to a few people on the way and they all said the same… just turn up and see what happens. As we approached the barriers we looked at the foreman hopefully. Nope, the road was shut for several more hours so we’d just have to wait, he said.

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee! We’ve just discovered how amusing this game is..

So here we are, overlooking a phenomenal valley, drinking tea, playing Yahtzee and hoping that the road really does re-open before dark. Okay, I’d rather be camped somewhere, cooking and cracking open a bottle of Malbec, but it’s not so bad. Both of us – yes, even Jeremy – have developed a surprisingly large tolerance for just waiting.

If nothing else, it’s given me a chance to write this blog post and get it off my to-do list.

Days: 1,469
Miles: 40,458
Things we now know to be true: If you gaze at the moon for long enough, you get a cricked neck.

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