Friday, May 8, 2009

On the road again


Let's just say right away it's becoming more and more difficult to write new posts. It's really, really hard, just like work. We usually have to dedicate one entire day to writing it. Since we have only one month (little more for Miko) left, we might not be able to do a post for Bolivia. We will try.

We left Buenos Aires on April 27th and took a super cama bus to Iguazu. It was the best bus ride ever. It was like flying first class on the plane. Our seats were super comfortable and wide and we could completely flatten them. They played bad American movies with Spanish subtitles. Weird because in Argentina they dub everything. Probably because majority of passengers in this kind of bus are foreigners. We loved this bus experience. The food was good, we had wine with dinner and even whiskey after. The trip was 18 hours long but it went by so fast we wished it lasted even longer.

The bus ride was great but when we arrived in Iguazu, Hana was sick. Probably because of the air conditioning in the bus.
Pobre Hana! And just to make it worse, a few hours later we realized that her wallet was missing. It was stolen. We suspect that it might have happened in the bedroom while Hana was taking a shower. Great start!

We went to Iguazu to see the famous waterfalls. They are supposed to be the second biggest waterfalls in the world. First are the Victoria Falls in Africa, then Iguazu, and third Niagara Falls in North America.
The most impressive part of the Iguazu Falls is the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). There is a platform overlooking an amazing torrent of water falling deep down. The entire Iguazu Falls are about 3km wide and it would have been more impressive if we visited the park during the rainy season. Now the water level was low and a lot of the falls along the 3km ridge looked more like sprinkles or were completely dry.
While walking around the park we saw some black, blue, and white birds (very loud), a coati which we weren't sure if he was going to sleep or die. and a lot of colorful butterflies (mariposas in Spanish).

Sadly Hana was fighting her cold that day, so it was hard for both of us to fully appreciate the place.
The next day, while Hana was resting, Miko went back to the park to see it one more time and hopefully see more wildlife. On his way out - surprise! He bumped into Xavier, a French guy who he did the crazy "boot camp" jungle trek with in Sen Monorom (Cambodia) four months ago. The world is really small. We have spent a nice evening together, talking about our adventures and eating steaks.
In Iguazu we started meeting people again, which was nice since we missed that in Buenos Aires. At out guesthouse one morning we briefly met a very young, blond dude from the Netherlands. Surprisingly he did not speak very well English. We talked about travel and different places when he said that he might go to Rosario, the birthplace of: " You know Shewee, the picture everybody wears on their T-shirt?" Then it dawned on us that he was taking about Che Gevara and that he was going to visit the town where Che was born. It is funny how icons like the image of Che become used in fashion and the kids who wear the clothes don't even know what his name is and what the symbol stands for.


Our second bus ride from Iguazu to Salta was really crappy compared to the one from Buenos Aires to Iguazu. A very long, cold, uncomfortable bus ride (23 hours) with insufficient and bad food. The only company on that route - the Fecha Bus. So bad. We watched the "Return of the King" in Spanish ;)
Finally we arrived in Salta, they don't call it "Salta la linda" (Salta the Beautiful) for nothing. We just walked around the city and took a gondola to a view point. On our first day in Salta we went to a "pena" at La Casona del Molino. A pena is a place where people eat, drink, and gather to play and listen to folk music. It is almost like a spontaneous jam session. In Argentina people go out very late. We went there around 11pm and the music was just starting. There were several rooms with different musicians playing in each room. The food was great and we did not see the time go by. It was nice to see that people of all ages come to play or listen, or even dance to the traditional music. We had a great time there.

The following day we visited the "Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana" in Salta. This was definitely a very interesting and controversial visit. It focuses mainly on Inca culture and specifically the child "sacrifices" the Inca left on one of the highest mountains in the area. In 1999, an archaeological expedition uncovered three bodies of children, 6, 7 and 15 years old. All the kids were found in a seated position and on a first look it seems that they have just fallen asleep.
The children were specifically chosen for their beauty. There were from the high-ranking families. They can tell that by the cranial deformation of their heads. The children were first taken to Cucso (the Inca Capital) for a big ceremony and a ceremonial marriage among the kids. Then they were taken back to their homes where they were fed and given large quantities of "chicha" (maize beer). When they passed out, they were taken o the top of the mountain Llullaillaco and left there asleep.
At this museum is the body of the 15 year old girl - The Maiden. It was disturbing to be face to face with her. After 500 years her body is perfectly preserved (she really looks like a person sleeping, not a dried-up mummy). The reason for this preservation is the high altitude, the cold, and the lack of oxygen and bacteria.
Hana: I understand that this was a huge discovery for the scientists, but I feel that it was wrong to dig out these bodies and bring them down from the mountain. I find it disrespectful to the Inca culture and to the people who still live in that area and share the same beliefs.
Miko: I was fascinated by the Maiden and could not stop looking at her. It was incredible to see a 500 year old person. There is no real justification for taking them away from their tombs but on a scientific and historical stand point they did learn so much by doing research, tests, and scans on the bodies.

ROAD TRIP: Los Valles Calchaquies

We rented a car for 3 days and first went to Cachi, through the Parque los Cordones (National Park of Giant Cactuses). Then we drove to Cafayate through Quebrada de Las Flechas, then back to Salta through Quebrada de las Conchas. We did 980km in 4 days. The landscapes were very nice, especially the two Quebradas. But because we did a lot of road trips in the US: Arizona, Utah, Nevada, those "paysages" (landscapes) were not so new to us. What really made the difference were the people and the way they live in such a dry environment. Actually, driving through villages between 1 and 5pm (siesta time), it was difficult to see people. Not a soul in the street, like a ghost town. A little freaky.

We stopped at an artisan's house in a village of weavers. He and his family make ponchos, shawls, and clothes out of lama's and sheep's wool. He was very nice and gave us a tour of his property. He pointed to a corner of his land and explained that his adobe house was made out of soil from there.

We decided to keep the car for one more day to go to Purmamarca and Tilcara, North of Salta. This was definitely the best part of our trip. Purmamarca is a cute, little village framed by a colorful hill "Cerro de los Siete Colores" (Hill of Seven Colors). We arrived at night and stayed at a really friendly and cozy guesthouse called "Mama Coca". In the morning we fully enjoyed the colorful scenery of the mountains and after a quick stop in Tilcara, a town 20km away, we went back to Purmamarca for one more hike around the hill of seven colors. We just could not get enough of it. Thank you Ines Lopes, a very interesting lady from Buenos Aires who told us to go back to do the hike. Something not to be missed, she said. She was absolutely right.

To finish our last day of the road trip, we stopped at Maimara to enjoy the sunset at "La Paleta de Pintor", a long and colorful wave across the hills facing the village.

During this road trip we picked up many hitchhikers (pay-back time for Miko's hitchhiking days when he was young :) The old man turned 35 in Buenos Aires. Dios Mio! In total we picked up 9 adults plus a baby: young woman with her kid, farmer whose tractor broke down, a young Columbian couple, a couple of farmers, an old lady going home, and finally two young Argentinian artesans, David & David. They were nice and funny but smelled really, really bad ; ) We drove them back to Salta for 2 hours and had a lot of fun listening to Manu Chao. There are many artisans like them in Argentina who live in the street. When we dropped them off, they gave us bracelets they made as a thank you for the ride. Gracias David & David.

We went back to Salta to return the car, stayed in a youth hostel "Correcaminos" - we are too old for that shit! Can't deal with stupid, young kids traveling on daddy's credit card. Not all of them are like that of course, but some we saw there were. We went back to our favorite pena "La Casona del Molino". The musical and dance culture of Argentina is what stands out the most for us. Love it.

By the way, at the rental company we met a sweet and lovely Nicolas, the sales guy. Nicolas was so cute that Miko almost disappeared in a trash can that day. Bye, bye Miko!

Argentinians are crazy drivers, they don't respect ANY rules!!!


After leaving Salta we went again up North, this time by bus to Humahuaca. We stayed at the Posada El Sol, a very nice and relaxed place. The best thing was that we immediately met some interesting people: Jenny (Zenja) originally from Ukraine, lives in NY, and Stephane from Paris and his friend Sebastien. We really enjoyed their company.
The night I went to a folkloric dance class (Chacarera) with Jenny and the friendly owner of El Sol - Ruben. It was not a class for tourists but for locals. They meet twice a week and hang out together, it's like their social club. Everything was in Spanish, of course. We started by learning how to play with a handkerchief in this dance. It was a bit weird, dancing in couples and improvising with it. Everybody in the group was so happy that I had to smile too (even though I did not understand shit). Then we danced the typical chacarera steps in a big circle, and also in couples. It was fast and soon everybody was sweating.
After the class, we all had a late dinner (at midnight). Jenny and I got nice buterfly earring from her new artesan friend on the street. Of course Miko was not there. He would have messed up the attention of the local men toward those 2 exotic Eastern European girls.
We really liked Humahuaca and the people we met so we decided to stay an extra day to go sandboarding with Stephane and Sebastien. Sandboarding is like snowboarding but instead of snow there is sand.... and there are no ski lifts! One thing we didn't anticipate was the altitude. It was 3500m on top of the sand dune. We felt it as soon as we started hiking up, and it was not even steep yet. Quickly we were all out of breath and felt pressure in the chest.
Miko was really excited about sand boarding but it ended up being a little disappointing. It was hard and the boards did not always slide, plus it was very tiring hiking back up the hill in the sand. Still it was a nice day. The location and the view from the mountain was great. Our guide was very nice and spending the day with Stephane and Sebastien was really fun.
The highlight of the day was when Hana's only pair of pants cracked all along the seam exposing her butt to the world.

We really liked Humahuaca for not being as touristy as other places we've visited. It was more of a cultural experience. The people were really friendly and we were happy to socialize with other travelers again like we did before in Asia.
Compared to Buenos Aires, there are more indigenous people here and the European features are a less present. It was interesting to see women in their traditional and colorful outfits: small black sandals, high and thick socks, a wide, pleaded skirt until the knees, a knitted vest and a black hat. The combination of colors was often bright red, blue and green. Too bad it is so hard to get a photo of them. They don't like it.


The 3 hour bus ride from Humahuaca to Iruya was scenic and very, very bumpy. Crazy, windy road through the mountains which should only be attempted in a 4-wheel drive.
Oh Iruya! Such a special, little village. Completely surrounded by mountains, literary squeezed between them. Its residents, very nice and friendly people and the local dogs & cats, all so friendly and sweet that you could not stop yourself from petting them. No matter how dirty and dusty they were. There is something special about Iruya, its chill atmosphere, good energy and the amazing pink glow all around.
The guest house we stayed at in Iruya "Asunta Hospedaje" was a special place. It had a big terrase with a wonderful view of the mountains around. A perfect place to relax and enjoy just being.

On our first day in Iruya, Pablo Harvey (originally from Buenos Aires) approached us to go on a nocturnal walk with him. We are glad that we went. It was a different experience, something to remember and a lot to learn. We started at 10pm, the night was warm and the moon very bright. We walked to a spot where we looked together at the sky and the starts and Pablo tought us about the Southern Cross, and how the Inca's used it as their compas and also could tell the seasons by looking at its position. We talked a lot about the history of the area and the Inca culture that sadly we don't learn enough about in school.
During the 2 hours we have spent with him Pablo also played the flute and violin in the place he called "anfiteatro". It was moving to be there looking at the mountains lit up by the full moon and listening to Andean melodies from his flute.

Considering how much we liked Iruya we are not sure why we left so quickly. Maybe our batteries where recharged from resting in Buenos Aires for a month and now we were "on the road" mode again.
We got lucky to see Iruya during the slow season when it is empty of tourists, unlike high season when 3 full buses arrive daily. I would not want to see this magical place at this time.


We really had no idea of what to expect in Argentina before we went there. We had heard things only about Buenos Aires, tango, steaks, mate, and that's about it. Northern Argentina was a surprise to us. Not because of the landscapes, they are very similar to the US, but because of people and the way they live. We truly loved Argentinians. For me they are the warmest, friendliest, and most chill people we have met. It was rare to see an unfriendly face and even then, we felt that it was not directed only at foreigners (or gringos how they call us here) but everyone.

On the 13th of May, we sadly left Iruya and went to Bolivia. Those two last weeks in Argentina were as if we have visited another country, very different from the one we have seen in Buenos Aires. More rural and indigenous. One thing we are not going to miss is the rhythm of life. We never got used to the siesta time here. Besides the stolen wallet issue in Iguazu, traveling in Argentina has been stress free, with zero harassment. We'll see if it is going to be the same in Bolivia...