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Mendoza, Cafayate and Salta

Back to the great outdoors!

sunny 24 °C

Mistakenly believing that it would be cheaper to purchase a ticket from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, followed by an onward ticket from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, rather than the expensive direct bus from Montevideo, I was soon to discover just how wrong the Lonely Planet guide can be. With prices listed in the book (which was only published last year) as 150 Pesos to Mendoza, I was shocked to be quoted 450 Pesos by every company at which I enquired, therefore costing me more than the direct bus from Uruguay and taking twice as long with a full day stop over in Buenos Aires. As a result I arrived in Mendoza, following two sleepless night buses and a long hot day in the capital city, tired and a little delirious, having been awake for over 50 hours. With not long left to travel and not much time to explore, I decided against the idea of a midday siesta and instead headed out into town to discover what Mendoza had to offer (which meant that by the time I finally got some sleep I had been awake for 62 hours, just 2 hours short of my record!).

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With several parks and plazas, Mendoza is an attractive and pleasant city to stop off for a couple of days. With a setting in the centre of some of Argentina´s finest vineyards, and a region accounting for 70% of Argentina´s wine production, it is the perfect base for vineyard tours and wine tasting. Unfortunately, I don´t drink wine, and don´t particularly like it either, therefore chose not to spend my money on a tour which would by all accounts have been entirely wasted on me. In addition, with the amount of money that I would have been able to spend on a tour, it was highly unlikely that I would have visited any high quality vineyards or tasted any of Argentina´s finest wines. Not that it would have made much difference anyway, as they would probably all have tasted the same to my inexperienced and untuned pallet. Feeling slightly guilty about missing Mendoza´s claim to fame, I was relieved when I happened upon a wine exibition in a local Plaza (away from the wine intoxicated tourists) and was promptly invited in for several free samples, a presentation, countless stalls, a free explanatory book, and even my very own Argentinian wine book mark. I think I left knowing more about Argentinian wine than any tourist on any day trip through the vineyards of Mendoza!

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Central Plaza

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San Martin Park

Having the afternoon free, and with weather that was actually hot (something I hadn´t experienced since the Atacama desert), I headed out for Mendoza´s largest park, covering a massive 420 hectares. If I had thought that the beachfront walkway in Uruguay was crowded with overly health conscious joggers and cyclists, it was nothing in comparison to the lycra clad hoards in Mendoza´s Plaza San Martin. I thought that I would avoid the jogging crowds by climbing the nearby Cerro de la Gloria, up a steep and winding path, only to have the ultra fit masses pushing past me (making me feel even more unhealthy than I actually am) for the entire climb. The Lonely Planet descibes the views from the top as "nice", a rather insipid word to be fair, however, upon reaching the top I can confirm that the views were indeed "nice". I certainly would not rate them on the level of spectacular, as with some of the other locations I have visited so far this trip, yet were still worth the effort to reach them.

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With only one more day in Mendoza I decided not to waste any more of my time in cities and so arranged my own tour of the surrounding areas. I booked an early morning bus to the nearby town of Uspallata, set in a large valley, surrounded by a colourful backdrop of jagged peaks and distant snowy mountains. Having been the setting for Brad Pitt´s "Seven Years In Tibet", it would cetainly not be described as simply "nice", but rates far higher in the spectacular stakes.

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With only two and a half hours in town, I quickly headed to the small information kiosk and asked what there was to do in such a short space of time. The woman took out a very rough map and highlighted just one place, a small museum 2km along the main road out of town. A museum?! With countless mountains and hills in the near vecinity and I get directed to a museum! Although I began heading out of town in this direction, finding it hard to reach any of the nearby mountains without trespassing on private farmland, it wasn´t long before the urge to explore kicked in and I stealthily jumped a wire fence (at the furthest point from any visible buildings) and made my way towards the more adventurous looking hills and peaks outside of town. Just a few minutes later I was out of private land and once again free to explore at will. Finding a fairly decent looking peak, with what I could only guess were "spectacular" views (take note Cerro de la Gloria in Mendoza), I chose the quickest, if also the steepest and most trecherous, route to the top. Spotting several large crosses around the mountainside I decided to steer as clear of them as I could, thinking they were perhaps memorial crosses to previous foolish climbers who had lost their lives trying to attempt what I was now attempting. I was later to discover that they were actually markers to a far simpler and far safer, if also less interesting, route to my destination.

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Not a memorial to foolish climbing tourists

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In comparison to some of my other climbs and adventures, it would have to rate fairly low on the danger scale, however the loose rocks and 100mph winds blasting through the valley and up the mountainside, almost knocking me from the narrow ledge at the top, meant the trip still held its dangers. The views were also certainly worth the climb and I returned to town, satisfied that I had used my two hour window of time as appropriately as possible.

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I arrived back to the bus station just in time to catch the next local bus to Puente del Inca, a natural stone bridge, high up in the Andean mountains, almost in the shadow of continent´s highest peak, Aconcagua. Having come from extreme heat in Mendoza and Uspallata, I hadn´t anticipated the sudden change in temperature and climate on the short hour and a half bus ride to the bridge. Shortly after leaving Uspallata we began ascending and quickly entered a bank of cloud, which in turn quickly turned to heavy rain, which in turn quickly turned to a full scale blizzard. Having stupidly decided at the last minute that I wouldn´t require a jacket, I had annoyingly taken it out of my bag and consciously left it in the hostel room back in Mendoza, leaving me with nothing but a thin fleece jumper to guard against the gusting winds and driving snow. Despite this, I still braved the weather to visit the Punte del Inca viewpoint, for what was one of the most intriguing sights of my travels so far. Looking like a man made structure, the bridge spans the Rio Mendoza far below, stained bright yellow from sulphurous thermal springs which leak from between the rocks and cover the ruins of an old spa built beneath the bridge.

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Having only booked local transport, my time at the bridge was fixed at 2 hours, which to be perfectly honest was far too long. After spending twenty minutes gazing in wonder at the sight before you, in the freezing conditions and worsening blizzard, there´s not really anything else to do at the site except wait for your return bus. Choosing a small, warm restaurant to shelter in for the remaining time, I still stand by my descision to arrange my own local travel and feel glad that I had not been part of one of the many tour groups buses which passed by, herded and rushed, in the short time that I was waiting.

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The following day I took yet another long night bus journey north, to the city of Tucuman. I had intended on staying a night in the city, however due to my time in South America quickly slipping away, decided instead to head further north, out of the city, and back into the great outdoors. This still left me with a two hour connection time in Tucuman, and not being one to waste any spare moment of my journey, decided to head out, backpack heftily in place and heavy rucksack in hand, for a very brief sightseeing tour of the town. Armed with a map from the tourist information desk at the bus station, I made it my mission to visit the first 20 sights on the list, starting with the main Plaza, just 10 minutes walk from the station. I won´t bore you with any of the details, but here is a brief photographic rundown of my whistle stop tour of Tucuman.

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Having exhausted myself in the midday heat, I was glad to finally be back on a bus to the small town of Cafayate, five hours further north. Unfortunately this journey wasn´t made pleasant by the strong smell of engine fumes pouring through the air vents, the intense heat (with no air conditioning), and the constant stopping due to mechanical failure (which the driver refused to tell us anything about, however kept pulling over in the middle of nowhere, dragging out a large bag of tools and banging away on a severely overheating engine). Despite all this, the journey was made bearable by some incredible and everchanging landscapes, from dense forested valleys, to wide open plains, to lakes and panoramic mountain views. I was once again left with the small pang of regret that my time is now so short that all these places would have to be missed.

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My one day in Cafayate however would certainly make up for the loss of missing out on all the incredible places along the way. Set at the entrance to Quebrada de las Conchas, a stunning and awe inspiring canyon, it was the perfect base for an adventurous day of exploration. Having decided to hire a bike from the hostal at 8am, in order to catch the 8.30am bus through the canyon to the 50km mark, at which point it would be a strenuous yet rewarding ride back to town, things got off to a very frustrating start. Forced to leave the hostal at 8am meant that I was too early for the complimentary breakfast so decided to buy something in town to take with me on the journey. Unfortunately Cafayate doesn´t seem to wake up until 8.30am, so I was left with the prospect of a 50km hard bike ride with no breakfast and no food along the way. In addition to this setback, the hostal hadn´t had any change for my 100 Pesos so I was forced to pay for my bike with all the small change I had. This meant that when I arrived at the bus office I only had a 100 Peso note and was promptly told that they also did not have any change for the 20 Peso ticket. The only advice they could give me was to wander the streets asking strangers if they had any small change to break my note. They did not! As a result I was forced to miss the bus and was left standing at the roadside with a pre-paid bike and an unbreakable 100 Pesos in my pocket, and nothing in my stomach. This however turned out to be a huge stoke of luck. As a last resort I decided to head to another bus company with a departure to Salta at 9am (even though I´d been told that they did not allow passangers to just purchase tickets to the canyon) and was relieved to find that not only did they sell tickets to the canyon, but they were also cheaper than the other bus company. What´s more, this also gave me enough time to buy breakfast and stock up on food for the journey, from the countless shops which had opened their doors at precisely 8.30am.

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The bus journey into the canyon was slightly daunting as it seemed to involve a lot of steep sections of downhill, with not many uphill, meaning that my ride back would involve exactly the opposite. This should have been fairly obvious, given that I would be following the river through the canyon upstream, therefore, more uphill than down. After nearly an hour, we arrived at a sign post for the Garganta del Diablo, an enormous cavernous entrance into the canyon wall, where my 50km bike ride would begin. At this time in the morning, the place was almost deserted (with the tours from Cafayate mainly leaving in the afternoon, another reason for my leaving so early), with only a few suveneir sellers setting up for the day ahead.

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By the time I left the Garganta del Diablo though, things had changed considerably. Just 1km down the road, at the equally impressive Anfiteatro, I was suddenly joined by 4 coach loads of elderly tourists from Salta, and about 8 cars of independent tourists. This was extremely frustrating, however did allow me the opportunity to have a few people in the photo in order to show the extreme scale of the rock formations before us. What´s more, as all tours tend to go, all four coaches arrived together and all four coaches departed together, as did all the cars, and before I knew it, I was alone again, with just the locals selling their trinkets and an elderly man playing his guitar in the massive chamber, the sounds of his music bouncing off the walls and reverberating in the air.

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With people for perspective

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And without!

As the temperature increased the ride became steadily more difficult, yet with the incredible surroundings willing you to stop every five minutes to take yet another picture, it didn´t seem strenuous at all. It was also not hard to find a relaxing, shady spot to pull over, dip your feet in the refreshing waters of the river, have something to eat, and set off once again as good as new. Thankfully there was very little traffic on the roads for the entire ride, meaning that for most of the journey it seemed as though I was the only person in the entire canyon. Having come from city to city in the past few weeks, surrounded by countless people and spending so much time having to be sociable in cafes and restaurants, the peace and tranquility was just what was needed.

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The only downside of the entire journey is that the canyon comes to an end with a 14km stretch of road still to travel before reaching town. Although the road appears flat, it is ever so slightly inclined, burning the legs and making it far more frustrating than a steep uphill struggle followed by a steep downhill ride. At this point the landscape also changes and becomes increasingly flat and uninteresting, with little shade and little in the way of scenic places to stop, meaning that you simply carry on peddaling, slowly counting down the km markers as they stretch off into the distance. Despite this tiring ending, the day was an incredible experience from start to finish, and the sense of accomplishment upon reaching town, handing over your bike, and crashing out at a nice restaurant in the shady plaza with an ice cold beer and hearty meal, was more than I could have asked for.

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A few more canyon photos

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Yet again leaving so soon, wanting nothing more than to stay a couple more days in Cafayate to explore the surrounding mountains, rivers and waterfalls, I caught the early morning bus to Salta. Despite having seen the canyon up close the day before, it still astounded me as I watched it unfold yet again through the windows of the bus, and the deep valley and mountain scenery which lay beyond the 50km point I had stopped at the day before was equally as impressive. Never have I wished for my own private vehicle so much, with amazing panoramic viewpoints and countless roadside laybys to view them from.

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Arriving in Salta at midday, and with only one night in the city, I once again spent no time wasted on relaxing and quickly found a cheap hostel before heading out into town. After a strenuous 50km bike ride the day before, you would think the last thing on my mind would be a strenuous climb up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo, however this is obviously the first thing that I decided to do. If the climb up the steep stairway was not bad enough in the sweltering midday sun, it was not helped at all by informative signs such as this:

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At least they didn´t mockingly use the word "only" in that sentence. Despite the effort, reaching the top was certainly worth it, and to my surprise (unlike almost every other climb I have undertaken) there was actually something worth climbing for (other than the views). At the very top, as if out of nowhere, you suddenly stumble upon a large area of cascading waterfalls (man-made, but still impressive), followed by a green park, restaurants and cafes, and large open balconies with fantastic views over the city and surrounding mountains. Certainly worth the climb, or if you are particularly exercise averse, there is always the easier option of a cable car ride to the top.

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If I thought that coming to Salta would free me from the crowds of busy cities such as Buenos Aires, I was in for a big surprise. Having been forced to stop several times on the bus journey to the city for hundreds of locals from the surrounding villages walking on a pilgramage march, waving banners, singing and praying, followed by police escorts, I should have caught on that there may be something happening in Salta fairly soon. Little did I know that what appeared to be every man, woman and child from every town and village for a 100km in all directions had descended on the city on the same day as I had chosen to arrive. With streets impassable from tightly squeezed crowds and the cathedral in the central Plaza literally flooded with worshipping masses, it was certainly not the quiet getaway from capital city life that I had expected. Suddenly finding myself in the midsts of a religious procession through the streets, with no possible way of escaping the thousands of singing, candle holding believers, I was forced to go with the flow for some time. Although not a fan of large crowds at the best of times, and not a particularly religious individual, I have to admit that I quite enjoyed the experience of being among so many friendly, and for the most part happy, people.

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The crowds!!!

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It´s certainly a shame to be leaving the northwest of Argentina so soon, as I feel that there is much more to see and could quite easily have spent another week or two exploring the incredible landscapes, however feel glad that I managed to see and do so much in the short space of time available to me. It has also strengthened my knowledge (which was fairly strong to begin with) that I was not designed to be a city dweller and that there is nothing I enjoy more than getting out into the great outdoors and creating adventures of my own.

Posted by Dan Smith 09:17 Archived in Argentina

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