- October 21 - November 05,
by Jan and Jamie
[Last names withheld in compliance
with the LARC privacy
We’d probably give this trip a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10.
Some real good stuff, excellent food and places to stay, some
really fun activities and touring. It was a more relaxing
trip than some of our recent ones - less scheduled, less activity
oriented. So, definitely worthwhile and fun, but not in our
top 10 trips.
Overall, the trip came off without a hitch - planes were all on time.
Eight separate flights and not a single one was late or lost our luggage.
Nor was there a single empty seat on any of the flights until we headed back. Flew American down (used FF miles for business class tickets), and then used Lan internally. All of our arrangements were made through Judy Martin in FL who also did our Galapagos and Peru/Chile trips. Once again, she and her South American associate, Ramiro Rodriguez, did a great job of providing recommendations as well as ensuring that everything went smoothly.
The food was generally very
good. Argentinean beef is everything they say.
I’ve had some great steaks at top steak houses in the US.
But in Argentina, we had 5 or 6 of the best meals of pure beef
that I have ever had in my entire life. They know how to
raise it (grass fed, free-range, though that is changing as some
are moving to feed lots), butcher it, age it and cook it. We also
stayed in some great hotel/spas, although as usual, we didn’t use
the spa facilities.
Weather-wise, the end of October, early November is not a bad time to visit Argentina. Then again, given the size of the country, it’s hard to pick a time that is best everywhere. January and February (high summer) can be very hot in some areas (i.e., Mendoza) and crowded. In Salta, summer is the rainy season as Salta gets virtually its entire annual rainfall in two months. Roads and trails can be seriously disrupted. In our summer (June through September), it’s too cold for outside activities unless you’re headed for the ski resorts further south. But that is the best time for Patagonia. We had everything from pouring rain (shades of Spain last April) to blazingly hot to chilly to hot and humid, to warm without humidity. We saw less spring blooming than we'd expected. Overall, we had mostly cool nights (and outdoor pools had yet to warm up) but we were able to wear shorts and short sleeve shirts on many days. Sun protection was a must; Jamie burned his forehead pretty badly on the first day in Buenos Aires. Once out of Buenos Aires, it was all desert.
* The First Leg: Buenos Aires, Oct 21-25, 2009 *
We left DC Tuesday night, arriving in Buenos Aires
early-morning on Wednesday. It was pouring rain. We
had correctly assumed that we wouldn’t be able to do an early
check in at our hotel, and so had arranged a private city tour.
In spite of the rain, this turned out to be very helpful as we got
a good sense of the city’s general layout. It is much larger
than we’d expected - huge as a matter of fact. As the rain
forced us to spend a fair percentage of the afternoon in the car,
we also got to ask our guide lots of questions.
Argentina has a somewhat curious and unexpected history. Basically, the country was settled from the west to the east, both in pre-Columbian times and after invasion by the Spanish. Basically, it was a big empty place with small, nomadic tribes. There were only small settlements in the Northwest (now Salta and Jujuy provinces) when the Incans invaded over the mountains from Peru in 1480. Fifty years later, Pizarro conquered the Incas in Peru and followed the Incan trails over the Andes into the region. Thus, early Spanish colonial activities focused on this area. For the next several hundred years, the Spanish exploited Argentina’s Andean mineral wealth but required all trade to go back over the mountains to Lima, Peru. Argentina’s Atlantic coast remained sparsely settled. Buenos Aires, which had been founded separately by other explorers from the Atlantic, was just one of several small, crude South American towns where ships heading for the Pacific could stop for provisioning.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Buenos Aires still had a population of less than 50,000. Between 1810 and 1816 while Napoleon occupied Spain, the locals finally threw off Spanish rule. The "locals", of course, were Spanish immigrants who were tired of being ruled from Europe - much like the US revolutionaries. From that point on, Buenos Aires became the focal point the country’s development. By the early 20th Century,
Buenos Aires’s population was swelled by huge numbers of immigrants from Europe - particularly Spanish and Italian, but also Irish, English, Jews, eastern Europeans, etc. To give you a sense of magnitude, nearly 60% of Argentina’s current entire population has some Italian ancestry. By 1940,
Argentina was actually the 7th richest nation in the world. As in the US, immigrants came looking for economic opportunity. As a result, Buenos Aires is, basically, a European city and Argentines think of themselves principally as European. Moreover, after their first "dirty little war" in the 1870s when the military essentially exterminated their native population, effectively rendering them European in origin. Unlike most other South American countries, especially on the western side of the Andes, this is not a country of mestizos. The races didn’t mix for a number of reasons. It was a largely unpopulated area to begin with, the Spanish overlay was small and the natives were pretty well gotten rid of in the 19th century before the massive waves of European immigration. You have to look hard to find Indian features in the population in Buenos Aires though they are far more numerous in Salta and Jujuy provinces in the northwest.
Buenos Aires thus looks essentially European. Its architecture reflects early
20th century influences and is a mixture of French revivalist, English Tudor, and Art Deco. The population is almost entirely of European ancestry, but with large "ethnic" groups and neighborhoods, as evidenced by the various synagogues, a Russian Orthodox Church, and even a Mormon temple. Politically, Buenos Aires is liberal. Conservatives and the strength of the Catholic influence is in the northwest (Salta), the focal point of early colonial Spanish settlements. To find colonial architecture, you also have to go to the northwest. And even there it isn’t all that prominent.
Buenos Aires is a large city
- a population of 12 million for the combined metro area; 1/3rd of
all Argentineans. It also has the worst traffic we’ve ever
seen, except for Bangkok. Not only are there too many cars
and too few roads, but the traffic is anarchistic. There may
be three lanes painted on the pavement but cars, buses and trucks
randomly organize themselves into anywhere from 3 to 6 lanes.
And the number of lanes changes dynamically according to rules we
clearly don’t understand. The bus on your taxicab’s right
suddenly decides to merge left into your lane. And so your
cabbie, without so much as a glance in his mirror, magically
shifts left as well (without so much as slowing down), and the
traffic just somehow adjusts to this new reality until everything
changes again. Rush hour is a disaster, with drivers
blocking intersections, blaring their horns, etc. Moreover
the main arteries have as many as 12 lanes, which are still
insufficient. If you ever go to Argentina, don’t even think
about renting a car and driving yourself - at least not in Buenos
Aires. The traffic was so unpleasant and loud that we
dreaded just getting around. Some people talk about how they
adore Buenos Aires. Well, we didn’t. We liked it.
We had a good food and a good time. But we weren’t seduced
by its charms.
One of the highlights of our city tour was that we unexpectedly encountered a couple of actual famous people. When we popped into the courtyard of a building in the San Telmo neighborhood, we ran into
Karl Lagerfeld (head designer for Chanel and his own house) and
Claudia Schiffer (the super-model) doing a photo shoot for his latest designs. I never would have recognized them, but both Jan and our guide did instantly. I got two pictures before being warned not to take any more. It seems they don’t want the next season’s designs to show up in a grainy photo on YouTube. By the way, Karl was doing his own photography, which is highly unusual for a designer.
Buenos Aires is all about its neighborhoods. We spent most of the next 3 days walking our feet off around them. Our hotel, the Glu Hotel, was located in Palermo Viejo, the recently gentrified, hot and trendy neighborhood. Our first night in town, we had dinner at the parrilla (pronounced parisha - meaning steakhouse) La Cabrera and had the first of many great steaks. Dinner time in Buenos Aires starts around 9 pm. Most restaurants won’t even take reservations before that. We invariably ate early (by Argentinean standards), and were the only people surprised when people showed up at midnight and seemed willing to wait for a table. Even in Spain they didn’t seem to eat as late as that. We wondered how people raised kids with dinner so late.
The second day, Thursday, we went to the Reserva Ecologica, a park and great birding site on landfill in the middle of town on the Rio del Plata. We then walked around Puerto Madero, the old port area now renovated with fancy restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings. Very chic!! We walked over to the Casa Rosado, the Argentinean President’s house (their version of the White House -- only pink). This is where
Juan and Eva Peron used to give speeches from the balcony.
The Plaza Mayo,
immediately in front of the Casa Rosado, is the traditional site
for mass political demonstrations. And the Argentines will
protest and demonstrate at the drop of a hat. Thirty years
ago, during one of Argentina’s blackest periods, military
dictators carried out the "Dirty War" and made people they didn’t
like disappear. Low estimates of the numbers involved are
between 10,000 and 15,000. Many more were tortured; some
were just thrown out of military aircraft over the ocean. Some
were kidnapped only to be adopted by military couples. In
1977, a group of brave women, now known as the "Madres de Plaza de
Mayo" began weekly marches around the Plaza Mayo to raise
awareness of their "disappeared" children and to bring pressure on
the government to stop the dirty war. And so the
"grandmothers," wearing their traditional white scarves, continue
to march every Thursday. We saw them march on October 22, 2009.
The evening of the second day, we went to a tango show and dinner. Tango shows are advertised all over town, but only a few are really recommended. The one we went to, Tango Rioja was ridiculously expensive, but great. We were picked up at our hotel and driven back to Puerto Madero. The theater had tables for about 75 people. Dinner before the show was quite good. The show itself was great! There was a five piece band of very, very talented musicians. Two of them played bandoneons, a stripped-down accordion without a keyboard. It looks like a gypsy instrument but was developed in Germany for religious and popular music as a successor to the concertina. Five extremely talented couples danced to the music. The whole thing, dinner and show lasted about 2˝ very pleasant hours.
The third day we walked two more neighborhoods - both near our hotel. A lot of time was spent window shopping and going into designer dress shops. The dress sizes seemed to start at size "0" and went down from there. I tried on the largest size of a very nice sports coat but as the salesman said, "you need something at least 3 sizes larger than the biggest one we make." Apparently, this was designer clothing for children and under-weight models. We also went to the Eva Peron museum (somewhat interesting) and the Japanese Gardens (not worth it). Then back to the hotel to rest before a late dinner (9:30). Tegui is a trendy restaurant so new it’s not in most guidebooks. We had an excellent meal of new Argentinean cuisine.
The fourth and final day in Buenos Aires (Saturday) was again spent walking the neighborhoods. We started in Recolleto and Retiro, with a little Micro-Central and Monserrat thrown in at the end. We started at a huge craft market near the Recolleto cemetery, walked down the Alvear Avenida (very high end shops, fanciest hotels and several embassies), had a great pizza for lunch, strolled down a long pedestrian shopping street, and stuck our heads into a couple of churches. We eventually took a cab back to our hotel to rest up for dinner. We ate at a restaurant called "Te Matare Ramirez" (which translates as "I will kill you Ramirez"). Apparently, it was named after a friend of the owner who was a bit of a Casanova and used to hear this phrase a lot from cuckolded husbands. In spite of the fact that the place is hyped by Frommer’s and others as being very hip and experimental, the food was just so-so. We were being picked up at 5:30 AM the next day for an early flight, so we left before dessert - around 11 pm. This was very upsetting to the owner, who stopped us on the way out and wanted to know if everything was all right, etc. We assured him that we had a great time and were only leaving because of our early flight.
The next morning we got up at
the crack of dawn, and learned something new about our
neighborhood of Palermo Viejo. On Friday afternoon, a group
of about 8 girls (ages 15-18), checked into our hotel apparently
without any adult supervision. They were loud, smoked, slammed
doors, had shouted conversations between rooms and down the hall,
etc. This was all in a nice little boutique hotel with 8
rooms! It seems that groups of young girls get together,
rent hotel rooms in Buenos Aires and spend the weekend
shopping and going to clubs. Most seem to come from the
outer suburbs. We were not thrilled! They were out
when we got back from dinner Friday night, although Jamie heard
them return at 6 AM. We only briefly encountered them at
other times. Anyway, as we were being picked up at 5:30 AM
on Sunday, they were just getting back from their night out.
And what would you guess but - As we walked out of our hotel, our
view of the neighborhood was transformed! We were staying in
the middle of the club district! Who knew? The odd
buildings surrounding our hotel (non-descript, boring fronts; no
windows; row houses that looked like defunct small warehouses or
closed repair shops) were actually clubs! Apparently, these
opened after midnight, well _after_ we returned from our "early"
dinners. So we had never even seen them open before;
basically, we were completely unaware of their existence!
Now, at 5:30 in the morning, the street was alive with people
(mostly young kids) standing around waiting to get into the clubs.
Nearby cafes that had been deserted at lunch or dinner were now
open and busy. Thank God our room was at the back of the
hotel on a quiet, interior terrace. Argentineans (at least
the young and hip) operate in a very different time zone than Jan
* The Second Leg: Mendoza Oct 26-Oct 29, 2009 *
The second leg of our trip was to the wine country around Mendoza, which is 600 miles almost due west of Buenos Aires. As the crow flies, Mendoza is only about 100 miles from Santiago, Chile. Although Mendoza is smack up against the Andes, in the window seat, Jan could hardly see them as we landed. Mendoza is very dry. Actually, it is a veritable dessert with less than 9 inches of rain per year (Washington DC gets between 40 and 45 inches per year). The day before we arrived, a "sonda" wind came up - a strong wind from the south - that created a dust storm. Much of the dust was still in the air, and would affect our vistas for the rest of our stay in Mendoza. Apparently, it was downright unpleasant the day before we arrived.
We were picked up at the airport around 8 AM and driven 30 miles south to Lujan du Cuyo and our hotel for breakfast - an extremely plush, Relais and Chateau facility called The Cavas Wine Lodge and Spa. (Yes, its name is actually spelled out in English.) Cavas was great. We had a room in this sort of duplex thing out in the vineyard. In addition to the bedroom and bath, we had a separate living room, two fireplaces, a private terrace with a plunge pool and private roof terrace with a
3rd fireplace and a view of the snow-capped Andes. A second, mirror-imaged suite was on the other side of a very thick adobe wall. Total capacity was 10 rooms in 5 of these duplex units. Fifty yards away, the main facility had a terrace, big pool, spa, exercise room, dining room, bar, etc. The service was fabulous, meals excellent, and our hosts friendly and helpful. If you wanted, you could take your meals wherever (room, roof terrace, whatever). The water was too cold to use the pools, and we never got around to using the spa, but it was a great place to stay. We would highly recommend it.
After a very relaxed breakfast, we took a private driving tour up into the Andes. It was very worthwhile. We saw 9 Andean condors - ridiculously huge, endangered birds. Incredible scenery. We both love the Andes. They are stunningly beautiful mountains. This was our fourth, different view (Ecuador, Peru, Chile and now Argentina). We had a picnic lunch by an ancient, stone bridge on the side of a mountain gorge. Eventually, we ended up at the entrance to Aconcagua National Park (9,400 ft in altitude). Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere (22,841 ft.); only the Himalayas are higher. Unfortunately, the top was covered by clouds so we didn’t get a good view. Still, the drive up was beautiful. Then back to Cavas for an excellent dinner.
The next day we had set up as
a "quiet" day. We spent the morning riding bikes around
the local vineyards and birding, which was excellent. In the
afternoon, we were picked up and taken back to Mendoza so Jan
could go paragliding. Jamie rode along to watch Jan land and
to do some bird watching on site. Jan had a lovely ride (40+
minutes long), and Jamie saw two new birds.
Back at Cavas, the owners had arranged a pre-dinner tango demonstration. A small 3 piece band (two bandoneons and an electric piano) and a single, very professional couple put on a lovely show, tracing the history of Argentine tango. It ended with all of the guests (like 6 couples) getting a simple tango lesson. It was very interesting and extremely well done. We were glad we had seen tango in Buenos Aires, but this was different, quite lovely and special. For dinner, we had an Argentine Feast pulling from different cuisines through the country with paired wines.
On our last day in Mendoza, we took a winery tour. Since 1991, Argentina has transformed its wine industry. Most of its wines had been for domestic consumption. But now it is a major exporter with award-winning quality. Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina, with Malbec (a hearty red) the grape of choice. The best Malbecs are terrific wines, with lots of flavors of blackberry and plum. They can be quite expensive although we found many excellent ones in for less than $30 a bottle. The soil is ridiculously rocky, sandy and dry. Nothing grows without irrigation of some sort, and the area is completely dependent on the Andes’ snow-melt for water. The wine industry experienced a second transformation after Argentina defaulted on its international loans in January 2002 and the Argentinean peso went into free fall. The net result was that assets in Argentina became ridiculously cheap. French, Spanish and American vintners flocked to Mendoza, buying up many vineyards and/or vacant land for starting new ones. There are, quite literally, only a few notable wineries still owned by Argentineans. The Uco valley is the newest area to be developed, closer to mountains at higher elevation with emphasis on high quality.
We had decided to take a small group tour out of Mendoza and ended up with a congenial French couple and a trio of thirty-something American women. The tours were interesting. We visited four wineries in the Uco valley: one owned by the Dallas-based heir to the Frito-Lay fortune, two owned by a consortium of French vintners (including one Rothschild), and one owned by a Spaniard with wineries in the Basque region of Spain. Only the last owner actually committed to the area and relocated his family to the Mendoza region. The others are absentee landlords and visit for a couple of weeks or months each year. The wineries were all brand new (within the last 5 years) and seemed to be competing with each other in the category of "monumental-scale architecture." Each consisted of a couple of hundred acres of slightly sloped land covered by rows and rows of vines (no trees) surrounding a massively-scaled, single-structure wine production facility with the snow-capped Andes in the background. Each building (maybe 4 or 5 stories tall, and 100-200 feet on a side) comes with attached terraces, wine bars and restaurants for the enjoyment of wine tourists. They looked like huge mausoleums scattered across a flat plain of grapes. Jan thought they were more attractive than I did. One was designed by the guy who did the sets for Star Wars, so you get the idea. I can enjoy doing a wine tour every 5 or 10 years. While one day was enough for us, there were some wine aficionados staying at Cavas who were doing 3-5 days of tours.
Some of the wines we tasted were terrific. Though the emphasis was on Argentine reds, principally Malbecs, we did get to taste several Torrontes whites, - which are produced in the style of a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio (i.e., a light and fruity "summer" wine) but much more complex and interesting than those two varietals. Actually, a good bottle can be excellent yet quite inexpensive, if not cheap. Argentineans call it their "next" Malbec and are beginning to export significant quantities while improving the quality. Although we were touring in the Mendoza region, our guide admitted to us that the best Torrontes are grown at the higher altitudes found around Salta. One of the best is grown at the highest vineyard in the world (over 7,000 feet). Over an excellent lunch at the Spanish-owned winery (with the owner’s spouse acting as chef), we compared the Mendoza and Salta Torrontes and found guide’s characterization valid. So, if you want a great, (currently) cheap white wine, look for a Torrontes grown in the Salta region, or maybe even the town of Cafayate. Back to Cavas for another great dinner and the next morning on to
Buenos Aires to transfer to our next stop.
* The Third leg: The Estancia Juan Geronimo, Oct 30-31, 2009 *
Estancias are the Argentinean version of ranches. They are particularly concentrated along the eastern, Atlantic seaboard on rich grasslands known as the Pampas, though they are found throughout the country. These plains were formed a zillion years ago from the material that eroded down from the Andes. The grass is so rich that the history of the Pampas is like that of the American West, only with plenty of water. Originally, the cows and horses were the feral ancestors of escapees from early Spanish and French ships that foundered on the Argentine coast - sort of like Chincoteague only on a much bigger scale. In the absence of any predators, these herds grew into the millions. The famed gauchos were the Argentinean cowboys who ran huge roundups of these feral cows (and horses). Eventually, the Argentinean elite moved in, built houses and created incredible estates. In spite of their size and concentration of wealth, many of these estates have never been broken up. Unlike other countries where land is scarce and land reform has been a popular revolutionary slogan, Argentina is empty relative to its population and so there has never been a major political move to break them up. That probably has something to do with the fact that the estancia owners are also the power elite. Today, many estancias run tourist operations as an added source of (foreign) cash to support their traditional ranching activities. Some, within an hour of Buenos Aires, get daily tourist buses, serve Argentinean BBQ’s known as an asado for lunch, and have their gauchos put on a show of fancy riding before the tourists head back to town.
We were looking for a more
authentic experience and wanted to spend a day or so doing
some horse-back riding. After much searching, Jan identified
the Juan Geronimo. This estancia has been owned by the same family
for over 100 years. It includes around 30,000 acres (roughly
5 miles wide and 9 miles long) and supports around 4,000 head of
prime Angus cattle. These cattle are raised and sold for breeding
stock, not slaughtered for beef. It is located nearly three
hours south of Buenos Aires on the shore of the Rio de Plata (the
same huge estuary that begins NW of the city). It employs
10-12 gauchos who live in various outbuildings with their families
and has between 100 to 140 horses (each gaucho is allocated
roughly 10 horses).
Our hostess, Florencia M.B. de Molineuvo, is one of four siblings who are the current owners. One brother runs the cattle operation. Two siblings are not involved. And Florencia, in her own unique way, tends to the tourist aspects. There is a maximum of 6 guests and she won’t open unless she has commitments for at least 4 ("after all, I have a life in Buenos Aires"). She can’t open in early December because that is when the national horse shows are in Buenos Aires (she’s married to a man who is an Olympic-caliber rider who represented Argentina some decades ago). And she can’t be open over the Christmas season when the family is in residence. Since she’s never really sure when they will leave, she can’t reopen until February or so, missing the entire high vacation season in Argentina. Plus the family is there all of March. After the family leaves she has to prepare the house for guests, putting out good sheets and towels - apparently using crummy sheets and towels when the family is there so they won’t ruin them. Basically, she’s really only open for business for a couple of months a year. After we asked for a reservation, we had to wait until 2 other guest randomly appeared through an internet request before she would agree to accept our request. Despite the quirks in how she approaches running a hotel, she is an extremely lovely person who truly enjoys riding and loves showing off her ancestral home.
Finding the place turned out
to be a bit of a challenge, but our driver eventually located
the correct dirt road, and after driving several miles on dirt, we
finally located the correct gated entryway. Then another mile or
so down a tree-lined drive and we finally arrive at the house.
The house itself was not that large - hardly a showplace given the wealth we later determined was involved: a comfortable living room and dining room, several guest rooms with baths (two upstairs, the other downstairs), and an entryway/library. It also has a tennis court and swimming pool, but we didn’t use these. We met our two companion guests (a two-lawyer couple from NJ) on a comfortable, small terrace out back overlooking a lovely 2-3 acre lake. After an excellent lunch, we all went riding for several hours late afternoon. Jan had bought new riding clothes which, she reports, were a great buy and made a huge difference in the enjoyment she got from our rides. No more chafed legs from jeans’ seams. The woman lawyer had never ridden before. But Florencia
offered to keep her horse on a lead so she agreed to put down her book and come along.
Our ride was mostly a walk.
Over the three rides we eventually made, I think I trotted for
about 10 minutes. Jan says she actually cantered once to
catch up. The horses were very well trained so the riding
was very easy. The saddles were English. The reining was
similar to Western but you held the reins in your left hand
instead of your right. And we had a gaucho along to open and
close gates and chase off the odd bull that looked like he might
make an issue of our riding through. But the fanciest riding
the gaucho did was when he leapt off his horse to catch an
armadillo. Curious creatures (the armadillo not the
The scenery was stunning. Acres and acres and acres of tall grass; herds of black cattle eating their hearts out. We were always accompanied by four dogs (four labs, each a different color) who ranged around us, sniffing here and there and rolling in every puddle and stream they could find. Florencia kept the dogs under tight voice control. The whole time we were riding, Florencia would tell stories about her family, the beef business, her parents and grandparents, and so on: "That building over there was built by my father to house his Percherons. And over there was where the greenhouse used to be where grandma raised orchids." Contrary to appearances (this was not a lavish operation for tourists), this is a very wealthy family who founded the grande dame of Buenos Aires hotels - the Plaza (now owned by Marriot). She was candid that when she and her siblings go, the estancia will be broken up and sold off. None of the various children have any interest in assuming control of it and trying to divide it would only create angst. A real shame.
One last riding story: After
we crossed into a particular field, a yearling came galloping
over. It seems that Jan’s horse was its mother. So
they had this little reunion, and then the yearling came along
with us, following its mom. When the gate was closed behind
us as we left that particular field, the poor thing gave a brief
whinny and galloped off to rejoin its pals.
For dinner each night we had a classic asado, a series of meats cooked on a parrilla (a wood-fired Argentine grill). A gaucho would start the wood-based fire a couple of hours ahead of time so the coals would be just right. Then, the cook would grill up some sausage (mostly chorizo), ribs, flank steaks and, finally, tenderloins. The meat was absolutely fabulous. The courses were accompanied by wine, fresh vegetables, potatoes of some sort, and then dessert (apple tart with ice cream or some such) and coffee. Basically, it was an "all you can eat" sort of event where everything offered was really, really good. It was hard not to over eat.
Our last night there, we
were hit by a horrendous thunderstorm: strong winds, driving rain,
thunder and lightning. We even heard a window break. In the
morning, the whole place was soaked and trees were down blocking
the driveway. Fortunately, our driver, who came to take us
back to Buenos Aires, was able to find his way in. But we
needed a gaucho in an SUV to help get past downed trees and find a
circuitous route back to the main highway. We were very sad
to leave. Estancia Juan Geronimo had been a wonderful 2-day
* The Fourth Leg: Salta and the colonial NW, Nov 1-4, 2009 *
We returned to Buenos Aires in the morning and caught a mid-day plane for Salta in the far northwest of
Argentina. Salta (pop. 500,000) lies roughly 1000 miles NW of
Buenos Aires (2 hrs flying time). Salta and Jujuy provinces border Chile with Jujuy bordering Bolivia as well. The two provinces are the other side of the Andes from the
Atacama Desert where we stayed at Explora Lodge several years ago. The climate if more varied in NW Argentina than Atacama, which is the driest place on earth. It looks like the American Southwest - foothills, escarpments, mountains, desert, deep canyon valleys, with much red rock. But in the summer, the winds from the southeast bring rain, often closing the roads and flooding the rivers. The area is at about 8000 feet, like Atacama, and borders the stark landscape of the /puna, /what they call the /altiplano /in Peru and Bolivia - the very high (13,000-14,000) plateau. The Andes are much farther away than in Mendoza with intervening mountain ranges and the /puna./
After we arrived, we were taken to another Relais
and Chateau hotel called House of Jasmines, a 200 acre place
about 15 minutes south of the city that had been built by Robert
Duvall after he married his Argentinean wife. The main house
had been built for his family’s use and had 4 bedrooms.
Despite being located in a virtual desert, the main house was not
air conditioned. Fortunately, because it got real hot, we
were upgraded to one of their three mini-suites, located in a
separate house 100 yards away. Throw in a heated pool, a
spa, a fabulous cook, an extensive organic garden for fresh,
seasonal vegetables, great service and you have the House of
We arrived mid-afternoon and were given lunch. Jan had a wonderful salad, while Jamie ordered a salad with fried sweetbreads. Offal is considered an Argentinean specialty and I figured that I would never get a chance to taste it prepared any better. Actually, it wasn’t bad. I finished the whole thing. But with all the other great stuff on the menu, I didn’t order it again. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and had what was probably our best asado that night.
They had set tables up in the
garden near the grill. The courses included (in order):
sweetbreads, tripe, chorizo sausage, pork ribs, beef ribs, some
sort of steak (maybe flank, maybe hanger), and then, finally,
tenderloin. Vegetables and potatoes were on the side.
You could have as many helpings as you wanted of any of the
courses, but who could possibly eat more than one, even if you
dawdled over the food for 3 hours? Jan tried everything. The
sweetbreads were as before (not bad; interesting). Tripe, in
turns out, has the texture and flavor I associate with liver
(ugh!). After that, each course just got better. Even my
wife (a dainty eater who prefers eating vegetarian) finished
virtually everything from the last 5 courses. We both
agreed: the tenderloin was simply the best piece of meat we had
ever eaten, anytime or anywhere. It was just remarkable.
There is something about the grass-fed, Argentinean beef that
gives it more and better flavor than any other beef I have ever
eaten. Kobe beef is nothing compared to this.
While we were busy stuffing our faces, they brought in two musicians to play folk songs. The hotel manager (who has a terrific tenor voice) was the singer. It seems that while tango is all the rage in BA, folk singing is the big thing in Salta. Through all of our driving trips here, our guides had CDs of folk songs on in the background and would periodically sing along. Going to folk singing clubs is THE hot ticket in Salta. So hearing our hotel manager break into song was perfectly consistent with the logic of local practice.
The next day, we were picked up after breakfast by a driver to head up into /puna/. We had debated a long time before settling on how to do this. The standard tourist activity involved taking something called the "Train to the Clouds." Historically, the route had been the main railway between Salta and Chile. But with the collapse of the Argentinean railway system in the 1990s (truckers got favored over rail - bye, bye trains), the few remaining miles of track are not in good condition. The line was recast as a tourist trip up to the /puna /and back - only it takes over 16 hours with many switchbacks. While we loved taking the Peruvian train from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca, this was a different kettle of fish. There was another method known as the Movi-trak, which involved a group of around 20 in a big, truck-like vehicle with a top usually open to the wind (and dust). It seemed like a great party adventure for twenty-somethings, but not our style. So we went with the private guide and were very glad we did.
Our guide, Federico, was pleasant and knowledgeable. We drove slowly up into the mountains. At several points, we stopped and took photos of the "Train to the Clouds." The mountains were beautiful (as always). We crossed over a high pass (13,400 feet) and then descended into classic /altiplano/ landscape - no trees, minimal vegetation, and no free-flowing water. It’s really hard to describe or understand why Jan and I both find this type of landscape so beautiful. We had lunch in this restaurant in the village of San Antonio des los Cobres, at a mere 10,000 feet. The town exists to support the some mining operations. But the food was excellent. We had some great empanadas and a wonderful steak. Our guide was running around kissing the cook, and helping out in the open kitchen. It was a bit of a scene. After lunch, we drove off down this dirt road for about 100 kilometers. While bombing along, our guide successfully avoided the random sinkholes, ruts, and boulders while pointing out all the tallest mountains and volcanoes.
Eventually, we arrived at the Salinas Grandes - literally the big salt lake. We had seen a salt lake in Turkey, and primitive salt operations in Peru but this was something else. It stretched on for nearly 30 miles from one end to the other. It was so white it hurt your eyes. Its surface was completely covered by a pattern of hexagonal tiles, 10 inches to a side. The lake was completely covered. The salt "farmers" cut a series of 12’ x 4’ holes 8" deep into the surface. Then they let the water seep in. After a while, salt begin to precipitates out of the super-saturated salt-water. As large, sea-salt sized crystals are formed, they are scooped out, once a month or so, and put in piles. Overall, the whole thing seemed slow and laborious though it produces most of the salt used in
Leaving Salinas Grandes, we took Route 52, also known as Cuesta del Lipan. After crossing a pass at 13,700 ft, it follows an old, winding Incan trail, dropping nearly a mile in altitude in less than 10 miles of road. That’s 10 miles of a one-in-ten grade, looping through these crazy S-curves while dodging creeping trucks loaded with tons of salt. At one point, you could literally see the road loop back and forth 7 or 8 times. I was glad I wasn’t driving. The road for the entire route was interesting in itself. Much of the 500+ kilometers was paved, but probably 1/3 of it was not. We were surprised to find how many of Argentina’s roads are not paved. And that’s all over the country. Get off a main route (and there aren’t many of them) and you’re on gravel, marl or dirt. We didn’t find this in Ecuador, Peru or Chile.
After a short stop in Purmamarca (the town near the 7-color hill), we headed back down the Quebrada del Humahuaca (the Humahuaca gorge) back to Salta. Argentineans are sensitive about the differences between canyons and gorges. Canyons have steep sides, are narrow, and cut by running water. Gorges might also be cut by running water, but they are v-shaped and can be a mile or more across at the bottom. Their shape is due to massive rock slides as the sides of the mountain are undercut by the river at the base of the gorge. In the Humahuaca gorge, you could literally see where huge, rock avalanches had occurred. A whole side of a mountain, several hundred feet across, would have slid down into the valley. Sometimes these slides form temporary dams, blocking up the river. Then the army has to come and blow them up to prevent flash floods when the dams invariably break down. It was like you could almost "see" the geology happening in real time. Or at least you could visibly trace the sequence of the more obvious events (one spilling over another) that formed portions of the valley floor.
At this time, we discovered the one major flaw in our trip planning. It is a 3 hour drive from Purmamarca back to Salta with nothing much to see out of the window. Most people do this trip in two days, staying overnight in Purmamarca. We did this one great loop in one day. Then, we had reserved a guide and driver two days later to do another drive, focused on a trip up the
Humahuaca gorge. The gorge itself is a UNESCO heritage site and, from back in Arlington, two separate day trips made sense. But that was before we discovered that it took 3 boring hours to get between
Salta and Purmamarca. Given the way we had planned it, we covered this same, boring stretch 3 times, spending over 9 hours in a car watching farms go by. Oh well. Jan was smart enough to bring a book with her and read through most of it. After a very long day, dinner at House of Jasmines was a welcome sight.
The next day, Sunday, we took as a "day of rest." Our only activity was a 2 hour trip to see the center of Salta and try to do some shopping. Two hours is about what the center Salta deserves. But they have one very interesting and worthwhile (but small) museum: the Museum of High Mountain Archeology, which was recently built to house the mummies of the three Llullaillaco children found frozen as sacrifices on the Llullaillaco volcano at 6,700 meters in 1999. You may have seen the reports on the find in /National Geographic,/ which had funded the expedition. As you might expect at such an altitude, the cache was complete (no grave robbers) and everything, including the bodies of the children were perfectly preserved. Part of what was so interesting about the museum was the obvious effort and pride that the Saltanos had taking in putting this place together. They were clearly very proud of this piece of their heritage. We ate lunch in the museum café and had a lovely time. As described in the guidebooks, Saltines are very friendly people and love tourists. These two old ladies came up to us and (entirely in Spanish) wanted to know our names, where we came from, did we like Salta, when were we coming back, and so on. Our waiter seemed thrilled to see us. It was all extremely welcoming. It was also at least 37 or 38 degrees C (over 100). We headed back to House of Jasmines and holed up in our air conditioned room and slept and read the day away.
Monday was our last full day in Salta. We got back in a car and retraced the long trip up the Humahuaca gorge. Though the scenery was beautiful, it was a trip we didn’t need to make and didn’t get as much out of as we’d hoped. We headed back to Salta as early as possible, arriving in the early evening.
We had planned a late departure from Salta going back to
Buenos Aires for the next day. But after our morning birding excursion fell through, we both opted to try and get back into BA earlier. Amazingly (as every seat on virtually every flight was full), we were able to change to an earlier flight at the last minute.
*The Final Leg: Back to Buenos Aires, November 4-5, 2009*
Our final 30 hours in Argentina were spent mostly in the San Telmo neighborhood. The day had originally been just a quirk in the timing of flights. The flight home left at 9:30 PM Wednesday night. And our original flight from Salta got in too late to fly out directly. So we had to schedule an extra day in Buenos Aires. And I think we’re both glad we did. Basically, we liked San Telmo as a neighborhood. It just seemed more real than some of the others. Lots of shops, a big food market, parents picking up kids from school, restaurants and bars, and so on. It just seemed nice. Our boutique hotel was odd. It was definitely a case of design over function (although I’ve always thought that the concept of design included the idea of high functionality). The oddities are too many to enumerate. But consider a dark red room that was too small to have a single chair you could actually sit in. Or a tiny, single sink crammed into a space so small that only one person could brush their teeth at a time. ‘Nuf said. But it did have a great breakfast. And they let us check out at 6 PM so we could shower before the long flight home.
Anyway, we walked all over San Telmo, visited the National History Museum (under renovation), and then went back out to the Reserve Ecologica to see a few final Argentinean birds. We were picked up at 6 for another exciting ride through heavy traffic to the airport. We were back in DC by 11 AM Thursday, and I was back in the office by 1 p m. What a rapid ending to a really nice trip.
[Last names withheld in compliance
with the LARC privacy