A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Steak and naps

beer drinkers in wine country

Entering Argentina has been an abrupt change. Toilets are somewhat reliably flushing. for the most part, power outlets work (though they annoyingly have different fittings). It is a very precious thing to go from a country with fewer amenities to one whose people have reliable and disposable incomes. Road tripping in Argentina feels like a trip though the Okanagan in the summer. Local people are all on vacation, and the numerous municipal campgrounds are packed with families and primarily domestic tourists. With development come road rules. Speed limits are enforced and adhered to, and stop lights mean something… Pros and cons.

We rolled into the city of San Salvador de Jujuy looking for insurance- apparently mandatory in Argentina. We figured we could catch the shops after lunch at around 2pm. On our second day in Argentina we came face to face with excellent and frustrating reality of four hour long lunch breaks. All of the insurance shops were closed from 1pm until 530 when they opened back up for the evening. This is a first for us. Once we got to the know the people a bit more, we found out that everyone is sleeping off the gigantic lunch they consume that was most likely cooked over a fire. The traditional ‘asado’ is very meat heavy. We got invited to dine with a couple, and were served seven steaks and a whole chicken along with wine and bread. These people know how to live. Neither one of us has been to Europe, but we figure Argentina is the closest we have gotten. The selection and availability of cheese, wine and cured meats feels pretty damn euro.

We worked our way down the infamous Ruta 40 which is a classic secondary cross country road- some paved, some not- (apparently Argentina’s route 66) and eventually got to the super beautiful and classy town of Mendoza. My old University roommate happened to be visiting Argentina with her mom, so we were lucky enough to meet up with Laura and Anne, as well as another old friend Nick. With a more substantial posse, we tackled wine country. Now Paul and I are into good food and drinks, but we are not classy by any means. We were a bit intimidated by wine country, and more specifically the Valle de Uco just outside of Mendoza where the world’s best Malbecs are produced. It was nice to have a group along, especially one with people so passionate about wine. We visited a few vinyards, dognapped a puppy (not for us), and ate extremely well for three days. Thanks for meeting up with us Laura, it was awesome. Next time we will do it in Jersey. Paul is allergic to red wine… bummer for him, more for the rest of us.

All through the Valle de Uco we were eating and drinking things produced right there. Everywhere you turned there would be artisan bread, oil, honey- or locally produced wine, jam, meat, olives. There were fruit, nuts, and juice, all made/ grown in the valley. Now I don’t know a lot about wine, but the proximity to the Andes not only makes the wineries we visited incredibly picturesque, it apparently brings cooler nighttime temperatures thickening the skin of the grapes, and enhancing the flavor of the grapes and the wine. I fell in love with Malbec. You can get consistently good bottles at the grocery store for five dollars and less, making excellent wine cheaper per volume than beer.
For other people who plan on visiting Argentina- bring US dollars. I don’t know the exact political ins and outs of the situation, but in an attempt to ‘stabilize the currency’ the current government has fixed the exchange rate at just under five pesos per dollar. Argentinians are not allowed to exchange pesos for foreign currency (with the notable exception of a fixed amount allowed per day of foreign travel), and the black market is rampant. ‘Arbolitos’ (little trees) are black market exchangers, and will commonly give 7 pesos to the dollar, and I have heard up to 8 pesos. In other words, you could make 40 cents on the dollar if you use the black market, and were planning travel in Argentina. Wish we had known before we got here! Understandably, the local people we talk to are pretty pissed off.

Travel in Argentina has been an abrupt change, but a welcome one. The local people we have met have been curious and welcoming. We no longer stick out and have been mistaken for locals, or for Chileans. We will cross into Chile next and make our way south on the Carretera Austral.

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Posted by SusieMiller 18:26 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Bolivia

bargains

Right from our very first day in Bolivia, there were many surprises. Our lack of research strikes again. We crossed the border from Puno near Copacabana on the edge of Lago Titicaca. The Bolivian side of the lake was clean, the water was clear, and people were swimming- something you would never dream of doing in the Peruvian side. Copacabana offered our cheapest organized campground to date at 10 bolivianos (1.20$). Hell yes. I could get used to this. Lots of hippy travelers were hanging out and it gave the town a pretty awesome relaxed feeling. With the route we chose around the lake onto La Paz, our map showed a gap in the road beyond Copacabana. When we rolled up, there were all sorts of wooden ferry boats carrying vehicles across the lake. Though they looked super sketcky, transport trucks, buses, and all sorts of heavy vehicles were making the trip, so we trusted our little captain and rolled right on. Only once in motion did we realize that the few boards where our wheels were resting were crazy thin. Sometimes you just have to trust that the people running the show have made it work enough times to put your worry at rest.

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Once in La Paz we promptly got lost. Our navigation system is not the most sophisticated. We have a single map of South America that serves as our highway guide. Once we get into bigger cities, we use the maps in the guidebooks. To find the campsite we wanted to stay in, we were given a set of coordinates from some other travellers, and attempted to navigate the city without a proper map, going only on the waypoint. Domestic dispute ensues. La Paz is a steep, hilly, deserty, complicated city. We had to use four low to get up one of the steeper pitches, and once we were at the top we asked directions and were sent right back down. Shucks. We deployed one of the tricks we had often talked about, but never used. I got into a taxi, and Paul followed. Damn lucky we did this because the coordinate was eight kilometers off. Pffffft

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La Paz was surprisingly interesting and we accomplished a lot in not a lot of time. On the ‘to do’ list we had: get a new internal hard drive installed in Paul’s netbook, get some car parts, get insurance, and check out some of the central markets. Everything was going well until our last day. We had it all planned out, we were going to pick the insurance up, then head to the computer place to pick up the netbook, then swing by the parts street and be home in the afternoon. Of course, nothing works like it is supposed to. There was a city wide taxi strike and the proprietors of the unionized taxis were roaming the streets with sticks and belts beating on the taxis and minibuses that were working through the strike. I didn’t take photos because I, being a client to one of the ‘scabs’ feared for my safety. We had to team up with some Bolivians to get downtown (we realized how much we had been getting ripped off on fares after paying the local price) and once we got downtown we found gridlock for kilometers. The minibuses and taxis had all flocked to the centre and were demonstrating against a new proposed tax on passenger fares. We walked a lot. After all the errands were done, and we had sufficient blisters, we retreated back to the campsite (12km from the centre) employing yet another scab taxi driver. If anyone reading this is going to La Paz, and needs to buy any car parts, I recommend you head to the Calle Rigoberto Peredes in the San Pablo neighbourhood. Great deals to be had.

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We made our way south to the salt flats stopping in the town of Huari (where the nationally distributed beer is brewed). I am pretty sure the brewery is the only employer in the tiny town of Huari. We were a bit ‘fish out of water’, but as it often is in small untouristed towns, the people were friendly, and the prices were incredibly cheap. We got our cheapest hotel the trip. 5.60$ got us a room with two single beds, and another 1.20$ each got us a two course dinner. The room came complete with parking, a bag of coca leaves, a bucket of someone else’s urine, and some bloody Kleenex. We felt classy.

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From Huari, it was a straight shot to Uyuni. We expected to see flamingos in the remote southwest corner of the country. Who knew that taking a secondary road would lead us to a garbage dump full of them? They kind of lost their mystique when we saw a scummy ass lake filled with bottles and bags inhabited by dozens of pink flamingos. From there, we hooked into a super sweet 4x4 route through the desert at 5000m above sea level. I cannot stress enough how awesome this route was. Picture perfect lakes, elaborate rock formations in the desert, sand dunes, alpacas and vicunas, and wide open spaces. Even though there are lots tours leaving Uyuni in LandCruisers and blazing through the desert to the border crossing at Hito Cajones it seemed pretty remote. Many times we were glad there were other people on the route, because of the deep sand and difficult driving. It was the most beautiful drive of the trip, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting South America. We camped out alone in the desert at 5000 m above sea level before crossing into Chile the following day. The southwest circuit was kickass. DO IT!

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As with many prices in Latin America, the price of fuel in Bolivia is negotiable. A local person, or anyone with Bolivian plates, pays 3.45 a litre (about 45 cents). Foreign plates are asked to pay 9.26 per litre (about 1.35$). The system doesn’t seem airtight, because of the varying degree of legitimacy of fueling stations. Some are very legal, and insist on entering your plate number and providing you with an official receipt. Those are the ones we don’t go to. We did what any deal hunter might do, and bargained the shit out of each and every gas station we frequented. The most effective strategy was to ask for the gas without a receipt (sin factura) and insist that you only ever pay 5. I know that the gas jockey is pocketing the difference, and I am okay with that, but I like to meet them in the middle. Some asked for 7, and some gave us local price, but it was always a matter of bargaining, and pleading our case. Some flat out refused to sell to us. It is a delicate balancing act, and though it was a pretty big hassle we could not get discouraged, and celebrated the fact that we never had to pay gringo price. It is also illegal to fill jerry cans. The laws, and the practice are totally different though, and it was just a matter of lining up for an hour and being discreet. The southwest circuit should not be attempted without sufficient fuel.

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Posted by SusieMiller 11:15 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Southern Peru

Gringos on the gringo trail

Sorry to disappoint everyone, but we didn’t go to Machu Picchu. If we were to have gone there, it might look something like this

So here’s the deal, seven years ago I came to Peru and backpacked from the south to the north. Upon revisiting Peru, I have found that a lot has changed. The ticket to enter the ruin site of Machu Picchu has quadrupled in price, and the amount of people allowed to visit the already crowded site daily has more than doubled. Paul and I strive to be the type of tourists who don’t put ourselves above touristy stuff. We enjoy being tourists of tourism, but this seemed like too much. This might make us sound kind of redneck, but when we are at ruin sites, we both sometimes leave wondering if we were supposed to get more out of it. Perhaps our lack of research, or accurate historical information might leave us with an impoverished experience. Maybe we should hire guides? Perhaps my merely visual appreciation for these historic works of functional art is not enough? I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the fact that I have already seen Machu Picchu, and that Paul doesn’t place a high value on ancient ruin sites, was enough to strike it off our list. My idea of a rich cultural experience is eating and drinking with local people. Sharing stories and laughs as well as inevitable cultural misunderstandings is what really makes a trip for me. In southern Peru we struggled with being on what is known as the “gringo trail”. We wanted to enjoy all that it had to offer but often didn’t quite know what to make of this particular type of tourism.

We decided to go budget and bought a sacred valley multi ruin site ticket (it still set us back 50 USD a piece). I don’t know why there has been a spike in price over the past eight years, but I sincerely hope that the Incan people whose ancestor’s cultural sites are on display are benefitting. With this price, we were allowed into ten ruin sites, and six museums. We did our best, but got pretty ‘ruined’ after only six sites. My favourite site was the agricultural centre of Moray. This was a half day’s drive out of Cuzco. The Incan terracing was apparently used as a scientific testing ground to determine and utilize optimal growing environments for their crops. It looks pretty damn cool.

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We both liked the site of Ollantaytambo as well. There were some impressive rock works, and part of this site’s charm is the quaint town which the ruins overlook. We spent the night in Ollantaytambo happy that we waited out the rain and the parade of colourful poncho-clad tourists to check out the site a half hour before closing. Parades of tourists are, for better or for worse, part of the Incan ruin experience.

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Paul’s favourite site was Tipon. It consisted of large terraced fields surrounded by functional aqueducts- one good thing about visiting the highlands in the wet season. This site was a little bit out of the way, buses cannot drive the steep road up to the site, which helped to make it a lot less busy when we got there.

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We did what any reasonable tourist would do in Cuzco, which is eat. Paul and I discovered alpaca meat. For those of you who don’t know what an alpaca is, it is pretty much the most wonderful animal ever. It is super cute, its wool is warmer and softer than sheep’s wool (and doesn’t itch) and it tastes delicious. Our alpaca steaks were excellent. They were tender, not too gamey, but also incredibly well prepared on a bed of quinoa risotto. We liked them so much we went back to the same restaurant for the same meal two nights in a row. How’s that for a restaurant review? Cuzco was good for what it was good for: oogling colonial buildings, checking out ruins, and spoiling ourselves with extravagant eating and shopping. We also found mezcal for the first time since Guatemala. Though Cuzco and the Sacred Valley have changed a lot since my last visit, it remains an excellent place to visit, and has a lot to offer. Mom and dad- you have to come here with me someday, you would love it.

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Posted by SusieMiller 14:10 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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