Soggy Salta to classy Cordoba, via a night in a hovel

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Oh HI there faithful readers!

It’s 10 a.m., the sun is sliding gentle morning rays through the window shutters of my room here in Cordoba, and I am feeling especially perky and productive – it seems the opportune moment in which to get cracking with the first Argentinian update. 

I believe I left you last in sleepy San Pedro de Atacama, following the descriptor-defying Salt Flats… Since then, I have crossed a border, lost a phone, gained several kilos from mass carb consumption, discovered wine ice cream, slept in a shed, had my boots stolen by dogs, watched someone’s knee being healed by smoke and, best of all, found myself in excellent company throughout. I shall elaborate, but first I shall back-track slightly:

San Pedro to Salta. I spent a very pleasant few days recharging the proverbial batteries in the unabashedly touristy but nevertheless agreeable little town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. It also provided a very handy rendezvous point at which to meet up with British Katie and Canadian Mark, with whom I had originally hit it off back on Lake Titicaca (we had been narrowly missing each other in various locations ever since, and so it was a triumphant and hard-earned reunion!). I also managed to reconnect with Californians Ian and Nicole from the Bolivian ashram, and very nice it was too. Pleased to have been able to have a few catch-up drinks with both couples, I repacked my increasingly shabby-looking backpack for the millionth time, stocked up on a load of dollars in anticipation of their value and scarcity over in Argentina, and joined Katie and Mark on a cross-border bus to Salta.

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San Pedro central street

Salta. The three of us arrived in north-western Argentina and, having dozed on-and-off throughout the 12-hour ride, were simultaneously very tired and very wired. A few beers and some live music at one of the town’s peñas seemed the best course of action, so we dumped our stuff at the hostel and headed out into the night. For reasons that we can no longer quite grasp, a few innocuous bed-time beers were transformed into caipirinhas, mojitos and some awful champagne/Red Bull-based concoction, the memory of which I don’t care to re-summon. We ended the night/began the following day in the Argentinian equivalent of a greasy spoon, in which I chomped on deep-fried goodness and mourned the loss of my phone, which I had put down in one of the bars and mysteriously failed to pick up again. Oopsy…

The following few days saw us wandering unhurriedly through the sodden streets of Salta (it rains fairly solidy at this time of year apparently), remaining outside for long enough to admire the colourful cathedral and surrounding buildings before ducking into cheap food joints for shelter and empanadas.

Salta cathedral in the rain

Salta cathedral in the rain

After Katie and Mark had bid me farewell and headed off eastwards, I paid a visit to the city’s archaeological museum and had a look at some fascinating and perfectly-preserved Incan child sacrifices; by bizarre coincidence, we had met a bloke in the bus station back in San Pedro who it turned out had discovered these mummies, so I was pleased to be able to clap eyes on the fruits of his labour!

Photo courtesy of livescience.com (no photos allowed in the museum!). Amazingly and eerily well-preserved

Photo courtesy of livescience.com (no photos allowed in the museum!). Amazingly and eerily well-preserved

Cafayate. With a day to play with before pressing on towards Cordoba, I headed out of the city and into the surrounding countryside, which afforded me an interesting glimpse into the region’s geology and economy. The rain cleared almost as soon as we left the valley, as the orderly tobacco fields on the city’s outskirts gave way to plunging gorges and multi-coloured rock formations. These were followed by a series of sprawling but orderly vineyards, one of which we stopped at to sample a couple of the local varieties. Our final stop was the town of Cafayate itself, where we were serenaded over lunch by a gaucho with a guitar and a winning smile. New-found pal Elena from the Ukraine and I also sourced the afore-mentioned wine ice cream – quite a strange but satisfying sensory experience! A very fine day out all in all.

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Casa Grande a.k.a. Bonkersville. I was conveyed to Cordoba by means of a 14-hour night bus from Salta, which was followed by another 2-hour local one out into the countryside. I was due to take on another volunteer project in the village of Casa Grande, and arrived a bit travel-weary but eager to get stuck into a week of gardening, veg planting any generally making use of myself. The region is verdant and bucolic, and reminded me a little of England in springtime. The discovery that my host, a Frenchman named Yannis, lived in a run-down shack in a forgotten dell on the edge of the village and seemed vaguely surprised to find both myself and himself there did not deter me; the weather was mild and the view was beautiful, so on arrival I sat down at a makeshift table in the garden and got chatting to my host, along with German Anton and Austrian Evelyn, who were also volunteering for the week. 

Casa Grande: rural idyll

Casa Grande: rural idyll

It soon became apparent that Yannis’ world-view was heavily esoteric; he spent the following few hours soliloquising about various government conspiracies, the perils of modern vaccines and the singular healing properties of sodium chloride. I had also been under the impression that I would be living with his family, but it turned out that his partner had recently upped sticks and taken the kids with her – an event which, judging by his heavy sighing and rolling of yet another cigarette every time it was mentioned, was clearly still causing him some degree of anguish.

Yannis' shack

Yannis’ shack

I enquired as to the kind of work we’d be doing; he surveyed me with Yoda-like superiority, informing me that we would only work “when the universe is ready for us to work”, and that I should simply allow myself to “be with and work on myself” in the meantime. Right. The conversation then moved on to the various benefits of tobacco, which is apparently wholly undeserving of the bad press it receives. As if to prove the point, he beckoned to Anton, who had been complaining of pain in his knee following a trek in Patagonia, and proceeded to ‘heal’ it by spending several minutes blowing smoke all over it from various angles. Surreal is one word for it. Hilarious and bonkers are two others.

Yannis and Anton pre- smoke healing

Yannis and Anton pre- smoke healing

My sleeping quarters, it turned out, were what was essentially a dog kennel next to the main shack, and it was on discovering this that the novelty of finding myself in such a bizarre situation began to wear off. The temperature dropped rapidly with the setting sun, and I shivered sleeplessly through the night, emerging in the morning aching and tired to find that Yannis’ three hounds had naffed off with my walking books and deposited them some yards down the hill, covered in slobber and (if possible) stinkier than ever before. I experienced something of a sense of humour failure at this point. I went to thank Yannis for his kind hospitality (and he is very kind and has a good heart, truly) and to inform him that, regrettably, I had decided to move on. I said goodbye to Anton, who seemed to have taken on the experience as some kind of personal endurance test, and made a swift exit with Evelyn back to the bus stop, where we jumped on the next bus back to Cordoba. I’ve slept in some pretty basic conditions so far on this trip, but at this point I am not above opting for comfort over ‘authenticity’. I sincerely wish Yannis the very best, the mad old codger.

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The shed

I’m going to bring this post to a close, as I’ve banged on for a while now. I’ll save Cordoba itself for the next one, in which I’ll also be giving you the low-down on Rosario, where I’m headed tomorrow 🙂 

Peace out for now friends. Thinking of you. Lots and lots of love x x x x x

Salar de Uyuni: beauty beyond measure

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Chilean greetings beloved blog-readers!

As far as writing environments go, my current location is holding its own fairly well – I am sitting on the veranda of a higgledy-piggledy hostel on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, looking out onto the magnificent cordillera peaks that separate Chile from Bolivia. I’ve also just been fed large amounts of pasta by the guy who runs this place and his Brazilian, bongo-playing sidekick, so if my writing takes on a slightly dazed quality then it’s because all my brain power has been directed towards my digestive system, eased along by the lazy drum beat in the background. It’s a hard life eh.

But before I am lulled into full-on slumber, let’s crack on to the intended subject of this entry: the Salar de Uyuni, a.k.a. Bolivia’s trump card to end all trump cards. There are few places that have stunned me with such raw beauty – doing the three-day trip descriptive justice is going to be quite a challenge! The tour consisted of an exploration of the salt flats themselves, a glittering mosaic of hexagonal plates which are locked together like Arctic pack-ice and which stretch for as far as the eye can see. This was followed by two days of taking in blood-red, crystalline green and opalescent blue lagoons, sweeping desert-scapes speckled with islands of cacti, mountains slashed with multi-coloured rings and an array of enchanting native fauna including flamingos, vicuña (like llamas but smaller and more dainty), viscacha (like rabbits but larger and with long tails) and a friendly desert fox! The first night was spent in a hotel made almost entirely of salt from the flats, and the second saw us shivering away in slightly more basic accommodation – it was bloody freezing!! After wrapping myself up in about ten layers, however, I was able to drop off for a few hours.

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My fellow explorers included Stuart from Scotland, Elena from Switzerland and her partner Fernando from Italy, Argentinian gems Paula and Monica, and our Bolivian guide Placido, who had us roaring through the flats in his jeep to his hilariously eclectic music collection (Red Hot Chili Peppers to traditional Bolivian pipe music by way of Ke$ha). Placido also took great pleasure in ensuring that our cameras were loaded up with as many classic cheesy touristy perspective photos as possible (see below), and took every opportunity to have us jumping in the air for motion shots (“Katriiiina! Vamos chica – JUMPY JUMPY!”):

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Me being me, the linguistic diversity of the group was a source of great excitement and amusement; the conversation bounced about in hybrid combinations of English, Spanish, Italian and Swiss-German, which all hung together perfectly somehow. Some of the most uplifting moments of my journey so far have emerged from situations like these, in which I can code-switch to my heart’s content and play about between different languages, laughing off and bonding over errors, making random additions to my vocab bank… Sharing languages is a truly heart-warming, barrier-breaking experience. Highly recommended regardless of level – swallow your fear and pride and get stuck in I say!

The tour ended at the Chilean border, where we were all duly searched and charged a few bolivianos before being dropped off in sleepy San Pedro. I still haven’t fully digested the salt flats experience (or the hostel pasta for that matter), but writing this has definitely helped somewhat! I hope it gives you at least some kind of impression as to the magnificence of this part of the world.

Next stop: Salta, Argentina! It’s been a flying visit to Chile, but I’m sure that I’ll find my way back before too long 😉

Love love love love love x x x

P.s. I’d just like to make it known HOW LONG it’s taken me to upload above photos on the current snail-like internet connection, so please have a good long look to make it worth the while!