Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adventures in northern Argentina

I crossed the border between Bolivia and Argentina on foot at dawn. It was confusing in its simplicity after my manic crossing from Bolivia in Peru. It seemed on this frontier that I could have walked across with little more than a wave, never alerting authorities of my presence or absence.

From the border, this was more than a week ago, I took a nice cushy Argentinean bus complete with heat, a bathroom in the back, reclining seats, and even a movie playing on the several TVs that hung from the high ceiling. It was a welcome comfort after spending the night on a Bolivian bus wrapped in the rug I bought for the apartment I hope to have after I move to Denver. The bus was cold and drove on a dirt path alongside a dirt road that was being “improved” and passengers had to pee in the grass behind the restaurant where we stopped for dinner because the toilets were overflowing.

I arrived around 1 p.m. in Tilcara, Argentina, a beautiful tiny little mountain town. Northwest Argentina is dry and colorful, filled with reds and browns much like the South West in the U.S. Tilcara boasted a funky hippy square filled with cool artisan goods and a 360-degree view of rolling hills and taller red peaks. The roads were dirt outside of the main square and the tourist information office was closed from 12:30 to 5 for siesta.

Having no map, I wasn’t sure where to go for a hostel and stood looking like a fool in the square for a few minutes before another tourist, one with a map, also came by looking like a lost idiot. He walked me to my hostel and then we jumped in a taxi to the top of one of the rust-colored hills nearby for a quick hike to a hidden waterfall. He had a bus to catch that afternoon. The drive and the walk were both lovely. It’s hot in the north of Argentina during the day and the sun is gloriously intense. It was so welcome.

After the hike, it turned out my new friend from Israel had missed his bus and could stay a bit longer so we went to check out the Pulcara ruins. It had been a fortress but without walls. It’s position at the top of a hill is what protected it. Many of the walls and houses were completely reconstructed in the 1930s and then the brilliant archeologists who discovered the place built a Turkish-style pyramid on the site to congratulate themselves. Nothing says important pre-Incan civilization like some random building from a different culture, time, and continent, eh?

There was just enough time to have a bite to eat and a bottle of wine before my new friend had to grab a bus. I stayed in a beautiful hostel in the woods and wished I could stay longer, but also took off for Salta the next morning.

It seems there is always a reason to celebrate in Latin America.. I’m pretty sure that I’ve had trouble finding open businesses at least one work day every week for the last six weeks because everywhere I’ve gone, they’ve had some sort of federal, provincial or regional holiday that has brought the masses out to parade and dance while they shuttered their office doors. Salta was no exception. They were celebrating 200 years as a city and hosted folk dances and historical demonstrations on the square constantly. It was wonderful to watch.

I did also get a chance to see a high-altitude mummy in the museum there. Archeologists, presumably the kind that don’t build foreign structures on historic sites, have found the perfectly preserved bodies of sacrificed children on six of the tallest peaks in the region. There were three on the Volcano Llullaillaco near the Chilean border in the north of Argentina. The children were left at the top of the 6,700 meter peak, where the cold maintained their skin, hair and clothes in perfect condition.

The museum displays one of its three mummies at a time. I stared at the six-year old boy until the other tourists left and the next group came and huddled around me and the boy. You can see his expression through the window between his bent elbow and where his forehead rests on his folded knees. His eyes are closed and squinted, but he looks somehow at peace. I don’t know how the mummies were sacrificed. How they were killed. It’s crazy that I don’t. I read absolutely everything in the museum, every board and every pamphlet. They just didn’t say. Were they poisoned? Were they just taken to the peak and arranged in these beautiful peaceful and meditative positions and then left to freeze to death? I wonder if Wikipedia might be able to tell me what the museum didn’t.

From Salta, I headed to Cafayate. Joe asked me what took me there. I told him, “wine.” Cafayate is Argentina’s second biggest wine region. It’s known for its Torrontes, a variety of sweet white wine. I’m not typically a big fan of sweet white wine, but I’d heard they made other varieties quite well too.

The thing about wine tasting, however, is that I didn’t really want to do it on my own. I’d heard that El Balcon was a nice hostel and a good place to meet people. When I got off the bus though, a fellow offered me a bed for $25 pesos a night in another place, about $6 US, and said they were having an asado. I went to El Balcon and they had conveniently sold out of the dorm beds for $30 and only had $40 beds. Plus, they weren’t having an asado. I walked down to the farthest reaches of the little town and joined the mixed group of Argentineans and Europeans socializing entirely in Spanish and poured myself a cup from the jug of red wine on the bar.

It was the dirtiest, most disgusting hostel I’ve actually stayed in (which doesn’t count the Scrum Hotel Illa and I avoided earlier in this journey). But the people were nice and we went for a fabulous 48-kilometer bike ride through the desert together the next day. The second day we wondered up a rocky canyon toward some waterfalls we never reached, built a campfire, drank wine and ate goat cheese together. I still hadn’t been to a single vineyard on the third day and made some quick rounds to the nearest ones before my bus.

The bus. The bus was about two blocks outside of town when I realized I’d left my passport and money belt buried under the towel I decided to discard. The driver agreed to wait for me as I frantically ran back toward the hostel, 10 blocks away, looking for a taxi. In the town square, the guy who ran our hostel loaned me his bike and I pedaled like the wind against traffic. I grabbed my moneybelt, remounted the and pedaled like the wind back toward the bus. About a block and a half behind the bus, I started trying to wave at the driver so he would know it was me.

Look mom, no hands!

And then I hit a sandy patch. The bike tire slipped sideways and I knew there was no fixing it. I should have been petrified. I was, after all, riding like the wind. I should have been afraid for my life and struggled to protect my fragile limbs. But I think I may have still been trying to wave at the bus driver even as I slid 10 feet along the sandy asphalt, scraping my bare skin against the dirt. I don’t think I ever took my eyes off the bus, where all of my worldly belongings were stored in the underbelly. The group of pre-teen boys drinking soda from three-liter plastic bottles along the side of the street made “whoa” sounds and dropped their jaws to watch me. Before I even slid to a complete stop I assessed the damage, decided it was only flesh wounds, stood and resolved to leave everything that had fallen from me behind. But the boys raced to hand me my sweater and water bottle. And I finished the ride to the bus.

There, the driver looked astonished and offered to divert the many passengers on his rout to the nearest hospital for me. I said I would be fine and took my seat in the very front next to an older lady where I began to cry and dab at my bloody elbows with coarse paper towels. She rolled her eyes and asked me where I was from, wanting to know what nationality the idiot who caused the delay was.

The other tourists in the back of the bus gave me a two-liter bottle of soda water to carry to the bathroom with me. I cleaned my wounds and resolved to spend my last night in a rented bed in luxury. I found the nicest looking hotel in Tafi Del Valle and took a 45-minute shower before laying in my king size bed.

The next day the lady at the front desk in the hotel, the guy at the pharmacy and even the lady who sold me the bus ticket all said, “why don’t you go to the hospital?” as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do even for injuries so superficial they didn’t need Band-Aids. I had time and I was curious and figured I could also ask about my enduring cough.

I went and it took 30 minutes for them to clean my wounds, listen to my lungs and give me advice. All they wanted from me was my name, age and nationality. That’s how healthcare should be.

In keeping with my luxurious conclusion to this trip, I rode in a suite class bus with my own TV screen and a seat that folded flat to Buenos Aires. I’m staying with a family friend of sorts, Robin who lives in Argentina and usually works crazy hours at Bloomberg. We cheered Argentina on in their game yesterday at a bar called Loco por Football and I’m happy I’ll get to see Argentina play one last time before I go on Sunday.

I love World Cup Soccer in Argentina. The people are so passionate and so patriotic. I wish we could have that kind of unity.

I’m looking ahead a lot to my homecoming and I’m really excited about it. I will miss this carefree lifestyle, but it will be nice to have an income again, assuming I eventually have a job, and I can’t wait to have a home and a bed.

I’m taking a couple hours of classes now and I know I’ve achieved my goal of improving my Spanish. I hope I’ll be able to use it when I’m home.


  1. The Washington Post says:

    The corpses -- two girls and a boy believed to range in age from about 6 to 15 -- were not artificially mummified, but preserved naturally by the combination of freezing temperatures, thin air and moderate humidity. No signs of violence were found; scientists suspect the three were simply left to freeze to death on a funerary platform as sacrificial gifts to an ancient mountain god.

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