Thursday, October 27, 2005

Northern Argentina III: The valleys of red and green

Solo I boarded the bus to Cafayate, a little town south of Salta, which is known for its vineyards and also for the amazing country side. After a scenic ride through the famous Quebrada de Cafayate (Valley of Cafayate) I went with a tour to a couple vineyards for explanation on wine production and tasting. The next day I was already on my way to Tucuman, the capital of it`s region. On the way I was surprised to pass through the lush subtropical valley of Sosa (Quebrada de Los Sosas), a beautiful and scenic curving valley. I knew immidiately that I will return for a revisit.

Red ride through nowhere to Cafayate
Sitting down in my seat in the simple bus, I was gripping that, again, I am traveling solo, with freedom and lonesome as my companions. I was a bit sad so I put on some tunes in my CD player and wished the bus will move, so my thoughts will move also with the rhythm of the music. Only, when the bus started to reverse and depart from it`s docking line, the radio crackled and the lady on the other line asked something about two vacant seats. The driver stopped backing up and after consulting with the conductor, he answered that no, there is no room. The lady insisted he should wait till they check it up and he returned to the start of the lane. Damn, I wanted to go! I was agitated, wanted to leave and move! The conversation kept on, and then finally the bus back up again, only again the driver was stopped and requested to wait. URRR...whats going on here?! LETS VAMOS!!! I raged inside and the lava kept on boiling inside like a volcano about to explode. I was SO agitated, only god knows why...
At the end, I saw a girl coming from the left and immediately I recognised her as an Israeli. Great, I should have thought about that... She was calling her friend, another girl, and together they boarded the bus and finally, and indeed finally, the bus left the docking area and we were on the move. THANK GOD!!!!
The first part was not that quite interesting, just getting out of the city, but quite quickly we entered the vast valley of Cafayate, full of rich red color on both sides and nothing more. Not a single house for kilometers away, nothing! Every five minutes the bus will stop and pick a passenger that came out of nowhere, and dropped off at another point in this nowhere. And all of this in such a wild an beautiful place with amazing colors and rock shapes. I was lucky enough to have the front seat on the right side, and thus most of the time I had the valley side and also could shoot straight through the front window of the bus (hopefully it will get out good). As this area is so remote, people stop the bus to buy newspaper (!), a thing that amazed me. At one time, a young mother (maybe 20 years old not more) went up with her down-syndromed child, which laughed and giggled in a total naive manner with everyone who went up or down the bus, no matter how people saw her (including me). It gripped me sadly, that this child`s naivety was like a curtain that screened the stares of the people, each one with his own thoughts. This naivety certainly helped her be happy and giggle with other kids, which interacted with her similarly to other kids, not truly aware of the difference between them and this child of joy.

Vineyard tour - can I have another , glass, please?
Reaching Cafayate, it was not hard to find a hostel as a girl approached me and offered a room. Well, I didn't plan on staying too much in Cafayate so I said, what the hell. And they threw inside a vine tour. Cool, where do I sign??
The girl showed the way in little Cafayate and after 5 minutes my gear was thrown majestically over the lower bank of the dormitories. While I was arranging my self, a guy came in and introduced him self as Frank, a dutch guy. We talked quite a lot and then he said he is going to the vine tour. Ha, nice I will join you too! I commented and together we went down to the reception. And there, who I found making questions about this and that? Of course, the two Israeli girls! I chit-chat with them for five minutes and got the picture more or less, and then went to the tour with frank. With us on the tour were also one German guy that i didn't captured his name, another Spanish guy and two girls.
The tour was nice and started at one of the close vineyards. A very fast spanish speaking guide started mumbling about the factory capacity to produce this and that liters of vine each day, and somewhere in the middle of his speech I already drifted with my camera in hand, looking for attractive angles and shots...Who cares how much or when, I want a good shot!! Not that the tour was that long, just 10 minutes before we returned to the factory shop to taste some wine, and maybe, just maybe, buy some Cabernet Sauvignon year 1985 maybe?? Phh, yeah right!
We hopped on the truck for another small vineyard, again looking around and then taste a bit more wine (good wines, but as I am not a specialist in the field, every wine tastes for me the same...) and then move on to another one. At that last one, the car driver (which is also the owner of the hostel) showed us around the process of bottling of the wine, and it was to see a big fella that was recycling 5 liter bottles. To do so, he washed huge amounts of bottles under the hot sun with water and soap...simple and effective! We also saw how they bottle up the wine and put everything nicely in nylon wrap and taking it to the stores. Nice!
We returned to the hostel only to go back to the center of town, looking for places to eat. Frank was just finishing his Master degree in Economics and was also thinking what to do with himself once his tour is over (couple of months no more). After lunch we split, he went to the tour of the Cafayate valley while I went to the Internet only to overstay till the evening. When I returned to the hostel, I saw frank talking with the German guy, who I forgot his name. A nice guy at that, who likes outdoor activity and told us about a kayaking tour he did once. Was interesting and when we finished our business we went to have some dinner (all the time eating, I am telling ya, they wont let on the plane!!). The German guy met a Swiss guy in the little restaurant on the plaza and they kept yabbing in deutch so me and frank talked some and after the meal I felt myself SO tired I told frank that I am hitting the sack. Said goodbye and went to the hostel for a goodnight sleep as the next day I had to catch a bus to Tucuman at 6 am...

Surprising findings around the curve
Well, waking up at 5 am the Friday morning was not that easy as I thought but after howling all my stuff out of the room (no need for the others to suffer as I do, right?) I quickly arranged all my stuff and around 5:30 am I was sitting alone and in the dark street of Cafayate (they didn't heard about changing the clock, do they?? The time was suppose to be 4:30 for god`s sake!). Almost no one was on the streets and the office was, of course, closed. I started to get a bit worried that I might have not understand the girl in the hostel reception when I heard footsteps behind me and the noise of rattling keys and knew I heard her perfectly good! I bought a ticket to Tucuman (driving in Argentina IS expensive, damn it!) and waited no more than 5 minuted till the bus arrived and the guy took my backpack and put in the luggage compartment. I boarded the bus, with few people already sitting in it, and took my seat at the right side (as the hostel owner advised me).
I was pretty tired but hold on my tiredness as the bus pulled out of the curve and I started, yet, another ride into Argentina`s wilderness.
The light came slowly on the east side (I was sitting on the west as the bus travelled south) and slowly I could see the vastness of the valleys south-east of Cafayate with the little snow capped mountains illuminated first by the rising sun, and the moon hanging from above, shining also. What a picture it could have been if only the bus would stop! But, heck, it only went faster, riding from time to time on gravel and dirt parts, shaking all passengers really good and eliminating any thought or act by my side to take my camera out and check the light metering system. Later, when there was light (but nothing interesting to shoot...) I fell asleep, as I was starting to get tired of waking up all the time at 5 am or similar.Shit, am I on vacation or what that I am doing this thing to my poor tired soul?? (well, I have to whine somewhere, better I do it here where no one sees, right? OK, OK, you see it, but you wont tell anyone, right? RIGHT?? Good!)
So, finally I woke up just in time to see the crucifix of poor old Jesus hang in the northern entrance to Tafi del Valle, a nice little town on the mid way to Tucuman that lots of folks come to relax and enjoy the fresh air after absorbing a lot of pollution in the big and dirty city. We did a stop in the bus station and I had a nice coffee and two Media Lunes (called Half Moons for their form), which are Argentinean-style Croissants (filled with nothing but compensated with a layer of sugar-sweet on top...very yami, and of course, good for the fat cells to grow more...). Talking of which, it is kind of a customary thing here to serve those lunes with the coffee, and if you politely deny the sweet, people look at you surprised and press a bit • “Are you sure?” Yes, Damn it, I am sure I don't want to be 5 kg fatter than I am already, so stop shoving me those calorie killers!
So, after some good coffee (and they have here some gourmet coffee and for third the price in Israel at it!) we returned to the bus to continue the other half of the ride, only this time I wasn't ready for what I saw. At first we passed La Angostura Dique (dam), an artificial lake and at that, the highest in Argentina) and almost immediately after passing it we abruptly entered the Quebrada de Los Sasos, a subtropical lush valley which the Rio Los Sasos pass through it and the road passes closely by. I of course didn't know anything about what I am telling ya, I learned all this when I reached Tucuman, but as a dedicated photographer, I took out my camera and pathetically tried to capture this amazing place. Well, as I was so dedicated, I quickly realized that it is hopeless to shoot through a window of a fast driving bus when curves and turns makes sharp picture taking an impossible mission (unless you are equipped with a gyroscope, which of course I don't have in my possession...), so I pondered what is the chance I can come back here and how. As the bus continue to drive through this beautiful valley, I measured the different options and the chances that I will do it in a one day excursion. Of all the options (walking, biking, taxing and renting a car) the last one was the best of them all: it enabled me both freedom (I decide when to go and when to stop) and speed, as this road is almost 50 km long. Taking a taxi was out of the question as I had a person that I was not truly free to do what I want. Taking a bike was also out of the question as biking 50 km demand some serious shape. And walking...well, don't make me laugh OK? Like, shit, I had enough in the Railyway walk to Aquas Calientes...
So, it was settled! Renting a car! Just hoped I wont be ripped off...

We finally reached the bus station and I decided, as I was so smart, to walk the whole way to the center instead of taking a taxi. Real slick, Chen, just walk some 10 blocks with 30 kg backs on the back and on the front. And how much did I saved?? Maybe 2.5 pesos, which I, of course, invested on a bottle of water after walking so much under the vicious sun...Did I say I am a smart guy??
Well, I reached the Hostel Petit, a not too-small hostel if you ask me, but you know, everything is relative (maybe in comparison to the Pyramids it is small...). In any case, the owner, a guy named Enrique (!), introduced himself and when he heard I am an Israeli he went joyfully to his desk and popped up an old diary which served as the hostel guess book. Well, he cleared a place for me to write my opinion only when I was suppose to write it (before leaving) I was so pressed, I didn't give about his book • I had a bus to catch! But, I will return to this event later on...
So, after dropping my stuff in the room (19 pesos a night, the LP writes it is 5 USD not 6 USD!) I went to consult with Enrique about car rental. Very nice and helping, Enrique picked up the phone and after couple of minutes handed me one of the car rental agency owner. Yes, you we have a small car for rent, it costs 100 peso per day for 200 km, he said with his broken English. 100 pesos?? Did I hear right? That's good, I though it is gonna be around 150! Marvelous! So we fixed 5 PM as the time to meet (way after Siesta time) and I finished the call. Sweet ass, everything is going smoothly!
I then went straight to find some food for my already demanding stomach, and after consulting with Enrique, I went to a nice restaurant on one of the main streets. Now, people, I was entering the joint, and what can I tell ya, everyone there were wearing god damn suits (in this heat, are you people outa your mind?!) and the whole atmosphere was crying Luxury!! As I was sitting, with already one eye on the door for a quick run from the demanding menu, the waiter came with the menu, and surprisingly, the prices were not THAT high...well, maybe in comparison to a fast eatery it is as twice as expensive, but hey! This is a good Italian restaurant! So, after looking for a reasonable dish with the lowest number on the price list, I took some kind of an Italian dish I don't remember what was its name (and it is not that important in any case...). And then I realized for the first time, that Argentina is best not only for their meat, but also for their Italian food, or PIPs: Pastas, Ice creams and Pizzas. Yes, of course, not for those of you who try to keep a strict diet. An almost impossible mission (and even didn't start to mention the many bakeries with Alfajores and other sweeties...). Even an anorectic man or woman would inflate themselves like a high rising balloon!
So, the Pasta was indeed a good choice, very tasty and filling (and if not, the generous bread serving would for sure do the job quite as effectively...).
So, I still had time till I was suppose to meet with this guy so I went to the Internet (not surprising, I know) and then to the hostel to take a shower, because Tucuman was like an oven! It reminded me of Israel at the mid of summer: hot and humid. UUFFF! Good thing that the showers are so good here, it was a splurge to get into that shower after such heat...
Around 5 PM I went to the address he gave me and it took me sometime to find the agency and the man standing in the heat of the day, eating Ice cream. Surprisingly, he apologized several times for eating in front of me and showed me the car (a relatively new little Suzuki with a Chevrolet engine instead of a Japanese one...don't know whats the difference, but I didn't care also, as long as it can hawl ass). When we returned to the agency, he asked for the driver license and I suddenly realized it is in the room. Shit, need to go back in that heat. Damn it! Well, when I returned he already filled the blanks in the rental form, and then finished the others. As an insurance, he “vouchered” my Visa card, so if I will think about driving all the way back to Israel or knock a side mirror, he will have some shopping on my account...). Well, it was pretty intimidating, I had only one credit card now, and if something fucks up, I am in SERIOUS DEEP- DEEP SHIT! At the end (as for now, at least, all worked out well...).
So, after finishing the bureaucracy things, we went to take the car. The tank was quarter full so I had to do a refill. We assessed that I would use more than the 200 Km allocated for me (110 km to Tafi del Valle) so I will need also to fill quite a lot of fuel. After showing me the basic operating features of the car, I got inside and started to drive out of the parking lot. Well, immediately I realized two major things: One, this car has a VERY VERY long clutch. Second, the stirring wheel is mechanical and not hydraulic, which is quite depressing (even after 7 months I still remember how smooth a hydraulic wheel can stir like butter). So, after cursing under my breath and jumping a bit with the car (which made the guy look at me for assurance that the car will indeed return in one piece...) I managed to get into the streets of Tucuman.
Now, I think I already mentioned that the Argentinean are not sane once they are behind the wheel. Well, I could not say I was not terrified of getting into that hot street (literally!). I thought of maybe going to do a refill, but after I saw the mess and the fact that I didn't actually found any gas station on the way, i decided to postpone it to the next day. As I planned on leaving around 7 am, I knew almost no car will drive (and if it was, it was full of drunk and after-party guys..). So, instead of going and looking for a gas station, I just drove straight to the hostel parking lot. Only, the combination of narrow gate entrance, a high sidewalk curve and not being used to the clutch turned the parking thing into a situation that extracted most of my patience and control. From a certain point I had to push both the breaks and the clutch simultaneous so on the one hand I wont slip back into the busy street and on the other hand I wont knock the car into the gate`s door. Yeah, it sounds complicated coz it was! That was the first time for me to use both legs at the same time in order to get into a parking lot...Sometime it is funny what you learn when you are abroad...
In any case, once the car was at a safe location (i.e. the hostel parking lot) I felt much more safer and afterwards went to eat something and to go buy some food for the next day`s ride (you can figure out by yourself: Canned Tuna fish, Mustard and bread...). I was excited to return to the valley, to the scene and to the fact that I am gonna do something never done before by me: driving a car in a foreign country, and more than that, after 7 months away from the wheel.

Double the fun: shooting a lot, driving to the limits!
The next morning I was already awake before the clock had the chance to ring, and by the time it was 6:30, I was already reversing out of the parking lot into the indeed empty streets. First thing first, I need to refuel! So after doing some turning I came to the street that I knew a gas station is active. Only I suddenly realized that I am driving against the traffic. A policeman whistled for me to stop right next to the Gas station and while he looked at me with puzzlement, I explained him that this is my first time driving in Argentina and I don't know if a street is one or two directions. The policeman pointed his finger toward the street name posts and then I saw that there are arrows that point to the traffic direction. Great, could they tell this BEFORE I hit the the road in the first place?! Well, I was at the gas station so I filled the tank (2 peso per liter, shit that was quite expensive!) and head back to the street. Lucky for me, traffic was not heavy and I had a brochure of Tucuman that detailed how to get to the valley, so relatively I found the way easy. One time, I was looking for the expressway but only when I crossed it over a bridge did I noticed that what should I have done. Roadsigns? Heck, they are in difficult economical difficulties, so the tourists could find their way with a bit of luck...god dam it.
Once on the expressway things were easy and more straightforward and I enjoyed the ride with the window full open and the chilly wind caressing my hair. Flat as a ruler, the road bend here and there, but generally it was easy to ride it and I immediately noticed that the Suzuki was going to work hard as I was in fifth gear and car bearly scratched the 90 kmh notch. I was in no hurry but later...oh, later I did kick the shit out of that poor engine (as I thought I would not do, but I surprise myself alot in this trip).
I knew that I have around 50 km on route number 38 (the expressway) till there is a split in the road near a little town that I missed twice (!) till I found it. From here onward it was simple as this road lead back to Cafayate through the valle. I took my time as it was very early in the morning, the light was just getting a bit stronger and the sun low, and I knew I would have some problems shooting in the valley once inside as the sun would light only the top parts of the valley (which indeed was the problem). This was the fun part, as I stopped almost every 100 meters, got off the car (motor running, sometime smak in the middle of the empty road), snapping a shot and then continuing driving to the next shooting point. Hell, last time I did something that came near this was in Israel, and it was not that close! So, slowly I drove up the road toward the start of the valley, with the lush vegetation, high and old trees that some kind of parasitic plant was covering them all and giving the whole scene an old appearance. As the sun was still low in the sky (it was around 8:30 am), I decided to stop for a breakfast near a curve in the road where I found a little niche to park the car. I switched on the four VINKERS, took the groceries and sat on a cement rail looking down some 10 meters on the flowing Rio Los Sasos, with all this green all around it. It was a marvelous place to stop and I enjoyed every minute of it! From time to time a car zoomed past me, but other than that, nothing disturbed me or the peacefullness of this place after eating the last crumbs I wrapped all and continue on driving, stopping here and there for another shot (yes, I shot a lot, around 2 rolls of films) and continuing on. The road started to go up and more steeply, and as I drove more I returned to my old and bad habbit that some of you alreayd know: driving fast around curves. And this was the beauty of it all: I was renting this car alone, so I didnt had any responsibility but for my self and could take such a chance. If I were to drive with other people in the vehicle I would have not done such a driving (and frankly, dont think other people would have approved such driving in any case!). So, taking the car into avenues it didnt saw thus far by me, I wrneched the poor thing way above 4000 rpm and started to have some serious fun, riding sometime on in the middle of the road as the view passed past quickly, and stopping aburptly when I saw a nice vista, only to jump snap a shot and then return to my seat, so eager to continue. Shit, I dont remember when I enjoyed driving so much, even not in Israel. The adrenaline was running as fast as I was driving and even though it sounds like I drove like a maniac, I was quite catious and most of the time elaborated a fast but relatively safe driving. So, evntually I found my self at the opening of the valley, a beautiful scene of a small stream flowing under a small brick bridge with sheep grazing the green fields with small hills sorrounds and border it all around. I snapped a lot photos there and eventually I came to the La Angostura dam, beautiful with its still blue waters and the mountains around it reflected in it. Amazing!
On the km scale I was already riding some 105 km this I will over ride the car by a bit already, so I pondered whether to continue and see the mysterious stone statues at the Parque de Los Menhires in the little town of El Mollar or to head back to Tucuman. I also wanted to take more pictures of the valley when facing the other direction, but at the end I decided that a bit more km wont be that expensive (0.5 peso per additional one km) so I said, what the heck, lets see the stones! So I drove some ten minutes more and entred El Mollar, a nice little town, at that time deserted of almost any foreign tourist that I could have seen, and after paying the 2 peso entrance fee, I looked around.
Well, no wonder there are not too many tourists - yeah, it is nice. But yeah, thats all to it, nothing more. Just standing one, one and half meter stones, some with nice carvings of faces while some just looks like a plane long and narrow stones taken from the field outside of town. I read a bit about the stones, and it seems that a pre-hispanic culture errected and carved those stones, that were found in the vicinty in numerous numbers and even today nobody knows alot about this culture. I snapped several shots, and head back to the vehicle.
Riding back was even more fun then before, as I rode all the way down like I went up, really nice curves! Everyone who likes driving the curves would have so much fun there!
Getting back to Tucuman center was easier than going out, of course, and after being stuck in heavy traffic in the mid of Saturday, I parked the car in the hostel`s parking lot. Doing some 220 km in total I was satisfied that I would need to pay only 10 pesos extra. Fuel, however, was filled to waste (so I thought), as I filled a quarter tank more than needed...I went to eat something and then returned to the hostel for a quick shower • the city was an inferno! Not to mention the huge sand wall that covered the whole city with blizzard sand grains, making people rub their eyes and lower their heads against the grainy warm wind...It was like being locked in a sand clock and a kid shaking the damn thing and laughing at the misserable tiny people that suffer from the sand...
At 6 PM the guy came with all the documents and gave me the vaucher, that I tore to pieces after he left. He actuallt didnt check the vehicle too much, and after seeing that I filled too much, without any comment from my side, he told me I dont need to pay extra as I filled the tank extra. A fair guy! (Dont know how it is in Israel, but I think that im not that sure that the agent would have offered this without any mention from the customer...).

Cordoba, here I come!!
The rest of the day I passed in the interent (what else) and in purchasing a ticket to Cordoba. I realized that I could have taken a night bus and save on the night in the hostel, but on the other hand, I was happy I would sleep good and also have a good shower after such a long day...I bought the ticket to one of the better busses that was leaving Tucuman around 6:10 am (oh shit, again to wake up early??) and after having a nice pizza I hit the sack...
I was so tired, I almost missed the bus! Yeah, I woke up on time, but was so slow that suddenly I realized that half of the bag is on the floor and it was already 5:20! I wrapped things fast and went to the reception to ask for a taxi (I paid a day before, thank god for that). No, no taxi..WHAT?? What do you mean no taxi? What kind of a city is this?? SO, when I really needed a taxi, I had to fuckn walk VERY fast 10 blocks with my 30 kgs stuff..Shit, that was a 15 minutes hard haul, and my legs muscles was stiffed already after 5 minutes. On the street I didnt find even ONE free taxi. Nada! Murphy, Murphy, you SOB!!!!Well, at the end I was five minutes before departure time, and as I entred the bus station I saw already the bus being loaded with the few passengers boarding this bus from Tucumna. I gave my big backpack and went up to find my seat. Only, when I was getting intot he second floor, I saw two Argentinean women yabbing and babbing their things in an uncomprehndible Spanish, one of them was sitting in my seat. Hmm, excuse me, this is my seat, I said as patiently as I could. Ha, you can sit in my sit, it is the same, she replied ( and I thought, no, it is not the same, thats exactly why you sit in my sit, isnt it right?). Well, I want my sit if you dont mind, I replied (more or less, i wished my Spanish to be that good...). She agreed and moved to her seat, across the passage but near her friend. I sad on the seat, starting to arrange my stuff so I would be comfortable (hey, it is an 8 hours ride...long enough to make your back ache if not seated comfortably!). Well, as I was trying to push my back under my seat I realized that only under my seat a heating unit was situated, taking the space that I usually use to shove my day pack. Shit. Of all the things in the world, of all the seats in the god damn bus, why I should ride with my pack on my lap!? WHY ME??? But, then, as the bus backed and started its move south, toward Cordoba, I started bursting with a bitter laughter, cursing Murphy, that damn Irish spirit that makes people misserable all around the world. Murphy, Murphy you SOB!!!!!! I sang in my hearth as the bus thrusted south through the dark highway toward young an lively Cordoba...

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