Salta la Linda

Salta the Beautiful.

It’s true. Salta is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful city I saw in Argentina.

They like that word in Salta. A girl asked us where we were from. Her response, “Qué linda!”

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Want to do something beautiful while you’re in Salta? Visit Cloudhead at their lovely Arthouse (see the view in the picture above) and get involved with their community projects.

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Bariloche

Bariloche is beautiful. It’s also very touristy. You can cycle along country roads, kayak in clear lakes, hike woodland trails and have your fill of craft beers and Swiss chocolates. You can also laze on shorelines and watch pumice floating on the water or catch a cable car up to a viewpoint to avoid the dusty volcanic ash on the roads.

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We stayed at Green House Hostel, easily one of our favourite hostels in South America, for it’s quiet location closer to hikes, super communal spaces and friendly cat.

El Chaltén, Argentina

It only exists for tourism. It’s cold, expensive and far far away from the nearest town. You’ll pay extra for your hostel, and splurge if you decide to eat out. But like the lamb ravioli I savored there, El Chaltén is worth the cost. Its isolation is precisely what makes it so special. The pristine Patagonian countryside provides stunning views of spiky and sheer Cerro Fitzroy, strangled looking half-dead trees and the valley of the town itself. Despite the priciness of everything in town, there are countless hours of free trekking opportunities. The spooky layering of clouds over the mountains at dusk, that hypnotized us from the bus window as we drove away, was also free.

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El Chaltén can be reached by bus from El Calafate from the south or Bariloche from the north.

Quebrada de las Conchas

North of Salta, Argentina lies Quebrada de las Conchas. “Quebrada” from “quebrar” (to break) refers to a gorge, in this case mounds of rust-colored rock, broken at sharp angles by millions of years of erosion. “Conchas” are the shells, or marine fossils, left on the ocean floor before the gorge was elevated, along with the rest of the Andean range, by the friction of tectonic plates.

It only rains in the gorge about five days a year, including the day we visited. I don’t know how it would have looked if it hadn’t, but I was happy not to have the lines of exotic rock columns and sky blurred by sunlight. The sprinkling rain darkened the scattered shrubs, making the whole place look positively fertile.

A postcard from el Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Salta

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The exhibition was a retrospective of Mariano Cornejo. I’d never heard of the artist, but we had time to kill and it was starting to rain, so we went in.

Abstract shapes teased my imagination. Textures of smooth wood, torn paper, rough metal and cracked oil paint made my fingers itch to touch the paintings and sculptures.

Pigments blended together in gradations, sticking in clumps on the wooden canvases, etched and pierced by nails. Paper and card were layered, ripped and pierced to reveal contrasting colours and shapes. Blocky pieces of wood fit together to make animals that looked as if they’d been frozen in mid-wing flap or prowl.

I felt so at home, among these creations of a person I’d never met. There was a connection, an overlap in how we experience the world. I was reminded of the power of art. The power to communicate and affect, without language.

A postcard from Laguna Nimez Reserve, El Calafate

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We went there to see flamingoes. They stood in a group in the water, long necks curled up, nestling their heads under their wings. Somehow they managed to balance in the strong wind.

The surface of the water sparkled deep blue and rippled in murky green waves. We wrapped our clothes tighter around ourselves and struggled against the wind while the low autumn sun shone in our eyes.

Short stakes in the ground showed us the trail through yellow grass and spiky bushes. Periodically, numbered signs would tell us when to read the corresponding information on our paper map. It flapped wildly every time I tried to open it, just like the rust-coloured tufts of reeds in the shallow water of the lagoon’s edge.

Seeking shelter amongst calafate bushes, we spotted little brown birds bobbing on the boardwalk ahead of us. The illustrated sign told us they were Patagonian Canastero and Band-tailed Eremobius. We couldn’t spot the Scale-throated Earthcreeper, though.

Continuing around the lake, we watched Speckled Teals, or maybe Andean Ruddy Ducks, diving in the water. Red-shovelers flapped their wings at each other amongst sheltering reeds. We huddled down alongside the sand dune that separated the reserve from Lago Argentino. The far bigger body of water on the other side of the fence was covered in choppy white waves; too cold for us to venture to.

We kept walking on the narrow strip between Laguna Nimez and the Lesser Lagoon. Gulls soared above, blown backwards by violent gusts. A bigger shadow passed overhead and we saw an eagle landing in a patch of bushes. A huge white bird stood off in the distance. It’s shape was impossible to tell; round and squat or elegantly curled up against the weather.

Totally exposed between the two lagoons, the wind buffeted us violently as we stepped on squishy ground. There was a small bridge ahead but the path beyond was submerged in murky water shining strangely black. If was impossible to continue because of the periodic flooding caused when the part of the Perito Moreno glacier collapses.

We turned and retraced our steps, saying goodbye to a family of Upland Geese, a grey-white-teal heap honking ever so softly in a sheltered knoll. Our backs felt warm as we walked briskly towards town.

Laguna Nimez Reserve
Cost: A$25

Perito Moreno Glacier

20120325-221043.jpgUnlike most of the world’s glaciers, Perito Moreno is stable, advancing at the same rate it’s receding. And it recedes in dramatic fashion. The glacier is so hypnotic that you can stare at it for minutes without noticing the passing of time. Then a deep, thunderous crack resounds, and you scan the tremendous length of the ice shelf. If you’re lucky you see the cascading of chunks larger than pianos smashing against the tranquil blue water, leaving scattered white blocks like spilled Legos.

Things I heard over an asado in Hospedaje Lautaro

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In Argentina, a policeman trains for 6 months and then they give him a gun. If you get pulled over for a traffic charge, or in fact have any kind of interaction with the law, you can talk your way out of it. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

During military service, Israelis all talk about where they’re going to travel. After military service, they all travel to south America, India or south east Asia.

Argentinians are the worst visitors in El Calafate because they “don’t know how to travel”; they expect too much and ask for special treatment because they’re Argentinian.

In Curaçao, they speak Papiamentu, a creole of Dutch, English, Spanish/Portuguese and African languages. Hugo Chavez has ambitions to annex the island so the US government is pressuring Holland and Curaçao not to let this happen.

Residents of Buenos Aires state think they are different from residents of Buenos Aires city. To everyone else they’re the same.

Marijuana in Holland is increasing in strength. Previously it was 8-9% THC but due to the use of fertilizers it can now be up to 20%. This is a problem for tourists who go to Amsterdam and ask for the maximum strength not realizing just how strong it’s going to be.

When Argentina’s economy crashed in 2001, Patagonia was relatively unaffected. But during the world financial crisis, tourism decreased (except Germans who continue to visit in large numbers).

Germans near the border go to Holland for shopping. Police often stop and search young people coming back from a weekend of shopping and have an uncanny ability of knowing who is in possession of contraband.

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A postcard from Cueva de las Manos

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The driver fiddled with the radio dial in the early morning drive before finally settling on silence. This was the best choice for traveling through the dreamy, pre-dawn Patagonian steppe. I felt unexpectedly anxious as we got closer and closer to Cueva de las Manos, an outcrop of painted rock art going back some 13,000 years. I had only been introduced to its existence a few days earlier by a postcard in a kiosk in Bariloche, and was struck by the outlines of hands, boldly proclaiming “WE WERE HERE.” Though the original inhabitants of the site were long dead, and I don’t believe in ghosts, I felt as if I were about to invade someone’s home.

The hand stencils were created by blowing paint (pulverized minerals) through bone onto the hands. Nearly all of the 800 or so handprints are of the left hand, which suggests the people who created them were right-handed as they would have used their right hand to hold the bone. There is one six-fingered hand, a result of low genetic diversity. There are even “false hands” created by pranksters much more recently, the reason for the current fence in front of the rock face.

Other than the hands, the most frequent image is that of the guanaco, a crucial part of these nomadic people’s diet. The cueva is really more like a cliff with small recesses overlooking a large valley and faraway mountains, from which these hunter-gatherers could spot the migrations of their favorite prey. Due to their tremendous importance, the guanacos are larger and more elegantly realized than the cruder images of people, amardillos, pumas and mythical demon-like creatures.

After climbing down the cliff, we strolled through the bucolic valley, a ranch of some 600 cows. Rosie turned to me and said, “This is the best thing on the trip so far, even better than Iguazu!” Though she had studied archaeology, I was still surprised that she would put this ahead of mighty Iguazu. But I was more surprised that I agreed with her.

Cueva de las Manos

Hotel Belgrano offers tours from Perito Moreno. Tours can also be organized through Chaltén Travel.