Argentina

Out of Buenos Aires, first we drove from Aconcagua across the full width of the country to Parana and Uruguay. Without the wind, every single km would be very hot for us. With the wind, above 2km above the sea it was ok warm or even a bit chilly. Otherwise, in the dry west 35+, in the wet east 30+ and tropic nights. You could amazingly see how the climate gets gradually from bone dry by the Ands to fully humid around Parana. East of Cordoba you could see the famous cattle pastures all over the place, west of Cordoba you could see the famous pampa. Somehow we imagined pampa much more grassy, but it was bushy instead. The bush (distanced from each other) is often up to 3m high and so farmers living off the road are completely hidden from public no matter if it’s 20km (which is nothing over there) or 100m off the road. The bush is sometimes denser, sometimes less where even less water occurs. That looks like a semi desert. We spent a night in a place like that and unlike in desert the night was freaking hot and also we met the biggest amount and variety of insects to bother us. Not sure what do they want in such a hostile environment but they are a real pain in the ass. In between the bushes it seems that farmers mostly keep goats and sheep and after that horses and donkeys. Warning signs cattle on the road are everywhere though, no matter if in the cattle dominated east or sheep and goats dominated west.

There is an exception / mountains in the middle of the country, just SW of Cordoba. They seem like pampa too although a lot more people seem to live around there, probably because of more water supply. Very popular in this area was selling usually homemade stuff along the road. Just like in many mountains. Most notably olive oil for as low as 2USD/l and honey as low as 1USD/kg. I am so glad we bought all that closer to Mendoza for double prices designed for tourists.

We wanted to take some hitchhikers along the road already from the Ands but we saw no one until those mountains. So we grabbed that single woman for about an hour ride thinking what an exception was that (and within 10min we saw half a dozen other ones?? Aamn no?). She turned out to be a Couchsurfer and invited us to stay with her however we had to try hard our humble Spanish. We then found another Couchsurfer to be cool in a town called San Francisco. It seemed like a bigger village on the map but turned out to be a 75k city having even own university which our host attended. It was just 5min off his house and it looked like a nursery just with lack of toys and paintings outside. Nonetheless it was a great stop.

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After that we crossed the great river Parana, which is great indeed as well as dirty, had our first car mechanic visit, crossed the great river Uruguay on the border with Uruguay, where Argentinians have a hidden toll gate on the Uruguayan side of the bridge, where is no chance to escape it and charge you ten times higher toll than inland, and left the country.

Back in Argentina we happened to be in the far northeast in the province Misiones. It is called so because that region was heavily colonized and developed by Jesuits’ missions in 17th and 18th century and you can find some ruins from those times in Argentina as well as Brazil and Paraguay. We just crossed the northernmost tip of it to see the NP Iguazu and its famous waterfalls. The road we took was the best road we have driven until then on the continent except inside of the NP which was the worst road we have done yet. There we also saw a couple of storms with the most intense rain we have experienced in our lives.

Iguazu falls were one of the 3 main reasons to visit this part of the continent. They are marvellous indeed, however the overall experience is in our opinion overrated. A lot of people say it’s worth numerous days of visit. It is not, it’s still just a waterfall or if you want a bunch of them and so seeing them all from two different angles is not more than a half day of a visit. It is a subject of mass tourism all inclusive. You can buy a basic entry ticket but you can also buy different excursions, you can get a catamaran ride that drives you right in the falls (bottom), you can hire a helicopter etc. Obviously there is a bunch of crap souvenir shops. We found there the first properly working public wifi in the continent so far, after a month and half.

There are signs and claims how eco-friendly and funded from the collected fees the natural site preservation is, meanwhile the site including the tourist train (so mass tourist wouldn’t have to walk 3km to the upper viewpoint) is diesel powered, there is no trash separation, trash flies around the trails and the local lemurs and monkeys play with it and the massive revenues are used for 1. Further development to allow more mass and idiotic people to come comfortably, that includes for example international airports on each side just for one set of falls! 2. God knows where, but probably to keep the energy corporations’ hands off this valley otherwise they wanted to build a huge dam across the end of the river Iguazu, submerging the waterfalls and most of the national park just like they did with Itaipu. Interestingly there is enough of funds to build new paths (meaning steel and concrete bridges over parts of the falls) but there is not enough of funds to even clean up and remove the remains of the old ones so you walk over the falls and see underneath old rusty beams and concrete pillars. All in all, the falls are amazing but will never want to go there again under the current condition, nor we have the urge to see the Brazilian side either.

Entering the town Puerto Iguazu there was a cop road check point where they were pulling over some (only some, interestingly) cars and a non-cop person was collecting a city tax, in a completely dodgy way. There were no signs, nowhere is that mentioned, nowhere else in the country is this normal. She spoke English, had no option to pay with a card, the options were to pay cash in local, Brazilian or US currency, although the rates in BRL were 40% more and in USD 140% more, even though literally everyone in the country desperately wants USD and will give you even more Argentinian pesos than the real rate is. When I started questioning these practices, she was unable to speak English anymore and just explained me that if I have a problem the police will give me a thorough check. To complete the hospitality of Argentinian Misiones, at one filling station the guy charged me 4% on top for paying with a card, again, nowhere near to normal in the country.

Later around the Christmas time we entered Argentina again, over the river Parana into the city Posadas. We ran into the only and small beach to splash of the heat and went to the town to acquire a sim card and pesos in cash. Even an international big corporation’s big official stores keep their siesta time. 4.5 hours was at this place. It is interesting how just across the border at even hotter conditions they don’t need it but in Argentina and Uruguay a good 4-5h siesta is a must. I must admit the positive thing about it is that they’re open in the evening instead, which we missed a bit in Paraguay after getting used to it. They provided me a card and everything but charging it was unavailable at their store. So instead you need to go to the dodgy kiosks selling newspaper, cigs, lottery and phone covers.

Good times I experienced with getting cash. Even though the blue dollar times are supposed to be over and it shouldn’t be over a few percent in the favour of selling dollars, I have found an official exchange office offering over 10% more pesos for USD than the rate was. And because they were closed I ran into an unofficial office, meaning a room with few random blokes, a school calculator, a chair, a table and a box of cash like in the mafia movies, and they gave me 20% more on USD and 12% more on EUR, without even trying to rip of an obviously unaware gringo. I would have been happy with the actual rate after all those rip-ofs elsewhere. In Argentina you really want to have USD cash with. Without it you will have to withdraw pesos from the ATM and loose at least 2% on the rate and over 10% on the ATM local fees instead of gaining  on the rate and paying no fees.

From there we drove about 4000km towards Tierra del Fuego. The first 1000 was through the humid agricultural northeast between rivers Parana and Uruguay where they seem to grow oranges for most of the country. Nothing much to see there, lots of police checkpoints, every one of them stopped and questioned us, once there were even two literally 1km from each other and both checked us. Nobody was mean, did not make a scene about some of my tiny traffic offenses, nobody searched us more than comfortable. Funny was that once in a while there were signs saying “Malvinas son (or siempre) Argentinas” meaning “Falklands are (or always) Argentinian”. Important signs might be missing but this will not! This was exactly at Christmas time so we could not spend the time any lamer than driving through boring countryside but it came that way. Next 500km was from near Buenos Aires towards the SW. That looks much less subtropical and you see rather sort of pastures, towns and nothing, very flat. After that we entered the legendary Patagonia (see the previous post for that).

After Patagonia we went to the country the same way we did from Santiago before, around Aconcagua. This time it was late February. The queen of the mountains here was a bit less white this time, surroundings as bone dry as before. Just after the customs we found an amazing site. Its name is Inca’s bridge, but the bridge is of natural origin (see in photos). The bridge is not special only by its origin, nice shape and unbelievable colours, but also by thermal springs right there so humans just built a little tiny spa hut right there, as is very common. It is just next to the road, how did we miss it the last time? We then drove towards the north to explore the NW of the country where the high Andes are.

Wow, if the highest expectations Patagonia did not deliver, the Andes in northern Argentina (and Chile kind of too) did instead. It is a theatre of natural sights staring in the main role rock formations, side roles taken by volcanos, salt lakes, clouds and storms, clearest milky way, rivers (usually dry) and their canyons, the picturesque appearance of lamas – vicunas and flamingos and others. Sometimes expectedly, very often unexpectedly you just drive or walk into some rocks or valleys that would be top top attractions in Europe at least.

The difference between the Andes there and say the Alps is that Alps are simply lifted edges of two tectonic desks and the rocks are more or less just the edges of the desks. While the Andes just start with that, in southern or central Patagonia it is still the predominant feature. In north Argentina or Chile it is overwhelmed by volcanos and their by-products but also, especially on the Argentinian side, by endless sedimental layers from the ancient sea. They all create countless variations of shapes, textures, angles, colours. Because the climate is so dry and it has been so since millions years ago there is no continuous vegetation cover. And because there are so many sediments on the top, the erosion uncovered unbelievable rock formations on a very large scale but variety too and organisms are not covering it or wiping it out.

Except for human sometimes, the population is rather scarce as for lack of water and fertile land, but the Andes there are extremely rich for natural resources, usually metal ores. You may have heard of famous copper, silver or gold mines in northern Chile, Bolivia or Peru. Well, Argentina stands somewhat behind them, but not left out completely for sure. Sometimes they harvest salt from the salt lakes up the altiplano too.

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The best unexpected valley for us was the road RN60 from Fiambala towards Paso San Francisco and Chile, we went there just for the Chilean side but on the way we were stunned what got left behind the fame. The top. The best expected valley for us was Quebrada de las Conchas. That one is famous indeed and it deserves the credit 100%. We had a struggle to decide our route from Cafayate towards north because from there leads the most famous road RN40 also north but a bit more west and there is another valley most recommended to see. Between this fork of two amazing valleys is a great route through the NP Los Cardones, named after the dominant cactus “cardon”.

So we took the route 40, could not continue it up the altiplano, crossed over the NP Los Cardones route and then drove Quebrada de las Conchas south and back north again as there was no convenient way to do them all. All three routes offered some amazing, mindblowing views however if I knew it, I would have skipped RN40 and Los Cardones too, because the sights were far from each other and the roads were absolutely horrific, after all the wonder n.1 was the car did not break down. Quebrada de las Conchas offered the best and the most dense sights and also more or less excellent road that pleased the car, the driver and the passenger(s) too.

Around Cafayate we saw the highest density of vineyards so far. They are all taking advantage of the very hot and dry climate and also high altitude (1500-3000, the latter has the highest vineyard in the world) and so rather red and full body wines thrive in there. However they manage to produce some amazing white wine too. We decide to take a part in some local wine tour but it was Sunday and unlike all other service and shops, the vineyards were all closed and open over rather European business hours. So we ended up in a fancy, highest rated vineyard there was, a bit pricier, in Colome, but the only one opened. Well, authenticity of traditional local vineries was gone for over 15years since a Swiss overly rich artist and entrepreneur took over and turn it into a rather poshy investment. But ok, we learned more than nothing from the area.

Closer to Salta we were highly advised to visit a local reservoir of relatively large scale, which “is so nice, authentic and you must experience the local fish, not found elsewhere”. Well, there was nothing nice or authentic, the bays were occupied by poshy modern summerhouses, water was disgusting, the nearby town was the worst useless hole we remember for long time, and finally the local fish was not to be found anywhere. Later we found they serve it in Salta at least and it’s just another average white fish.

In Salta we visited a doctor that booked us for later the same day, luckily, and the downtown. Salta is rather famous for its historical architecture, making it somewhat more attractive from other similar cities, aside of its great location. I must admit, for what we have seen so far on the continent, one of the most historical and sensible architectures. Street markets though were selling typical useless crap you can find anywhere.

What is remarkable in this part of the country, the change of the climate from a place to a place. The Andes are the widest in Bolivia and it steadily builds up from a relatively narrow strip near Santiago and Mendoza into a 500km wide mountains in Bolivia. In NW Argentina this isn’t mainly altiplano as in Bolivia, rather a narrow altiplano and many pre-ridges on the eastern side, going usually north-south. Some of the “pre-ridges” are over 4 or 5km tall so don’t be too mistaken! The easternmost ridges are so much greener than the rest and it changes sometimes very rapidly. Sometimes you can have a more or less rain forest climate on the east and semidesert on the west of the mountain. Salta is already on the wet side and so we finally caught some freshening rain, which is otherwise so scarce an hour drive to the west.

Even though we were there in the wet season. The rain season goes from around mid December until the end of March or beginning of April. We had the beginning of March and the only traces of rain season were first, clouds and storms always running around the high mountains, never reaching us down there (1.5-2.5km above the sea), and second, dry rivers and wash offs that heavily damage all the dirt roads that are predominant. Up in the mountains we were told is more or less not drivable and we could imagine why. However, when we reached the altiplano, the dirt roads taking off the main road looked so fine… But you never know what awaits you in 200m, really. For this reason we had to let go some high rated dirt roads, on the other hand we let go to some additional cost, car damage and also tourist crowds from other seasons.

At the end, in the province Jujuy, we visited Quebrada de Humahuaca, another famous valley. We found it much less interesting than the hype, but the road was good. Humahuaca is a nice little town, yes, rather crowded with tourists though. The main attraction and probably the most amazing coloured mountains in the whole country, the Hornocal, is accessible from there. Well, the access is pain in the ass and the dark clouds were about to bring hell or at least bad visibility, so we passed on that. I did not want to get disappointed from the very top attractions once again. From the internet pictures, I would call it the summary of all colourful or rainbow mountains or rock variations we already saw in Argentina. The best one of them, but bits by bits we saw it already anyways.

One great colourful mountain view was in a small cute village Purmamarca, just off this valley. Very touristy, very nice. We decided to take the last chance to try some local famous barbecue meat, especially because you could see goats and vicunas running all over the hills, assuming local produce. Out of so many places in the village we narrowed the list into those that weren’t still closed at 8PM (yes, very typical, you open and start cooking around 8PM and peak hours start at 10), that had the dishes we wanted and weren’t overpriced. So we found this one cozy looking place, ordered a BBQ and a typical one dish pot cazuela, with the highest hopes – and got majorly disappointed. I believe this was just bad luck, but we had to suck it up. Meat was stiff, nothing better than if I did it over a campfire and I don’t master it, the meat of 3 types was instead just 1, maximum 2 types, the cazuela I ordered from goat meat, they brought me what they called lamb but in reality it was freaking pork. Trying out meat after a long time, we had enough to wait for another, probably even longer time. After the great cuisine in Brazil, we still kept waiting for the next amazing experience.

On the way out of the country for the last time, we climbed up the altiplano and drove the road over Paso de la Jama into Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. This route is very popular and high rated however we found it so much weaker than Paso San Francisco. On the Argentinian side, after Purmamarca, the only interesting place was Salina Grande, a salt lake that itself is nothing near to pretty or interesting,. It’s dirty, being harvested, surrounded by bold hills, containing no birds, but we were surprised how they build huts, tables, benches and even statues out of pure salt. They just cut out the salt as bricks from the lake, so you could see the layers of sediments and salt, and mortared them together with mortar made of salt and water. I personally was amazed.

I was amazed one more time in the country, just 300m from the border in the tiny village La Jama. There is a new proper filling station and so we stayed there to eat our fresh food before entering Chile. All proper filling stations in Argentina hold two types of diesel and two types of petrol. Regular (petrol 95) and some extra (petrol 98). This was the only proper filling station that only offered 3 – missing one of the regulars, petrol 95. It is striking that the only station missing regular petrol and offering high octane petrol is the one at 4.1km above the sea, where hundreds of kms around you drive 4-5km above the sea, while it is a common knowledge that high altitude does not favour high octane fuel. The exact opposite, you rather need lower octane fuels and so in some countries they issue low octane fuel only exclusively for the high altitude places. However, in Argentina, in the country where logic is not welcome, they don’t mind going the other way. Funny is that if you cross into Bolivia you will never find even 95, maybe even 91, so your vehicle can get a proper test of contrast.

While sitting in the gas station and using their wifi that would be considered extremely slow even in the 90’s, after half an hour it loaded my facebook page for a change and the first post, 5min old, was an article saying the borders of Argentina are closing now. Now. When now? I could never hope to actually load the article so I had to work with the possibly clickbait headline. It was Sunday 9PM so I could easily assume they would close it from Monday morning but, Argentina, you never know. I literally ran into the car, drove directly to the border, hoping they weren’t closed for either reason (lockdown or just early end of the shift). In front of the officers I was very much occupied by trying to calm my deep breath and fast heartbeat (and try that when you drive up to 4km, get in a shock and run), because amid the covid19 panic anyone with breathing problems is taken suspicious. We after all passed, fortunately both customs in one building, and escaped Argentina at kind of the last minute. Next days and weeks showed that favouring Chile over Argentina regarding staying under the lockdown was very lucky for us. Argentinian government released panic creating measures and lot of gringo travellers found themselves in situations of police abuse, locals kicking them out of accommodations, camps, shops, towns, while in Chile things stayed relatively calm. Plus, we had some places to see ahead of us.

In the NW we found a lot of local produce in the small shops or on the road by peoples’ houses, usually plant produce including wine of course, we often saw eggs and goat cheese too, for a change. The local produce was usually good and cheap. Surprisingly we couldn’t find local olives or olive oil. Apart of that, we generally enjoyed this part the most through our whole trip so far and it is mainly because of the amazing deserted nature. In the very north we saw many many people looking of Indian descend rather than the European like in the rest of the country. They seemed to me a lot more conservative, in the countryside living in very primitive ways, and as we were told, like all other Indians, they had really hard time in the past with the Europeans and stay reserved, suspicious or even not welcoming towards them up until today. However, in the towns I had the feeling they are somewhat mixed and I could not see anyone making a difference or a separation.

Argentina is a hell of a diverse country. Well, naturally at least. Apart of that, we have mixed feelings. The people are surely friendly, openhearted, fun, however they often don’t make sense to me. Kind of more than in Paraguay, Uruguay or Chile. I would not probably understand the mentality if I was to live there. The country has got a great potential and it was obvious a century ago when they were top10 developed and rich country in the world and since then they just stagnated into a developing (very rare to get from developed to developing) country that cannot make a use of their great potential (natural resources, land, sea, weather, remains of old infrastructure, high rate of education). As I mentioned before, logic is what I was lacking way too often. We found the country to be super dirty regarding “free-range” garbage. You can see how much European (Spanish, Italian) it is everywhere, however the rich culture, cuisine or architecture of Spain or Italy we were unable to find over there. Therefore we are very much looking forward the Andean and more tropic countries. Nonetheless it was an amazing experience and I would never suggest to avoid it (under normal conditions). Maybe it is partly just overhyped and we expected too much.

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