Trouspinet’s Top Tips and Highlights for Argentina

Wow, what a journey that was! Argentina jumps effortlessly into the list of my top 5 destinations of all time, and for scenery, it would be No. 1. However, this trip required lots of planning, and I also learnt a lot as I was travelling. In this post I list my personal highlights and give some tips for planning (valid as of November 2022).

TROUSPINET’S HIGHLIGHTS

To help you plan your trip, here is my ranking of the places I visited on this trip:

  1. Quebrada de Humahuaca (northwest Argentina)
  2. Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia
  3. Foz Iguazu
  4. Mount Fitzroy, Patagonia
  5. Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia
  6. The drive from Mendoza to Aconcagua
  7. The drive from Salta to Cachi
  8. Puerto Varas and the Chilean Lake District
  9. Buenos Aires
  10. Mendoza’s vineyards
  11. Bariloche and the Argentine Lake District
  12. Salta

I put Bariloche and Salta bottom because there are places in Europe a bit like them, whilst the other places are unique in the world. But I really enjoyed even my lower-ranked locations on this trip – I simply didn’t have a single bad travelling day.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca

TROUSPINET’S TOP TIPS

Be Selective – Distances are huge, as is the choice of places to visit.

Unless you have the time (and endurance) for 12-36 hour bus rides, you will need to fly if you want to see many of the country’s highlights. I went for nearly one month, usually flew between destinations, but still did not have time to see everything I wanted to. After much thought, I regretfully excluded Ushuaia and some of the national parks from my list. You will also have to make some hard choices.  

Perito Moreno Glacier

Check which Internal Flights operate

The main flight operators in Argentina are Aerolineas Argentinas, JetSmart and FlyBondi. Argentine airlines have a bad reputation for reliability and punctuality, but I had no major delays in any of my seven internal flights.

Check when flights go direct from one regional destination to another (eg Salta to Mendoza), without having to go back to Buenos Aires and out again. These flights will save you a lot of time and money, but they don’t operate every day. The popular and very convenient Bariloche-El Calafate flight only operates in the peak tourist season – late November to February.  If you do have to fly back to Buenos Aires, remember it has two airports – the very convenient Aeroparque Newberry (AEP) located in the city, and Ezeiza (EZE), which is a long way out of town. Book ahead for anything In, To or From Patagonia over November – February. The region is hugely and justifiably popular in the southern summer. I went in November – not the peak season – and even then, I heard that the buses from El Calafate to Bariloche were fully booked for several days.

Foz Iguazu

Cut your Costs by 50% using the “Blue Dollar”

Argentina has two exchange rates. The official rate is what you get for foreign currency in a bank, or if you pay by credit card. It is also applied to cash withdrawals by a credit card – which are a very bad idea since local bank fees for these transactions are also very high.

The unofficial exchange rate (or “blue dollar”) is nearly twice as good. You can get the “blue” rate from money changers offering their services on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. Avoid them – they all look shady and are notorious for cheating customers. By far the best way to change money at the unofficial rate is by Western Union money transfer. Set up an account (important – do this in your home country before you leave), transfer money to yourself for pick up as cash in Argentina. You will need your passport and transfer details to collect the cash. It sounds easy, but there are a few complications:

  1. Western Union’s website lists lots of agencies, but many of these are very small and don’t have money. Pick the biggest agencies, which are listed as “C.S” on their site.
  2. Agencies are shut at weekends, except a few in Buenos Aires that open Saturday morning
  3. Expect big queues on Mondays and the first and last days of the month.
  4. There are no facilities in Patagonia.
  5. You will get bulky wads of hundreds of banknotes. Argentina’s most valuable note, the 1000 peso, is worth only 3€ at the unofficial rate. And that’s if they give you 1000 notes – I often received 500s or even 100s.

All of the above means that you will need to plan in advance when and where you will get cash, particularly if you are going to Patagonia.

Monte Fitz Roy

Accommodation – Check the Exchange Rate when you book

I used Booking.com to book hotels. You get quoted a price in US$. Once you have made a booking, contact the hotel to ask if they apply the official exchange rate if you choose to pay in pesos. Most of my hotels agreed to this; only one asked for the blue rate (so I cancelled and booked somewhere else). If you pay like this, you save 50%! More expensive hotels add 20% VAT to their bills, which can you avoid by paying with a foreign credit (but then you get the official exchange rate, so it is still better to pay with cash).

AirBnB is not recommended, because you pay in advance in your own currency. It may have been bad luck, but the one place I booked with them was of very poor quality and seemed more aimed at local tourists.

Torres del Paine

Don’t Rely too much on Guidebooks

Things change quickly in Argentina. Our guidebook claimed to have been reprinted in January 2022, but was hopelessly out of date.

The Road from Mendoza to Aconcagua

Packing

Check average weather conditions and pack accordingly. Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego are cold even in the southern summer and need very warm clothing and waterproofs. Aerolineas Argentinas (but not the other airlines) has a limit of 15kg for checked baggage, so you may also need to pack light and fully use the allowances of 8kg for carry-on baggage and 3kg for a personal item. The 15kg rule is not strictly enforced – we were usually a couple of kilos over, but the check-in staff ignored this.

On the way to Cachi

Learn some (Argentine) Spanish

In touristy areas like Patagonia and parts of Buenos Aires, you can get by with English. But in most other places, few people other than hotel staff spoke a second language. If you already speak some Castilian Spanish, be aware that there are big differences in the pronunciation of “y” and “ll”, and that the second person singular “tu” is replaced by “vos” – with different verb endings. I didn’t find any good books on Argentine Spanish, but I found this website (for intermediate speakers) to be very good- https://argentalk.com

Mount Osorno, Chilean Lake District

That’s all for now. I could write a lot more, but I am worried I will bore my readers. If anyone has a question, please leave a reply at the bottom of this page. Happy Travelling!

Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

A Bear Back in Buenos Aires – Visiting

I ended my trip with four days to enjoy Argentina’s capital. Since I was staying a few days, I booked a flat in La Recoleta – a different area, more upmarket than where I stayed before.

Although the flat had a kitchen, I found a very good local restaurant with huge, juicy fillet steak. Eating out was not much more expensive than cooking my own food.

This fillet steak was almost as big as me!

Buenos Aires does not have that many classic tourist sights – I covered the ones recommended in my guidebook in my first two days. My favourite was La Recoleta cemetery, where the great and good (or just rich) of the country are buried. It sits behind a tall wall in one of BA’s richest areas, a strange city of death within a city. The many ornate graves make for endless photo opportunities and gave it an eery atmosphere.  They have recently introduced an entrance fee here, and as a result it was pleasantly quiet with few other visitors.

Recoleta Cemetery – spooky even during the day
Most tombs are well-maintained, but some are falling into ruin. Eerily, you can see coffins through the glass doors.
The tomb bottom left had ventilation installed….maybe the occupants went to a hot place?

Buenos Aires also has some good museums, like the Museo de Bellas Artes, which has both Argentine and foreign paintings; some of the former reminded me of my epic journey around the country.

Painting of Foz Iguazu in the Museo de Bellas Artes
“Without Bread and Without Work”, Museo de Bellas Artes

I also liked the Museo Benito Quinquela Martin in a neighbourhood (or “barrio” in Argentine) called La Boca.  Martin specialised in painting the lives of the poor people working in the docks of that area and remains a local hero to this day.

A painting by Benito Quinquela Martin

Nowadays, la Boca remains one of BA’s poorest suburbs, although the waterfront has a pretty street called la Caminito, which has brightly coloured houses.  It is very striking, but extremely touristy as well. La Boca is also famous for housing the stadium of the Boca Juniors football club, where Maradona played.

In the touristy Caminito of La Boca

Another popular area for tourists is San Telmo, BA’s oldest barrio. I went there on Sunday for the famous market, whose stalls spread out for almost a mile to the centre of the city. The ones on the edge of the market sold cheap rubbish aimed at tourists, and I began to think it would be better to visit on a different day when it would be easier to see some of the beautiful older buildings. However, when I reached the heart of San Telmo – the Plaza Dorrego, my opinion changed. The stalls here sold some interesting antiques, and despite the tourist crowds, the square had a wonderful “old-world” atmosphere. I stopped for a while for coffee.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, market day

Finally, I visited BA’s heart – the Plaza de Mayo, where you can find the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace), the main cathedral, and the “cabildo” or former town hall. This is where Argentines gather to celebrate football victories or demonstrate against the government (both of which they do very often and very energetically).

The heart of Buenos Aires – the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada

One more place recommended by my guidebook was a nature reserve on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. However, after the spectacular sights I had seen whilst touring the country, it was a disappointment – with more Portenos (residents of central Buenos Aires) noisily enjoying the weekend sun than animal or bird life.  A more successful trip was my visit to Tigre, a small town on the river about 40km northwest of BA. I travelled by boat, and for the first part of the trip got to understand just how big a city BA is.

BA from the sea

After an hour’s sailing the boat entered the Rio de la Plata delta and the high-rise buildings finally ended, giving way to jungle. The delta (the third largest in the world) is a tangle of smaller rivers making green islands where many BA residents have second homes.  It was a very interesting contrast to Buenos Aires.

One of the many fancy second homes in the delta

Most houses are built on stilts, since the area floods often, and there are no roads – people get around by boat.  On the remote islands, the houses are very basic, but in the popular areas they looked luxurious. 

Water, Water Everywhere – Foz Iguazu

My itinerary next took me to the exact opposite end of the country – Foz Iguazu, on the border with Brazil and Paraguay. It was a long day’s travel to get there, with a change of airport at Buenos Aires. My airline had warned that many people wanted to travel that day and urged me to check in early. When I arrived, I realised that the reason for the warning had nothing to do with the volume of passengers and everything to do with…….el fútbol. All the passengers and many of the staff were watching Argentina beat Poland on a huge screen. As a result, check in was slow but good humoured.

The far north of Argentina was completely different to Patagonia, with lush green jungle and hot, humid weather. I set off to view the famous waterfalls. First I headed to the Brazilian side of the river, where there are the best panoramic views. Crossing the border was quick and easy and soon I was admiring an amazing spectacle. Foz Igauzu is not just one waterfall, but dozens or even hundreds of falls spread out over a few kilometres.

My first view of Foz Iguazu – from the Brazilian side

Visitors follow a path running along the river bank, giving a range of views.  After a short walk I stopped for drink, and was met by a small friend (a coati) looking for food.  I had none, which was just as well, since although coatis look cute, they can get aggressive in their search for something to eat.

A hungry visitor

She was probably hungry because she had to feed this lot……..

…with many mouths to feed
Focusing on the falls again…

The path reached the main set of falls on the Brazilian side. There, a walkway led out into the middle of the river to the Garganta del Diablo – the Devil’s throat, probably the most spectacular fall of the lot. The cool spray of water (I was soon soaked), constant roar of water and amazing view into the heart of the falls made for a unique experience.

The view from the middle of the river
The view from above

The next day, I visited the falls from the Argentine side. I set off early to avoid the mid-morning crowds and had the pathway along the “lower circuit” almost entirely to myself. This side of the river offered a very different experience – you could approach the falls more closely along walkways running through pretty jungle. 

On the Lower Circuit of the Argentine side

I finished the “lower circuit” just as the first tour groups began to arrive and started the “upper circuit”.  This had more amazing views, but at times was unpleasantly crowded. It was hard for someone small like me to get a view, and when I climbed up onto the railings to take photos, I worried about getting knocked off by tourists jostling to take selfies. The path back from the falls went through some interesting jungle, where I saw a baby crocodile…

Better stick to the paths!
Late morning – rush hour at the Argentine side

After the two classic circuits of the Argentine side, I tried a much less popular short trail through the jungle.  The signs at the start promised of the possibility of seeing monkeys and toucans, and gave advice about what to do if I encountered a puma or a jaguar. This raised my expectations, but sadly I saw only some birds, huge butterflies and giant ants.

Helpful advice for my readers
On the jungle trail

The short hike took me about an hour, and it was now one o’clock. I had “done” everything and thought about going back to my hotel, but instead went back to try the upper circuit again. Maybe all those tour groups had a lunch break? I had guessed right – in the heat of the early afternoon, I had the upper circuit almost to myself and could now focus on taking pictures without being jostled.

Back on the Upper Circuit

An added bonus was that the early afternoon sun made rainbows at many of the waterfalls

The second visit to the upper circuit was a great way to end my visit to Foz Iguazu, which is one of the wonders of the world – a destination truly at the end of the rainbow.

El Chalten and Monte Fitz Roy – one of the world’s greatest hikes

Today I crossed the border by bus back into Argentina.

Bus travel in Latin America is comfortable and convenient – at least for a five-to-six-hour trip like this one.  I took some last photos of Chilean Patagonia from my window.

A last view of Chilean Patagonia

Across the border in Argentina, the landscape was quite different – dry and initially flat. We arrived at the small town of El Calafate (more about this in a future blog), where I collected my hire car and headed off to the village of El Chalten, 250km away.

On the RN40 heading north

The road was perfect. Straight, surfaced, and scenic. It ran alongside pretty blue lakes with mountains far in the distance. At first my old friend RN40, took me north. Then after 150km I turned off to the west.  It was strangely quiet, and I crossed very few other vehicles. The road stretched away into the distance, straight like an arrow, and pointing at some magnificent mountains.

The Fitz Roy range appears ahead, small at first…

The Fitz Roy range in front of me would be the focus of my two days in El Chalten. I entered the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, one of Argentina’s biggest natural parks.

…then larger….

As I sped along, the Fitz Roy range grew larger and larger.

….and larger…this time with El Chalten in the background

The village of El Chalten itself nestled in a pretty valley, at the foot of the mountains. I liked the place – there was fresh mountain air, amazing scenery and lots of small hostels, shops and restaurants – a typical hiker centre. But it was still very eerily quiet when I arrived at my hostel. I opened the car door and suddenly, from inside the building, there was an eruption of shouting. At first, I thought that there was a violent dispute, but then I realised the voices were happy. Someone emerged from the hostel and shouted “GOOOOOOOOL”.  Argentina had just scored their second goal in their world cup match against Mexico, and thereby avoid elimination at the group stages.

Argentina’s national passion

Inside the hostel everyone was glued to the television. The owner gestured to me that she would be free in five minutes, when the match ended. Nothing is more important in Argentina than football. The match ended, I checked in and set off to explore the town, which was now humming with people celebrating Argentina’s win. Pedestrians hugged each other whilst cars hooted their horns. Two pick-up trucks drove around, carrying groups of flag-waving children. It took an hour for the town to calm down again.

I had a very good dinner, before settling down for a sound night’s sleep ahead of hard day’s walking – the famous hike to Mount Fitz Roy. I set off at eight along an easy, gently sloping trail. The views of the mountain in front of me – a sight I had now seen for 90km since I turned off the RN40 – became more and more impressive.

Ftiz Roy gets bigger again….
…and again…

The path passed through woods and then a pretty river valley before reaching a steep slope. A sign said that the final km would involve a climb of 400m, take an hour, and should only be attempted by fit hikers. It was hard going, made harder by a discouraging sign reached after 40 minutes, which said that there was still one hour to go. The climb was worth it; when I reached the last ridge, a view opened of Mount Fitz Roy right in front of me, with a brilliant blue, partially ice-covered lake at its foot. It was one of the most stunning mountain sights I had ever seen, and I stayed there enjoying it for over an hour.

The magnificent view at the end of the hike

It was finally time to head back. If the way up was hard on the muscles, the way down was hard on the knees, but it offered a different set of views, this time of the valley spreading out from the mountain’s base.

On the way down…the valley
Tired legs but home is in sight – El Chalten

I made it back to hostel six hours after I had set off, and was tired after a 20km round trip. But it was one of the most memorable hikes I had ever done.

After a shower and a snooze, I rewarded myself with a steak and good bottle of red wine in a restaurant – a good way to end a memorable day.

Bariloche -Blue Lakes, Yellow Flowers and Unexpected Problems

From Mendoza I flew to Bariloche, in Argentina’s lake district.  The town itself turned out to be an odd mixture of Alpine-style chalets and ugly concrete buildings. I had booked an AirBNB rather than a hotel because my clothes badly needed washing after ten days on the road. My flat turned out to be in the ugliest, most decrepit modern block in town. After checking in, I nervously checked the location of the fire exits, but at least it was very central and had a nice view of the lake. 

The view from my flat – better to be inside looking out, then outside looking at my building

In the afternoon, I relaxed and wrote my blog, and set off to explore the town. It felt like a European ski resort, with lots of cafes and shops catering to hikers and skiers – some of Argentina’s best ski slopes are a short drive away.  Bariloche also has lots of microbreweries serving craft beer. I tried the best-known one, called Manush. The beer was the best I had ever tasted – and remarkably cheap. 

Bariloche has some of the best beer I have ever tasted

I tried the IPA and chocolate stout, and then  left to try Bariloche’s next specialty – chocolate. The town has lots of shops selling a bewildering variety of the stuff, and even a chocolate museum. I stocked up with a 200g assortment, and then headed to the waterfront. Bariloche is located on a pretty lake, with bright blue water.

Bariloche Waterfront

The sun was setting and suddenly it got very cold. After the 30-35C temperatures of Mendoza, it was a shock to suddenly find temperatures of 5 to 10C – Bariloche is a long way south, and at high altitude. The cold drove me back to the flat where I spent a quiet evening before settling down to sleep – or so I thought. My room looked out onto the main plaza, which some people (visitors? locals?) used as a race track……..all through the night. The thin walls of my ancient building allowed me to follow every rev of an engine or crunch of gears.

When I got up in the morning, after a very poor night’s sleep, I resolved to write off my investment in my AirBnb flat and booked a new place to stay – outside of town, to have some peace. Before checking in, I picked up my hire car and set off to explore the “cuircuito chico” – a road trip to the west of Bariloche. The scenery was pretty – a bright blue lakes, mountains, and lots of golden broom flowers.

Views from the Circuito Chico

On the way back, I stopped at my hotel. It was a great place, set on the lake with a beach of black volcanic sand and its own waterfall. My room had a 180-degree view of lake and mountains. In the restaurant they served local trout (fish, finally!) with some good local white wine.  

Sunrise from my hotel room

I slept really well in my new, quite, luxurious room and woke up refreshed to drive the Route of the Seven Lakes, one of the famous scenic drives in Argentina. I set off early to avoid the traffic and was soon cruising along the now familiar RN40……….

My good friend the RN40. Now only 2100km to Tierra Del Fuego!

………..past some sublime countryside……….

Views from the Route of the Seven Lakes

I was making good progress and was even thinking I could extend my trip to Lanin volcano further north, when I arrived at the town of Villa La Angostura, where the main road had just been blocked for a bicycle race. Total chaos ensued. Race marshals waved the oncoming traffic up dusty side streets. We all arrived at a junction blocked by a grumpy policeman. I got out to ask how long the road would be blocked. At first, the policeman tried to ignore me; when I persisted, he finally told me that the road would be closed for three hours. I turned around and wound my way up and down more dusty tracks in attempt to find another way through, but there was none. Without warning, the authorities had completely blocked the main road running through the region for several hours, to the anger of both local drivers and tourists like me. I was very annoyed; had the road closure been indicated back at Bariloche, I could have done my circuit the other way round and avoided the mess.

The situation brought one unexpected bonus though. In my search for a way through, I found a very scenic spot – a pretty lake with a beach, shack selling coffee and a short river leading to another lake, which was apparently famous for its fly fishing.

Calming down after a monster traffic jam
The region holds many trout fishing records

After drinking some coffee and calming down, I decided to abandon my original plan. I headed back towards Bariloche and took a different road (the RN 237) heading north, which turned out to be very beautiful – with quite different scenery to my original route.  

View from the RN237
One of these rocks is “God’s finger”. Which rock – or which finger – I know not.

I turned off the main road onto a track leading to the village of Villa Traful, which had an impossibly scenic setting and restaurants selling good coffee……but no wifi or phone reception to allow me to check the traffic situation at Villa La Angosgtura.

On the way to Villa Traful

I drove on and reached the RN40 and the Route of the Seven Lakes again, at a point about 30km north of where I had been blocked in the morning. I was relieved to see many trucks go past loaded with bicycles – meaning that the race must have finished, so felt it was safe to head back south to home.

That evening I had dinner in a “parilla” – a place serving grilled meat, and one of Argentina’s culinary highlights. The meat – lamb and beef – was indeed excellent. After I had finished several steaks, they even asked if I wanted more. However, contrary to popular conceptions, bears are omnivores rather than pure carnivores, and I (unlike some of the human diners) had had enough.

In a “Parilla”

It had been a strange day. I had not managed to drive the full length of the Route of the Seven Lakes, but had found two good consolation prizes – the quiet, pretty lake with the fly fishermen, and the spectacular scenery of the RN 237, whose winding river valley and sculpted rocks had made a welcome change to the parade of pretty blue lakes and yellow flowers.

Aconcagua – the Summit of the Americas

My plan today was simple – to drive off to Aconcagua National Park to see the highest mountain in the Americas. It was a three-hour drive away, but this turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip so far. The road led west into the Andes, first passing through the foothills….

Approaching the Andes
In the Foothills

As I climbed, the scenery became increasingly rugged and spectacular……..

Reaching the high mountain

The road was beautiful almost all the away along its 190km length. I am a small teddy, but I felt much smaller as I contemplated the majestic landscapes. Shortly before my destination, there is a quirky natural rock bridge called Puente del Inca that I visited briefly. It was popular with people taking a break from the long drive from Mendoza to Santiago in Chile.

Puerta del Inca

The entrance to the park was just before the Chilean border. I found to my surprise that you needed to pre-register a visit on the internet. This must have been a new procedure, since it wasn’t mentioned in any of the websites I had seen or my guidebook. Luckily there was a small shop next to the park office, which had wifi (no mobile signal here!) and the friendly owner helped me navigate through the park authority’s registration website. The permit I bought allowed me to walk a short distance into the park to a point with a great view of the mountain – going in any further would require a very expensive climbing permit. The park ranger told me that the walk would take around 2 hours – especially for someone with little legs like me. However, his advice was based on visitors who were not acclimatised to the 3000m altitude; since I had already spent several days in mountains, I could walk much faster and got there in under an hour. I smugly passed several other walkers, who were struggling for breath.

On the way to Aconcagua
Aconcagua comes into view….
A selfie to prove I was there!

The mountain soon came into view. It is 6,960m tall (increasing by 2cm per year!) and easily the highest mountain in the Americas. Although it is very high, it is supposed to be technically an easy climb; I had been briefly tempted by this idea until I discovered that at least 10 days acclimatisation to extreme altitude is needed before attempting it.

I was lucky to have brilliant sunshine; as with any tall mountain, the top of Aconcagua is often covered in cloud. I soon reached the bridge that marked the end of the route for non-climbers. I stopped for half an hour to admire the view and met some new friends…….

The Magnificent Aconcagua
Mountain, Bear and Bear’s New Friends

The drive back was equally spectacular, giving a different perspective to the mind-blowing views I had seen on the way up.  

The way back was just as impressive as the outward trip

I finally arrived in Mendoza, returned my hire car, and headed to Western Union for some more pesos. I was both lucky and unlucky – they just had enough money left in their branch to pay my latest transfer but had to resort to paying part of my 200,000 pesos with (a lot of) 100 peso notes. I left with all of my pockets filled with wads of cash.

It was now time for dinner. I was tired of eating meat and wanted to have fish for a change.  My guidebook had listed seafood or vegetarian restaurants for all the towns I had visited so far, but these recommendations had all closed! It seems that the life expectancy of a restaurant not serving meat is very short in Argentina. A long internet search revealed one (and only one) restaurant that specialised in seafood, so I headed there to have a nice paella.

More Mendoza Street Life

Back in my flat I collapsed into bed and fell fast asleep. I was very tired. So far, almost every day of my holiday had started early, finished late, and involved lots of driving. There was so much to do, and the never-ending display of beautiful landscapes was almost overpowering. It was getting harder and harder to write my blog. I resolved to take it a bit easier at my next destination, Bariloche in Argentina’s lake district.

Mendoza – Argentina’s biggest wine region

From Cachi, I was thinking of driving along a large loop around to the south to visit the wine growing area of Cayafate, but after the long drive through the desert, I realised that I did not have time. So instead I retraced my steps to Salta airport along the same road I used when I came. It was another chance to absorb some brilliant mountain and desert scenery.

More mountain scenery

My flight left on time and I arrived in Mendoza in the early evening. I stayed in a quirky house that was 100-years old and still partially occupied by its friendly owner, who bombarded me with information about what to do in the city. Mendoza is a pleasant, rather laid-back city laid out along a grid with several pleasant parks and with lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Mendoza Street Scene
One of Mendoza’s pleasant squares

In itself, it would be a nice place but not a major tourist destination. People come here for two things – the vineyards around the city and Aconagua National Park, a three-hour drive towards Chile into the mountains.

On my first day, I decided to check out the wine growing area. There are several to choose from. The closest to the city are Maipu (very close to the centre) or Luyan de Cuyo, where wine has been made for a hundred years. I chose to make a one hour drive to the Valle de Uco, where production only started in the 1990s.  The road first went along the busy and boring RN40, before turning off onto smaller provincial roads lined with trees and surrounded by vineyards and mountains.

Driving through the Uco Valley

I decided to visit the Salentein estate, which was founded by a Dutch expat who fell in love with the area – the owners claimed he was the very first wine producer in Uco, although others also claim this title.The estate had a visitor centre with restaurant and art gallery (it seems many of the estates invest in art), where I spend time before my tour started.

Many of the Estates have Art Collections

Outside of the visitor centre we were surrounded by vines and, in the distance, the Andean foothills.

Salentein Estate’s vineyards

The guide explained that the valley offered many different climates depending upon the altitude, with each area having its own types of grapes and styles of wine. We walked through the fields to a large, low, modern building where wines are fermented, then stored in oak barrels and bottled.

It was an interesting construction, designed to resemble a cathedral, with four wings leading off from a central area where wine-tasting concerts are performed. Most of the structure was underground, and the total volume was much bigger than its looked from the outside.

Inside the “wine cathedral”

It was hot outside – maybe 30C – but inside, the temperature was pleasantly cool. This was achieved naturally through clever ventilation and without air-conditioning. There was a very pleasant, almost overpowering smell of wine permeating the cool air.

Fermentation in Steel Vats….
First maturation in wooden barrels
Further maturation in smaller barrels
Storage of bottles…

After visiting the various steps in the wine-producing process it was the time everyone had been waiting for – tasting! The estate offered some of their best wines showing the different styles they could produce.

Tasting! Before….
….After

I am very happy that I had invited my editorial assistant to join me on the tour; it meant that I could drink, whilst my driver-assistant had to taste and spit. After the tasting, we were of course invited to visit the shop. I chose to buy a bottle of Petit Verdot, a grape usually found in blends but here offered on its own. Back in my house in Mendoza I enjoyed my purchase with some sausage and cheese in my private patio. A nice way to end a day devoted to wine.

Onwards to Cachi – Desert, Mountains, and an Adobe Village

My next day was spent exploring South of Salta, driving to a village called Cachi, lost in the Andean foothills. The road followed a now familiar pattern. First lush, flat green fields with horses and other four-legged road hazards………

…then a pretty, winding river valley…..

….next a steep climb up dry mountains along a rough track with many hairpin bends.

Praying to safely negotiate the many hairpin bends seems like a good idea

Near the top of the track, I stopped to buy sausage and cheese from some local people. I had now entered the Parque Nacional de los Cardones – (translated literally as the “Cactus National Park”.), and I stopped to enjoy a short walk amidst the wild, empty hills and to eat my lunch.

The road continued and reached flat, wild plateau where the reason for the park’s name became evident – the plain was dotted with huge cacti.

In the flat landscape I could see for miles, and the open stretched away into the distance. However the park authorities imposed impossibly low speed limits on this empty road – on average 60km/h but dropping to 30km/h at the (very rare) junctions and even 20km/h on one stretch. There were also signs warning of the danger of hitting wild animals and more signs warning that removing road signs was a criminal offence (it was easy to imagine why – if a sign were to somehow disappear it would considerably reduce the driving times for the few local drivers).

You cannot be serious!! (and this is km/h, not miles/h)

At first, I found progress frustratingly slow. But after a while I got to enjoy the slow progress, as the vastness and emptiness of my surroundings soaked into my brain.

My route left the park and joined the Route National 40 – a famous road that runs the entire length of Argentina. I had joined it 4,500km from where it starts in Tierra del Fuego.

4500km to Tierra del Fuego

I finally arrived in Cachi five hours after I had left Salta – for a trip that Google said should have taken me three. Perhaps Google agreed with the occasional local drivers who had sped past me in the desert, ignoring the ridiculous speed limits. Cachi is by far the biggest place in the area, but turned out to be more of a village than a town. It was comprised of low rise buildings made from mud brick (“adobe”) and painted white against the sun set around a pretty central plaza. Like most of the places I had visited in Argentina so far, the Andean foothills loomed impressively in the distance.

Scenery in and around pretty Cachi

There was not much to do. I soaked in the slow, small-town atmosphere in the central square before going to visit a local wine producer on the outskirts of town. They had a beautiful garden for wine tastings, with views over the mountains. 

An exceptional setting and some sublime wine

I enjoyed a refreshing glass of their Torrentes (white) before trying some of their signature Malbec wine. The first wine was good, the second was sublime – a huge, velvety red. I abandoned my plan to visit a restaurant, bought a bottle of the red, and enjoyed it with the rest of my sausage and cheese. Wakefulness turned to sleep in a pleasant alcoholic haze.

From Salt to Salta

Sadly, today I had to leave the Quebrada of Humahuaca to drive back to Salta. I chose a different route, to avoid the boring stretch of highway I had driven last time. The spectacularly coloured, dry, mountains continued to flank the road up until the city of Jujuy, where they gave way to flat fields, with mountains brooding in the distance.

On the road to Salta from Purmamarca

I turned off onto RN9. After a few km the road entered a nature reserve and became very narrow and winding, with barely room for two normal cars to pass. It was a very pretty route, but also tiring as I continually crossed more experienced local drivers hogging more than their share of the available road space. I finally reached Salta at around 4 o’clock and checked into a wonderfully retro hotel located on the central Plaza – the Colonial. My room had two balconies, one that looked onto an ornate church and the other that looked out over the plaza, and I relaxed and enjoyed the view for a bit before setting off to explore the town.

The view from one of my balconies
Grand Old Buildings on Salta’s plaza

Most impressive of all of Salta’s colonial buildings was the cathedral, which was built in 1878.

The exterior and interior of Salta’s cathedral

They seem to like gaudily coloured churches here – near the cathedral is the Iglesia San Francisco.

Iglesia San Francisco

For a rather different experience, I visited the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which was mostly devoted to an expedition to the volcano Llullaillaco in 1999 which discovered the bodies of three children offered to the mountain by the Incas. As part of an elaborate Inca ceremony, two young children from noble families were “married”, given an alcoholic drink to drug them, and then buried alive, high up on a mountain, whilst they slept. The Incas believed that the children simply passed to another state of existence, where they continued to watch over the living from the land of the dead. With the high altitude and dry air, the corpses were preserved and became mummified. One of the three children was on display – a young girl. Some time ago, her grave had been struck by lightning and part of her face was burnt. It was a macabre sight. I wondered whether they should not have been left in peace, where they had been found, but the museum’s display text claimed that they would have soon fallen victim to thieves. As a justification, the museum displayed a different body, which had been dug up by thieves and trafficked to private collectors before being recovered – in a poor state of preservation. Photos were not allowed, so you will have to imagine the bizarre sight yourself. To lift my mood after such a strange sight, I headed to small restaurant where I had dinner – a good steak with a bottle of wine from the nearby wine region of Cayafate. It was made from the “bonarda” grape– a variety I had never tried before, and which I liked a lot.  Then I spent some time enjoying the lively atmosphere on the main plaza at night, before heading back to my room.

The view of my hotel (left) at night from the Plaza

I finally had some spare time to catch up on my blog and sort out my next delivery of pesos by Western Union

Salt, Inca Ruins and Hungry Donkeys

Today I set off early again, but this time I headed west towards Salinas Grande.  At first the road ran past some spectacularly coloured rocks similar to those surrounding Purmamarca.

Mountains outside of Purmamarca

Then it climbed steeply, with many hairpin bends, to a pass of 4000m……

….. before dropping back down again to a flat, white plain.  On the way down I saw some wild guanacos (an animal similar to the llama). I stopped to photograph them, and my car was suddenly besieged by hungry wild donkeys that appeared out of nowhere. One pushed into my car to say hello….or perhaps to see if I was edible. Things were getting a little scary, when a large truck passed me and sounded its horn, scaring off the donkeys.

Too close for comfort!

I continued my route; my destination was the salt plain of Salinas Grandes, a large expanse of glittering white salt left over from the evaporation of a large inland lake. A rough track allowed me to drive onto the salt pan to experience this strange phenomenon first hand and to watch a salt-mining operation located in the centre of the area.  

The salt flats of Salinas Grandes

The straight open road continuing west from the salt plain beckoned me onwards. I would have liked to carry on driving all the way into Chile, only 100km away, but this wasn’t part of my complicated travel plan. Chile would have to wait until later in my trip. Instead, I drove back to Purmamarca and had a light lunch before heading north again, this time to the town of Tilcara. There I visited the Pucara, a site where archaeologists have restored an Inca village dating from Pre-Columbian times. The restored buildings were modest, and probably of interest only to specialists in Inca history, but the site offered amazing views of the main Humahuaca valley and a couple of pretty side-valleys. The Pucara also had an impressive collection of huge cacti.

Huge cacti at Tilcara’s Pucara

My final destination for the day was the Garganta del Diabolo, a waterfall in a canyon a short way outside of Tilcara.  I found the start of the path, where a signpost offered the choice of a direct 4km walk or an 8km drive by a different, longer route. It was baking hot, so I decided to a be lazy and drive. This may have been a mistake since the track was very steep, with a heavily pockmarked surface. Even though I went very slowly, it was a very stressful drive.  I finally reached a car park and gave a big sigh of relief. From there, it was a short walk to the waterfall, which turned out to be rather disappointing after all the effort to get there, but the canyon I walked through offered some interesting views and good photos.

In the canyon descending from the Garganta del Diabolo

After a full day exploring, I was tired and headed back to Purmamarca. I enjoyed the now very familiar display of coloured mountains – this time with strong early evening sunlight, which gave yet another set of colours to the rocks.  On arriving, I enjoyed a beer at an outdoor table of a café, admiring the final colours of the setting sun on the hills around the town.

Ending the day at a Purmamarca Cafe

I visited a different peña and enjoyed some more local music before collapsing into bed back in my hotel.  Every day of my holiday so far has started very early and finished late – there has been so much to see. As a result, I am bit behind in writing my blog. Maybe tomorrow I can catch up a bit.

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