Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Down the road to boring town


I liked Cafayate, not because there was loads to do but because there wasn't. In the 5 days I stayed there I don't think I went further than 3 blocks from the main square. The area in the valley surrounding the town is home to a multitude of vineyards but I did all my sampling in the restaurants. I did however go to the wine museum and jolly nice it was to!

Once the 5 days were up it was time to leave and for some reason I got the 6am bus to Tafi de Valle! No idea's only 3-4 hours down the road and they have a bus going in the afternoon. The bus left the arid Valley Calchaquies behind and began to slowly climb up the mountain. Descending down the other side, cacti gave way to grass, the valley sloped steeply down and in the distance I could see a small lake sparkling blue in the sunlight.

The small town of Tafi de Valle is situated 2/3rds of the way down and for once the café attached to the bus station served really good coffee. Two cups later it was just after 10:45 and I needed to find a room.

Spying a sign for a hostel which was only 400m away from the centre of town (it wasn't) I thought to myself “why not”. Walking through the door I got a big hug and a sloppy kiss on the cheek from the girl on duty. She was cute but in a “I’m old enough to be here father” kind of way :( Sadly that was the highlight of the hostel (seriously, how much does a can of paint cost!) so I left and walked back into town.

I found a room, it wasn't hard and went for a little bimble around the didn't take long.

Tafi is a tourist destination and dotted across the landscape are small holiday homes belonging to people from the large city of Tucuman a few hours drive away. The main drag has lots of shops selling tourist tat and the local chesses that Tafi is known for. There are also quite a few restaurants in town and as I found out in the evening they don't open till 8pm!! I’m English and I eat at 6pm!! (just because I have been in Latin America for nearly two years doesn't mean my stomach is going to change its ways)

The next day I went for a bimble following the course of the river downhill towards the (artificial) lake. It was a beautiful day and the only sounds were the waters of the river cascading over the rocks and birdsong. My bimble was slower than normal (yes that is possible) and I spent many minutes sitting on rocks at the waters edge at various points along the river bank just listening.

At one point the path disappeared so I made my own across what turned out to be a bog. My right leg was covered in mud up to my knee when I was lucky enough to find a really deep part!

After washing my leg and shoes in the river I noticed that several owls were looking at me...

By now I was 2/3rds of the way to the lake but instead I turned around and made my way to Tafi. Why? Well in the last month my knee has gotten progressively worse to the point where even I am concerned about it (and yes I was wearing a knee support)

In the morning I got a bus to Tucuman, two hours and over 1500m down the road. The descent onto the plain was epic. The scenery was glorious, the road steep and twisty and at times overhanging the narrow fast flowing river.

Arriving in Tucuman it was a 10 block walk to the main square and after 8 blocks I walked into a hotel. It was expensive (well it was 180 pesos or 25GBP) but it did have wifi, cable tv and for the 1st time since Panama City (I think) Air conditioning. I didn't need it but as I was paying for it...

Tucuman is a large city of about 800,000 people and for the few days I stayed there I enjoyed it. For some reason I could only find one camera shop and the prices for new cameras are a joke (I killed my Nikon a few weeks ago). The import taxes being levied mean that compared to England a decent camera is 50%-100% more expensive...I ain't smiling!

I left Tucuman without a new camera and for some reason it was on a Saturday

golden rule of travelling number 27: never travel on the weekend.

The bus left at 14:30 and arrived at the bus station in La Rioja 6 hours later. After the usual I got a 15 minute taxi ride to the main square. Once there I did what I always do....walk around the square 1 block down and find a hotel. Usually I find a place on the last corner and tonight was no exception.

When the bags hit the bed I was walking out of the door and heading to a café. After the warmth in the lowlands of Tucuman it was nice to be back above 1000m and wearing the big fleece.

In the morning I used the old style lift to get to the lobby, the pavement and the 1st fag of the day. Walking back inside the block at reception said it was fine to smoke in the room. I pointed to the “its against the law to smoke inside” sign behind him and he just shrugged his shoulders and said “who cares”....bloody fantastic!!!!

Back in my room the tv was on ESPN for the football and my laptop was screening the Bahrain GP. It was a great start to a Sunday especially now that I was smoking in bed.

La Rioja, like most Latin American towns is “closed” on Sundays. Thankfully the local Carrefour supermarket was open. With vitals brought I went back to my room (which had a fridge), the tv, the ashtray and chilled out big time.

Monday morning found me back at the bus station, a 3 hour wait and then a bus 2 hours along the road to the small town of Chilecito.

Chilecito straddles Ruta 40, the south American answer to Route 66 and is famous for its cable car. It starts in Chilecito at 1100m and travels 35kms across several peaks and one tunnel before ending at 4600m


a) it no longer works


b) it was built in the early 1900's to carry ore from the mine to the railway at Chilecito.

When I read about it online I was super excited till I got to the second sentence.

It was a 15 minute walk from the bus station to the centre of town and my knee was happy when I found a hostel two blocks from the main square.

Hostel Paiman is a cool little place just don't stay in room 6 like I did, unless they put a new door on the about frigging hard to turn the key in the lock!

I found the town to be a nice place to hang out and relax in for a few days. The main square has several cafés (one of which you can smoke inside, so yes that one was my favourite), a few museums and for a small town far to many shoe shops.

The following day was Tuesday and after a mornings bimble to see yet another statue of Christ and a small but interesting museum I was back at the hostel in the kitchen/dinning room in front of the tv to watch Chelsea v Barcelona in the second leg of the champions league semi final. It was a nerve racking 90 minutes. When Torres scored in the final minute the 3 Argentinians who were watching it with me got the shock of their lives! My palms smacked down on the table with a mighty force, I stood up sending my chair crashing backwards and spoke the words “get the fuck in there” followed by “you little beauty” and of course much more quietly “lo seinto”.

The next day I watched Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid but more relaxed and a lot more quieter.

Thursday was to be my last full day in Chilecito. I brought myself a new camera (and no I had no idea GE made cameras) for 100 quid more than it would cost me in England and I very reluctantly bid a fond farewell to the caterpillar boots I brought back in Antigua in December 2010. The soles were worn out, their backs were broken and the leather cracked. I also managed to break my “world travel plug” but as all of my plugs are now Latin American all I needed was a 10 peso adaptor. I know that's not really interesting to read about but it's my there!

On Friday afternoon I got the bus to Villa Union, three hours down a beautiful road with fantastic views and when crossing over the mountain many life changing drops inches from my window.

Arriving at the bus station on the outskirts of the small town of Villa Union I got “hassled” by a hotel tout. The teenager gave me a flyer which I put in my back pocket before waking into town and the main square.

On the wiki-travel page for this place were quite a few hotels, damned if I could find more than one! I popped into the local tour agency on the square and the French guy running the place said that because it was a long weekend the chances of getting a room for more than one night were very limited...bugger!

It was then I remembered the flyer in my back pocket, the photo made it look expensive. It was only a few blocks away and it made for a short walk. Just outside the entrance two dogs decided that they were indeed hard enough and came over to have a go. My stone throwing skills are getting really good!

Walking into the complex I was given the warmest of welcomes. Turns out they did have a room going spare for the weekend. The room was en-suite with wifi and cable and it looked really nice. So I asked the question”how much”, I didn't believe her answer at 1st so I asked again. Damn, it was 90 pesos a night...what a bargain!!

I chilled out for a few hours and then went for a coffee in the café on the square.

Villa Union is at the bottom of a wide shallow valley with snow capped mountains and multicoloured ridges of reds,blues and greens on both sides. In the morning I went for a closer look...

In the afternoon I checked out the town. There really wasn't much to it and what there was wasn't up to much either.

In the evening out of the 3 restaurants I saw only one was open and it didn't really inspire me to eat there. So, after a booking a tour for the next day I went to the local shop for supplies and had a quiet night in.

At 9am the next day the 4x4 picked me up and off we went (me and an Argentinian couple) up the road to over 4000m to see Lake Brava. As we got higher the more snow we saw, the driver (or idiot) managed to get the 4x4 stuck in the snow and without a shovel on board it took him nearly 45 minutes to get was cold!

The views were...go on, look at the video, you know you want to!

In the evening it was cold and I ended up wearing both of my fleeces when I walked to the restaurant and a truly uninspiring dinner.

The next day I had wanted to visit Talampaya national park some 60kms to the south and without my own transport I needed to use the tour company, sadly no one else did!

Therefore on Monday evening I went to buy a bus ticket for the following morning only to find out that because tomorrow was the 1st of May there weren't any. Damn it, looks like I would be stuck here till 6am Wednesday morning.

On the walk back into the town I came to the conclusion that over the last 5 years of travelling and over 300 cities, town and villages I’ve stayed in Villa Union was by far the most boring!!!!

I mean it was really really really really really mind numbingly boring

Andrew’s top travel tips number 1: don't visit Villa Union....ever!!!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Into the valley


It's a 4 ½ hour bus ride from Salta to the village of Cachi and for some reason the bus left at 7am. For the 1st time since Puno I had to set the alarm and wake up early (I used to wake up at 04:30 six days a week but that was a lifetime ago). Thankfully at the bus station a man was selling strong sweet coffee from his little Thermos laden cart...yippee!

Cachi is about 1600m higher than Salta and the road followed the path of a small river and as the bus went higher, trees gave way to grass. The views were great but unlike the hoards of minibuses ferrying tourists on day trips the bus didn't stop (which is why the photos ain't that great).

Finally the bus reached the top of the mountain and crossed the watershed. From here the grass was replaced by cacti and scrub thorn trees surviving in a dry and arid landscape. The vista was wide and sloped gently towards the river. On the other side of the valley, far off in the distance were snow capped mountain peaks under blue skies.

The bus stopped in Cachi 50m from the main square and after the usual I walked there and then carried on for another 100m to an okay hostel at the rear of a restaurant. By the time my bags were hitting the bed I was walking out of the door back to the plaza for 3 cups of coffee...well what do you know...turns out it was actually 4!

The little village of Cachi hasn't changed much in the last 200 years and the centre is still postcard pretty. The tree laden plaza, with the adobe church next door, cobbled streets and kerbs 3 foot high in places. I liked what I saw and the place was relaxed and tranquil.

The next morning after a long lie in and more coffee than you would think was good for you I went to the bus company office. The next village I was heading for had buses going there only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Not wanting to leave the next day I thought Friday would be a good day to travel.

A few hours later I was having lunch when I remembered that it was Easter on the weekend. There are two times I don't travel in Christian countries, Christmas and Easter. I went back to the hostel and gave them a wad of cash that paid for my room till I checked out on the following Monday. Looks like I’ll be in Cachi for a week and lets face it that ain't a bad thing.

Cachi is in the Valle Calchaquies, a famous wine growing region of Argentina. They also had steaks that were non to shabby as well.

My time here wasn't all coffee, wine and steaks! I was able to squeeze in a couple of bimbles in the beautiful countryside. Along dried up river beds and cacti covered mountain slopes I strolled (and at least once an hour I stopped to remove the various bits of plants that were sticking out of my shorts and socks).

The week passed surprisingly quickly and on Easter Monday I got on the 11:30 bus to Molinos.

The even smaller village of Molinos was a few hours down the world famous “Ruta 40”, a road that stretches for almost 5000km from the Bolivian border to the bottom of Argentina. This section was narrow, twisty, untarmaced and with fantastic views out of the bus window.

The village of Molinos is a mixture of the old and the new. Standardised government housing line up along dirt roads laid out in grids whilst nearby a 400 year old church stands opposite an even older hacienda once owned by the last Spanish governor of the Provence of Salta (which is now a 250usd a night hotel). The road that goes past them is colonial with a cute little info centre in a fully restored house. The wide and shallow river Molinos gently curves nearby defining the shape of the village in one direction whilst the multicoloured mountain ridges take care of the other sides.

I found a great little hostel on the edge of the village and for 100 pesos (or 15gbp) not only was it en-suite, it had satellite tv. Crashing out on the bed I turned into ESPN and watched the 2nd half of Aston Villa v Stoke and then Fulham v Chelsea, at the end of the game I kinda wished I hadn't bothered.

As the day turned towards night I went and hit the mean streets of down town Molinos. This place was really quiet! The only restaurant I found didn't open till 20:30, which was over two hours away. However a local shop sold bread, cheese and salami (and of course beer). So I had a quiet night in watching tv...bliss!

The next morning I found myself wandering aimlessly around the village, why? The café didn't open till 10am...after a big breakfast of champions I checked out the “old stuff” in the village and then slowly wandered down to the river. Seeing a sign for an artisans shop that was pointing in the direction I was going I thought to myself “why not”. To get to the “San Pedro Nolasco de los Molinos” meant crossing the river...there was no bridge.

Wading across the wide river in my bare feet it was only a few inches deep all the way across. Well apart from twice when my foot fall landed on soft sand and my knee got wet. Once again on dry land it was only a few hundred metres to the shop and by the time I had got there the dirt from the road had dried my feet, on the downside my feet were dirty.

This place is also a breeding centre for Vicuñas, the wild relative of lamas and alpacas and they had quite a few handwoven items for sale...I brought a very nice 3x2 foot wall hanging for only 300 pesos, or 45GBP.

The next morning I was off to the village of Angastaco, 42kms down the road. There are two ways of getting there

A) hitch-hike

B) taxi

Hitch-hiking is great if you are travelling light and there is a good volume of traffic on the road. I ain't and the road didn't, so I got a taxi. At about 1GBP per 1000m I was once again being “ripped off” by a taxi company. However the lass in the office was so bored with her life she had given up swatting flies...haggling with someone like that is impossible. It was at this point I reminded myself of the following: money, its only bits of coloured paper.

The drive took about 90 minutes and I enjoyed every single second, the landscape was de...wait for it...lightful!

Arriving in the really really small village of Angastaco in the late morning I got a room in one of the two places to stay. Then I went for a bimble...ten minutes later I had seen the entire place. Thankfully when I was in Salta I stumbled across a little multi language bookshop. Its English section was small but eclectic. I decided to pass the afternoon reading several chapters of the “Vicar of Wakefield”.

In the evening I found a delightful and completely unexpected restaurant. It's behind the church at the end of a dead end street and then up an alley next to the car mechanic shop. When the meal was over I asked the dude what time in the morning was the bus to Cafayate...I didn't believe him! Back at the hostel I asked the lass the same question, she gave me the same answer! Cafayate is only 100kms or 2 ½ hours down the road so why the fuck does the bus leave Angastaco at 6am!!

The next morning I caught the bus!

At 08:30 I was in Cafayate and walking the two blocks from the bus company office to the main square, a café that was open and the 1st of 4 coffees and several fags...then I went and got a room!