Tuesday, November 8, 2011

In the land of wine, steaks, and siestas...

Leaving Bolivia was bittersweet...but crossing the border into Argentina felt absolutely amazing!  Everything around us was green, all of the flowers were in bloom, the weather was beautiful, the road turned from washboarded gravel to perfect pavement; it was exactly what we needed.  Bolivia really was one of the highlights of the trip with its otherworldly scenery, but it can be tough being somewhere where finding anything familiar can be nearly impossible.  Not to mention we were both not feeling our best and everything we owned was completely caked in dust.  It would be nice to finally enjoy some delicous food (some of the best steaks in the world!) have a glass of local vino and regroup.  You can even drink the tap water in Argentina, which was a first on this trip.

One of our first meals in Argentina...I'm pretty excited about the giant bottle of Heineken as you can tell!

Homemade noodles and sauce with a giant piece of Argentinian beef to top it all off...Ty wishes I could cook like this!
Our first night we stopped in Humahuaca, a pretty little town near the border.  We checked in to a sweet little hospedaje where the senora made us our first ever empanadas (which are so addictive, I should add) and slept for what felt like FOREVER! 

I forgot to take a picture of empanadas, but this is exactly what they look like...sooo good!
I ventured out to get some fresh juice in the morning (to go with the delicious breakfast that came with the room…literally every hostel in Argentina includes a great breakfast…such a nice change!) and quickly noticed that the town had a very European feel to it, which was different from anywhere else we had been.  I also quickly noticed that NO ONE will part with small change in Argentina.  They would rather give you something for cheaper than give you a coin or small bill (this can take several minutes sometimes to come to this conclusion, however) and it becomes almost like a battle of wits between you and the cashier.  We later found out that there is a pretty serious shortage of small change in the country and we always try to keep a collection of coins, just in case we lose the battle. 

We headed out for Cafayate, a beautiful town in wine country recommended to us by our buddies Andy and Cass, on what would be one of the most amazing rides of the trip.  South of Humahuaca there is a road called the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site for good reason.  It is a curvy road that runs through multi-colored mountains, deep gorges, and giant cliffs; it was like it was made for a motorcycle.  A lot of other motorcyclists must have thought the same thing as we ran into several other people on bikes and, for the first time in a long time, we saw multiple people on V-Stroms! 
Some of the very unique rock formations that make this road a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The winding road with this backdrop was spectacular!  Not to mention the perfect temperature...
We arrived to Cafayate after a great ride and as we pulled up to a stop sign we were approached by a man on a bicycle.  He was very friendly and told us that he ran a small hostel near the center of town and quoted us a great price.  The hostel had a lovely courtyard with internet, laundry nearby and was next to everything; it was exactly what we wanted.  The next couple of days were spent mostly regrouping, doing some much needed laundry, eating lots of empanadas and steaks in the lively town square, sampling some of the fantastic local wines (torrontes is the most well-known wine from Cafayate…it is a sweet, citrusy white wine and is VERY cheap!)  
Driving by one of the Cafayate Vineyards whose wine we would drink plenty of over the next few days.
One day while having lunch in the square, we heard a very familiar sound coming around the corner.  Ty quickly recognized the sound as several V-Stroms headed right for us.  Turns out it was the Argentina V-Strom club stopping for lunch on one of their yearly trips!  We hadn’t even gotten our food yet, but we both knew Ty had to run and get the bike from the hostel.  We spent a good hour or so talking to the guys (and girls!) in the club.  Ty was in heaven being able to talk about the bikes with the guys and I quickly made friends with Mariu, who was on a V-Strom with her boyfriend. 
My fellow female V-Stromer and I hanging out by the bikes :)
Ty standing in the sea of V-Stroms
Everyone was so friendly and each person wrote down their contact information, telling us to call them when we reached their respective cities.  One of the guys even gave Ty his Argentina V-Strom Club t-shirt.  It was so much fun meeting other people with the same hobbies as us in a foreign country and we were sad to see them drive away.

Sporting his newly aquired Argentina V-Strom Club t-shirt!  Thanks guys!
Another thing that made it very easy to relax in Cafayate is that it is siesta country; almost everyone shuts down their businesses from about 1PM to 5PM so that they can go home to have a hearty lunch and take a nap.  We found it to be a pretty good excuse to do the same!  The couple running the hostel had two adorable kids and a very funny dog named Coco who all provided tons of entertainment while hanging out in the courtyard.  All in all, it was very relaxing couple of days.
Our next destination was Mendoza, a much bigger city, but still in wine country.  Ty’s brother Jack and his wife Sarah had recently been there and really enjoyed it, so they recommended that we make a stop there.  It turned out to be another awesome recommendation.  We started out the day driving down another beautiful road called the Quebrada de las Conchas, where we ran into several other bikers and saw even more beautiful scenery. 
More lovely scenery and great roads...
One of many tunnels we drove through...
A roadside grave we passed on the drive
It took us a few days to get there, but we finally arrived in beautiful Mendoza, the nicest big city we had visited on the trip so far.  We saw a McDonald’s and, having not had in several months, decided we had to stop.  Little did we know that McDonald’s was a hot commodity in Mendoza and priced accordingly, and we ended up spending about $25 on lunch, quite a feat I might say.  We quickly realized eating locally was better on the budget and on the stomach and, as an added plus, you can have wine and beer at a real restaurant!  To be honest, we really didn’t accomplish too much in Mendoza either.  We were still pretty worn out (I know it sounds silly, but try spending a couple weeks in Bolivia and see how you feel!) and still had a lot of blog writing and skyping to catch up on.
I made a visit to the corner market a block away and made a fantastic discovery; Argentina has REAL cheese, it is incredible, and costs about $2 for a giant cut.  I was in heaven!  We bought salami, cheese, fresh baked French bread, fruit and local wine and had a mini feast at the hostel.  It reminded me so much of some fun nights we had back at home and it was a wonderful night.
Our awesome DIY dinner...so nice to be able to have a night in for once!
Next up….the much anticipated Valparaiso, Chile!!

Three day adventure...in a box...

Ty standing by our "home" for the next three days
The next morning we headed over to the tour agency at 10 to meet up with the group we would be traveling with over the next few days.  Our Toyota Land Cruiser held eight people: Leonie and Rick, a couple from Holland, Paula and  two girls from Germany, Carlito, our driver who was from Bolivia, Gonzalo, our guide who was originally from Bolivia but had lived in Miami for several years, and Ty and I.  It was a tight squeeze but everyone was excited about the trip.  Due to the fact that we were practically on top of each other we all became quick friends and thankfully everyone spoke English (except for Carlito, who would, however, say hilarious things in Spanish at random.)  There was also an iPod plug-in which provided hours of entertainment when we ran out of things to talk about.  Over the next three days we would be putting in several hours packed in that car in order to cover all of the amazing sites around the area. 

Ty and our guide think the Salar is AWESOME...and Gonzalo forgot his sunglasses...ouch! :(

Leonie, Rick and I in...Bariloche, Argentina! We've met up with them randomly a couple of times after the Salar :)
Day One:
Our first stop was Colchani, a tiny town right at the edge of the Salar where we would learn about how the salt is refined and packaged.  The people working there have it pretty rough; often, they start their day at 4:30 shoveling salt and won’t get done until late in the evening.   They still use very basic methods in most of what they do; even the men who package the salt sit by a fire and melt the packages closed by hand. 
A man working by a fire hand-sealing salt packages...a modern day Sisyphus.
Next, we started our drive out to the Isla de Pescado, or Fish Island, an unusual mound of rocks covered in giant cactus located out in the middle of the Salar.  As we drove through the white salty desert it seemed only appropriate to blast Bob Marley over the speaker system.  His popularity seems to carry over to all cultures and everyone was in agreement that it was the perfect soundtrack for the Salar.  We made a quick stop at one of the famous salt hotels, where several flags from different countries had been planted out front.  Of course, one major flag was missing from the bunch…

The US flag is not very popular in Bolivia...but we took a picture anyways!
Gonzalo wanted to show us the giant salt crystals in the water that are just below the surface of the Salar.  From what we gathered, it seemed that there is lake a few feet under the salt flat.  He dug a hole, stuck his arm all the way in the salty water and pulled out a beautiful salt crystal.  Ty gave it a try to and found us some beautiful souveniers to take home with us.

Looking for underwater treasure...
He pulled out some pretty beautiful salt crystals!
We arrived at the Isla de Pescado just in time for lunch.  The guides and drivers cook every meal on the tour and the food was actually pretty good.  They served up llama for lunch (which I passed on, considering I let out a squeal of delight every time we pass a llama on the road) and we were given some time to walk around the island.  The cactus (which is actually plural, pronounced cac-toos, as they are a special kind used for their wood) cover the island, some as tall as forty feet. 
The cactus were awesome...and the view wasn't too shabby either!
We took a few more of the famous Salar pictures and headed onward for the salt hotel where we would spend the night. 
Ty really can drink his own body weight in Coke!
He had enough...
Yes, the entire hotel is actually made of salt, down to the beds, tables and chairs.  Over dinner and beers, Gonzalo gave an inspiring speech about the Bolivian people and the struggles that they have dealt with over the past several decades.  He seemed encouraged about the current situation there however, and everyone was inspired by his dedication to his country.  After a few more local quinoa beers with the group, we all headed off to our dorms to sleep for the night.

Ty with some of the group imbibing in the salt hotel...sitting on salt chairs at a salt table in a salt hotel!
Day Two:
The next morning we were ready to hunker down in the car for some serious driving time.  Our goal was to see some of the lagunas in the area, including the very famous Laguna Colorada.  On the way, we made a couple of other stops to see a beautiful active volcano and the famous “rock tree.” 

Relaxing in the shade of the rock tree
When we finally arrived at the Laguna Colorada, the view from the top of the hill took my breath away.  First of all, the lake, which is surrounded by striking mountains and volcanoes on all sides, is a very unusual adobe-red color and is completely fringed in white on its beaches.   But the most spectacular aspect of the lake is that it is full of thousands of neon and pastel pink flamingoes hanging out in the water.  We also noticed a few white flamingos, and when Ty asked about them, Gonzalo explained that they were young, and that they only turn pink after they have lived in the red lake and consumed food and water from it. I don’t know about the science, but it would seem to make sense.

We could have stayed forever looking at that beautiful lake and its graceful occupants, but we had to get going to get to our accommodations for the evening.

Day Three:
Unfortunately, the wake-up call was at 4:30AM the next morning and I was not feeling so hot (which seems to happen a lot in Bolivia.)  We hopped in the car, got about 2 miles down the road and the car overheated.  The driver and Gonzalo got out to see what was going on (keep in mind it is FREEZING and dark outside) and said “Oh, the radiator hose is frozen, this happens all the time. They lit a newspaper on fire, held it under the hose, and thought they had fixed it. 
We drove another 100 feet or so and it it started overheating again.  Ty said, “The thermostat is probably stuck, I used to fix these all the time in Vail.” To which Gonzalo replied, “No, the hose is frozen, we’ll be going in a second.” He and the driver hopped out again, lit more things on fire and stuck them under the engine. Meanwhile, Ty explained to us that the only way the hose could freeze was if the thermostat was stuck, and that he had fixed Land Cruisers with this same symptom on multiple occasions. He also told Gonzalo that thermostat is not vital to the car, so removing it would be a quick fix and get us back on the road. But Gonzalo wasn’t hearing it. “Ok, it’s good now.” Another 100 feet, and the temperature was climbing again. 
Unfortunately, Gonzalo continued to insist that it was a “frozen hose…just a frozen hose!” and we sat in the cold (because they wouldn’t turn on the heat, which Ty also gently informed them would actually help keep the engine cool) for a total of two hours.  After an hour, one of the sweet, soft-spoken German girls spoke up and asked why no one was taking Ty’s opinion seriously, “We have a professional mechanic in the car, why aren’t you listening to what he’s telling you?” (you go girl) Gonzalo still wouldn’t relent. He got out and got the spare fuel tank from the roof, soaked a rag in gas, lit it on fire and stuck it under the radiator. While we all sat in the car.

Another Land Cruiser happened by, and they talked to the guy driving it. He immediately told them to take out the thermostat. Right after he left our driver got out some tools and fifteen minutes later the thermostat was removed and we were on our way back to Uyuni.  Ty asked Gonzalo, as he held the thermostat in his hand, “So, what was wrong?” and he said, “The hose was frozen, AND the thermostat was bad, too. Crazy, huh?”  Yeah Gonzalo, crazy.
We started two hours late, so the rest of the day was sort of a blur. First, we made a quick stop at some geysers which were spitting out pretty insane amounts of sulfur steam.  Although it seemed a little dangerous, we were able to walk among them as long as we "watched our step."  You could end up with some pretty serious burns on your feet if you weren't careful. 

 We also spent ten minutes at the Laguna Verde “Green Lagoon” which was not very green that day because of the lack of wind. Apparently the color is caused by a reaction between the chemicals in the water and the air passing by. This place is strange. We did manage to see the Salvador Dali Desert (so named because the rock formations look like something out of his paintings) and it was a very beautiful final attraction.   Around six that evening we arrived back to Uyuni.  We said our goodbyes to all of our car buddies and went to our hotel to promptly pass out, very content but exhausted from our endeavor. 

The Laguna Verde not looking very "verde"...although still very beautiful!
The serene Salvador Dali Desert...we both love his work so it was neat to see it "come to life" in a way