Our Travel Adventures

Archive for March, 2012

Lovely Lakes, Magnificent Mountains

Our overnight bus transported us southwest from Malargüe’s rain-shadowed range lands into the gorgeous green heart of northern Patagonia known as the lakes district. One of our fellow passengers had also been among those who’d been turned away from the bus station the night before. Since we were sitting across from each other, I commented on our good fortune to finally be on our way as we marveled at the rapidly changing landscapes. I learned that this gentleman’s name was Patrick and that he was a former French naval officer who, after retiring, had spent part of each of the last 16 years traveling the world. He was currently making a return visit to western Argentina and following the same general path as we were.

We both had chosen as our first destination the picturesque pueblo of San Martin de los Andes. Its setting bears a remarkable resemblance to Lake Chelan in Washington State’s eastern Cascades. However, the granite peaks that tower over this valley are higher and sharper than at Chelan. And the early Swiss, German, and Italian immigrants strongly influenced both San Martin’s alpine architecture and sensational cuisine. We so enjoyed this comfortable community that we decided to stay an extra day beyond our usual three to do more exploring.

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Looking out across Lake Lacar.

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IMG 2411  Version 2The crisp, clear autumn air was already turning a few leaves yellow near our lovely little inn.

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This old steam tractor sat on the edge of a local park.

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Rusty savored a local brown ale along with his smoked-trout-stuffed ravioli with wild-mushroom sauce—it doesn’t get much better than this!

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Typically Argentine, the parrillas featured flame-roasted meats but also offered pastas and trout.

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Although we’d seen no crows or ravens in Argentina, we noticed these hawk-like birds that flocked and squawked like crows and loved to patrol near people.

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On rented bikes, we explored the uncrowded roads, ending here at this viewpoint.

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This apple tree in the backyard of our inn provided us with all the crisp apples we could eat.

On our two-hour morning bus ride along the scenic Seven-Lakes Highway south to our next village of Angostura, Abby and I began noticing a continuous covering of fine gray sand along the roadside that occasionally covered the roofs of nearby buildings. At first, we wondered whether this highway’s extensive road reconstruction project might be the cause. But the vast quantities of this cement-like material and the distance it covered back from the road made this seem unlikely. Something about its color and texture seemed suspiciously familiar. I then remembered recently reading about a nearby series of volcanos (Puyehue-Cordon Caulle Complex) in Chile erupting and sending clouds of pumice ash blowing across the Andes and into Argentina. Abby and I both recognized it as we recalled our return to Seattle from Eugene, Oregon, in June of 1980 and seeing the extent of that ash fall from the May explosion of Mount Saint Helens.

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Our bus waited while this front loader worked to widen the scenic highway between San Martin and Angostura.

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As we drove by, we saw that ash still covered this roof after almost one year since the Chilean volcanos’ eruption.

The village of Angostura is tucked into the northeast corner of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the largest (200 square miles) and deepest (1440 feet) lake in Argentina (about the size and depth of Lake Tahoe). This lake’s crystal-clear waters turn bright emerald along the shallows near shore but quickly change to a deep cobalt blue as the bottom plunges down into the depths. Its several forested islands, including the immense Isla Victoria, reminded us of the San Juans in Puget Sound. The raw and rugged peaks rising above evergreen-blanketed valleys resembled those we’d seen around Lake Tahoe, California, and Banff in Alberta, Canada. The biggest difference we noticed was the lack of lake-front development. Because this district is one huge national park, the areas for human habitation are strictly limited, resulting in it retaining a wonderful near-wilderness ambience.

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As we gathered up our luggage and were getting oriented in our new locale, we heard the greeting of a familiar voice. Patrick, our new French friend, was also there at the bus station, but he was waiting to board the bus to travel on to Bariloche. Since he had preceded us to Angostura by two days, Patrick gave us some tips on where to eat and what to see before he had to head out.

Angostura is much smaller and much more rustic than San Martin; except for the highways and the main commercial street, its roads are of packed earth. Fields and forest tuck in between the occasional shop, restaurant, and hostel. Our little B&B, Residencia Rio Bonito, was actually an extended family home where the mother managed both her guests and her children, much like we experienced in Chilecito. We found it both comfortable and conveniently located, only about a block from the bus station and the center of town. And at only $42 per night, it offered everything we needed.

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One of the can’t-be-missed adventures that Patrick mentioned involved taking the tour boat across Lake Nahuel Huapi to the Quetrihue Peninsula to see the amazing Arrayanes forest and then hiking the 8 miles back across this wonderfully wooded, island-like park back to town. Our first full day in Angostura dawned bright and clear, so we packed water and a light lunch and walked two miles over to the dock to buy our tour-boat passes.

DSCF5824We boarded our cruising catamaran to cross the lake to the distant peninsula.


The close-by water was so clear, it was almost invisible; at a distance it became turquoise.


We got underway and spent a glorious hour crossing to the peninsula.

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At the southern tip of this peninsula is the smallest, and most unusual forest we’d ever seen.


These Arrayanes trees grew farther north only as big bushes, but in these few acres they’d mysterously turned into a true forest.


Their beautiful bark was so thin and water-absorbant that they stole all the moisture from competing plants.


The cinnamon, brown, and white colors looked like they were applied by an impressionist painter.


A couple of tree-huggers checked out the curiously cold skin of an ancient Arrayanes.


From this southern-most tip of the peninsula, we started our 8-mile hike north towards town.


After the Arrayanes forest quickly ended, towering cyprus trees lined this trail.


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This dog greeted us as we landed at the peninsula’s dock and then accompanied us as we took the guided tour of the tiny forest. We assumed that he belonged to the park guides.

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At the end of the tour of the Arraynes forrest, Rusty and I headed up the eight-mile trail to town. These two dogs joined us.

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Soon the dogs proved their worth, working together to chase off these cattle that were blocking our trail. We assumed that the dogs belonged to a rancher that lived nearby.

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Later, these gauchos came down the trail moving several head of cattle with their own dogs assisting. After they passed, our two dog companions continued with us. An hour or so later, a few other folks who’d also been on our boat passed us. With them was that big brown dog that had greeted us when we first landed. As we all reached the trail’s end near town, these dogs were still with us. A local fellow told us that all three dogs lived in town. He further explained that every morning they’d all walk the eight miles down to the boat dock, arriving in time to greet that day’s boat’s passengers. Each then choose their favorite hikers to guide back to town. Aren’t dogs amazing?

DSCF5849We found a wild world of weird and wonderful plants.


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After returning to civilization, we enjoyed one of its finer offerings at a convenient beach bar.

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While there, a fellow traveler from Buenos Aires identified our crow-hawk as a Chimango Caracara, a gregarious member of the falcon family that behaves much like our crows.
(He does have two legs, he’s just resting the other one under his chest feathers)

On our last day, we rented bikes and headed out of town. Our first destination was to see what these folks claim to be the world’s shortest river. It flows about 100 yards between two adjacent lakes.

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The world’s shortest river? (From the footbridge looking west)

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The higher of these two lakes feeds this tiny river. (From the footbridge looking east)

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The lower lake receives the outflow of that tiny river.

Rusty decided that he wanted to visit the award-winning Australis micro-brewery on the other side of Angostura, so we rode another five miles south down the highway to see it and sample more of their great beer. We learned that the brewmaster’s father fled to Angostura from Buenos Aires after working for Quilmes Brewery for 40 years; this was during the Argentina depression and violence of the 1960s.

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The friendly barkeeper (and wife of the brewmaster) told me of their long and fascinating history.

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Rusty talked beer making with the second-generation brewmaster and his esposa.

The third and final destination for our lakes-district tour was Bariloche, the full name being San Carlos de Bariloche, on the southern end of Lago Nahuel Huapi. While Bariloche is the most famous destination in the lakes district, unfortunately, it is no longer the prettiest. Now it is a large, touristy town with a busy airport and bus station. We are so pleased that we started our tour of the lake district from the north, saving Bariloche for the end. Then again, with Rusty’s duffel-bag problems, we needed to search for the solution in a larger city with more stores and services.

On the morning of Saturday, March 24, we took a two-hour bus ride leaving Villa La Angostura, viewing more gorgeous mountain and lake vistas as we wound our way to Bariloche. We were lucky to book a hostel five kilometers from the center of town on a tranquil hill above the lake. Brian, the owner of our Green House Hostel, picked us up from the bus station and helped orient us to the area as we drove to his place. And what a special place it was! He helped us carry our bags up three flights of stairs to our own little suite in what used to be the attic of his big green house. Our sanctuary offered its own small kitchen and excellent views out over the lake. Its only downside was that the steeply pitched roof resulted in Rusty needing to hunch over and duck around to avoid hitting his head on the beams.

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Brian gave us a free bus pass card to travel back into the city for our shopping expedition. The wheel on Rusty’s bag had not held up long after his silicon-glue repair, so we were in the market for a new rolling duffle and only had that day since most stores close on Sundays.


Bariloche has some beautiful old mountain-lodge architecture. We were surprised, though, by how much graffiti covered many buldings.

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We walked all over this hilly city, visiting several sporting goods and luggage stores. One very pleasant surprise was running into our fellow traveler, Patrick, the Frenchman. We shared a few more travel stories but needed to continue in our duffel-bag mission. We bid farewell again, hoping we’d see him in a few days in our next destination, El Bolson.  

The rolling duffel bags were quite expensive and not very strong. Rusty finally settled on a big rolling suitcase that seemed very sturdy, with three tough-looking wheels. Our best news was that the one he liked was on sale and included an extra paying-with-cash discount.

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Sleek and black new suitcase meets tired, battered brown duffel. Hasta la vista baby!


With our mission accomplished, we began exploring the city for fun. We noticed some sort of big protest march going on that had something to do with education, but also had anti-capitalism and communism overtones.

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To my dismay, these boys were spray-painting the old horse statue during the protest.

By 6:30 p.m., we were famished. As we were walking,we checked out a few restaurants noted in our travel guide book. However, we found that most had an 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. opening time for dinner. To our great good fortune, the Mexican restaurant noted in our book had a happy hour that started at 7:00. We were also pleased that they actually had corn chips to go with their tasty guacamole and would serve us dinner after we’d finished our appetizers.

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On Sunday morning at breakfast, we enjoyed meeting some of the other travelers at the Green House. A special connection was with Katie, from Colorado, who had just been accepted in a Masters of Environmental Science program at Western Washington University (where Jonathan just graduated). She was touring by herself through Argentina for the next few months before returning home for her move to northwest Washington.

In the afternoon we took the local bus twenty kilometers farther up the lake and back in an alpine valley to the Colonia Suiza, a village first settled by Swiss immigrants in 1899. We wanted to explore their Sunday crafts market. What an adventure that turned into! We’d hoped to arrive in time to hike in the hills above the village. We soon learned that, being Sunday, the buses only came out there every two hours instead of every twenty minutes. By the time we finally arrived at the Swiss Colony, it was 5:00 p.m. and the craft and food markets were closing down. We enjoyed seeing the old buildings, but needed to start hiking back out to the main highway to try and find a bus before dark.

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Sorry, Rusty, no time to stop at this brewery if we’re to get home before dark.

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After walking for close to two hours, we met a man taking photos at this view point overlooking the Lao Lao resort. He graciously offered us a ride back to our hostel. The beautiful voice of  Nora Jones was coming from his car CD player. As we drove, he shared that he was a “brother,” but not yet a priest, at a local Catholic church. Originally from Buenos Aires, he was so happy to be in this beautiful setting that felt closer to God. He was a kind man who drove us an extra 10 miles past his home to get us back  to ours—a beautiful ending to our lakes district adventures!


Travel Tips Trivia

What follows are some of the things that have either enhanced or detracted from our travels. The first of which are our big brown rolling duffel bags from Eddie Bauer. Fred and Laura were worried about their size and how much we had filled them. They were correct to worry. We brought too much stuff and the bags have also not been made to withstand South American rolling on uneven pavement. Within the first month, we both found shoe-repair men who bolstered the front straps that were tearing-away from the bag. Recently we both noticed that the rolling wheels were beginning to bow-out. Then one of Rusty’s rubber wheels started to fall apart. He has now used silicon glue to try to save the wheel, but we are also checking the prices of new bags—very expensive. Perhaps in Buenos Aires we’ll ship home some of our winter clothing that we need now, but won’t need in Brazil. We still like the idea of rolling bags, but need to learn to pack more like the many young back-packers we’ve met.

Our day packs by Pacsafe have withstood the test of time. We relish the many security enhancements (hidden zippers) and cut-proof fabric. We highly recommend this company. To keep our money secure, Rusty keeps his wallet in a front pocket or zip pocket in some of his travel trousers. I keep my money in a small leather change purse that I keep deep in a front pocket. We both have passport pouches that can go around our necks when we are in airports or border crossings. Otherwise we bury these deep inside our day packs and just keep a copy of our passport in our wallet or change purse. We’ve had a few things stolen from hotel rooms, like my favorite red nylon travel shirt that I didn’t notice missing for a few days. So now I keep favorite things out of site or inside my zipped bags. For bus trips, we lock our bags with travel locks.

Shoes are such an important part of this journey. My favorite and almost always-worn shoes are my Keen sandals, now, in this chilly autumn air, often worn with socks. In the Galapagos, they were the perfect trail and beach shoe. Rusty wishes he had brought his Keens. Instead, his favorite for great comfort and support are his Columbia, waterproof, hightop, trail runners. I made the mistake of buying some trail shoes on sale at REI right before leaving. Unfortunately they were a tad bit small on my right foot and soon I had a black and blue big toe nail. Yuck. So I traded those with a street vendor for a collapsable duffel bag that we needed for the Galapagos boat trip. In Cuenca, Ecuador, I bought some waterproof hiking boots on sale. They were essential for our rainy day at Machu Picchu and on a few other occasions, but usually I prefer to wear my more comfortable, lighter Keens. Once on a rainy morning on one of the islands in Lake Titicaca, I wore black plastic bags over my socks within my Keens and kept my feet dry on the muddy trails.

Before leaving home we bought an overview-type book on all of South America and the Moon guide to Panama. Since then, as we get close to new countries we search for book stores with English guide books. It seems that the only new guide books available down here are by Lonely Planet. Once at a used book store we found the Moon guide to the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu and at a book exchange an old Fodor’s guide to Argentina. We still prefer Moon. Now we need to buy a guide book for Brazil and we so hope to find the most recent Moon guide, but will probably need to buy the one by Lonely Planet. We also recently have found the website: Hostelworld quite helpful in locating hostels. We’ve enjoyed the ones that have private “matrimonial” double rooms with bathrooms. On a few occasions we’ve had shared bathrooms, which we don’t much care for. The hostels and hosterias have a large central breakfast area where we’ve enjoyed meeting fellow travelers, most the age of our children, backpackers from all over the world. Most hostels also have a kitchen where folks prepare some of their own lunches and dinners.

Another thing we wish we left at home was the extra, small bag that holds Rusty’s tripod and walking poles for the two of us. When we took the walking poles to Machu Pucchu, where they might have helped us with all the climbing, the crowds were so thick and we were so busy with our cameras, we finally put the walking poles away. Also we’re not using the binoculars much.

A must and used-daily device has been our Steripen water sanitizer. This little battery-operated ultraviolet light will, in only 90 seconds, kill all harmful bacteria and viruses in a liter of water. Since we can make our own safe drinking water, we don’t have to buy bottled water, saving both money and wasted plastic. We have a one-liter Nalgene bottle and several smaller metal bottles for hiking. Mentioned once previously in our blog has been the pocket GPS that has helped us find our way on many occasions.

We couldn’t do without:  my Swiss Army knife and Rusty’s Leatherman tool; a calculator; earplugs; our headlamps that we’ve used on dark streets as well as for reading in bed when there are no bed lamps. We’ve done well with our rechargeable batteries and mini-charger, and our foreign power-plug adaptors.

Laundry has been much easier than my trip to Peru and Ecuador 30 years ago. We have used the service provided at some hostels as well as using “lavanderias,” laundry services, in the neighborhoods. We pay under $10 for a couple of weeks of mixed colors clothes. When in Boquete, our friend Cliff shared that his favorite jeans disappeared at one lavanderia, so we learned to document all the items we were leaving, but have had no problems. I also have learned how handy the bidets that are in all bathrooms in Argentina are for hand-washables. We bought a flat, round piece of rubber as a stopper and carry laundry detergent. Bidets are rather fascinating. Look them up on Wikepedia to see their uses throughout the world. Who would think that some people never use toilet paper! I’ve found that they are also perfect for shaving legs and cooling and washing my feet when I come back from a dusty, hot walk. Now I know why our world-traveler friend, Vicki, had a bidet installed in her bathroom in Seattle.

Yesterday, we met Katie, a young Colorado woman who will soon be starting a Masters program at Western in Bellingham. She’s a vegetarian and noted how much weight she had lost in Argentina. Rusty is having similar problems. Probably because I’m more of a meat-eater, I am holding steady. But we both are having a heck of a time following our healthy and particular diet preferences. There’s no way I can avoid wheat without starving, and unfortunately, the wheat served is almost always white flour. Rusty has found that he cannot stay off dairy since cheese is served in so many dishes. We love corn, rice, and beans, but find that Argentines do not. Recently, hungry for Mexican food, we’ve gone to three different Mexican restaurants in three different cities. Only one served corn chips or corn tortillas.They start the meal with white bread and salsa. In the one that did use corn, their enchiladas were made from a flat corn bread. They have no idea of spicy “hot.” And sweets, oh my. Argentines love sweets. With their breakfast croissants that are often sprinkled with white sugar, they serve the Argentine spread that is as popular as peanut butter is in the USA, “crème de leche,” a type of caramel spread.

Next to the comforts-of-home items. I am so happy that Rusty downloaded our favorite 150 albums onto his iPod before we left home. As we sit right now in our B & B room in Valle La Angostura, we are listening to Fay Vance, an Irish folk artist we heard at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The iPod sits on a little amplifier-speaker system and brings us such peace and memories of good times past with friends and family.

This little MacBook Air laptop has been magnificent! Besides all the e-mails, photo downloads, editing, and blogging, we also use it to Skype with Jonathan in Tanzania. The only problem has been with the touchpad which doesn’t respond to my fingers. For some reason I have almost no finger ridges; I learned this on many occasions in the past few years of identity checks for my education jobs. The officials continually sent me back for more readable fingerprints, until the State Patrol would finally give-up. Rusty fixed this touchpad problem by getting me a small mouse to use.

Another gem has been our Nook electronic reader. I can download books from the King County Library, “checking them out” for three weeks. It’s hard to get some South American titles and the latest books because of the demand, but older books are plentiful. If I need to buy a book, buying it online from Barnes and Noble is much cheaper than buying it in a book store. We’ve also found new authors and titles in the book exchanges we’ve come across. These we read and then pass along at the next book exchange.

Route 40 South to Malargüe

For one last time, we’ve traveled south on Argentina’s scenic Route 40 and targeted a tourist town situated in the high desert of Mendoza province’s eastern Andes. Although you’ve probably never heard of it, we’ve learned that our chosen center for exploration, Malargüe, has distinguished itself and Argentina with a surprising number of achievements and features worthy of note.

To start with, you should know that this community has over 500,000 goats, making it the largest chivo (goat meat) producer in Argentina, and one of the biggest in the world. In association with this fact, Malargüe currently holds the Guinness Book of World Records certification for hosting the largest simultaneous goat-roasting event ever: 1100 flame-broiled billys and nannys circled the center of Malargüe’s fairgrounds during last year’s 25th annual National Goat Festival (January 7 to 14). Thousands of celebrants from all over the country come every year to enjoy all the barbecued kid they can eat during this week-long feast (and you thought those Argentina folks only stuffed themselves with beef). At night, singers and dancers compete on a huge stage for best new production that honors the goats. The Malargüeans came up with this creative solution to attract hoards of happy summer tourists while also harvesting a plentiful local resource.

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What’s even more surprising, Malargüe is also home to the world’s largest cosmic ray observatory. Both because of its exceptionally clear skies and its remoteness from potential interference sources, astro-physicists come here from all over the world to measure and study ultra-high-energy particles from space that can best be detected by the specialized apparatus located in this unique facility.

Not far from the cosmic ray observatory is Argentina’s most sophisticated planetarium. It uses a state-of-the-art digital-projection system to display everything from the Milky Way to iMax movies. The site’s striking Egyptian-themed architecture features a bright blue pyramid over the theater.

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And Mother Nature also decided to show off here. In nearby Payunia Provincial Park, you can see the highest concentration of individual volcanic cones in the world—over 800 in this 1800-square-mile reserve. Imagine the fireworks when all those volcanoes were active!

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With all these amazing attributes, we just had to spend a few days in this weird and wonderful western Argentina town. Usually we have a place to stay already confirmed before we set off for a new location. However, we arrived here late in the afternoon without receiving any reservation confirmations to our e-mail requests. So I set off from the bus station to see what kind of comfortable but affordable hotel room might still be available. The best we could do on such short notice was the Bambi Hotel. The price was within reason and its downtown location meant that we didn’t have to hall our bags too far. But the warm weather made our fan-cooled room a bit too toasty to keep the windows closed. And without any screens, we were constantly doing search-and-destroy missions on all the mosquitoes that kept attacking us each night.

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Malargüe is close enough to the eastern edge of the Andes that it serves as a major skiers’ and snowboarders’ lodging center in the winter (June through September). And its trout-filled rivers and rolling rangelands make it an eclectic outdoor activity center in the summer (December through March). We found the main street lined with shops featuring fly-fishing and hunting supplies, road-racing and backcountry bicycles, and camping and hiking equipment.

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From a neighboring shop, we rented some well-equipped mountain bikes and set off to enjoy the cool morning’s sunshine. An excellent system of trails winds through and around the town, so we meandered around over several miles, appreciating the traffic-free scenery. We guessed that these same trails were used by cross-country skiers in their snowy season. The location and four-season activities reminded us a lot of Winthrop, Washington.

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For our second day, we wanted to get out into the hills and explore more great geology. From their excellent tourist information office, we picked up some informative brochures on local areas of special interest. When we read that we could join a tour that took us into the very heart of a nearby extinct volcano with a history similar to that of Mount Saint Helens, we couldn’t resist.






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To escape Malargüe’s late summer heat wave, Abby and I next planned to cool it by going underground. Our guide books informed us that at a nearby ridge of ancient limestone we could hire a park ranger to take us down into the Cavern of the Witches, a long and deep complex of naturally twisting tunnels and gigantic galleries featuring fantastic formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Since Abby had enjoyed exploring the lava tube on an island in the Galapagos, she was sure she could overcome any claustrophobia and complete the tour. Although we’d each been in other caves in the U.S.A., we’ve never had to scramble, climb, and crawl like we did in this one; no self-respecting yankee lawyer would ever allow this kind of unprotected exploration there. We were both exhausted and famished after finishing our transit of this challenging and confining cavern. Sunshine never looked so good!







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The many weird rock formations reminded Abby of a horror film of aliens beginning their take-over in the center of the earth! Maybe her claustrophobia was getting to her during our three hours  down under. She’s decided NEVER to take-up spelunking.

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On both of these commercial tours, our hired guides spoke only Spanish—and very rapid Spanish at that. Abby and I realized again that we had a long way to go before our language skills allowed comfortable communication with the locals.

On what was to be our last night in Malargüe, we went back to our favorite restaurant that happened to be right next door to Bambi. This rustic hunting-lodge-like place was famous for both its generous portions of parilla (flame-broiled cuts of meat) and a sumptuous selection of pastas. Abby ordered their mixed grill brochette with veggies that featured huge chunks of beef, chicken, pork, and kid interspersed with peppers, onions, and tomatoes. I had an amazing gnocci with fresh tomato sauce. We washed it all down with a magnificent Mendoza Malbec wine.

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At about 9:30, we pulled our rolling duffles back to the terminal to await an overnight bus south to the lakes region and our next destination at San Martin de los Andes. As 10:40 came and went, we began to suspect that our ride was going to be a bit late. But we weren’t prepared for the news from the station manager as he informed our small group of potential passengers that, due to an unexpected one-day drivers’ strike, the bus had never even left Mendoza. Why they took so long to inform us we’ll never know, but we were stuck in the Malargüe bus station at 11 at night with no place to go.

Fortunately on the way to the terminal, I’d seen a little hotel just a block away, so we trudged there with all our things hoping that they could put us up for the night. This place looked like it was way past its prime and in need of a good make over, but they did have a vacant double room we could use for a fair price. We drug all our luggage into that tiny room, tore off our sweaty clothes, and dove into the big old bed. In no time at all, we were both sound asleep.

Having one more day to explore Malargüe with no specific plans, Abby and I decided to first go to the nearby tourist office where we knew we could find help in English figuring out how to get a ride to our next desired destination: San Martin de los Andes in Argentina’s lake country. We learned from the friendly and fluent woman there using her laptop to search transportation options that the one overnight bus we wanted only ran on Thursday and Sunday evenings. We didn’t want to wait three more days in Malargüe, so decided instead to backtrack several hundred miles north to the city of San Rafael in order to catch a different bus that could then take us that night down an alternate route to San Martin.

Back at the bus station, we worked with the morning-shift ticket manager to exchange our unused tickets for new ones. Because he needed to talk to a supervisor to work out the exact exchange details (since it involved two different bus companies), this fellow asked us to come back in two hours.

On an earlier exploration, we were surprised to see signs proclaiming that the town’s central plaza offered free wi-fi. So we headed over there to spend our morning sitting in the sun and catching up on e-mails, including notifying our next hotel in San Martin that we would be arriving a day later than we’d previously reserved.

On our return to the terminal, we found the first ticket agent conferring with the one that worked nights. They presented us with the welcome news that our original tickets wouldn’t need to be exchanged after all. The original ticketing company was sending out a special bus that night to take its delayed passengers on to San Martin.

Since we had that afternoon ahead of us, our interest was drawn to the nearby planetarium. We walked around the grounds with its gigantic sundial, koi pond, and educational displays. The first of a series of recorded and live presentations in the planetarium’s theater started at 5 p.m. and went on for almost three hours. We loved the mix of visually stunning videos on the huge hemispherical screen, especially the one on similarities between universal systems ranging from DNA to the Milky Way.

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At 9:30 that night, we returned to the terminal and after an hour’s wait, finally boarded our overnight bus. This would be the longest continuous road trip we’d yet taken. The next morning, we arrived at a transfer terminal in the town of Zapala at 8 a.m. Here, we switched buses to travel the final three hours to our destination in Argentina’s lake country and the alpine town of San Martin.

To Mendoza and More Wine!

So much for our lament about not enjoying the cities. Mendoza was a grand exception! We rolled into town early in the morning from our all-night bus ride from Chilecito. We were pleasantly surprised as we rode through the streets lined with huge old trees, canals, and fountains, since Chilecito had been sizzling hot and had few shade trees.

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We were both extremely exhausted and so very pleased to learn that we could check in to our hostel anytime after 8:00 am. Marianna, the owner of Los Varietales (as in wines!) B & B, was there to greet us and take us to our room that was not numbered but named “Malbec.”

After a couple-hour nap, we headed out to explore the city. Our hostel was a mile-plus walk from the central plaza, Plaza Indepencia. We enjoyed these walks in the mornings and after 7:00 pm, but by 1:00 pm, the heat made this trip a bit grueling. So we learned to take Argentine siestas with the fan in our room set at full blast.

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At first puzzled by the pink fountains, we learned that Mendoza had just finished their annual wine festival!

Over the course of the five nights we stayed at Los Varietales, we enjoyed getting to know some of the other tenants. The first morning at breakfast, we met two American women, and I asked, “Where are you from?” One was from Seattle and the other Spokane! We had met so few Americans lately, and now here were two from our stomping grounds. Both had left their jobs to travel in South America for awhile. They were taking a Spanish course every morning, so, unfortunately, we had less time to chat than we would have liked. Another couple was from Belgium and came to Mendoza a few times each year for their business, exporting wines from Mendoza to Europe. Tough job! They also liked to rise early every morning since most of the one hundred or so wineries they wanted to visit were within a fifty-mile radius of the city. They had regularly stayed at Los Varietals over the last five years. In our conversations over the next few days with Jo Jacobs, the Belgium owner of “Mendovino”, he shared his worries about Argentina’s inflation and his doubling costs for transportation, as well as for concerns for Argentines in general.

We spent much of our time in Mendoza exploring its restaurants, and parks. One park, Parque San Martin,  is gargantuan, almost one quarter of the size of the entire city. On our second day, we walked the two miles over to this park, then spent another two hours getting lost within it. On two occasions as we were trying to get our bearings, runners came to our assistance, warning us not to continue in certain directions that they considered dangerous. We learned that the park borders on a low-income area.

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These elegant , condor-topped gates from a Turkish mansion now grace the entrance to Parque San Martin

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This long, lovely reservoir is also used by a rowing club.

By 1:30 we were hot and tired but remembered passing Traittoria Tomaso, not far from the park entrance. Oh my, what a way to cool down and address our low blood sugar! We split a salad and amazing gnocchi dish. It seemed once again that I was in Europe. We learned here that in Argentina, it’s quite common to put ice in red wine, so that’s what we did! By the time we walked the thirty more minutes back to our inn, we floated into bed for our two hour siesta.

Closer to our hostel was Parque Central, a nice modern park where we found folks running, playing soccer, roller blading, and smooching in the grass. This park was nearby so we frequented it often. We also enjoyed the murals nearby.

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On day three, we took the local bus to Maipu, a wine area ten miles outside the city. There we rented bicycles to explore some of the vineyards. The only unfortunate part of our plan was that we were riding in the heat of the day. We biked a couple of hours and decided to only visit two bodegas, but excellent ones. The second one, Cecchin, offered a gourmet lunch in the middle of their vineyards. We arrived home after 6:00, a bit wasted from the heat and bicycling so took a late siesta. That night we just ate nuts and fruit in our room and watched Juraisic Park 2 with Spanish dialog.

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We tasted three luscious red wines at Bodega Lopez.

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Then lunch at Bodega Cecchin.

Soon we found the central market, an enclosed structure, much more modern, like the Pike Street Market, than the market areas we’d visited in other cities and towns. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, we were thrilled to find some of our favorite wines, dark chocolate, local olives, and dried fruit at rock-bottom prices.

On another day we headed off to the central plaza once again. After detouring around a huge traffic jam due to a stalled bus, Rusty decided we’d take a different street than usual. Soon nothing looked familiar. As we approached a large walled building with barbed wire along the rock wall surrounding it, I said, “it looks like a jail.”  Soon we noted “Penitenciario” signs. But we continued walking. At an intersection, a couple in a car saw us studying our map and asked where we were going. “Vamos a Plaza Independencia,” I answered. They pulled over and motioned us to their car and offered to give us a ride. The guardian angels showed us that we were miles from our destination, and, in fact, in the wrong part of town.  Apparently, we’d taken one right turn too many. We laughed about that walk all evening. Thereafter, we both were extra careful with our walking journeys. While I generally have a better street-sense of where we are once I’ve walked around a bit, Rusty is much better using the map and he also carries a GPS device that give us “north” as well as pointing us back to our hotel. Many a time, that device has gotten us home!

Our final evening was a blast. We headed way across town to Avenida Aristades, known for its bars, restaurants, and shops for the younger crowd. We had planned to eat in a Lebanese restaurant, but found that no food would be served until 9:30. So instead, we stopped at the only restaurant that was serving drinks, thinking we’d just start there with a beer and nachos. The place was called “Johnny Be Goode” and specialized in cocktails. As we ate our nachos with mojitos and beer, the cigarette smoke from the many people surrounding us was miserable, so we moved inside. This was the fun part of the evening. This place features rock ‘n roll music and had non-stop music videos rolling on the big screens. First we watched an English band with an amazing woman African singer (sorry we missed her name); then Pink Floyd in its come-back concert; then Paul McCartney; and then lots more recent groups. Since we don’t have MTV at home, we had not realized the art-form that this genre now has. Needless to stay, we stayed the evening at Johnny Be Goode, munching and grooving to good old rock ‘n roll!

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Mendoza comes alive at night starting around 9:30.

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These are some of the cushions on the benches at Johnny Be Goode.

The next morning we had all-day bus tickets to Malargüe, a smaller town that the Lonely Planet described as: “Despite serving as a base for Las Leñas, one of Argentina’s snazzier ski resorts, Malargüe is a mellow little town that even gets a little rough around the edges…The dry precordillera that surrounds the town is geologically distinct from the Andes proper, and two fauna reserves, are close by. Caving is possible…We had tried to make hotel reservations but not one of the three places we wrote had answered our e-mails, so we planned to take our chances on finding a place once we got there.

Southbound Again

We’ve continued our journey south along the eastern edge of the Argentine Andes.

While Chile is just a relatively short bus ride to our west, and we’d originally planned to visit, it isn’t currently on our travel itinerary. The top third of that incredibly long and narrow country consists of the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest (many places never recording measurable rainfall!). Since the prevailing winds down here tend to blow from the east, the vertical walls of the double-ridged Andes wring all remaining moisture out of the jet stream before it descends over those desolate lands. And for hundreds of miles, only an occasional bleak mining town breaks the monotony. Not until Valparaiso, almost half-way down the country, do most travelers have a real reason to visit.

In addition, we’ve learned that Chilean food, lodging, and transportation costs are second only to Brazil. What’s more, the Humboldt Current keeps Chile’s coastal waters as frigid as those along the Oregon and Washington shores.

The final factor in our decision to avoid Chile is their $140 entry fee for each American who crosses their border. While we were fortunate in avoiding the one from Argentina, we doubt we’d be so lucky again.

So we’ve been relying on an outdated guide book, Google, and advice from fellow travelers to plan our future destinations. The drier, higher landscapes and less humid climate of Argentina’s far west (not to mention its astonishing and affordable wines) have continued to appeal to us. Ultimately, we want to continue south to visit the lakes region around Bariloche and El Boson before we turn east towards Valdez and the Atlantic coast, wandering our way north to Buenos Aires.

With all that as prelude, I’m pleased to report that we have just completed a wonderful half-week at the edge of a fascinating little mining town called Chilecito. At one of our wine tastings in Cafayate, a young man from Buenos Aires suggested to me that we stop there and explore its surroundings, one of his favorite places in all of Argentina.

Following a bit of research online, we discovered a glowing review for a cozy country inn there called Posada del Sendero. On our arrival, the owner, a gregarious woman named Yesi (pronounced like saying the letters JC), made us feel like part of her family. Since she spoke no English, she also forced us to work on our Spanish conversational skills. Our lodgings were at the end of a dirt road surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards.(Unfortunately, the final touches to their new swimming pool were just being completed, so we couldn’t enjoy it on those very hot afternoons.)

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Designed like a traditional ranch, Posada del Sendero featured eight sleeping quarters (left) and an outdoor kitchen (right), plus a nearly completed swimming pool.

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Our comfortable common area and breakfast room.

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Yesi with two of her four children.

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The pool with the vineyards and mineral-rich mountains beyond.

Our hike out to reach the central plaza and the surrounding shops and restaurants of Chilecito covered just over a mile, partly rural, partly urban. For such a small town, this place has an amazing assortment of excellent restaurants. Yesi recommended to us her favorite dining spot: La Rosa. After enjoying a delicious dinner there, we could see why. The selections were all gourmet and the sauces some of the best we’d had so far.

Yesi informed us that her brother-in-law, Marcos, ran a back-country tour agency called Salir del Crater. He offered rides out to the Cañon de Talampaya National Park, about two hours into the Andes from Chilecito. Now you’re probably thinking that Rusty and Abby had already seen enough red-rock country to last at least a lifetime. But you’d be wrong. When we saw the glossy color brochure describing this area known as Argentina’s Grand Canyon, we just had to jump at the chance to see some more gorgeous geology.


We start our drive to Talampaya at 7 a.m., winding our way up into these foothills of the Andes.


We catch our first glimpse of the immense block-faulted sandstone monolith that became Talampaya.


We stop at the Talampaya visitors center since only ranger-guided tours of the canyon are available.


While waiting for our tour to start, we explore the grounds and learn that in this park, more types of fossil dinosaurs have been found than anywhere else in the Americas.


We decide to splurge and take the deluxe tour: three hours through the canyon on this 4×4 two-story truck.

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The upper deck gave great views and opportunities for panoramic photos.

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We also got several opportunities to get out and hike around the canyon to check out petroglyphs, wild rock formations, and unusual plants and animals.


Recent rains caused wildflowers to burst out of the sandy soils.

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Ancient artists left their images etched into the oxidized canyon walls.

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Or painted onto vertical slabs of stone.

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The immense formation known as The Cathedral.

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Crazy cracks and crevices.

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We were told to stay back from these cliffs and watch for falling rocks.

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IMG 2223Our deluxe tour included a refreshment break with local wines, olives, and all the snacks we could eat!

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We drive out to the valley of the hoodoos.

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We felt very fortunate to see several wild condors (that little black dot) alone and in pairs, as well as guanacos (llama cousins who love the heat), and rabbit-like maras.

(Unfortunately, our digital cameras were’t quick enough to capture these shy and illusive critters.)

On our last day in Chilecito, we set off to see the Museum of the Cable Carril to learn about the extraordinary technological feat that helped to create and sustain this town until the start of World War II. At the beginning of the 20th Century, a German engineering firm was commissioned to build the world’s longest continuous cable-supported mining gondola. It reached from the processing plant in the valley with the rail line that became Chilecito up to a series of gold, silver, and copper mines in the Andes, terminating at an altitude of 4603 meters (over 15,000 feet). It featured a continuous cable run through a series 262 towers, a tunnel, and nine mining stations, the farthest over 40 kilometers away. It was because so many Chilean laborers braved the high passes and came over to work in these mines and the processing plant that Chilecito (Little Chile) got its name. We were amazed both by the scale and complexity of this hundred-year-old engineering accomplishment and that so much of its steel structure still remained to this day.

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Entrance to the museum.

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Rusty tries to imagine riding 40 kilometers in this tiny crewmen’s car. The others are for ore transport.

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Some of the 19th-century collectables contained in this museum.

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An early cell phone?

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The endpoint where the ore was dumped into hoppers for processing and shipment out by trains.

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Just a few of the many remaining towers that supported the cable cars as they rode up into the mountains and back.

Next up: an all-night bus ride to the city of Mendoza, where we plan to tour the heartlands for Argentina’s red wines and olives!

Wild West—Tafi del Valle

We’ve come to realize that we often are happiest staying in smaller cities or out in the country. Our guide book’s description of Tafi del Valle sounded like our kind of place. Soon we were to agree. Nestled in a high valley of the Andes mountains, Tafi was cooler than Cafayate and is known for ranches, olives, and cheese, but not wine. Rusty found an inn named Estancia los Cuartos there that was within the buildings of a 200-year-old ranch.

We rolled into town by bus in late afternoon and were pleased to find that the estancia was about two blocks from the bus terminal. The estancia was now only a grand old house with several spacious private guest rooms behind instead of a working ranch, since over the years the town had grown up and over much of the ranch’s former grounds. Walking through the living and dining room of that old house was truly a step back in time; even the smell of the old leather furniture and wool rugs reminded me of my grand parents home in San Diego when I was a child. Besides renting their modernized rooms to tourists, the estancia is known for its home-made cheeses with recipes that go back to the Jesuit days in the 1800s. We enjoyed their cheeses every morning served with bread, juice, coffee, and tea.

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Besides cheese and leather, Tafi is also known for its ceramics artists.

IMG 2156This is our inn at the old ranch, with llamas out front.

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The two hundred year old dining room.

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While in Tafi for three days, we enjoyed hikes into the nearby hills. On our walks, we were reminded of one of the craziest things about this part of Argentina—the horse situation. Horses were allowed to roam everywhere freely, often onto the roads and highways. The locals just seemed to accept this as the way things are.



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One of many times when horses were wandering along the roads and highways. Eek!

One day we took the local bus to a nearby community to see the Parque de Menhires. Menhires are large carved stone sculptures from the indigenous people prior to the Inca conquest. Not much is known about the sculptures except that they adorned ancient patios. Some have animal-type carvings, some geometric, and some just seem phallic.

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We spent a couple hours, after visiting the park, exploring the town that adjoined the local reservoir. I had on my bathing suit, hoping that there might be a swimming area. But no, we just found a few boaters in the middle of the lake and cattle and horses that drank from the shore. A local dog decided he liked us so accompanied us on our hour-long walk to find the shore of this lake. As we got closer to the shore, the dog spied many horses and cows ahead. Despite my yelling “no,” he madly chased the horses, barking non-stop. His penchant for chasing horses continued all the time he was with us. I became worried that the locals thought that he was our dog and not well controlled. By the end of the walk when we finally returned to the town’s central plaza, I had a second thought about his horse-chasing behavior. As I mentioned previously, there were many groups of horses wandering all around the towns and country-side. Soon we noticed another dog chasing a group of horses out of his back yard. Aha! That dog was not being a nuisance, but just helping with the horse problem. At lunch, the dog laid down quietly near our table and I gave him half the meat I was served (since Argentine meat-portion sizes are at least double what I should eat).

On the last night in Tafi, there was a heavy rainstorm. As we prepared for our next bus trip south, it truly felt like fall was in the air. Rusty reminded me that March in Argentina corresponds with September in the northern hemisphere. Yes, it certainly seemed like summer was about over and school days beginning.

Our next bus was to Catamarca, by way of Tucuman. The first hour of our bus ride was a bit scary. The storm had caused a landslide on the steep mountain pass. The bus driver directed us to get off the bus and walk around the treacherous area, while he maneuvered the bus around it.

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We finally made it to Catamarca where we stayed two days. This was another busy city that we wish we had skipped, although the archaeology museum had a wonderful collection of ancient pottery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed.

As we rode by bus into Catamarca, I kept seeing kids in school uniforms and many with white lab coats on with matching white bows in their hair. They wear the lab coats, we assume, to protect their clothes instead of needing to buy a fancy uniform. At any rate, with all the smiles and fresh bows, I said to Rusty, “School must be just starting.” Most kids seemed so happy, not yet tired from studies. And later this was confirmed to us. The first week of March school started after the summer vacation that was in December, January, and February.

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The lab coats that many students wear to school in this part of Argentina.

I’ve been so pleased with what I’ve observed of the Argentines caring nature and acceptance of handicapped people. In Tafi, we saw an older man with Down’s syndrome who was trying to help with a roving group of horses. A day or two before, in a supermarket, a handicapped man was shopping and singing happily and loudly with the piped-in music, and I’ve seen other evidence of the care and integration of special needs folks. I believe one of the young nephews of the owner of our present inn is autistic. His Dad took us on a tour of the red rocks and canyons yesterday. I was sorry that my Spanish was not good enough to talk about his son (who I’d observed the day before). At any rate, I am very pleased with what I’ve seen here in love of children and care of old folks too.

One thing we do worry about for the Argentines is their health (speaking from one who is still on heart medicine). They love their grilled meats (giant portions), white breads, sweets, soda pop, ice cream, and cheeses. And we see way too many Argentines smoking, much more like the 60s in the USA. We rarely observe folks doing power walks or runs. And the dinner hour is after 9:00 pm, even for babies and toddlers. Also there seems to be less being said about health in the media. Recently on one news show, there was a Dr. Oz-type medical specialist sharing info on calories and portion-sizes. The younger sports commentator seemed to be quite opposed to the expert’s suggestions.

South to Cafayate

We had planned to leave the big city of Salta and bus south to Argentina’s northern-most wine region and the town of Cafayate on Sunday, February 26. On the day before, we tried to make reservations for hotels or hostels but found no openings. Soon we learned that there was a three-day music festival there, and the village of 10,000 was besieged with 30,000 visitors.

We finally got reservations for Monday night, the 27th, so took an all-day bus that departed that morning. We left lush and humid Salta, winding through the dry western mountains into red-rock and cactus country. As our bus descended into the green, river valley of Cafayate, we found fields full of grapes and wild flowers.

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Rusty and I had reserved a room in a hostal for three nights, and the owner, a French man who spoke a little English, was kind enough to pick us up from the bus terminal in his station wagon.

In order to stretch our cramped legs, we went out exploring on foot to get acquainted with this comfortably sized and sunny town. We soon found our friends, Peggy and Tom, who had proceeded us by two days. They shared how they had come into Cafayate without hotel reservations and spent several hours the first night roaming the streets trying to find a place to sleep. Finally near midnight, a woman took them to her parents’ house where they were given a bed for the night. They finally found a vacant room the next day.

Even though the music festival was supposed to end Monday night, we spent that night and the next trying to block out the thunder of outdoor amplified music played until the wee early hours of the morning.

We had made plans with Tom and Peggy to rent bicycles and go exploring the following morning. Our ride that next day was glorious out along country roads and past the vineyards of the surrounding bodegas (wineries). After an hour’s ride, we pulled in at a country house advertising petroglyphs. Here we met a local teenage boy who agreed to guide us into the adjacent hills to see ancient artwork on some of its rocks.

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After another hour on our bikes, now hot and famished, we stopped at the restaurant of a country wine resort and hotel (Viñes de Cafayate) for lunch, a meal we will always remember as reminiscent of those of the provinces of France. Along with an amazingly good white Torrentes wine, we enjoyed such foods as squash soup, exquisite salads (that included warmed brie cheese), and pasta. I ordered grilled sweetbreads, a dish my Dad had introduced me to. He would have agreed that they were some of the best ever!

The owner of the resort then took us on a tour of his hotel nestled into the vineyards. To have stayed there a night would cost $200. We were pleased that the restaurant was not as outrageously priced. That evening, the owner of our hostel confirmed to us that he considered the best chef in Cafayate to be at that wine resort hotel.

The next day we walked through town to tour the visitor centers and sample more of the wines of several local bodegas.

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On our third day there, the four of us hired a taxi to drive us back up into the mountains north of town to explore the area known as Quebrada de Las Conchas. We loved these other-worldly rock formations. In a past career, Peggy took groups on rock-climbing tours around the world, including Ecuador and Tanzania. We got to see her in action as she nimbly climbed up the rocks around our many chosen stops on this four-hour adventure.

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These rocks are really this red!

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Candle-abre cactus add to this wild-west vision.

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Various minerals added their surreal shades of gray, green, and blue.

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We enter the Amphitheater.

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A local artisan enjoys the echo of his Andean flute.

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Did only wind and water create these amazing shapes?

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We venture into the Devil’s Throat.

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We wander in the valley of The Windows.

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And we’re greeted by a roaming herd of goats!

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This one is reaching to get the greens at the top of the bush.

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And a pair of squawking parakeets watch us as we watch them.

That night we couldn’t resist, so the four of us returned to the Viñes de Cafayate restaurant for dinner and were again astounded by how exquisitely our food was prepared.

What with the stunning setting, amazing wine and food, and beautiful biking and hiking, Rusty and I decided to stay for three additional days. We’d already decided to add this village of Cafayate to our list of “We Could Live Here!“ places. So we found another hostal that was more reasonably priced, and the name had just the right ring to it: The Rusty-K Hostel. The rooms surrounded a courtyard filled with grape vines with sweet purple grapes that we could pick and eat whenever. We also liked the Rusty-K because of the kitchen that was free for the guest to use.

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Since our sleeping places in Argentina were costing us double of what we were paying in Ecuador and Bolivia, we had started trying to eat either lunch or dinner at “home” rather than in restaurants. With delicious dark beer and local wines being unbelievably inexpensive in the grocery stores, and a fruit and vegetable market nearby with juicy peaches, sweet tomatoes, onions, and luscious avocados, all we needed to make the meal was either eggs for omelets or tuna for a salad.

We bid farewell to Peggy and Tom, who needed to go more quickly south, on to the next big wine region of Mendoza and then to Buenos Aires. We hoped that we might see them again before their return to Colorado in two weeks. We continued enjoying Cafayate: riding bicycles, visiting bodegas, exploring the town, and eating fantastic food. The only downer for us was that the late night-into-morning loud music continued every night. Don’t these people ever sleep?

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Bicycling among the bodegas. Wishing our Bicycle Brunch Bunch were here with us!

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Rusty’s Addition: I used an afternoon when Abby was reading and resting to visit the Cafayate Wine Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed the entertaining and mesmerizing multimedia presentations that emphasized this region’s unique combination of sunny skies (about 340 sunny days per year); sandy, rocky, salt-free soils that made the vines’ roots tough, strong, and rot-resistant; the high altitude (highest wine vineyards in the world at 6,000 to 7,000 feet) that insured intense sunlight with hot days and cool nights for higher sugar content and skin pigmentation; the predictable north-south winds that keep the vines dry and fungus free; and enough water from the surrounding mountains’ pure streams to provide irrigation water only as needed. Combine these natural benefits with excellently matched grape varieties and multigenerational vintner experience and you get the perfect partnership for world-class wine production.

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Across from the Wine Museum was this unfinished architectural art: an Italian sculptor’s idea for his house.

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