Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mendoza Flyin'

Well, last we left off I was on my way to Mendoza, heart of the Argentinian wine industry. My first activity there was what they call parapenting. In English, paragliding or parasailing. Basically, we drove up to the top of a mountain and jumped off (with a parachute). The ride up was actually the scariest part, as our little 4x4 wound its way up a narrow dirt road to the top. Some of the hairpin turns could not be made without backing up, leaving the rear of the vehicle perched on the edge of a death defying dropoff. At the top, there was a large gathering of school children - and I have no idea how they got there. There were people trekking up and down the mountain, but I cannot imagine getting all those little kids to hike that far. And the road would be impossible to negotiate with a bus. Nevertheless, there they were to watch us fly. After some brief instructions (run that way) I was strapped into to a chair, which was then attached to my operator´s seat (it was a tandem flight, of course). Next thing I know, whoosh, we were flying down the valley, back up, and overhead the takeoff site. It was a pretty amazing experience. You just float there and fly over the landscape below. You can feel the wind rushing past you and the occasional pull when making turns. But otherwise it is just like sitting in a chair hundreds of feet up in the air. After 15-20 minutes, we started heading towards the landing site. Coming down, he did a few acrobatics - I am sure it was nothing spectacular, but you could defiinitely feel the g-forces as he spun back and forth.

Next, I headed to Los Penitentes. This is a ski area a few hours west of Mendoza, just before the Chiliean border. I spent three days there skiing (which was probably one day too many - the boots ended up hobbling me for a couple days, and I´m still shedding my ski sun burn). It´s near the end of the season, so the snow wasn´t great. But they had three decent runs which they kept groomed. I also ran into some people I had met before - a South African couple that I first met in Salta, and saw again at the hostel in Mendoza, and a couple of guys from Australia. So I was able to hang out with some English speakers for one night - otherwise everyone at my hostel was Argentian and spoke mainly Spanish.

Back to Mendoza I went - and this may have been the best part of the trip. The road hugs a narrow shelf between the mountains and a canyon carved out by the river. The Andes are spectacular (I iterate, or possibly reiterate). The Argentina side is quite dry, so there´s rarely any vegetation. Thus the mountains are striped bare, with their inner being exposed to the world. All the different minerals and layers of silt offer an insiders view of the earth. It almost seems that every mountain is a completely different entity then the one next to, there´s that much variety in their appearances.

Arriving in Mendoza, I returned to my hostel and spent a couple days recooperating. Currently, I am in La Cumbre, which is near Cordoba, in northish-central Argentina. The Sierras loom just outside of town, and there are a variety of outdoor pursuits to explore (wait for the next update to see what I did). After a couple days here, it´s back to Cordoba (I just passed through the bus station this morning). And a definite must see - Oktoberfest in Villa General Belgrano.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Salta the Earth

After a few brief stops in Posadas, Corrientes (very brief), and Resistiance (all fine little cities, but not much to do besides sitting out on the plaza watching people go by), I arrived in Salta. Resistiance has a large number of sculptures scattered around town, but not a many that I found to be interesting. At most, it´s a rest stop between Puerto Iguazu and Salta (which is otherwise a 27 hour bus ride).

That brings me to Salta. A much more interesting town, in a number of ways. First, it is located in northwest Argentina, on the edge of the Andes. It´s also the closest big city to Bolivia. So that makes it a big stopping point for backpackers (and other travelers, but I try to avoid them) on the way to and fro. Whereas the other cities have no hostels to stay at, Salta has numerous. So my accomodation cost is more then halved. Plus, the hostel where I am staying (Terra Oculta) has a decent kitchen, tvs with cable, and a bar.

Its been a busy week here, with lots of sight seeing and activities. On Monday afternoon, a group from the hostel took an excursion to the local futbol (that´s soccer to people in the US) pitch (more of a basketball court sized, carpeted park) for some game. There were about 20 people who showed up to play, with 6 on 6 games going for a couple of hours. Almost everyone else was European, with a few Argentinians mixed in. They were all impressively good. I pretty much covered my ineptitude by playing goal.

On Tuesday, I took a tour down to Cafayate. Somehow, I got stuck on the seniors tour. Wow, was that exciting. Almost as much fun (or frustrating, depending on your mindset at the time) as going to see the Great Wall with a Chinese tour group (during which time, I saw people get insanely excited over Jade, dried food, traditional Chinese medicine, a Wild West Town, and what other tourist traps Í´ve erased from my mind). But the secenary was magnificant. The 190km (each way) route passes through an amazing canyon with the jagged Andes on either side. Colored stratas of silt deposits zig and zag at odd angles, looking like they just emerged from the earth. Sand stone monuments carved away by wind and water look like they´re ready to crumble down upon you. It was a great tour, although I would have preferred to go with some people from the hostel who rented cars for a two-day trip down there. Unfortunately, I didn´t find out about it until I was already paid up and waiting for my van Tuesday morning. Oddly enough, I ran into them at a road side look out point / handicraft stall on the way back from Cafayate in the afternoon.

I spent Wednesday recovering from the 12 hour tour, and taking in the sites around town. We also had a barbecue at the hostel that night. On Thursday, I had another tour, this time to the north and Humahuaca. Again, alot of gourgeous scenary, and a more anglophile group - an Australian couple and an Argentinian-American. The best was saved for last though, as we wound our way over the mountains returning to Salta. Unlike most of the other areas around here, it received enough percipitation to support a sub-tropical forest. The trees (not sure what kind) were covered with mosses, vines, and orchids. From across the valley, they looked like a musty old carpet, the vines drapping and sagging from tree to tree. Quite remarkable.

Friday night was another adventure. This time white water rafting. After a couple hour bus ride (I´ve spent more time on buses here then in my entire life) we arrived at the rafting center at around 9:30. Following a brief training session, we headed out to the launch and floated down the river for a couple of hours, transversing some Class III rapids. The clouds covered up the full moon, but there was still plenty of light to see. We were surrounded by mountains, which could be seen in silhoutte. This was followed by a barbecue (they love barbecues here), and of course, another two hour bus ride home.

So that leaves me ready to escape Salta and move on. I have a bus this afternoon going to Mendoza - 16 hours. I´hope to spend a week or so there with more rafting, maybe some trekking, wine tasting, and of course barbecue. There are some ski slopes around there as well, but they may closed. Hopefully I can get a day of skiing in though.

Pictures from around Salta

View of Salta from the nearby mountain

Vineyards to the south of Salta

Cemetary in the mountains

Mountains near Cafayette

Stratified mountain in Humahuaca

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Water Whirl

Water never waits. It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about - the tiny hole through the roof or the bottom of a box. There´s no doubt it´s the most versatile of the five elements. It can wash away earth; it can put out fire; it can wear a piece of metal down and sweep it away. Even wood, which is its natural complement, can´t survive without being nurtured by water.

-- Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

After one week, I´ve taken a real liking to this place. Traveling in Argentina combines the best of several worlds. One, it´s relatively cheap. Not as cheap as say, Southeast Asia, but still quite manageable. And the people are not in the throes of poverty, as in SE Asia. Since the currency crisis several years ago, I´m sure they´re less well off then they used to be, but they still maintain a high standard of living. There are certainly a lot more amenities and services here then you´d find in many places. The population is also heavily European in nature. I´ve yet to be harassed by any vendors, beggars, or taxi drivers. Most people speak Spanish to me, or they´ll ask me if I speak English. Not to mention the fine weather we´ve been having - a little on the chilly side at times, but it is the end of winter. Can´t complain too much about that.


My first stop outside of BsAs (Buenos Aires) was Puerto Iguazu. This involved a 16 hour bus ride, which was actually quite comfortable. Double decker bus, three seats across the width of the coach. Reclining. Akin to business class seats on a plane. I arrived on Friday afternoon, and just relaxed in town the rest of the day. On Saturday morning, I set out for Iguazu Falls, located on the Argentina - Brazil border. It´s quite the site, with falls stretching out over a couple kilometers. From the Argentina side, it´s not possible to see all of the falls at one time. Just sections of them. But you can get quite close to them - there are several paths with walkways that extend out to the edge of the falls - both on the lower portions and upper portions. At several points you stand directly over roaring cascades of water rushing headlong into the abyss. At other points, you´re awash in the spray of the thunderous conclusion. There was also a hike into the jungle to see a hidden waterfall. At any other time, this hidden waterfall would have been impressive, but after seeing the rest of them it was rather insipid. Still, the hike through the forest was pleasent. Seeing the density of the rainforest is amazing, as well as the wide variety of vegetations - everything from the occasional orange tree, to bamboo, palm trees, and varacious vines swallowing everything in reach. And after being given a pamphlet about what to do in case of a ¨big cat¨encounter, the rustlings and noises from within kept me attentive.

The next day, I managed to negotiate multiple bus connections to reach the Brazilian side of the falls. No visa is needed for this day trip, and I even managed to get two more stamps in my passport (which is already over half full after just a year and a half). From here, you get a much wider prospective of the falls. There is only one path to take, but it leads along the bluff over the river where you can take in the full breadth of the falls.

The town of Puerto Iguazu itself (about 15 km south west) is a pleasent little village. Definitely lots of tourists, with everything from hostels to 4-star hotels. El Centro is filled with handicraft shops, restaurants, and internet cafes. It´s certainly a much different feel then BsAs.

A section of Izuazu Falls

A section of Iguazu Falls

Getting up close and personal with the falls

Iguazu from Brazil

San Ignacio

So the next day after that, I hopped on a bus from Puerto Iguazu to San Ignacio. San Ignacio is the home of one of the better preserved Jesuit missions from the 17th century. It was interesting, although not overly impressive. Especially compared to say, Angkor Wat. Although that´s probably an unfair comparison. Still, I probably wouldn´t suggest it as an overnight trip. It´s a quick jaunt from Posadas, which is much more lively. And the Casa de Horacio Quiroga (Argentian poet, writer) isn´t worth the trouble. Trust me.


And finally, I have now traveled to Posadas. There´s not a whole lot of things to do in town, but it is a nice and relaxing stop over. I´m staying near the main plaza, and the streets are filled with pedestrians. Lots of small shops, bars, and cafes. Walking around last night, I realized how late I need to go out to hit the dining crowd - after 9pm is when they seem to start filling the restaurants.

That´s all for now. Chao.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Buenos Aires

(For those who missed out the the preceeding four months, I just hung out in the US waiting for a new Peace Corps assignment. When that fell through, I decided to take a TEFL certification class in Buenos Aires, Argentina, do some traveling about Argentina, and then get a job teaching English in South Korea)

Hola. This will be a quick update, as I am pretty much just passing though Buenos Aires. I arrived yesterday morning, and will be taking a bus this evening up to Puerto Iguazu - 16 hours, but they are nice buses (reclining seats, movies, meal service, and WC). My quick take on Buenos Aires is favorable - very European in flavor. Lots of old colonial style buildings, along very narrow (often cobblestoned) streets. Plenty of cafes, and bars, most of which have fabulous wood work and a wide array of antiquities scattered around. There is a strong Italian influence as well - with pizza and pasta places abounding. They even say ciao (spelled chao down here).

I will be back here for a month to take my TEFL certification class, so I am not getting too deep into things. Just walking aound to get my legs broken in and a grasp of the language (I still have the habit of spouting out things in Russian). But for now, I will be spending 6 weeks touring around Argentina. First, as I said, will be Puerto Iguazu. After that I will be working my around before coming back to Buenos Aires in mid-October.

And yes, it is winter here. Not too cold, but a little chilly. Highs in the 50s.