Across the Argentinian plains: Mendoza to Uruguay.

Leaving Mendoza, we decided to take the longer, no-toll road to Cordoba. The first part of this route we’d already seen, since we had previously come to Mendoza this way: a country road that led us through small villages, vineyards and later olive groves. Slowly even the olive trees became more scarce and dry shrubs replaced the struggling trees. As the land naturalized, the settlements became fewer and lonelier. One more time, we stopped at Reserva Bosques Telteca, where a few weeks ago, on our way to Mendoza, we stopped for the night and walked a good trail through the desert terrain on the following day. These trails among the dunes were sparsely marked and obscured by wandering sand over hectares of land. Occasionally we climbed up the sandy dunes – one step up, half a step sliding back down, to find the landmark radio tower, where our camper was parked nearby. When, even on the trail, we sank ankle deep into the sand, we decided to turn around and find our way back.

This time around, we stopped to scale the ridge of the tall sand dunes across the street. (If only we had snowshoes…!) After lunch, we continued on the perfectly paved, straight road across an endless scrubby desert plain. This road is so smooth, with so little traffic or opportunities to stop, that it is hard not to fall asleep, and indeed, along the way we passed two serious accidents of what looked like single cars that just ran off the road and overturned. By late afternoon we reached a mountain range, where lush green grasses and rows of yellowing poplars indicated human settlements. We looked around for an overnight spot, but found only a gas station, so we crawled up the mountain, along hotels and summer homes, green lawns and colorful flowers that lined the street. A little further up, at the Embalse Allende reservoir, we found a quiet campground with a view over the water. The night silence was intense, the sky  dark with clear bright stars: we decided to soak it in for at least a day or two.

As in many places with this crazy weather nowadays, the water in this reservoir was ten meters below normal level. The last time the lake was full was in 2014. The already extended concrete boat ramp barely touched the water’s surface. Some small boats below us, along the water’s retaining wall were hard to reach, but on the other side, around the bend, a beach had surfaced, accessible for cars of fishermen to enjoy. During the day their voices echoed across the water.

We found the kitchen of the family’s restaurant, where we ordered a meal with local fish. The seafood they recommended however turned out to be calamari  – I don’t think that can be found in this mountain reservoir…  As the only guests, we chose a spot under the shade roof, overlooking the lake. Soon a flock of chickens joined the friendly cats and dogs under our table and flaunted their best hungry attitude, to the embarrassment of the restaurant manager, who shooed them away, without avail: within minutes they were back. I rewarded their insistence with the crumbs of my food.

On Saturday, when a small crowd of fun seeking visitors arrived, the serenity of the place disappeared. Diners attended the restaurant, and smoke from the grills filled the air. We had witnessed a day of peace and a day of action, and decided to continue on our way on Sunday morning.

To reach the city of Cordoba, we first climbed over what seemed to be rounded masses of granite mixed with glistening chips of mica, dressed up with bushy trees and dry shrubs, like the pyracantha loaded with yellow, orange and red berries. Just before turning around the top  for the descent, an idyllic picture caught my eye: shouldered along a creek with tall green grasses was a small cottage farm accentuated by yellow poplar trees, and protected by an embrace of surrounding elevations. Only after we passed it, I realized we should have stopped for a photo. I reminded myself we already have a similar picture from our first South American travels through Argentina, and how many pictures does one need?…. I still regret not having stopped, though.

On a Sunday morning, it was easy to find a place to park in the historic center of Cordoba, where opulent buildings echoed times of privileged wealth. Not much was open – we passed through empty, tree shaded promenades and peaceful squares, where outdoor cafes were protected from the elements with bright parasols, and from the wind with flowering bushes. At the foot of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción, we stumbled upon an alley with an installation that took our breath away: a memorial of the desaparecidos: the thousands of mostly young Argentinians who disappeared during the brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Above our heads, hundreds of photos of the lost, printed on cloth flags, fluttered in the wind – like laundry on lines criss-cross over the length of the alley. Two creamy yellow walls contained four displays of continuous lines, each like an enlarged fingerprint. At a closer look, the lines consisted of  names of all those that disappeared, clustered in the year they vanished. We remembered hearing about it when we traveled through Argentina during that time – a time when so many people of the South American countries were silenced by their dictatorial governments, to the point that we as outsiders only picked up snippets of the atrocious tales.

The land east of Córdoba is cattle country. Endless fields with corn and soy, interrupted by cattle pastures reminded me of the North American midwest. The expansive, efficient looking farmland could explain the neat looking towns, where butcher shops and icecream stores stood out as the most popular retail venues. The buildings looked modern and well maintained, and the roads remained good. We stopped for the night at an american style gas station, with a small, popular restaurant and convenience store, as well as clean bathrooms with showers. Fortunately here, trucks stop somewhere else for the night, so we enjoyed a quiet night without running engines as neighbors. Instead, our neighbor was rusty brown or black cattle in a spacious holding pen. They looked young – I hope they’d only be there for transfer to some farm’s pastures. That morning we watched them throwing up dust – running to the feed bins as they got filled, followed by a flock of green parakeets that landed underfoot for the spilled corn.

The name Santa Fé evokes visions of a legendary country town, so we parked our camper on the Plaza de San Martín, which in most Argentinian cities is the central square. A parking guard helped us navigate into a narrow slot, and offered a much needed carwash service while we  explored this city. To our surprise it looked like the buildings that used to be grand needed major restoration. We had not seen this in a while. Apparently the province of Santa Fé is not as prosperous as that of Córdoba or Mendoza, and it shows, though the countryside had not changed much from what we could see. The port of Santa Fé has a direct access to the Paraná river. Looking for the waterfront, we found the port terminal, where the inlet had high walls which could indicate large differences in water levels. Across the inlet, a large modern casino and mall obstructed a further view towards the river estuaries. In the water, floating plants replaced absent ships. An old crane/vacant tourist information booth – beside the old port administration building overlooking the terminal added to the omnipresent sense of lost grandeur.

After we crossed the bridge over the rio Santa Fé, we found ourselves looking down from the elevated highway over a network of wetlands, rivers and creeks, to finally descent into an ultra modern tunnel under the main river, which brought us to Paraná city on the other side of the estuary. Here we veered north, through a fancy looking neighborhood towards the shores of the Paraná river to enjoy the sense of steamy tropics in autumn. 

The expansive campground we entered was empty – let’s presume because of covid. With many building under construction, we could find no one in charge for admission. In the end, a person who looked like he was in charge allowed us to spend the night, for free. He pointed out the newly renovated bathroom building, but we could pick any spot on the premises. An old pump station and dense forest prevented us from finding a spot along the river, so we parked near the new bathroom and went for a hike, in search of the riverfront. A comfortable concrete path and steps led us down along the steep cliff. Halfway down, the steps had collapsed sideways and disappeared into dense undergrowth. We climbed across the crevice to find the continued path, but it became clear that most steps and paths had collapsed as if affected by an earthquake or, as was the case here, earth slides after recent heavy rains. Finding our way down this way, like Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins in the jungle, we discovered an extensive ruined network of paths leading to crooked platforms and skeletons of shacks near the water. It must have been a lively destination at the time! Finally, washed up tree trunks and branches left little of a beach to be enjoyed, but the expedition down and back up was worthwhile and memorable. The last leg of our drive to the border of Uruguay was another smooth ride through agricultural country, interrupted by pretty villages with an orderly tree lined main street. Hot springs were the tourist attractions around here. We got so used to this impression of comfort, that the turnoff into the border town of Colon surprised us with a dirt road, while they named this road after one of the most prestigious car brands: Ferrari! We found our way to the riverfront – with an accessible beach – where we planned to stay a few days to spend our last Argentinian pesos before crossing into Uruguay.

Colón turned out to be a pleasant small town with a malecón (waterside promenade) and nice restaurants along plaza San Martín. It was clear this town accommodates tourists. The riverside recreation area was extensive, with groups of Argentinian campers spreading out along the beach. Paddleboards and canoes made their way across the river, while fishing was the favorite pastime at the water’s edge. When we splurged on a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the plaza, our neighboring table guests broke out in a dance when a troubadour stopped by for a song or two. The following day, at another restaurant, we sampled the finest wine we found so far in Argentina – though the excellent food may have helped with the experience.

When we crossed the border to Uruguay, we left Argentina with fond memories, sure to return for the trek to Tierra del Fuego, as soon as the South American spring warms the weather in September.

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From Cusco to Mendoza – running from the rain.

We finally received our necessary car part. After Thijs installed it and we finally left Cusco. First, the road through the traffic jammed downtown streets of Juliaca, on to Puno with a laboratory to get the (necessary to cross the border) Covid CPR test. Upon arrival at noon, they just closed for the weekend. “Come back on Monday, then you may get the test results on Tuesday”  said the man who was locking up.  We were all fired up to start driving again and did not want to wait that long – so, after calling around to find another lab that would be open, a helpful woman directed us back to Juliaca, to a lab that would be open until 7pm and give results within a few hours. We called to make an appointment and then drove 45 minutes back to Juliaca. The lab was on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood. It was no problem for us to wait for the results, parked in front of the building . We could even spend the night there, to depart early the following morning for the Bolivian border. Crossing the border took us an hour and a half, which included waiting our turn and watching a little preview of Bolivian Carnaval. Satisfied that we made some progress, we stayed in Copacabana for the rest of the day and night. It was a top tourist day this Sunday before Carnaval, so the waterfront and the town was packed. Good thing about a tourist place is: a good choice of food and (happy hour) drinks.

During the processing of our passports, a group of dancers passed by the offices.
Copacabana was full!

Since this was our fourth visit to Bolivia, we planned to drive straight through to Argentina; a large country yet to explore. We’d only stop for the night (and maybe a little longer), wherever  that would happen to be.

One could cross the water either on a barge or by zipline. We chose the barge – our truck felt a bit too heavy for the zipline.
The barges look rickety, but they’re actually very sturdy.
Pushing off is done this way, but once free, an outboard motor takes over.
Last view over Lake Titicaca
When we first drove through El Alto in 1978, we remember it as just a few adobe hovels near the airport on the altiplano above the bowl of La Paz. In the years since, it has exploded into a huge bustling city, which connects with Bolivia’s capital with several cable cars. Despite the wide streets, it took us hours to drive through.

We thought we hit the jackpot by (coincidentally) arriving in Oruro on the eve of Fat Tuesday. Oruro is well known for their Carnaval, with elaborate parades…Everywhere in Bolivia we saw signs of Carnaval preparations, with festival attributes, food and costumes offered on the busy markets, but we did not see much action yet – so we thought that maybe they only have the big event on Tuesday…NOT! The big parades happened on Saturday and Sunday – and we arrived in Oruro on Monday! Too bad for us. It was, however, strange to see that after Sunday, the markets were still brimming with Carnaval accessories. A week later we learned that the origins of Carnaval here did not originate from the gluttonous, crazy celebration before lent’s forty days of fasting, but as indigenous celebrations from before the Spanish arrived. So the Spanish changed this festival into a more christian Carnaval (like it was done with most pagan festivals in Europe) but some indigenous elements remained – like the duration of the festival, celebrated even after Ash Wednesday. Anyway, with everything closed for the holidays in Oruro, and having already visited that town some ten years ago, we continued our journey south.

Markets are full of Carnaval accessories.

One cannot pass Uyuni without a stop at the salt lake. The Salar de Uyuni was wet this time.  Although it makes for pretty and surreal pictures, we did not take our camper out in the salt water.  Already when I stepped out on the moist salt I almost lost my shoe as it sank in the salt. (I could dig it out) We heard of campers that got stuck here for five days and had to pay $1000 US to get pulled out. And then you should see the saltcake deposited on the bottom of the vehicles! So, not us. (The other time we could drive for hours across the dry saltflats) These pictures will have to do this time.

This is as far as we wanted to go on the Uyuni salt lake. Salt is terrible for the bottom of your vehicle!
Here some tourists drove out with a guide in his poor car…
It has been a while since we saw llamas with ear tassels. These animals roam free- the tassels show who owns them – kind of like how the brand cattle.
Don’t they look cute?!

For Fat Tuesday we were in dusty Uyuni. All stores and most restaurants were closed (except one or two tiny tiendas, that served through a hole in the gate) People here celebrate this day in small groups, with family and friends. While looking for a place to spend the night, we came across a neighborhood celebration. As more people were getting drunk, we had to find a more quiet spot, so curbside parking in front of the cemetery felt the best. By the way, campings (especially with wifi) are rare in this neck of the woods.

An Uyuni Carnaval Block party.
We had a peaceful night in front of the Uyuni cemetery.
The main street in Uyuni was practically deserted on Ash Wednesday.

As on Ash Wednesday the town of  Uyuni was asleep,  it was a good day to continue towards the border. Our next stop would be in Tupiza, where we should find another necessary PCR covid test (this time to enter Argentina)  and a popular camping with wifi. Things did not work out well: still within sight of Uyuni, and coincidentally on a slow dirt road detour, our front wheel dropped sideways. Thank god Thijs knew that the shock breaker had detached (but how???) and he could re-attach it. After an hour we were back on the road. The countryside changed constantly, with breathtaking views over altiplano brushlands, with thunderclouds over distant mountains.

The shock absorber detached from the truck, but didn’t break.
In liked the pointy, teepee-shaped grasses here

After a descent of about a thousand meters we  reached the green river valley of Tupiza, where the temps were much more gentle. The town, however, did not meet our expectations. All the recommended restaurants were closed (some permanently because of covid), and we had to search hard and long to get the covid test  (after five hours directed all over town, we finally had it done, but then we had to wait for 30 hours to get the results) 

The campground in Tupiza was deserted and cluttered with trash; the wifi and electricity went on and off. The owner however was very friendly: he told us how the town used to be a wealthy mining town, and the mansion and the (camp)ground belonged to a rich tin baron when he was robbed by Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, who roamed this area after they fled the law in the USA.  Tomorrow we’ll drive to the border and hope to get the test results in time, as promised, by email.🤞🏻

After we found the right hospital willing to test us, we had to wait until the right person for the job was available.

We arrived at the border town of Villazon in late afternoon, around the time the email with the Covid test results should come in. There was no email…. When the good news finally arrived, the border was closed, so we spent the night in town, almost within view of the border. During the night, a long line of cars had accumulated, so by early morning, still hours before the border would open at 8 AM, our car must have been #50 in line to cross the border. In front of the immigration – to check out of Bolivia – the line of people already waiting was scary as well, so Thijs, as usual, started asking around and was told to skip the checkout line and join the Covid Health Check line. There we waited three hours for our turn. Then you’re supposed to get in line for the Argentinian immigration; followed by the aduana…it took us seven hours to cross, and from what we later learned, we went fast: other travellers who crossed a week later needed two full days! I don’t know why…

We were halfway there for our turn to show our vaccinations and Covid test at the one lonely window.

After we stocked up on food items at the Argentinian supermarket, we started driving, with no idea where to stop for the night. The road was good, and beside the beautiful scenery, there was no reason to take a break. Without effort we reached Humahuaca, which happened to be a Unesco World Heritage site, and truly charming, with a network of narrow, cobblestoned streets, peaceful plazas, a special church, and ancient looking buildings. Here we stumbled upon the most popular and authentic Carnaval spot in Argentina. Apparently in this neck of the woods Carnaval continues for another weekend after Ash Wednesday. We parked our car and enjoyed a parade of color and costumes. Everyone proudly showed off their best to admirers and judges. What a nice surprise, even though getting a bite to eat remained difficult, as the restaurants closed for the whole afternoon and only opened again when we were ready to go to bed. Good we’d found that supermarket right after we crossed the border, so we didn’t go hungry. 

Diablos!
The clown in the center of the picture is my favorite.
Lots of Diablos – those horned devil creatures!
From what we saw, these guys had the most impressive outfits.

On Saturday the air was filled with sounds of pitiful howling by all the Diablos. They collected food on a metal hoop by crying out loud. The ones who howled the most theatrically, collected the most…

The Diablo on the left was very impressive. And look at the stuff he collected…a full hoop on one side, a plastic bag full on the other.

On Sunday, a procession of wailing Diablos went to the top of the hill, where all the collected items, like fruits, vegetables, meats and cheese, but also flowers and paper serpentine, were deposited against a cornstack as an offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth. Afterwards, a hole was dug at the foot of the stack, in which the people, two by two, were assisted in pouring their bottle of alcoholic drinks. With a container of smoldering coals, as well as lit cigarettes added to the stack, we expected the mound to ignite, but maybe that was up to Pachamama to start. Anyway, it did not burn…yet. But what a magical ceremony this turned out to be.

A procession of howling and wailing Diablos went up the hill…
The musicians drew the crowds up the hill, playing the same haunting repetitive tune.
At the top of the hill, the Diablos descended to a stack of corn stalks adjacent to an ancient cactus.
Foam spray adds to the ambiance.
The Diablos took their turn depositing their collections against the corn stalk.
The Diablos disappeared – until next year. The musicians closed off the offering ceremony around the offering pile.
This woman and her assistant finished the offerings by dusting the mound with flour.
Even the cactus gets a dusting
The two dug a hole at the foot of the offer mound, and placed a pot with glowing charcoal in it.
In the end, people lined up to pour a bottle of alcoholic drink into the hole. They come in pairs, and were covered by a red blanket while the woman greets, embraces and assists them with the offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth.

After this impressive devotion to Pachamama, we drove up to see another “rainbow” mountain, about an hour or so away from Humahuaca . The weather did not cooperate  much, but we caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared behind clouds that turned into a dramatic thunderstorm. It still is rainy season, even in the desert!

Between Salvador de Jujuy- the first major town for us in Argentina (a well organized city where our main interest was currency exchange) and the next city of Salta, the road led us through a moist, tropical rainforest mountain range – how strange to experience this, when the day before, desert was all we saw…

Although we planned to give Salta a closer look, a long and heavy overnight thunderstorm flooded the city, so we skipped it – we’re not much of city lovers anyway. Even driving south, there was no escape from the rain. Several streets had turned into rivers, and the rain kept on beating down. In the middle of such a rainstorm, without warning, the driver’s side windshield wiper just fell off. Thijs drove the car to the side of the road, and didn’t see how soft the berm was. We got hopelessly stuck in the mud! Although a few people stopped and offered to get us some help, we waited for hours, until Thijs walked to the next farm, where he asked for a tractor to pull us out.  In the meantime we saw that the metal part of the windshield wiper had just broken in half….no idea how that could happen! But anyway, the passenger’s side wiper is large enough to cover both sides when placed on the driver’s side, albeit with some un-wiped corners. We continued our adventure over a scenic road through a drier valley of Quebrada de Concha, impressed by the many awesome shapes, colors and textures of the mountains…until a raging river across the road stopped all traffic … many cars were anxiously waiting for the waters to subside, as the day was coming to an end. We found this wild water blockade a good reason to stop for the night.

Water everywhere.
We were hopelessly stuck in the mud, when Thijs couldn’t see because the windshield wiper broke off in a downpour. It took hours to get some help!
We totally did not expect that the road we chose would be so gorgeous!
This groundcover grew in patches on the rocky mountainsides. Looks like a bromeliad…or aloe?
A deep, narrow cleft in the mountain was called Gargantuan de Diablo.
At one point, a rockwall blocked the way further in. A sign warned of danger, unless you were an experienced climber with good equipment.
And this was the Amphitheater. It was much easier to reach the end.
Why were all these cars stopped? What was here to see? An accident?…. It was a raging river across the road. People waited for it to recede, which took hours.
Some inhabitants of the riverside hamlet took the opportunity to sell tortillas to the waiting crowd.
We decided to just take it easy and stay here for the night.
The next morning the river was less violent when we crossed and continued to enjoy the views.

We’ve entered Argentinian wine country! Looking at the restaurant terraces around the central plaza of Cafayate, people enjoy a good life here, with an abundance of food, wine, friends and time. Cafayate, like Mendoza, is a high altitude (up to 1800m!) wine region of Argentina. We visited the most commercial Piattelli winery with beautiful grounds and an assado restaurant; we also made a tour and tasted the wines of El Porvenir wineries, and last we went to the historic winery of Vasija Secreta.
We ended up buying some dry Torontès from El Porvenir.

The plaza in Cafayate was lined with outdoor restaurants. We picked one that had tablecloths; it was a good choice. Here we were introduced to Torontès white wine, a local favorite.
The Piattelli estate looked picture perfect
Can you see Thijs enjoying this? He doesn’t get much meat from me!
The cellar has different wine storage possibilities. The concrete eggs we’d never seen before.
For the wine tasting, we chose the most exclusive option. We were, however grouped with people that had chosen the medium “grand reserve” wines, do that’s what we got as well. I gue
Malbec harvest coming in at El Porvenir’s winery
The processing barn at Vasija Secreta – clearly one of the oldest wineries in Cafayate.

From route 40 south, we veered east into the mountains to visit the Pachamama art museum, the observatory en route (which was closed that day)  and a garden of menhirs near the beautiful  but very touristy Tafi del Valle. From there, we originally planned to drive to San Miguel de Tucumán, and continue from there to Uruguay, but when we reached the crossroad, we decided to head south instead. We still  have enough time for a visit to Mendoza, one of our favored destinations.

Driving through a river, we look at the desert in front of us, and snow peaks in the distance
Museo Pachamama, where all the grounds and walls are covered with stone mosaics.
Everything is decorated. Nothing is left plain.
Our overnight spot near the (closed) observatory.
Tafi del Valle in the distance, at the far end of the lake.
All these menhirs have been collected in the area, and installed here. We did not find much about their history.

What we didn’t know however, was that route 38 south went through hot, tropical lowlands, with scourging midday sun and steamy nights, so we picked the 150 to get back to the cooler, higher altitude RN40 again. It turned out we made another excellent choice, with a road in perfect condition, leading us, just in time for the night, to Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. With perfect night temperatures and a surprisingly nice campsite, this park is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its unique landscape which has exposed numerous dinosaur skeletons, dated from around 230.000.000 years old. We had no idea what we stumbled upon, but the next day we decided to participate in a tour around the park and didn’t mind staying there one more comfortable night before driving down to the lower elevation of Mendoza.

The shade of these trees is well appreciated in the steamy lowland that we found ourselves in. I call them bottle trees; I think they are Ceibas.
This shrine of La Difunta Correa , covered by offerings of waterbottles, was the first and most impressive of many to come.
Full moon over the Parque Provincial de Ischigualasto
It has been years ago since we saw these other wild cousins of the llamas. Guanacos look a bit like vicuñas, but are much bigger and sturdier. They inhabit the southern part of South America.
Valle de la Luna of Ischigualasto . All these layers represent a time in history.
These rocks look like cannonballs, and aren’t even rocks, but fossils (with an organic center)
A dusty moonscape drive through the park
One of the highlights of the park is this half- exposed skeleton of an Ischigualastia, an ancient beast that even preceded the dinosaurs – said to be around 230.000.000 years old.
A completed replica of a skeleton was shown in the park’s museum.
In the center of the small campground you find this rendition of the Ischigualastia.
Leaving the park, the landscape keeps amazing.
Before coming down the mountain range, we enjoy a sight that reminds us of USA’s Grand Canyon.

And, just like that, we arrived in Mendoza- a city that seems to survive on good wines and beef (lots of it!) We planned to stay here more than a few days, to take in the relaxed atmosphere, the food and the wines. Because I think this post is already long enough, that episode will come in the next post. Cheers!

Cheers!