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.


The Cordillera Blanca– part three: Chavin, the Pastoruri Glacier, and Lima.

We don’t remember having been in Chavin de Huantar when we traveled the area forty years ago, but we do remember having heard about its old and important culture that flourished between 1200 – 400BC. This time we wanted to make the trip across the Cordillera, also to see if we’d recognize anything or not. The road across the mountains was supposed to be good, and there was a possibility to make a roundtrip, along the accessible Pastoruri Glacier.

The road was indeed excellent, leading us over gentle golden slopes that slowly turned into craggy peaks before we went through a tunnel after which we descended into the deep valley where Chavín de Huantar was located. We could park close to the entry of the impressive archeological site, where we happened to enter during peak visiting time (bad idea: lots of waiting for people to finish their selfies before we could see something!) There were a few nicely decorated surfaces and monoliths, and one “nailhead” (= are stone head sculptures with elongated horizontal stems to fit like nails in wall-openings) left in a wall, but the most important part of the site is an enormous ruin of a temple  with a labyrinth of underground tunnels and chambers. We found one out-of- the-way underground section that we had to ourselves for a while, where we could freely explore the many tunnels, chambers and light shafts, before a fresh crowd filled up the space. 
The second part of the visit would be the museum that contained all the artifacts found on the site. However, the way to the museum – on the other side of town – was hard to get to because of a large festival in the town center. There were processions, cockfights, concerts, guinea pig shows, fairground games and a huge market that all blocked most through streets. When we finally got to the museum we found all of the relevant exhibitions closed because of a “power outage” – but we heard from some locals that this is the excuse when the employees want to attend the festivities. So no artifacts to be admired by us! Since the next day -Monday- the museum would be closed, we went back to town and enjoyed some of the party, and went on…

Grand Plaza surrounded by the Chavin complex. Under the roofs are areas in need of protection, like the gate and the “nail head” below.

To reach the Pastoruri glacier, we decided, rather than continue over a long stretch of questionable dirt road, we’d  turn back on our tracks and take that good pavement again to the Carretera Central, because our windshield started to protest by thumping and cracking with every bump in the road. I was afraid that soon the time would come when we’d have no protection from wind, weather or thieves… something had to be done ASAP! To secure the window somewhat, Thijs created and installed a few rubber-lined brackets at the bottom, where the windshield had completely separated itself from the cabin. We added some wide tape over the worst cracks to keep glass splinters from falling on the dashboard. That‘s all we could do for now…

So we took the popular road across the mountains to reach one of the tropic’s more accessible glaciers. This time around, we made sure to visit this touristy site early – before the crowds took over- by spending the night just before the entrance to the park and depart early in the morning. At that time of day the light was beautiful, with long shadows that accentuated the golden grasses and the huge tall spikes of the once-in-a-hundred-year blooming Puya Raymondii along the way.  And nice to see that even very primitive thatch huts in the fields were powered by solar panels!

Another beautiful overnight spot, just before entering Huascaran National Park

When we arrived at the base parking, we were the first ones there. We prepared ourselves with a thermos of coca tea and full winter gear. Even Kakao wore a sweater and, of course, his backpack with his own water. The walk up to the glacier was paved and easy going- but cold. However, at close to 5000 meters above sea level, it was not easy to gather enough oxygen to walk that last kilometer up to reach the glacier. Once there, despite what many are saying that it is too small to be called a glacier, I thought it was worth it. I loved the meters-high ice walls with deep, icy blue crevices, the wet and dripping hollow caves, and pillars of icicles, all within touching distance. It is hard to imagine, that forty years ago Pastoruri was a popular place to ski. Now, the glacier is too dangerous to walk on, with many cracks and crevices that deteriorate the surface. Instead of being a ski attraction, the place is now inviting tourists to be confronted with the tragedy of global warming. With a rate of the ice retreating by about fifteen meters per year, it is expected that in another twenty years the glacier is no more.

On the way back down we discovered petrified fern leaves imprinted in the rocks, but missed the dinosaur’s footsteps. Everywhere there were reminders of how much larger the glacier used to be, and we were so happy to have come there before there is nothing left. When, after a few hours, we returned to the base parking, we were still by ourselves. Only after our lunch the hordes arrived. We felt so lucky to have come with our own transportation!

After our visit to the glacier we made our decision to drive down to the coast, to Lima, because of four reasons: 1. There may be a windshield there that fits our car. 2. It is warmer on the coast, so we would not need our heater. 3. At sea level our diesel stove might work again, and otherwise, we may find a propane stove there. 4.The road to and along the coast is good and smooth, so if we don’t find a windshield, at least it does not deteriorate more, and we may make it to Chile to get one.

We had not intended to go to Lima, but what can you do? Make the best of it, right? We enjoyed the ride down from the highland to the coast. For hours we had driven along the mountain’s edge of a fertile green valley without any possibilities to stop. But halfway down, on a flat, orchard covered outcrop, we found a beautiful spot to spend the night, and soaked in the beauty of a breathtaking sunset behind multiple layers of mountains. Further down, the green valley strip got narrower; the surrounding mountains turned rockier and drier. Drying pimientos seemed to be an easier source of income than growing them. When the inevitable fog appeared between the mountains, we knew the coast was near. Along the four lane highway, everything is grey: sand fields…mountains…the sky, and even the ocean. Makeshift houses, constructed from four woven reed mat- walls topped by one on the roof keep piles of plastic trash company, and add a sense of despair to the dry and unfertile coast. The only variety of farm that thrives in this desolate landscape is what must be thousands of chicken farms… (also sad)…

But, late in the afternoon, around the time we started looking for a place to spend the night, we looked down from the sandy cliffs and spotted an intriguing site on the beach beneath us. We turned back to have a closer look and found out it was Eco Truly Park, an ashram with adobe buildings in a tall, conical trulli style, which seemed to fit the purpose of the premises and the use of the building material perfectly.  For a small fee, representatives of the Hare Krishna community showed us around the ten acre premises and explained about their life principles of living organically and spiritually with little impact on its fragile environment. Though overwhelming, we learned about the Hindu pantheon and what each god or deity stands for. Quite interesting! Then we had a (very!) light vegetarian meal at their restaurant, and spent the night on the beach.

We entered the city of Lima in the morning and made our way through along the coast, to find our camping spot for the week in quiet, suburban Miraflores. From here, we had the opportunity to find the autoglass section in town, where one of  the eager shop-owners found us the right windshield, installed it, provided our windows with a break-in proof film, and new windshield wipers, all within a couple of hours. In Miraflores we found a sporting goods store that could sell us the right little gas cooker, so we were pretty much set to travel again.

Parque Antonio Raimondi, in Miraflores, Lima.
Lover’s lane at Parque Antonio Raimondi, Miraflores, Lima.

Relieved, we looked for a last item in Lima to check off our bucket list: we wanted to eat at one of Lima’s two word famous restaurants. Even though we knew that reservations for a table needed to be made months in advance, we heard that at Maido, you may get in when you wait and hope for a cancellation. Maido was a ten minute walk from where we were camping, so we gave it a shot…or two. The first time we arrived at the restaurant close to opening time, and already found a long line waiting. We had no chance. We tried to make a reservation for next Monday, which seemed to be available, but received no confirmation. So on Monday we made sure we were there an hour before opening, and the first ones in line this time. Still- no luck, but the friendly receptionist advised us to come back in two hours and see… so we came back in one hour and waited another hour. We got a seat! We ordered the full tasting menu, with small bites that incorporated a variety of exclusively Peruvian ingredients. It was a delicious, lifetime experience and it was all we wanted out of Lima. In 1978, when  the city of Lima was much smaller and our urge to explore much larger, we had seen most of the capital…been there, done that… we didn’t feel like doing that again. So, after we went to the market for some grocery shopping, we left the city, heading south – completely satisfied.

While waiting, first in line, for the restaurant to open, we met this cute peruvian hairless dog ( and his friendly owner) Below, a few pictures of the pretty dishes: the first one; my favorite one; and us starting the first of three deserts. Delicious!