Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where's the Beef

We're on the road again -- this time in a quest for the perfect steak and a fine Malbec wine to go with it. Argentina sounded like the best place to start.

We last visited Argentina in December of 2003 at the end of a four-month extended journey that took us to Cuba, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Chile and finally Argentina. The food, wine and European-style culture were such a contrast after the previous three months on the road in South America that we were smitten with the country. It impressed us so much that we had to go back.

Recap from our Last Trip
Here's a brief recap of that trip in 2003. Our first venture into Argentina that year was a short drive from Chile, across the Andes, and into the quaint resort town Villa la Angostura where we had our first taste of Argentinian beef. Beef and lamb were cooked whole on long metal skewers in front of an open fire. The plates were huge and the taste was incredible. We then moved on to the lovely Swiss-style ski town of Bariloche. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and azure blue lakes, Bariloche was charming and had great chocolate, but it was too artificial and touristy.

Twenty years ago, it was quite something, we were told. Sorry we missed it. We didn't stay long in town, but did visit the surrounding mountains and stumbled upon a fabulous, but very expensive, resort called Llao Llao surrounded by azure lakes, snow-capped peaks, and a golf course of all things.

We drove back to Chile after this brief foray into the mountains and then flew to Buenos Aires where we fell in love with "bife", "Malbec" and the colonial architecture of this amazingly modern metropolis, a combination of latin Europe and South American flare.

In addition to great beef and wine, Buenos Aires boasts one of the best opera houses in the world, El Colon, now celebrating it's 100th anniversary. Unfortunately for us, the renovations are taking longer than expected (it's now two years late) and it won't be open when we go there this time.

But on our last visit, this is where Carolann demanded recompense for my subjecting her to eight days in the Amazonian jungle. I had a great time there, observing Spider monkeys, Bullet Ants and deadly wild pigs. But only after we left the Amazon did I learn that she was not quite as fond as I of spiders and snakes and all things "jungly".
So my payment was to take her to see Carmen at the Colon opera house. It wasn't Wagner, but I endured it. Actually it was great and a small price to pay for camping out in the Amazon.

Next we flew up to Iguazu Falls, the largest in the world (sorry Niagara). We stayed at an "estancia", basically a gaucho cattle ranch where we could ride horses and eat home-cooked meals washed down with more Argentinian wine.

That's a very brief overview of our all-too-short stay in Argentina in 2003. We're headed off to Argentina again on November 24, 2008, so stay tuned. This time our focus will be on the Mendoza wine region in the northwest corner, followed by a brief stop in Buenos Aires.

Santiago, Chile, November 25-26, 2008

We left Toronto Monday night as a mix of light snow and cold rain fell over the city. Winter was beginning to tighten its frozen grip on the city, so it was a great time to escape to sunny South America.

Our overnight flight left at 11:55 p.m., scheduled to take 11 hours from Toronto to Santiago, Chile. In the middle of the night, however, we hit a big storm over Panama and, after bouncing us around for a while, the pilot decided to take a 200-mile detour out over the ocean, which added another hour to our already lengthy journey. But it did smooth things out enough to allow us to get a couple of hours of sleep. Not quite enough, however, to prevent total exhaustion upon our arrival at noon on Tuesday.

It’s funny though how visiting a foreign country for the second time is both good and bad. The bad side is that it’s less exotic or foreign. The good side is that it’s less exotic and confusing, especially when you’re completely drained and can’t even think in English, let alone Spanish. When you know you’re way around – and we were quite familiar with the Santiago airport as you’ll see below – you’re less likely to panic, make mistakes, or fall prey to the ever present touts.

So this time, instead of immediately joining the lengthy lines at the Immigration booths, we knew that we had to first find the hidden counter to purchase our “Reciprocity Visas” for $132 US and then join the Immigration queue. And we had our cash ready this time.

The last time, we had arrived in the middle of the night from Lima, Peru, and joined the Immigration queue where they promptly sent us back to start all over again at the visa counter where they demanded $75 US in cash. This was a big problem because the banks were closed at that hour and we hadn’t planned on US currency to manage this unexpected toll. Luckily we had enough US bills hidden about us to just make up the fee.

The delays that night, however, meant we couldn’t make our connecting flight to southern Chile and we had to spend a cold night sleeping on hard, steel benches in the Santiago airport. We reasoned at that time of the morning it made no sense to pay $30 to take a taxi downtown to find a hotel and then turn around and come right back to catch a 7 a.m. flight, for which we would have to line up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure we got seats. So we got to know the airport and all its cleaning, security and food stall staff quite well.

No such problems this time, and even though our flight was delayed we sped quickly through the chaos that surrounds most airports. As an added bonus, we felt quite comfortable hopping on the airport bus for $2.50 Cdn instead of taking an expensive taxi.

At this point, some of you may be wondering what we’re doing in Chile when we were planning to go to Argentina. Quite simple really, Santiago is just across the border from the Mendoza wine region which is our first stop in Argentina. So instead of a $500 flight from Buenos Aires, we can take a $30 bus right across the stunning Andes Mountains that separate the two countries. We have planned this trip during the day to be both awed and terrified by the steep, winding roads and passes through the mountain peaks.

But back to Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to 5.5 million. It’s spring here and the air is full of the sweet scents of flowering trees and fresh fruit at the open air fruit stands. The sky is blue and this very modern city is surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. The climate here is very temperate with warm days (around 20 to 28 Celsius) and cool nights. Very comfortable!

Everywhere we walk, and this is a very walkable city, we are surrounded by parks and flowers of all kinds, including purple flowering Jacaranda trees, red Bougainvilleas, and orange Ceibos. Under large trees, the ground is covered with stunning Acanthus mollis, and an incredible array of exotic tropical plants that we struggle to grow back home as houseplants.

The parks are also filled with new sculptures and outdoor works of art. The Chileans are making up for that dreadful period of artistic suppression and violence that marked the Pinochet era, a time when many Chileans fled to Canada, Australia, and Sweden. Like the Renaissance after the Dark Ages, art seems to be springing up all over the city.

Although it’s quite warm here in the city, a short 45-minute ride will take you to some wonderful ski hills in the surrounding mountains. Go the other way towards the ocean and you’re in the middle of lush vineyards growing in an arid desert. A little further on and you come to the beaches of Valparaiso on the Pacific Ocean.

To cap off our first day in Santiago, we connected with Pasi, a friend we met this summer at the wedding of Necla’s son Mark in Toronto. Pasi and her boyfriend Luis treated us to a fabulous dinner at a typical Chilean restaurant called La Casa Vieja, where we enjoyed Pisco sours, fresh fish “a la plancha” and Chilean wine. Her son Alejandro and an exchange student from California joined us for a very pleasant and informative evening. It also gave us a chance to attune our ears to the staccato style of Spanish spoken by the Chilenos.

The next day, Alejandro joined us at the bus station with his recommendations for a long-distance bus company for the seven-hour trip across the Andes. After the exchange, we took him to lunch at a lovely patio restaurant that featured German-style beers and ¨Kuchen¨, a Chilean version of German desserts that you can find all over Chile, especially in the south, which was opened up by German immigrants in the 1800s. We were entertained by the Chilean folk singers and dancers you can see in the first photo (by the way, you can click on the photos to enlarge them).

Tomorrow we’re off to Mendoza.

Across the Andes to Mendoza -- November 27, 2008

The seven-hour bus ride across the Andes was spectacular, one of the best and possibly least hair-raising mountain trips we have taken. That´s not to say it wasn´t without it´s scarry moments or that it wouldn´t make some of our friends sea-sick on the tight switchbacks that took us up over 4,000 meters (note the 2 transports exiting tunel in top photo). But it was so beautiful that the time flew by in a swirl of colourful mountain scenes, snow-capped peaks and flowering cacti. We just kept starring out the windows and jumping from one side of the bus to the other to catch the ever-changing vistas.

The journey started out oddly. Two buskers in top hats and carrying unicycles and backpacks stowed their gear into the belly of the bus and then disappeared like street magicians. At the designated departure time, the bus started pulling out and the co-driver did a head count. Realizing he was short two top hats, he had the driver pull back into the bay and left to track them down.

After 15 minutes, he returned without them and we started to leave again. When he passed by to collect the tickets, Carolann (ever the vigilant and calm traveler) asked him if he wasn´t concerned about security. Planes she explained in broken Spanish would never leave someone´s unclaimed baggage on board (note that the ¨b¨word was never mentioned). His calm reply was simply ¨No, they´ll pick up their stuff at the other end.¨

Half way through the trip on top of the Andes, we stopped at the Argentinian border crossing for customs and luggage inspection. We all had to disembark and walk into this huge dark hangar that looked like something out of the X-Files, dim lights, black booths, armed guards and roving dogs. Presumably it provided shelter from the snow, avalanches and rock slides that seemed to be everywhere (note the crushed shed at right). It took well over a half hour just to get to the inspection stage because of the buses and cars ahead of us. We counted ourselves lucky because in peak season in December this can take three or four hours we were told.

But just as we were closing up our bags, the two Top Hats showed up and claimed their gear. Then, after the inspection, they calmly hopped onto the bus as if nothing had ever happened. Apparently they had gone for a ¨smoke¨ and lost track of time. They took the next bus 45 minutes later and caught up with us at the border. The driver grilled them about this and we continued on.

The bus, it turns out, was not the most comfortable -- the washroom was terrible -- and the packed lunch they provided was barely edible. But there were only five of us on board and we could sit wherever we wanted. A big bonus was that they didn´t play those blaring movies that are so popular on long bus rides in Latin America. Plus we had brought our own lunch and so we fared better than some of the others. We gave our sandwiches to the two Top Hats, who looked like they hadn´t eaten in days. It was either that or give them to the ever present wild dogs that seem to be everywhere in Santiago, Mendoza and even the border crossing.

Even more importantly, the co-drivers were exceptionally good and never took any risks other than passing the occasional convoy of tankers on long, straight stretches (well, most of the time). The only problem we had was when Carolann and I agreed to change sides so that I could photograph a switchback. Unfortunately, our timing was a bit off and we stood just as the bus veered sharply to one side to navigate an especially tight turn. This sent us both flying to opposite sides of the bus in a hilarious Keystone Cops move.

The rest of the trip was all downhill (literally not figuratively) as we followed a chocolate-brown river through ochre red and brown mountain sides until it flattened out into an oasis of lush vineyards and green Eucalyptus trees (imported from Australia and used throughout South America as insect repellent).

On the entire trip we only saw one collision of two transport trucks, two guard rails ripped out, one set of tracks up a gravel escape route and several rock slides that had wiped out train tracks or their protective coverings. Not bad for a mountain trip.

Crossing the Andes -- Carolann’s SNAPSHOT

We are early as usual at the bus station in Santiago and await the other passengers who curiously fail to materialize. When we booked our tickets the day before, the agent turned his computer towards us to show how few seats remained. As it turned out, only six people took the trip this spring day and two of the six failed to finish their smoke in time and missed it all together. They would have to collect their collapsible unicycles in Mendoza since they remained in our luggage compartment. We felt sorry for the two dark haired young men, evidently poor street buskers. Each dressed in zany coloured striped jerseys and one wore a lime green bowler hat, which might have been a Bolivian design by way of Dr. Seuss. As it turned out, when they miraculously caught up to us at the frontier in the faster bus behind us, we found out they were Germans enjoying a gap year abroad.

This trip makes the fourth time we have crossed the Andes. We’ve flown over them to the southern tip of Chile, taxied around them in Peru, and now over the top and through them in tunnels on a long distance, El Rapido bus.

Leaving Santiago with its mildly toxic halo, we now enter the mountains as little as a half hour out of the city. Chile is such a sinuous stretch of land, its capital city as close to the sea as it is close to its neighbour, Argentina. The road follows the unruly brown water of the Mapocho River, which rushes along continuous rapids towards the sea. As we climb higher, the river doesn’t know which way to run, and it crashes every which way, a visual image of this historically disputed frontier. I know that I’ve been afraid before about the winding, severe switchbacks, crowded by belching transport trucks carrying goods in and out of Argentina. Funny though that this time I’m no longer afraid, rather, excited and riveted to the passing scene. Perhaps the recent death of a parent is as liberating as it is tragic, in that a certain amount of fear itself, which so often directs a younger life, passes away too.

Choosing not to take a double decker bus was wise. Drivers who work mountain routes in South America are uniformly oblivious to centrifugal force as applied to hairpin turns. Fortunately the seats across the aisle are unoccupied because either Dan, who had moved into the empty seats ahead, or me, or our respective backpacks and lunchboxes, are thrown sideways across the aisle, then back again, or occasionally rammed into a window, with each completion of at least nine switchbacks. And what I believed were the final turns, took us onto a broad plateau, at which point we began yet another climb. Eventually, we would travel upwards more than 9,000 feet. That is the kind of elevation that hurts should you linger.

The Andes on the Chilean side are not so much beautiful as they are dramatic with gigantic clefts of rock wrenched apart by earthquakes. Until you reach the snow and ice streaked channels of retreating glaciers, the view is monochromatic grey. Of course, rock can be beautiful as we know in northern Ontario. But this rock’s beauty is in its texture, rather than its colour. We are mere mice, scaling the furrowed, tough hide of an elephant. I’m mindful that a single seismic sneeze of the beast is bad for the mouse.

As we approach the border, there are more than fifty transport trucks going into Chile awaiting the processing of their papers and I wonder if talk about us being held up three hours will turn out to be true.

But this is spring in South America and fewer tourists mean we are waved on within half an hour after a cursory search of luggage. From this point, it’s downhill all the way, but with a difference.

We are leaving behind the comparatively sombre and tightly squeezed Chilean side of the Andes. Now, white alpine flowers litter the slopes like confetti. The severely chiselled grey walls of rock have turned into piles of scree, brown and red with strains of white. There are more alpine plants, this time purple and yellow. Perhaps it’s my upbeat mood, or just all these shades of chocolate and cream make me think dairy, always a happy subject. I imagine a triple scoop dish of ice cream, melted caramel topping, chocolate shavings and sprinkles. And when the last of the mountains are behind us, and the broad expanse of land unfolds ahead under an endless sky, I come to exactly the same conclusion about these two countries as I had five years earlier on a similar crossing near Baraloche. Chile holds its breath; Argentina exhales. C. Moisse

November 28, 2008

Mendoza -- Sunny and Hot, November 27

There's nothing to do in Mendoza -- other than eat great steaks, drink fabulous Malbec and enjoy life. Actually, in a break from normal custom, some Argentineans actually drink white wine or beer. Yes, life is slow and mellow here.

Mendoza gets 300 days of sunshine a year and maybe 3 or 4 days of rain. It’s a hot, arid, desert here, perfect for growing grapes and olives, for which Mendoza is famous. But when we stepped off our 7-hour bus from Santiago, we walked into a steambath, hot and muggy – very unusual for Mendoza. Seemingly, we had arrived during that 4-day period of rainy weather.

In fact, that day they were hit by a freak hail storm, with hail the size of lemons. We saw the damage on our guide’s windshield, which sported three larges spider webs, and on the shattered clay tile roofs in a new subdivision. Hail has become a big problem for the wine industry in this area and many now cover their vineyards with expensive netting. Some blame it on global climate change.

It's so hot here that even the parking lots are covered with netting for shade. And drivers lift their windshield wipers off the windshields so that they don't stick.

But downtown Mendoza is a cool oasis in the middle of the desert. Its streets are lined with huge Sycamore and Plane trees that arch over the roadway providing a much needed cooling canopy. A system of canals brings cool snow melt from the mountains, irrigating the trees and acting like a huge natural air conditioner. In other countries these would be foul smelling gutters, but here, in the spring, the water runs clean and fast. People dip in to wash their cars or water their plants.

The meter-deep canals are an extension of the original irrigation channels created by the Incas and expanded by the Spanish. The canals line every street and, at a depth of three feet, they pose a very real hazard to unwary pedestrians, especially in a city where wine consumption is a religion. At street corners, there is a narrow concrete slab bridging the canal, but it’s not always in the same place and the streets are dark because of the overhanging trees. Caution is advisable to late night partiers.

Although there aren’t many major tourist attractions here, the city draws a lot of tourists for wine tours and mountain adventures, horseback riding and hiking.
We toured three wineries, including Lagarde, Trapiche and Trivento, sampled a lot of great wines and even some homemade empanadas at the small family run Lagarde Bodega.

Walking around the city of Mendoza is a real pleasure. Even though it’s very hot here, 35-40 Celsius, you can get around the entire center of town without leaving the cool shade of the broad Plane trees. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants are everywhere and there is even a three-block long pedestrian street that is always crowded with Argentineans enjoying coffee or a meal al fresco at all hours of the day and night.

As for our search for the perfect steak, well after three failed attempts, we finally found it. A thick and juicy steak at an Italian-style restaurant called La Florencia in downtown Mendoza. A fine Malbec wine, a great Argentinean steak and a cool evening under the lush canopy of Mendoza’s tree-lined streets. Could life be any better?

Spinning our Wheels in Mina Clavero -- December

I knew it was time to leave Mina Clavero, a small tourist town in northern Argentina, when the gas jockey pointed out the large, sharp thorn stuck in the side of my front tire. “It won’t deflate until you pull it out,” he said, “but I can’t fix it here, you’ll have to go over to the gomeria.” The what, you say? I had barely deciphered his clipped Argentinian accent, but the word “gomeria” was totally new to me. And nobody speaks English here.

The night before, we had arrived in town after a seven-hour drive through mountains and desolate, desert landscape only to find the town awash in Argentinean tourists. Unbeknownst to us we had picked the long weekend of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception to travel from Valle Fertil to the other side of the Cordillera mountain range.

Mina Clavero is situated in a broad valley with a cool river running through it and is set against an impressive wall of stark mountains. It's also gaucho country. Sadly, however, it’s a combination of Banf and Wasaga Beach. Lot’s of tourists, horrendous holiday traffic and crowded streets on long summer weekends.

Every hotel was either full or charging high-season rates even though we were still in spring and, supposedly, low season. We drove around in circles for an eternity trying to find the hotels listed in the guide book or recommended by the Tourist Office. But the one-way streets, crazy drivers and kamikaze motorbikes kept throwing us off course and we had to make another loop around the round-abouts at either end of town.

Earlier in the day we had to replace both low-beam headlights at a small town garage run by two elderly brothers who kindly identified the problem, replaced the bulbs and gave us directions back onto the right highway for only 8 pesos (about $3). ``Be careful, the younger 70-year old brother warned, ``in this province of Cordoba, the police are strictly enforcing the Argentinean law to drive with your day-time lights on.``

We had already been stopped three times during our seven-hour trek by police manning intimidating checkpoints along the highways. Each time they demanded our papers, our destination and noted down my passport number. One even had the nerve to ask for ``a little something for a soda``.

Having anticipated this subtle form of bribery, I pretended not to understand and offered him some of our soda water, but he persisted and kept leaning on the car smiling. Fortunately, we had set aside a ``kitty`` of bribe money with small bills. The trick is not to let them see you have any big bills in your wallet. So we ended up giving him 5 pesos and drove off.

But at each checkpoint, the police had checked to see if we were wearing our seatbelts and had the daytime driving lights on. I had been cheating by putting my high-beams on, but they couldn’t tell the difference in the daylight. Eventually we had to get them fixed.

More laps around town ensued when the hotel we had previously booked for the week, wouldn’t let us check in a day early. so we ended up in a nice hotel in town that was highly recommended. It even had a secure, covered parking area – two things that are critical in this area. Unfortunately, the rooms had just been repainted and the highly acclaimed restaurant was not open because it was just the start of high season.

Anyway, the next day we checked in to our holiday resort, an RCI resort we had exchanged for our Mexican timeshare, only to find that they didn’t have a restaurant either and no cooking facilities in the rooms. The pool was great and the room was comfortable, but Carolann was expecting a little more luxury in exchange for our 5-star Mayan Palace resort. And neither of us was too excited about the five-kilometre drive into town for lunch and dinner, especially when I was looking forward to imbibing some more of the local vinos to accompany my `bife de chorizo`.

Of course the banks were closed, along with the post office, but we didn’t realize this at the start, which led to more driving around town, negotiating the round abouts, one-way streets and crazy traffic. It was all starting to get to me, and the three-inch thorn and the struggle to find the ``gomeria`` (tire shop) were the last straws.

So the next morning we decide to hop across the stark Altas Cumbres mountains and check out the small German-Swiss town of Belgrano. Time for some Apfel Strudel and beer!

Switzerland in Argentina

We walked out of the Parilla restaurant where we had just dined on ‘cabrito’ (grilled kid) done Argentinean BBQ style feeling quite satisfied after another great meal. As we turned up the main street in downtown Villa General Belgrano, I stopped in my tracks as a man walked by wearing Liederhosen. A little further on, the sound of yodelling wafted out of the “Viejo Munich Bar.”

No, we hadn’t suddenly changed continents. We had arrived in this German/Swiss-style town in the foothills of the sierras just in time for the “Fiesta” of centro-european gastronomy.
A large stage had been set up in front of the Alpine looking town hall and a group of chefs were demonstrating how to make Apple Strudel while a tall blonde, very Teutonic looking, "Senorita Oktoberfest" looked on appreciatively. The town hall itself was decked out like one of those Christmas cards where you lift up a flap to reveal a chocolate underneath and a countdown to Noel.

It was the first long weekend of the summer in Argentina even though summer doesn’t officially start for another two weeks. But nobody seems to care, it’s hot enough to fry a wienerschnitzel on the pavement and everybody is lining up for ice cream.

Several women in Swiss clothing were handing out Swiss chocolate pastries as oompah band music blared in the backgournd. And then the big moment arrived. A hush fell over the large crowd as the mistress of ceremonies, who looked like Heidi, called for a drum roll and announced the arrival of the “longest weiner in the world.” The crowd rose from their seats and rushed over to witness this phenomenon as it was pulled down the street behind an ATV driven by a man in a German Alpen hat and braces.

Carolann and I pushed our way through the throng to witness the spectacle and capture this Guinness Book feat on camera. On a decorated float behind the ATV was a large split-open bun, festooned with Sauerkraut and a thin, five-foot long wiener, looking ever so much like a dead eel. The excitement over this sliver of beef was so hilarious we both started laughing out loud as the crowd eagerly lined up to get a slice of this “incredible” specimen.

Fortunately, they also started handing out free draught beer drawn from a keg inside a wooden cart. As I snapped pictures of the foaming mugs, a beaming Senorita Oktoberfest and men in Alpen hats and braces, I introduced myself as a photographer from Canada and was offered a cup of freshly poured German beer and a slice of the star attraction, wiener on a bun.

It wasn't Malbec and “lomo” steak, but what the heck, when in “Munich” do as the Munchners do.

Villa General Belgrano -- Carolann's Snapshot

We’ve just returned to Mendoza from a ten-day drive making a big loop through the desert, into the central sierras and back, covering two thousand kilometres. To do this, we rented a tiny white VW Golf with a standard transmission.

Poor Dan had to drive the whole time because I’m not comfortable with a stick shift. So my job was to navigate, maintain the kitty for police bribes, and do what I could to disguise the visual evidence of our car being a rental.

The latter was brilliantly accomplished by a little cotton gauze spread thin across the Hertz decal on the trunk, affixed by white, filmy medical tape. The effect was white on white and eventually was covered, like the rest of the vehicle, by the rust coloured desert sand. Very quickly, we looked like locals to the casual observer, and when Dan got the hang of tail-gaiting and driving like a madman around narrow mountain roads, the metamorphosis was complete.

After four days in the desert (which is another story), Dan and I headed towards Argentina’s central sierras, in which there are many small towns and villages. Just like us, folks from the city get out of town for a long weekend or summer vacation. Some keep summer homes in these valleys cooled by rivers and large lakes against a craggy mountain horizon.

We spent two days at one such place, called Villa General Belgrano, VGB to the residents, one of several towns with large German communities and a taste for traditional Alpine architecture, artisan beer, and dwarfs. Wood signs featuring the likes of Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, or any number of unnamed gregarious gnomes, are prolific across town, as are carved and polished wooden benches. Even a free standing map of the hiking trails around town is carved out of locally felled trees, huge tracts of which in these mountains have been harvested over the years and successfully replanted.

In spite of its economic crisis, small town Argentina does not seem stressed about money. Stores close for whatever reason during the day outside of the normal siesta hours of 12 to 5. We’ve encountered only one tout, a small narcoleptic man whose pitch about a restaurant trailed off mid-sentence.

There are also few advertizing billboards around the small towns if you don’t count graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls. At least the advertisements are not where you expect them. On one of several blind switchbacks crossing the Sierra de Achala, Dan’s eyes were dangerously drawn to an invitation to taste one of Cordoba’s finest cookies.

A day later, strolling through a chocolate shop, we were able to follow through on the invitation. Seeing Dan salivate in front of a display case, the clerk offered him a free taste of alfajores infused with dulce de leche, an oozing, caramel like cream as rich and satisfying as its name suggests. She wouldn’t take any money.

It is recommended that we spend an afternoon in Cumbrecita, a nearby Swiss styled town pasted to the side of a mountain in which cars aren’t allowed and the streets remain unpaved or cobblestoned. It’s a dusty, forty-five minute drive from VGB on a road that’s currently being improved, which may be the death of the town’s otherworldly charm in two years when it will be finished.

The suspension of our rental car holds out and we arrive in the well supervised parking lot just outside of town. A dozen young people dressed in red polo shirts direct tourists’ cars into a shady field where they can be left for the day safely, protected from the sun. It was on this kind of field that Dan had run over a thorn two days earlier, puncturing the tire and requiring immediate repair.

No thorns this time, but now, Dan has locked the keys in the car. Perhaps the Argentine, easy-going lifestyle is rubbing off on me, or maybe it’s just too hot to get angry. I’m beginning to think like a local and see the positive behind a negative. The good news is that no one here knows how to break into a car. The bad news is that no one here knows how to break into a car. Yet all ends well. Another solution is found by way of my slightly opened passenger window through which one young man is able to fish out the keys with a long, hooked wire, bringing them home to a crowd of clapping red shirts, two pink faced gringos, a family of Argentine tourists, and four hopeful street dogs.

The village is a postcard from Switzerland, but a little messier, the beaten earth walkways are pocked from horse hoofs, and chipped rocks poking out of the surface challenge the hiker. Skip, an expat American who works as a chef at one of the many restaurants serving apple strudel and other German delights, says that “most people we see working here actually live here.” The place is for real. I reflect on his words as we sit down on a bench opposite two smiling dwarfs, the sun reflecting white off their varnished surface.

We wander the woody trails and emerge in front of a luxurious alpine hotel, La Cumbrecita. We pass private summer homes, gated but discreet, some with lovely vistas, others ensconced in the forest like hobbit houses. We discover by accident the place where most of the young people are spending the afternoon, bathing in a terraced mountain pool. At the restaurant above us, I hear the turn of a cement mixer.

It’s time to get back to VGB but this time, on Skip’s advice, we take another route that’s a little shorter which probably explains its popularity with locals. A dozen cars and pick-up trucks streak by us along the once green winding route, saddened now by a recent forest fire. We quickly close the car windows to avoid all the dust churned up by the passing cars. The usual Argentine √©lan disappears behind a wheel. Although I’ve not seen anger on the road like I have in Toronto, I have observed bad driving. In a charitable moment, I chalk it up to fear. An Argentine feels most comfortable in wide open spaces. On confining mountain roads, their instinct must be simply to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

We’re off to Buenos Aires tonight on a 13-hour direct bus, executive class, which gives us fully reclining seats. It’s not our favourite mode of travel, but it’s cheap and we save a night’s hotel cost. Ciao. C. Moisse

To the Moon -- Argentinean Style December 14, 2008

It’s not easy getting to the Moon. But six hours north of Mendoza in a remote area is an incredible world, part Grand Canyon part spectacular lunar landscape. Giant red sandstone cliffs contrast dramatically with stark white and grey dunes, which give the park its name, “Valle de la Luna” or Moon Valley.

You can get there by bus, but the schedules are complicated and the route indirect, requiring a 3 a.m. departure to get back from this isolated pueblo in the desert. So we chose to drive. But it was a rough ride from Mendoza, across narrow windswept highways surrounded by salt flats and dusty gorse. Winds from the Pacific cut across the Andes and then slam into the Cordillera mountains sandblasting them and carrying the resulting sand onto the plains. Does anyone remember Death Valley Days?

The blistering hot, dry winds called Zondas can reach high speeds and create desert-like conditions. And much like France’s Mistral they tax people’s nerves.

As we drove along, mini sand tornadoes created tall spirals along the highway, whipping up sand and buffeting the car. Locals call them “Devils”.

Just to make things even more interesting, every few kilometres at the side of the road we spotted shrines to “Difunta Correa”, the unofficial saint of travellers. Travellers hoping for a safe journey leave bottles of mineral water as offerings at makeshift shrines, creating a kind of plastic bottle sculpture.

The legend is that a widow had tried to walk through the desert with her infant son, but died of thirst. Her son, however, was found still alive sucking from her breast. Thereafter, drivers reported miraculous survivals in car crashes. Fortunately, we made sure we had lots of water in the car before we left.

Road signs all over of Argentina warn not of deer or moose, but cows. This northwest part of Argentina, however, is even more dangerous, with wild dogs, goats, horses, mules and the occasional Guanaco, a camel-like animal, wandering along the highway. We decided not to risk driving at night.

Further along, we started to see signs warning of “Sueltos” and “Badenes”. Our dictionary didn’t list the last one, but we soon discovered they were referring to very nasty dips in the road where water rushes down from the mountains causing flash floods several meters deep. In fact, poles with a measurement in meters on the side of the road indicated how high the water was so you knew whether to risk crossing or not.

If you’ve ever driven too fast over the bumps in a drive-in, you’ll have a tiny sense of what it’s like to hit one of these “Badenes” at 100 kph. And braking as you’re going into one is even worse. Not good for the front end at all.

Eventually we became good at spotting them and slowing down, but occasionally they would appear without warning and sometimes there would be five or six in a row. Carolann started to treat them like a roller-coaster ride and pasted on a nervous smile. I kept worrying about getting rear ended whenever I braked suddenly. Fortunately, there was very little traffic on the road for the whole trip.

(Note the pale patch of sand in the middle of the photo above. This is sand that has been blasted off the Cordilleras and dumped on the side of this mountain range.)

The road skirted alongside the mountains for most of the way in a boring straight line. It was only for the last part that it turned to gravel and things became more exciting as the road started to wind through the cacti covered hills.

And then suddenly we were in the tiny pueblo of San Agustin de Valle Fertil, our launching point for the two parks with the moon and Martian landscapes, Parque Ischiqualasto and Parque Talampaya, 100 and 200 km further north, nestled between two mountain ranges the Sierra Los Rastros and the Cerros Colorados.

We checked out several of the recommended “hotels” before finally moving on to the “best place to stay” the Hosteria Valle Fertil. Perched on top of the only hill in town, it overlooked a blue reservoir, the only water for miles around. The rooms were cramped and dark and we quickly realized that we would be paying a premium (about 200 pesos or $80) for a view of the reservoir that we wouldn’t even see at night. And the place was empty in low season.

From the top of the hill, however, we spotted a tiny patch of bright blue, a swimming pool, and we asked the hotel maid what it was. It turned out that the hotel had “cabanas” at the foot of the hill and I was able to negotiate the same price for a large two-bedroom cabin with a kitchen, living room, carport to shade the car, and our own parilla or Argentinean BBQ. And it was right beside the best swimming pool in the desert.

The only downside was that we didn’t know how to make a parilla even though we had seen several on our trip already. So I invited the two maintenance guys from the cabins to join us for our first cookout. We offered to buy the wood, the meat and the wine, if they would start the fire and cook the beef.

That afternoon we bought some firewood, ribs, chorizos and beef and a couple of bottles of wine. We also invited two French backpackers we had met earlier in the day and they brought wine and salad fixings.

Everything worked out great and the six of us chatted until midnight when the night watchman joined us and started telling us local tales. The three workers told us that they rarely got to eat meat because of the cost. It was a very special evening for all of us.

Next it’s off to tour the Valley of the Moon.

Dan Cooper

Valle Fertil and Valley of the Moon Tour, December 17

As we sat down at the little restaurant on the town square, the sky over Valle Fertil suddenly turned black. Dark, ominous clouds blotted out the stars over the desert. This did not bode well for our trek into the Valley of the Moon the next morning at 7 a.m.

We ordered BBQ goat and a Quilmes beer like the locals. Everybody here drinks beer, and not the piss ant little bottles we order at home, no these are big boy 1 litre bottles. The beer was cold and refreshing in the heat of the night, although we struggled to finish the whole bottle.

We sat outside on the broken sidewalk because it was slightly cooler, but ready to dash into the hot restaurant if the skies opened. In front of us, at the unlit intersection, motorbikes played chicken with ancient Deux Chevaux Citroens and farm trucks -- Frogger in the dark!

I still haven’t figured out who has the right of way in Argentina. It’s not as simple as in China where the biggest truck or bus wins. There are no lights or stop signs, but there is an order to the chaos as the bikes weave in and out while the cars slow down slightly and then dash through the intersection. In four weeks we've only seen maybe three accidents.

After dinner, we hurriedly walked home in the dark over the broken sidewalks, taking extra care not to fall into one of the water-filled irrigation canals, similar to those in Mendoza, but cruder. Lightning lit up the sky and large rumbles of thunder bounced off the two mountain ranges on either side of town.

But this is a desert, we thought, everything will be fine in the morning.

The last time we tried trekking in the desert was in the Australian Outback. I remember the plane from Sydney landing in a torrential downpour and the Aussie sitting next to me saying, “Not to worry, Mate, it’s all sand out there. It’ll dry up in a coupla’ hours.”

Well he was dead wrong. The “sand” turned into an oily, slippery mud and even the large, 4-wheel drive jeep was unable to get over some of the slick roads. Our trek was cut short, but not until after we had spent a cold night outdoors in swags with the dingoes howling in the background. By morning my feet were soaked where the swag stuck out beyond the overhanging tarp. So much for deserts being dry.

But in Valle Fertil the tour van picked us up at exactly 7 a.m. for the 100 km drive to the Valley of the Moon. There were 11 of us, some Spanish women, a couple from France, and a few Brits (or UKers as they prefer to be called now). They were all young backpackers and staying at youth hostels in town. Fortunately the van picked us Old Farts up first from our two-bedroom cabin with swimming pool. Yea, I know, it's not our style, but even we deserve a bit of luxury now and then.

We had chosen to do both the Ischigualasto and Talampaya Parks in one day because of the amount of driving involved and our tight schedule. The guide books recommend doing Ischigualasto in the morning and Talampaya in the afternoon to take advantage of the way the sun lights up the canyon walls at different times of the day.

I sat in the front and most of my colleagues dozed off in the back because of the early morning start. The driver Marcelo wore dark wraparound sunglasses and I thought for sure he was driving in his sleep because he just stared straight ahead. Occasionally he would refill his drinking gourd with powdered Mate from a pouch with one hand and hot water from a flask he opened with the other hand -- while driving. He slurped it up with a metal straw, but never said a word.

Finally when he started weaving down the road and driving on the wrong side, I decided it was time to ask him a few questions about life in small town Argentina. This woke him up and we talked about the mountains and how he never drove at night because of the goats, horses, wild mules and Guanacos roaming the desert.

Oddly the road was all straight lines again, but never straight across where it could have gone. I asked why and Marcelo said that it was only 36 km as the crow flies to the park, but almost 100 by road. He explained that they had tried to protect the fragile desert environment and that the engineers had also tried to find the most stable ground through the loose desert sand.

As he sped through the deep roller-coaster Badenes, he told me these dry river bed channels can fill up with three meters of water during spring run off and sometimes you could get trapped between two sections and have to wait till the flooding ended. “So what about the rain last night?” I asked. “Don’t worry, that was up in the mountains,” he calmly replied. Well, yeah, I thought, isn’t that where the runoff comes from!

When we finally arrived at Ischigualasto Park, shaken not stirred, a heated debate broke out between the Spanish tourists and the Argentinean park staff. Apparently, it had rained heavily in the park overnight and, sure enough, some of the roads were impassable.

We were given three options: do only part of the tour now, go hiking up one of the nearby mountains and hope the sun dried the trails out by the afternoon, or continue on to the Talampaya Park, where it had not rained, and return in the afternoon to see if the trails were dry here.

The debate was like a session of the UN, switching back and forth between Spanish, English and French and took the better part of 45 minutes while I was watching the best morning light for photos slowly fade away.

It was finally resolved that most of the group would do the hike and Carolann and I and the French couple would continue on to Talampaya, which the others would now miss completely even though they had paid for it. Boy, did they make the wrong choice!

We left for the 45-minute, 90-km drive north to Talampaya with plans to return in two or three hours to meet up with the rest of the group after their hike in the hot desert. A further wait ensued once at the park as we had to wait for enough people to make up a full tour group in the park’s van.

In the end it was very much worth the wait. The park was spectacular.

Talampaya Park is like the Grand Canyon with 200-metre high red sandstone walls, but you drive through the bottom on a wide, dry river bed. The walls are soft and look like they have been sculpted into smooth flowing shapes like sponge cake or sometimes jagged spires like Goya’s cathedral in Barcelona or a Gothic church.

In the background are the high plateaus from Hollywood westerns and a little further off you can see the towering snow capped peak of the Sierra de Famatina.

Standing at the foot of these giant cliffs and watching Condors glide overhead is truly humbling. Even our large van is dwarfed by these impressive, soaring walls.

At one site, a towering chimney, a curved groove cut into the rock face by wind and water, looms overhead. Our guide collected us together in the centre of this pipe and had us shout the names of our countries which caused echoes to reverberate off the walls and down the canyons. Canada generated the most echoes, at four.

At another site, three rock towers were said to resemble the Three Kings, but honestly some of these require a fair bit of imagination to spot.

Slightly easier to identify, however, are rock paintings made by the local Cienga and Aguada natives who lived here over a thousand years ago and probably saw this area in the same way the Aborigines do Uluru in Australia. In fact, the colours and shapes look very much like Rainbow Canyon in that country.

Several hours later we arrived back at Ischigualasto to rejoin our hiking colleagues, tired, thirsty and hungry after their trek up the mountain. They were pretty disappointed to have missed Talampaya.

After a short break for tea, it was determined that the paths had dried out enough and we set off in the van for the tour of Ischigualasto and the Valley of the Moon.

This park, wedged between the Sierra Los Rastros and the Cerros Colorados mountain ranges, was even more varied in its terrain and colours. It is also a famous repository of dinosaur remains.

But it is the weird, alien-shaped formations that really draw the tourists – although very few actually venture this far. White volcanic ash, pale clay or ghostly limestone rocks shaped like a submarine or “El Gusano” (the worm) stand out starkly against a backdrop of red sandstone cliffs in the distance.

Other towers of rocks look very similar to the landscapes of Cappadocia, but on a much smaller scale. Another cluster is called “El Hongo” or Mushroom.

The Valley of the Moon holds other-worldly greyish dunes that resemble a moonscape or, for me, my home town of Sudbury.

One bizarre plateau held a collection of volcanic orbs that looked like bowling bowls or cannon balls scattered across a sandy plain.

As we exited the park the setting sun lit up the surrounding coloured mountains, but we were all too exhausted to get out of the van and admire them. Only the sighting of a small group of Guanacos dashing across the rocky desert raised our energy level. It was a fitting end to an exciting day.

Dan Cooper

Tigre River Delta, December 23, 2008

Once you’ve seen the major sites in Buenos Aires, the oppressive heat, noise and pollution of the big city can start to get to you. If so, it might be time to head out into the country for some fresh air and relaxation.

The Tigre Delta on the Parana River is the ideal place. Just 20 km and a one-hour slow train ride away, this idyllic network of rivers and jungle is the exact opposite of Buenos Aires’ hustle and bustle. The delta’s maze of water channels and lush islands provides a tranquil, clean and cool oasis of calm far from the Tango nightclubs and racing black and yellow taxis.

In fact, there are no cars in the Delta, all transportation is by boat. Close to 4,000 people inhabit the first section of the Delta, made up of traditional houses on stilts and summer residences for wealthy residents of Buenos Aires, called Portenos. Gas stations, schools and hospitals are accessible only by boat. Children are picked up for school in long launches and residents are provided medical and dental services on a floating hospital.

A little further on, the Delta opens up into the wide Rio Parana and just beyond this the jungle closes in. It feels like you’re in the Amazon surrounded by sweet-smelling subtropical flowering trees and water hyacinths. Sadly, what you won’t likely see here are animals and snakes as you would in the Amazon. At one time, Jaguars – which gave the Delta its name Tigre – roamed freely here, but they’re long gone, as are most of the red deer and wild Capybara (a large rodent the size of a hog).

Many companies can provide boat tours of the Delta, but at the Tigre train station we met up with Fernando and Laura, owners of Safari Delta, at their small kiosk on the platform. This young couple organizes private small group or individual tours in a Zodiac, which allows them to go into smaller tributaries where the bigger boats can’t go.

Three tours of varying lengths are available: a short visit of the populated part of the Delta for 1.5 to 2 hours, a medium tour of the latter, plus part of the wild jungle north of the Parana River for 3 to 4 hours, or these two plus a ride out into the wide mouth of the Delta where you can see the Buenos Aires skyline in the distance. But the tours are actually longer and you can spend almost as much time as you want, especially if you stop for lunch at the owners’ cabin in the Delta.

After a short discussion of the options, we decided to take the medium length ride to see the wilder part of the jungle. In all, we spent close to six hours touring the many streams and tributaries, marvelling at how our guide Guilli managed to find his way through the confusing labyrinth of rivers and islands.

At first, the Delta reminded us of Toronto’s Islands dotted with quaint summer homes, blue flowering Hydrangeas and graceful weeping willows. But the scale (14,000 sq km) and the presence of grocery boats, restaurants and summer resorts quickly changed our minds. And for the more active, opportunities abound for kayaking and wake-boarding.

It was only on the quiet, side tributaries or north of the Rio Parana in the protected Unesco biosphere reserve that we really started to unwind and relax. The air smelled so pure and the lush green jungle was so soothing that we soon forgot about the traffic and chaos of Buenos Aires.

At one point, Guilli suddenly cut the engine and let us drift so that we could fully appreciate the peacefulness of the isolated jungle, only the sound of birds breaking the silence. Doffing his shirt, he slipped over the side of the Zodiac and towed it through the water to extend our commune with nature.

When we finally stopped for lunch at Fernando’s cabin on a secluded stream, we were greeted by the family’s pet “Otter” that rolled over on its back to have its belly stroked just like a dog. The “Otter” was actually a Nutria or river rat, similar to our Muskrat, but actually a distinct species prized for its fur. They weren’t about to skin Lulu, however, she was now part of the family.

Our home-cooked lunch included a delicious bife de chorizo (sirloin steak), baked sweet potato, salad, a nice bottle of Argentinean Malbec wine, and for dessert, “panqueque con dulce de leche”, a pancake with sweet caramel made from milk and a favourite of Argentines everywhere.

The highlight of the tour, however, had to be the side trip out to the mouth of the Delta where the Rio Parana and the Rio de la Plata meet and spill out towards the distant ocean.

As we left the narrow jungle streams and slipped into the wider river, the sides were lined with sailboats and large cabin cruisers, the floating retreat of some of the wealthy Portenos. Guilli told us that on a weekend there would be a hundred times that many clogging the river. We followed the channel markers into the middle of the river, dodging some of the larger boats hauling lumber out of the jungle, and then stopped just to the side of the main channel.

Guilli cut the engine again and invited us to join him in the water. We thought he meant to take another swim, but when he jumped overboard he was standing in six inches of water. It was as if he were walking on water. We quickly joined him and wiggled our toes in the smooth, sandy bottom in lukewarm water. Two feet on the other side was a 50-foot drop-off for the dredged boat channel.

In fact, Guilli explained that we could walk from here all the way to Uruguay, even though the mouth of the Delta constitutes the widest river in the world. Every year, silt from the upper reaches of the rivers in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay washes down and is deposited in the Delta, creating new islands and sand bars. Only constant dredging keeps the channels open. It is estimated that by the year 2200, the sand will reach Buenos Aires.

In the distance, we could see the skyline of Buenos Aires. Even closer, the sky was dotted with the brightly coloured sails of 50 or more parasailers and surfboarders from marinas in San Isidro and Tigre. We basked in the sun for a while, but this was the end of our tour and we reluctantly climbed back on board the Zodiac for the return trip to Tigre and the train back to the chaos of Buenos Aires.

To get to Tigre Delta, hop on the train that departs regularly from Retiro Station in downtown Buenos Aires. The cost is only 1.1 pesos (roughly .39) for the one-hour ride through Buenos Aires’s northern suburbs ending at the small town of Tigre. A second train called the coastal ride (Tren de la Costa) supposedly provides a more scenic tour, but we found you only get to see the coast for about three minutes. You also have the inconvenience of changing trains part way and at more than ten times the price it just isn’t worth it.