Sunday, December 28, 2008

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!

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