That night I had another bout of fever and felt a wave of muscle pain all over my body followed by exhaustion. We had to wake up early in order to get to the bus station to hop on our 26 hour bus ride from hell. The bus was initially empty but as we stopped at more and more cities along the way it filled up to capacity. We stopped in Posadas, a city which borders Paraguay and could see its grungy filth in the distance across the river. Our bus stopped twice so cops could bring cocaine and drug sniffing canines onto the bus, oya! I thought ¨this is the real deal.¨ By 9pm we were fed our first meal (we got on the bus at 10:30am!) It consisted of a cookie and a soggy cheese and ham sandwich. The cookie I ate, the soggy mess I didn´t. The semi cama is basically a crammed Greyhound bus back at home which you have to actually sleep on for a wild duration of time. I ended up having another wave of fever and woke up with my shirt stuck to my body like a wet nap. This is not fun, at all.
We arrived in Tumuco where we had to get off the bus at 8am and transfer to another bus which left 25 minutes later. My muscles hurt all over and I was exhausted and malnourished. To add to my bad luck I leaned against wet paint and poured a jug of orange juice on my crotch. From Tumuco our journey was only a short five hours, how heavenly. We quickly checked into our hostel and I called my travel health insurance company. We cabbed it to the private health clinic and saw a doctor within 20 minutes (after having to talk to an abrupt, snake like receptionist). I was told I have a virus and was given a prescription for my throat and my fever. We got back to the hostel and I was in dire need of a shower. I looked all around the bathrooms and all I could find were toilet stalls, how odd. Then I was told to look up. People here shower in the toilet stalls, I kid you not. I was taken aback a little and I think I made a vulgar face as if I had just seen my naked grandmother. The shower was interesting to say the least. We took a nap (and some meds) and then headed downtown for a much needed meal. We ate at Mama Mia another South American pasta dive. We should really learn our lesson and stop trying to find good Italian food here. I ordered a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise and arrived with triple thick noodles similar to Udon smothered in a watery tomato sauce with chunks of beef steak. I had to laugh, you just have to here. We laughed more at the English menu as lost in translation was rather apparent. How do these two dishes sound? First, Cool food with marinade eggplants. Second, Ravioli stuffed with brains and vegetable.
I woke up the next morning with more crippling pain. Every muscle in my body ached, I felt like Charlton Heston on a bad day. I quickly medicated and sat with Sarah on the sunny roof top patio with our morning croissant and tea. We took a cab to the telefurnicular. We walked into our little gondola (which were much larger and safer than the terrifying variety in Santiago) and climbed up the mountain. Corny Spanish guitar music played on an overhead speaker which was sort of spectacular. I enjoyed the following announcement on the speaker system, ¨in case of mechanical failure get on your knees.¨ I don´t know how that would help me hundreds of meters above jagged rock…perhaps they are implying we should pray.
Not until you reach the top of the mountain do you really realize how the city of Salta is surrounded by a huge mountain range. It was our second beautifully hot and sunny day of summer and I actually took my sweater off to tan my white chalky arms. It has been interesting to see how tourists from the USA adapt to South Americans themselves. You can tell when they are just starting their trip when they introduce themselves as Americans. In South America everyone considers themselves Americans as they are members of South America. It is their way of distinguishing themselves from the European nations in which they fought for independence. A well seasoned tourist from the States will never, ever say they are American here as they will just get the same reply, ¨I am an American too!¨ We walked around the park which was a beautiful little stroll several hundred feet above sea level. Gardens abound with white lily’s and little potted plants sitting inside huge ceramic urns. A several tiered waterfall criss crosses itself through these gardens until you arrive at the best vantage point over the city. Directly overlooking the city is a huge statue of Christ surrounded by Palm trees. An odd sight as it looks like Christ is actually standing on the tops of trees. We ate at a restaurant terrace in the clouds overlooking the city bellow with the mountain tops under our noses. I had a veal escalope, empanadas de pollo and a strawberry banana shake.
We took the funicular back down to the city and walked to a public park featuring a huge man made lake. You can rent paddle boats and row boats and putter around on the water at your hearts content while splashing gaggles of enormous and rather terrifying ducks. The lake was well constructed with little islands full of palm trees. We walked to a supermarket to pick up another water bottle as the weather was sweltering. In the meat section we almost vomited. For the first time in my life I saw every organ of the cow put out on the auction block. Bags of cow lung, little trays full of cow eye balls, cow hearts and intestines, how vulgar. We stared at these horrific specimens while ¨The Song of Silence¨ by The Beatles played over the supermarket stereo system.
In the evening we took a cab to the cities megaplex. Our taxi scooted past a park which was dimly lit at night but I could still make out the silhouettes of young lovers making out on park benches, a national (or dare I say, continental) past time. We watched the serial killer film Zodiac which started at 10:30pm and ended just after 1am. I still can´t believe I was at a huge megaplex theater and only paid three dollars to see a new release. I still love this currency. The film was way longer than we expected but was entertaining and rather scary at certain parts. We left the theater and had a bit of an episodic moment. We hailed a cab and got in like any other. Sarah showed the cabby our map and where we needed to go. She pointed at the intersection and he pretended not to know where it was. He then jumped out of the car, with the map, down the road. Sarah got really paranoid about the whole situation. We had heard several stories of gringos getting in cabs, the cabby leaves quickly to ask for directions and is really telling friends ¨I´m about to rob these white idiots¨ and then the friends end up playing some role in the robbery of your personal belongings. The man was walking back to the cab and Sarah just jumped right out of the car and told him that we didn’t feel like taking a cab anymore. She was entirely paranoid after watching a three hour film about a psycho killer.
The following day we walked down the main street to plaza Julio 9. Salta is known as a city of many Church’s. There are four elaborate and ornate baroque cathedrals near the city center. They are all coloured with magnificent combinations. One of them is bright pink, white and yellow. Another is red, blue and green. They all have massive Corinthian columns and feature huge domes over the altar. We ate lunch at a spot called La Selecta inside a swanky shopping mall. We ate a simple pizza and stared at all of the people dressed in business attire coming for their lunch break. The plaza is lined with big beautiful orange trees and features a huge bronze equestrian statue in the center surrounded by water fountains.
We arrived at the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, a world famous museum and Salta´s number one attraction. In March 1999 one of the most important discoveries in the field of High Altitude Archeology took place at the peak of Llullaillaco volcano, 6700 meters above sea level. The finding of three children belonging to the Inca Civilization together with over one hundred different artifacts. The site was an incredible find because it was a sanctuary for the ritual known as Capacocha where gifts were presented to the gods. The museum introduces you to a video of the research team which hiked and discovered the amazing find. The various rooms describe the importance of the ceremony and display the many artifacts found with the mummies. The best part of course, is staring at a perfectly intact 1000 year old mummy. It was horribly creepy at first. The child was crouched down as though watching television for a prolonged period of time. She looked sort of like a rat that was screaming. Her hair was braided and in tact, her skin clung to her skull like sandpaper. Her arms were gaunt and looked the texture of beef jerky.
A few passages I wrote down from the museum: The Marriage of the Children ritual was performed during the Capacocha ceremony (Royal Obligation) in order to strengthen the social ties of each diverse and vast territory. The daughter of a local ruler was married to the son of another local ruler thus creating a bond between each community. Amongst the treasures found with the mummies gold symbolized the sun, silver the moon and shell that of rain and fertility. The Royal Obligation occurred during the month of the harvest. The Ceremony involved mountains, islands and other sacred sites located throughout the Tawantinsayu. The purpose was to merge ancestry with the sacred space. One or more children were sent to Cuzco Peru (this is where Machu Pichu is accessed) from each of four cardinal points of the Incan Empire. The children were chosen based on their beauty and physical perfection (perfection indicating they also had to be the children of rulers and kings). The Inca’s did not believe the children died during the sacrifice (even though they were stabbed in the heart and bled to death). They believed they became Incan spirits in the afterlife as a result of the perfect sacrifice. The Inca’s also provided food and beer as well as beautiful dolls and jewelry for the children’s travel into the afterlife. It was a short trip to the museum but very interesting and had us both excited to visit Cuzco soon! As we walked out of the museum we both commented on how funny the uniform for school children is here. They all wear white lab coats. It seems as though we were surrounded by miniature pre med students.
We took a taxi to the plaza again for dinner after resting at the hostel in the late afternoon. When our cabby stopped a boy opened our door and put his hand out for money. I looked back at him as we walked away and saw him running from cab to cab opening doors trying to make some easy money, or not so easy. We walked by the square cathedral again and I was much more impressed in the night dark as the lights of the cathedral made it sort of glow with spiritual awe. We walked around the entire plaza scanning windows for VISA signs as we had no more money left as it was our last night in Argentina. We passed by a sign that made us both laugh ¨Free Beer and Folklore.¨ We both joked about the idea of refusing to enter the establishment as we “don´t submit to free folklore!” We discovered that only one restaurant accepted VISA, it was the most expensive, how perfect! The spot is called Cava de Piedra (stone cave). It is a vaulted stone cave lined on both sides with dining tables. The bar is located at the far end with a beautiful massive oil painting of an aboriginal family. At our last swanky dinner I had a bowl of Sopa de Quinoa (my first Quinoa dish in South America!). A lomo (fillet Mignon) with moral mushroom cream sauce with warmed chunks of cheese and rosemary roasted potatoes. We both shared a brownie with mint ice cream and flambéed fruits marinated in Malbec red wine. With the last bite, we had consumed Argentina. This country is amazing, goodbye.
We spent our last day in Argentina on an excursion south of Salta to the city of Cafayate. Our pick up was at 7am so we had to wake up uncomfortably early and plop ourselves in a bus. I dozed off for the first hour or so but squinted as the sunrise lifted itself over the mountains. We would end up seeing many different sorts of terrain throughout the day and started by weaving through a patchwork of forests and small plots of farmland with pink farm houses. We stopped for a few minutes to look down at a ghost town in the valley bellow. Ghost towns are always sort of eerie and the setting was a beautiful panoramic of rolling mountains and rolling river. As we continued our drive we passed by several dried up rivers with huge boulders. It seems rather odd to drive by areas of land just full of huge rocks when you know they were once surrounded by flowing river water. We spent about two hours driving through the area known as the Coloured Mountains. These huge masses of rock and sand look sort of like a tie-dye t-shirt. We were told the geography of the area has a wild assortment of minerals and the colour differences can be attributed to the oxidation of the various elements. I saw a beautiful yellow and blue mountain with little swirls of pink. We stopped the van at a little touristy area called the Devils Mouth. It is an amazing mountain structure that you can walk into. Hundreds of years of wind in the desert created huge holes within the mountain which you can walk into and explore. Standing in the middle is rather jaw dropping as you are surrounded on both sides by mountain rock and can see the sky directly above like a little pin hole. There is actually a cliff barrier about thirteen feet high that you have to climb up to get over in order to explore the other half of the area. It was fun to watch people trying to get their asses up the slippery flat rock. It was really beautiful once on the other side as there are natural gardens and trees in the middle of this mountain. Strolling through this dark desert cave was rather romantic as there were local aboriginal men and woman playing the banjo and flute as we strolled through this mysterious place. We drove another twenty minutes down the road and stopped at a great lookout. These are the moments when we photographers wished we could capture such a huge panoramic view on our little cameras. There were two very weathered aboriginal men selling hand made ceramics. Between their two stands stood a moaning Llama which you could get your picture with. The man would rattle his pots and pans and point at the donation box if he saw people taking pictures of the Llama without paying. He was a hilarious little dried out desert man.
We arrived in the small touristy town of Cafayete. The town is home to Argentina´s most northern wine region and looks like a desert with vines clinging to the sides of mountains. We first stopped at the Domingo Hermanas Bodegas where we had a tour of their wine making machinery and bottling factory. We were given a tasting of Malbec and Torrentos the two quintessential wines of the country. The wines were the most offensive I have ever tasted. They were sour and compelled me to make a shriveled up nasty face. I think they gave us their worst wines to sample but I don´t think this wine region is known for quality wines as it is in a desert. To find the quality wines in Argentina head to Mendoza.
We were given a few nibbles of farmed goat cheese which is made all around the area. We were given two hours to eat lunch so we walked to the main square of town and searched for VISA signs in the windows of the restaurants as we had zero money left (we were leaving for Bolivia that evening). We discovered that only one restaurant in the entire town accepted VISA so it looked as though our decision had been made for us. We walked into La Carreta de don Olegaro just before a rather horrific desert wind and sandstorm came running through the streets. The restaurant was half full of what seemed like a senior’s tour group. We sat directly across from a father son guitar and whistle band. They played many corny songs throughout the meal. The seniors went crazy clapping after each ballad. They were also fiercely critical with anyone in their group who talked during the performanc. A fat couple actually got up and did a little tango to a huge jovial applause. After one of their songs the whistle man stopped and asked people in the restaurant where they were from. We were in the middle of eating and suddenly the spot light was on us. We chirped Canada and burst out laughing when the entire restaurant exploded into a clapping and cheering frenzy. I gave my notorious Queen Elizabeth regal hand wave which was rather unexpected by the crowd (we were sitting on a terrace above them all so it was rather hilarious). We ate an assortment of regional specialties; Popcorn and beef soup, huminita en chala (boiled corn and fondant cheese in corn husk), tamales and beef empanadas.
We met back up with our tour group and drove to another bodega. This one was much more prestigious and has a firm history in this country as the walls are lined with pictures of the previous owners and operators. We were given a tour past some of the largest oak barrels I have ever seen (they were the size of small houses) We ended up tasting three glasses including an interestingly fruity rose. I realized everything sort of tasted off and rather sour. Then I realized I was sick still which is the worst for olfaction receptors.
We headed back to Salta driving through a picturesque sand dune desert spotted with huge cactus forests. Every so often our van would drive through a sandstorm and I would try and hold my breath in order to avoid breathing in sand particles. We stopped at another interesting geographical oddity. This time we didn´t have to climb over anything which was nice! We walked straight into a huge area about the size of a football field. We were surrounded by a huge bowl of mountain rock. It seemed as though over hundreds of years wind had slowly formed a smooth swirling rock surface which reaches hundreds of feet up into the sky. Really spectacular and great photo opportunities.
Our last stop was at a goat cheese farm. As soon as we got out of the bus the air smelled of fresh goat milk. The little cafe restaurant sells all of their cheeses as well as deserts and savory snacks featuring their fresh fromage. We walked out into the farm and blew kisses to cute little baby goats. Sarah was terrified by these two grey dogs that had the faces of creepy rats. We hopped back into the bus and drove another two hours to Salta. I plugged myself into Bjork’s Homogenic album and dozed off as we passed through the smells of burning wood (farmers were burning the end of their crops). Just before I dozed off after a spectacular final day in Argentina I squinted as the beautiful pink, purple and red sunset over the mountains.