Week 57 – Cordoba, Salta & San Pedro de Atacama

When I was a child I never used to eat steak – I was a sausage and mashed potato kid. Realistically I was probably just too lazy to chew my food properly. All of that changed though when I was 13 years old on a fishing trip up to Cape York with Dad and my uncle Keith. We flew up in a four seater Piper Cherokee piloted by my uncle with several stops on the way. One of the stops was in a town called Charleville and we stayed in a motel called Cattle Camp. As you can guess by the name this place was all about steak… no sausages on the menu there. Under the guidance of my father it was time for this boy to start his journey into manhood. Dad ordered me a T-bone with pepper sauce with all the trimmings. The steak was the biggest thing I had ever seen with the slab of cow covering the whole plate – they even piled the sides on top because there was no space. The meat was so tasty and tender I devoured the whole thing and a new romance was born. It’s funny how memories like that can hold a dear place in your heart.

Why am I telling you all of this??? Well one thing we’ve found on this trip is that good steak isn’t widely available around the world and when it is, it’s too expensive for us. But in Argentina steak is everywhere and they really know how to cook it. I’ve had more steak in the last two weeks than in the 12 months previous and I’m loving it. We’ve tried loads of different cuts and different cooking styles. The only thing missing is the pepper sauce and a big pile of mashed potato. I’m looking forward to the classic $10 steak lunch back in Sydney, although I’m guessing it’s probably a $15 special now.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system I should outline what we’ve been up to. After our week in Buenos Aires we boarded a bus to Cordoba which took about 10 hours. I was a little tentative about these long bus journeys but the coaches are very comfortable and far more spacious than planes. Actually it’s funny that their bus terminals are like little airports but they’re close to town centre and you don’t have to be there 2 hours early. Oh and Anna is far more relaxed in the bus terminal versus an airport.

Map to San Pedro de Atacama
Our travels this week

Cordoba has their historic centro but it has grown into a university town. We stayed in the centre of town and checked out all the typical touristy things but I feel like the real Cordoba is hiding out in the suburbs near the seven universities. Cordoba is known for its nightlife but we didn’t see any of that. I didn’t exactly want to go looking for it anyway, I don’t want to be the 32 year old trying to fit in with the university kids. It’s already bad enough that I’m the tallest person in the room… I don’t need to be the oldest as well.

As one would expect, there were several grand churches to visit all located near the central town plaza. The Cathedral was particularly impressive with the frescos and large altar. The shopping streets were packed on Saturday and I was quite surprised with how many electronics stores there were selling TVs etc. It’s obviously a boom market here. We returned on Sunday to find the whole place was a ghost town. Everything is shut on Sunday so we roamed around for a while and visited some museums. The Palacio Ferreyra fine arts gallery was good, especially because it was housed in a grand mansion from 1912. We were booked onto a night bus that evening but we were struggling to find things to do. Luckily we found a cinema that had English movies with only Spanish subtitles so we saw Trainspotting 2 which we both enjoyed.

We boarded the bus at 8.30pm for the 11 hour journey to Salta but this time we paid a little extra to have the “bed” class seating. I wouldn’t quite call it a bed, but the seats were wider and reclined right back which enabled us to sleep. Earplugs and eyemasks were essential though. We can’t complain because traveling at night meant that we didn’t have to pay for accommodation. When we arrived in Salta we tried to buy tickets for our next journey to San Pedro de Atacama which was leaving Tuesday night. The bus had seats available but the agent wouldn’t sell us tickets. He just said “Andesmar is bad service, you don’t take this bus”. We were confused because he was the Andesmar agent, they’re the only tickets he sold. He ended up pointing us to another company which made the trip but that went Thursday morning. It meant we had to add two extra nights but at least we had tickets. We ended up googling the bus service and it appears that the bus is sometimes cancelled without notice and we could’ve been left at the Chilean border since immigration is closed overnight.

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Night bus to Salta, Argentina

It turned into a blessing in disguise really because Anna started to come down with a cold so having two extra nights allowed her to rest and recover quicker. We went up the Teleferico which gave nice views across Salta and then explored the downtown area. More churches and plazas but they did have a very unique museum which focused on the high altitude Incan rituals, in particular the sacrificing of children to the gods. They have three children that were mummified at the top of Mount Llullaillaco and were dated as being over 500 years old. They only display one at a time and the one we saw was a six year old that had been struck by lightning at some stage. It was amazing how well her body was preserved by the cold and high altitude.

With the extra time in Salta we decided to book onto a day tour of Humahuaca and the surrounding towns in the valley. It was a full day starting at 6.45am and returning at 9pm but we’re glad that we ventured out to see some of the smaller towns. We were very surprised when our guide collected us from the hotel and spoke perfect english but it turned out that he was Canadian who married an Argentinian woman. At one of the stops we had a discussion about Canada and how we long for all the great things that Canada offers like Tim Horton’s and hockey games. He said he wants to move back to Canada but is having difficulty convincing the wife.

The Humahuaca district is a UNESCO world heritage site for its historical and geographical significance. Hundreds of battles were fought in the area against the Spanish in Argentina’s push for independence. For this reason the national monument for independence is located here. We visited a ceramic factory with demonstrations and went to some handicraft markets but one of the most interesting parts was the visit to Inglesia San Francisco de Paula in Uquia. This church dates back to the early 1600s and it has artworks of guardian angels inside that were painted by local artists at that time. The funny part about it is that these artists were taught how to paint by the Spanish but they hadn’t seen examples of religious artworks, so they painted what they knew. The end result were a series of guardian angels painted with pink Flamingo wings, wearing Spanish guard clothing and holding rifles.

On Thursday morning we had another early start to make our 7am bus to San Pedro de Atacama. Our crossing into Chile was our first land border experience in South America and it’s a very slow process. Especially when a whole busload of passengers need to be processed at once. We had to take all of our hand luggage with us and line up for immigration. After being stamped out of Argentina we then lined up to get stamped in to Chile. Then we had to collect our luggage to have it scanned by customs. All up it was about a 1.5 hour process but this seemed to be the usual. I kept myself busy by looking at all the motorbikes that were loaded up with gear as the riders were getting their stamps. I’m a little bit jealous that they’re doing the trip on bikes but the road conditions aren’t that great here so the mountain passes would require caution.

San Pedro de Atacama is a bizarre little town. The main thing here is tourism but there aren’t really any hotels, just loads of hostels scattered everywhere. Every building is single storey and since it’s in the middle of the desert it feels like a mining town. Everything here is quite expensive but I guess that’s because it’s a remote place in the mountains and there are tourists that can be fleeced. When you walk into town there’s no real historical value apart from the church which dates back to the 1500s. The streets are lined with travel agents and droves of tourists wall door to door looking for the best day trips. This place is a hub for the surrounding geological attractions like geysers, mars style landscapes and salt flats. A popular backpacker route is to book a tour of the Bolivian salt flats from here so that the tour includes the transit across the border. We decided that this would work quite well for us since we want to visit the salt flats on the way to La Paz. After spending a morning visiting about 10 different agents and doing some researching online we booked a 3 day tour that finishes in Uyuni. Fingers crossed it works out ok because there are plenty of bad reviews online about tours where the car breaks down or the drivers are a little wild.

We considered several day tours but the landscape here is quite similar to Nevada and Death Valley so some of the trips didn’t really grab us. The geysers didn’t look as grand as the ones we saw in Yellowstone National Park so we skipped that as well. We decided to do the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) sunset tour which was only $20 per person for a 4.5 hour bus/walking tour. The valley is part of the Atacama desert and it’s known for its moonlike landscape of dunes and rugged mountains. We really enjoyed the tour which included some hiking up to lookout points and crawling through the Salt Caverns which were very tight in places. I managed to get through without bumping my head which is a huge achievement for me! We made our way to the lookout for sunset and watched the colours change slowly as the sun dipped away. It was a lovely experience though dampened a little with the constant buzz of a drone flying overhead.

So now we’re packing our bags and getting ready for our Bolivia tour that starts in the morning. I think this will be quite the adventure.

Adios,

B&A

Fail of the Week
We thought we were so smart looking up all the bus times online and preparing ourselves for all of the legs for the trip, only to find that the agent won’t sell us the ticket. We’ve also noticed that there are a bunch of companies that don’t even put their schedules online. The lesson learned is that it helps to be prepared but waiting until you’re there and going to the counter is the only way to get the facts.

Meal of the Week
One of our favourite things about our time in Europe is Milka chocolate. This week we stumbled across a Milka McFlurry ice cream at McDonald’s. We bought one to share and it was great. That being said, we did have some nice BBQ at Argentine Parilla’s but the Milka McFlurry was the biggest surprise.

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Anna with a Milka McFlurry in Salta, Argentina

Other photos

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