The time we spent in Salta was partly spent in reflection on our travel experience so far. The main outcome was recognising we had been trying to cram too much tourism into our time and weren’t leaving enough space for us to do everything else.
Our provisional itinerary, which called for us to fly from Córdoba down to Tierra Del Fuego and work our way back up through Patagonia by bus, was too ambitious. We had said we wanted to travel slowly to properly enjoy the journey, and this wasn’t it.
It was simultaneously a simple and a difficult decision to make. We needed to reduce our itinerary and Patagonia was both an intense and expensive side-trip. Conversely, we both really wanted to see the region. In the end though, we have parked the southern half of Argentina in the slot marked, “A Future Trip,” and moved on.
We did decide to visit Córdoba for a few days, as originally planned, though; it’s the country’s second city and we would inevitably pass through it on our way to Chile from Salta. However, we chose to spend the bulk of our remaining Argentinian time in Mendoza, as that seemed to have the more interesting variety of things to do and see.
After our previous experiences, I was extra careful with the bus booking and we had a comfortable ride south. Our AirBnB host was an American guy from Ohio, so we chatted a bit about US and expat things. The apartment was a block from Córdoba’s central square, meaning an easy time getting around.
The first thing we did was book on a walking tour around the centre of town. Córdoba was the heart of Jesuit activity in the Spanish colonies before the king ejected the order in 1767. They left their impression on the city, most visibly in the form of the Jesuit School and University, now nationalised.
While the university and its library were all very interesting, the highlight of the day was actually lunch after the tour. Our guide had directed us towards Alfonsina, a local restaurant that specialised in local delicacies and also served mate (pronounced mah-tay.) Now, you see people drinking mate throughout South America and before we left the UK, several people had said we should try it but, after almost eight weeks in Uruguay and Argentina, we still had not.
It seems to be an awfully inconvenient beverage though. People carry round big leather cases, like a high-power-binoculars case, which will contain a thermos flask of hot water alongside a jar of herb and a rounded cup with a metal straw; all so that they can have a mate on the go. You fill the cup with the herb, which is similar to tea leaves, top it up with the hot water, leave to stew for a few minutes and then suck the infusion through the straw. You keep topping it up with hot water (because you can’t get that much into the cup with all that herb in there!) and drinking until you’ve had enough.
A friendly local demonstrated for us in the restaurant after the smirking waiter had delivered the paraphernalia and left us to it. It may be that he just happened to like his mate strong, but I found the taste to be too powerful to enjoy and very quickly gave up on it. I suspect I may enjoy a weaker brew more but, frankly, it seems just too time-consuming for me to want to acquire the taste for it!
The other local specialities we ordered turned out to be simpler and more enjoyable. We lunched on Humita, a surprisingly tasty corn mush, topped with cheese, and Locro, a bean and meat stew.
Also while we were there, it seemed to be a time to remember the desaparecidos of the military junta’s dirty war. On the second morning, the square in front of the cathedral was filled with a variety of abandoned red boots and shoes. While we were on the city tour, the central square, Plaza San Martín was decked with bunting, where each flag was the photograph of someone who had disappeared. Hundreds of men and women in the prime of their lives, gone. It was a sobering reminder of what governments can do to their own people.
The next day we spent a pleasant few hours wandering through the extensive Parque Sarmiento to the southeast of the city centre. The have a lovely public pool, a skateboard park, outdoor theatre, boating lake and lots of green space to explore. We lunched out of one of the streetfood vendors nearby, finding a shady spot on the Enchanted Isle (in the middle of an artificial lake,) to eat and listen to the latest Revolutions Podcast about the Latin American wars of independence.
Being back in a large city, we’ve taken up our game of Brand Bingo again, here spotting McDonalds and, for the first time, a big Walmart. We also found the Córdoba CrossFit Box – a brand which lately seems to be rivalling the fast-food chains for global penetration.
We looked for excursions to take out of the city but, because of our short stay, there was only one available that we could make, so we spent half a day visiting the resort town of Villa Carlos Paz, on the shore of a reservoir to the west of the city. We again managed to choose an overcast day for the trip, which was a shame as the town seems to deliberately evoke the Swiss alps with its hillside chalets overlooking the lake – and the giant cuckoo clock in the centre of town(!?) The grey skies rather limited our enjoyment of the vista from the viewpoint at the top of the town, but it was nice to get out of the city for a bit.
On our final evening, we wandered through Nuevo Córdoba, south of the centre, and found ourselves immersed in what looked like the pre-party of a high-school graduation ball around the Paseo del Buen Pastor (a cultural centre/public space.) Lots of formally dressed young couples having fun and getting portraits taken against the coloured fountains. Our eye was also caught by the adjacent Church of the Sacred Heart, whose façade was made up of every colour of stone you could imagine.
At a nearby Parrilla, we enjoyed a final mixed-grill for dinner, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec, then headed home through the evening streets, only to find late night tango taking place in Plaza San Martín. South America does come alive in the evenings!