Cusco and The Sacred Valley

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The historic centre of Cusco is quite beautiful. The mountain air is crystal-clear and they must have some fairly strict regulations on building modernisation and advertising, as the heart of the old town is a picture postcard of Spanish Colonial architecture. Take away the cars and the road signs and it would be easy to believe you had travelled back in time.

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Ancient Incan stonework at Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun

That said, behind the beautifully preserved façade, there lurks an efficient tourist industry ready to extract as many tourist dollars as possible from visitors to the continent’s most visited attraction; Machu Picchu, just along the Sacred Valley.

Cusco is the traditional starting point for trips to the Incan city, particularly if, as we are, the visitor is planning to reach it by hiking the Inca Trail! From walking the streets, at least a third of the people you see are gringos of one variety or another. Virtually every Peruvian we have encountered has had a good grasp of English and, according to the guide on our tour yesterday, tourism makes up about 65% of the local economy.

We arrived in town on Friday, in plenty of time to get used to the altitude ahead of our trek. Although Machu Picchu itself is below the altitude of Cusco (2,430m, compared to Cusco’s 3,400m) the Inca Trail rises to a height of over 4,200m before descending to the famous ruins.

The Trail is not a technically challenging hike. Just as it was with Kilimanjaro in 2012, I suspect altitude will be the biggest challenge to overcome – and we’ve organised our itinerary to help us with that. That said, neither Brett nor I are as fit as I was back when I climbed Kili. We are also not especially well-equipped for hiking at altitude, where the temperature varies dramatically between the heat of the sun and cold of the clear nights.

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The foundations of the Temple at Saqsaywaman

Arriving here several days before the hike has given us time to take stock of what gear we have, and to think through how we can either work around not having it, or buy or rent it cheaply for the duration. Having sorted through our clothes and toiletries and reviewed all the advice on what to take, we spent this afternoon touring the (many!) outdoor equipment shops around town to pick up warm hats and mittens, torches, wet wipes, etc.

We have a briefing with the tour company tomorrow evening, where we meet the rest of our expedition group. Then we come home, pack our luggage into two sets; what we are taking and what we are leaving stored in Cusco. Then at 5am on Wednesday morning, we rendezvous with the group again to set out on the trail. Excitement, mixed with trepidation!

In the meantime though, we have found time for a little sightseeing…

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The golden altar in the Cathedral of Cusco

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The silver altar for the Virgin Mary

On Saturday afternoon, we took a city tour. Partially on foot around the centre of Cusco and then partially on a bus to visit some of the nearby Incan ruins. We saw a number of spots we will want to revisit in the days following Machu Picchu. I also got quite a profound sense of how the Conquistadors – and the priests they brought with them – destroyed a flourishing and advanced civilisation. The tour of the cathedral was loaded with examples of how elements of the native religion were leveraged to convert the populace to Catholicism; the massive altar piece, entirely in gold, because gold represents the Sun, who is the Father. Similarly, a completely silver altarpiece of almost the same size for the Virgin Mary, because silver represents the moon; the Mother.

Our guide also pointed out differences in how native and European artists depicted their subjects. Andean artists always depict Mary with a wide, triangular dress because the triangle has long been held as the symbol of fertility. It is quite distinct from the slim, hourglass figure in European representations.

On Sunday we took a longer tour along the Sacred Valley to explore more impressive ruins. Luckily we had the same guide both days and we found German to be very knowledgeable and willing to talk in depth about the sites we saw – as well as not overdoing the retail stops! One of the few we retail stops we did make though, was at a co-operative where we saw alpaca wool being cleaned, dyed and spun, with guinea pigs running around underfoot and several adorable llamas penned-up nearby.

On the whole though, I can’t decide what I feel about Cusco. On the one hand, the old town is beautiful. On the other it exists today for the large numbers of tourists who pass through it – and it is quite tiring to be having to decline tours, restaurants, massages, paintings, etc. every few yards as you walk along the street.

I think it is somewhere I would like to visit again, but mainly as a base to spend longer at some of the sites we have visited too briefly on the tours, as well as some of the more out-of-the-way ones we won’t be able to see this time around. I don’t think it’s somewhere I’d want to live.

Ischigualasto & Talampaya

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Ischigualasto and Talampaya are two adjacent natural parks straddling an Argentine regional border. Together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not an easy place to get to though; it’s 160km away from the nearest large town, La Rioja, and 430km away from Mendoza, so quite the road-trip for us. We allowed two days, but it still meant we had a tight schedule, leaving first thing on a Thursday morning and getting back Friday evening.

The first third of the driving was mundane as we headed north from Mendoza towards San Juan. It was only when we turned east, away from San Juan, that the journey began to get interesting. We left the Route Nationale and entered the desert.

Morning in the Valle Fertil

Desert plains

Quite abruptly, you no longer see trees by the roadside. Instead you have wide plains of low, scrub-like vegetation, broken by occasional rocky hills. As you get deeper, you see more of the tall tree-like cacti that always signify deserts in cartoons and western movies. The road tracks dead-straight across the plains.

 

There is evidence of dramatic seasonal movement of water, most obvious in the places where the road would ford a river. Now, in the early summer, there would be a small stream barely wetting the wide concrete dip in the road. However, looking at the dimensions of the dip, and the river channels to either side, they could clearly handle a much larger volume of water.

The land is all quite soft and sandy, so prone to being washed away. In both the excursion from Salta and our later trip into the Andes from Mendoza, we were diverted onto a temporary road because the main route had washed out during the winter. In some cases this involved the shifting of substantial terrain. One can only imagine the volume and power of the water which flows across these landscapes in a storm.

Away from the designated rivers, there were lots of areas where the plain had been eroded into channels. The road would just continue straight on across it though, leading to a rollercoaster-like ride, sometimes quite precipitous. These areas were signed as Zonas de Badenes (loosely translates to “Bumpy Areas”) but which we christened, “Zones of Badness,” as the fun element of it quickly wore off when you were driving at speed.

As well as signs of water erosion, we also encountered a small cyclone. It erupted without warning at the side of the road, whipping up a column of dust and moving across the road in front of us before collapsing again in the field on the other side. I’d never seen a twister before and was quite excited by it!

We arrived at Ischigualasto in the early afternoon and had to race to join up with a tour that had just left. You tour the park in your own vehicle, following a ranger’s van to the designated stops where they talk about the landscape. The park is all about colourful sedimentary layers, exposed by erosion, the whole backed by a dramatic line of tall, red-sandstone cliffs. The area is known colloquially as the Valley of the Moon for good reason. It is almost completely barren and, in places, could pass for a lunar landscape; dry, dusty and grey.

The Painted Valley, Ischigualasto Park

Layer upon colourful layer

"The Mushroom," Ischigualasto

The formation known as the mushroom, against the red cliffs

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Some layers had been turned vertical

Ischigualasto is also an area of special scientific interest, preserving an extensive sequence of Triassic Period fossils (that is the period covering the advent of both mammals and the dinosaurs.) In the park, there is a visitor centre which displays a mock-up of how archaeologists excavate and preserve the fossils, as well as information on the park’s formation. It really is a huge geological mish-mash – but that is the source of the variety of rock formations and coloured layering which makes it such an attraction to non-fossil-hunting visitors.

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The breadth of the views in the park are tremendous

The next morning, we were up before the sun to get from our accommodation in Villa San Agustín to Talampaya for its 8am opening. It was another beautiful drive across the desert plain, the sun just warming the tops of the red sandstone hills on the horizon. We encountered more animal life in the cool of the early morning; chickens by the roadside, horses with foals and a wild llama, browsing on the vegetation.

Desert landscapes, Talampaya

The silence in the desert is profound

We reached the visitor centre as they were beginning to open up and had time to enjoy both the views on this clear sunny morning and the absolute, enveloping peace of the place. It is surrounded by flat desert, the low, red hills on the horizon in one direction and a snow-capped peak in the other. The silence was profound. It was one of those perfect moments. I could have stood there, bathed in that blissful sensation all day.

 

Over the course of the following hour, the facilities opened up, the people camping nearby began to emerge and more visitors arrived. We booked on the morning tour, but still had time for a leisurely breakfast and a while sitting on the deck again, appreciating nature.

At 09:30 we set off in a minibus on a dirt track towards the distant hills, encountering a couple of the local animal inhabitants along the way; first a wild Mara (larger relative of the Guinea Pig) and later a desert fox. It was a bumpy, ride to the canyons that are the feature of Talampaya, but they were worth the discomfort. The first things you encounter are just sheer sandstone cliffs, over 100m high. They look hand-finished in places, they are so smooth, worn away by aeons of water and wind into vertical faces, occasionally broken by columnar chimneys indicating pre-historic waterfalls. In places, you can see petroglyphs inscribed by ancient indigenes.

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Sheer cliffs, over 100m high

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Chimneys mark the sites of ancient waterfalls

The formation known as the Gothic Cathedral.

The Gothic Cathedral formation

Passing beyond the canyon, you get to areas where the rock is more exposed and has been weathered into spires (the Cathedral) and freestanding towers (the Totem, Tower and Monk.)  From here you get more magnificent views out over the scrub to the sandstone mesas that dot the landscape. It was a worthwhile early morning.

The formation known as The Monk and the plains beyond

The Monk formation, looking out over the desert beyond

Travelling back towards Mendoza, there was one final breath-taking moment which will stay with me. Exiting the Valle Fertil, you climb over some low hills as the road heads south and west. There was a point where we turned as we crested the hill and I was suddenly presented with the scene of a vast, flat plain, stained white, green and grey by low vegetation, stretching out to the distant horizon. There were those red sandstone hills again, framing the picture, now reflecting the afternoon sunlight. It was such a thing of beauty.

Although it was a demanding couple of days, I am really glad we made the effort to visit Talampaya and Ischigualasto. It was one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Desert landscapes, Talampaya

Thoughts On The Road To Mendoza

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The journey from Córdoba to Mendoza is about eleven hours by road. Instead of an overnight option, we decided to take a daytime bus and enjoy the scenery along the way.

All I can report is, Very Flat. While not technically part of the Argentine Pampas, the country between the two cities nevertheless has only occasional ripples and looks quite fertile. It breaks up a little as you get towards Mendoza, being on the edge of the Andean foothills and it’s much drier, being in the rain shadow of the mountains. So we spent most of the day looking out on a sunny, green landscape, stretching off into the distance in all directions.

On the road from Córdoba to Mendoza

Very Flat.

The intercity buses stop at many of the smaller towns along the way and some of them looked really basic. In one of these spots, watching a teenager say an emotional goodbye to his girlfriend, I found myself wondering at how his life experience differs from mine. What kind of community has he grown up with? How does his outlook on the world compare? What is his perception of the pros and cons of his hometown?

I then spent a while considering how little effort we have made to get to know the locals on our journey. It’s supposed to be one of the great benefits of travelling, but we have been quite insular so far. We prefer AirBnB apartments over hostels. Hostels tend to be more of an international melting-pot but in apartments, apart from brief meets with the host, we don’t have a lot to do with anyone other than ourselves. We should probably change that.

Arriving in Mendoza, we found it to be a very pleasant town. The first thing I noticed was that every street seems to be lined with trees, which give a pleasant shade wherever you go. The second thing I noticed was the incredibly deep open gutters on the roadside. This is the urban extension of the huge irrigation system that was put in place by early settlers to make the land farmable. It is still used today to water the vineyards but, in the city, it is now more about channelling rainwater off the streets – and watering the trees.

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The deep roadside gutters are also known as Gringo Traps

Once again, we had picked an apartment near to the centre of town, although this time that was less of a boon. The ancient glazing did nothing to block the noise of the traffic from the Avenida España below, or, on our first night, from the rock band playing a gig in the nearby Plaza Independencia. Apart from that, though, Independencia was a great spot; the central square of the city, a total of four city blocks, given over to public space, hosting markets, greenery, fountains and a museum. Very lovely.

As we had nearly two weeks in the city, we booked on several organised tours and rented a car to get us up to Talampaya, one of the places on my “Must Do” list. The first was a tour of a couple of bodegas (wineries) and an olive oil producer.

Having first worked in tourism and later done lots of independent travel, I wonder why I still do tours of distilleries/breweries/wineries as they all follow pretty much the same pattern: You get shown the raw materials, you get shown the process, including traditional brewing paraphernalia and/or anonymous modern stainless steel replacements, you get to see the warehouse where the final product is matured, you get to taste a selection of the products, before concluding in the factory shop, where you can pay over-the-odds for the things you’ve just tried, or buy from a range of branded souvenirs.

Asking myself that question, (why I still do the tours) I realise I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I’m not any kind of a connoisseur, so the opportunity to taste new brands does not help me. I already know how they are made, apart from whatever minor regional twist a particular location has. I’m not in the market for souvenirs. Which I guess leaves me with a kind of “following the herd” answer. I do it because it’s there to be done.

Between travelling all this way while hardly meeting any locals, and endlessly repeating a tour that I’ve already done, I think I need to review what I am wanting to get out of this trip!

One of the vineyards of the Bodega Nieto Senetiner, near Mendoza

One of the vineyards of Bodega Nieto Senetiner

Anyway, apart from the internal analysis it generated, the tour was a pleasant diversion. For once, we’d picked a lovely, sunny day. The first bodega felt like a smart country villa, the second had huge casks in extensive cellars which felt like another world. The tour of the olive oil factory did educate me somewhat; I never realised there was such a variety of balsamic vinegar – and some of it is really tasty!

Our next outing was a road-trip up to Talampaya. But that is worthy of a post all of its own… watch this space!

A Few Days in Córdoba

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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.

Plaza San Martín, Córdoba

Plaza San Martín, the heart of Córdoba

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.

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Street art on the Enchanted Isle

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.

The public pool  in Córdoba's Park Sarmiento

The inviting public pool in Parque Sarmiento

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.

Lovers in Córdoba's Bicentennial Park

The Bicentennial Park, part of Parque Sarmiento. There’s one ring for every year.

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.

The colourful façade of the Church of the Sacred Heart, Córdoba

The colourful façade of Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón

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!

Resistencia and Salta

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The Argentine obelisk at the Tres Hitos (Three Milestones) monument at the border with Paraguay and Brazil

Compared to the spectacle of Iguazú Falls, the town of Puerto Iguazú is uninspiring. The only other notable attraction is the Tres Hitos monument, which we visited on our final day there.

Our accommodation was quite small and didn’t have a day room available for us. As a result, we spent the afternoon lurking in a café to benefit from the air-conditioning while waiting for our overnight bus.

For logistical reasons, we had to take two buses to get from Iguazú to our next base, at Salta. For economic and sightseeing reasons, I booked two overnight buses with an intervening day in the town of Resistencia.

Bus travel in Argentina is comparatively luxurious. As far as I know, the UK’s National Express service has nothing to rival the relatively inexpensive comfort available. Our overnight trip from Buenos Aires up to Iguazú had been pleasant. The meals were pretty bad, but they filled us up and the stewardess kept us plied with included alcohol. We slept well enough on the wide, well-upholstered recliners on the supplied pillows and blankets. Apart from the food, it wasn’t so different from a Business Class flight.

It turns out that we had lucked-out on that first trip though. The journey from Iguazú around to Salta was far less enjoyable; when booking, I had missed the caveats discreetly tucked away at the bottom of the list of onboard services.

We boarded the first bus still a little grimy from our day in the tropical heat. We were on the lower deck, which we discovered has no overhead storage for your hand luggage. It was a little too warm and there was an occasional whiff of exhaust fumes, which made me wonder about the vehicle’s state of maintenance. It turned out that this service, while it provided the same large, comfortable seats, did not include a stewardess, or food and drink, or blankets, or pillows, or any soap or paper products in the toilet.

Early the next morning, we arrived in Resistencia ravenous and breakfasted on orange juice, coffee and medialunas (small, sweet, less-flaky croissants) as well as some little cakes. Not the healthiest breakfast, but one of things you accept on the road is that you make the best of what’s available.

Public sculpture in Resistencia, Argentina

Coya, Toba and Mapuche. Nestor Vildoza, 2012

The town is noted for its public sculpture. Over the years, it has gone out of its way to promote the creation and display of sculptures in public spaces. We spent half a day exploring to see what it was all about. I was underwhelmed; the official sculpture park was undergoing renovation, so it was partly closed and in a bit of a mess. The many pieces on display along the streets were mostly small, neglected and often vandalised. It felt anticlimactic and a little sad. Though, perhaps, that was more to do with our state of mind and limited time.

We managed to occupy the day though, albeit spending the last few hours at a table in the Resistencia bus terminal, an open-air shed filled with ticket offices and convenience kiosks.

Our onward bus proved to be as bad as the inbound one. We did get fed this time, though with nothing more than a crustless, white bread ham-and-cheese sandwich, squashed securely to a polystyrene tray by the enveloping clingfilm, served with a gulp of coke. (Seriously, you know the little paper cups your dentist has for you to swill with? The cups were that size!) We were downstairs again and this time it seemed that the air-conditioning could not be reduced. There were no blankets or pillows, so we did our best to sleep in the bitterly cold conditions.

We did not arrive at Salta in the best state.

The apartment was every bit as nice as it appeared online, however, and our host was a delight. He was taking a week’s vacation, while we rented his home. We had great views, stylish furnishings and a really comfortable bed. After showering away two days’ worth of grime, I took a nap.

One of the best examples of layering we saw near Cafayate

The multicoloured layers of rock exposed by erosion. Shell Canyon, near Cafayate

When I woke up though, I knew it was going to be a long week. Somewhere along the way, I must have picked up a virus and I spent the next several days feeling exhausted and foggy-minded; generally fit for nothing apart from lying around feeling sorry for myself. Brett was a trooper and kept me fed and watered while working on his own stuff.

About halfway through our stay, I felt recovered enough to start exploring. We started with an easy trip to the nearby High Altitude Archaeological Museum (MAMA) which preserves the Incan mummies recovered from mountain-peak temples. Much of the descriptive text was also presented in English and there was a video which did a lot to contextualise the sacrificial ritual. It wasn’t clear whether the youths who became the mummies entirely understood what was to happen to them, but the broader society did not perceive this as sacrifice, rather as becoming a bridge to the gods; a great privilege.

We also took an excursion through the geological rainbow of Shell Canyon towards Cafayate. Unfortunately, the day we chose was overcast and drizzly so the colours, which would stand out dramatically in the sun, were quite muted.

We didn’t get to explore the Incan ruins in the north of the province, which had been my goal for the week.

So, that was our time in Salta; mostly mundane reality getting in the way of living the travel dream. Onwards to Córdoba!