Published: May 12th 2008April 24th 2008
A view of the clock tower and Jesuit enstancia across the medieval reservoir.
The Andes! Mountains that are definitely deserving of an exclamation mark. We watched these impressive mountains through our window as the driver pressed ever harder on the accelarator, straining the bus as it wound up hairpin bends, our ears popping and passengers giggling nervously to one another, some even closing the curtains to avoid looking down the sheer drop.
A chattering group of Chilean women went silent and the lady who was sitting across the aisle from me and had been giving her young male neighbour a barrage of information accompanied by the occasional offer of a sup of Mate to drink or a corner off an empanada as he fiddled politely with his MP3 player, clung onto her neighbours arm. I had been passing the time imagining what they were talking about, and turned to look out the window when they fell silent.
The driver descended ever quicker, the bus picking up more momentum and we gazed out at the glorious coloured mountains, the colours reflecting the minerals Alan reliably informed me, blurring as they whizzed by. At the base of the mountain the bus swerved into the verge and screeched to a halt, and everyone went silent.
Andean border crossing
Probably the most picturesque border crossing of our trip to date!
After a nano-second everyone pressed their noses against the window, 'has there been an accident?' I thought, straining to see above the group of chatting Chilean women and the young man who were standing up, somebody mentioned 'Policia' and we all stood contorting ourselves to catch a glimpse of what was going on.
Suddenly the door opened and the driver, sweating profusely, thundered down the aisle. Like bold children we all sat and looked into the mid-distance, one man even whistling. 'Is he trying to hide?' I wondered, imagined him being chased by a police man and us all having to pretend we hadn't seen him. He disappeared into the toilet, slamming the door behind him. He stayed in there for a long time, and all us passengers nonchalently tried to look disinterested when he came out looking a little less dishevelled.
Moments later the conducter strolled on, a vision of calm and collectedness. As he strolled by the Chilean lady leant over her neighbour and asked a question. He bent in and said something to her and winked as he stood up. Everyone on the bus roared laughing as the driver drove off, and I can only
imagine what they had been discussing and how painful the drive must have been for the poor driver.
The overland border crossing is one of these things we look forward to ever since the first one we had on this trip, many months ago, arriving in Russia at 2am. Less dramatic, but still fun, we all descended from the bus and queued for our stamps out and into the respective countries. I sometimes find these experiences bring me back to those of my childhood when we went through Northern Ireland on the way to Donegal, cars sitting for hours queuing at the border, young British soldiers in their uniforms holding machine guns, one looking at the number plate while the other would check my Dad's driving licence and sometimes even have a gawk in the boot. I think I was as terrified as some of those soldiers and now that the troubles are thankfully part of our history, travelling across borders in Ireland is even less dramatic than the Chilean - Argentinian experience, all that happens is you think you´re closer to your destination until you realise that the 'kilometre' sign has just turned to 'miles' and that the
Aoife ponders our next move...
cost of petrol seems a lot less, until you realise it´s in Sterling rather than Euro.
After a very picturesque border crossing and a few more hours in the bus, we arrived in Mendoza, a lovely town with water from the Andes gushing down open channels in some of the streets. The weather was glorious and we spent time looking at the many Plazas, had a lot of coffee and our first Argentinian steak dinner (accompanied by some Quilmes - local brew), and of course drank plenty of wine. The Mercado was fun to walk around and overall Mendoza was very calm and refined as a city. We spent one afternoon walking and sitting in the park, watching rowers gliding through the still water.
We had read that the economic crash in Argentina back in 2001 meant cheap eats for tourists and were delighted to discover that we were able to save some cash. Even though the economy is recovering, it is certainly easy to eat and sleep for a reasonable amount and treats such as a bottle of wine are affordable. After overspending during the Oz - Nz part of the trip we had to tighten our
The mighty Andes
As seen from the Argentinian side of the border
belts so it has been really nice to be able to make some savings.
The hostel we stayed in was lovely - it had plenty of dogs, one huge Alsatian that looked terrifying but was an absolute softie. Delightfully there were hammocks strewn from tree to tree, and Bob Marley piped through the sound system, so we spent a lot of time loafing around on the hammocks agreeing with Bob that indeed we should get together and have some fun. Our hostel had a great atmosphere and we sat chatting to people, a lovely couple from Leeds, Alex and Richard, are on a similar trip to ours and gave us some good advice about Buenos Aires where they had just come from over a few bottles of Quilmes. All four of us agreed that South America has great internet connections - smooth, high-speed connections, most hostels have free wi-fi connections and a pc or two with connections. They had been as surprised as we had been that the connections in Australia and New Zealand weren´t as good, and were rarely free, whereas in South America and Asia all sorts of places have free connections. They are spending a lot
Candy coloured church, Cordoba.
South America has quite a few pink churches...
more time than we are in South America so we had a little bit of envy for their itinerary!
Too soon it was time to move on to Cordoba, where we stayed in a very nicely located hostel that was unfortunately a bit of a dump, but you know, that's the way it goes sometimes. And we met some nice Americans who were staying there and gave us advice about Rio, where they had just been - and we sat on the roof of the hostel as the sun set agreeing that they should travel to Dublin and we should travel to California.
Cordoba is different from Mendoza. Both are really cool places, but in entirely different ways. Cordoba was busy, buzzing, full of energy and a wee bit frayed around the edges, with spectacular old colonial era churches and Jesuit buildings. Where we were staying was a real commercial spot, loads of people selling things on spread out blankets on the street, kind of like an enormous Talbot Street mixed with the shops from the Square Tallaght and the clientele of the Northside Shopping Centre.
We had a few days wandering around the city and then
decided to visit Alta Gracia, a lovely small town nearby which is famous for a number of reasons including that young Che Guevara spent many of his formative years living there as his parents were advised that the climate would be better for the asthma he suffered (or should I say worse for the asthma, better for him? Not sure... you get my drift though, I hope).
We spent a day wandering around the town, looking at the stately buildings, the sun casting a beautiful glow across them. Che's house was fascinating, it has been turned into a museum that chronicles his life story and they had a really useful translation that told us all about the exhibits. The woman running it took great pride in it, and rushed around the rooms gathering all the English speakers together to watch a short locally made film about Che's time in Alta Gracia. It was very evocative and we learnt a lot about him. After a stop for coffee, which we supped overlooking the pretty lake and were berated gently by the café owner for not being able to tell her at length in Spanish about Ireland, we caught a bus
back to the big smoke.
That evening after depositing our camera back in the hostel we had a lovely dinner of pizza and wine and wandered back towards the Plaza, noticing that music was playing. When we reached the Plaza it was like stepping into a film set as we watched couples of all ages and sizes whisking one another around, swaying and generally doing whatever it is you do when you tango. Some of the people were dressed very fancily - men in black and white punch-holed shoes and pinstripe suits with hats perched at an angle, women dressed in swishing skirts, sparkling high heels and hair swept up. Others were dressed as though they were on the way to buy a Media-Luna (croissant) and had just spotted the action - in tracksuits and runners, jeans and t-shirts. It didn't matter what their clothes were like, how fat or thin, tall or small, young or old they were, the most unlikely couples were often the best dancers and we sat for ages, it was a real privilege.
Although, as I was sitting near the action and the neighbours kept asking one another for a spin on the
Ornate and impressive
dancefloor, I was terrified that someone was going to ask me up for a dance. The didn't. And I don't know whether to be relieved or somewhat disappointed! As we had left our camera behind we just watched them. It was a magical experience.
One thing that I don´t think I´ve mentioned so far in the blog is reading, which I like to do. The sad truth of leaving New Zealand behind was the end of decent book swaps. Perhaps I´ve just been unlucky, but I lament the four books I benevolantly donated in Santiago, carelessly tossing them aside as my bag was too heavy, there were no English books there but nevermind, I thought, I´ll pick something up. When we arrived hours later in La Serena there was a terrific bookswap but I had only a few sentimental battered books that I didn´t want to give up and despite my offering money, blood, a lock of my hair, they wouldn´t give me one for love or money. Delightfully back in Santiago I picked up a John Le Carre book that I wouldn´t have looked twice at, but Spies are exciting and conflicted, and I know all about it
thanks to John. Unfortunately I was still in spy land in the Hostel Laos in Mendoza so didn´t exchange it, and in Cordoba we were lucky that the hostel had beds, let alone books, so curses, here I am with the prospect of a lengthy bus journey to Rosario, bookless. Alan, who reads at the pace of a snail, refuses to tear his book in two as he´s afraid I´ll catch up on him.
I just hope that Rosario has a bookswap. Fingers xx´d.
There are more photos below