Salta is nicknamed “la linda,” or “the pretty” and it’s no surprise why. Completely different from Buenos Aires, it’s a small city with a colonial feel in the center, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a colonial gem, as other people marketing the area do. With an attractive center and main plaza (Plaza 9 de Julio), you can easily run through the main central streets in just an hour or so, including the pedestrian streets of Florida and Balcarce, which also houses the bar and club district up by the old train station.
So even though Salta is a small city, it serves as a good base for exploring the Province of Salta, which is the real attraction. A plan I had was to visit the town of Cafayate, which is northwest Argentina’s wine country, and then move on to the tiny village of Cachi where there wasn’t much to see, save for the incredible scenery and a chance to slow down and relax. Both towns lay on opposite ends of spectacular ravines and mountain passes, creating wonderful rides in which take 3-5 hours respectively because of all the twists and turns.
However, it’s nearly impossible to get to Cachi from Cafayate unless you have your own car or hire a private taxi, which is pretty expensive unless you can share the cost with other travelers. Thus, I headed to Cafayate to play the odds and see what I could do, waking up before dawn after one night in the city of Salta. The beginning part of the ride was nothing special—passing through vineyards and small towns where the bus stopped at nearly every corner, until we reached the Quebrada de las Conchas. This valley of red rocks and valleys had scenery like something out of Mars, with towering cliffs reaching over the road.
Soon we were in Cafayate and after finding a cheap hostel, ran over to three consecutive wineries for some cheap or free samples and chowed down on some empanadas salteñas. The friendly woman selling them on the corner told me her story and warned me to go back to the U.S., saying Argentina was nice but just to visit. By 2 pm I was back at the hostel to start a tour of the Quebrada de las Conchas, and though the guide was just so-so, the scenery was excellent. We walked through some of the caves and into the giant, extinct waters falls now dubbed “Garganta del Diablo” and “El Anfiteatro”, which is a place where music is performed every year.
The next day it was back to Salta, after realizing that there was no way I could get to Cachi, and the following day I geared up for a tour of Cachi and the Calchaquíes Valley. With a full day in a small bus filled with mostly older Argentines, we headed up the Cuesta del Obispo, a narrow mountain pass with over 150 switchbacks. I was looking forward to this ride for a long time, but to be honest, after everything I’d seen on the two week trip, it wasn’t the most dramatic. However, it’s still an amazing ride and I recognize that I’d been spoiled in Bolivia, so the trip is still a must.
Along the ride we stopped for lunch in Payogasta, a little hamlet with a view of the Nevado de Cachi, the snow capped mountain with the same name of the village. Once in town, we had an hour to walk around on our own, though after 10 minutes I’d covered the entire area three times. Ending the two week adventure to southwestern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina was laid back and smooth, just as it should have been after constant movement and trekking. My body was tired and my mind full of what I’d seen, but everything had gone off smoothly, and I couldn’t have asked for more. It was now a question of returning to Buenos Aires and finishing strongly with the two months remaining in my time here.
Tomorrow I’m taking off for my vacation to Bolivia and northwest Argentina. A goal of this trip is to disconnect from technology for a bit, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see any posts in the next two weeks. However, when I get back you can be assured that there will be plenty to write about, along with pictures and videos. I’m “going dark” so to speak, so here’s what you can expect from my loose itinerary:
As of right now, the only things definite are my roundtrip air tickets to Salta, in northwest Argentina. I leave Buenos Aires at 8:30 pm if there are no delays and arrive to Salta by 10:45 pm, when I’ll get a taxi to the bus terminal and look for one of two bus companies leaving with midnight or 12:30 am buses to La Quiaca, on the border with Bolivia. Assuming it all works out, I’ll get in close to 8 am, and then I’ll cross into Villazón, Bolivia, where I’ll exchange money (currently 6.92 bolivianos to U$1) and find the train station.
I’m hoping to get a train to Tupiza, but if the train is full or doesn’t leave that day, I can still get a bus. The train only leaves twice a week and I’ve heard it’s nice, but can be a bit unreliable. It’s hard to get information out of there, but I’ve conferred with several friends who’ve done it before. Only about three hours away, once I get to Tupiza I’ll find a hostel and tour operator to plan a trip to the Salar de Uyuni, the great salt flats which are essentially drawing me to this landlocked country. I’m going to shoot for a 2-3 night excursion ending in Uyuni, where I’ll probably spend another night before moving on to Potosí.
In Potosí I imagine I’ll spend a couple of nights seeing the sights and then begin the trek back to Argentina. Back in Argentina, I want to spend a couple nights in Tilcara, using it as a base to visit Humahuaca and Purmamarca. I’ll next move south to the city of Salta for a couple of nights, or go straight to Cachi, Molino, and Cafayate. It’s all a plan set on the various pieces I’ve read and information I’ve been told, but basically, it’s the kind of region that allows you to play it by ear. If I get to Tilcara and don’t like it, I can move on and spend more time somewhere else.
These places I’m going to visit are, for the most part, small villages which urge you to take your time and relax, and that’s exactly what I hope to do. So I’ll be back on May 8th, when you’ll have a ton of story telling to digest. Until then, take care.
My first vacation in 15 months is coming up this week, and as I’ve been reading a book on different philosophies, it has me thinking about how we find our happiness in life. For me, it’s quite obvious that much of my pleasure in this world is taken from traveling throughout it, though it’s not always an attainable activity. And this got the ball rolling on what I thought of last night as I tried to sleep over my upstairs neighbor’s blasting music.
For nearly the first quarter of our lives we spend the time working in shifts. We look forward to beginnings and endings, with the basic being reaching Friday, the end of a semester, the summer, graduation, etc. These short term jaunts give you the ability to look ahead and see the light at the end of the tunnel in harder times, and give you an incentive to push on. If you have a lousy job during a summer break, you don’t stress about it too much because it’s just a temporary thing to make some cash, unlike the stress you would find in working a boring job you hate with no end in sight.
Yet after graduation, either high school or college, most people no longer have these short term cycles to freshen them up. Once you have a full time job and career, there are no summers off (unless your profession is something like education), and you can’t start from scratch in the fall even if you messed up in the spring. This can get you bogged down. A trick to avoid this is looking forward to something to do, whether it’s playing or watching sports, taking a course in cooking or a language, or in my case, traveling.
I look towards travel as a way out of the day to day grind and the mundane, and though I have gone many places most of my peers haven’t, I always think of the next place I want to visit. It’s this drive for wanting more that keeps me going and the prospect of taking off for a few days is my incentive. Nietzsche as a young man might have said that you shouldn’t strive for the pursuit of happiness but instead, the avoidance of pain and suffering. If you hope for only the best and have such high expectations, you can easily be disappointed. Yet if you just try avoid being let down, you will stay in a middle ground keeping you pleasantly surprised when things go well.
I don’t know if I totally agree with this, especially as it seems like a coward’s way to never take a chance, but you can apply it to travel in that you don’t need to strive to be a star actor in Hollywood to be happy. Instead, you can focus on things like a trip to the beach or a week vacation in a new place to find some happiness in your life. Think of it as travel philosophy.
In three weeks I’ll be taking off for my long awaited vacation to southern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. Though I’ve been slack on planning or reading too deeply into what I can do, I’ve got some things in mind for what I’ll do during the two week period of traveling alone. I’m excited by the prospect of traveling again for longer than just a day or two, and being able to go at my own speed and leisure. So far, all I have planned out are the round trip air tickets to Salta. The idea is to show up and then catch a bus to the border, arriving in Bolivia by the morning. Because the train from the border only leaves twice a week, I need to get there that day before 3 pm to get my ticket and head to the city of Tupiza, where I’ll hook up with a tour of the Salar de Uyuni. If I miss the train, there’s always a bus.
I’m wary of buying my bus ticket from Salta to the border in advance because of my experience with Aerolineas Argentinas, which I’ll unfortunately be flying again this month. With the last flight of the day, I can almost guarantee a delay, and I don’t want to waste money on a bus which won’t get refunded.
Apart from this upcoming trip to the north, I’m starting to think about what I’ve avoided all along while down here in Buenos Aires: planning my return to the United States. The time is coming when I now need to look more deeply into flights, and over the last couple of days I’ve been searching heavily, and come up mostly empty as I find that even through consolidator Web sites, the cheapest airfare available back to Boston is close to U$1,300 with a route heading up to Toronto, for example. I was considering going to Atlanta for a couple of days on the way back to visit some friends, but it’s more expensive for some reason than flying 3 hours farther north. That part boggles me, but just as well I suppose because my friend Lauren will be out of town during that time.
Today my friend Vero passed me an email with flight offers from a travel agency just a few blocks away, and they actually had incredible deals. A flight to Miami was something like $250 and to New York would run $490. This was round trip and before taxes, but I wanted to double check before getting my hopes up. After work I went to check it out and though I had to prove that I work in a travel agency (it appears to be a special deal), the price was the same. Taxes are heavy though, and in the end flying to New York will run me about $1,100, which is still pretty good. It’s a round trip ticket which doesn’t have many strings attached, except that I can only use the ticket during low season (winter in the Southern Hemisphere) and during the week). Though it was listed as an offer expiring on Friday, the guy told me it’s basically available all the time, subject to availability.
I took the liberty of checking the price on Rio de Janeiro as well (listed at $148) and it would wind up being $300 round trip. It’s not too bad, but I’m still going to shop around a bit online first and see what other carriers have to offer. If this works out, I’m planning on returning to the travel agency tomorrow to buy the tickets back to the United States, which at least for now, seems to be fixed on taking the red eye on July 11, arriving in the States on July 12. From New York I could either fly back to Boston directly or go the cheaper route of taking the bus. There’s time to think about that, though.
It’s sad to see time winding down here, but it’s also a nice thought to picture myself back home and enjoying so many of the things which I have missed while being away. And with a round trip ticket with a changeable date, it doesn’t mean that I’m just going to leave and forget about this place. That would be impossible.
With my upcoming trip to southern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina looming ahead of me, I’ve begun to do some basic research to plan out my trip as best as possible while still keeping in mind that planning will be almost useless and I’m going to have to use a “take it as it comes” approach, especially in Bolivia. My initial thinking only got me as far as the border, but I realize that I need at the very least to have an idea of where I want to go in order of importance, not only direction. My friend Pablo has loaned me his South America Lonely Planet guide (though well outdated) and I’ve been rounding up advice from those who’ve been there.
After listening to some recommendations, I’ve decided to do a combination of buses and trains in southern Bolivia and try (though potentially impossible) to only take day buses, for obvious reasons. I arrive in Salta (northwestern Argentina) on a Friday night around 10 pm. Though it’s very hard to gather information on the schedules in Bolivia, it seems like the train from Villazón (border town in Bolivia) leaves only on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 3:30 pm. That means I need to get to the border down in Argentina, La Quiaca, sometime before then. It looks like a direct bus from Salta to La Quiaca leaves a few times a day, with one option leaving around midnight and getting to the border by dawn. Though I don’t want to miss the scenery, it will make my arrival easy and safe.
Crossing the border could be tricky because of my citizenship status (damn you DNI, seriously), so I have to be prepared to put up a fight and ultimately fork over $140 in reciprocity visa fee as an American entering Bolivia. However, since everything in Bolivia is negotiable and I speak Spanish well, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll find a way out of it, assuming my DNI doesn’t arrive before the trip.
The next step would be taking the train to Tupiza, where I’ve been told I can get a nice 3-4 day tour visiting intense scenery and ending in Uyuni, the gateway town to the Salar de Uyuni, the famous salt flats. I could also get to Tupiza by bus if the train is a no-go. Ideally, I’ll wind up in Potosí for a couple of days before working my way back down into Argentina to explore the northwest. I’m covering Bolivia first because it has the most potential for disaster, and I want to leave myself with as much time at the end as possible so I don’t miss my flight home.
In talking with people, they have given me warnings and from an outsiders’ perspective, it seems like you’d have to be slightly mad to go to Bolivia. It’s certainly not going to be a restful trip. But there’s something valuable to be seen which you can’t find elsewhere in the world, and it’s a frontier that I want to visit badly. So on I’ll go to Bolivia to find some kind of crazy adventure.