I’ve been a bit naughty and haven’t blogged at all for Argentina and Chile, two of the biggest countries we’ve visited with the most need to be blogged about, because they’re not easy to travel in cheaply! Apologies for that! What I can offer you is highlights for each city we visited. I’ll be honest, they’re mostly food based… with the exception of a glacier here and a volcano there 🙂
Some pre-trip tips…
An overall warning for those of you thinking about travelling in Argentina and Chile, whilst no one can dispute these are truly beautiful and exciting countries to experience, they don’t offer the same types of exciting challenges that backpacking in less developed countries do. Personally, we loved the less developed countries because surprisingly things seemed easier there. Buses stop literally anywhere on the road, a motorway intersection is always an opportunity for a hot drink while you wait for a long distance bus, and if you don’t think the price for something is fair, you can engage in some light bartering to agree on a price you’re both happy with. Everything is so much more expensive in Argentina and Chile, so in order to stay on budget you have to be crafty, or do as we did, and throw the budget out the window 🙂 Another warning, these countries are huge, especially Argentina. So expect a lot of 20-40 hour buses. I think these are good countries to plan in advance so you can have a good route that doesn’t include too many long buses, and possibly some flights as the can be a similar price if booked at the right time.
We started our journey through the south at San Pedro de Atacama and nipped across the border to the north of Argentina and made our way south. In Patagonia we came back over to Chile and headed north to Santiago. Crossing borders isn’t too much of a fuss and with such a long frontier you don’t necessarily have to do one country then the other, many people zig zag across.
San Pedro de Atacama
Hiring a bike and cycling through the Lunar Valley was the absolute highlight here. The guys at the hostel said it was a fairly easy ride, I don’t know who he was trying to kid. We cycled for 3 hours, mostly against the wind, uphill. Challenging, but I was very proud of myself for not whinging and actually being pumped full of energy because my body had finally got used to exercise. Result!
I was also over the moon to eat fresh food with salad and vegetables that I didn’t have to worry about getting sick from, I properly indulged myself here, as usual, but this time without fear!
We arrived in Salta, Argentina on a warm summers night, craving a good steak and wine of course. These two luxuries are synonymous with Argentina and despite being 10pm there was no way we were going to wait until the next day to get our fix. It wasn’t easy though, arriving in Argentina at night with no pesos is absolutely not advised. Nowhere accepts card (visa only in most places too) without your passport, getting cash out of the machine will result in everything costing twice as much as it should (if the cash point even accepts your card), and no one is exchanging money on the black market this late at night. Not being aware of these facts will most likely result in a twenty minute standoff with the restaurant trying desperately to throw dollars at the situation with no avail, until they realise you’re a clueless gringo with nothing else to offer.
I’m pleased to report that the steak and wine was totally worth it, and of course 10pm is never too late to go for dinner in this country. Our hostel had directed us to Patio Ameghino, a fancy dining hall with 6 restaurants, a winery and table service. We were apprehensive at first but actually the steak wasn’t bad, the grilled chicken was tender and the house wine was some of the best we’ve had in Argentina. It was the perfect welcome to the country, the place where locals dine and stare curiously at the the gringos who don’t seem to be able to pay for their meal. Luckily we won the standoff and managed to pay in dollars, so our delicious meal came to just $5 a head!
Note that this may not be an issue when you travel, during our trip the government changed and one of the first things the new president decided to do was try and sort out this whole black market nonsense. So do check when you travel what the deal is, it may not be necessary to bring American dollars with you to get a more favourable exchange rate.
Salta is a lovely city to walk around, through the park, plaza and side streets we felt a million miles away from the rest of South America. It was all so familiar; the al fresco dining on canvas furniture, the trendy boutiques, beautiful trees blooming on the pavements, I felt so European again and I loved it.
Salta to Córdoba: travelling through North West Argentina
I pride myself in being able to plan routes quite effectively but that’s pretty had to do when the middle of a main highway is cut off from all public transport. Sure, you can travel half way down, or half way up, but the whole thing? Well, that’s just ludicrous.
The stretch of road I’m talking about is from Salta to Cafayate via Cachi. Cafayate is the NW’s premier wine region and as such a major tourist destination. It can be reached easily via Route 68 with a cheap public bus, a very scenic route indeed, or less easily via Cachi, another popular wine region that is less touristy but apparently very beautiful. We would have loved to visit Cachi and travel down to Cafayate via route 40, better known as Valles Calchaquies, as the scenery is wonderful and there’s plenty of beautiful artisanal villages to stop and wander around. However public transport only travels half way down this route, or half way up if you’re coming from Cafayate, which as I mentioned before is kind of ludicrous. You’re best bet is to hire a car and do a loop from salta going through Cafayate and Cachi, but as we were planning this last minute, and as we later found out on a major bank holiday weekend, there were no cars available and about 4 hostels that weren’t fully booked. Not ideal! But I do love a planning challenge and I was determined to get my drink on.
I looked up a few places in the region below Cafayate and found some great spots to explore; Tafi del Valle, Belen, Londres, La Rioja ending in Mendoza. They follow a main highway so you’d assume you could get between them fairly easily right? Wrong. From Cafayate your only choices are picturesque Tufi del Valle or dirty, fly ridden, sweat pit Tucuman. Guess which one we chose? From Tucuman, your choices are more plentiful but by that time we were pretty done with trying to navigate through the countryside, and we’d run out of pesos so we decided to head to Cordoba where we could replenish our money and easily get to wherever we needed to be.
Our final route took us through Cafayate and Tafi del Valle which were two incredibly beautiful spots with very scenic drives, so we were very happy. Cafayate is a small village surrounded by beautiful mountains in every direction each path hosting a variety of bodegas and vineyards to explore. The town itself is set around a lush green plaza (of course!) with plenty of restaurants lining the edges. There are about 7 bodegas in the town so you can easily spend a day in the town itself doing wine tastings, eating steak and ice cream to cool off from the summer sun. Some bodegas offer free tastings others are for a small fee. We really enjoyed Nanni bodega because the tour was informative and the setting beautiful, the wine wasn’t the best but we learned a lot in the tasting session.
You can also spend a day exploring the bodegas just outside of the town, either by bicycle, quad bike or car. We decided to rent mountain bikes for 200 pesos per day (£10) which seemed like a great idea until I realised we were in a valley and as such all paths to the bodegas are uphill. I did the best I could but when you want to have a nice relaxed day sipping wine on verandas, sweating and panting as you cycle hill for an hour in the baking sun can be a massive let down. Add to that the local marathon runners overtaking you by the dozen and you start to feel really pathetic. Luckily we found Vasija Secreta, a lovely bodega with delicious wine and great prices. We relaxed here for a while and retreated back to town to recharge our batteries and prepare for our awesome dinner at La Casa de las Empanadas, simply the best empanadas you can find in the whole of South America. Fact.
Tafi del Valle
It’s a very touristy town but worth it for a lovely hike in the surrounding hills, up to the cross at the top of the hill through lovely estates of gorgeous houses and well kept gardens. Relax afterwards at the coffee shop near the bus terminal, delicious cake and coffee to be had here!
Don’t go here. Just trust me on that one.
Best experienced on the weekend, when you can immerse yourself in the buzzing night life of the artistic neighbourhoods. There’s plenty of kitsch bars and delicious restaurants to indulge in here so take your time! It’s also a great place for museum lovers, although I’m not one of those so all I can tell you is that there are some. We did venture out to Che Guvara’s childhood home which was a nice setting in which to learn about his life. It’s in a suburb just outside Córdoba which is a lovely place to visit, but not at siesta time! Plan your trip accordingly.
We planned to do so much in Córdoba but it was so stiflingly hot that we ended up bailing on our plans every day! Even Che’s house was a struggle. If we had managed to leave the city we would have gone to Carlos Paz or one of the other beautiful mountain regions, trust me there’s plenty to do here to keep you busy for a few days.