Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mendoza and the Alta Montaña

Typical Mendozan Street

After Patagonia, it was time to visit the magic town of Mendoza, near the Andes and 1000km west of Buenos Aires. It's both an Argentina's adventure capital (Queenstown style) and wine capital, meaning there's no shortage of things for a visitor to do; but above all it's the town's laid-back personality that is the real charmer. Even though there are more than a million inhabitants, there's not the big city edge of Buenos Aires, and despite being in the middle of a desert, every street in the town is tree lined and the innovative gutters, built on the original Inca irrigation plan, act as a giant air conditioning system, cooling both the town air and (it seems) the tempers of its inhabitants.

Outdoor Air-con

I travelled here on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires with a fellow Australian from the Patagonia trip (more on Patagonia later) and despite having no accommodation organised, we quickly settled into the town's vibe and eventually found quirky over-flow accommodation in a musician's grandmother's house, barely renovated since she was a teenager, or so it seemed. The barely functional bathroom was more than adequately compensated by the peaceful garden, a real oasis given the property was on Mendoza's main bar strip.

Granny's Garden

Within another hour or so, showered and refreshed, we had the following day's activities organised and settled down for a fantastic outdoor home-made pasta, accompanied by an excellent local Malbec (Trapiche Reserve). With it's tree lined streets, mild climate and wide footpaths, Mendoza is made for outdoor dining, both dinner and lunch.

The first activity was the Alta Montaña tour, following the main highway between Chile and Argentina (RN7, which connects Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile) and climbing the stunning Andean foothills. The road was significantly upgraded in the 80s, but previously operated on a one way system (mornings West, evenings East) as it was basically a one lane (more half lane) goat track. We got to travel the most spectacular part of that route, rising up to the 4200 M mountain pass, site of a statue at the border to mark Argentinian-Chilean friendship - not always a given.

Christ @ 4200M keeps the fractious Chileans and Argentinians apart

The road has such a reputation amongst the drivers of the many tourist mini-vans here that they have developed a new hand gesture, best referred to as the shitting-oneself, formed by holding the hand that should be on the steering wheel out the window palm down, and generating droppings by opening and closing your fingers. This is gleefully produced to every passing van (there were at least 20 in the 8km half hour ascent) and some drivers have gone as far as obtaining a roll of toilet paper to wave at passing driver, in case the 'shitting-oneself' gesture was too subtle !

Give way to ascending traffic - and anyone waving toilet paper

The tour was comprehensive, with stunning views, interesting Andean villages, scenery (such a natural bridge used by the Incas, and a stone one used by the Spanish), and a view of Aconcagua, the Western hemisphere's highest mountain and a climbing mecca.

Somewhat over-rated (and touristed) Spanish Bridge

Puente del Inca

Mountain Man, previously only found at Rugby matches and beer commercials

Aconcagua - highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas

Andean Scenery

Monday, January 12, 2009

La Boca Boxing Day

La Boca is a rapìdly gentrifying port-side barrio, famous for its artisitic community, painted buildings and for its soccer team - Maradona's Boca Juniors. The painted buildings come from La Boca's heritage as the first port of call for the waves of Italian immigrants to Argentina - who used paint left over from the ships to colour their houses. Now days it's part of the area's identity and photos of the coloured houses in the tourist area feature prominently in most Buenos Aires tourism promotions.
The tourist area though is still in the middle of a barrio that is considered dangerous; and Porteños go out of their way to make sure that visitors are fully aware of this, quite unlike any other zone a tourist is likely to visit in this city. It started at the hostel, where the girl at the desk dramatically drew scribble on my map over the area to avoid passing on my way to La Boca. Lonely Planet has 'area unadvisable for tourist' on their La Boca map in several places, and emphatically warns not to cross 'the bridge' - whatever you do. It got even more serious when I asked for the restaurant that had been recommended at the hostel (with no address). A concerned and nervous look passed over the face of the barmaid at La Perla, who then asked her manager before pointing it out on our map, but insisting we take a taxi there (500m or so away). The taxi driver in turn inisted that we not leave the restaurant until we'd called another taxi; a (by now unneceassary) warning repeated by the waiter as we settled up !

Still, the lunch was fantastic. El Obrero is a traditional worker´s eatery whose walls serve as a shrine to Boca Juniors. Simple but delicious steaks (of course) and salads and amazing desserts - made by the proud waiter's mother - in fact he 'corrected' our order to make sure we got the right ones. To be honest, it was hard to see from the taxi back to the centre what it was we needed to be scared of in La Boca, but we were certainly happy to take the advice so insistantly given, and even happier to have persisted in finding this gem of a destination.

Apart from just wandering the streets and being accosted by tango dancers, artists, hustlers etc while looking for that one shot not yet taken, La Boca has a hyper modern exhibition space called the PROA Foundation which had a Marcel Duchamps exhibition on, inlcuding (a version of) his famous urinal. This, I'm afraid, is the closest I was to get to an art gallery in Buenos Aires.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Quick Update

There are not a lot of internet cafes in the Patagonian Alps, and travelling with a social group doesn´t leave a lot of time for blogging - so here's a quick photo free update of where I am and how it's going so far.

Today (Jan 06) we're leaving the Chilean city Puerto Natales (capital of the aptly named Ultima Esperanza or 'last hope' province) to travel to Punta Arenas, the last town of any siginificance in the area. The last 6 days in Patagonia have been great - in Argentina we had the best weather imaginable for our three days hiking in sensational scenery, whereas in Chilean Patagonia it really didn´t stop raining while we were camped in the Torres del Paine National Park. Needless to say, the return to civilization in the form of warm showers beds and laundries was most appreciated ! The group I'm travelling with is fantastic, everyone gets on well, there's a good range of ages and nationalities, and that spirit has helped us deal with a few of the challenges in the Chilean leg of the trip - more later ! My body is mostly coping with the rigours of the 9 hour hikings, though a small shin injury means it's probably good news we're back to towns for a couple of days (including 12 hours in a bus to Ushuaia tomorrow !)

It's hard to believe there are only 5 more days left in Patagonia, before my true independent travel begins.

Happy New Year to every one !