Mei writes: We arrived in Mendoza at dawn with the soon-to-be familiar post-nightbus fug in our heads. It’s a clean, modern city and it gave us our first views of the Andes over towards the Chilean border, but it was only really when we got out of the city itself on the second day that we began to understand why everyone raves about the province of Mendoza.
We had organised a day-trip which involved half a day of horsetrekking in the foothills of the Andes and then – controversially for me (Mei) with my fear of water – an hour of white-water rafting. The horses were the most well-trained and docile creatures imaginable so there was no reckless galloping but that didn’t stop me from indulging in my Clint Eastwood fantasies and whistling the tune to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. I still haven’t mastered lighting a match on the soul of my cowboy boots though. As for the rafting, it was only a Level 3 so the water wasn’t particularly white but it provided all the watery thrills that this coward needs. We found ourselves in a raft with four Argentinians (funnily enough!) and in order to row in the correct direction we had to learn three words - “atras”, “adelante” and “halto” - from our guide to ensure that we got merely wet as opposed to getting tossed overboard or crushed on a rock. Next time we’re near a fast-flowing river. I’ll be recklessly discarding life-jackets and looking for a Level 4. As soon as I’ve learnt to swim.
On the topic of the many things that I can’t do, we knew that one of the most popular Mendoza activities is hiring a bike and riding between the many bodegas in Maipu, sampling the local wine. Now I’ve never had any problem drinking, but for some reason – maybe a combination of physical incompetence, sloth and weird childhood – I never learnt to ride a bike. I had come to terms with the idea that on that Monday (which happened to be my birthday), Chrissy would pedal around the vineyards while I walked to the nearest and sit there getting slowly drunk. As it turned out, we met some Americans who had already toured the wineries by bike and one of them was a fellow bike-wobbling freak who had conquered her inability to ride by taking the back seat of a tandem. So when we had accepted a freebie glass of vino from Mr Hugo –the nice man who hires the bikes – we were astonished to discover that, with Chrissy’s vice-like grip on the handlebars, we didn’t fall off. Not even once. Not even after visiting two vineyards, a cerveceria and a place making fruity liqueurs.
The next day we took a 20 hour bus-ride north to Salta, an ancient city with some beautiful colonial buildings and a much greater number of indigenous people than we had seen further south or east in Argentina. Apart from an interesting anthropological museum in Colonia, Uruguay (where, as far as I understand, all of the indigenous people were wiped out) which acknowledged the human cost of colonisation, we hadn’t seen much reference to colonial history. But in Salta and, later Tilcara where the people have erected plaques acclaiming their pride in having resisted European oppression, it suddenly became clear that Argentina is not as “European” as a few days in Buenos Aires might suggest.
We were lucky to have got an amazing deal when buying our bus ticket to Salta which meant that, as Hostelling International members, we could get a free night in Backpackers Home, the HI place in Salta that throws in a free breakfast and dinner for a the equivalent of 9 quid (admittedly in a pokey dorm). The food was decent as well as free and, in an attempt to keep everyone spending in the hostel bar, they even put on a night of the music that is associated with peñas, the folk music bars that seem to be found in the Andean region. Just a guy with a guitar (and an apparently essential large belly) and a guy with a big drum. The songs were tuneful, the clapping expected from the audience was easier than those tricky flamenco rhythms, the beer flowed nicely and a good time was had by all, even when a young Brit was invited up to play a couple of introspective Radiohead and Lenny Cohen tunes.
Chrissy writes: Beautiful as the architecture in Salta was, we’d had enough of cities for the time-being and stowed the Rough Guide at the bottom of a backpack for a few days, heading north-east (and up) to a small town called Tilcara. This was good. We spent three days in a peaceful hostel up a hill in the company of owner Juan and some dogs: Labrador Maggie, nameless stinky dog and Sandy dog, who adopted us for one day when we got to do some walks to a Pukara (kind of fortress) that had been restored in the 1950s and to a big canyon and waterfall. Maggie also took Mei on a long walk up a steep hill, where he saw some condors and lost his breath in the 3000-plus altitude. From the markets to the restaurants, Tilcara was also a food-haven: my highlights were corn-based mote salteada, jam made of a local pumpkin, lamb cooked in black beer and scrumptious vegetable and quinoa soups. The food journey did take a nasty side-track when Mei inadvertently ordered a strange version of mondongo, which, despite assurances that it was meatless, consisted mainly of spongy white lumps of tripe.
Crossing the border from sleepy Sunday La Quiaca into Bolivia was relatively painless until we looked into buses out of hectic Villazon and Mei had to run around hell-for-leather changing currencies and nabbing bus tickets for the only departure to Tarija for another seven hours. (This was hard. It seems an altitude of over 3000 metres affects one’s ability to charge around. Our carb- and steak-heavy diets and sedentary recent weeks have nothing to do with it.) Breathing a sigh of relief that we’d got the bus in time, we set off bouncing along a dusty road.
Somewhere further up in the Bolivian Andes stretches a road that professes to be the world’s “most dangerous” where you can pay good money to hurtle down on two wheels precariously close to death for the buzz. Well, I’d like to thank Copa Moya Bus for furnishing us with utter terror for the bargain price of 35 Bolivianos (£3.50) on our transfer from Villazon to Tarija. We have since been informed by a local lady NEVER to take a Copa Moya Bus because of their shocking accident rates.
It was the scariest bus journey of my born days. The road was a system of snaky hair-pin bends, single track and unpaved, prone to becoming impassable in rain. As we descended from about 4000 metres, then climbed up again, clinging to the road, I shut the curtain and deafened myself with music on to the max to stave off death thoughts (and to block out the synthtastic and warbly cumbia music that was causing irreparable damage to the bus speakers above our heads). It was beautiful, when I could scratch up the courage to look. After a long and bumpy seven hours, the city lights of isolated Tarija spread out like a carpet of glitter below us.
Tarija is bustling and pretty; suddenly too, spice, vegetables and fruit are back on the markets and menus, which is exciting news for Mei after weeks of carne-tastic Argentina. We spent a couple of lazy days here and our only excursion beyond the food market and the restaurants has been brief – watching a free piano concert of Bolivian classical music at the Casa Dorada. But it’s been a great couple of days. Not relishing the thought of an 18-hour bus ride north to Sucre, I splashed out 40 quid on a 50-minute flight with TAM, the military airline of Bolivia. I’d like to say that it’s Mei’s enviro-credentials that stopped him getting the plane too, but the tour of a winery around Tarija and the significantly lower price of the bus may take some credit.
Sucre has been fantastic so far - it's chock full of pearly white buildings and stunning views and is vibrant without being hectic. We're staying in a great hostel called La Dolce Vita, where the owners and travellers are uber-friendly and reluctant to move on after weeks and weeks. It's going to be hard to cut the ties and keep heading north. In the meantime, before lassitude sets in completely, we're polishing up our Spanish back at school and I'm helping some Bolivian students with their English. Feel a bit rusty, so after a few weeks they may know such useful subjects as the words and the moves to the hokey cokey and how to play Monopoly.