CORDOBA

It was Easter Friday when we arrived in Cordoba following our 14-hour bus ride from San Juan.  Cordoba is Argentina’s second largest city yet on our arrival, its streets were quiet and empty.  The Argentine Easter weekend coincides with another National holiday making it a six-day break and many had gone away.  As a result, perhaps we did not get to truly experience Cordoba city and our days were spent doing not much more than walking around, viewing the old cathedrals and buildings throughout the town and visiting a number of museums.

Cordoba_008Cordoba_023Cordoba_032We took a paddle boat ride through the park, something that was becoming somewhat of a common past time as we explored the various cities.  In addition to the many old buildings throughout the city, Cordoba has now devoted a whole area of the city to modern art and encouraging a new generation of Cordobites (no idea what you call them, that was Will’s suggestion) to break out from their traditional ways.

Cordoba_063Cordoba_034Cordoba_047In the evening on Easter Friday, the streets were filled with local and visiting Argentines walking with candles to the various churches throughout the city.  Pope San Francisco paraphernalia lined the streets, from posters to t-shirts, Argentines are very proud of their new Pope.  It was very quiet and somewhat peaceful in the city which I am sure is a contrast to most normal weekdays.

Cordoba_013Cordoba_021Cordoba_071On one of our days we took a day trip to Alta Gracia, a tranquil little town set in the mountains surrounded by leafy trees and parklands.  Alta Gracia is home to a 17th century Jesuit estancia, now a UNESCO World heritage site and we walked through the grounds learning about the history of the Jesuit history and various Spanish occupies over the years.

Cordoba_079Cordoba_081We had a parilla lunch for two and I ate my only Easter egg before continuing to Che Guevara’s childhood home.  Che’s family moved to Alta Gracia from Buenos Aires after a doctor recommended the dry climate for his asthma.  The house is now the Casa Del Che Museum, full of family photos, Che’s belongings and information about his time spent in Argentina.

Cordoba_084Cordoba_088Cordoba_092Our ticket gained us entry to two other house museums – a French artist and a Spanish composer, both who had lived in Alta Gracia at some stage. It was a little strange to have their houses and museums on display – really all 3 of them were famous for what they had achieved outside of Argentina and had only spent a small portion of their lives in the town. Nevertheless it was a peaceful place and nice to relax outside of Cordoba for a day.

SAN JUAN & VALLE DE LA LUNA

We arrived in San Juan, three hours north of Mendoza and walked the quiet streets to San Juan Hostel our base so we could spend a day exploring Parque Provincial Ischigualasto – also known as the Valley de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).  We researched available tours but upon meeting two other travellers at our hostel – Doerthe and Federico from Uruguay, the four of us decided to hire a car and drive there together the next day.

With our small map in hand and instructions from our hostel owners we set off on the 4-hour (325km) journey to Valle de la Luna.  About 40 minutes in to our trip, when we should have been arriving at our first landmark it became apparent that perhaps we weren’t heading in the right direction.  Argentinians do not really care for directional signs so we continued, waiting for some indication of the direction we were heading.  After what seemed like forever waiting for another road sign, our suspicions were confirmed and we had to turn around.  Luckily we hadn’t missed our turn by too far and we were soon back on the right course.

Valle de la Luna_006Our first stop was to Vallecito, home of the shrine of ‘Difunta Correa’.  The legend behind the shrine is that in the 1840s a lady named Deolinda Correa walked the deserts of San Juan searching for her husband’s battalion carrying food, water and their baby son but when her supplies ran out, she died of thirst, hunger and exhaustion.  Apparently when passerbys found her however, the infant was still feeding from the dead women’s breast and this was celebrated as a miracle.  The shrine is considered the location where she died and since the 1940’s has grown from a simple cross to a small village, with its own gas station, school, post office, police station and church.  There are also two hotels, as well as a number of restaurants, souvenir shops and an office for the non-profit organisation in charge of the site.  Valle de la Luna_019Valle de la Luna_014Throughout Argentina there are roadside shrines with her image along with plastic bottles of water left to quench her thirst.  Devotees leave gifts at various chapels in exchange for supernatural favours and the shrine continues to grow as belief in her miraculous powers becomes more widespread.  It was Easter Thursday and over the Easter long weekend they were expecting up to 200,000 pilgrims to descend on the site. Valle de la Luna_009Valle de la Luna_021We continued on, passing small villages and enjoying the various landscapes along the way.  There was one section of road that was highly entertaining – straight as far as the eye could see but wavy throughout, like a really hectic rollercoaster!  We dipped down and back up, feeling our stomachs move along with the car – it was absolutely bizarre to have such a road out in the middle of a flat desert!  Federico sipped his mate (pronounced mar-tay rather than “mate”) and Will and I were invited to try it for the first time.  Valle de la Luna_029Mate is almost like a religion for Argentines (and like Federico, many Uruguayans as well).  Yerba mate is a dried leaf, a relative of holly that is put into a mate gourd (I can only think to describe it as a mug but they are traditionally made out of pumpkins), mixed with hot water and drank similar to herbal tea but using a bombilla (silver straw with a filter at the end) to sip it.  Everywhere you go in Argentina you will be surrounded by Argentines drinking Mate, sharing it amongst family members, friends and even co-workers.  When the mate gourd is filled and passed to you, you must sip through the bombilla until all of the liquid is gone.  Argentina is the world’s largest producer and consumer of Mate, consuming an average of 5kg per person each year.  Most Argentines will carry a thermos with hot water, a mate gourd, a bombilla and a bag of yerba mate and they will continually fill their mate gourd throughout the day.  Restaurants, gas stations, basically anywhere you go will have hot water available so that you can fill your thermos.  Valle de la Luna_027Valle de la Luna_033We arrived at Parque Provincial Ischigualasto and joined a convoy of cars that were all to be escorted by a ranger to drive through the park.  The park takes its name from an old word meaning ‘land without life’ and as we drove through the park it was easy to see why it had been called so.  The park is full of different rock formations along with dinosaur remains, with some fossils dating back to the Triassic Period (180 milion years old).Valle de la Luna_051Valle de la Luna_067Valle de la Luna_065Valle de la Luna_074We drove along, stopping at various rock formations and thankfully having Federico to act as our translator as the guide only spoke Spanish.  He could have told us anything and we would have probably believed him!  At times you really did feel like you could have been exploring the surface of the moon and we all agreed it would be the perfect place to film the next sci-fi blockbuster.  Continuing through the park it was amazing how quickly the landscapes would change and the contrasts throughout.  One minute we were “on the moon” driving past crater-like valleys and rock formations such as Cancha de Bochas (the ball court) and then as we continued, large red rock walls and cactuses surrounded us and it was like the scenery from a western film. Valle de la Luna_077Valle de la Luna_081Valle de la Lunax_010Valle de la Luna_108Valle de la Luna_104We stopped at “El Submarino” rock formation before the official tour finished at “El Hongo”.  The ranger left us with some time to continue driving on our own, taking in the landscape and having a bit of fun with our cameras.  As we drove out of the park, a small fox stood near the side of the road seeing us off (and quite frankly just scaring me) and not long after we were on our way back to San Juan.  Valle de la Luna_113Valle de la Luna_112Valle de la Luna_133Valle de la Luna_138Valle de la Luna_151On our return trip, we all had our moments of doubt as to whether we were heading in the right direction as everything seemed to look different and once again we struggled to find any signs.  It was funny because I think we were all thinking the same thing yet no one said anything and we waited nervously for an indication we were in fact on the right path.  Luckily this time we were and as we continued we watched as hundreds of Argentines walked and rode along the side path to Vallecito and the shrine of Difunta Correa – the Easter pilgrimage had begun.

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MENDOZA

It was a rude shock when the bus driver woke us up at 7am upon arrival in Mendoza.  On the overnight bus rides it seems as soon as you are finally in a deep sleep, it is time to wake up!  We stumbled out of the bus and caught a taxi to Hostel Lao, where at 8am we could not check in to our room so dreary–eyed, we decided to go and explore Mendoza city.

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Mendoza is considered a desert town however you wouldn’t guess it with the many leafy green trees that surround the city spaces.  The streets are lined by irrigation ditches and you really need to keep an eye out because they are not covered and falling into one could be quite disastrous!

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We walked to Parque General San Martin Mendoza’s 420-hectare urban recreational park, which was abuzz with locals cycling, running, picnicking and relaxing.  We admired the grand entry gates, walked around the lake, through various gardens and past a BMX competition before arriving at Mendoza Zoo, which really was a sad, timeworn place.  It is over 100 years old and I have no doubt it was quite amazing many years ago however now it is home to a handful of animals, all looking incredibly miserable in their tiny cages.  We left rather depressed and continued through the park, realising rather quickly that we were completely lost and proceeding to spend the next two and a half hours finding our way back, which in the 30+ degree heat after already walking five hours, was far from amusing.

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After taking it easy in Bariloche, we were determined to get active in Mendoza and the next afternoon we were picked up Diego, our modern-aged gaucho who was taking us sunset horseback riding through the mountains.  We joined around 15 others and took to the saddle, trying our best to look natural and not panic when Diego asked if we’d like to go faster.

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Our reward at the end was an asado (Argentinian BBQ) accompanied by some of Mendoza’s famous Malbec.  Diego pulled out his guitar and sang to us by the fire, winning over the hearts of many of the girls and we sat around drinking and singing until it was time to return to Mendoza.

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Unfortunately, for our poor return driver, the fun didn’t stop and the bus ride back consisted of us drunkenly belting out all of the classics – Bohemian Rhapsody, American Pie, any song we could remember half the words to!  I am sure our gaucho friends struggled to shake the sounds of us singing before bed that night.

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Starting our next day with slight headaches we decided to take a bus to Cacheuta, a short trip from Mendoza and home to various thermal springs.  We visited Termas Cacheuta Water Park, an open-air thermal baths complex located high on the edge of a valley.  We spent the afternoon moving amongst the different baths with various temperatures, the perfect recovery from our horse riding adventure.

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Lastly, we could not leave Mendoza without a trip to a winery or two!  The most popular area for day winery tours is Maipu however we opted to head towards the small sleepy town of Chacras de Coria where we hired bikes and after a short orientation set off on our own to a number of different wineries in the area.  We started at Clos de Chacras, a picturesque small winery where we enjoyed some delicious ceviche while tasting some of their wines.

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Continuing on, we arrived at a small family owned organic winery where we had lunch and walked through their cellars – some hundreds of years old with wine stains running down the walls.  We chatted with the owners and corked our own wine.

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A little tipsy we continued riding to Alta Vista, one of the largest wineries in the area.  We toured the winery and learnt about their various wine making processes which was very interesting – in particular that they only have women select the grapes for their top wine as apparently it is less likely for women to be colour blind (I thought perhaps it was due to attention to detail)!

Mendoza_216Mendoza_220Mendoza_237Mendoza_235Continuing on, we road along a quiet dirt road lined with large trees and with vineyards as far as the eye could see before arriving at a small family-owned business that specialised in sweet and savoury spreads, oils and liqueurs.  We slowly made our way through the different spreads and oils, dipping our small pieces of bread while discussing whether we liked coffee flavoured dulce de leche more than almond flavoured.  We then picked a couple of liqueurs to try – we both started with a sweet liqueur and then Will went for Tabaco while I picked Green Pepper – strong, spicy goodness!  Sadly our bike tour had come to an end however it was probably good timing as any more wines or liqueurs and we may not have made it back!

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