Monday, December 20, 2010

OFF THE GRID: 4 days and 600 miles across the Bolivian Desert.

Continue reading and you'll see what this picture is all about.
We started planning our trip to S. America last August and I began making bullet points on scratch paper, noting bucket list items and destinations.  There are all different types of travelers, but I have never been one to get my kicks visiting museums and monuments for hours on end; flipping through informational brochures while listening to detailed descriptions on a cassette player.  I, on the other hand, get my fix from being in the great outdoors and putting as much distance between myself and any human trace as possible.  Although I do have a deep respect for history and enjoy it quite much, I’ve never quite grasped how some nations spend fortunes protecting marble statues while they pillage and neglect the greatest treasures of all; you know, the ones that were not made by man? 
Among the list of bucket list items I penned on Tribune letter head was the unspoiled landscape of Bolivia.  I had been reading and hearing about Bolivia from people who had been there for ages and if I were to ever visit S. America, I refused to do so without passing through Bolivia.  Bolivia, however, is not an easy place to travel, especially for Americans.  Bolivia is a land of extremes.  It is the poorest country in S. America with 60% of its population claiming indigenous heritage. It is one of the most isolated countries in the world; it has the highest city in the world (Potosi), the driest place in the world, the largest salt flat in the world and the nicest people in the world, etc.  All of these things make it a dream for the adventure traveler, but the remoteness of the country and the poverty it suffers from makes it particularly difficult to get to and to get around in.
Before we had a single detail of our trip planned, we started researching Bolivia in anticipation of the troubles we were likely to encounter.  Most notably; our United States Citizenship.  Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, is not only the first indigenous president elected in Bolivia, he is also one of the largest coca farmers in the country.  Coca is a harmless plant chewed by most residents to fight the effects of living and working long hours at extremely high altitude.  It also happens to be the same plant from which cocaine is manufactured and, not surprisingly, 80% of the cocaine manufactured in Bolivia manages to find its way, in one form or another, into the bloodstream of countless Americans.  It’s no shock that the U.S. Government, who has waged a Coca eradication campaign in S. America for decades, has come down particularly hard on Evo Morales.  And as such, it also comes as no shock that Americans are now the only citizens in the world that are required to obtain a visa to enter Bolivia.  When we planned our travel to Bolivia, the State Department had warnings for American citizens against travel in Bolivia, which was suffering from civil unrest.  We said “fuck it” and we decided to go there anyway.
After a nine hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina to La Quiaca, we arrived at the border town and grabbed our backpacks before catching a taxi to the Argentine/Bolivia border.  Christina and I both had reservations about this part of our travel.  It was no secret that Americans were often harassed at the border and our chance encounter days before with an American girl that broke down in the tears at the border did not ease our anxiety.  Our requirements for passing the border were as follows:
 -One visa application filled out in print with address, name of employer, etc.
-Copy of bank statements (to show solvency) or copy of all major credit cards
-One passport picture
-One letter of invitation from a Bolivian hotel or tour operator (in Spanish)
-One W.H.O copy of vaccinations
-$135 U.S.D (must be in mint condition and must be U.S)
When we arrived in Villazon, Bolivia countless Europeans crossed the border without out so much as a second glance. Christina and I showed our passport to the border authority who quickly ushered us over to a separate window where a young man sat in an Adidas jumpsuit.  We handed him our documents which we had unscrupulously labeled, which were thrown in a pile of other paper work without out so much as flipping through the papers; this man wanted our cash.  Christina handed hers over (all large bills) and she was quickly awarded her visa.  I, on the other hand, had spent most of my large bills and was forced to use the 50 American $1 bills I had brought along.  Over a course of fifteen minutes, the young man combed through my American cash, placing crisp bills and slightly dilapidated bills in separate piles.  Every last American dollar I had was in this man’s hand, so Christina and I held our breath as we waited for the verdict.  The young man turned down $25 of my American cash for reasons I still do not entirely understand.   Although I had heard of this happening, I was still slightly befuddled because the exchange rate was 1:7 (do some math, buddy, you’re on the winning end here).  After some negotiating, the gentleman agreed that I could pay him the extra money in Argentine Pesos, but not in their own currency, Bolivianos. I paid the extra cash and after another young man stamped my passport and exclaimed “Ahhh, Americano!” I was on my way.  Christina and I hailed a Taxi to the train station where we would catch a three hour train to Tupiza.  We had gone from very little altitude to nearly 12,000 feet in a matter of hours and when we sat down at the train station, the altitude slapped us in the face.  Having arrived nearly two hours early, we struck up a conversation with a young Italian man who was on his first week of backpacking around the world.  As the time for our departure neared, we moved outside and continued the conversation as we waited for the train.  As we stood against a wall and traded stories, a small group of dodgy looking young Bolivians traded glances with us.  Not a moment later, the young Italian turned around and noticed his bag was gone.  A group of locals began yelling at him, describing what the thieves were wearing, but it was too late; they were long gone.  Apparently, although a large group of Bolivian men and women witnessed the bag being stolen, the thieves’ reputations as thugs kept them quiet until they had left the scene.  We had not been in Bolivia more than two hours; this was a wake up call.
We said our apologies to the young Italian man before hopping on the train to Tupiza.  We had made our way from the southernmost city in the world to the isolated country of Bolivia (some 3,000 miles away) with one goal in mind: drive across the Bolivian desert and visit the largest salt flat in the world; the Salar De Uyuni. The train’s cabin car was not bad; it featured a small articulating fan and a TV that played amateur Bolivian music videos featuring the pan flute.  At times, however, the cabin car filled so completely with dust that people wrapped t-shirts around their face and covered their eyes.  Three hours later, we stepped off that train and for the first time, I no longer felt like some yuppie from the city carrying a backpack, but a real backpacker.  We were tired, covered in dust, completely unkempt and smelling god awful as we walked down the mud streets Tupiza with various odds and ends clipped to our back packs (hiking boots, stuffed animals, rain gear, nalgene bottles, sandals) swinging to and fro in complete synchronization.  In two short months, I had gone from Clark Kent to Grizzly Adams; it was an odd, but strangely gratifying feeling.
We had booked our salt flat tour before coming to Tupiza as we needed a letter of invitation to enter the country.  I had been researching tours to the Salar de Uyuni months before our departure and the stories I read both scared and excited me.  The southern half of Bolivia is one of the most desolate isolated places on earth.  And, outside of anthropological studies, the only reason anyone would ever find themselves in the remote desert of Southern Bolivia, is to partake in the Salt Flat tour.  However, this small boom in tourism has spawned countless hundreds of tour companies, all jockeying to grab as many tourist dollars as possible.  And, the disparity among the qualities of these tour companies is expansive.  Before our trip and even during our travels, we had heard countless horror stories of people pairing up with the wrong tour operator during their Salt Flat tour.  In fact, even our Lonely Planet guide book (which is the bible amongst backpackers down here) admitted that picking a tour operator for the Salt Flat tour is tantamount to playing Russian roulette; there is no guarantee that your experience is going to be a good one.  Stories of drivers getting drunk at 5.a.m., jeeps breaking down stranding people in the desert for days and passengers staging mutinies had both Christina and I on edge.  But, while hiking in Torres Del Paine, we met a S. African couple who ensured us that going from Tupiza (considered the reverse route) was the safest option.  And, although it cost nearly twice as much as most other tour operators (usual cost is $80 for 4 days and 3 nights), I was smart enough to know that this is not the type of trip where you want the best bargain.  So, at the advice of others, Christina and I booked our tour with Tupiza Tours and hoped for the best.

Our ride!
Calling it a “Salt Flat Tour” is kind of a misnomer.  Like most things in life, this trip is about the journey, not the destination.  Think of the Salt Flat as the dessert  following a twelve course meal.  It may be the sweetest part, but the dinner is just as memorable.  Getting to the Salt Flat is not an easy task, in fact, when you analyze the rather wide margin for error, a trip across the Bolivian desert to the Salt Flat seems rather stupid and at the very least, extremely risky.  To get to the Salar De Uyuni, one must first traverse 600 miles of Bolivian desert void of any roads in a jeep.  The most important element in any tour is without question, the jeep within which you are riding.  There are varying degrees of jeep quality, but the jeep of choice for most all tour companies is the Toyota Land Cruiser.  Most all are outfitted with large off-road tires and huge steel roof racks to carry extra fuel, food and passenger cargo.  Most people and guide books recommend checking out the quality of your ride before signing up for a tour, as people are often stranded in the desert for days awaiting rescue and transport when their jeeps break down.  Given that I know jack shit about cars, I gave our jeep a pat on the hood (sounds good to me), checked to make sure the tires were not flat (looks good still) and crossed my fingers  after seeing that our jeep had over 200,000 miles on its odometer.
The next morning we woke up early to pack the jeep and meet our future travel mates.  You have the option of traveling with four or five passengers, not including the cook and the driver.  The idea of sharing a jeep for ten hours a day with seven other people did not sound so enjoyable, so we opted to pay a little more money to travel with only four passengers.  While loading up the jeep, Christina and I met Valentine and Laetitia, two French girls who were traveling together for a few weeks.  They spoke English, were our same age and immediately seemed warm and friendly; the next few days we would all grow very close. Our cook was Zaida, a shy twenty-year old who barely muttered a word our entire trip.  And, our driver was Edgar, a twenty-eight year old who had been driving this particular tour for the last three years.  His age and experience came into question moments after our drive began and we found ourselves hugging a tiny, two lane dirt road, carved out of the side of a mountain and perched precariously over 1,000 feet above the canyon lands below. Our first day we would drive for nearly nine hours, but we had barely been in the car for a half an hour and everyone was already questioning what sort of adventure we had gotten ourselves into.  It did not take long before we were in the middle of nowhere, having left any trace of industrialized civilization long behind us.
The desert if fun.  Yay!

They're fun to watch and eat for lunch.
The next four days we would drive over 600 miles across the Bolivian desert and traverse nearly the entire southern portion of Bolivia. And it would be some of the most interesting days of our entire trip.  The expression “off the grid” can barely begin to describe where we were and the places we traveled. The very word “desert” brings to mind isolation.  We, however, were traveling in a desert 15,000 feet -18,000 feet above sea level in one of the most isolated countries in the entire world (likely for that very same reason).  The landscape in this desert is often described as Martian like.  And, without question, when traveling across it, you certainly feel like you are on another planet. We went four days without traveling on a single road.  We passed countless volcanos, geysers spewing sulfuric mud and huge dried beds of borax.  Strangest of all were the countless lagoons we visited, lagoons that were red, grey, blue and white; at the top of the world, in one of the driest places on earth.  But, what truly made these lagoons unique was not their isolation, their location, but the fact that they were composed largely of arsenic and magnesium and on top of it, home to countless thousands of pink flamingos.  This was no drug induced hallucinogenic trip (although it seemed like at times), this was the real McCoy; hundreds of miles from any sort of industrialized civilization, in the middle of a dessert at +16,000 feet you can find a sprawling bright red chemical oasis home to home to flamingos too innumerable to count.  The smell of these lagoons will accost your nostrils and knock the breath right out of you, but the sight will leave a lasting impression.
Pink Flamingos in a pool of Arsenic and Magnesium. Why not?

The valley beside where we slept our first night.

The village we slept in our first night.
 The first night we arrived in a small village, where we would spend the night in a small mud hut hosted by a local family. Never in my life had I felt more isolated then on that first night. We had driven by a handful of pueblos on our way through the desert; groups of 10-12 dilapidated mud houses where llama herders or mine workers typically lived.  I was fascinated that a collective of people could survive in such total isolation and in such harsh conditions without any of the conventions of a traditional society: no plumbing, no cars and no electronics.  The pueblo we stayed in was home to around 100 people.  Each house was about the size of a standard bedroom (usually no bigger than 12x12’) where entire families would live, sleep and eat.  I simply could not wrap my head around it.  After we arrived, I took a brief walk up onto the hill that overlooked our pueblo and watched as the sun descended and turned the Monet clouds a beautiful shade of pink; it was beautiful.  I took a deep breath and everything that I had done to get to this place flashed through my mind, like some clichĂ© movie montage.  What a wonderful and vulnerable feeling it is to be so far from everything you know.  And sometimes, as in this case; everything you don’t.
The sun setting on our first night.
That night for dinner, we ate Llama for the second time that day.  It wasn’t as good as our lunch, but no one had high expectations.  Before going to bed, we threw on our head lamps and ventured out into the valley to take a look at the stars.  There are moments in your life when you convince yourself that what you are seeing is something that will never be repeated; something truly once in a lifetime.  And, there is often no greater feeling than proving yourself wrong.  Both in New Zealand and Torres del Paine, I saw stars so innumerable, so plentiful, that I thought could not be repeated, not anywhere else in the world, not if my lifetime.  Well, I was wrong and what a delight it was.  At night in the desert, the clouds disappear and the sweltering heat gives way to freezing temperatures leaving a remarkably clear sky-the clearest I’ve ever seen.  We were hundreds of miles away from any city and it’s ambient light.  The stars that night made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  You could see Jupiter clearly, the Milky Way peppered the black sky in a way I’ve never seen and shooting stars fired off as if on command.  We spent about a half an hour under the stars before the cold and creepy desert noises got the better of us.  We headed back to our mud hut, threw on every layer available (a potato sack roof, no heater and sub zero weather makes for a shitty combination) and set our alarms for 4:00.  We would hit the road the next day before sunrise.
"Is it just me, or is this road bumpy?

Getting high.  (That's 16,021.5 feet)
Fun with altitude!!!!

The stone tree.  Yes kids, sand did that!
The following three days were long and exhausting.  Riding in a jeep at 40 M.P.H. across the desert for 10 hours a day feels a bit like being on a roller coaster that never ends.   We were lucky to have the company of Valentine and Laetitia, who were always up for sing-alongs and good conversation.  We picked each others brains constantly about each other’s cultures and often poked fun at the ridiculousness of them.  Had we been cooped with a forty something couple that didn’t speak English, I would have jumped out of the jeep at the nearest cliff, but, we were lucky; they were great!  Each day more or less began to bleed into the next.  The scenery was often awe inspiring, but sometimes featureless.   I won’t bore you with the boring parts because, well­-they’re fucking boring.  But, below are some highlights and memorable moments (but, first two random pictures I couldn't fit anywhwere else)

A volcano.  We saw too many to count. I named this one Cledis.

 Our Christmas card.  Also, the railroad of death.
- THE JEEP Problems with the jeep and complete breakdowns.  Our jeep had at least five problems during our trip.  They included two flat tires, replacement of an alternator, and some other major problem of which I’m still not certain, except for the fact it was certainly the worst of the bunch.  Watching Edgar (our driver) fix a flat tire, in the middle of the desert, while wearing a sweater in 95 degree heat without out so much as forming a single bead of sweat on his forehead was impressive.  There was no spare, he had to remove the tube from the giant off road tire and patch it by hand with a lighter and god knows what else.  At another point,  when our jeep broke down within sight of the mud village we were sleeping in, Edgar spent the following five hours (after having driven for nine hours that day) completely dissembling our jeep in the dark.  I’m not sure what the problem was, but his tools were minimal and I shit you not, the repair involved multiple fabrications from soup cans in the mud village.  Edgar was a man of very few words, but he knew how to drive and repair his vehicle.
- THE ALTITUDE  The altitude is certainly one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  Regardless of whether or not you had properly acclimated (we did not), sleeping at 16,000 feet every night is enough to throw you for a loop.  Everyone got sick at one point and popped Soroche (altitude sickness pills).  We reached our highest point at the geysers, where we would spend 30 minutes.  The geysers were at 18,000 feet and I felt every foot of it. I had declined the altitude pills that day which turned out to be to a school boy error on my part.  While walking around the geysers of boiling sulfuric mud, I hit a wall and my knees nearly buckled (the last thing you want to happen while walking around pools of 500 degree mud).  My head was spinning, my stomach was churning and my mind was racing.  Edgar, noticing the sudden loss of color in my face, offered me a handful of Coca leaves.  I gladly accepted, knowing that people of the Andes have been chewing Coca hundreds of years to relieve the affects of altitude.  Coca leaves take about 30 minutes to take effect, but eventually I was feeling normal again and thankful to be heading back to 16,200 feet, where we would spend the night again.
-OFF THE GRID, OR MAYBE NOT? There’s one valuable thing I learned from this trip: no matter how far you travel, no matter hard you try to leave behind the trappings of conventional society; it will find you!  This idea first came to mind while riding through the desert canyon lands and listening to Boy George and Twisted Sister.  True, it was only the first day of our trip, but were already in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Llamas and wild Vicunas and we were all playing sing along with Cindy Lauper.  I could not help but to acknowledge this strange paradox.  This moment was not so much disappointing as it was ironic.  However, there were a few moments during our trip that made me wonder whether or not there were places on this earth that truly remained pure.  And by that, I mean places that had not been touched by Coca-Cola.  It’s a bizarre to be in the middle of the desert, in one of the most isolated countries on earth and to come across a mud village of 25 with a Coca Cola sign hanging precariously from their window.  What a tragedy.

The last night of our trip, as we neared the Salar de Uyuni, we stayed in a hostel, in the middle of the desert, made completely out of salt.  The floors, the walls, the chairs, the ceilings and the beds were all made completely out of salt. The “Salt Hostel” had been our nicest accommodation in the past few days.  And, after eight hours on the road and a very long dust storm, we were anxious to arrive to a place that served  extremely expensive beer, that had a roof not made out of potato sacks and a shower you could pay to use (although the shower did not end up working out as planned).  When we arrived, we were still catching the tail end of the dust storm, so I helped Edgar unload (as usual) as the girls headed in for cover.  While outside, I made friends with a little piggy who tried to bite the ankles of fellow travelers, but apparently warmed up to me (he must have smelled all of the pork in my blood).  That next morning we woke up at 4:30 to head to the salt flats; the grand finale.
Me and my piggy!

More fun with trick photography.

The Salar de Uyuni is something that is impossible to describe in words, but the pictures below will hopefully paint a picture, so I will stop short of writing in detail. It is the largest salt flat in the world, spanning over 12,000 square kilometers.  It is huge, it is flat, it is made entirely of salt and it sits at over 12,000 feet.  In the middle of the Salar lies the Isla De Pescadores, a small island oasis populated by thousands of Cactuses (or is it Cacti?).  After stopping at the Isla for a 5:30 breakfast, we hit the road to explore the rest of the Salt Flat.  Driving across the Salt Flat is quite a trip.  The horizon is so flat and so expansive, it’s impossible to grasp, causing your mind and your eyes to play a game back and forth; each one questioning the other.  Because the Salar de Uyuni is the largest, flattest place on earth, it lends itself to perspective bending photography.  We tried our best, but others have done much better.
The Salar de Uyuni and the Isla de Pescadores.

An island in the middle of a salt flat full of thousand of cacti?  Why of course!
When we finally finished our trip, everyone was exhausted, covered in dirt and smelling like a herd of Llamas.  We rolled into the small desert town of Uyuni, where we would wait for an overnight bus to La Paz with Laetitia and Valentine.  What an amazing trip it had been, one of the most memorable and IMPRESSIVE of my life.  In life, I love nothing more than the discovery of something new and the realization of how little I actually know.  What a beautiful feeling it is.  Thanks for following this journey.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Sayta Ranch and the Famous "Enrique"

Images not as clear as usual.  I've started compressing the images for the web as WiFi is not so great in Bolivia and Peru. Use your imagination, it's still beautiful
While hiking in Torres Del Paine, Christina and I met a Chris and Jane, a British couple who had spent three days at the Sayta Ranch, about an hour outside of Salta, Mendoza.  They told elaborate stories of horseback riding in the mountains; massive midday assadas and a charming ranch removed from, well­-pretty much everything.  They also began to paint a picture of Enrique, the owner of the ranch, the orchestrator of all things meat and the master of everything with four legs.  I’ve always loved horses.  I spent a lot of time as a child, hugging my dad’s leg as he cheered on the thoroughbreds at a racetrack in Kentucky, near our house.  My father has been involved in horseracing since the 1970’s, so much of our small talk at the dinner table revolved around horses.  And, since as far as I can remember, I made it a personal life goal to own a small piece of land with a riding horse, lots of four-legged critters and a pond where I can fish and play fetch with my dogs.  So, when I heard of Enrique’s ranch in all its glory, it sounded like a dream come true.  And, from the moment I realized I would be visiting Argentina, I had conjured up images up riding horses in the mountains with gauchos.  So, it was settled.  Christina and I traded glances across a picnic table and without a spoken word; we both agreed that we would visit the Sayta Ranch.
Getting to Sayta Ranch would require an 18 hour bus ride from Mendoza, Argentina to Salta, where we would then be picked up at the bus terminal and transferred by car another hour to Sayta Ranch.  We caught an overnight bus leaving Mendoza at 8:00p.m.  After a bizarre game of bingo in Spanish, a few hours of dodgy sleep and five movies, we arrived at the Salta bus terminal.  Outside of the bus terminal, a man held a sign that read “Clayton”.  We hopped in his car and quickly made our way out of the city and into the rolling countryside peppered with adobe houses and perfectly spaced rows of tobacco.  An hour later, Christina and I arrived at Sayta Ranch.
All the pretty horses.


As we hopped out of the car, we were nearly tackled by Mickai, a humongous Dogo Argentino with testicles the size of baseball. And, Fiona, a rambunctious yellow lab that immediately made me miss my own dog, Lola.  Before even getting our footing, we were greeted with an aggressive hug and kiss by Enrique: a burly, big bellied Argentinean with a grey beard and a large knife tucked squarely into the front of his rather large custom embroidered belt.  Enrique is the type of character that appears only in movies and books.  He’s like a Latin American Earnest Hemingway, with bits of Juan Valdez and Indiana Jones mixed in.  We set our backpacks on a bench and before we knew what hit us, Enrique had pulled us over to a long wooden table underneath an awning and began pouring full glasses of wine while he filled our plates with chorizo, blood sausage, beef ribs,  tenderloin and sirloin; all perfectly charred over a wood burning fire.  Christina and I had met more than a handful of people while traveling that had crossed paths with the famous “Enrique”, so we were well aware of the mid-day all you can drink and eat meat festivals.  However, we were not prepared for Enrique’s unique form of “meat hazing”.  Enrique, admittedly, lives only off of bread, wine, and meat with an occasional hand rolled cigarette.  He claims his diet has kept him healthy and as such, he has turned it into a quasi religion of which, he makes no qualms about recruiting people to the cult of “meat”.  In a matter of thirty minutes, Christina and I had been force fed a bottle and a half of wine and enough meat to feed a family of five.  After begging for mercy, Enrique finally let us up from the table to see our modest accommodations.  I felt slightly ill and really buzzed, but optimistic about the next few days.
 Enrigue working the grill.
 A lunch for five.

Our humble abode.
The next few days were some of the most relaxing days I can remember.  We were over an hour from any sort of industrialized civilization on a picturesque farm where dogs, chickens, ducks and all sorts of four-legged critters roamed freely.  We were being hosted by a small, but gregarious Argentine family and not a single word of English was spoken during our three day stay.  What a unique experience it was,  each day consisted roughly of the following:
-Wake up and have coffee and bread outside of the horse barn
-Take a morning three hour horse ride through the endless fields of tobacco plants and into the foothills of surrounding green mountains
-Return by 1:30p.m. for our midday assada in which a small group of guests would be force fed as much wine and meat as they could possibly stomach before their refusal to eat more turned down right angry.
-3:00 hop back on the horse, completely full, rather buzzed and noticeably sore to head back into the mountains for additional horseback riding.
-Return by 7:00 for coffee and tea outside and relax as Enrique peppers everyone with questions about the ride.
-8:00 Enrique would begin force feeding us red wine.
-10:00 we would enjoy dinner in the kitchen of Enrique’s house, after which more wine and lots of storytelling would ensue
-12:00 hit the sack and continue to be woken up every hour by rooster’s cockle-doodle-doing!!!

 Just trotting along...
 The Ranch.
Me and my horse. My big ass surely made him tired.
Some Highlights:
*Riding a horse at full gallop is an amazing and being able to do so at will in the Argentine mountains makes you feel a bit like John Wayne reincarnate.  However, my body was sourly unprepared for the beating it would take.  When I woke up on my second day, I honestly thought I could not walk to the bathroom, let alone sit on the toilet. Subsequent horsehides were painful, but eventually worked out the soreness.
*On our second night, after many, many glasses of wine and conversation, Enrique escorted us to a secret room where he kept a rather large and impressive collection of illegal guns and ammunition that his father had started when he was a child.  In this room were at least 100 different types of guns hanging on the walls and lining the floors.  He had lugers from WW II, civil war era pistols, the actual knife used in the Crocodile Dundee film and an endless assortment of other guns, many of which I’m sure were bought and smuggled illegally into Argentina.  More impressive, however, were the grenade launchers, shoulder fired rockets, live mortars, grenades, Gatling guns, and the single live ground to air missle in the corner of the room.  I was forbidden from taking any pictures, but hopefully you can get the idea.  After an hour of explaining his favorite weapons in detail, we retired back to the kitchen where we drank more wine and continued exchanging stories as best as we could.

On our last night, Mickai, the giant Dogo Argentino, ate one of Enrique’s enormous white ducks.  It was kind of sad, but also pretty funny to see Enrique’s reaction at the paradox of having one of his beloved creatures eat another of his beloved creatures.
 Just another ride...

Enrique with Christina and I on our last night.

All told, our experience at Sayta ranch was beautiful.  It was a perfect escape from 40 days of crazy travel and Enrique is truly the type of character you only meat once in your life.  If you are ever in Argentina, head way north to the Chicoana region, about an hour outside of Salta and stop by the Sayta Ranch to visit Enrique.  This is a place I will definitely visit again before I die.  Thanks for following along on this crazy journey.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mendoza, Argentina: Wine, Beef and Wine.

 Have hade a bit of trouble with this post, so please excuse me.  Wi Fi in Bolivia is not the greatest.
Tuesday morning Christina and I woke up in Valparaiso, Chile and started our journey to Mendoza, Argentina.  We hopped on a semi-cama bus (these are buses with seats that recline, to some degree).  Our bus ride was supposed to be eight hours, but after spending over a month traveling in S. America, we knew better than to expect to arrive in time.  I have no idea what held us up at the border, but as busloads of foreigners passed us en route to Argentina, we sat outside of the border for an additional hour as immigration officials boarded our bus and called individuals by name to exit the bus for additional questioning.  Not long after finally hitting the pavement again, our bus was stopped by the Argentine military and they proceeded to board our bus and pepper a few individuals with questions. Eleven hours after we departed Valparaiso, we arrived safely in Mendoza, Argentina.
Mendoza, Argentina is considered by many the wine capital of S. America.  If you ask a Chilean, they will probably tell you differently.  But, make no mistake, most viticulturist, wine snobs and sommeliers know that Mendoza is a force to be reckoned with and home to the world’s best Malbecs.   However, the Mendoza Christina and I arrived in was a far cry from the Mendoza we had pictured in our head.  If we would have done our homework, we would have known that Mendoza was 4th largest city in Argentina.   I had pictured arriving to a small town set against the backdrop of the Andes with red dirt roads, children playing futbol in the street and street dogs standing guard at local bodegas.  Instead, we had arrived at a bustling city with sirens, exhaust and Coca-Cola signs abound.  Our first five minutes in Mendoza were not great, but every second there after left a lasting impression on us. Once we uncovered the Mendoza we had conjured up in our minds, we did not want to leave.
I left Valparaiso with the makings of a nasty head cold and it hit in full force upon our arrival in Mendoza.  I was pretty bummed, because I had just survived a nasty virus while in Patagonia and Santiago.  Maybe it was the fact that soap is found sparingly in most bathrooms, or that I had been cooped up in countless tiny busses with sneezing, sniffling, coughing people.  Or, that I had been forced to stuff the very toilet paper I had wiped my butt with in countless bins overflowing with other people’s ass rags (yes, you do not flush toilet paper in S. America.  It’s a matter of necessity, not culture).  Regardless, I was not feeling great and as we hit the pavement outside of the bus station and Christina flipped through our worn Lonely Planet book in search of our hostel, one thing became glaringly apparent: we were in a fucking desert.  It took a few blocks with a heavy rucksack to understand that head colds and hot, dry, arid desserts do not necessarily mix well.  Sweaty and begging for water after only twenty minutes of walking, Christina and I decided to hail a Taxi and pay the five pesos for him to find our hostel for us (five pesos is about $1.25 U.S.).  Less than five minutes after hopping in our taxi, we arrived at Hostel Lao.

We had heard great things about Hostel Lao prior to our arrival and for good reason.  Owned by two former backpackers, Hostel Lao seems like a utopian paradise compared to most of the places we’d stayed.  The backyard is full of sweet smelling flowers, multicolored hammocks, trinkets hanging from the trees and two playful dogs.  There are fridges full of beer and wine and each time you walk through the door, the staff greets you as if you have arrived at your actual home.  Christina and I grabbed a liter of Schneider upon arrival and sat in the backyard as we played fetch with Astor, a freakishly large German Shepherd with a head the size of a basketball.  It was a constant source of amusement in the hostel that Astor, who obsessed over fetch and could easily hold a human leg in his mouth, chose instead to play only with the tiniest, dandiest of leaves.   After finishing two liters of beer, Christina and I hailed a taxi to meet up with our friends Eric and Carla, who were finishing up their honeymoon in wine country.  At the suggestion of Carla, we found a posh dinner spot, ordered a round of steaks, some grilled provolone and a bottle of wine.  Grilled provolone is something I’ve seen only in Argentina and I love it.  The grill masters lop off a three inch thick piece of provolone from a giant log, smother it with garlic and spices and throw it over a wood burning grill. The result is a charred, oozing, delicious piece of cheesy heaven.   We finished yet another meal without a single vegetable, before bidding Carla and Eric farewell and wishing them good luck on the rest of their journey.

Mr. Hugo's- Time for wine.
On our first full day in Mendoza, Christina and I had decided to bike the local Mendoza wine route.  Though many of Mendoza’s best wineries remain far removed from the city in the countryside, there are a dozen or so in Maipu (an area of Mendoza about 40 minutes away) that can be accessed by bicycle.  There are a handful of companies that rent bikes, but by far the most famous is Mr. Hugo’s, whose company was recommended by countless travelers we’ve crossed paths with.  To get to Maipu, we had to first find some cold medicine, then buy a bus card, and then navigate our way forty minutes out of town, all with my broken Spanish.  I will not lie; I get a bit nervous when trying to accurately navigate the bus system in Chicago.  Hopping on a bus deep into the Argentine countryside with loads of uncertainty as to where our actual stop was had me wound a little tight. But, our lucky streak continued and we managed to find our way right to Mr. Hugo’s front door.
The wine museum.

Our fellow travelers did not embellish, after walking through the gates of Mr. Hugo’s before being greeted with a single “Hello” we were met with dixie cups brimming with wine.  Mr. Hugo did not speak a word of English, but he understood that anyone crazy enough to ride 20+ kilometers in the desert heat in search of wine clearly appreciated a good buzz.  Christina and I paid the 30 pesos a piece for our bikes, grabbed our tiny maps (about $7.50 U.S.) and hit the pavement in search of the El Museo del Vino (the museum of wine).

Trapiche Winery
  As we peddled to our first destination, it became apparent rather quickly that our bikes, which looked completely legit, clearly were not.  Never have I had to work so hard to peddle a bike on a flat piece of pavement.  Less than two miles into our journey, my thighs were burning and I had broken a solid sweat.  Christina’s bike was no different, we laughed as we strained to peddle our bikes in a straight line.  After touring the wine museum and heading to an olive oil manufacturer, we hit the road and began to work our way to some of the wineries. 

Maipu did not disappoint, it was all that we had hoped for when Christina and I decided to visit Mendoza.  Tall hedgerows of trees separated endless rows of grapevines and olive trees.  Forty year old cars kicked up dust as they crawled down red dirt roads. Children stood outside small adobe houses and waved as we passed and chickens, dogs and goats filled every other front yard.  Our bike lane quickly dissipated and Christina and I found ourselves hugging a small three inch piece of gravel as semi trucks and busses flew by, kicking up dust and spewing exhaust into our face. Our whole adventure quickly became a bit less romantic and fairytale once we were forced to share the road with eighteen wheelers.  But, we eventually found the Trapiche winery and all was forgotten for the moment.  Trapiche is a huge wine producer and unlike many of the mom and pop wineries that pepper the countryside in Maipu, has a very noticeable corporate edge to it. Still, we were delighted to hear the history of the 150 year old winery and taste some of their finest wines.  Two hours after our arrival, we were back on our bikes in search of some more wineries.  The cartoonish maps given to us at Mr. Hugo’s did not turn out to be accurate and I can’t say that I was necessarily surprised.  They had on them about a dozen wineries indicated with wine barrels and only a handful of streets.

Hefty tastings at Tempus Alba Winery.
After biking for thirty minutes and not passing a single street indicated on the map, Christina and I wondered whether we had taken a wrong turn.  As we stopped on the side of the road to consult our shitty maps, a truck driver pulled over and pointed down the road, ensuring us that we were headed in the right direction.  We arrived a short time later at the Tempus Alba winery and were both greeted with a friendly hug and a kiss from the owner.  Not soon after, we made our way outside to a beautiful terrace that over looked intermittent fields with carefully spaced rows of grapevines and olive trees.  We ordered two tastings and the owner brought ought six glasses nearly half full.
Ahh, it was delicious.

Vina al Cerno Winery
After savoring the wine and our vegetarian lunch (a rarity in Argentina), we hopped back on our bikes in search of Vino al Cerno, a small mom and pop winery down the road.   We stepped into a rustic, worn building that probably looked no different a hundred years ago.  We had our choice from a rather wide variety of wines and Christina and I both chose differently.  As they poured the wine for our tasting, it was clear we would walk out of Vino al Cerno with not only a better knowledge of their varietals, but a really solid buzz.  Surprisingly, our favorite wine was a sparkling chardonnay.  I am not usually a fan of white wines, especially Chardonnay, and Christina agrees.  But, this wine was truly unique and spectacular, like no other wine we had ever tasted.  We bought a single bottle and threw it in our basket as we began our long journey back towards Mr. Hugo’s. 
We arrived back to Mr. Hugo’s and were greeted by a swath of other bikers, enjoying the end of their day with unlimited amounts of Mr. Hugo’s special blend.  Christina and I settled into a table and struck up a conversation with some Canadians, a Swedish woman and two British girls. The wine flowed freely and Mr. Hugo ensured that everyone’s cup remained full.   Two hours later and rather drunk at this point, Mr. Hugo herded his group of tipsy bike riders onto the number #10 bus, making sure everyone made it on the correct bus back to the city.  I knew the bus ride home would be interesting.  Our bus was full of three dozen wine drunk gringos, all dawning ridiculous purple teeth and purple lips.  A few locals boarded the bus and although they were clearly not amused, I could tell this was a sight they had become quite accustomed to

Ohh..  One dozen empanadas down the hatch.
We stumbled into our hostel around 9 p.m. drunk, sun kissed and covered in dust from our day of biking. We were exhausted and starving, but we lacked the motivation to make ourselves presentable enough for a dinner in town.  Our options for takeout were limited to empanadas and pizza.  Our run-ins with Argentine pizza usually left us unsatisfied and slightly grossed out, so we headed to the empanada joint.  There must have been a run on empanadas, because they were out of nearly everything on their menu.  It was cheaper to order a dozen than to order a-la-carte, so we opted for a dozen carne empanadas, our usual go-to. Twenty minutes later, we were handed a folded brown paper package peppered with grease stains.  We were so excited; we nearly skipped back to the hostel.  After scoring some hot sauce from the hostel fridge, we ran up stairs and, to both my amazement and disgust, finished all 12 empanadas as we sat Indian-style in the bed and watched Spanish dubbed TV.

The hot spings!
The next day was Thanksgiving, although it did not feel like November, nor one of my favorite holidays.   When traveling for extended periods, it’s remarkably easy to lose track of time, especially when in a different hemisphere where the seasons and cultures are completely different.  In S. America, summer is just beginning.  The tell-tale signs of autumn and the holidays are nowhere to be seen.  I usually spend my Thanksgivings hunting with my father, followed by reunions with friends and one of the greatest meals my mom makes.  This year would be a bit different, but we were intent on making sure the day was special for both of us.
About an hour outside of Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes, lays a group of hot springs.  Some one hundred years ago, someone decided to capitalize on the natural wonders and create a hotel and spa.  Christina and I had heard about the hot springs from more than a handful of people, so we decided to treat ourselves to a day at the spa.  We were picked up at 9:00 a.m and herded into a small van where not even the driver spoke a lick of English.  The ride out to the spa was beautiful.  We passed through dessert, canyon lands and countless pueblos before arriving in the brown foothills of the Andes.   Christina and I were the only ones to exit the van and, after a very confusing exchange with the driver, I finally settled on what time and place we would be picked up and our day began.

The spa sits in a small canyon, nestled tightly against two Andean foothills.  Everyone visiting the spa usually does the circuit: consisting of different hot springs, waterfalls, and natural saunas formed inside of caves.   Upon entering the hotel/spa, we were handed white robes and we spared no time signing up for half hour massages.  We made our way down to the canyons edge and, in series of hand gestures delivered by an old woman, were explained the progression of the hot springs.  Essentially, you start cold and work your way up to the hottest springs, before cooling back down.  Mid way through, it’s customary to rub mud from the springs all over your entire body, and then sit under the sun for a half an hour as the mud dries.  The mud was somewhat of a comedic experience for me.  Rubbing handfuls of squishy mud all over my beer belly on purpose just made me laugh, I couldn’t help it.  Once you hit the sun, and the mud begins to dry, you feel as if someone has shot your entire body up with Botox; it’s tough to crack a smile or even move.  When you reach the point where you body has nearly turned to stone, you hit a series of very hot, and very powerful jets that clean you off and massage you at the same time.  It was an interesting experience, but I came out of it with my skin feeling like a baby’s ass.  Around 1 p.m., Christina and I headed to our massage.

And the beast!

Getting baked; suprisingly fun!

The site of the hotel and spa

I’ve had only a handful of massages in my life and most of them have been memorable for all of the wrong reasons.  There was the old lady in Thailand who kept repeatedly grazing my family jewels even as I laughed, cringed, and repeatedly asked her not to.  There was the $1 massage in Cambodia, where I was led into a dark damp room, forced to lay down on a very, very dirty mattress, where a tiny Cambodian woman proceeded to beat the living crap out of me and I squealed in pain.  The massage I had at the Mendoza was less of a massage and more of tickle fight.  And, the coup de grace was when the masseuse took an entire palm full of massage oil and proceeded to rub it into my scalp, much to my disgust.  I knew the massage was finished when she proceeded to take tiny Chinese medicine balls emblazoned with yin-yangs and play me a little song, making sure she hit everybody part.  ...Another massage failure for me.

After the massage, Christina and I headed to the buffet, which we had heard many good things about.  The buffet included more vegetables than I had seen in Argentina in the sixteen some-odd days that I had spent there.   There were mounds of grilled meat, most of which neither of us could discern nor did we know the Spanish name for it, so we just pointed and smiled as we piled our plates high with one spoonful of everything.  After another round at the mud bath and a circuit in the hot springs, our day came to an end and we headed back to Mendoza in a 90 degree van.

There’s not a turkey to be found in S. America.  In fact, I have not eaten a single piece of poultry in over a month, so I immediately retired any notion of trying to find any semblance of a Thanksgiving dinner and instead, opted for more steak. On the wall of our hostel, there was a whiteboard where the staff wrote down suggestions for various tours, things to do around town, and places to eat.  During the entire time of our stay, there was single bolded line item that did not change: “Don Mario’s- The Best Steak on Earth.”   Thanksgiving would not be complete without completely gorging ourselves, so without turkey or any other accoutrement, we would have to settle for steak.  Christina and I both showered up, dawned the nicest clothes we brought with us and sat in the backyard of Hostel Lao where we enjoyed the sparkling chardonnay from Vina al Cerno we had bought the day prior.

We had traveled much of Argentina by this point and although we had dined on more than our fair share of steaks, we had yet to eat a steak that really blew us away.  For the most part, we had abstained from meat and red wine while in Chile in anticipation of the massive amounts of red wine and grilled meat we would consume when we arrived in Mendoza.  We arrived at Don Mario’s at 10:00 p.m. and much to our dissapointment, we were among only a small group of people at the restaurant.  We opted to sit outside because it was a nice night.  As the waiter took our order, he ensured us that these indeed would be the best steaks we’d ever eaten.  Christina ordered the lomo (filet) and I ordered the Bife de Chorizo (the most expensive steak on the menu).  By the time our salad arrived, the entire restaurant was packed and a small line was starting to accumulate outside.  Just as we polished off our salad, I saw our waiter bearing down on our table with two huge hunks of perfectly charred meat.  As he set my steak on the table, I could not believe the actual size; it must have been at least 28 o.z.  Both steaks sat in a small pool of their own juice, they were piping hot and their color a perfect mix of burgundy and burnt wood.  I sliced off the first very thin piece of the char to reveal a perfectly cooked medium rare piece of meat beneath it: like opening up a present on Christmas day and receiving exactly what you had asked for.  I popped it in my mouth and smiled ear to ear.  I took one more bite to confirm my own internal dialogue before Christina and I both simlutanously exulted that it was, in fact, the best steak we had ever eaten.  I did my best work, but after thirty minutes of widdling down the mammoth piece of meat, I gave up and Christina swooped in to finish what was left.  If you are ever in Mendoza, go to Don Mario’s for the best steak on earth.

The best steak of my life!!!!!!!

Astor; waiting for a leaf.
We slept in the next day in preparation for our upcoming travel.  We were going to hop on an 18 hour bus to Salta, where we would spend the next three days relatively off the grid at Sayta Ranch riding horses and shaking off the city.  But, before we could do so, we had to prepare for Bolivia.  I had been researching and trying to plan our travel to Bolivia since August, but had been unable to nail down all of the details.  Not only is Bolivia the poorest and least developed country in S. America, it is also particularly difficult for Americans to travel there since the election of Evo Morales, a coca famer which the U.S. has come down rather harshly on.  As such, we are practically the only citizens in the world who need a visa to enter Bolivia. So, we spent our last day in Mendoza sitting at an internet cafĂ©, printing all of the financial and travel documents necessary to enter Bolivia, as well as trying to find a place that was crazy enough to exchange some Argentine Pesos for Bolivianos.   We accomplished as much as we could and hoped for the best, knowing that Mendoza would be the most developed place we would set foot in for the next three weeks.   Here goes nothing! Thanks for following us along on this adventure.


Preparation for Bolivia.