We set off from San Pedro de Atacama, high up in the desert plains, for Argentina with trepidation, at least for me. We had flown into Buenos Aries nearly a month ago and undertaken a three city tour of BA, Cordoba and Mendoza with a short interlude in the picturesque Gaucho town of San Antonio de Arecca. In the cold, gloomy early spring it had failed to capture me. The warmth of Rio and its people gave me an ache, pulling me back. There had been exceptions; a fabulous day at the Estancia in San Antonio where the sun shone bright and we were delighted by the delightful gaucho hosts and other fun filled guests. Our hostel host at San Antonio was wonderfully helpful, but it had felt rather like ‘The Shinning’ in the deserted guest house that was ice cold. Our historic Air BnB in BA was a ‘Colonel Fazackerly Butterworth Toast had an old castle complete with a ghost’ experience. High ceilings, with original French windows, tiled floors, and the original fixtures and fitting may look pretty but with one electric heater and no external vista I was left more than physically cold. Joy in BA came with the aged tango dancer partnering a stunning elfin beauty with timeless elegance, the wonderful waitress in the beautiful restaurant (that served us tourist steaks that did a disservice to all), and the fusion musicians that funked up Tango to our delight. Cordoba and Mendoza brought a richness to us in the shape of fellow traveller; Roberta the Italian beauty who bounced delight and energy into everyone through the sheer force of her personality (Fred might just find an Italian girlfriend after his encounter), and great hostel hosts (Wilhelmina from Brazil, gentle, kind, funny and bringing us all together through a communal meal), and the mixed aged group of men from BA who’s car had broken down in Mendoza on the way back from them watching Argentina play Uruguay and were stranded with us for 3 days. I’ll dwell on them for a bit, with not a word of English we bonded over our steaks that were too much for us to finish off, and the free red wine. Football and Fred brought us together. No doubt in England they would have been Milwall supporters. They travelled to South Africa for the World Cup and went to every Argentina International game, they were planning Russia. A bouncer, mechanic, trade unionist and factory worker we hope that our encounter meant they hated the Brits a little less. We were thankful we had bought Fred a Bojca Junior no 10 Carlitos shirt, it might just have saved us. In contrast to the warmth of some, we found poor service of the careless kind that is just unnecessary, and aloof unfriendliness that raises my hackles. Dean has more empathy, they may be shy, is his response. To my shame I don’t accept this. A smile costs nothing in response to a greeting. A short Spanish looking chap sealed it for me when 3 mornings on the trot he blanked me in our Mendoza hostel. Thinking on it I may go back and write up the 10 days I’ve had little motivation to capture, and search deep in me to find a bit more of Dean inside myself before I do.
To return to the theme, Argentina left me lukewarm (perhaps not quite cold) and as we had travelled through Chile and I was loathe to return. However, the 11 hour desert crossing, which we would have to repeat if we were to stay in Chile, gave me motivation to complete our planned circuit and give Argentina another go. After all this time we would be in a camper and not stranded in cities that had started to merge together. As the Orbital track from the 90’s goes ‘Open your mind’.
Another beautiful journey out of San Pedro to the border crossing across the Andes, 5,000m again, stunned us. We repeated our hilariously bizarre border crossing, moving along 4 glass booths at the border; to check ourselves out of Chile, ourselves into Argentina, to check the car out of Chile, and then into Argentina. Thankfully, despite our van proclaiming the hallucinogenic merits of cacti, we were not required to empty the van and pay a bribe, as is apparently common. The fabulous journey down to Susques was reward enough for our decision to cross again into Argentina. A small town, populated only by the indigenous people, sports original buildings and chapel from the mid 1500s. A hotel, newly established, provided us with lunch, dinner and a place to park up. We bought a bottle of the local red with a late lunch, and being newly abstemious, kept half of it for dinner. Still at 3,500m we were shattered by 8pm and hit the sack not long after. This time we had Chico for company, a bull terrier / Alsatian cross who wore his wind proof jacket over his long fur. Not interested in our manufactured Chilean dry dog food, he nevertheless lay at the foot of our ladder all night.
Midnight loo break showed us the stars were just as bright in Argentina at this height, and we had warmed up to our new country with the lovely care taken of us by the hotel staff. We took the morning slowly when it came, as Fred slumbered on. Dean and I read through the guide books, selecting locations we might linger on the iconic Route 40 that we were taking down to Mendoza, drinking our freshly brewed coffee in the company of Chico. The next few nights were taken care of, Jujy we would skirt, stopping at the thermal baths with free camping, followed by a campsite with waterslides outside of Salta. After that we needed to work our route and timescales to make it back to Santiago in time.
When Fred eventually woke we had a plan in place and set off. We had been anticipating a jaded desert trip for the next few days but the guide books, and annotated maps, had failed to mention that our descent would take us through the ‘Rainbow Valley’. Breathtakingly beautiful it beat the Lunar Valley hands down. I can only think that God got bored one day and picked up a paint brush. The colours defied logic. Sandstone yellow sat next to verdant green, greys, blues, reds and pinks. When we re-read the books the trip is described as the route to Bolivia. Yes, it is, but only part of it. We had turned off route 52 onto route 9 which took us through the heart of this painter’s palette. All the while the sun shone down and the sky was a vibrant blue backdrop. Women sat on the roadside knitting, broad brimmed hats protecting them from the sun, brightly coloured ponchos keeping them warm at the high altitudes. On top of this the cacti were enormous. Dean had been rather disappointed by the ‘Giant Cacti’ promised on the road to the Tatio Geysers, here was delayed gratification. As we dropped down through the ‘Rainbow Valley’ verdant green quickly replaced rocky desert and the route was lined with huge green willow trees. Horses grazed the roadside, untethered. We were right to push on. Lesson learnt.
Horror came in the form of Argentinian driving and highways. We hit a main highway, which had no hard shoulder, and which had huge mounds of surplus tarmac pushed to the edge, but on, the carriage. The first one caught us out, and we flew into the air, crashing down with all our belongings scattered through the van. We modified our expectations, but the drivers around us truly left us in fear of our lives. The Taxi driver who had picked us up in Buenos Aries at night, had driven at 90 mph, in a clapped out car, in driving rain, nose to tail with the car in front. Although it was a hot sunny day, the driving was no different at the opposite end, and side, of the country. Further amazement came when we saw cattle, horses and goats grazing the grass verge along the way. Like the dogs in Chile and Argentina they seem to have more road sense than our car driven children, let alone our captive stock. Occasionally we came across burning grass verges, sometimes a few kilometres in length. No fire engines charging out to tackle it, instead they are left to burn out. So we recalibrated ourselves and tried to relax through the drive.
With only £10 of Argentinian Peso’s we came a bit unstuck as we pulled off the highway and into the village of Villa Jardin en route to the Termas de Reyes, where we were hoping to ‘take the waters’ in an open air pool and free camp. Nearly out of gas (though we carry a full can for emergencies), the gas station didn’t take Credit Cards. Argentina is a nearly wholly cash economy, which accounts for the low income tax collected and the high VAT they levy. Only problem is everyone pays cash to avoid the VAT and as a consequence the majority of transactions must be done with notes and therefore provide no income to the state. We later learnt that flat rate of tax circa 20% regardless of income earnt, has also driven up VAT rates, a penalty on the poor. It’s a country where the low tax burden on the high income groups has resulted in the penalised finding a way around, cash only. We were shocked to learn that some government departments also only transact in cash with their contractors, and sub contractors.
Our need for fuel required us to set off down the road to Jujy, assured by the garage that it was the only place to get cash. Fortunately 2 minutes down the road we spotted an ATM, a quick u-turn and we had avoided an hour long detour. A lady and her parents were selling Empanadas outside the ATM so we bought 6 homemade chicken Empanadas for the grand total of £1.50, giving her £2 and exchanging photos. Back up to the garage for a re-fuel and re-stock in the adjoining corner store. We got a taste of what was to come when shopping in Argentina for the first time here. We picked up some red wine but were told that we really shouldn’t buy that one, and were offered another. A male customer had come into the shop for provisions. He didn’t agree. He went around the counter and brought out another bottle. With us as silent witnesses, they debated which red wine we should be allowed to buy. Once they had settled on a bottle we were presented with it. Fearing we were going to get hit for a £10 bottle, I asked how much it was. Grand total £3.50. We took 2. In need of meat and veg we were directed down the road back towards the ATM. In a fabulously poorly stocked store we found everything we needed. We asked if he had chicken, he came out from a walk in freezer with a huge beast of a chicken, and happily cut it in half and then cleaved it into chunks, still on the bone. Loaded up, and with a full tank, we set up off the hill up to the baths.
It was such a pretty drive up through the valley, and we arrived at the baths hot, dusty, and just a little smelly after 2 sweaty desert days, and a nights free camping. Much to Dean’s delight, and Fred’s, the Termas was an outdoor pool into which hot spring water was pumped. We paid our entry fee of £4 each and joined the families, who had trooped up here after school and work. The bar was open, and the many BBQ pits were in full use, surrounded by ample cuts of beef and bottles of red wine. The water was a wonderful 35 degrees and we were soon soaking ourselves. Fred found a local boy to play football with. His skills were amazing, and at 13 he was more than happy to coach the younger English boy. As Fred passed the next 3 hours between the pool and the homemade football pitch, Dean and I read and lazed, happy to be amongst greenery. Lonely Planet had said you could free camp in the carpark opposite, so I asked at the pool bar. A confusing conversation ensued; no English on the part of anyone, and limited Spanish on mine. I drew a diagram of our bus with rooftop tent to try and clear up our request, but still more confusion. Eventually it turned out the answer was yes, to the original question I had asked in Spanish, which could have been answered with a universal OK. On the other hand I wouldn’t have bonded with the 6 people who gathered to join the novel experience. I left Dean and Fred at the pool and crossed the road to put on a chicken, carrot, celery, onion and parsley pot stew. After an hour of slow cooking it was nearly ready and the boys came back to the van just as the pool was closing up at 7pm. As Dean hunted for the corkscrew a beaten up car pulled up alongside us. A mother, father and son leaned out admiring Stan. It wasn’t long before they were out of the car, Dad with a full cheek of Coca leaves and clearly having had a skin full too, Mum smoking and sporting red bloodshot eyes. As the son, who turned out to be the same age as Fred, got out it was clear that he was suffering foetal alcohol syndrome, or the effects of a bump to the head from the large scar across his forehead. I was embraced by Dad, Mum got into the van where Dean was still rummaging, and the son wandered around in a daze of mental absence. Experienced with drunks, having run a bar for 6 months in a French ski resort, I continuously thanked them for stopping and explained we needed to sit down for ‘La Serena’. Fred who was nervously watching for any light fingered activity, was ushered to the table and I walked Dad to the car. They happily got in and after a few more minutes of salutations they sped off. We tried not to think too hard about an unbelted 10 year old in a car with 2 drunk parents and the driver fresh on Coca leaves. Even more remarkable, he was a geography high school teacher, and would be back in the classroom the next day at 7am on a Tuesday.
Dinner was delicious, as was the wine that the village had selected for us. We settled down early for an undisturbed night, first having moved the campervan behind a row of trees, cautious after encountering the Geography Teacher on a weekday, to guard against fast drunk drivers missing the bend on their way home. Morning brought a glorious day. We had no facilities so headed down to the stream that passed behind our van, masked by bushes and trees. Crystal clear mountain water, and natural pools, invited an icy bath. It was another wonderful travelling experience. Without soap or shampoo I washed head to toe and dried in the sunlight. Refreshed we set off for a campsite near Salta, bracing ourselves for more hairy Argentinian highways and drivers. In San Pedro de Atacama we had met an elderly Dutch couple who had been provided with a campsite guide by their rental company. They had tried the Salta Municipal site but hated it on arrival and headed South to one 15km away. On their advice this is the one we were going to try. We had a lovely encounter with a family from Buenos Aries at the Salta Tourist Info, who after we left came up behind us, overtaking and showing us the road we needed to take. We parted with honking horns and hands waving out of the windows.
We missed the supermarket turn, again, and found ourselves 5km away from the countryside campsite. A small village appeared on our right and we pulled in to see what we could buy. In the carport of her house a woman was running a fruit and veg stand, including, to our amazement, leeks and sprouts. We went in and found a fantastic array of fresh produce. A substantial sale made she directed us around the corner to the butcher. This was our first proper Argentinian butchers experience, for a small village the range was outstanding. Cold meats sat alongside, homemade sausages, and slabs of trip and other offal. One half of his refrigerated counter was dedicated to every cut of beef you could imagine. Dean was determined to do his own ‘Argentinian BBQ’ at the next campsite so we asked him for 3 of his best cuts. An elderly lady, who had also come from the carport fruit and veg shop, was by now sat on the bench in the butchers waiting to be served next. She stood up and discussed with the butcher which of the cuts we should be sold. After some discussion he retreated into a back fridge and returned, smiling, with a huge piece of beef on the bone. The elderly lady nodded in agreement, and he began to take a section off the bone and trim it. He placed his knife to the thickness he proposed, but we urged him to give us a bigger cut each. Eyebrows raised, he did so. We started to dread the cost. No fear was warranted, 3 best cut thick steaks cost a total of £5. We left laden with cold meats, sausages, a half chicken butchered into pieces still on the bone, and half a dozen eggs. He threw in, for free, a large slice of an unidentifiable cold cut, the elderly lady enthusiastically nodding and telling me what to do with it. Not a clue I’m afraid. But later at lunch Dean enjoyed it cold, though I declined it I’m afraid. Our final stop was across the dirt road at the shop that sold dry unperishable goods. We let them choose the wine, £3 a litre, and finished our grocery shopping. Yet again local shopping had provided great goods and wonderful insight into a small village life. The people had warmed us, and my reticence about Argentina was fading fast.
As we took the country lane for the last few kilometres we passed countless horses and a man trotting down the road trailing a couple of small ponies. Pretty, compact, dusty, Estancias lined the lane, dogs lazed in the middle of it, we were clearly meant to go around them. We turned into the campsite and were greeted with the fabulous sight of a waterslide, and then the anxiety provoking sight of coaches and hoards of children. Were we going to be crushed by no availability in this low season? I jumped out of the van, to the sound of boom boxes and a swimming pool full of joyful high school aged kids, and went into the office. The most beautiful and elegant of women greeted me. Long luscious black hair, framed a delicately featured face that was lightly, but perfectly, made up. Of course we were welcome, and she was sorry about the children, they would be gone by 6pm as they were on a day trip out. She showed us where we could park and asked if there was anything we needed, she was going into the city later and would happily get us supplies. A wonderful welcome. Dean found a spot we liked and we set up camp. Stan, yet again, was the source of much amusement and curiosity to the kids. It was the teachers, fag in hand, who approached us to admire him, the children more cautious. Fred changed into his swim gear and we brewed some coffee, ready for a relax in the shade from the sun. Next to us the most enormous of speakers had been placed, as they were around the many enclaves that different groups had set up, and Argentinian dance music blared out full blast. We rather enjoyed the festival atmosphere. The kids had various tasks in their year and subject groups, one of which had been to create a huge canvas art work. The fabric 10m x 10m was stretched between trees, secured at 4 corners. Dean went over to admire and take pictures. A couple of kids picked up the courage to come and talk to us, in Spanish of course. Where were we from? Where had we been? They were amazed at our trip. A group of three beautiful teenage girls giggled with us, and with sweet beguiling voices whispering their admiration. What we were doing was, apparently, beautiful and magical. The Latin based words suited their profound view of our trip. We take for granted what we are doing, and it’s when others, who don’t have this opportunity, and who may never leave their city let alone country, respond to us that we are reminded just how lucky we are.
Chicken and leek casserole, cooked slowly in a white wine stock, simmered for a couple of hours. As I washed the leeks the owner who was in consultation with her plumber at the outdoor sinks, wanted to know what veg it was and what I was cooking. I can recommend a game of vegetable based charades as great fun. Hand gestures to show that they grew above the ground, and the use of ‘blanco’ and ‘vert’ to describe the colours and they finally nodded and agreed that it was indeed leeks. I described what I was cooking and that it was a slow pot dish, and she jokingly asked if she could join us for dinner. The plumber wanted to come too. Meanwhile Dean had got into conversation with one of the Chemistry students. Excellent English on his part meant Dean learnt all about the group and their day out. Lorenzo was clearly the most studious and committed of teenagers. He had the ambition to become and engineer. Dean told him about our ALMA visit, their discovery of proteins containing sugar in space, and the work they were doing on black holes, and he was amazed. He promised to go on their excellent student website. They parted Facebook friends, and with an offer to him that we would host him if he ever got to come to England.
At 6pm the kids started to depart. As they did so more of them got the courage to approach us, after a couple of hours of observing us. The many vast stereo speakers were carried by 4 people each to their buses, and others came over and tested out their English, that was about as good as my Spanish. The surly became sweet, dissolving quickly into giggles as they took it in turn to ask us questions. Fred was made to take off his sunglasses so they could coo at his blue eyes, they beckoned others over to see them, marvelling at his combination of blonde hair and blue eyes. When they had finally gone, chased up by the chain smoking teachers, Fred decided we needed a family swim in the freezing pool. At the pool there was another smaller group of older kids, that turned out to be 6th formers from Buenos Aries on a week long trip to work with under privileged children at a local school. From wealthy families, speaking excellent English, they did not have the shyness of the other group of kids that had just departed. We were quickly surrounded and the English teacher made to come and speak to us. Much to my shame I was mostly obsessed by the fact that I was stood in my bikini sporting a full complement of untamed, natural hair, surrounded by perfectly groomed teenagers talking to a rather dashing fully clothed English master. I beat a retreat, using the casserole as an excuse, feeling I’d done a disservice to English women, forging a reputation for them that German women used to have in the 80s.
After his swim, Fred got his football out. By now tattered by regular climbs to 5,000m, causing over inflation, followed by drops to less extreme altitudes. A dunking in the lake, which fortunately had a breeze that brought it to the south side after 15 minutes, only worsened its state. Satisfied by assurances that Pele would have played with a similarly deflated and split ball, he practiced his keepy uppys. Soon he was joined by a group of the BA teenagers on the football pitch next to our van. We got out the wine and had supper, deciding he could have his later rather than spoil his fun. When they had to go in for a school session they promised another game tomorrow and Fred went to bed a happy boy, 16 and 17 year olds who want to hang out with you are pretty much the coolest thing in Fred’s world. I was also roundly told off for being embarrassing when I had said it was his ‘Beddy Time’. Not cool.
We woke to a warm but overcast day. Cooking, washing and blogging occupied us. Fred had his usual pancakes, for Dean I cooked the huge sausage that was in one piece, with massive tomatoes, and eggs. Two young workmen clearing the site of rubbish from the school trip the day before had a chat as they passed. Now 11am I made them up a plate to share and took it over with cutlery and napkins, explaining that this was a traditional English breakfast. Argentinians, and most South Americans, take coffee and 2 small croissants only to start the day. When they returned the plate, spotlessly clean, they were full of praise. The kids had left on their buses to work at the school and Fred managed a straight 5 hours of football practice, with a bit of reading and spelling to round off his home schooling. Dean got the BBQ lit at 3pm, starting the long and precious process of producing white hot wood ash to cook our steaks over. Everywhere you go, parks, campsites, schools, homes etc have the ubiquitous brick BBQ, many with chimmneys, all with 2 sections for different parts of the cooking process. The potatoes were sliced, salted, parboiled, and soon ready for frying. Timing meant that Fred’s dinner had to be delayed past ours, we didn’t want him to miss his last night of fun with the teenagers on the football pitch, and we enjoyed dinner for 2 over more lovely Argentinian red. The steaks were fabulous as were the chips, fried onions and grilled tomatoes. We felt very pleased with ourselves, and rather full. Washing up at the sinks soon brought out the rest of the teenagers that weren’t on the football pitch with Fred. Dean found himself surrounded by a very earnest group who were intent on talking geopolitics with a psychoanalytical approach. I decided to leave him to it as it looked as though he was in it for the long haul. With the company of a bottle of red I continued my blogging with Pink Floyd on my playlist. A delightful girl wondered over and asked if I was ok with Dean being cornered elsewhere, I thanked her for her kindness and assured her he was a big boy and would extricate himself if he wanted to. I think he rather enjoyed his status guru for the night. Amongst the introvert Argentinians he has found his inner extrovert. We were finishing the night merry just as our beautiful hosts ‘friend’ came over to say hello. Although nearly midnight we had a further hour amicably discussing Argentina, its history, Las Malvinas, tax laws and corruption. Because he had worked as a kitchen porter in England, including for the Royal Navy in Plymouth, language on his part enabled us to explore themes usually beyond us. His parents had ended up in this Northern part of Argentina to escape the military dictatorship in the 70s & 80s. Left wing, they were vulnerable and had been tipped off that they were to join the ‘disappeared’, so they disappeared before they could be ‘disappeared’. As a child his grandmother had scolded him harshly for asking what the word ‘communist’ meant, such was the potential impact of someone hearing him utter it. Unlike someone we had met in Cordoba, he assured us that the numbers that had ‘disappeared’ were 30,000 and more. It was an enlightening conversation and we enjoyed his company, enquiring curiosity, and openness with all the subjects we discussed. It also showed us, yet again, what we miss when we’ve not taken the time to learn the language of the countries we’re travelling in. Best get myself a Thai book in Australia……
We set off in the morning for Route 40, the purpose of our trip through Argentina, having had a lovely break. Hot showers, great company, peaceful location had been restorative. Our beautiful hostess came to take pictures of us and Stan for her website. I later found out I was still covered in cold crème that I’d plastered all over my face in an attempt to get some moisture back into my weather beaten skin – typical. She warmly embraced me as we said our goodbyes. What a lovely person who has made a wonderful refuge full of warmth.
We followed the Maps.me app, which quickly took us onto a gravel track. Fortunately it was just a bridging road, and after passing more small houses and estancias, we emerged onto a main road, albeit deserted. The rest of our journey to Route 40 was free of the crazy driving we had previously experienced. We zig zagged Westwards through small towns and villages finally arriving at the start of Valles Calchaquies. Just like England, narrow lanes split the lush grass, rows of variegated green trees and cowslip. To add to our sense of home, it began to drizzle and the mist came down. 50km before we had been in arid grassland now, as we ascended one of the most beautiful drives, we were in deep fog with rain for company. The winding road turned into tight hairpins that climbed steeply, soon it was a gravel track, then the gravel track became a deeply grooved one over which we bounced, or rather slid. For 20 km we climbed and then descended, all the while with no visibility at all. We took a few pictures of the foggy road for posterity. Once over the other side we burst into bright sunshine and verdant lush valley had become pink sand and giant cacti, all in a matter of a few miles. The dirt track became a perfect highway and we breathed a sigh of relief. Once across the giant cacti desert we emerged at Cachi. A beautiful indigenous town of adobe dwellings that was augmented in the 1500s with colonial architecture. The population is 90% indigenous and we caught on film an old lady sitting in the square singing a tribal song with the wonderfully squeaky voice of a 2 year old girl. We had lunch and went into the church. A dog lay amongst the pews, enjoying the cool of the stone floor ignoring the few visitors. Refreshed we set off on Route 40, which we had finally hit, for Cafayete 290km south. New tarmac had brought us into Cachi, but as we left it we were quickly back on creamy gravel. Stan does not possess bed spring suspension, nor upholstery you would wish to spend the night on. For 290km we shook and rattled along, bums and thighs sweating on the pimpled plastic seating. Not only did we have to contend with the bumpiest of rides, but also this national highway became a single track, Dean artfully slid his way around blind bends that rose and fell in one swoop. Much to our amusement, every now and again, a sign signalled that care should be taken. Every kilometer required care to be taken, with not a crash barrier in sight and vertical drops all round. Dean re-familiarised himself with the horn, which took me back to my childhood and Dad beeping his existence on Cotswold lanes overflowing with thick hedgerows and cowslip. Pleasure came in the form of the untouched communities we passed. This is still the countryside of subsistence farmers that settled on a route forged by traders centuries ago. It was trampled down by donkeys, and the donkeys remain, now wild, scattered and grazing along the road for us to see. It was Sunday late afternoon as we made this drive. All along the route families sat out on the porches and dirt patios under the shades made of cactus wood. Outdoor clay ovens smoked, and the plump colourful chickens that had escaped the pot, for today at least, roamed free. Of course dogs were everywhere, as were horses. Llamas started to appear, and as we made our way further south they became as frequent as the goats, sheep and other animals we had seen. There were few cars, we passed maybe 10 in 290km, instead scooters and horses kept us company. Most scooters were loaded with a family; baby at the front, Dad holding the handlebars, toddler behind, Mum bringing up the rear. Not a crash helmet in sight.
10km outside of Cafayete the dirt track miraculously became a brand new tarmac road. Two lanes, yellow lines in the centre, and curbs. Bliss. A local event must have been going on in another village, gouchos on horses, families loaded up on the back of flatbeds, police on bicycles were making their way home to Cafayete. We also got to see acres of vineyards, as promised by our wine merchant friend James. Absolutely shattered we headed straight for the municipal campsite 1Km out of town. We were pleased to see other vans, one German and one Swiss, and quickly got parked and set up for the night. Of course the obligatory street dogs soon arrived. Our heart was stolen this time by ‘Alberto’ a huge shaggy blonde thing. Long matted hair, not unlike mine at the moment, and a sore on his leg, with the most beautiful amber eyes. He asked for our love without shame and we fell instantly in love with him. We got the dog food out and made a water bowl, and he made his bed in the most inconvenient of places, just outside the sliding van door. That was that, he’d chosen his pitch just as we had chosen ours. Thereafter we had to step around him everytime we needed to get into the van. After a tiring journey we decided not to cook but stretch our legs with a walk into town for dinner. Fabulous local food, and the local wine did the trick. We came back to Alberto still laid beside the van, but soon up, with his paws on Dean’s chest, and a tongue in his mouth. He hasn’t lost his touch with the blondes. Midnight loo breaks found Alberto fixed to his spot. In the night dogs or people must have approached, we were woken by Alberto seeing them off. In the morning when we got up we were all greeted individually by him, Fred lovingly knocked to the floor such was his size.
With wifi on the campsite we decided to have a lazy morning and catch up on social media and contact with family. Martin, with the swiss plated VW Westie, joined us for coffee and cigarettes. With perfect English he told us about his 4 years on the road with his wife. At 45 he gave up working as a senior manager in a Paper company after having to make redundant someone he really liked and respected. They had sold everything to become travellers. We wanted to know about his Central America experiences, they’d travelled safely and cautiously through El Salvador and Honduras which have the highest murder rates in the world. We listened to him for an hour, enthralled at their experiences. He could imagine never going home and being a permanent gypsy, his wife couldn’t. It was a great conversation. I went over later with our contact details and he gave me their card. I was tickled that the German couple they had met up with after a previous encounter, and Swiss couple were enjoying a proper ‘Frustuck’ of cold meats and cheeses, deep in Argentina. I suppose it’s not much different to us keeping up our cooked breakfast tradition on the road.
Before we left we said goodbye to a clutch of dogs, aside from Alberto, a chocolate whippet with a overbite lower jaw, protruding needle teeth, and tiny amber eyes pulled at my heart. Terrified of being touched she hungrily took our food at a safe distance of one foot. The water was lapped up thirstily. I sat, at her comfortable distance, in the dirt with her. It was however Alberto who was our Cafayete dog. Like others we desperately wanted to take him home. If Dogs look like their owners than this was Dean’s.
Argentina has surprised us. Perhaps because in our first encounter the weather, cities, and people were more reticent and drab than those that came before or after. However, in our van, and out of the urban drudge, we’ve come to love a different Argentina. It moves through sprawling desert, jaw dropping geology, verdant greenery, and mountainous peaks more quickly than any place we’ve been before. Argentina needs to up its marketing, it rivals Chile but you just don’t hear about the North East the way you hear about San Pedro de Atacama. The people too have delighted us. Friendly, warm, kind and accommodating. More introvert maybe than the Brazilians and Chileans, but it’s a shyness not an aloofness, I’ve found my inner Dean. So I started with trepidation and a bit of resentment, and I ended up wanting more. And more we have had, but that will have to wait till next time.......
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx