Monthly Archives: July 2019

Colored Hills

Sunday, July 7

In the future, skip Tucuman entirely and go to Cafayate instead.  

We checked out of our Condo Under Litigation in the morning.  The whole room was crackling;  my guess is that the sun was expanding all the steel and glass at different rates.  A line of photographers developed outside the hotel front door, wanting our photos.  The social situation seems to be that one person fetishizes beards in some way, and then a bunch of other people decide we must be celebrities, and so want their pictures too.  There was also a crazy looking guy speaking incoherently as I put the suitcases into the car, which unnerved me a bit, but the doorman at Point Casa made the universal sign with his finger and head meaning “loco” (what does that gesture refer to, anyway?) and we drove off without being mugged or anything.

We drove toward Cafayate.  There was a big traffic jam from an accident outside town that cost us an hour, which meant that, allowing for the time to look at the grand cactus forests on the high pass, we got to Cafayate quite late in the afternoon.

The Wikipedia entry on Cardones, Echinopsis atacamensis, reveals that they are Near Threatened.  We’ve been seeing this cactus ever since the city limits of Mendoza, and if its population is really in decline, it must in pre-Columbian days been a lawn covering the Andes.  They look a lot like Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) but are not closely related, apparently.  (Check back on this evaluation later.)  The International Cactaceae Systematics Group has been in session since 1984, and in the decades since DNA sequencing has been declining in price, has determined that a large number of relationships in the family are impossible.  I only want to know why they have clearly the same name as Cardoons.  Cardoons are the wild plant from which artichokes were cultivated, and what they have in common with cactus, is that they are prickly.

This day —this trip — was badly planned.  The key goal was this: drive down Quebrada de las Conchas from Cafayate toward Salta just before sunset.  This gave us approximately zero time in Cafayate, a major wine center of Argentina, famous for its Torrontés.  We decided we would have one empanada and leave.  We stopped at an empanada cart.  She was out.  We decided that we would go to one winery and have one glass and one Something, and then leave.  So we went to Bodega Piattelli, getting lost along the way because Google compiles its maps using cell phone data purchased from motorcycle riders, who are able to cross an irrigation ditch on a board, not available to us.

When we got there, they wouldn’t serve us.  Something about the kitchen not being open.  Some people in the fabulously architected room were eating.  Dave left a nasty note in their customer log and we had cheese and salami and bread in the car and drove to the canyon.

It was beautiful in the way that red rocks are.  We picked up a couple of hitchhikers at Garganta del Diablo and drove them to Alemania.  Garganta del Diablo has a lot of families, taking photos of their kids on the rocks that the signs say it’s prohibited to climb.

It was dark when we got to Salta.  The lady who runs the airbnb was annoyed we were so late and sent her daughter to let us in.  It was a nice place.  I don’t remember what I said in the review.  I was annoyed because the checkout time was 10 AM which is ridiculous for Argentina.  Early checkout times are not uncommon here, it turns out.

Salta was only a stop on the way to the Hill of the Seven Colors, in Purmamarca.  We ate a quick dinner at El Viejo Jack, which, although highly rated, was empty.  Everyone was at another parillada in the previous block.  We ordered sweetbreads, which curiously were also called mollejas.  We also had locro, completely different from the first time.

Monday, July 8

The next morning, we had coffee, tea, and medialunas at Cafe del Convento, which is across the street from an imposing cloister.  Tour groups are milling around it all the time, but don’t seem to go in.  The convent is not exactly welcoming.  A door in the imposing solid wall leads to a gift shop of sorts (display cases with doodads), which is monitored by a camera.  Purchases are apparently made by writing a note, placing it on a shelf on an axle, and rotating it so the note disappears into the black box which is the community.  A few minutes on Google has informed me that the name of this type of place is “turn room”.  I didn’t see anybody make any actual purchases. 

Cafe de Convento made me think of Coffee Point, in Szczecin.  “Made me think of” is different from “reminded me of”.  There’s nothing in common, except the familiarity of the baristas with the customers, who are clearly regulars more than tourists.

There is a big mission critical segment on this vacation: getting from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama by bus, and then to the Bolivian border to meet the guides who will take us on our grand tour of the Bolivian altiplano.  The bus is a critical link.  

So we went to the bus station to make sure that the people at Pullman Bus had heard of us.  The woman there had heard of us.  She took our passport data for future reference.  Our reservations were on the bottom level of the bus because Pullman Bus only accepts Chilean credit cards, and BusBud only offers reserved seating on the ground floor of the bus.  She suggested that we’d be able to get a seat on the top level of the bus, because Friday’s bus was not looking very full.

We drove to Purmamarca, via the slow road directly north of Salta.  It went through beautiful countryside, with the usual amount of desvios and narrowness.

Once in Purmamarca, Google Maps had issues telling us how to get to the hotel.  An access from the highway had been closed off.  After we got on the frontage road, it sent us down a narrow dirt road to the front patch of some NGO.  They pointed to the roof of our hotel, but it was up to us to figure out how to get there (i.e, go down the next driveway).  The hotel, El Refugio de Coquena, is wonderful.  We can see the Hill of Seven Colors from our balcony.  We walked around the hill (about 3 km) starting in the Sunset Lighting direction, and had cazuela de llama with quinoa salad for dinner.  Pear poached in Torrontés with a scoop of ice cream.


  • Ambulances and police cars always have their lights on and there are PARE signs that indicate no imaginable stop. Makes you less likely to pay attention.
  • Most intersections in cities are uncontrolled; no stop signs or lights.  There are rules for who should go first, but in practice it boils down to who is most aggressive.
  • Car manufacturers don’t get yet that the smart phone holders are more important now than the cup holders.
  • One more thing about Mendoza: I didn’t realize until a waiter used the word — “Mendocino” is the adjective form of “Mendoza”.  They are both derived from family names, ultimately.

Tuesday, July 9

Having gone in the sunset direction at sunset, we got up at dawn and had our customary continental breakfast of coffee, tea, and pastries, and walked around the hill in the sunrise direction.  I took some pictures at the cemetery when the sun was higher.  The cemetery gate lies at the end of a Dead End street but the pun doesn’t hold in Spanish.  There are a lot of crypts there that don’t have occupants and clearly haven’t been looted — they have just overbuilt.  Should offer a move-in bonus.

Instead of AIDS victims, the Argentinian cemeteries have desaperacidos who died young because they were tortured to death by the fascist regime of the 1970’s.  It’s really a race to the bottom between God and man.

July 9 is the Argentine National Holiday.  They sang the national anthem in the square.  The town of Purmamarca has been packed with tourists because this is the big winter vacation for them.

In the late morning, we did some research about another nearby canyon, Quebrada de Humahuaca, a World Heritage site.  Looking for it in Google Satellite View, we found another huge area of gloriously colorful hills, with no roads to get there. We decided to head north to see what we could see.

The first stop was one of the more interesting archaeological sites in my experience. It is a hilltop fort of the pre-Inca period called “The Pucará of Tilcara”, and it seems to exist primarily to apologize for the Bad Archaeology practiced in the early to mid 20th century. 

The apology begins with an apology for the actions of the Argentine dirty war of the 1970’s, in which many students from every discipline were murdered for their real or insinuated political beliefs. Many Argentine public spaces contain monuments to the victims of that dictatorship. It only came to an end with the loss of the Falkland Islands War — you can get away with anything while you are winning, as Margaret Thatcher discovered afterwards.

After that, comes a dusty trail past rocks which have been piled back up in the shape of detached single-family houses, ending in a hilltop with a pyramid on it, dedicated to the archaeologist who piled up the rocks.

The signs explain that there’s no reason to suppose any of this corresponds to what was there when Tilcara was an active hilltop fort, and by the way, pyramids were an Inca thing, but they are going to leave it up anyway, because bad archaeology is now a part of history, and deserves to be preserved as a warning to future generations of presumably good archaeologists.

Upon arriving to the town of Humahuaca, we drove into the first place that said Tourist Information and were immediately surrounded by many touts.  We zoomed way way in on Google Maps, saw highway 73 appear, and the letters “Mirador: Hornocal o Cerro De 14 Colores “ suddenly pop out.  (Zooming Google Maps is like Christmas): The folks in Tourist Information didn’t speak English, but somehow assured us a normal car would make it on highway 73.

So we set that as a goal and drove for an hour.  The road was dirt but not bad.  There are switchbacks but no boulders or ditches.  When you get to the Mirador, a lady charges you 80 Argentine pesos, and the elevation is 4300 meters above sea level.  The temperature is freezing and the wind is blowing.  The place is packed with people watching the sunset colors gradually being swallowed by the shadow of the surrounding mountains.  Did I mention it was freezing and windy?  We talked to some German tourists until they were hustled back into their bus.  We did not wait for the last gulp of shadow.  It was a long drive back to the town of Humahuaca and even farther back to our hotel in Purmamarca.  And it was freezing.  And windy.  And ultimately, getting dark.  You can see most of ruta 73 from various places on the switchbacks, and it was graphically amusing: a line (as you near the town, in the bottom of the valley, the road becomes straighter) with each car represented (but not seen) by a long plume of dust blowing sideways into the freezing cold darkening wind.

We ate at El Meson.  There was a very nice waitress there who speaks good English, which is a plus for us.  Pumpkin soup with a floating blini is a really good idea.  The short ribs were good too.  So was the bottle of local red wine.  We unfortunately did not have room for dessert.  The table next to us said the flan was excellent.

Wednesday, July 10

The next day, it was a little cloudy, so we skipped the intoxicating morning walk and photo panic around the Seven-Colored Hill.  Plus we’d just seen Fourteen.  We did a bit of shopping.  This is the first town I’d seen significant amounts of post card stock — in the dimension of many places to purchase post cards, and many different designs of post cards, and different places have different designs (these are orthogonal conditions).  And they were cheap, especially the place next to the t-shirt store where Dave had found a cute t-shirt that wouldn’t fit him, but this morning we decided he should buy it and give it to his sister.

We drove back to Salta, via the fast road.  (The bus to Chile stops in Purmamarca, but we could only return the car in Salta.)  The place we had booked was kind of a hostel, with the same name as a hotel in the next block, and there wasn’t any staff there when we got there because we were earlier than I thought we’d be. (I don’t think I’d do that again, but at $22 a night — it can’t all be Raffles, you get bored.  If you stay at places that are just at the edge of your budget, you meet people just like yourself, who are also staying at places just at the edge of their budgets.  In hostels you meet the people who are traveling for years.  And you have more to spend on food.)

After thinking a bit, we decided to turn in our car to the SiXT downtown office a day early.  We decided we weren’t going to drive anywhere.  They gave us a day’s credit, and took it right back for a ding in the windshield that had not been on the officially agreed-upon ding list at the time we picked up the car in Mendoza.  There are any number of places where a piece of gravel could have hit, but Dave assumes it was the fast drive on the dirt road back from Fourteen Colors.  

We also didn’t get any credit for having had their stupid muffler welded back on in San Agustin.  The man had offered to write a receipt for the $12 USD or so it cost, but he would have had to wipe his hands off and go find a piece of paper so we didn’t bother.  (In Latin America, you lose face if you debate about amounts of money that are beneath your station.  It’s different than the world that C. Northcote Parkinson describes, where the coffee machine gets more conversation than the airplane purchase.)

SiXT is a highly variable company.  One of the worst car rental experiences I’ve had was at SiXT in Frankfurt; while one of my favorite tourism providers in the whole world works at their office in Miami Beach.  I haven’t any idea what his name is.  I think he is an immigrant from Nicaragua.  I’ve been there twice, separated by some years, and he recalled me.

(Did I ever mention about the guy who works at Wells Fargo in Sharon Park?  Photographic memory for faces.  I thought they had facial recognition software cueing their tellers, and the lady at the next window said, no, he’s just like that.  I can’t remember what he looks like.  I tried to take a photo of him with my telephone but he said, standing in front of a bank of security cameras taking thirty frame video of every aspect of the bank office, that photography wasn’t permitted in the bank.  “Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”)

That night we walked to the tourist restaurant José Balcarce, the sort of place where you get an amuse bouche.  Bread strips in refried beans — see, we’re so far from Mexico here, that refried beans are exotic.  

We were once again offered gizzards, and we ordered them, along with Bolivian peanut soup, and some perfectly done beef.  (After having a tough piece of beef in Jachal, we were encouraged to see that this place actually offered you your choice of how you’d like it done.)  And guess what — the gizzards turned out to be sweetbreads!  Mollejas is the Spanish word for both the chicken giblet, and the beef gland, and these restaurants which had translated it “gizzards” were ultimately just confusing their non-Spanish-speaking customers.

There were potato chips in the peanut soup.  I thought they tasted stale but in the Andes there are so many kinds of potatoes that you risk seeming foolish if you compare them to the Idaho kind.  Everybody there was nice.

Thursday, July 11

We visited two museums in Salta on the town square.  The “high mountain archaeological museum” would remind you of the Ötzi museum in Bolzano.  It displays a frozen Inca child sacrifice mummy.

There is a movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini called “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” which explains a lot.  To me, the most striking feature of this movie, even including the coprophagia and exotic slaughter, is the way in which parents vie with each other to sacrifice their children to fascism.  Pasolini presents this in passing — it’s so utterly commonplace, the proud dads sending their sons to war and their daughters to become supermodels, that it goes without notice.

The Incas did this.  The vassal states of the Inca empire would select the best of their children and send them to the seat of government to be ritually killed.  The children were physically perfect, and fed a royal diet before being drugged and beheaded or exposed to the freezing cold. The museum on the square in Salta has three such mummies, found on mountaintops in the region.  They exhibit only one at a time, to reduce wear on the artifacts.

In case you’re wondering why God is not smiling on America, consider the people we choose for human sacrifice.  Poor, mentally defective, social outcast murderers, for the most part.  God is like, what is this shit?

Oh, by the way, Salò was a real place, the rump republic led by Mussolini after Italy surrendered and withdrew from the Second World War. I see no reason to presume that anything Pasolini depicted was made up.

The second museum on the plaza was really weird.  It is billed as a museum of contemporary art, but it’s a showroom, at least its current exhibition is.  Everything is arranged as if it’s at a trade show for modern design, down to the spokespeople, and with the URL you can go to if you want to purchase this for the lobby of your upscale hotel or home.

Parked in the museum courtyard was a nice little empanada truck which was out of the first several empanadas you wanted, but the ones left were good.  We sat at a table in the shade to drink our beer, and were informed that you couldn’t sit at that table and drink beer, so we moved to a table in the sun.

We went to a cowboy-themed cafe kitty-corner from our hostel for dinner, and turned in early, to be in shape for the long bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama the next day, and the start of the next phase of the trip.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

Friday, July 5

The muffler seemed OK and Google Maps was telling us to start out for San Miguel de Tucumán by going north on the same road we’d been on three times (coming from Ischigualasto to San Agustín de Valle Fértil, and then a round trip to Talampaya) so I thought, let’s drive east on Ruta 511, instead, and then north.

The road was good until it stopped being good.  It ran along a straight water channel.  You couldn’t tell at this time of year, but in the desert, a stream can be dry for five years at a time and then one downpour will turn it into a torrent.  At some point in the past, a torrent had washed out the road, and it was replaced by a dirt road running beside the original road, which had been on a now-destroyed levee.  There was some indication how long ago this happened, by the size of the trees growing through the bits of pavement that remained.

So we drove on a dirt road.  One thing I miss about gas station maps of the old days, is that gas station maps were pretty rigorous about distinguishing dirt from gravel from pavement.  Google maps makes no such distinction.  They color big roads yellow and small roads white, but the surface is not regarded as important.

We turned north at San Ramón, and the pavement returned, mostly.  There are a lot of detours on all these roads, but they only require a few minutes before you rejoin the original road. When the road smoothed out, we drove along the highway listening to the Kent State anniversary radio show taped from KFJC’s Month of Mayhem specials, and I wrote the blog entry about the 2019 eclipse.  It was disorienting, being in the 1960’s and three days ago, and in a car now.

We hit route 38 at the town of Patquía, province of Rioja.  We stopped to eat cheese and bread at the plaza of the majorly sleepy town of Chumbicha, which has Floss Silk Trees growing in the yards of the houses.  We drove over a range of mountains with a shrine on top, notable for a pile of mobile phone cases which had been deposited there.  

Coming down the other side, the scenery changed completely, to a subtropical forest, well fitting to the latitude, which by this time corresponded to that of central Florida, and deserved to be warm, even in the winter.

Because we were near the tropics, and it was sugar can harvest season, there were segments with horrible traffic, caused by enormous trucks hauling just-harvested sugar cane.

We got to Tucumán in the late afternoon.

San Miguel de Tucumán is a decent enough town, but if anyone does this trip as fanfiction, I’d suggest going directly as possible to Ruta 40 and driving up on that.  Ruta 38 is discounted for a reason. 

We had a super fancy Apartment Hotel booked at a very low price ($25 per night but I think that included an Expedia discount), which turned out to be a total joke.  I wrote a review for Expedia:

“This hotel is a joke.  Literally.  You will laugh at its multiple failures.  The whole thing is this sleek modern designer fantasy, where every aspect, from the talking elevator (“gracias por su visita!” real Hitchhiker’s Guide robot cheeriness), to the stove has been designed as if there were no standards developed in any culture, and the only thing that mattered was glass and metal and novelty.

There were a couple of folks at the front desk who seemed sort of in charge when we arrived, even though Expedia thinks there is no front desk, and they sure weren’t responsive the first time I walked up to the locked glass door in the major glass facade.  Had to text them.  (Close the front door carefully.  If you just let go of it, it shakes the facade LOUDLY and you’re afraid the whole thing will shatter.)

Their main function seemed to be to convince Dave and me that we didn’t want one king-sized bed.  Well, Argentina is a conservative country.  Inferring matrimony is one more minefield for the hotelier to navigate, along with vegan sheets and which direction is Mecca and who can’t handle scented gluten soap.

Within five minutes of entering my room, 11-B, I was greatly puzzled.  The algorithm governing the faucets in the bathroom is the sort of challenge that Google would give a prospective hire.  The hot and cold knobs were maybe remapped to temperature and volume, with some edge effects — but most remarkably, turning on the faucets in the sink caused

Expedia then asked, “Anything else to share about Tucuman?” Apparently, Expedia allows fewer characters than TripAdvisor, and I got cut off, despite their asking for more “sharing”. Here’s the completion of the last sentence:

Turning on the faucets in the sink caused the faucet in the tub to emit water.

Dinner was at “Mi Nueva Estancia”.  We decided that it was a choice between gizzards (Spanish name mollejas) and young goat (cabrito), and chose goat.  It seemed like a fairly large portion of grilled goat, but it was half bones.  We also had a nice pumpkin ravioli, and they had a salad bar with vegetables.  It doesn’t seem easy to find vegetables in Argentina, and we made every effort.  English is not really common up here, but everyone tries, including us with our Spanish, and everyone in California knows restaurant Mexican.

Saturday, July 6

Tucuman became kind of a Sabbath.  We stayed two nights there, and Dave fixed some bugs during the day, and I wrote some post cards, which I obviously won’t mail until we get to a place that supports mail, which might be California.  In the afternoon we walked around the immense 9 de Julio park, which had several poorly executed statues, and a topiary clock (showing the wrong time, just like a sundial nearby).  9 July is Argentine Independence Day.  There was a monument to Perón.

We went searching for some museums Dave had found in Google search.  

The first one was missing entirely.  The second one was fabulous — the house of an artist named Juan Carlos Iramain, who, in his lifetime, made a couple of giant Jesus statues, and sculptures of the heads of various people he had met, famous and working class.  A lot of them are now on shelves and tables in his house, which was left to the state in 1973.  It is now a museum, and a rehearsal space, and a studio.  We didn’t know if we would be able to enter.  We rang the doorbell.

The third museum was puzzling.  In one gallery, a bunch of people were making hand-held fans.  In another, a woman had posted snapshots illustrating the life of her mother, who died very young when the artist was about six.  The fans were because some Japanese artist had decided that the children of rural Tucumán province should make clay animals and weave fans.  The pictures were just…memory…I do like looking at other people’s photo albums, though, and this one was all up on the walls already, with the internal tragedies of the life recited.

Tucumán has good food, of course.  Dinner consisted of some tamales and humitas and squash from the local food market, heated up in our apartment, after the long process of figuring out the stovetop.  It was accompanied by a bottle of Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino we’d bought in Mendoza, which has a beautiful label that I steamed off over the course of about an hour in a flat pan of simmering water.

Ischigualasto Park: it’s all too beautiful!

Wednesday, July 3

After taking our departure from Hualta Picum Apart Hotel, we drove east along Ruta 150 toward the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Ischigualasto and Talampaya parks.  This whole part of San Juan province is Argentina Highways-ready red rock glory, and occasionally bursts into Photoshopped hallucination.

The east side of the Andes have had the fortune, in the last 300 million years, to be a large sea, where sediments settled and dinosaurs drowned, as a result of which there are thousands of meters of sedimentary rock all through western Argentina in a variety of hues and with a fossil record from the early Triassic to our own time.  One of the earliest root dinosaurs known, Eodromaeus murphi, lived here.  It has been carefully reconstructed in the visitors center.  The current fashion is to show the dinosaurs with the flashy colors they probably had.  Used to be they were all gray green.  None of this is as good as the Natural History museum in Vienna, which has animatronics.  Austria has a higher budget.  I expect that the Chinese paleontologic sites will be the first to supply AR helmets so you can wander among the giant ferns.  Unless biotech advances faster.  Ischigualasto refers to itself as “Triassic Park”.

The manner of tourism in Ischigualasto is caravans of private vehicles.  They really don’t want the whole thing overwhelmed like Yosemite.  Tourism is a challenge.  Every hour or so, thirty cars will line up behind a guide car, and follow it in a four hour loop around the park, looking at artistic features and listening to lectures from the guide in the main car.  The lectures are all in Spanish, but you can get the idea even knowing a modicum of restaurant Spanish, because you already know and see.

It works fairly well.  The only real disappointment, I would say, is the concretions that you see pictured if you Google Image Search <Concretions Ischigualasto>.  You might be expecting big stones as on the coast of New Zealand.  But when you get there, the moment is like the lowering of the Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.  They are about like croquet balls.  In fact, the picture of this geological feature that Alamy has for sale is indexed: “Cancha de Bochas”.  Bocce balls.

On the trail to the bocce balls, there are fields of even tinier pebbles, all round, which photographed from a suitably low angle, except you aren’t allowed off the wooden trails, would look the same, posed with the tiny woven dolls you see hanging from Peruvian hats.

There is also a museum honoring one of the paleontologists who worked here.  In the atrium is a fossil that hasn’t been dug out entirely, or colorized.  It’s good to see the raw data.

There are lots of eroded pillars named for their appearance.  Mushrooms, Sphinxes, that sort of thing.  At least they don’t carve the names into the rock, as have the managers of Shi Lin, near Kunming.  A yellow monument named Submarine used to have two towers, but one has collapsed.

Ischigualasto is also where the muffler pipe broke on our rented Renault Logan.

That was an issue.  We dragged along to the Bocce ball place, and then the guide lady used her radiophone to call the main ranger, who sent out two mechanics with some baling wire.  That kept it from dragging on the ground, at least when we were driving forward, and we had an unmuffled drive back to San Agustín, with occasional scraping as the pipe hanging off the engine touched the ground.

We went to the Triassico restaurant in San Agustín.  The decor is Ambitious:  a stairway with a tyrannosaurus skeleton bannister, many statuettes leaping out of the walls.  

Thursday, July 4

In the morning, we called SiXT emergency services, who encouraged us to get it fixed. Google found an auto mechanic, who said, nope, try this guy, and that guy said, nope, try this guy, and the third guy guided us over his work pit and got out his torch and welded the muffler back together, while we looked at his bird collection in cages on the hood of a wrecked car in his junkyard.  Other birds approached to get the scattered seeds.  We gave him 500 pesos but didn’t get a receipt because it seemed minor ($12).

It was still only noon.  So we went to the second park, Talampaya.  This tour was on a bus.  It was cloudy, and the red of the colored rocks didn’t jump out so much.  But Cañon de Talampaya was impressive.  Four km of 150m cliffs.    “The Chimney” was a cylinder in one of the cliff walls.  There were also monuments in that formation, all wind and water eroded to shapes called “Monk” and “Cathedral”.  They served Torrontes at a stop in the canyon.  We also saw a bunch of Andean condors, which everyone wanted to watch, even more than the dull red rocks.  The tall cliffs give the birds their desired habitat.

We got back to the visitor center about sunset.  The sun had peeked out a bit from the overcast, and illuminated the cliffs in Argentina Highway orange.  The museum cafe was still open.  I suggested that museum food might be just as good as small town food, and I think it was.  Empanadas, of course.  This was our introduction to locro, the cold-weather national dish.  I looked online for a recipe just now, and the first recipe I found had nothing in common with any of the locros we’ve had, so I think the only nonvariant part of locro is that it is warm and thick.

We drove back to San Agustín after dark.

Mi eclipse, mi eclipsero, entero, me gusta más

[inspiration for title]

Sunday, June 30

Today we left for the center line.  It was cloudy from horizon to horizon. The promised storm.  Harrumph.  First stop was a big box store, for bread and cheese and any other little snacks we might require.  It was not at all obvious that there would be food in Bella Vista, especially if there were a few tens of thousands of visitors in town.  (We learned later that the government was planning for 25,000; I haven’t yet learned how many actually came to the valley of the Rio Jáchal.)

We drove north toward San Juan, where Doug and Hind had reserved their own hotel.

Ben wrote to us with a weather prediction about Sunny Skies, and I wrote back to him, grimly: “The problem, as always, is that the liberal media don’t care what the truth is, only what is entertaining. At this instant (14:07 UT-03) approaching San Juan, San Juan, Argentina, the sky is about 90% overcast. Yet, at this instant, if you look on Accuweather, it shows 100% sunny in San Juan. We will have to do some driving and get lucky as well. Still two days to go, after all.”

San Juan is right on the southern edge of the eclipse path.  It gives you an idea of the shape of the top of an ellipse: according to the detailed maps on line, the restaurant where we stopped for lunch, all of six blocks inside the path of totality, was slated to get 25 seconds.

Club Sirio Libanés is a real find.  It was founded as a club by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to San Juan province; there are characteristic Middle Eastern arches in the foyer, and tiles, and Lebanese guests with whom Hind could converse in a selection of languages, especially body language.  Watching Mediterranean women communicate is such a treat for Puritans.  We had brochettes, and mezes that they called Popurrí Arabe, which meant kebbe, hummus, dolmas, tabouli…

We stopped to top up the gas before heading further north.  Having learned about the gas lever, we were disappointed to discover that it did not in fact open the gas cap.  After some experimentation, we determined that if Dave held the lever while I pried open the gas cap with a key, the cap would open.

We drove two hours under darkening continuous clouds, to Camping Bella Vista.  It cleared a little toward sunset.  We set up the tent in the last light.  There weren’t many people there.  There weren’t many people anywhere.  I guess they are all planning to drive up from San Juan on the morning of the eclipse; or maybe they think that watching it on TV is good enough.  Maybe watching it on TV is good enough.  Better for us, that they should think so.  Eclipse watching isn’t something that requires the economies of scale and mass markets the way, say, the Internet does.  Except for cruises.  The night sky cleared, and we took a walk along the road lined with adobe and concrete houses and dogs and looked at the southern sky.  I was still worried about the weather.

Monday, July 1

It gets cold at the 2000 meter level in the winter, even at a latitude only 30° from the equator (Houston, New Orleans).  We had bought a sleeping bag from REI for this trip, which was rated down to 25°F, and it just plain wasn’t warm at that temperature.  We will try to return it when we get back.  We were cold all night despite wearing all of our clothes, and in the morning we decided, the heck with that.  Equipment failure is one of the things that happens on expeditions, and you do something else.  The thing we did is to look for a hotel room on TripAdvisor for the next two nights.  We booked the last room in San José de Jáchal, an hour and a half down the river but still well inside the zone of totality.  So ended the camping adventure.

The weather on July 1st was clear but for wisps of cirrus far to the north.  I won’t say I stopped worrying about the weather from this point on, but the coherence between the predictions and my own observations gave a more positive 8-ball reading.  We spent the day scouting locations, from the official Punta de Observación, which was a giant outdoor disco being set up exactly on the center line 7 km south of Bella Vista, to the mounds and shrines about Rodeo, a larger town north of Bella Vista on the road to Jáchal. There is a lot of beautiful scenery, with the reservoir and the chaparral, enough for every photographer to get the foreground he wants.

When in Rodeo: eat breakfast at Encantos de Rodeo.  Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can point in Spanish, and Churros con Dulce de Leche is an English word now anyway.

When in Tudcum: I have no idea what you do.  They have signs all over the highway saying to visit the Dulces de Tudcum, but the signs point to this closed looking dusty factory-type place and there isn’t anybody around anywhere.

When in Bella Vista: a nice lady sold us choripán on the road to the disco.  I talked to an Indian fellow from New York.  Everybody took photos of everybody, to ensure that their cameras were in working order.

The canyon that connects Rodeo and the reservoir to Jáchal turns a brilliant red at sunset, although highway 150 is a bit harrowing.  It’s wide enough and paved enough, but the turns tend to get sharper at the end, and there are piles of little rocks (“Zona de derrumbes”) crumbling from the cliff, pushing you into the edge lane, which you hope a car isn’t coming up right then.  You don’t want to skid on them, right?  It’s a long way to the river, down.   Somebody sweeps them up every day, as we noticed the next morning when we drove back to Rodeo.

And so to bed, exchanging cautious glances with fellow travelers.

Tuesday, July 2

In the morning, Aparthotel Huelta Picum brought us breakfast in our room, as the kaiseki in a luxury ryokan, it won’t remind you of that actually.  We were WhatsApping Doug down in San Juan.  He decided to drive up to meet us.  I wasn’t in favor of that, because I had visions of being trapped on a crowded highway such as the ones across America in 2017.  As it turns out, the highway through the beautiful red canyon of Río Jáchal was once again nearly empty.  We got to Rodeo before noon, had breakfast in the little cafe of the day before.  It was crowded, today.  We noticed the film crew that we had spoken with yesterday.  They are making a documentary.  They seemed a little lost.

The four of us went Location Scouting again.  Souvenir shopping.  Mounds with shrines on top of them.  I never did find the Perfect Shrine, Gauchito Gil and his red banners framing the setting sun.  We ate lunch at the square in Tudcum.  Nobody was there.  Even the dogs were understated.

Did I mention, I found post cards?  Or I thought I did.  They were 55 pesos each, and they turned out to be refrigerator magnets in the form factor of post cards.  That was at the souvenir shop at the “Y” intersection connecting Rodeo, Tudcum, and Bella Vista.

If this all sounds minimal, it was.  There was nothing to do but wait.  There was not a cloud anywhere in the sky.

Finally, Dave decided to take the suggestion of Pablo, who runs Camping Bella Vista, to drive to the end of a dirt road next to the campground entrance, and view from beyond a line of trees.  We did that.  Climbed through a barbed wire fence, walked 800 meters down a dusty driveway to an abandoned hacienda, listened to the distant cows, and the thumping of the discotheque down the road, planned our three seconds of handheld photography (there are always photos on the Internet), and waited.  It got dimmer and dimmer, in the exciting way that eclipses get dim, that regular sunsets don’t.  Then it got dark.  Dave saw shadow bands.  I saw, maybe one shadow band, with a great deal of self persuasion.  I didn’t see any Baily’s Beads, either.  I gave up looking for them and took down my eclipse glasses, to watch the Diamond Ring.

In a prolonged instant, it was over.  I hope I remembered to look at everything, in two and a half minutes.  There needs to be an Eclipse Coxswain: “Prominences!  Binoculars!  Binoculars down!  Let it glide!  Sunset colors!  Pull!”

I always feel that it’s rude to leave before fourth contact, but in this case, there wasn’t going to be a fourth contact, because the sun would set, and there was going to be a Concert Crowd leaving the discotheque, and Doug and Hind had to catch a plane back to Santiago from Mendoza, the next day.  And the road down the canyon to Jáchal, better when it’s light, on a number of grounds.  We did beat most of the traffic. When we got back to the larger town, it was nearly 8 o’clock, which is the time the restaurants open.  We went to a restaurant that had been closed Monday night, 1000 Ochocientos.  We were all covered with playa dust from the cow pasture.  They must tolerate that, in the ranching country.

Those of you who have been to Buck’s, in Woodside, will recognize the decor ethic.  When you visit junk stores, and you think, who would ever buy this and what would they use it for?  The answer is, period kitsch restaurants.  Definitely the falling apart sled that Aunt Margaret had in her wood pile ready to burn (and she was a hoarder) when she died, (which went at the auction for, am I remembering correctly, $1100?) is hanging from the ceiling of one of those restaurants, now.

1000 Ochocientos had motorcycles.  The food and wine was OK.  I don’t want to order any more pizza in Argentina, though, and Argentine beef is still tough by American standards.  Doug and Hind WhatsApped that they arrived in San Juan at Midnight, and again when they left early the next day for the Mendoza airport.  

In the morning, we chatted with a fellow from Slovenia, in the parking lot of the Aparthotel.  He was surprised we knew where Slovenia was, let alone planning to go there in six weeks.  He said he’d give us ideas.  Mostly, I need ideas of things to skip.  There’s always a lot to do.

Wine Country Safari

I have a thought experiment which I’m never going to do, until GoPro’s are transparent enough to wear in a hat and forget about.  I’ll take a photo every ten minutes of a journey, no matter what.  Then the reader could see what proportion of the time the tourist is doing things that are about the same amount of fun as staying home would be, and what proportion less fun, and what proportion more.  The first two categories have the large majority, with a slight edge to “the same” because that describes much of sleeping.

The tickets to South America were a little stupid because our destination is Mendoza but our departure point is from Medellín.  Another constraint I put on myself was arriving before midnight.  The wide open jaw with these conditions cost $775 USD, for which we paid in quality of life.

We boarded a plane to Houston in the mid-afternoon of June 24, and I watched the desert go by until we got to Texas and then it was Flight Attendants Be Seated.  The plane avoided nearly all g forces except the 1 pointing down but massive thunderheads towered above us, right and left.  Pilots are very good now at threading their way between them.  Once we were in Houston we had an hour before our next flight.  The Houston airport is a long walk from gate to gate.  Then we got on a 767, in the middle of the night.  Dave had bought airport food, which United supplemented with airplane food.  All about the same quality.  Definitely this part was worse than home.  I guess they were trying to get you used to late night Hispanic-tradition eating.

Some sleep.  Also worse than home.  The flight was mostly smooth, even through the ITCZ.

When the sun came up, we were over the ocean just off the coast of northern Chile.  The clouds over the Pacific looked like cotton on the floor of a cotton factory.  But how do I know that?  Every day a million people see clouds from above.  Almost nobody has seen a working cotton gin. I haven’t. So why should I, by convention, describe what everybody knows, in terms of what nobody knows?  It’s clouds’ illusions we recall.

I regarded critically every feather canyon over the eclipse path, as we crossed it, north of Santiago.  After 9 hours in the air we landed, and it was the morning of June 25.  We stayed in that airport for ten hours.  I entered Chile to buy stamps, thinking I would mail cards when we pass through Chile briefly on the way from Argentina to Bolivia.  I wish I’d bought more.  The Chilean international post card rate is about $1.40 US, but Argentina’s is $4.20  So, minimal post card activity from Argentina.

On the advice of a shop lady, we ate a corn pie from an airport cafe called Patagonia, and on our own advice had empanadas and wine from Vinum Wine Bar.  At sunset, we got on a plane for the 34 minute flight to Mendoza, of which two minutes was level flight (according to flightaware’s GPS log.  You can’t tell when flights over the Andes are level).

When we got to Mendoza, we waited in line with our passports and then we got our suitcases, and then we went to SiXT. The man there was super nice.  We were the only customers: I bet most people don’t rent cars here, because they come to drink wine, and they take taxis or bus tours or Uber for that. He got us our car and showed us where the trunk and gas tank levers were and made a note of the scratches.  Then we were off to the hotel Casa Glebinias, which is across town.  We got there about 10:30 PM.  The hotel restaurant was closed, but the hotel owner gave us some cookies and a pear and a kiwi and a banana.  We slept a long time after that.  It was ten years ago that we last stayed there.

Wednesday, June 26

Casa Glebinias is an award-winning hotel.  The owner used to be an Antarctica explorer.  He came back home when he was too old for that, and he opened this hotel.  The rooms are all separate cabins.  The whole hotel only holds about 20 people and it’s in a suburb.  There is a nice lawn and there are trees, which don’t have any leaves on them because it is winter time in the southern hemisphere.  There is also a puppy who stands up on his hind legs and opens the door for you.  (He needs to learn to close the door after himself.)  They have a restaurant, but the chef had knee surgery and is out for a month.  So they have a Small Menu, which means pizza.  The pizza is good.  It doesn’t have sauce, it has tomatoes.  Breakfast is cereal and fruit and yogurt and different pastries.

On Wednesday we didn’t do any touring.  Dave bought us SIM cards for our phones, and I went to the post office and found out how expensive it was and said the heck with that.  The SIM card business is odd.  You go to one place for the cards themselves, and to another little store to buy credit, then you get a plan yourself by texting.  The people in this part of Argentina don’t speak much English but there is always somebody nearby, in this case another customer, who has a son in San Diego or used to live in Fresno.

Also, Dave fixed some bugs.  When you work from home you can work from Argentina.  He is closer to the time zone of his team in Kiev, by four hours.

Thursday, June 27

Doug and Hind arrived around noon.  That evening we went by Uber to Maria Antonieta, in downtown Mendoza. It turned out to be the only time we actually went into the downtown area. It was the uppest-scale place we could reserve on short notice.  The customers were better looking than the staff, which is unusual to tourists from a society in which the public-meeting contingent are heavily drawn from the demographic of midwestern homecoming queens and kings who have come to California to in the hopes of a career modeling underwear to earn the price of surgically sculpting their faces to match Facebook simulacra of pulchritude. 

The waiters had what looked like prison tattoos except for the subject matter. Scrawls, really. If the fad started here we will see it soon or maybe it blew past in 2011 and I failed to notice. 

Maria Antonieta is good. I had a smoked eggplant and Dave had osso bucco over lentils and a pumpkin soufflé. Winter food. It’s winter. The eggplant was very burnt. I am trying to get used to darkly browned foods, although it’s probably too late in life for me to get any thirty-year cancers from the oxidation products. I’ll let you know when regretting wasted youth becomes a full-time hobby with me. 

Friday, June 28

We went to the Real Argentina: a suburban shopping mall. Everybody wanted some little thing. It was like a dream version of an American mall, in that all the stores were the same but only a few were actual copies: Victoria’s Secret is one I noticed. I wasn’t taking notes. 

Afterwards we got in the car and drove to Catena Zapata. That is a respectable and heavily architected winery at which we’ve bought some good wines in the past, but no more: today I learned that they are the Secret Santa of Kirkland Signature; and when you buy Malbec at Costco, you are saving yourself an overnight flight to Santiago and a long stint in the airport and the other bits of travel that don’t make it into — say, this business of leaving out the technical details of traveling is really a twentieth century thing. Think about Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Ibn Batuta: they wrote about the intricacies of transport and customs, and very little of the In-Flight Magazine world which concerns what you will experience once you’re standing in front of the Venus of Willendorf. 

Friday night, we had a peak experience at Brindillas, the overflow restaurant for people who can’t get into Azafrán. And to heck with Azafrán; whatever they serve had better come with a garnish of cash money and hookers in order to exceed Brindillas. We had a gazillion course tasting menu ($30) with wine pairings ($25: ALWAYS share a wine pairing between two, if you want to taste the last half of the meal) and it was classic. I took photos of each course. I wonder if people ever post pictures of food on Instagram. When in Mendoza, go to Brindillas. We’ll be in Azafrán, having reserved thirty years beforehand. 

Saturday, June 29

I suspect that the population at large imagines that eclipse-chasers are interested in astronomy.  This is true to an extent, but all the talk is of the weather.  Even looking at the glorious nebulous Southern Sky Milky Way, we are checking out any little water clouds that might be forming on our planet.

The weather comes from three places in the desert near the Andes, in the winter.  First, is actual fronts streaming from the Pacific, over Chile and Argentina.  These are infrequent.  The second source is winter fog lapping up from the pampas.  This can be persistent in the eastern part of Argentina.  The third source, is the kind of fog that drapes over the lee side of islands and mountains all around the world.  The Andes count as mountains.  Every day, the Andes were shrouded with clouds tumbling down the slopes and drifting over the sky in the afternoon. Worrisome, because the eclipse is scheduled for one hour before sunset, and right over the Andes.

But Bella Vista, 200 km north of Mendoza, is in more of a desert than Mendoza, and has a climate history of having the fewest clouds along the whole eclipse track, including boats.  The predictions have been consistently for clear weather there, on the second of July.  As the predictions have grown more precise with time, a batch of clouds has been shown moving over the area on the 28th and 29th of June, followed by clear skies.  Well, the clouds didn’t show up much on the 28th or the 29th, and I don’t appreciate storms being delayed in the direction of the eclipse time.

Therefore, one should go wine tasting.  Doug and Hind had booked a wine tasting tour from a company called “Trout & Wine” (they also do fly fishing expeditions) and we decided to tag along. I mean, we paid and everything, not just stealing their intellectual property with our ears.  There were eight guests, all American.  Trout & Wine seems to be a good company.  The tour guide, Lucas, is genuinely obsessed with wine.  He’s doing an internship in Sonoma in a few months. Given his good looks and tourist-ready smile, forgive me for thinking at first he might have been one more underwear model thrown up to enliven the fantasies of the retirees.

The problem with wine-tasting tours is the problem of wine tasting generally.  They never really give you the best they have, and your palate grows jaded before lunch.

We began at Terrazas, a brand you can get in the US.  The winery lady said this and that about Oak and Bottles, so tell me this:  is it that oak basically damages the grape juice, and bottling it for years gives it time to heal itself?  The whole of the wine rituals seem designed to alleviate the wood.

The next winery was called Trez, and the building was round like a barrel.  There was also a small burrowing owl, the color of the local dirt, sitting on a post.  Everyone took his photo.  It developed that the two people from New York were also here for the eclipse, and so the naturalist in everyone came out.  There is always a moment in the run-up to an eclipse, when the local tour people realize they aren’t the Main Attraction, or even in the Top Ten.  I hope that some of them made it up to San Juan to learn why.

Lunch was basically tour food, except done up to simulate a tasting menu at a fine restaurant.  By the time that was finished, I was ready to sleep, but there was one more tasting to power through, at a dusty little winery owned by some French expats.  If I write a trip advisor review, I’ll suggest T&W make lunch the final burst of fireworks.

When we got back to town, we were tired and full and nobody had any energy until after sunset when we decided to walk to the center of Chacras de Coria, the suburb where Casa Glebinias lies.  It was another authentic Argentinian experience: a Round Table-grade pizza and wine in a screw top bottle, along with a few other customers (it was early by local standards) including a trio of old ladies that Hind said had murdered their husbands for a girls’ night out.

And so to bed.