To start things up and as we described in our last post, further in our plan was to travel between the towns of La Serena (in Chile) and San José de Jachal (in Argentina), a distance of 381km via a mountain pass. Traveling in the unknown can be very exciting and most likely much more enjoyable but when it comes to high mountains, knowing what lies ahead is really important and can save you from a lot of trouble. When we started driving towards the border, we had no idea about El Paso de Agua Negra (Black Water Pass). It is an international high mountain pass at an elevation of 4,780m above the sea level, located in the border between the IV Region of Coquimbo (Chile) and the Province of San Juan (Argentina). It’s one of the highest mountain roads of Chile and the views at almost the entire length are at least breathtaking. Most of the route is on gravel surface while the mountains spread out before you with a variety of formations and colours. In many places, the road is bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters, unprotected by guardrails. It is the highest border crossing between Argentina and Chile, being used by a max of 200 vehicles every year (it shuts down in the winter months).The climb was steep and it did not allow us many stops except the necessary ones for pictures and videos. Most people will feel the lack of oxygen and the first symptoms of altitude sickness at around 2,500-2,800 meters. For us it was around 3,000 meters but with the adrenaline kicking in, we pushed forward without any unpleasant surprises. Oops, we both promised to plan ahead next time in situations like this. It was definitely careless on our behalf to go through such a high altitude without even knowing it. As soon as we were over the pass and heading towards the Argentinean side, the terrain changed and the steep climb gave way to a less pretty but far smoother ride. We spent that night in the first village as it was late by the time we completed all the formalities on the Argentinean side.
The next morning we followed an old mining dirt road to a destination that we had heard about even when we were in Chile. A couple of hours and a flat tire later (our first and hopefully our last!) we reached the 76-sq-km Parque Nacional El Leoncito, our destination. This park occupies a former estancia (ranch) 22km south of Barreal. Its primary attraction is stargazing as the high, dry and wide-open valley rarely sees a cloud, Hence, the park is home to the Complejo Astronomico El Leoncito (www.casleo.gov.ar), which contains two important observatories, the Observatorio El Leoncito and Observatorio Cesco. The park has a beautiful campground with great facilities and most importantly, IT IS FOR FREE. All that makes it an ideal destination. During our stay, except one night visit to the observatory, we spent our time with small hikes among the hills and the dry lake bed of Pampa de Leoncito, as well as the necessary and most important “doing nothing days”.
At this point our routes separated with the TD crew, as they wanted to spend more time in the mountains and we headed to the wine lands of Mendoza. On our way there, we took the Ruta Provincial 52, a curvy and unsealed mountainous track that rarely permits speeds over 30km/h, and incorporates some of the most dramatic scenery in the region. The road starts in Uspallata, a village in a scenic location on the Andes, at an elevation of 2,039 m and after 55km arrives to Termas de Villavicencio, at an elevation of 1,800m. This road is called Ruta del Año (Route of the Year) because it has 365 turns, most of them hairpins. You can only imagine the sound effects that Rochelle was making the whole way.
Late that afternoon we entered Mendoza, a bustling city of wide, leafy avenues, atmospheric plazas and cosmopolitan cafes. Mendoza is a trap. Even if like us you’ve only given it a day or two on your itinerary, you’re bound to end up hanging around, captivated by the laid-back pace, while surrounded by every possible comfort. Lively during the day, the city really comes into its own at night, when the bars, restaurants and cafes along Av. Arístides fill up and overflow onto the sidewalks. As we found shelter a bit out of town in a camping, we did not have the chance to experience the night life (I was in trouble for this) but we still were lucky enough to meet some great fellow travelers and spend some quality time as well as all the necessary overland talks. (Have you been there? Is your Land Cruiser better than our Land Rover? Did you meet up with the so and so that travel there and there and so on). This tradition took place while enjoying the local wines that their high quality cannot match their low price. All over the country (and in much of the world), the name Mendoza is synonymous with wine, and this is the place to base yourself if you’re up for touring the vineyards, taking a few dozen bottles home or just looking for a good vintage to accompany your pizza. The city itself is a relatively small area with a population of only about 115,000, but the inclusion of the wine lands and the departments of Las Heras, Guaymallén and Godoy Cruz, along with nearby Maipu and Luján de Cuyo, swells the population of Gran Mendoza (Greater Mendoza) to a little over one million. In this chaotic area, we managed to get lost and end up in a bad neighborhood thanks to our navigator. When we asked some fully armed police vehicle to point the way towards the winery we were looking for, they gave us an escort and afterwards politely told us to pay more attention as some areas can be dangerous.
With Mendoza and its wineries done and after an overnight in the thermals in the nearby mountain, we headed back east across the country’s rural areas that almost every agro related job comes to life. This is the country’s primary cultivating area and the campecinos (people of the farms) that work this land can justify that this is not an easy way of making a living.
Then it was Rosario, the student city and the birthplace of both the Argentine flag and Che Guevara. Rosario is still an important river port but has done a great job of regenerating its centre. All the buildings along the long costanera (riverbank) have been converted into galleries, restaurants, skate parks and river beaches, where on the other side the centre of the city is a curious mishmash of stunning early-20th-century buildings overshadowed by ugly apartments. Maybe we had overbuilt this city in our minds or maybe we were not lucky to meet the right people to show us around but we cannot say that we fell in love with it. So after a quick stay we decided to move forward and reach the country’s capital.
Based in one of the many suburbs, we spent the next 12 days exploring Buenos Aires that manages to combine faded European glamour with Latin passion. Although a 45-minute bus ride away, we kept busy going back daily and visiting different areas every time. Sexy and alive, this beautiful city definitely got under our skin. From the stories of Eva Peron that we were told by local students giving free tours, while exploring Rigoleta, to the small streets of Boca and the eclectic neighborhoods of the downtown area, this city has a lot to offer.
-The Tango is BA’s famous dance that has been described as ‘making love in the vertical position’. Folklore says it began in the bordellos of long-ago Buenos Aires, when men waiting for their ‘ladies’ passed time by dancing among themselves. You can enjoy this dance everywhere, from the street performers in Avenida Florida, under a small donation, to a proper show in a ballroom venue. We couldn’t miss out so we did both.
-The Food, Steak, Wine & Ice Cream. BA’s food scene is increasingly dynamic. Satisfying juicy steaks or the more down to earth milanezas aren’t hard to find in the land that has perfected grilling and if this seems heavy, wash it down with a generous glass of malbec. But don’t forget to leave room for ice cream, if you can – a late-night cone of dulce de leche (caramel) helado can’t be topped.
-The Nightlife. This is based on other people’s testimonies as we did not party hard and as in Mendoza, I got in trouble for that from Rochelle. Take a disco nap and be prepared to stay up all night – this city doesn’t sleep. Restaurants get going at 9pm, bars at midnight and clubs at 2am at the earliest. BA’s diverse range of bars, clubs and live-music venues offers something for everyone. Just remember, you’ll be doing it all very late.
As a round up though, I am adding below this piece that I found in Lonely Planet that describes best the city’s feel by Isabel Albiston, writer.
“Why I Love Buenos Aires.
When I first arrived in Buenos Aires in 2010, Argentina was celebrating 200 years of independence and the city was a carnival. I fell hard and fast for this crazy place with its dogs in soccer shirts and passionately held opinions on everything, from politics to how to prepare mate (the yerba tea infusion). For the next four years, my days were spent cycling between parks and timeless neighborhood cafes; nights began with asados (barbecues) and ended at sunrise. In spring, when the blossom of the jacaranda trees turns the city purple, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Look closely: this city is beautiful. Sure, it might look like a concrete jungle from certain angles, but stroll through the streets, paying attention to the magnificent architecture around you, and you’ll soon be won over. Grand French and Italian-style palaces grab the limelight, but you’ll see interesting architectural details in the buildings of even low-key, local barrios. These days the beauty of these traditional neighborhoods is further enhanced by colourful murals, painted by artists involved in the city’s vibrant street-art scene. For these talented individuals, the city is their canvas.”
Somewhere here our BA time was over. It was in our plans to catch the sun on the other side of the banks of Río de la Plata. So we took the ferry across the bay back in Uruguay’s Colonial de Sacramento to finish what we had left out at the beginning of our trip, while we were moving fast in our attempt to avoid the upcoming winter of Patagonia.