My initial moments in Valle Fertil were quite alien; rather than tramping the streets in search of a hostel with any space, I was in search of a hostel with any guests at all! Evidently, I was in luck, as I managed to source the only other tourists in town: we were three. Even fewer than the number of tourists was the number of open restaurants. Just the one. It came complete with a full sized T-Rex skeleton, to menace you as you ate, and it considered fish and chicken as synonymous on its menu.
What the tiny town was in no means lacking were dogs. Having used surrogate pets as a coping mechanism for missing my dog back home, I was initially pleased. That was until I realised quite how much trouble these adorable pests could cause me! In short, the neighbours’ dog decided to accompany my on my tour of the town. She attempted to enter the supermarket; outweighing my desperate attempts to restrain her, I called upon the help of a local to tie her up outside. Chaos ensued and a lot of ‘Who’s dog is that?!’ I sheepishly did my shopping, untied her and ran away… Only to be chased by all said dog’s local enemies. Cowardly, she placed me amidst the fight and solidified my decision to only leave the house on accompanied excursions from then on.
Luckily for me, daily excursions to the nearby reserves of Talampaya and Ischigualasto were in full swing, despite dwindling tourist presence.
All aboard the cramped retirement bus and we found herself giggling our way through a ‘that’s where something used to exist’ tour of Talampaya. Things began looking up (no pun intended) when we reached the dauntingly high, bright red canyon. A small selection of rock paintings showed a man and his llamas; no prizes for what this taught us about ancient civilisation! Beyond that, an almost impossibly verdant garden lay in the centre of the arid canyon. Ancient, gnarled trees played host to various small animals, as well as a table serving us wine. I have a suspicion it was just intended to loosen people up for shouting, thus showcasing the impressive number of times an echo would reverberate down through the canyon. The rocky “cathedral” had spires carved out, opposing the otherwise horizontal stripes of the rocks and thus creating a pretty spectacular spot (my cynicism subsided as the day went on.) One final vista out across the desert-like landscape, to the snowy, glacial mountains beyond and we were done with nature for the day. That is a of course except for a quick spin around the dilapidated dinosaur models in the park and then again to our favourite dino-restaurant.
Dubious about how many more rocks I needed to see, I was somehow convinced to visit Ischigualasto, or Valle de la Luna, the following day. I was adopted as an honorary Argentinian for the day, in order the escape the blatantly discriminatory pricing against foreigners at all National Park entrances. I didn’t however adopt the Argentine custom of cooing ‘Que lindo’ at just about every animal or rock we saw in passing.
Yet, that is not to say that I wasn’t suitably impressed by the Moon Valley. Living up to its adopted name, the landscape was truly other-worldly. Driving through the cacti-strewn Wild West, we stopped off at giant cut-out mushroom shapes and perfectly spherical balls of rock, that looked to me like the love trolls from Disney’s Frozen. The highlight for me was ‘the painted valley’; an undulating stream of coloured, striped mounds, viewed with a God-like perspective from above. Otherwise, there were some impressive dinosaur fossils unearthed here and on show in a small museum built entirely to shelter said archeological site.
Other than some uninspiring postcards of rocks and an artisanal market selling some of the world’s worst souvenirs (I wonder if they have ever sold a rock with a spring glued on top, that reads ‘Valle de la Luna’ scrawled in biro?!) I had sampled everything in this region. Irritatingly enough, the only bus northwards out of town left at 3am and only went as far as La Rioja (the next region’s capital.) I decided to make lemonade of the hand I had been dealt and thus treated my layover in La Rioja as a fun day trip.
Whilst the town doesn’t warrant a shout out in The Rough Guide, I had had the chance to briefly peruse a fellow tourist’s Lonely Planet and thus made a beeline for the Inca Huasi Museum. I should have perhaps guessed from the fifty pence entrance fee that it was going to be small; what I couldn’t have anticipated was the sheer volume of rocks they managed to squeeze in. Amused by the abundance of ancient drug paraphernalia, I was saturated within half an hour and headed back into the daylight.
As with anywhere in South America, if in doubt, head for a sit in the main square. Beyond just people watching, there is always bound to be something afoot. This particular day was a prime example, as a protest gained momentum on one side of the square, a festival-like celebration in honour of the International Day of Dance raved on the other. From overly sexualised young girls belly dancing, to folkloric courting dances and, of course, the ubiquitous tango, there were a variety of performances, punctuated by chances to get involved. I remained a silent participant, but thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.
Other than this (and a totally bizarre dog show, wherein young children dragged ill-behaved dogs across a stage in a supermarket car park) La Rioja entirely shut down for the afternoon siesta. I was once again in a ghost town.
One more night bus later and I was in Salta. Having already tasted the delights of rocky landscapes at Ischigualasto, salt flats in Uyuni and the wine region around Mendoza, the excursions on offer from Salta fell a little to waste on me. Thus I dedicated my exploring solely to the regional capital itself. Initial thoughts: if you were to cut Mendoza in half, you would come close to the vertically challenged, yet still tree-lined, promenades of Salta. It is essentially a more colourful and vibrant version of Cuenca, Ecuador, but with a similar ‘what do I do here?’ vibe.
The churches and cathedrals are plentiful and look straight out of a Disney storybook. With brightly coloured outsides, swirly patterns aplenty and insides covered in perhaps a little too much gold, they certainly don’t do worshipping by halves! The only drawback is the monophonic, ringtone style church bells played on the hour, somewhat diminishing the glory.
Salta has several small, but charming museums to pass the grey, cloudy days. The first, the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, showcases decrepit mummies of sacrificed Incan children- not for the faint hearted. The second, the Museo Pajcha, a private collection, proudly displays art, handicrafts and religious imagery from across Latin America. Diego, the guide and vice-curator, exudes enthusiasm and he alone is worth the £3 entrance fee; well-kept, with a cravat and a combover that couldn’t fool anyone, he excitedly presented the collection, room by room, as if each were a grand surprise! My personal highlights were the controversial paintings of angels with firearms and Christ being crucified in a skirt. The only explanation Diego had to offer was ‘¿porque no?’ (Clearly he shared my mantra; I knew I liked him!)
Slightly beyond the city limits looms Cerro San Bernardo. A mere 1021 steps lead to the top, via occasional glimpses of city views through the thick canopy. Following the stations of the cross along the path was a good way of measuring distance, but was hardly uplifting or motivational! At the top lie some nice gardens, the former glories of a water feature and, of course, a statue of Christ, overlooking the sprawling regional capital. A lovely spot for a sit (and to escape the madness below- on a day when there appeared to be city-wide bike race, for which the roads were only partially closed, thus taxis raced across the finish line as people threw firecrackers!)
I mostly used my time in Salta to recuperate from a cold I caught on one of several night buses. Having befriended a guy in my hostel from South Korea, I was treated to some delicious home cooked Asian meals almost every evening. When in Rome!
Done with the north and done with nature for a while, I headed to Córdoba- the rough and ready second city, at the geographical heart of the country. Stay tuned…