Our next destination was Mendoza, a decent size city half way up Argentina that sits just east of the Andes. It took us about 3 days of driving to get there through some very lonesome country.
The scenery started to look remarkably like Arizona, with its dry mountains and scrubby bushes. It even smelled the same, especially in the mornings. There is nothing like the smell of the dessert in the morning, it really made us miss Arizona. We found a very cool camping spot next to a river where we decided to make an early day of it and wash some clothes and relax.
As we headed more and more North the weather seemed to get a little warmer each day, and by this time it was just about perfect temperature in the sun. We spent a couple days in Mendoza walking around town, seeing a few movies and taking in a bit of civilization while we could, but after a couple days we were ready to get back on the road again.
We drove west towards Chile to catch a glimpse of the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas called Aconcagua.
Even though you can see it from the main highway, we took a short hike up to get a better look at it. Although quite impressive, it seemed small compared to some of the mammoth mountains we saw in the Himalayas but nonetheless it was really pretty and cool to see another of the "seven summits". There were some really cool sites nearby that we checked out like Puente del Inca, a natural bridge that had formed over the Mendoza river.
The bridge was formed by a rainbow of mineral deposits from a nearby spring that has accumulated over the millenia. It was amazing to see all of the vivid yellows and oranges from the mineral deposits. That night we found a pretty unique place to camp. It was near the mountain pass into Chile so it was at about 13,000 feet. There was an old out of service railroad that passed through the area, and they had built tunnels out of metal to keep the snow drifts from blocking the tracks.
We always try to park out of sight of the road when we camp to avoid the Caribiñeros, axe murderers and whatever else lurks in the night, so these creepy old derilect tunnels made a perfect blind to park behind. I dared Jodie to sleep inside the tunnels but I think the constant creaking and moaning caused by the wind barrelling through the tunnels turned her off to the idea. To add to the atmosphere there was a graveyard of old twisted guard rails that must have been wiped out by rockfalls over the years. It was kind of a creepy place but still really cool with all the huge mountains around.
The next day we decided to head back towards Mendoza and then continue to head North. Instead of taking the main highway back to Mendoza I saw an unpaved road on the map that looked like a shortcut so I thought why not. We quickly found out it was definitely not a shortcut, but a bumpy winding dirt road that went straight over a mountain range to Mendoza. After a couple hours of spine re-alining driving, we finally made it to pavement and stopped for lunch. Once again, as soon as we got out of the car we heard the tell tale hissing sound of our tire going flat. It seemed like a slow leak and we were about half an hour from the nearest town so we assessed the situation and decided we would try to make it to the town before the tire went flat. Thankfully we made it before it was too flat and found a "Gomeria" (tire shop) quickly. In both Argentina and Chile there is a Gomeria about every quarter mile in every town, always marked by a large old tire near the road with the word "Gomeria" painted on the tire.
They are usually very small, sometimes just a house with some tools and about twenty orphan tires. This particular one was run by a young guy maybe 18 years old that was very efficient at his job. The last time we had a flat I broke one of our most important travel rules by not asking the price up front, only to get gouged, but this time I asked before hand and got the going local rate. The hole in the tire was patchable, and half an hour later and a whopping two dollars poorer we were back on the road heading north.
A strange religious shrine in the middle of the desert was our next destination. Legend has it that over 150 years ago a woman named Maria Antonia Deolinda Correa was walking through the desert with her infant baby and eventually soccumbed to dehydration and died. Shortly after a group of travellers found her dead body and miraculously found the infant had survived by nursing off the dead mother. Since then, she has become "Difunta Correa" a local saint with thousands of people visiting her final resting place. However you would not know any of this by the chaos that surrounds the area.
We managed to drive through on a Sunday which I imagine is much busier than other days and it was absolutely crazy. There were restaurants, little shops selling trinkets, a campground, huge tour buses, tons of people picnicking and about 1,000 people swarming the area. It looked like a cross between a really busy flea market and a carnival with no rides. People stand in line for an hour waiting to catch a glimpse of a statue depicting the dead woman and her nursing baby. They also bring homemade little model houses to leave for the unofficial saint as a sign of shelter. It was a very busy and extremely interesting experience, but we were glad to get out of the chaos.
After all the crowds of the Difunta Correa Shrine we were ready to see some nature so we made for a pair of bordering national parks called Ischigualasto and Talampaya. Ischigualasto is known as the Valley of the Moon because Ischigualasto it is so darn hard to say. And it looks like the moon in places. It was actually really cool, there was a painted desert, fossils and all sorts of rock formations including these basketball sized nearly perfect round rocks.
We were trying our hardest to understand the guide but with our limited Spanish and all of the unfimiliar geological words we couldn't make out a whole lot, but it was still very interesting. In Talampaya we took a tour in a 4 wheel drive bus up a canyon that looked straight out of Utah. My favorite spot was called the "chiminea del eco" (chimney of the echo) which was a vertical half cylinder carved out of the canyon wall that when shouted into creates a very cool echo effect.
We really enjoyed the tour, especially after they surprised every one with some delicious local wine and olives. Jodie mentioned that her dad Frank always said that all you need to make people happy is a little bit of wine and a snack. We fell in love with the local olives which neither of us had acquired much of taste for before, but these were delicious.
Driving further north through the evermore Arizona looking scenery, we stopped by in the wine town of Cafayate.
We have been anxious to do some wine tasting being that the whole middle part of Argentina is famous for its wines. We stopped at the first winery or "Bodega" we found and got another tour in Spanish that we didn't understand but endured for the free tasting at the end. It was delicious so we decided to buy a bottle and were pleased to find out it was about $3.50 per bottle.
What a deal! We have also been endulging in steak. Lots of steak actually. We eat steak about every other night because it is so good and so cheap here. We buy big delicious ribeyes for about $2 each. Wine and steak make for some luxurious camping.
Six weeks into our South America adventure we are picking up a bit more Spanish thanks in large part to some Spanish lesson podcasts called "Coffee Break Spanish" that I downloaded to my Ipod and we listen to in our car everyday. Since we have our own transportation and sleep in our car, we don't have as much interaction with the locals as we thought we would, but when we do we try our best to get some practice. I still get mixed up and say some really dumb things that I later realize, but everyone is always gracious to us and never laugh at us but sometimes laugh with us.