Updated: Jan 25, 2021
We turn down a gravel road at the sign for Pozo Santiago. Ten minutes down the dusty road, we spot the tiny pueblo. A dark spot on the grassy plain. As we get close, I wonder if we’re in the right place.
There are no people, no dogs, nothing. I can see the edge of the village from our car. Nothing lies beyond it. A few adobe buildings make up the entire village. Following the directions given to us, we pull up to one of the shacks. A serious middle-aged indigenous man, our host, welcomes us and shows us to a lovely room decorated in the colours of the desert – oranges, yellows, reds and browns. We drop our bags and walk back out to the dirt road behind the hotel to explore a little. Within five minutes, and on foot, we cover the entire village. Somewhere in it live the 100 people we’re told it holds, but I’m sure that number must include the llamas and goats that reside there ‘cause we certainly don’t see anyone other than an old lady with her pets. We return to our room until we’re called at 8:30 pm for a plate of rice and llama stew, then turn in for the night. We suspect there will be no light pollution tonight and so…we when we wake up in the middle of the night, we drag our sleepy bodies outside and there it is …in the dark night sky, billions of stars, and the Milky Way in all its glory. A gift from the gods.
The salt mine (our main reason for coming here) is… interesting? We don’t get to see much of it as it’s prohibited to see the operation, but our host/tour guide, from the backseat of our little car, shows us the mile-long trenches that have been dug into the dirty salt of the plain to allow rainwater to collect then evaporate into immaculately clean crystallized salt. Pretty cool. He tells us that the cooperative that owns the mine produces 12 tons of clean salt per year this way.
So…a bit needy for a bit of green, we leave the gorgeous but intense ecosystem we’ve been travelling around and head east toward Parque Calilegua, four hundred kilometres away. It’s an amazingly quick transition from the dry, rocky landscape we leave this morning to the lush, green one we find ourselves in within a couple of hours. Reaching Libertador, a small city by the park, we’re a bit leery of what the hotel we’ve booked on the fly will look like. Our GPS is leading us down one after another pot-holed dirt road at the edge of town, but finally we hit some pavement and then just beyond, our hotel. And it’s a friggin’ fantastic hotel.
We book an extra night there before we finish our first beer at the pool. When the sun leaves me (and I’m finally willing to lift my ass off the lounger), we walk into town. It’s hopping. Across from the plaza, we eat a plateful of fried empanadas, suck back a litre of cold Quilmes negro, our favourite of Argentina’s delicious stout beers, and watch the show. Mostly everyone is on motorbikes, many crammed with entire families, mom and dad book-ending two kids squished between them. No one wears a helmet. One guy rides by, holding one arm around the baby on his lap and steering the bike with his other. A teenage girl pulls in and parks at the plaza, her perhaps six-year old sister holding their baby sister between them. Everyone’s cruising – checkin’ out who’s there. We see the same parties go by again and again. Apparently, it’s the last night of Carnaval and the crowd’s making the most of it. We hear folk music and catch glimpses of waving handkerchiefs at the other end of the plaza, a sign that some traditional dancing is going on. After paying our bill, we wander over and catch the last of it just before the sun goes down. Three small girls, their dark hair in neat braids on their heads, are twirling in sync with the boys who are their partners. One little girl might be all of five years old if that, and just tiny. She faces the little boy partnering with her, lifts and swings her long flouncy skirt back and forth, moving her feet through the intricate steps the flirty dance commands. So sweet.
We drive to Parque Calilegua the next morning, discovering that the hiking isn’t as good we’d hoped (no views, only trail and bush). But…we got some fresh air and some much-needed exercise, which has been less than stellar since we rented our car.
And the drive through the park on a very twisty-turny 40-kilometre dirt road is lovely. We discover the small village of San Francisco at the end of it. The pueblo is tucked into a mountainside. It’s a beautiful location, and a gorgeous town.
At its centre lies an ancient stone church, and above it a giant statue of Pachamama (mother earth to the original peoples), both religions cozying up quite comfortably. We explore the town’s nooks and crannies, four-wheeling over rutted dirt roads with our two wheels around the back of the village and then, tires unpunctured, we make our way back to the main road and home to our pretty hotel.
We sadly head back to Salta after what seems like a 3-day holiday in the midst of our journey. But…we love Salta! I need to digress for a second.
Have I talked about the steaks in Argentina? And in Salta, particularly? One and a half inches thick, slicing as easily as a knife through butter, tasty as hell, and cheap. Seriously. At home, a steak dinner with a bottle of wine for two would set us back about $120, here…it’s 30 bucks! A weekly necessity in my opinion. So, on our last day in Salta, we head to our favourite steakhouse – El Viejo Jack – to have our last Bife de Chorizo (sirloin). We make it our lunch ‘cause we can’t wait for dinner, AND because a big chunk o’cow is pretty tough on the stomach when you go to bed at 10 and don’t eat dinner until 8:30 which is the earliest dinner is served in Argentina.
So, I’ll get myself back on track. From Salta, we are going to Iguazu Falls, 1000 kilometres away across the north of Argentina. We’re pumped that we’re flying instead of taking what I’m sure would be three long bus rides there. It’s March 7th and we’re starting to hear a bit about a new virus that’s been hitting people across the world and may be travelling through airports. At this point the news is scarce and we’re not putting a lot of thought into it – we’re more concerned about the Dengue fever that’s popped its nasty head up where we’re going. We load up with mosquito repellent before we head to the airport.
Enroute to the aeropuerto, we spy a shack to our right that is setting up for a BBQ. Just having said to Aaron that I was dying to find a plain old plate of barbeque chicken (no lie), we make a quick turn and pull into it.
Across a thirty-foot grill a man has laid out whole chickens and huge slabs of pork ribs, all sizzling deliciously and giving off wonderful smells. He says that it will be gone by end of day though I can't believe it. But...as he speaks, people are starting to pull in. Greedily, and because it all looks so good, I ask for a half chicken and a half slab of ribs. “Ocho siento pesos,” the guy says. 800 pesos - holy! That’s $18! “Disculpame,” I say. Sorry. Half a chicken’ll do it, thanks – I’ll skip the ribs. And yes, I’ll have a pile of fries with that please. 200 pesos. Way better, both pricewise and weightwise. The fries are particularly great – crispy and hot! Can you tell I love food? A whole paragraph dedicated to a random lunch moment, crazy.
Chicken and fries eaten and fingers licked, we head to the airport. Once on board, it’s a quick flight across the country. After dumping all the other passengers off at fancy-schmancy resorts, our shuttle van pulls up to an old gate and indicates we’re at our Air BnB. Mom, Dad, little’n and Grandpa welcome us and show us into the old cabin on the back of their property. Not so fancy. But completely adequate. It’s got air conditioning. We walk down to the town once we settle our stuff, excited to find out what the jungle has to offer for food (the highlight of any day for me!).
A young guy touting a menu at a Mexican place starts listing the meals for offer but doesn’t capture our interest until we hear 2 for 1 drinks. All night! Yep, we’ll sit for a bit.
We order a caipirinha on the suggestion of the waiter. It’s Brazil’s national cocktail, and as we discover, absolutely delicious. And halfway through our drink we realize, kick-ass potent. We’re drunk on a ½ glass of the stuff. We can’t even drink another if we wanted to. Which we do. We also can’t fathom walking anywhere else so we order a combination plate of burrito, taco and quesadilla that only taste good because we’re loaded. We dally for another half hour over a plate of nacho chips and piquante (hot salsa) that we steal from the table beside us after an arguing couple left it there. Proud to be not proud. We then walk back to our cabin in a bit of a fog – Aaron says he’s having problems seeing. Needless to say we buy a 26’er of the stuff before we come home.
The first bus to the falls is at 7 a.m. and we’re on it. Aside from two tourists, the only others are park employees with their matching Iguazu Falls t-shirts. We’re almost the first in line, just as we wanted to be, but it doesn’t much help. We wait…and wait. An hour later when the park finally opens, people are lined up behind us out the door and tour groups are surrounding us, pushing us further back in the lineup. An Asian woman has a mask on. Oh yeah, that virus thing. That’s as much attention anyone’s giving it here at this point. I’m more irritated by the French foursome who’ve snuck in front of us. The gates finally open and the crowd bursts through, running to be the first on the train that takes you to the trail to the main viewing platform. We fall back, enjoying some space. From the last train station it’s probably a kilometre-long steel bridge to traverse the meandering riverbed that slowly flows water to the falls. I’m glad we’re young-ish – it’s a difficult trek for old or physically-challenged people, and many are sitting in the shade at various points along the way.
We finally reach a massive waterfall, the Garganta Diablo or ‘Devil’s Throat,’ so impressive with crazy power you can feel in the air. From where we stand, soaking wet in the midst of the heavy spray from the falls, we see a much dryer crowd of people across the river in Brazil looking over the same body of water. From here we take two other long circuits to various vistas, all lovely albeit slightly much dryer than usual we hear.
At one of the sites, and far below us, boatloads of richer-than-us tourists who’ve paid for a close-up look at the falls scream as each driver tries to get closer to the falls than the other, some driving right into them. Crazy idiots. Looks fun.
Next, a bus to Izutaingo, a small village just outside the little-visited Reserva del Ibera. I miss our car already. Yes, Argentina has a great bus system for the most part, but…there’s a country-wide teachers’ protest and crowds of people are blocking the highways. We’ve had to take a number of detours to get around them, often drawing questioning looks from the locals who obviously don’t see buses in their villages. Their trees just about take off our roof a couple of times. Finally we arrive and, of course, we are lost within minutes of getting off the bus. Maps.me kicks ass when driving, but sucks when you’re walking. We backtrack and finally get on track. By the time we reach our hotel, we’re dripping from the heat and humidity. Yes, we are no doubt in the jungle! Our hotel room is the size of my condo bathroom, which for a bathroom was overwhelmingly huge, it’s pathetically small for a hotel room. We look at the bright side, however. We can sit on the toilet and lean over the sink, so…if we get dengue fever or food poisoning, well, the proximity of these two structures may come in handy.
The corona virus is beginning to raise its virulent head in this tiny town that’s in the middle of nowhere. A woman, recently home from Italy has tested positive and the residents’ fear is making its way into their conversations with us. They’re a bit scared. Nothing’s closed down yet though, but either because of the warnings starting to come in about the virus coming in with travellers, or because it’s the end of summer (though the sun god doesn’t know it yet), the beaches are being cleared of their tourist trappings. The lifeguard chair is ripped down as we sit there – Aaron helps kick it down. Girls are taking in the buoys around the swimming area
But there are still people on Izutaingo’s gorgeous riverside beach, picnicking, fishing, lazing about. Including us. We wish we’d known more about this idyllic place. We’d have booked a longer stay. Not in the same hotel, but…
We book a tour to the Reserva de Ibera, which is why we’re here. The reserve is a protected area known for its incredible diversity (350 species of birds). We book a tour and are picked up along early the next morning with another couple. We’re soon bumping along in a small truck along a double-rutted dirt road through private ranches toward the park entrance. I’m reminded of the Galapagos, there’s that many birds and animals. I’m sure I’m seeing all 350 species as drive along!
Metre and a half-high storks and other similar-sized birds fill the marsh around us, along with loads of ducks and unusual and beautifully coloured songbirds.
The world’s largest rodent, the capybara, is prolific. We see a hundred of them submerged in a cool muddy pond, or grazing the vegetation down.
Creepy caimans (small crocodiles) lie silently in the water, only their eyes above the water. We spot a beautiful buck as we head home in the twilight. A fantastic place that I’d love to spend more time in. Such an abundance of life here.
And next…we’re in Buenos Aires! Truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. Thanks to our friend Laura, who was born and raised here and was back visiting it when we came, we really saw a chunk of it, small though that chunk was relative to the size of this immense city. In two days (and nights), our feet are broken. We walk some of the city’s very cool neighbourhoods.
We gaze up at one after another of the magnificent colonial buildings with their ornate facades and massive columns, marvelling at their size and grandeur.
The huge presidential palace lies at one end of the grand 25 de Mayo plaza. The building is a strange shade of pink, created from equal parts of red and white, each representing one side of the battle between the two opposing political parties at the time, and the equal mix represen-ting the idea that no party is less than the other.
The biggest rubber tree ever lives in Buenos Aires. It was planted in 1791 and spreads out 164 ft (50 m).
We stroll through markets that go for blocks, and through huge old convents that have been refurbished into sidewalk cafes. The city’s avenidas are nine lanes wide with another half that area desig-nated for pedestrians and their skateboards, bikes or inline skates. Though quieter than normal, as Laura notes, they are still busy with people enjoying the lovely sunshine we have today.
Enormous green spaces, rose gardens, and animal-friendly (cageless) zoos take up a huge proportion of the city.
At night, we go with some of Laura’s friends to a noisy and lively three-storied pizza parlour then end our night with cappuchinos at Café Torontino, a richly decorated coffee house which, I imagine, looks much as it did back in 1858. Other than one of our group, who refuses to shake hands, hug or kiss at the beginning of the night, none of us spends a minute worrying about the fact that we are crowded into this restaurant with hundreds of people, and by the end of the night, after a few beers, even that guy is passing out hugs. I could stay here for a year and not see everything that's going on - what an amazing city!
It is the next day that things turn. Parks and museums are closed when we try to enter them. My dad makes strong suggestions that I should get back to Canada and sends links to news articles suggesting the same. Our flight is set for March 31st from Uruguay, two weeks from now. We walk to Air Canada to see if we can get a sense of the risk that upcoming flights might be cancelled. There is already a line of tourists outside the office and a woman comes out to answer some of our questions while we wait. She doesn’t seem concerned that flights will be cancelled, just that it may be difficult to get a flight out in the next few days if one doesn’t have one booked already. Aaron and I make a quick decision to leave the lineup and head to the ferry dock to see if we can buy our ticket to Uruguay where we fly out of. Montevideo, its capital is still a large city, but quieter – it will give us some more time to decide whether or not to rush home we think. We walk to the ferry. “We’re not selling tickets yet. We’re waiting to see if borders are closing.” A small frisson of panic in my chest. “Call later in the morning and we’ll have more information,” they suggest. We go back to Laura’s apartment, wait a half hour then decide to pack up, go back to the ferry and hope they’re moving. We are in luck – they sell us a ticket and send us through.
We go through the Argentina administration then the Uruguay office. Everyone is wearing masks and gloves. Once on board, we grab a seat, noticing people around us holding their jackets up to their faces. Many have masks. Everyone’s quiet. We pull into the pier at Colonia del Sacramento an hour later, a small town to the west of Montevideo, the capital. Everyone’s held back by a rope with the ferry employees a good distance away, all with masks and gloves on. When the rope is unhooked, we exit the ferry along a corridor. A guard stops us and checks our passports. Canada? He gestures us to continue. He pulls a European family out of the line and we send them a commiserating look.
We’re slightly freaked out now and spend the rest of the afternoon in our room looking for an earlier flight. We find one, cancel our old one, go to book the new flight and it’s disappeared. My heart stops for a moment. I don’t let myself panic, however, and hours later we find another one for three days hence. It’s a relief to have a decision made and know that it’s the right one.
So we have three days in Uruguay, a far cry from the planned two weeks, but it is what it is. It goes oh so quickly. And costs us so much money! Uruguay ain’t Argentina, that’s for sure – no cheap steaks here! Tranquil Colonia is more tranquil that it normally is, with nothing open other than a few restaurants.
Behind the main street we discover the old city, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and Portuguese colony back in the 1600s.
As we wander its rough cobblestone streets, I can easily imagine the horses tied up to the posts still standing in front of single-story wood and brick buildings. A bevy of museums is clustered at one end but they are closed to us.
We leave Colonia too soon, but in the uncertain environment we’re moving through, it feels like progress. A bus takes us the three hours to Montevideo. As a treat to relax our frayed nerves, we book ourselves into the Business Palladium Hotel near the river. The hotel is huge with twelve stories and is practically empty so, with a bit of coercion, they give us a wonderful corner room with a view. We go out searching for food. It’s not easy – Montevideo is closed down. One fancy restaurant opens its door to us but tells us we have to hide downstairs if we want to eat. Weird. We keep searching. We see delivery guys sitting waiting at every closed restaurant we go by, waiting to deliver an order to all the self-isolaters. We learn about ‘Pedidosya’ a free delivery program that a ton of restaurants belong to. Right now, with everything closed up, it’s gold! Do we have this in our cities???
We head out for a last walk after one final fantastic breakfast at the hotel. And when I say fantastic, I mean it. Scrambled eggs, fruit salad, ham and cheese, sliced fruit, five different types of cakes and the ever-present medialunas (croissants), orange juice, cereal and yoghurt. Our walk is quiet - downtown Montevideo is empty, no stores are open, there are no souvenirs to buy.
The day is beautiful though and we put in 20,000 steps and take a billion pictures of both refurbished and derelict, but always gorgeous, colonial architecture. The Rambla (or riverside boardwalk) is empty.
We’re too nervous to nap and so head to the airport five hours early. It’s empty with not even a place to buy a coffee. A couple of hours later though, people start filing in the doors and lining up to check into the flight we’re on. Although some are wearing masks, most aren’t, and I hear a lot of sniffling and coughing. I’m starting to feel like I want to hide in a big bag of plastic bubble wrap. We and another couple are moved to the front of the long line and processed through. I’m not sure why – maybe because we’re infected tourists?
At 1:30 a.m., the plane takes off and we breathe deeply in relief. Check out all the flights that have been cancelled on this board (in red)! We're so lucky!
Until our seat mate starts snorting up his flem every two minutes, coughing and looking quite feverish. Though I’m sure it’s of no use, we try to move as far away as we can from him. In seven long hours we’re in Panama City. A quick check-in through security there and we’re back on a plane for another seven hours heading to San Francisco. I get my first question about my health from the American airport staff. I voice my appreciation for their questions and also vent my frustration about the lack of concern about sick travellers in the previous airports. I’m very, very glad to be home, but I’m sure many will wonder whether the decision to move people back to their own countries was the right one. I’ll be very lucky if I’m not sick after the multiple flights I’ve done, and if many others aren’t in the same boat.
But we are home now. And…now we have fourteen days of quarantine. And loads of time during which we can think about how lucky we are and how much we have. Like great neighbours who’ve kept an eye on our place and filled our fridge with food and our bathroom with toilet paper before we returned. Like good, good friends Donna and Rick who bring over bags of groceries, a lasagna and a bouquet of beautiful flowers to brighten up our prison. For a city sewage system that allows me to flush toilet paper rather than collect it a stinky garbage pail. For a kitchen with every dish, pot, pan and utensil I need, and food in my fridge that I recognize and can make delicious meals out of.
As I clean out the backpack that has been my home for three months, I think about what each and every pocket in it housed, and how little we needed while gone. As each pocket gets emptied, little pieces of once valuable but now useless paper with bus schedules and hotel addresses and directions all go into the garbage. Other bits and pieces, more valuable, get filed in a ‘to-organize later” pile. Though I almost want to just turf it all, all our travel-stinky clothing goes straight into the washing machine to be cleaned well for the first time in weeks. As I hang the few pieces I brought on the trip, i.e. two sweaters and one T-shirt up in my closet, I marvel at all the other clothes in there to now choose from.
With most of my stuff put away, I wonder what I should do next. So many choices! Should I make some chicken noodle soup? Have a bath? Read a book? Go back and admire all those clothes in my closet? Of course, I make chicken noodle soup. One by one, over the next few hours, I do all those other things I’m so happy to be able to do.
Don’t get me wrong. I love travelling. There’s nothing more amazing than exploring a new city or village or mountain trail every day and discovering what gems and characters each hides, what lovely people I will meet, and how very bad (or great) my Spanish really is. What a gift it is to have unlimited time and no schedule – to go where the wind takes me. And to do it with someone who loves travel as I do, balances me with his calmness and teaches me new ways to travel that don’t collapse our bank accounts but allows some well-earned luxuries, has been wonderful. The fact that he makes me laugh every day, is just one more gift he gives me.
But I love coming home.