We had a little bit of culture shock when we first arrived in Argentina.
After crossing the remote but efficient Jama border, where immigration and customs for Chile and Argentina are not only in the same building but ingeniously located on the same counter with adjacent windows (!), we arrived in the Sedona like town of Purmamarca. The town was very pretty, lined with buildings in adobe with interesting wood and metal features surrounded by colorful mountains. But we could not find any restaurants that opened before 8pm. When we finally found a small comedor that was open, neither the beef nor the wine was good, so we were very confused. But the little town of ten square blocks and dirt roads was nice enough.
We moved on to the big city of Salta, only because we needed to buy compulsory vehicle insurance. That proved to be unsuccessful because things don’t move fast in a region where businesses close from 1-5pm for lunch and siesta! In our second night at the city campground, a bus pulled in at 1am and unloaded dozens of teenagers and their chaperones. Right next to our van. All of them chattered away merrily oblivious to us and other tent campers nearby. Apparently 1am was not considered very late by Salta standards, even on a Wednesday night! The next day, with or without insurance, we decided to move on.
From Salta we circled back to the famous Ruta 40. On the way, we made a detour to visit a horse ranch hoping to ride and camp for a few days. It didn’t work out because the owner didn’t want us to camp there, but not only that, he asked us to go make a reservation online for riding the next day! Guess that’s what happens when you get featured on lonely planet. However, this little detour was fruitful in the literal sense – we discovered huge mulberry trees full of the sweetest mulberries we had ever tasted on the roadside! We picked and ate as many as we could on both sides of the fence. We used to go fruit picking back home every summer but this was the best time of all. And it was free.
The mulberries really lifted our spirits. When we approached the small town of Cachi another amazing thing happened. We spotted an open air restaurant with a couple of roasted young goat on the pit. Coming from America, goat is not a meat marketed in the mainstream and generally thought of (mistakenly) as too gamey and tough. We tried goat for the first time in Ecuador. The dish, seco de chivo, was divine. In Cachi these were chivitos or young goats. This restaurant had them served roasted and in a cazuela. Everything was superb. We decided we really love goat.
The drive along Ruta 40 was nice, so after hanging out in the plaza we decided on a whim to drive a bit more. As luck would have it, in the next town, we ran into our first jinetiada, an Argentinian rodeo. We had talked through the entire trip to see a rodeo and finally here it was. The event was very “local” and low key, with bulls the size of horses and games like racing a horse in a circle then downing a liter of beer while on your knees. From the food stands, we bought wine and a dozen homemade empanadas and enjoyed our rare night out. It was terrific fun. The jinetiada was part of a festival. So after the gaucho stuff, live music began and the fiesta lasted until 5am true to Argentina style. We knew it ended at 5am because our campground was right next to it. But no matter, after the mulberries, chivito, gauchos and the beautiful Ruta 40, we were finally mellowing out.
Our next stop was Cafayate, a wine region second to Mendoza. We met up with a Swiss family who were in the same campground in Salta. They have been traveling for about the same time with children (two girls) about the same age as ours. We all had a good time for a few days without visiting any wineries. Here is another thing we love about Argentina by now – they have great campgrounds and a popular camping culture for all ages. Even the tiniest towns have municipal campgrounds in excellent conditions, some even with hot showers. Some are free and some cost a few dollars. It is very affordable and facilities are often better than many USA national parks. Locals of all ages come to camp. We love seeing the older couples driving up in a little Fiat then proceed to set up their tent, blow up the air mattress and start a barbecue all in a few effortless minutes. Argentina is a beautiful country!
After Cafayate, we made the long and scenic drive to Mendoza, making another stop at a free municipal campground. It is always nice to have a neat place to call home for the night after a long drive.
For one thing or another, a lot of it had to do with the lack of camping near downtown and the lack of cheap dog friendly hotels, we ended up at the five-star Park Hyatt in Mendoza! A great thing about Argentina – for tourists – is the “blue rate.” The blue rate is essentially a black market exchange rate (that everyone uses) for dollars and euros. The difference with the “official rate” can be up to 35 percent. So everything can be like a third discounted if one has access to US dollars. November 20, the day we arrived in Mendoza, also marked our one-year anniversary on the road.
So for three days in the mecca of Argentinean wine we did not visit a winery once. Our activities consisted of mostly walking to the plaza for some cotton candy and buying more wine. We did try to visit one very famous winery/restaurant/hotel, Siete Fuego, and only realized after we arrived that they didn’t take children. It’s fine to have that policy but it was annoying when neither their website nor our hotel’s concierge had any information about it. So that was the extent of our Mendoza winery tour. But Mendoza really is a beautiful city, and so much nature surrounds it. It wouldn’t be a bad place to live for a few months.
We drove over 1200 miles in these two weeks with most of it on the famous Ruta 40. But driving in this part of Argentina was quite nice. A lot of it was on dirt roads which meant the kids could take breaks from their carseats and ride up front. And the scenery was varied and beautiful, as we moved from rocky desert to red mountains to finally seeing peaks of the snowy Andes.