Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja- Mid-April 2008

From Valparaiso I continued to Mendoza. But before getting to Mendoza, there was the road there. While traveling in South America, I usually took night buses, to save on both time and money on hostels. But when he heard me mention it, the owner of the hostel forbade me to take one this time- he said it would be a great waste. And boy, was he right. The road winds up and up, almost reaching 4000m. There was one point were you look back, and I seriously think you can see the road switching back upon itself about 20 times. There are amazing mountain views, in a variety of shapes and colours, complete with icecaps and rivers flowing next to the road. The border pass was set in one of the most panoramic spots imaginable, and for about 3 seconds you can even see the Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western Hemisphere. When I got to Mendoza I found out people travel this road up to the border crossing as a day-trip, including a visit to a site called Puente Del Inca (which I didn't see).

On the bus, I met an English girl who had just been mugged pretty violently in Valpo. It made me think of how radically different people's experiences from a place can be. While I will remember the city as a beautiful, cultured and lively place, she will remember it as violent, dangerous and scary. And of course we're both right. We talked a lot during the ride there, and I think I helped her get used to the idea of trusting people again (one of the reasons I think that is because she told me so later...) When we got to Mendoza we looked for a hostel together, and after plenty of walking around and several hostels visited (including a guy who met us at the bus station, was listing all the free stuff in his hostel, and added "free blowjobs" in Spanish when he saw we're just gonna keep walking past him), we ended up in a European-style one. This was the kind of place where I didn't stay much in South America, and would later completely abandon in Mexico and Guatemala. What is a European-style hostel, by my definition? There are some basic characteristics: usually very stylized and thought out design; mostly European, English speaking clientelle (as opposed to Israeli hostels or Spanish-speaking ones, broadly speaking); usually part of one of the international hostel associations, most famously Hostelling International; pretty big; have their own bar, so you're not allowed to bring drinks from the outside (a big disadvantage, in my eyes); and more. My experience in Mendoza was kind of the opposite of Valparaiso: I hung out with too many people, different ones each day. I guess in a way it's similar to clicking with noone at all- nobody I met there made any lasting impression on me, and I can't say I made any real connections there. One memorable thing from that hostel was two German guys who were in Argentina for only two weeks, so they decided to sleep as little as possible. No matter what time you came to the common area, they were there, drinking.
I have to confess a backpacker crime: I spent four days in Mendoza and didn't do a winery tour. You might not know how big an offense that is- people come to Mendoza only for the wineries. What I did do, though, was drink a lot of wine, do some paragliding, go to some thermal pools and just have fun with the guys in the hostel. Oh, yeah, and walk aimlessly around the city, like always. After Valpo it was kind of dissapointing- "normal" architecture, flat, greyish-brownish colours... two things that did stand out to me are that every single street is tree-lined, and that there are lots of pretty plazas. The city streets are built more or less as a grid. One thing that seemed weird to me was that all streets change names when they cross a main avenue- I guess it's a way to honour more people. The same thing is done in other cities in Argentina, too. Later, when I came back to Jerusalem, I realized that street names here change a lot, too, but without the benefit of the organizing principle of "everything changes at the same place". Here, it's just random, and has to do with historical reasons, among others, I guess.
After Mendoza I went to the provinces of San Juan & La Rioja. I came to a town called San Agustin del Valle Fertil, with the sole intent of getting to two National Parks: Ischigualasto (yes, it's impossible to pronounce) and Talampaya. But first, I had the bus ride to the town: it acted as a kind of shared taxi, I guess, with the driver going into every small town on the road (and we're talking 5-straw-huts small, here) and dropping people at their door, sometimes without even being asked. Talk about familiarity. There were also 2-3 people in different stations that climbed on the bus and tried selling stuff, the first time I had the pleasure of witnessing this (it would become very normal for me later, especially in Guatemala). And the highlight of the bus ride: we went through a pseudo-town called Difunta Correa. Do you want to hear about it? I'm going to tell you anyway. So, Deolinda Correa was a woman whose husband was forced into military service in Argentina’s Civil War. She tried to follow him, walking through the desert with her baby, but she died of thirst on the way. The baby, though, was still alive a few days later when she was found- he had survived by continuing to suck milk from her dead body. Having heard of this miracle, people started asking her to make miracles for them too, and offering some kind of sacrifice in return. Usually they also bring water bottles, since she died of thirst. Like any good miracle working folklore hero, her tomb has become a small town, and a pilgrimage spot for people in need and truck drivers everywhere. There are hundreds of little chapels for her all over highways in the country, but the place we passed through was the actual tomb/town.
Now, the town of San Agustin was very nice, green and peaceful. I stayed there with a couchsurfer, Ruben, and his whole family. They all lived together in a series of adjacent houses, something that is quite common there (according to Ruben). He was a doctor in the state capital, San Juan, and you could see he was torn between his small town family life and the (relatively) big city. He loves, and is fascinated by, foreign people and languages. But he was also quite proud of his little patch of Earth, showing me around and tooting the area's horn (does that expression necessarily have a negative connotation? I don't mean it that way...).
San Agustin is the closest town to the two National Parks: Ischigualasto, or Valley of the Moon, and Talampaya, which are basically part of the same geological group, but look very different. I also visited a third park, called El Chiflon, also part of the same group. [reading this after 2 years of Geology studies I see I obviously had no idea what I was talking about, but I will not make changes besides blatant and obvious mistakes]. The area is one of the only places where you can see the whole of the Triassic Era (a ~50 million years period, roughly 200-250 million years ago) represented in its rocks. This may not sound that exciting to you, but believe me, it's pretty special. The three parks (well, the areas that have been declared as the parks) were all uncovered -  and their topography formed - together with the Andes Mountain Range, but they're actually pretty far from the mountains themselves. All three have some amazing scenery: the Valley of the Moon has a moon-like, multi coloured badlands valley, many strange forms shaped by wind and water, very clear geological layers (strata) and a small field of ball-shaped rocks; in Talampaya there’s a big, reddish canyon, where the walls go as high as 200m, and some good looking layers and geoforms, too; El Chiflon is a smaller, white-beige canyon, with many interesting rocks and plants. They're all pretty desertic. And they have added attractions: in Valley of the Moon many fossils have been found, including some of the oldest dinosaurs known to man; El Chiflon has petrified wood, salt rocks and molten lava in it; and Talampaya has some old native drawings depicting hunting on many of its rocks. The only problem with the first two parks is that they're guided-tour only parks, since in the past visitors had stolen fossils and littered, and other lovely things that people do. So you have to go by car with a tour guide, get out for a few minutes in predetermined stops, take some pictures, hear an explanation and continue. Can't really sit with (in?) the view and soak it all in. But hey, let those be my problems. And the group in Talampaya was actually really fun- there were three old Argentinian couples that spent the whole time making dirty jokes, imagining different body parts in the rock formations, making fun of a just-married couple, and just generally making a lot of noise and having fun. But the best tour was in El Chiflon: since it's a small, new and neglected park, the tour is made by foot, and I came alone so it was only me and the guide, Paco. Now, besides the fact that it was hard to understand what he said (the La Rioja accent is heavy and very different than the ones I know), it was a very special experience- he's about 60 years old, and has lived his whole life in a small house that's 200m from the park entrance. He was there not only long before the park, but before the road that goes through the area was even built, 42 years ago. You could say that he knows the area pretty well, since until the park came into existence he used to herd goats in those same mountains. He also kept saying some things over and over again: "an archeologist will come to examine everything and then we'll know the answer to that better", "the colours and formations here are very different from Valle de la Luna and Talampaya, nothing to do with each other", and he kept trying to convince me that different rock formations looked like animals, or faces, or something like that (and I have to say I failed to imagine it in more than one case). So basically, we had a good time, but it was the most shhuna (literally, neighbourhood in Hebrew. It's hard to translate, but I guess it's something like an endearing mess, or something that is disorganized in a good natured, warm way) park I've seen- in a very positive sense. 
If you want to understand how things look a bit better, you can check out the photos in my Picasa page- the link is right there on the right. They're a hundred times better than my feeble attempts at descriptions- that's for sure.

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