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Mary Legg Taste Of Argentina Page One

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Walks In Caithness 

A Taste Of Argentina
Mary Legg

I'm sure that an Argentine from a small village would feel a similar sense of panic were he to arrive in a Scottish bus station at closing time on a Saturday night.  I was very glad to have Mark along with me.  His grasp of the language was much better and he was also a great big fellow.  We finally found a bus going our way with a very grumpy bus driver so two hours later at midnight we arrived at Libertador General de San Martin and took a taxi to our hotel, Los lapachos, in torrential rain.

We were now into a warmer, more humid climate and the room had air conditioning.  I woke refreshed and to sunshine and watched from my balcony in the street below children going to school.  They wear what resembles lab coats as a uniform and were very smartly turned out - a surprise as incomes were low.  I wasn`t sure if the children from the shanties had schooling or not.


Breakfast in Argentina is a half hearted affair.  Orange juice, coffee and a couple of pastry type cakes moistened by the plastic wrapped individual butters and jams that we have here.

It was time to explore so I set off for the main plaza.   L  G  S Martin was a lively town.

The square had flowering jacarandas and was surrounded by a wide range of shops from drapers to bicycle repairs.  I found some beautiful butterflies on the shrubs in the square but a group of sniggering schoolboys made me feel too self conscious to take photographs.  I consoled myself with the fact that they, the butterflies, would look better in a natural setting.

One of the reasons I was wary of travelling on my own was my uncanny ability to get lost.  I have no sense of direction and frequently walk into cupboards rather than take the correct exit from a room.  Its become a bit of a bogey for me although I have learnt to treat it as one of my more endearing eccentricities.   For that very reason  I had made sure I knew which shop lay at the corner of the playa that led back in the direction of the hotel.   Why then could I not find it and why did I keep passing by the same piece of ground.   After I`d  decided I couldn`t pass the same group of men for the fourth time in half an hour I decided I`d better ask for directions but unfortunately I couldn`t remember the name of the Hotel I was in.  I found a dress shop went in and mumbled sheepishly in my limited Spanish that I was looking for a hotel.   A kind girl with a car took me around the various hotels until I found the right one.  The lesson from this one was that if you can`t work out where you are at least remember where you`ve been.   I was lucky there were only 5 hotels in the town.

In the evening the playa really comes to life.  Everyone comes into square along with their children.  There`s usually music of some sort, either from giant speakers or live.  Street vendors sell foods of all sort from sweets to meats.  Children`s toys for sale.  Hospitable because of the weather.

Whilst I was away Mark had arranged for us to go to one of the national parks Calilegua and be guided by one of the rangers.  This park rises up to dense subtropical cloud forest and has abundant bird life and rare mammals such as puma and jaguar.  Our guide, a young women of about 30, was an authority on the trees of which there were about 8o species many of which were used medicinally.  We saw orchids, flashy birds oreopendula who made their pendulus nests in colonies parrots.  It was a dense verdant place which I would have liked more time to explore.  The rangers here have little in the way of equipment and  I heard on my return to Scotland that some of them hadn`t been paid by the government for months so what we gave her must have been very welcome.

On the drive out of the Park we were on a dirt road between an irrigation  canal and the very wide dried bed of the  river.  The rains come in the summer time here and can be heavy enough to cause the closure of the roads. Last year they were so bad that they swept away a concrete bridge.  Several sugar cane trucks were leaving the fields and our taxi driver asked if we would like to have a look at the sugar factory of Ledesma.  Sugar is the main industry in this area but it has an unhealthy dominance as the work is seasonal.  Many of the labourers will be paid off after the harvest and there is little else to take its place.  The estate was dominated by a huge colonial style mansion resembling something from Gone With The Wind and painted pink.   Surrounding it were workers houses and sports fields and outdoor swimming pools. The industry appeared to have a paternalistic role towards the town and in fact the land for the national park had been donate by Ledesma.  This was not done purely from altruism.  They recognised the importance of the forests in preserving the local climate and protecting the soil.  By designating the area as a national park they were protecting  the hillsides from logging.  On our way out of the estate we saw a group of men working on a mountainous heap of sugar cane waste material.  The bi-product from this was paper.  The slope of dross looked very mobile and dangerous and the smell was asphyxiating.  You`d have to be desperate to take on this job.

That night Mauro took us to a small rotiseria where we ate outdoors under a thatched roof.  We were the only people eating there.  With the recent economic trouble in the country fewer and fewer people can afford to eat at restuarants.  This place was much more low key and probably kept going for local labourers.  As a nation of meat lovers all sorts of meat are on offer.  I was told to try a traditional parrallida (grill) which included intestines, kidneys and morcilla (blood sausage).  It was a bit of a chew really the blood sausage being the most pallatable just like black pudding.  The restuarant cat and dog did quite well from that meal.

The following morning we were to head to the private reserve with Mauro and his Milan friend who had bought the land.  This reserve was on the border between the two provinces of JuJuye and Salta and adjoined Calilegua Naional Park.  One of the conservation issues when protecting land for populations of animals is that there can be problems of fragmentation where there has been denudation of areas through logging or encroaching onto land from spreading villages.  This was already occurring here and a hill range stripped of trees rose to the south. Logging can be done in a more sustainable way that it has been done in the past

By buying this land it would mean that a wider area would be protected. Michaelo had built a house there and there were plans to set it up as an eco tourism business.  The journey in took about one and a half hours on dirt tracks through some dense forest where we saw parrot and guan.  We had to cross the river Pantanosa by stepping stones which I only just managed my ability to balance being as poor as my ability to navigate.  We had a few hours to explore the area and the only really navigable route was by following the river.  The river was low after the winter and the mud held foot prints of deer, cats foxes and tapir.  The tapir was enormous.   It was a wonderful two hours spent in such a rich habitat.  The river banks were clothed in shrubs and trees and creepers.  There was the constant sound of birds some high up in the canopy and difficult to make out but I was treated to the sight of the ringed kingfisher a giant of a thing coursing up and down I the search for food and overhead three vultures.

There were enormous banks of mud and giant boulders which indicated the power of the water when the rains came.  Tributaries gauged out deep valleys and triggered off new land slides every season.  I crossed from bank to bank just wading as the water was low and with my balancing skills it was probably quickest and safest.I marvelled at the butterfies counting 15 different species some as big as my hand. It wasn`t difficult to imagine jaguar in this kind of dense undergrowth but it would need an overnight stop to see what the nocturnal life was like. I heard three weeks after my return that Ariel the local man who works there had come face to face with a jaguar.

Eco tourism is in its initial stages here with a few hotels using wildlife guides and tour leaders but there is a lot of potential and it would be a way of both protecting the wildlife and habitat and providing income for the people.

For our final night with Mauro we went to the local restuarant.  There were few people there but I saw a couple eating with an Argentinian.  Their rather frumpy dress sense, a bit like my own, and pale skin identified them as British and as I`d seen few other British about I thought I`d have a chat with them.  As I`d thought, they were British birders who had hired an Argentinian guide and they were having a look at the birds of the cloud forest and puna before flying south to Valdes.  I mentioned my home as Caithness and that it was a great place for birds but all they`d heard about it was that some female pop star had been married somewhere up there.  Now who could that be?

The remaining 10 days of the trip I would be on my own as Mark had to head back to California I`d miss the company and security of having someone with me but there would be some pluses particularly as I would have more control over my dwindling budget. I was going to bus it back to Jujuye and then go up the Quebrada de Humahuaca a long valley that cuts through the Andean foothills.

I was lucky to get a quick connection to Tilcara and headed on a two hour trip through increasingly arid mountainous landscapes.  The Quebrada was colonised from Peru by the Spanish in the late 16th century and it has many cultural features recalling the Andean countries.  The people are predominantly dark skinned Mestizos or Quechua and they base their agriculture on irrigation from perennial streams in the mountains.  The fields of wheat, corn and roots, lying on the valley floor soothed the eyes after the glare of the polychrome hillsides.   Now they are upgrading the road which will speed the journey up to Bolivia.

I arrived at Tilacara in the heat of the day when the winds had also built up.  The elevation was2461 metres (8,000ft) I felt the heat as I slogged uphill to the International Y, Hostel where I was lucky to get a room at reasonable price. I had time to visit the Andean pucara a pre-columbian fortification that had been reconstructed and gave beautiful views up and down the valley .

It was hard to imagine that just the day before I had been in subtropical forest where there was water in plenty and only a four hours bus ride away.  The localised climate of the Quebrada is the result of being in the rain shadow of the Andes cutting it off from winds coming in from the Pacific south west.  Additionally mountains to the east exclude it from depressions moving in from the Atlantic.  This has produced an arid pre puna zone of stoney hillsides with giant size cardon cacti and scrub.

After eating I dozed off and ended up with the strangest dreams which I put down to the heat and altitude.

The owner of the hostel had told me there was a good long walk in the mountains but I`d need an early start to avoid the heat on the steep section.  After giving me a hand sketched map she said her dog liked a good walk so I could take her (carmela ) with me.  The first two hours were hard work up steep rocky slopes and between coarse grasses and stunted cacti. Small flocks of finch visited the flowers of the giant cacti to drink moisture collected there overnight.  Carmello was like an Alsation cross and had a great thick coat.  We were both thirsty so I used my specs case as a vessel for her to drink from.  I would have to be careful of our water supplies if there were no other sources around.  We crossed the first ridge and ahead was a small irrigated valley and a tiny school.  I`d thought Tilcara isolated but over here it was more so.  Only dirt tracks leading there.I eventually found a perennial stream and waterfall below me with martins feeding in the sand banks I took the dog down for a drink and rest.   Her game was to roll ambitiously large boulders out of the stream accompanying this with a high pitched yelp more suited to a small terrier.  There had been a sign saying “ privado Finca” on the track so I didn`t linger in case her barks drew attention to us.  So far there had been no signs of people only a recurring grafitti; “ Deus es Amor” scrawled on the dry rocks.

Some time later we reached a valley that cut back through towards the Quebrada.  I`d been told there was a waterfall here but that I must stick to the signed track to get down to it.  I could see a group of men, who looked like police, down in the narrow gorge and when I reached the place they had regained the path and were sitting with a loaded stretcher.  I took it that this was a place where they practiced cliff rescue techniques.  They weren`t friendly at all and shooed the dog away.  It put me off going down to the falls as I imagined them thinking “tourist out on her own a possible accident in the making”.  I looked back into the black, vertical walls of the gorge it had a macabre feel to it and the loose stone path was incredibly steep. One slip...............

By the time I returned to the main valley the mountains were at their most beautiful with the shadow outlining thousands of dry ravines and tinting the slopes many hues.   After making my way down through the houses at the back of the village I reached the hostel tired but happy explained to the hostel owner that I had seen the police and she told me someone had fallen there the previous day.  There were no other details.

I enjoyed my time in Tilacara.  The village was small and the people friendly.  There was quite a lot of house-building going on using hand made adobe bricks.  The houses were largely one or two storey and I had seen horses being led through the front doorways which I discovered opened out into courtyards.

The two villages each had simple churches made from adobe and using the carved insides of the cacti, known as cordon, for the beams and pews.  These churches were not particularly old (17th& 18th Century) and were replacements for those flattened by earthquakes.

I`m not sure what most of the people did for work though farming is labour intensive and would employ many.  There were small fincas along the foothills and for about a kilometre on each side of the river though this expanded further downriver in the Qhebrado.   Some of the goats and sheep were penned and food taken to them and the ploughs were drawn by horses, which were often tethered to graze.  Land that could be irrigated was precious to them and put to some productive use.  There were small gardens growing vines, fruit and vegetables.

Water came from the few perennial streams in the mountains and modern concrete irrigation channels lead down the slopes and into ditches that contoured round the hillsides.  Hose pipes siphoned off some onto the small patches of allotments around the village.  There was a big water plant at the edge of the village into which the main streams flowed.

The village had an interesting population of dogs varying from short legged, long haired mongrels to Alsation crosses.  They seemed a sociable group and ran about visiting each other behaving as dogs generally do when given their freedom.  Ownership was indicated by ribbons worn around their necks rather than collars and they seemed well enough fed and cared for. Whilst there were a few inebriated Indians there was none of the stark poverty I`d seen in the cities.

There were a handful of other travellers around some in transit from Bolivia or Peru. They were mostly young and had taken time out of school or work to backpack around the world.  Catering for them were a few artisan craft shops selling parkas and clothing made from llama and alpaca wool.  When I bought a few things to take back I was treated to some Andean pipe music by the stall holder.  A couple of biologists stayed next door to me.  They were involved in reafforestation programmes in the south of Argentina and were taking a few days off after a conference in Jujuye but they shared the same shortage of funding for their work as the team in the Sierras.

Tilcara was becoming a popular place for the wealthier in JujUye to come to at weekends.  I only hope it wasn`t going to be spoilt by this and the better access the new roads would bring.  There was a lot of building taking place in the village.

I had become quite at home there but it was time to move on; so with an adios from the local inebriates I headed for the bus back to JuJuye.

Jujuye in the daytime was not so scary though just as busy as at nightime.   I had to do a bit of money changing as the bus company wouldn`t take visa and with a bit of help from the tourist information lady and a rush around the congested streets I managed to get my next journey organised I`m sure the fact that I was alone, female and a bit long in the tooth was an advantage at times when I came unstuck..

I should explain a bit more about buses in Argentina.  There are numerous bus companies that cover the country some specialising in particular routes and provinces. They offer varying degrees of comfort and make different, competitive charges.  The bus station is a constant hive of activity where ramshackle bone shakers taking villagers on short local runs and very plush coaches going to international destinations.  I wanted a bus that would get me into Mendoza in the morning and not the middle of the night as I didn`t fancy wandering around a strange place then, so the El. Rapido company suited.   It was a 20 hour journey and the ticket price was about £45.00.   For comfort it scaled at about 6 out of ten.  I had about an hour to wait and people watched.  A great assortment of folk use the buses among them groups of Indians whose packs were searched by soldiers.  They would most likely have come south from Bolivia so it was probably drugs they were looking for.  Both parties appeared to be good humoured about the whole process.  I`d read that the chewing of coco leaves was tolerated amongst the Indians.

I have been on long distance buses before (Greyhound across USA) so I was prepared for a long haul but not for the entertainment aspect of Argentine bus travel.   Most of the seats were taken so I found myself at the top of the stairs (the luggage boot is underneath). Above my head was one of three TVs which would remain on for most of the time at a loud volume.  Day time TV was lewd comedy that involved a lot of gesticulations and pelvic thrusts. (No 9 pm. Threshold here). There was about five hours of visibility but the landscape was nothing compared to what I had left.   We were heading south through Salta, Tucaman, (another sugar and farming area), on straight relatively uninteresting roads.  I did see some interesting raptors on the wires but there was never enough time for identification

There was no real escape from the films on the TV screen. The first about climbing or to be more precise hanging from the ends of ropes was awful and this was followed by an equally bad cowboy film probably made more interesting in my attempts to translate the Spanish.  The final film at 10 pm was in English about deep sea divers and I half dozed through this one.

Better entertainment was provided by a family opposite me who appeared to have stoked up the wrath of the driver and co- driver possibly because the toddler kept scrambling about above what would be their heads.  They were a poor mestizo family and the children were dressed in best clothes unsuitable for bus travel.  The daughter was very active and the mother who also had a young baby was either feeding the baby or sleeping leaving the father to look to his daughter`s and older son`s needs.

They seemed to be force feeding the boy with sweets and milky drinks resulting in the inevitable eruption of copious volumes of vomit which they watched with surprise.  My carrier bag was too late to do much good.  This did not endear them to the drivers who ranted and raved but it was not cleaned up until many hours later.

We were stopped by the military on a road check and had to empty the bus and undergo a luggage search.  I wasn`t sure what exactly they were looking for perhaps smuggled goods or drugs from the northern borders.  When it came to my turn they gave up on me because of the language barrier, much to the amusement of the other travellers.

I`m quite lucky in that I`m good at sleeping in all sorts of odd places which makes travelling easier and, with a towel over my head and my legs stretched above the barricade, I had a reasonable night only wakening occasionally by lights when we passed through small towns.  I was awake again at 6am to the sight of the Andes.  We were now passing through a mix of scrub land, vine growing and agricultural areas.  There were several small towns with shanty suburbs where people travelled by pony and cart and dogs scavenged about.

Mendoza has a new sprawling bus station.  I had my little map showing where the hostel was but didn`t orientate it right and so ended up going completely the wrong way.  I sorted it out with the help of a local and headed off through the smart streets of the city.  I felt more at home in the rough villages to the north.   Here the women of my age were stylishly dressed and sipping coffee along the tree lined avenues.  I was hot, tired and sweaty carrying my heavy bags and I was a little self conscious.  This feeling persisted in the youth hostel where although it was friendly enough the lodgers were all under 30. However, it was comfortable and clean and I only planned to stay here a night so it would do.  I explored the city.  Mendoza is prosperous looking with squares and fountains and classy shops.

I had trouble cashing my last travellers cheques.  After signing them the cashier spoke to several others while the queue built up.  Eventually they questioned why my signature looked different from the one on the cheques.  How could I explain that I`ve never managed to write my signature the same way twice.  They finally gave me the benefit of the doubt and paid up much to my relief.  At last I managed to track down some post cards.  I had found none in the north.

My next destination was Uspallata (oospashjatta) a crossroads village situated on the Andean mountain pass to Santiago and Chile.  From here it was possible to look over to Aconcagua the highest peak in south America.  The road passed petro-chemical works and industries and went on through dry scrubby ranch land where horse and cattle ran the gauntlet of crossing a road heavy with long distant trucks heading into Chile.  Corpses of the unsuccessful lay on the verges.

Uspallata (3,000pop) lay on flat land 1751 metres above sea level.  It was backed by multi coloured arid mountains and beyond it lay the snow capped giants of S. America.  The settlement reminded me of Aviemore out of season only on a smaller scale.  There were a few restaurants, a river rafting company and trekking equipment shops also a large military base.  I found a small friendly hotel.

I planned a walk in the Sierras the next day.  There is an old road the Caracoles (translated it means snails) de Villavicencio that crosses the mountains so I headed along its way picking up a village dog that escorted me for a mile or so.  The first part of the route was through a rubbish tip; a real scar on the landscape.  The persistent wind sent plastic bags into orbit dispersing them for miles around.  I then passed what looked like a group of shrines with crosses and flowers and strange arrangements of coloured plastic drink bottles.   I`d seen these arrangements of bottles elsewhere but hadn`t found out what they symbolised.

A few years previously Jean-Jacques Annuad used this area as the location for the Brad Pitt epic “Seven years in Tibet” because it so resembled Highland Asia.  How did he avoid the rubbish?

Once beyond the plastic trail the walk was stunning and the views breathtaking.  I walked along dry braided river channels steadily climbing until I reached the green and red rocks of a former talc mine. This was another arid landscape but there were no cordon cacti here but smaller clusters of cacti and a few yellow flowering shrubs.  The dryness and loneliness gave the landscape a hostile yet addictive quality.  Walking was confined to the valleys as the hillsides were too scree covered and stoney.  Only at one point did I get a slightly spooked feeling and glanced several times in expectation of something stalking me but it doesn`t pay to get into that frame of mind when you`re on your own.  There were a few secretive Andean finch and mocking birds flitting from shrub to shrub but when I stopped in a high pass I saw the bird I`d been hoping for glide into view and there were two others circling above me as if checking me out before soaring out of sight. Andean Condors huge and powerful.

I had seen nothing and no-one that day but a tour bus heading down the gravel road which stopped to see if I was ok.  It was full of silver permed headed ladies out for a day`s tour.   They were chatty and friendly and not a little curious that I should be out there on my own.

My hotel was almost empty and the proprietress very friendly plying me with cups of tea and panillos.  She was the same age as me and had been suffering from cancer.  Much of our conversation was through drawing things and using a set of encyclopaedia.  I was joined at meal time by two climbers whose English was good from Uruguay.  They had spent 7 days snow and ice climbing in the mountains coming across some rough weather.  They were interested in Scotland and Europe and wanted to know how much we knew about S America and their country.  I had to confess very little.  They said that for too long now the South Americans had looked to the west from whence many of their forefathers had come.  They were now trying to work together and had set up a trading market with Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay.  They were struggling as there was too much distrust between the countries. Uruguay was known as “little Switzerland” because of its welfare infrastructure but the country was now unable to support the rising costs of this and a lack of subsidies meant they couldn`t compete in the international market.

My return to the city of Mendoza was on the fastest bus I have ever been in.  There were many Klondikers coming through from Chile and it seems we had to overtake them all.  I only hoped there was going to be no stock on the road that day.

I was delighted that for the first time my Spanish was good enough for me to order an overnight bus to BA without having to repeat myself or write it down.  Quite often it was my mispronunciation of the destination that caused the problems.

I had a few hours to spend in Mendoza as my bus didn`t leave until evening so I thought I`d go to the zoo to see some pumas and jaguars.  The zoo was built into a hillside at the back of the town and to get there I had to cross the better area of the town where people were jogging, cycling and playing tennis. There was also a large loch and a yachting club.  It felt much like any European city.

I`ve seen better and worse Zoos.  The jaguars were overfat and the pumas restless.  The lions had a reasonable amount of space.  Overall there was a relaxed feel about the place.  Certainly when it came to safety it reminded me of the Poem “Albert and the Lion”.  Access to the animals would have been quite easy.  Perhaps people are a bit more responsible for their own security here.  Lots of little monkeys roamed the place making the cats` life hell by leaping on them.  One poor kitten had lost an eye and it begged from me but I had nothing to give it.  The poorest creatures always seemed to appear when I had just finished my food making me feel sad and helpless.  Survival here is much closer to the edge..

I had my first rain in weeks as I left for the bus to BA.  An uneventful journey that got me into the vast, grey city as it came to life for a new day.

Throughout the journey I had wondered what would happen if I lost my valuables.  Would someone bale me out of the situation?  With my very limited grasp of the language it would be a difficult one.

Strange, therefore, that I should come across someone who should be in that situation; a white Kenyan coffee farmer in Argentina for a break after the death of his wife.  We got speaking in the bus station while I was checking out my map for the shuttle bus terminal.   His daughter had gone off with his bum bag in a bus to the south and he needed to get north to Iguazu falls.  It all sounded credible enough so I paid for his fare up to Iguazu. (£40.00)   Only after that did I begin to think it was all a bit too good to be true but the deed was done and had I not helped him out I`d probably have worried about him for days.  Needless to say I was conned but it could have been worse and my only regrets are that I wasn`t able to tell him what a sad old thief he was.

It was odd that when I travelled through much of the poverty of Africa I had nothing stolen until reaching Europe on the way home.   Again I`d been in amongst poor Argentines but it was a white man of European origin who stole from me.

This was the only negative thing on the trip.  I`d had a small taste of Argentina and found it a varied and often puzzling country.  The news on my return of riots pained and troubled me and I wondered how many of the people, whose lives were already difficult, would cope.  When you travel somewhere for a time it seems that part of your is left behind.  Perhaps one day I shall be able to return and savour some more.

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