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Northwest Argentina Road Trip

After a great introduction to northwest Argentina during our few days in Salta, we decided it was time for a roadtrip. We've been taking buses everywhere, which is a great way to get around South America, but the disadvantage is that it restricts us to only traveling to places that have regular bus connections. Originally we wanted to drive all the way to Mendoza, about 800 miles south, stopping in a few towns and national parks along the way, but the rental car drop-off fees were between $600 and $1000, in addition to the rental fee, so we quickly abandoned that idea. In the end we decided to drive a 3-day loop in the area west and south of Salta, to explore its varied landscapes, small towns, and wineries. Our first day was a drive through the Quebrada de Escoipe (quebrada means ravine or valley), which started out as a paved road, and gradually rose through dry mountains in red, orange, and green hues, becoming an unpaved road. The higher in elevation we got, the foggier it got, and unfortunately for most of the drive we were completely enveloped in fog and had no idea what our supposedly breathtaking surroundings looked like. Then it plunged down, the fog disappeared, the road became paved again, and we were driving through Los Cardones National Park, a stretch of very flat land covered in candelabra cacti up to 6 meters in height. After a quick windy picnic and a stop at a winery for a glass of Malbec and some goat cheese covered in honey, we reached the small town of Cachi where we spent the night.

Quebrada de Escoipe Between Salta and Cachi

Quebrada de Escoipe Between Salta and Cachi

Los Cardones National Park

Los Cardones National Park

Day two was a drive from Cachi to Cafayate through the Valles Calchaquíes. This road was entirely unpaved and went through foothills with green patches in the wide valley below, into the Quebrada de las Flechas (literally meaning 'valley of the arrows'), a desert-like landscape with thin, sharp, angled spires and striped rock formations on both sides of the road. We stopped in a small town called Angastaco to find something to eat, and happened to stumble upon a tucked-away restaurant called Rincon Florido. Upon seeing the patio and the owner, we immediately knew we had found a gem. The owner, Leonardo Gutierrez, played the guitar and sang for us, pausing only to take out photo albums of postcards his customers have sent him from all over the world, of which he is clearly proud. The menu consisted of just three items: milanese (breaded and pan-fried chicken), cazuela de cabrito (stewed goat), and of course, empanadas, all prepared by Leonardo's wife. The cazuela de cabrito was delicious: the meat was fall-off-the-bone soft in a tasty gravy with carrots and onions. I've often heard that goat can be quite dry, but this was the complete opposite. After our satisfying lunch, we drove on to Cafayate, a town of about 10,000 people and the center of an important wine-producing region.

Quebrada de las Flechas

Quebrada de las Flechas

Cafayate, and the whole area we covered during our three days, reminded me of the southwest US. The town, centered around a main plaza, was small and friendly and it had a very Colorado feel to it. Surrounding Cafayate are several wineries. The area is known for producing a type of white wine called Torrontes. The region is quite dry, but the soil and temperatures are apparently perfect for growing grapes. After tasting some local beers and eating a very filling steak dinner, we got a good night of sleep and woke up the next day to visit a few of the bodegas (vineyards, although the word literally means 'cellar'), including Etchart, Nanni, and Vasija Secreta. Etchart is quite well-known, especially for its Torrontes; its tour and tasting were informative and the guide friendly. Nanni is an organic winery, so its wines are very tasty but a bit pricier. Vasija Secreta was quite a bit more touristy, with tour buses in the parking lot, and it seemed to aim at getting the tourists in and out as fast as possible with a rushed tasting of two of its wines, neither particularly memorable. We were almost wined-out when we went back to town and remembered the Heladeria Miranda, an ice cream store with Torrontes and Cabernet Sauvignon flavored ice creams. They were both very cold, very boozy, and strongly wine-flavored-- definitely not for children! Feeling satisfied with our road trip, we began the drive back to Salta, through the Quebrada de Cafayate, again an arid landscape with fascinating bright-red rock formations reminiscent of Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah.

Bodega Nanni

Bodega Nanni

Overall I'd say our road trip was a success-- it was great to get a bit off the beaten track; move at our own pace, stopping wherever we wanted along the way; enjoy the scenery; and try the wines!

Tractor & Mountains in Cafayate

Tractor & Mountains in Cafayate

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We're getting good at border crossings. After a little trouble finding our bus from Tupiza to the border, and a little roadwork on the trip, we arrived in Villazon, Bolivia, got our exit stamps, skipped across the bridge marking the border to Argentina, got our entry stamps, and then hopped on another bus to our first stop of Salta, Argentina.

Salta's Cathedral

Like many other cities, we had heard mixed things about Salta. It might be because, being the biggest city in northwest Argentina, a lot of people overlook it in their excitement to get from one place to another. But for us, it was a great welcome to our last South American country. As in most colonial towns, we enjoyed sitting in the main square and the cafés that surround it, and watching the locals go by. And, as Claudia hinted at in her Bolivia / Argentina post, we enjoyed the European influence, and the cheese, cured meats, and espresso that it provided. As an added bonus, we were there during a large regional celebration (a commemoration of Cristo del Milagro, who was apparently to thank for stopping a series of earthquakes in 1692 when his picture was paraded through the city's streets), meaning the city was bustling with people for our whole two-day stay there.

On the last night, we got a real treat: we had dinner at a peña, a traditional type of restaurant / bar / music venue where local Salteños come to eat, drink, and play and sing traditional folk music. The wonderful thing about this type of establishment is that the music isn't confined to a stage, and there is no separation between performers and audience; it's simply a traditional place for people to come and enjoy themselves, and anyone who wants to can join in the singing, playing, and dancing. The peña we picked was in a grand old mansion, so while the place was bustling and many people were there that night to eat, drink, and sing, most of the seating was sectioned off into small rooms of just four or five tables, allowing a very comfortable and intimate feeling. When we were seated, our room was about half-full, and pretty quiet, but there was a table with two young men around the corner in another room playing music and drinking wine. After we ordered, the last large table in our room began to fill up and instruments started to make their way out: acoustic guitars, a large animal-skin drum, a wooden flute, and various others.

While people streamed in, the tables filled with local beer, Coca-Cola (which were mixed in glasses), local red wine, orange Fanta (which were also mixed), french fries, more salteñas (a type of empanada originating in Salta, hence the name) than we could count, and of course, lots of meat. We enjoyed our first taste of Argentinian meat: a beautifully cooked flank steak, pork ribs, and blood sausage, and before we knew it the newly-arrived table broke out into song, and then kept playing one after another well into the night. This is my favorite type of music: the kind that's played by the people who love it, that's being played merely because they love to do it (not for money or fame or appreciation), and the kind that's passed down between generations at dinner tables, in living rooms, around campfires, and at celebrations of all types all over the world. On that last point, one of the most interesting aspects is that while most of the singers and players were middle-aged, there were also a handful of their children in attendance, with hip haircuts, clothes, and piercings. They appeared to be enjoying it--or at least tolerating it--as much as angsty teenagers glued to their cellphones can appear to enjoy anything. While I didn't know any of the songs, I could sense the passion, familiarity, and strong connections everyone in the room had to this traditional music.

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Bolivia and Argentina: General Observations

I think our posts generally do a decent job of describing where we've been, what we've done, and what we've been eating, but I'm not sure we've given you our general impressions of the countries or their culture (although you can often probably gather some of that). In any event, the last two countries we've been to--Bolivia and Argentina--are quite different from each other in many respects.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. We read one article that said it has the same GDP as Sudan, which sounds pretty bleak if you ask me. But despite the poverty, the people seem generally content. Mostly everyone we encountered was pleasant, friendly, and extremely respectful. I would think that a country so poor would have high crime rates and that foreigners would have to take extra care not to get robbed, especially in big cities. We were only there for two weeks, so all our observations of course have to be taken with a huge grain of salt, but we really never felt unsafe, we never had any aggressive or uncomfortable encounters with 'salesmen', and we never felt ripped off. While La Paz was quite modern in some respects (modern architecture, international food, and a lively bar scene, for example), it was the only capital city where the vast majority of the women we saw were dressed traditionally. Sure, Bolivia suffered from painfully slow wifi and lower-quality buses and roads compared to other countries, but that is to be expected given that it is so poor. La Paz also had a surprising German influence, mostly visible in the restaurants and cafes with their excellent pastries. We talked to some Bolivians who said that many Germans came to Bolivia (and Argentina) after WWII.

Hats for Sale in La Paz

Bolivia has some of the most spectacular landscapes we've ever seen. In the southwest region of the country, there are high-altitude deserts, endless salt flats with coral islands, multi-colored mountains, brightly colored lakes, and strange rock formations caused by high winds over the years. In the east of the country is the rainforest, quite unexplored in some places. Bolivia has also been heavily mined, and the adventurous tourist can still tour some of these huge mines at his or her own risk (from what I hear, these tours are the kind that would never exist in the US because of the dozens of inevitable lawsuits that would ensue due to safety hazards). Overall, we found Bolivia widely varied, beautiful, extremely affordable, and friendly.

Argentina, the eighth largest country in the world, feels very different from the rest of South America (or at least from the countries we've been to on this trip). As soon as you get to any city of notable size in Argentina, you start to feel that you could almost be in Europe between all the croissants, cappucinos, and old Peugeots everyone drives around. Argentinians seem to enjoy a high quality of life: the wine and meat is excellent and plentiful, their capital is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the continent, their beloved tango is a world-renowned dance, they've got world-class skiing and trekking in Patagonia, and continue to have a strong gaucho (cowboy/ranching) culture which one can still experience by visiting one of the many estancias throughout the country. Especially in Patagonia, there is a visible German and Italian presence, especially in architecture and food (Argentina can't seem to get enough of their Milanesas: breaded and fried meat that is cooked much like a schniztel). Unfortunately, Argentina isn't blessed with the tropical climate that its northern neighbors experience, so the fruits and vegetables are much less plentiful, fresh, and readily available. Whatever they lack in fruit and vegetables, they more than make up for in the meat department; I cannot stress this enough! And they don't waste too much time with sides: rice and potatoes are generally side dishes that are ordered seperately; meat simply comes on a plate on its own, no need for anything else! Empanadas are delicious and eaten as an appetizer or a street snack. Everyone drinks mate all the time (herbal tea that is made with loose leaves and consumed out of a gourd with a silver straw).

Cathedral in Salta, Argentina

Transportation in comparison to the other countries is luxurious, if more expensive: long-distance bus rides include a host, several meals, wine, games of Bingo (?!), and very recent movies. Highways are actual highways: multiple lanes and paved! No longer do we have to endure hours of bumpy rides in umcomfortable seats with extra passengers crammed into the aisles and salsa music blasting.

Argentinians operate on a different schedule than most countries we've been to: siesta is observed religiously, so stores and some offices are closed from about 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00 pm, when they open back up until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. After siesta, Argentinains can be found at a cafe, drinking an espresso and having a pastry. Happy hour starts around 8:00 or 9:00 pm, dinner doesn't begin until 10:00 pm at the earliest, and people don't really go out until after midnight. I still don't understand how they manage to get to work at the normal hour of 9:00 am!

I hope that gives you some feel of what these two countries are like. In the three months we've spent in South America, we've definitely started to feel at home, we have appreciated the similarities between all these countries, and enjoyed spotting the differences. Now we're looking forward to forgetting all that and learning about a whole new set of countries in Africa!