Wine Country

Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
Trip End Jun 10, 2011

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

One of the great things about traveling without a set itinerary is that you can change your plans. Originally, we were supposed to fly into Lima, Peru, make our way by land through Peru and Bolivia, and then circle back up through Northern Chile to Peru to catch a flight from Lima to Santiago.  Once we got here, however, we realized that traveling by land from Bolivia to Santiago would be both faster and cheaper because we would avoid both the Peru exit tax (charged when flying out of Peru) and the dreaded Chilean reciprocity fee (Americans are charged $135 when they fly into Santiago as payback for what we charge Chileans to enter the USA).  But then we talked to a guy we met on a boat in Peru....he said that travel from Bolivia down to Santiago was nice, but that much of the trip was through the Atacama desert and that travel through Northern Argentina was much more pleasant.  Thus we find ourselves in the wine country of Northern Argentina, an unexpected stop on our journey.

The border crossing from Bolivia to Argentina was one of the less pleasant ones we've had. Overland border crossings are always trickier than flying into a country, where you are provided with the appropriate forms on the plane and then corralled into the immigration and customs lines.  This is even more true when you are traveling from a poor country like Bolivia into a rich one like Argentina.  Apparently a lot of drugs enter Argentina through Bolivia and since we were crossing the border shortly before Christmas (when lots of people from Argentina came over to buy cheap presents in Bolivia), the line was incredibly long and the guards determined to go through every package.  We were searched at the border and again an hour later as the bus passed a checkpoint. We got off relatively easy because of our USA passports, but almost everyone else had their bag unceremoniously dumped on a table, rummaged through, and then returned in a heaping armload.  This delayed our arrival into Salta, our first stop in Argentina.

Salta is a university town with a central town square surrounded by upscale restaurants.  We enjoyed a lovely meal here, some of which I shared with one of the many stray dogs.  We also had our first of many helados (gelato/ice cream).  Argentinian helado can rival Italian gelato and comes in many delicious flavors including Dulce de Leche, Marscapone, and Passionfruit. Needless to say, Jeremy likes it here :) Of course, a few days later I had a dream that I had a cholesterol test and that my cholesterol level came back as 550.  I think perhaps it was my subconscious' way of telling me to lay off the helado and red meat.

Our next stop was Mendoza, 20 hours to the south.  South America is big and we have taken several long distance buses during our travels here. These bus trips range from somewhat relaxing to something bordering on torture.  Our trip from Salta to Mendoza on AndesMar falls into the latter category.  The bus departed in the heat of the late afternoon and the air conditioning system was not functioning.  The windows didn't open and it reached over 120 degrees on the bus (the bus had a helpful/taunting little screen that displayed the inside temperature and time).  After 5 hours they finally stopped to fix it and afterwards overcompensated by blasting the A/C all night long.  For dinner they served us what I can only describe as a grizzle cake held together by a hardboiled egg.  I can eat almost anything, but I couldn't bring myself to swallow this.  For breakfast, they gave us a cookie.  One cookie.  After this experience I've decided to start ranking our South American bus options.  Thus far, we have:

CATA International > Cruz del Sur > Crucero del Norte > Via Bariloche > MARGA/TAQSA > TourPeru > walking there on glass > AndesMar

Mendoza is wine country and while there we took a wine tour.  We visited two wineries - one large, modern industrial style operation and one small, organic family-run business.  We preferred both the vibe and the wine of the small winery.  Afterwards we visited an olive oil factory, which was much more interesting for me because I wasn't familiar with the process of making olive oil.  Basically, what they do is select and grind up olives and then lay them on a metal tray with slats in the bottom.  They then layer hundreds of these trays one on top of the
other and then slowly press down on them with a giant press.  The liquid is gathered at the bottom and put into tanks where it separates out into the brine (about 2/3 of the product is this dark bitter liquid) and the oil (extra virgin).  This factory then sells the pressed olives to other producers who use chemical means to extract the remaining olive oil (to make virgin or regular oil). After the olive oil factory, we also visited a chocolate and liquor producer.  It was here that we finally caved in and bought something.  We bought a dulce de leche and banana liquor with chocolate chips in it.  Put a shot of this stuff in a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day and it's bliss.

Other highlights from Mendoza included a hike to the top of Cerro de la Gloria and a visit to the zoo where a surprising number of the animals resided outside of their cages and where we saw a mama deer give birth. There were also several visits to Independence Plaza, where much helado was consumed.

From Mendoza we made our way up and over the mountains to Santiago.  We had the front two seats on the second story of the bus and had wonderful views of the mountains and a glimpse of Aconcagua along the way.  Our arrival into Santiago was a smoggy one.  Apparently Santiago is always smoggy, but was even worse than usual due to local forest fires.  We arrived late in the evening with no place to stay. A woman from the bus was so concerned that she gave us her phone number and told us to call her if we couldn't find anything.  Luckily we did find a place to stay, but the kind gesture was much appreciated.

Santiago has a good metro system and we explored much of the city, including Cerro San Cristobal, Cerro Santa Lucia, and Bellas Artes.  We also made two trips out to the suburbs, both of which were interesting experiences.   The first was out to one of the rich suburbs in search of a movie theater that was showing Harry Potter in English.  We ended up at a high-end mall complete with Starbucks, a Nike store, and a Santaland with disgruntled-looking elves. After being in foreign places so long, it was strange and somewhat comforting to suddenly be somewhere that felt so familiar.  The second outing was to La Pintura, one of Santiago's poorest neighborhoods. When we later told a girl fromSantiago that we had gone there, she commented, "There are parts of that neighborhood where the police are afraid to go." We ventured there with our couchsurfing host, Arturo, who does volunteer work with children in the area.  He and some friends run a library and tutoring center out of their home, where we spent the night.  As he describes it, there is a lot of classism in Chile and most people feel that these kids will grow up to be poor like their parents and aren't worth the effort to educate.  We spent the evening talking with him and his friends (in Spanish) and and trying to get them to try a salad with fruit in it. They seemed very surprised and tentative about the appearance of strawberries in a salad, but they were good sports and tried it anyway.  We've had similar reactions to the combination of  peanut butter and jelly, which garnered a horrified look from the checkout girl at the grocery store.

From Santiago, we flew to Puntas Arenas, Chile, where we would begin working our way north through Patagonia.
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