Ahead There Be Giants

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, December 7, 2007

Another day, another bus heading west, this time across some of the flattest and best agricultural land in the world. The route to Cordoba is a very well trodden path through the heart of Argentina along Ruta 9, passing back through Rosario. Again the scale of both Argentina and South America are pushed home by the endless fields.

On the way, we pass the largest storm I have ever seen. Stretching for hundreds of kilometres across the flat pastures, constant lightning strikes in all directions and a show of forks spreading through the clouds. The air in Cordoba on arrival is filled with moisture from the storms. Uberfriendly staff at the hostel, lead by Alejandro, make up for a rather spartan hostel, a stark transition from the opulence of BA.

Cordoba makes an interesting change from the coast. It feels very isolated from the world outside, a safe place Argentine through and through, which has been dominated by two masters since its foundation; the Church and Universities. This gives the centre of town an unusual feel, without the great municipal buildings you would normally expect in a city of over 2m people. More a sprawl of shopping galleries and small squares, dividing up the endless huddles of churches, convents and hyper-modern university buildings. Therefore, much of the centre is off limits, leaving you to wander the endless mix of cheap sports shops and lingerie shops. The centre is dominated by a large Cathedral and a lovely Jesuit temple, with a roof the shpe of a boat. However, generally there is little photogenic and the parks provide little in the way of good vistas.

The hostel itself is located in the newest part of town, about twenty blocks from the main square. Due to the nature of Cordoba, it has a lot of students staying there for courses and exchanges. This gives it a rather `Frat Boy` feel, with lots of younger travellers trying to shout each other down. There was an odd gentleman from Italy, who seemed rather interested in the younger girls in the crowds and never appeared to leave the hostel. Another interesting character was an American `Daddy`s Girl` who seemed intent on talking to anyone would stand there long enough to listen. Anything near decent conversation was with a cool German guy called Kahn and a Mexican girl called Brenda. Alejandro, the hostel worker seems to be awake through all of this and smiling away.

The food in the area is reasonable without being amazing, and the bars again pleasant without startling. I think a case of being spoilt by Buenos Aires. My one hope from the endless sprawl of shops is for a descent climbing shop to get some climbing shoes, but alas, there is one tiny shop. If you want a gun or fishing rod, come to Cordoba, otherwise forget it.

With a quick and quiet breakfast, I made my escape from the hostel. The mix isn`t unpleasant, it just seems to be too wrapped up in the process of travelling and not engaged in the enjoyment of seeing new things and people. Happy to spend time with the same people and stay put. I hoped the bus to Mendoza carried towards a more dynamic place amongst the giants of the Andes.

Endless sun on flat land seems to be the story of central Argentina; but all this energy has to be released somewhere. Passing along the flat road to Mendoza, a successionof mighty storms rake the landscape with flashes. The persistent rain does little to calm the heat and humidity though. As soon as the sun returns, all is the usual bake.
The route from Cordoba is a rather tortuous one, driving south back to RN7 and finally turning west at the small city of Rio Cuarto. A steady flow of small farming towns, broken by the regional capital of San Luis. Like most large Argentine towns, San Luis has a significant military base near its heart, this one being a fairly rundown artillery base with a large Malvinas memorial.

First signs of the giants ahead are the gradually growing Sierras which run in long chains through the region. With the addition of vineyards, the scene is set for Mendoza, and the towering Precordillera behind. A quick taxi to the hostel and then dinner in town show Mendoza to be a more pleasant prospect than Cordoba, with wide avenues and parks that actually contain grass. On returning to the hotel, I meet my dormmates, an Irish couple called Cormac and Deirdre. They have been travelling around South America for a while, including visits to the Antartic and Easter Island. In the the morning, we receive our final dormmate, Anna from Sweden. Tanned from months in Australia and blonde hair soon make her the centre of attention for the young male population in the hostel. I make for town to explore.

As I suspected from the previous evening, Mendoza is a much better prospect than Cordoba. Centred on the Plaza Indepencia, the town features a series of wide tree-lined avenues broken up by leafy squares. On the streets are a mix of the usual chains, trendy boutiques and specialist climbing outfitters. West of the city centre, passing over the old train lines and towards the mountains, lies the enormous leafy park named again after San Martin. Designed by a French architect at the turn of the twentieth century, the wide grassy spaces make a stark contrast to the other parks I have seen in Argentina.

After a siesta at the hostel, we are all heading to a BBQ at another hostel. It is quite a crowd and before long several people are cavorting in the pool. We get to meet some intersting characters, including a guy from London travelling around South America and a rather sheepish South African IT specialist. With the meat finished, Cormac, Deirdre and myself head of to a nearby bar, passing Anna and a group of 8 guys vying for her attentions. After a few more drinks, we get back to the hostel around 3.

Another day exploring and looking for climbing shoes results in tired legs and no shoes. The others had been off on a trekking trip and returned complaining of the lack of independence and the hardness of the bus seats. I grabbed some dinner with Cormac and Deirdre and then off to bed.

In the morning, I make for the bus station. Both buses that day are full, disaster! But thankfully, the ever enterprising locals have a backup. Soon I am bouncing off down the road in the back of a minibus bound for Santiago. A couple near me are in fits of giggles at the young couples falling asleep and point out the sights enthusiastically in Spanish.

At the peak of the passes, after passing dozens of trucks and car transporters, we get to a break in the mountains and view mighty Aconcagua. It dwarfs the surrounding peaks. A little higher and we pass through the tunnel which connects Argentina and Chile. On the other side are the border controls. An organised if lengthy process, we proceed through various queues, culminating in our bags being Xrayed. I caht away with an American girl called Kaye. Just out of college, she was teaching in Argentina and is off to meet her parents in Santiago.

Descending down a long series hairpins, we eventually reach the wide valley that contains Santiago. I make my way to the hostel, dump bags and head off for dinner. The rest of the night I chat away with fellow hostelers, including Ludwig, a very keen young German scientist about to head off to university. I will head off to the coast tomorrow to see the Pacific.
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