Monthly Archives: December 2019

South America by Subaru 19/11/06 The Long Backtrack

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/15/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-05-disappointment/

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Early this morning, I check the steering fluid level under the hood, because inadequate hydraulic fluid could cause the steering symptoms we’re seeing. The level seems to be at the marked line on the reservoir, although it’s hard to see clearly. This is worrisome, because loss of fluid would be a simple fix. Instead, I have to consider the possibility that the steering pump is failing, which could be a major problem in a nation where Subaru factory parts are virtually unavailable.

We pack the car and vacate the impressively named but very economical Cabañas El Reposo de Mandinga, cross the bridge into Humahuaca, and find some parking along a narrow side street. While I wait in a long line (in the shade) for the town’s only set of ATMs, Susan checks out some of the tourist shops and works her way up a bright, hot, long, wide set of steps from the town square to the elaborate monument at the top.

Humahuca Monumnt to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monument to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monumnt to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monument to the Heroes of Argentine Independenc

We’re noticing that the residents of this relatively remote portion of northern Argentina often bear a physical resemblance to Bolivians. The border is 50 miles to the north and it seems visually evident that many of the people here share more of their heritage with indigenous Bolivia than the more European Argentina that extends 1,600 miles to the south.

Birthday party in blistering sun on monument steps
Birthday party in blistering sun on monument steps

Even early in the day, the sun is brutally hot so we’re soon on the move, heading south on the same road we came up yesterday. Since we’re unexpectedly passing Pumamarca a second time, we make the short detour again and Susan hits some of the hundreds of shops and stalls searching for gifts for her enormous family.

Purmamarca gift sopping
Purmamarca gift shopping. I’m safely in the shade

I play my usual role of cockroach/translator, keeping her in sight while scurrying through any unavoidable stretches of sun from one shady spot to the next until she beckons for language assistance. In one shop window, Susan is entranced by a cat with two different color eyes.

Two color eyed cat
Two color eyed cat

We grab lunch just before all the restaurants close for the afternoon and head out of town.

Purmamarca gift shop
Purmamarca gift shop

From Pumamarca it’s a long slog south. Since the steering problem isn’t very noticeable on the highway (where there are no sharp corners), we decide to avoid searching for a suitable mechanic along the way and try to make it 250 miles back to Tucumán, a small city, where there will be more resources. We text Silvia asking if it’s ok to arrive back at La Providencia at 10:30 PM and she immediately assents.

Since we just drove this route yesterday, we have no great incentive to make scenic stops, although I continue to marvel at the abandoned railroad that used to connect Bolivia to San Miguel de Tucumán, almost 400 miles to the south. This line was part of the route followed by Paul Theroux in the 1970s and described in his book, The Old Patagonian Express, but left to deteriorate since 1993 (the railroad, not the book). Theroux’s travel books, including this one, are widely renowned and he’s a compelling writer but, as a traveler myself, I find him unbearably cynical and contemptuous. Many years ago, I started underlining all the negative statements in Patagonia Express. I ran out of ink in the second chapter. He claims to love traveling yet he seems to dislike almost everyone and everything he encounters. Why bother?

The railroad right of way parallels our highway, In some places, it looks like a functioning line, but every few miles the rails suddenly disappear for a while, or you see the track plunge into a big sand dune, or there’s a missing bridge.

Oops. The old tracks need a little work.
Oops. The old tracks need a little work.

At the same time, you pass unused stations and freight cars stranded on their segment of remaining rails.

Unused railroad crossing in Tumbaya Argetina
Unused railroad crossing in Tumbaya Argetina
Renovated old station in Tumbaya Argetina
Renovated old station in Tumbaya Argetina
Railroad cars with no place to go
Railroad cars with no place to go

Yet, hope springs eternal: In the absence of action from the federal government or private railroad companies, the Jujuy provincial government has undertaken to rebuild and reactivate 230 miles of the route as a tourist attraction. They’ve borrowed a lot of money and track work has begun but progress is excruciatingly slow, We did pass one billboard proudly announcing the delivery of ballast rock for 4 miles of track, but no sign of the ballast itself.

Sign announcing on part of train line restoration.
Sign announcing one part of train line restoration.

It would be great to see the scenic route functioning again but I have my doubts that large numbers of tourists will abandon tour buses and vans in favor of riding the rails.

The last 220 miles of our day’s drive is the same flat, monotonous scenery we traversed yesterday in the opposite direction and it’s with great relief that we reach La Providencia B&B after 10 PM with the steering still functional and a warm “welcome back” from Silvia. It’s not long before we’re sound asleep in our same comfortable room.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2020/01/01/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-07-we-dodge-a-bullet/

Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia

South America by Subaru 19/11/05 Disappointment

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-04-we-begin-a-1500-mile-side-trip/

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[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “View image” or similar. Use the Back button to return to the post.]

Although our need to be back in Córdoba on Saturday means we can’t dawdle on our northward loop, we like La Providencia and Silvia so much that we decide to stay again on the return trip, since our figure-8 route will bring us back here. We promise to make her a taco dinner and, after a good breakfast with homemade bread and cake we pack and continue north.

Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia
Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia

We’re planning on a 230 mile drive today to Humahuaca, the town at the west end of the newly connected back road. The drive is somewhat tedious, since we’re not prowling for interesting side trips or stops. Subtracting even more from the excitement, the last third is a highway we drove a year ago on the way to Bolivia. We make a brief excursion a few miles off our route to check out Purmamarca, which we’ve been told is famous for its multi-colored mountain.

Multi-colored mountain behind Purmamarca, Argentina
Multi-colored mountain behind Purmamarca, Argentina

On arrival, we do find it, but after our experience on remote and massive Rainbow Mountain in Perú last January, it really doesn’t hold our attention. At the foot of the hill, we find a small but highly developed tourist town, its narrow streets filled with stores and kiosks selling a broad variety of goods.

Shopping opportunities in Purmamarca
Shopping opportunities in Purmamarca
Who still sells Kodak film? Purmamarca, Argentina
Who still sells Kodak film? Purmamarca, Argentina

The access road is filled with tour buses, so we aren’t tempted to stay there although, under other circumstances, Susan would like to cruise the hundreds of kiosks and shops.

We make it to Humahuaca, a town we had looked at briefly last November on our way to the Bolivian border, and the western terminus of what is no longer a dead end into the mountains.

Humahuaca scenes
Humahuaca scenes

It’s about 4 PM, too late to drive the full road through to the far side of the national park. Because of our tight schedule, though, we decide to start out now and hope to find lodging along the way before dark, with the risk that we’ll have to spend the night in the car.

The road starts out well, wide gravel, with lots of oncoming traffic which encourages us to think the new through road is attracting tourists. The weather is not looking friendly, but you never know what it’s going to be like in ten minutes.

Entering the Quebrada Humahuaca. Rain ahead.
Entering the Quebrada Humahuaca. Rain ahead.

Humahuaca is already at 10,000 feet elevation and the road climbs steadily eastward into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, an enormous valley, affording incredible views of the mountains behind us. After a dizzying series of switchbacks we come to a plateau at over 14,000 feet and a road junction. We bear to the right and Google Maps quickly indicates we are off our route. We try the left fork and see the same problem. Between the two branches is a narrow track that drops steeply down into the next valley. Maps is telling us this is what we want but there’s a problem.

Right where it starts is a permanent-looking road sign that translates, literally, as “road disabled” with a “do not enter” pictogram below it.

Literally, not a good sign
Literally, not a good sign

We’re really confused. This is the route that now connects through to the east? I’m willing to try it for a while, Susan is not. We hang around for a few minutes discussing it and see an ambulance working its way slowly down one of the two bigger roads heading back to Humahuaca. Figuring they must know local road conditions, we chase them down and ask if they know about the closed road. They tell us that it can only be navigated (pun intended) during the dry season, which is not now. Ironically, the missing link seems to have been completed but it’s not an all year route. We’ve come a long, long way only to be stopped cold.

Ambulance and our road cnndition reporter
Ambulance and our road condition reporter

Adding to our disappointment is some distress. For the last several hours, there’s been an unusual noise coming from under the hood when making a sharp turn in either direction and a simultaneous “surging” sensation in the steering wheel. It seems to be a power steering issue and it has now gotten noticeable enough that a U-turn seems like a good idea anyway. Finally, from our high vantage point, we can see rain showers in several directions, and rain can quickly turn a passable dirt road into a car sucking quagmire. With, believe me, the maximum possible reluctance, I backtrack down the steep road to Humahuaca.

Ready to descend back to Hunahuaca
Ready to slink back to Hunahuaca

I would never say a trip is wasted because there’s always something to learn and enjoy from any place we go but had we known the through road wasn’t driveable, we wouldn’t have come 600 miles north to try.

On the way down, we notice giant cactus in full bloom on both sides.

Cactus in bloom.
Cactus in bloom.
Cactus in bloom.
Cactus blooms.

Near Humahuaca, we eventually find our way to a suspiciously inexpensive cabaña development. At that price, we’re not expecting it to be satisfactory,. Since there’s no identifying sign, we’re not even positive we’re in the right place. Going back to the town square, where there’s public wifi, we track down the owner via WhatsApp. We return to the site and he shows us to a simple but surprisingly nice cabin with adjacent shared kitchen.

Cabañas el Reposo de Mandinga, Humahuaca, Argetina
Cabañas el Reposo de Mandinga, Humahuaca, Argetina

Pleased to find something so cheap and pleasant in a popular tourist town, we take it for the night. As we’re moving bags from the car to the room, one of the owner’s dogs sizes us up, hops onto our bed, and makes himself comfortable.

"This is my spot. What open sore on my leg?"
“This is my spot. What open sore on my leg?”

We cook and eat a good dinner in the kitchen.

Dinner in progress, with a waste monitor on duty.
Dinner in progress, with a waste monitor on duty.

We’re soon treated to a beautiful sunset over the mountains to the west.

Sunset over Humahuaca, Argentina
Sunset over Humahuaca, Argentina
12 minutes later
12 minutes later

Shooing the dog out of our room, we gratefully begin a sound sleep after a long day with a disappointing finish.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-06-the-long-backtrack/

South America by Subaru 19/11/04 – We begin a 1,500 mile side trip

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-03-more-meat/

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We pack up, say our goodbyes to Janina and Chris’s family, and head north.

Yanina, Dante, Chris
Yanina, Dante, Chris

To explain what we’re doing, I need to provide a flashback here: Last November, on our way to Bolivia, we had discovered Calilegua National Park in northern Argentina. It’s a large, remote preserve containing one of the southernmost portions of South American jungle, which extends, despite vast areas that have been cleared for farming, in one form or another at least 1200 miles below the Equator. The ecosystem here, while not full tropical jungle, is very lush and in the areas where preserves have been established there’s still potential for seeing exotic wildlife. Google Maps had shown a route through that park that connected back to our highway to Bolivia. It looked satisfyingly primitive and had an equally satisfyingly enormous number of squiggles, which generally means mountains with switchbacks and grand views. We went out of our way to traverse this route from east to west. As we entered the park, though, a very friendly indigenous ranger made it clear to me that the road we were on was a dead end, since several miles in the middle were a foot trail rather than a road. This Google data failure was quite a disappointment, but we had a wonderful day driving into and beyond the national park. Although we saw no wildlife, being in the jungle for the first time since Iguassu Falls in December 2017 was a great experience, and the road was just as challenging and dramatic as we had hoped. We were still many miles from the dead end when it started to rain. The road, in a flat valley by then, got muddy and slippery so we decided discretion was the better part of valor, turned around prematurely, and backtracked to the main highway.

Nov 2018 Calilegua National Park, Argentina. "Maybe we don't need to fight our way all the way to the dead end of this road."
Nov 2018 Calilegua National Park, Argentina. “Maybe we don’t need to fight our way all the way to the dead end of this road.”

Flash forward, briefly, to Livingston Manor in August, 2019. We host Servas Israel visitors Tamar and Giora for a few days. In the course of our conversations, it comes out they had also driven this remote road, which we all decide is a very unlikely coincidence. In a follow up, they have recently sent us a link saying the missing piece of road on the Calilegua route has been built. I do further research and find a newspaper article celebrating the grand opening of the connection just 5 weeks ago and touting how the new through route will make the area an Argentine version of the Cusco region in Perú.

Waiting a week to meet Jaqui becomes the rationalization for making a northern loop to obsessively complete our aborted crossing — and it’s no small loop. This side trip will entail over 1,500 miles of additional driving, including at least 140 miles of rough road. Yes, I know – we’re nuts, but at least Susan and I are both all in on the idea.

As we leave Santa Rosa, we pass a large banner advertising the Fiesta de Tradiciones, a celebration of gaucho (Argentine cowboy) culture. Susan loves both horses and gauchos (who have strong indigenous origins) but it’s pretty obvious that our commitment to meet Jaqui and go to Buenos Aires with her precludes coming back to Santa Rosa for the festival. We head north, pushing a little harder than normal because of our time constraints.

In the small town of Bialet Massé, we parallel a light rail train, one of the few passenger routes left of Argentina’s once extensive network. It probably serves as commuter rail, feeding workers from Cosquín south into the city of Córdoba. In Argentina, where most railroads are just derelict rights of way, seeing an operating passenger train counts as exciting.

Córdoba passenger train
Córdoba passenger train

The countryside along our route is pretty flat and uninteresting at first, but I’ve discovered a “longcut” (opposite of “shortcut”) through a mountain range that the main route skirts by going around it. As usual, this is a gravel road that winds up through remote ranch country.

mountain back road
mountain back road

At the highest point, we find an unusual amenity, a shaded overlook with long views and benches. Named Mirador de Cerro Alfa (Overlook from Alpha Peak), it becomes our lunch spot. While we’re eating, two Mexican bicyclists come struggling (at least in my eyes) up the mountain in the opposite direction and take a break. We have a short conversation about safety for car driving tourists in Mexico before they start their downhill ride to the south.

Mirador de Cerro Alto
Mirador de Cerro Alto

We pack up and begin the harrowing but well engineered descent, thoroughly satisfied with our choice of detour. Still in the middle of nowhere, we come across an incongruous, faded sign advertising the “Hippie Museum”.

Hippie Museum
Hippie Museum

Apparently, this road was somehow on the “Gringo Trail” decades ago. When we reach San Marcos Sierras back on the flats, we decide to pass on the famous museum (if it even still exists), but we notice some classic cars parked around town, an old Desoto and a Ford Falcon station wagon.

Desoto
Desoto
Ford Falcon Station Wagon
Ford Falcon Station Wagon

Driving across the pampa, we work our way back to the main highway and continue north at high speed. Alberto warned us that Córdoba province has started using radar speed control and, sure enough, in the middle of nowhere a police car is parked on the shoulder and, standing in the shade, is an officer with a clunky, tripod mounted radar dish clocking vehicles entering Córdoba from Santiago del Estero. Little by little, Argentina is adopting the U.S. model of trap, cite, and penalize.

We’re heading into an expanse of salt flats to cross what Google Maps shows as a large, inland lake. The land is quite flat, with sparse cattle grazing both sides. We start seeing crusts of salt on the ground but when we reach the depicted causeway, the “lake”, at least at this time of year, is indistinguishable from the “shore”. Salt is plentiful, however, as we pass side roads with signs announcing salt processing operations.

We start noticing that every time the air conditioner is running, there is a squealing sound from under the hood — a strong indicator that a drive belt needs tightening. As the hours pass, we realize that our day will end in San Miguel de Tucumán, the only city for many miles. We pull over to start looking online for suitable accommodations. We happen to be at a truck stop with a repair shop, so I go in to ask if they will tighten the belt for me. A couple of young men tackle the task and, once the engine cools down a bit, they access the fairly inaccessible adjusting bolt and stop the squeal. They want to charge me less than two dollars for about 30 minutes work but I press double that on them, thanking them for their fast service and for burning their hands slightly.

Tightening the a/c drive belt
Tightening the a/c drive belt

The first lodging we check out is primarily an event space and say their few rooms are all occupied. Our cell service, as is frequently the case in Argentina, is close to useless so we head into town for a gas station to get wifi and choose a second option, La Providencia. It’s completely dark when we have one. Finding lodging after dark is our worst case scenario as it makes the task much harder. We follow Google directions about 15 minutes to a quiet residential neighborhood. When we reach the apparent building, there’s no sign that it’s a hostal. I ring a bell at the driveway gate and a very cautious and suspicious woman tells me she’s never heard of La Providencia.

We have no option but to backtrack to the gas station so I can make one of my rare phone calls to talk to the hostal. I have no problem speaking Spanish (which is not to say others don’t have problems understanding me), but my aural comprehension is still pretty bad and it’s much worse on the phone. Fortunately, the woman who answers is pretty understandable and she assures us that she has room and that we were on the right block. We drive back out and, directly across the street from our earlier inquiry, she’s standing outside watching for us.

Silvia welcomes us, guides the car into her narrow driveway, and insists on helping us drag our luggage through the front door. Right over the door is a small lighted sign “La Providencia”, which we had missed on our earlier foray in the dark because we were focused on the other side of the street where Google Maps had pointed us.

Silvia’s little B&B is charming and spotless. As if the name wasn’t enough of a clue, the walls are sprinkled with several indicators of devout religious belief. She shows us to a very nice room, takes us into the kitchen and feeds us a hefty evening snack of bread, cheese, and avocado. We have a nice conversation and for Susan’s benefit, she sprinkles as much English into it as she can. Eventually, we go up to bed and lapse quickly into unconsciousness.

South America by Subaru 19/11/03 – More meat!

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/25/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-02-tacos-for-6/

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Today, we’ve been invited back to Alberto’s country house, where he’s having a large family gathering. We hang out a bit out with Chris and Yanina (and the dogs) during the morning. In the early afternoon, we pick up Josie in Santa Rosa and drive 30 minutes to Alberto’s house in Los Reartes. Referring back to Alberto’s accidental bang into my car on Thursday, I park the Subaru about 100 feet away and behind his swimming pool, i.e. as far away from where he parks his truck as possible. He’s not home when we arrive but I figure he’ll get the joke immediately when he sees the car.

Safe parking. Alberto's truck in the background.
Safe parking. Alberto’s truck in the background.

There are abut 15 family members already there when we arrive, including some children, and the hours-long, meat grilling process is well under way, in the capable hands of chef Jorge. Big slabs of goat and lamb are suspended over the low intensity coals along with various other side meats. Several of the men are hovering around the parrilla and it takes some deft maneuvering to avoid spoiling my appetite with continuous offers of appetizers. One I manage to evade, if I’m understanding the words and gestures correctly, is goat brain on crackers.

Parrilla in progress
Parrilla in progress

Inside the house, separated from the grilling area by the glass wall, are most of the family women. Susan is in there holding conversations with Josie’s translating help.

Alberto pulls up, returning from a morning golf game, and as I expected, immediately laughs when he sees where I’ve parked. One of the guests is a precocious little girl named Sharon who engages with Susan and me. One of her first acts is to demonstrate the very complex shape into which she can fold her tongue. She adds gravely, “This isn’t easy. I had to practice a lot to learn this.”

Sharon and tobgue
Sharon and tobgue

Sharon knows the way to Susan’s heart. The little girl gazes repeatedly into Susan’s face, runs her fingers through Susan’s hair, and refers to her as a princess. Sharon is learning English in school and she and Susan trade English phrases, mostly numbers.

Susan and her admirer, Sharon
Susan and her admirer, Sharon

I alternate between the group of women in the house, where I can be with Susan, and hanging out with the men outside around the grill, where we talk as men talk and consume beer.

Men grilling

The afternoon progresses quickly and pleasantly, Both the goat and the lamb are magnificently tender and juicy. There’s a lot to be said to spending all day slow grilling meat. In the U.S., most food resides on the grill for 20 minutes or less before we wolf it down – and we use gas or chemical-saturated charcoal instead of natural wood.

I have to mention tattoos here. I’ve always considered tattoos and piercings (yes, including simple earring holes) as pointless, no pun intended, self-mutilation. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the modest set of tattoos my son has acquired. After spending a lot of time in Argentina, I’m now able to see it differently.

There’s hardly an Argentine woman over 16, and many under that age, that doesn’t have at least one tattoo, so by now I’ve seen many thousands – hey, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about the designs visible in public. Skin art is a major form of expression down here and I’ve finally gotten over my “Ugh, gross!” reaction. There are some beautiful designs that are true art, ranging from modest images to what I would characterize as elaborate body murals. Note the woman on the right in the photo below is not wearing a tee shirt — that’s all ink. The skill and effort to successfully execute some of these indicates true dedication and craftsmanship. I’m now able to appreciate many of them as additions to, rather than subtractions from, a person’s beauty. I’m sure my change of attitude has made your day much better.

The afternoon ends with group photos and exchange of phone numbers. We take Josie home and head back for our final night at Cabañas Kangarú.

The women
The women

Our friend, Jaqui, who lives too far to the south in Argentina for us to visit this trip, happens to be in nearby Córdoba for some sort of retreat. She’s told us she’ll be out of touch until it ends on Saturday and then taking the bus to Buenos Aires. Since our plan is to drive there via Córdoba starting today, we modify it to add a 6-day loop to the north, return to Córdoba Saturday to meet Dr. Jaqui so the three of us can visit by making the long drive to B.A. in the Subaru together.

Jaqui at our first meeting, Jan 2018
Jaqui at our first meeting, Jan 2018

We sketch out a northern itinerary and realize we’re taking on a lot of hard driving to accomplish it in time. With this in mind, we retreat to the cabin in the evening and prepare for an early departure tomorrow.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-04-we-begin-a-1500-mile-side-trip/