Tuesday 30 March 2010

Return to Salta

In all the excitement of my few days in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, I kind of forgot about Salta. It wasn't that nice really, probably just the change from Buenos Aires that did it. I got back Saturday night after a long bus journey and headed out for dinner.

I've been keeping a notebook of every restaurant I go to along the way. This is the nicest dining room I've been in. There's a wonderful buzz - a chatter that floats above the tables punctuated only by the clattering of cutlery. A couple of waiters take up a guitar and drum. I don't like live music in restaurants. But I like it here. The whole room is alive and happy. Looking around, everyone is smiling. Isn't that the whole point?

I wake up late on Sunday, since I sank another beer and watched Rocky III in my hotel room. Predictions? Pain. I've got six hours before my flight, so after a big lunch in the plaza, I head up the teleférico - a Swiss made cable car that takes you to the top of Cerro San Bernardo. Like every hill in South America, it comes complete with it's own Jesus, and some wonderful views. It occurs to me that people are walking around with those bunches of leaves because it is Palm Sunday.

After a coffee or two and just chilling for a while, I head back down. I'm kind of fascinated by the cable car itself. How much convincing would it have taken to get in the first ever one? This guy only dates from 1987 apparently, but the technology still looks somewhat primitive. Either way, it works. And it beats the hell out of the steps.

Back at the bottom I stroll through the park and remember completely why I liked this place so much. Everyone is just taking it easy. They're all smiling, eating ice creams, sailing round the boating lake. It is a town completely at peace with itself. Not that there's anything wrong with Buenos Aires, but all big cities, by their nature, suffer from the same complaints. I'd take the composed, effortless, tranquility of Salta before the frenetic mayhem of BsAs any day of the week. And so would they. It's written all over their faces.

Monday 29 March 2010


I eventually woke to find Humahuaca bathing in magical early evening light. Everything in the town was glowing, I had to rub my eyes to believe it. I strolled around for a while, fuelled by my third gatorade of the day, snapping away. I couldn't face a proper meal and survived on a few alfajores bought off some dude. First impressions again (not counting the walk from bus to bed) and this is my favourite of the three towns I've stayed in in Jujuy.

Come morning I am feeling normal again. I decide to take a cab to a hillside cemetery we passed in the bus and I'd read about in the guides. I trawl Frommers and the Lonely Planet looking for it's name but the entry seems to have mysteriously vanished. I splutter out my request to the taxistas and head off. After a while, no cemetery. Definitely not where I left it. Then it transpires that the one I'm looking for is Maimara, which is south of Tilcara, not Humahuaca. God I must have been tired. I basically forgot a whole day. 30 pesos later and my cabbie drops me at Humahuaca cemetery instead, which he insists is very nice. And it is.

Their cemeteries here are alive with colour, and they build little houses for the dead people to live in. It's Saturday morning and the place is buzzing with people, tending graves, arranging flowers, and there's even a new guy being interned. I feel awkward strolling about with my camera, an obvious gringo, but everyone smiles and says hello. They really are great. Everyone raves about Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, but given the choice, I'd definitely rather see out eternity here, away from all the pollution, cats, famous dead people and American tourists.

I walk back into town past the monumento a los héroes de la Independencia. I'm sure they'd be proud of it. It towers over the town, fist clenched and raised triumphantly. Which is pretty much how I feel when I get to the top of all those steps.

It's Saturday. I had thought about taking the tren a las nubes - a crazy train ride that takes you up into the Andes on a winding, spiralling track. It is meant to be amazing. But you're on the train for 17 hours. I sit in the Plaza Santo Gomez, sipping gatorade in the shade, watching the world go by and congratulate myself on not going. A cute little kid picks the right moment to ask me to buy her some food and walks off with ice creams in every pocket. Once I get lunch out of the way, I'll be ready to leave. Sadly.

A brief struggle

After the match, fuelled by a few cervezas, we climbed one of the hills to drink some mate and admire the view. I'm admiring these guys' patience as I stutter out my ill-conjugated Spanish.

The sun is slinking down for a well earned rest as we decide to circumnavigate the village via the paseo de los colorados. Night falls about half way round. I am starting to feel properly shattered by this point. The best I can manage is food (llama) and sleep.

The llama and I have a post digestive disagreement and I spend most of the night awake with stomach cramps. When I don't have stomach cramps, my sun burnt shoulders are rubbing against the sheets in agony. Check out time arrives and I am done for. Sun, altitude, cerveza, exercise, lack of sleep and llama have combined to put me in the hurt locker. I skip breakfast, sink a gatorade and board the bus for Tilcara.


I'm headed for Humahuaca but wanted to stop here on the way. I step off the bus into yet another dusty little town, though it's bigger than Purmamarca. I'm in no fit state to do the place justice. I buy myself some food and water to take on the walk up to el Pucará, a pre-Hispanic hilltop fortress that overlooks the town.

View from el Pucará

The walk is okay but I start to feel a bit of altitude in my weakened state. At the top I settle down for my sandwich but it is inedible. I trudge back to town having admired the view and scull another gatorade. I trudge around town a bit more before making a snap decision to skip town, and bundle my things on a bus that is about to leave.

I must have crashed on the bus, since before I knew it I was in Humahuaca, rucksack cutting into my sunburnt shoulders and no idea where I'm going. I don't care what desperate shithole I stumble into, the first place I find with a bed for me I stay in. There are signs up everywhere for places, but the hostels themselves are nowhere to be seen.

I inexplicably cross a bridge, and find myself ringing the bell of the Hostería Camino del Inca. $220 a night! ¡Gracias a dios! I was thinking I'd have to settle for $10 and they give you a bucket to crap in, but no. I nestle down between the soft sheets and sleep for a thousand years.

Las Salinas Grandes

I sleep all right in the hostel, though foam pillows should definitely be banned. And I'm up early to take a trip out to the salt flats. I'm the only gringo on the minibus that takes fifteen of us out on the hour or so drive.

I'm excited about this - mainly for the photos, but as usual, things don't quite work out as planned. The best thing about the trip is the drive - it is breathtaking (in more ways than one). We start out along a gorge bordered by craggy ridges and peaks, before rising out of the valley, and stopping for photos.

We stop again at a peak of 4170 metres. Some guy passes out and the locals administer some coca leaves. I feel for my breath. I wouldn't want to be doing anything more strenuous than paying 15 pesos for a souvenir at this altitude. We press on, and as we descend, we glimpse the salinas in the distance.

They're very hard to photograph, and I have a kick ass camera. The light is reflecting off the salt and burning the sky. (Not to mention my skin - I now look like am permanently wearing a wifebeater). You can play around with the sense of perspective here, and people come up with some awesome shots, balancing people in their hands, standing on beer bottles, that kind of thing. I don't have a tripod though, and I'm on my own so it's going to be hard. The best I manage is to make myself look like a kind of giant.

The shots of just salt are just boring, and the only ones I really like have some kind of focus.

From the other side of the road on the way back, another chance to glimpse the stunning scenery. The clouds have dropped a little by now and things look very different.

Arriving in Purmamarca around three, I am ferociously knackered. Probably a little bit of sunstroke - I've basically been standing on a mirror at midday on the tropic of capricorn - and a kind of altitude hangover as well. I need rest. But there's a problem. El superclasico is on. My new friends console my bad luck at having missed the game as the residents of this sleepy little hamlet pack the cafes and bars, and we all sink a few beers.


Salta itself nestles on a flat plain surrounded by lush green hills. The bus ride north to San Salvador de Jujuy is much of the same - green, lush and beautiful. I'd enjoy it more were the guy next to me not a) fat and b) singing along to his iPod. At Jujuy I change for a bus to Purmamarca, just in time. I sit next to a guy called Diego and amaze myself by managing to sustain a fairly normal conversation. Could being out of Buenos Aires, in the real world, where no-one speaks English, be the stimulus my pidgin Spanish so desperately needs?

This leg of the journey is surreal. The green and pleasant land soon yields to a barren, red landscape as we snake our way up the Quebrada de Humahuaca, carved out by the now dry Rio Grande. Purmamarca itself is tiny, barely four blocks square. It sits beneath the cerro de los siete colores, but is actually in a small dip between three imposing peaks. It is real backpacker country.

For the first time in my life I climb off the bus into the dusty street and look for a hostel. I find one quickly enough. It's new (bonus). The foam mattress hasn't been softened up by years of (ab)use so I can probably get some sleep. I wander around with the camera and sit myself down for a beer in the square. It's hot. A stereo pumps out an Andean pipe music cover of the sound of silence without a hint of irony, but it still can't detract from the basic peace. This is a special place.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Salta la linda

Although it's only been just over two weeks since Uruguay, I already felt like getting out of town again. I am meant to be travelling after all.

Flying across Argentina is an awesome experience - it is both beautiful and vast. The eighth largest country in the world apparently. It certainly looks and feels like a different country when we touch down in Salta. The air is clean for a change, the people look more Andean, and I think they smile more too. The stunning landscape frames them with a peculiar beauty.

I'm trying to travel like a backpacker. I have a backpack, and no hotel or hostel reserved. My guide is the Lonely Planet's South America on a shoestring. First choice in my new guise: bus or cab. I'm a fraud. I take a cab. It´s two quid more. I check into a decent hotel I got out of the Frommers guide and after a nice shower I actually see the bus pass my window. South America on a towrope.

Salta is among the most beautiful towns I have ever visited. I start walking to the bus station to check out plans for tomorrow (not very cool of me I know). I walk through Parque San Martin with it's boating lake, little foodstalls and cable car to the overlooking peak. I feel a long way from Buenos Aires.

Iglesia San Francisco

Heading back towards town I spot the tower of Iglesia San Francisco, a stunningly ornate church. From here I head into the main square, Plaza 9 de Julio. I don´t exaaggerate when I say it is one of my favourite plazas anywhere in the world. Breathtaking buildings line each side, the greatest of them being the 19th century Iglesia Catedral, widely considered the most impressive in Argentina. Inside is even better. I sit and think peacefully for a few minutes. Some might go so far as to call it praying.

Iglesia Catedral, inside and out

The plaza itself is full of people. Schoolkids, workers, viejos. It seems as though the whole town is here, just kicking back and chilling out. Like they know how lucky they are to live somewhere like this, and they need do little more than to just gently soak it up. The other three sides of the square house two museums and the old town hall, or cabildo. There is a wonderful sense of colonial splendour, for once not decaying resentfully.

Plaza 9 de Julio

The place is clean too. You're not hopscotching your way through a maze of dog turds everywhere you go like in BA. It feels safe, even when I ambitiously seek out a restaurant late at night that is blatantly no longer there, and literally cross to the wrong side of the tracks. Salta is great. I am at peace. It goes on the list as somewhere I love straight away and to which I will return. But first I have to leave; a bus ride north, and more spendour, await.

Monday 22 March 2010

El Superclasico

Football is kind of a big deal round here. And the biggest deal of all is Boca Juniors v River Plate - possibly the biggest game in club football and No 1 on the Observer's list of sporting events to see before you die.

Tickets are hard to come by for gringos, and much is made of the mortal danger you are in if you attempt to go on your own. Tours are organised with tickets changing hands for a 2000% mark up. If you want to go, you have no choice. And I want to go.

It's been a nice sunny week in Buenos Aires and I've been out and about most days. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might rain yesterday, but rain it did. I popped back for an extra cotton jacket to throw over my shorts and t-shirt, it was raining that much. A raincoat would have been a better idea.

There's a conspicuous band of assorted gringos waiting for the bus outside McDonalds, and we chat about football on our way to the game. The rain hammers on the windows. We get out about five blocks from La Bombanera, Boca's colourful stadium that resembles a stack of orange crates. The queue isn't moving, and the rain isn't stopping. Guys are selling bin bags for ten pesos, an even bigger mark up than the tickets. I have to buy one of these too. After about an hour of this, we finally come within range of the stadium itself.

I say within range of the stadium, I mean within range of the River fans. From the top of the stands they are spitting and throwing piss onto the assembled masses. Worse thing is, I decided a few weeks ago that River would be my equipo in Argentina. It would be pointless telling them that now. Mercifully I avoid the piss, and any spit is washed away instantly by the lashing rain.

We're too late for a decent spot in the stands, so armed with a couple of overpriced choripanes we loiter about at the back. We can see the pitch, and soak up the atmosphere. We're covered from the rain, have wrung out our clothes and are out of sight of the piss chuckers. A team of guys spend the hour before kick off re-painting the white lines. Their efforts are in vain as the rain washes them away within minutes. They press on regardless.

The atmosphere when the teams come out is electric. Chanting, stamping, singing, balloon waving, paper throwing, flare lighting madness. The stands above are shaking and moving a few feet or so as the fans jump and sing. I even throw a few bits of paper myself and try to work out what tense they are singing in. I think it's the imperative. I hear the word puta a lot.

The pitch is a joke; completely waterlogged. The referee agrees and stops the 'match' after ten minutes. Great.

Guess who I had in the back of my cab the other day...

My biggest problem with the language has been listening. Most of the time I just hear a jumbled mass of sounds. They speak almost continuously here. There is no ebb and flow, no rhythm like in Italian, and I am really strugling to extract the words I know from what people say. When I do succed, I often mistake one of the many conjugations for a new word. While I puzzle over this, the 'conversation' leaves me behind.

In my limited experience, Buenos Aires taxistas don't really talk in the same way their London counterparts do. At least not to gringos anyway. So it came as a nice surprise the other night when the guy sparked up a conversation, despite my quite blatantly not being a native. What's London like? How does it compare to Bs As? Crime. The causes of crime. (Easy enough given a robber is un robo). Football. All the essential cab based topics of conversation. I am holding my own, just about. More importantly, I am managing to decipher the gist of what he is saying.

The inevitable happens; I completely lose what he is talking about. He's looking at me enthusiastically in the rear view mirror, and I am compelled to resort to a series of sympathetic grunts, raised eyebrows and yes or nos as the tone of his voice indicates to keep my end of the bargain. Then it dawns on me - this is exactly what happens in 'conversations' with most black cabbies too, and I feel a whole lot better about the situation.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

My intention was to spend a month learning Spanish at the start of my trip. I’m reaching the end of my fourth week of lessons. At the outset, I was confident I could utilise the spare brain space freed up by my exit from the gambling industry and quickly assimilate the new information.

It turns out it's not quite that simple. I didn’t fully appreciate how tricky it would be. I mean, why would anyone want to learn a language that has fifteen different tenses?

I've always been a fairly quick learner, so it is unsettling and unfamiliar to sit in a classroom not understanding a word the guy says, and completely unable to see a way out of the maze of ignorance I've unwittingly led myself into.

My normal approach is to try and impose reason and structure upon things. Once you grasp how they work, what their rules are, then you can identify and understand the irregularities. In principle, I think, this works perfectly with a language. In practice, of course, it doesn't. My mind is overflowing with vocabulary, verbs and conjugations.

First I struggle to find the verb, then to decide upon the tense and finally I have to rake through the reams of conjugations and irregularities before arriving at my decision. The result? One word. Try making a sentence like that, or worst still holding a conversation.

Honestly, I really did think I could learn enough to get me by in a month. Hilarious I know. For now, I've just finished my tarea and might just have an early night in the hope that a restorative ten hours' kip is just what my poor little mind might need.

One thing's for sure - no Spanish lessons next week. Instead, I think a week free of commitment, just enjoying Buenos Aires. Up until now, I've struggled to find the time to enjoy it. That together with some serious Spanish consolidation, if the past month's miniscule advances are not to have been in vain.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Cocina Mediterránea

My first course at Gato Dumas, Tartas, Pizzas y Empanadas, was good fun, and we were making authentic Argentinian food. But the teaching wasn’t especially sophisticated, and I couldn’t understand a bloody thing. I didn’t really come to Argentina to learn about Mediterranean food, but last week, that’s what I had.

There were only five of us in the class, and in a different kitchen, we were right in front of the action. Taking the class was Ezequiel - a very good chef and an excellent teacher. He speaks a bit of English, but more importantly speaks clearly, so I could understand most of what he said.


Each day we cook three courses, and each plate is very carefully thought out and balanced. Day one, we make filo vegetable rolls with balsamic reduction, papardelle with pancetta and chocolate fondant. The filo pastel is really good, as is the fondant, though the recipe doesn’t top the Gordon Ramsey one from the F-Word that I’ve always used.

Pastel de espinaca, feta y almendras

On Tuesday we knocked up Moussaka. I have no hesitation is saying it is the best moussaka I have ever tasted. Carefully arranged in a terracotta dish lined with the thinnest slices of aubergine, it is deliciously moist and succulent. For dessert we make baklava, one of my favourite things in the world. We also knock up a pretty good dish of chicken couscous.

Pechuga de ave con cous cous de frutos secos

My teammates and I

Next up, a rocket salad with goat's cheese. To follow, grilled tuna, but we use bonito (also Spanish for ‘cute’) instead. It’s served with confit fennel, creamy potato cake and garnished with tapenade and saffron infused oil. For dessert we have fruit kebabs with an awesome marsala foam.

Ensalada de rucola con queso de cabra

Bonito grillado con tapenade y torta de papas

Brochette de frutas con espuma de Marsala

Lastly, fried mozzarella, lamb chops and citrus fruits with honey and caramel shards. A great lesson in balancing dishes, plates and presentation. The lamb (undercooked for my liking) is paired with a cabbage and pancetta and a beautiful stuffed tomato. There's nothing too crazy about the other dishes - the cheese needed plenty of salsa, and the dessert spoke for itself.

Queso frito con salsa pomodoro

Costillas de cerdero

Cítricos con miel con sorbete de límon

I certainly didn't come to Argentina to learn about Mediterranean food, but it turned out to be a great reminder that you can learn a lot with great recipes and a good teacher, anywhere in the world. It was nice back in a kitchen, and a timely reminder of what my intentions were for the months ahead. I think I’d said something about learning how to cook…

Monday 8 March 2010

Colonia del Sacramento

Small, old and very quaint. Cobbled streets and the remnants of a walled town. Tourists everywhere but somehow the nooks and crannies shelter them from sight. If only they could silence them too. Some choose golf buggies to get around the tiny town. Those who aren't American or Australian walk instead. The sun beats down, the mosquitoes bite. At dusk, the town gathers by the harbour to watch the sunset. When darkness falls, the restaurants ratchet up their prices a notch or two, and we duly fill them.

Colonia del Sacramento doesn't feel real. I keep expecting a black shirted Yul Brynner to turn a corner and start firing at me with a six-shooter. He doesn't. Don't get me wrong, it is a wonderful, magical place. But somehow, nagging away at me, is this sense that I'm just not in a real place. I'm talking like that's a bad thing but I guess, on reflection, it's probably not. Either way, just an hour from the scrambled chaos of Buenos Aires, it's not a bad place to bury your head in the sand for a day or two, and with sunsets like that, I might even come back.