Comfortable bus notwithstanding, it was great to finally arrive in Santiago and hook up with my friends from Finland, Aira and Olaf.
I met Aira and Olaf a couple of years ago in Leticia, Colombia's sleepy little border town in the "Triple Frontier", where the Amazon River joins the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. We were waiting for the same boat going upriver, and since our plans for exploring the area were basically the same we decided to travel together for a short while.
So here we were, two years later, together again in Santiago. We even popped a bottle of champagne to toast the occasion!
We had all visited Santiago before so didn't feel the need to spend a lot of time in the city. So after a bit of planning and a few days of sightseeing, we hit the road to Argentina. Destination: Mendoza.
The road that crosses the Chile/Argentina border going between Santiago and Mendoza takes you through some stunning scenery. If you're lucky you can even catch a glimpse of Aconcagua, South America's highest peak (6962m). The road basically goes through the Andes, and a long series of sharp switchbacks (I think we counted 36+) must be navigated to get through the crossing. The road is always packed with transport trucks and passenger buses, and sometimes you're not sure how these large vehicles can even physically maneuver around the hairpin bends!
This particular border crossing may be beautiful, but it's also one of the slowest. For some reason every bus going in one or the other direction seems to departs at exactly the same time, creating huge bottlenecks and delays at the border crossing. This time was no exception; I think we waited for more than 2 hours to get our passports stamped.
Mendoza is a beautiful city. We'd all been before, but were happy to return. The Mendoza province is known as the "land of the good sun and the good wine", automatically makes it worth a visit in my opinion! The city itself is a cosmopolitan center with lots of shops, wide tree-lined streets, outdoor restaurants, and an abundance of beautiful parks and plazas. It closeness to the Andean mountain range makes it an unbeatable destination for adventure tourism, and the excellent wines from the Mendoza region have made vineyard tours and wine-tasting another popular activity.
We spent a number of days sightseeing around the city by foot. We also rented bicycles one day and traveled along Mendoza's well-known "Ruta de los Vinos" (Route of the Wines), which takes you into the heart of Mendoza's winegrowing region where tourists can visit hundred year old wine bodegas and sample their wines. Often the bodega provides a tour of their operation as well as wine samplings. Some even have a museum that gives you more history on the vineyard. Others offer little more than a few sips of wine in exchange for a few pesos!
From Mendoza we traveled north to San Juan. It's another lovely Argentine city and we enjoyed exploring places in and around the city. We went to nearby Zonda one day to visit the "Caves of Zonda" where constant temperature and light levels inside the cave produce perfect conditions for making and storing champagne. Tours of the cave are offered and deep inside the cave you can see fermentation tanks, bottling equipment and storage facilities. Although fairly quick, the tours was interesting...and we did get a free taste of champagne!
From San Juan we also traveled for around 3 hours on a very rough bumpy road to a place called Barreal, a fairly small but spread out town with scenic views of the nearby mountain ranges. Barreal has beautiful streets with tall weeping willows that provide much shade and a welcomed relief from the hot sun. One such street is so shady and romantic, it's called "Calle de Los Enamorados"...Lover's Lane! Barreal offers a variety of outdoor activities: hiking, horseback riding, observatory visits, and even cart sailing down one of the dried-up riverbeds. Unfortunately, the majority of these activities are virtually impossible without your own transportation or without taking a tour...and the bloody tour companies were never open! So we spent the days hiking, the nights gazing at skies just bursting with stars, and had to forego the rest of the activities.
The last stop on our Argentine tour was to Córdoba. It's the second largest city in Argentina, although it didn't feel like it to me, and it was yet another beautiful city. It's a major industrial center, but retains many of its historical buildings dating from colonial times. It's also known as the most Catholic city in Argentina - there are 21 churches in the downtown area alone! In some ways it also reminded me a bit of Amsterdam, with its tree-lined rivers and picturesque bridges.
In addition to sightseeing around the city, we also did a day trip to nearby Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia was a major Jesuit estancia that basically became a town, and Jesuit monuments from the 1700's - still in excellent condition - are the main reason why people visit. During the early 1900's, with the arrival of the railways, Alta Gracia became a town fancied by families from Buenos Aires because of its pleasant climate, and the many beautiful houses that exist in this town give evidence to the fact that there was, and probably still is, great wealth here.
Alta Gracia also happens to be the place where the parents of one Ernesto Guevara Lynch de la Serna - the man eventually known as "Che" - relocated in hopes of relieving their son's chronic asthma. Little "Tete" (as he was called then) lived in Alta Gracia from the ages of 4 to 16. Their former home has now been converted into a museum, which we visited. I have to admit, I've developed a bit of a crush on Che since traveling in South America...even though, yes, I know he's dead!
While the Che museum does a good job of reconstructing his boyhood - through photographs, school report cards, memories by his family, cook, classmates, etc. - it doesn't really touch on any larger historical issues that were to develop Che into such a controversial figure.
At that point the time arrived to part company with Aira and Olaf. They were heading east into Paraguay, and I was heading northwest to return to northern Chile.
I had a great time traveling with my friends. My only regret is that it was only for 2 short weeks. It was wonderful to see them again, to share old memories and for us to get to know each other better. For me it had also been nice to simply wrap myself in their friendship and love for a while, to enjoy myself, share some laughter, help heal my emotions. Thanks for everything Aira and Olaf.
Speaking of getting to know them better, it was during this trip that I found out that in addition to their other past professions, Aira and Olaf are certified Cordon Bleu chefs. We mostly stayed in apartment-style accommodation with kitchen facilities, and although I didn't do much of the cooking (I figure why cook when you're surrounded by professionals??) I surely did eat well!!