It was a relief to cross into relatively developed Argentina from Bolivia. It wasn't that we didn't enjoy the raw beauty of the landscape and its people. Just the long, bumpy gravel highways, apparent lack of any form of policing and unpredictability of Bolivia left us craving security and stability. So far Argentina has proved a bit of a mixed bag...
We had heard a little from other travellers about Argentina's political and economic problems. We had also heard that for a couple of years now, they had started charging Australians a 'reciprocity' fee upon entry of US$100. Apparently they don't appreciate Australia's immigration restrictions...
Although they have started charging at airports, we had heard mixed stories about the system at land border crossings, and had cash ready just in case. Our travel tip of the day: they now charge it at land border crossings... and the only method of payment is to pay online and print a receipt. This wasn't really a problem, but we had to 'illegally' re-enter Bolivia to find an internet cafe to do it. We got through pretty quickly on the second attempt, and sat down for breakfast in the Argentinean border town of La Quiaca to wait for an onward bus.
The barista showed us the newspaper, which had printed two different exchange rates for the US dollar; an 'official' rate of about 7 pesos and a 'blue market' rate of about 11. Incredibly, the government seems to be hiding the fact that the country's rate of economic inflation is blowing up, and opportunistic money changers are competitively cashing in on travellers' comparatively stable US dollars. It works well for us too - a few years ago a dollar only bought about three or four pesos. Now we're getting at least ten, and most of the prices aren't reflective of this dramatic inflation, which means lots of good quality and inexpensive steak and wine for us!
There are definitely negative aspects to this economic anomaly though, and more than a few locals feel a little victimised by their government's failures. Only a few kilometres from the border, a series of blockades set up by the dissatisfied Argentinean Road and Transit workforce held us up. At one point they made us wait a couple of hours until eventually we unloaded, walked a couple of kilometres and boarded another waiting bus to continue en route.
As we dropped out of the altiplano into the canyons and rolling hills of Argentina's breathtaking northwest, we were held up again a few times by routine military inspections. They didn't seem at all worried by us tourists, and we assumed they were checking for smuggled drugs and/or people from Bolivia... A totally foreign concept for us isolated island-dwelling Aussies!
We had intended to travel through Salta directly to the vineyard rich valleys of Cafayate, but due to a big folk music festival it seemed all our options for accommodation there were completo. Instead we spent a few days hanging out with Israelis in a friendly but noisy dorm in Salta, which turned out to be a pretty sweet city to chill out in. The parks, plazas and cathedrals around this city made for a pleasant few days, and we even sat through a Saturday afternoon mass at the beautiful Inglesa Catedral. For our first night we went to a recommended restaurant which we've forgotten the name of, and had the most tender melt-in-your-mouth steak on the planet! It came with sautéed onions, capsicum and a couple of fried eggs on top. After our long bus ride it was heaven. Due to the struggling economy, we paid a pretty amazing price for it too!
As soon as the festival in Cafayate finished, we hopped on a sightseeing bus that whisked us though the stunning Quebrada and into the dry high altitude valleys of Cafayate. We stayed a night there and visited a few vino gustacion rooms. The characteristic citrusy white Torrentés wines were by far the stand-out, which says a lot considering we both usually prefer reds. Interestingly we also learnt that the altitude means night and day fluctuations in temperature are too much for the typical pests, and as a result most of the grapes are grown organically without the use of pesticides!
We were glad in the end that we missed the festival. Huge piles of rubbish, completely exhausted locals and a few seedy drunk festival goers still covering each other with paint convinced us it might have been a bit too intense. We were told that most of the wineries close their doors to the overly excited festival patrons for its duration anyway. We contented ourselves with just one night in the unique little town, but not before Aidan harvested a few good bunches of sweet grapes from the hostels' overhanging vines. It's only a week now until Carnival, and we're eager to get over to the majestic falls of Iguazu and the party in Brazil. Despite the anticipation of another long bus ride, we're pretty excited!