The stay at Estancia Colome was just about perfect. It is a fantastically well laid out small hotel, sitting on the side of a hill, in the centre of a green oasis that lies in a huge expanse of desert and mountains. The place was completely silent (except for the occasional whingeing and whining from the spoilt American toddlers whose parents did not understand that the phrase 'children under 12 are not encouraged' was a subtle hint meaning 'keep the sods away'). The first night had the atmosphere of a library, with all the guests whispering and behaving very well, and was all a little dull. Luckily, by the second night (Christmas Eve) more booze flowed and we found out we were staying with a bunched of interesting and funny people from all over the (western) world. The good cheer was aided by the fact that as there was no price on the Christmas Menu so we all came to the conclusion that it was included in the room price, which is why they were so much more expensive than normal. If only we knew then what we discovered at check out! However, at the time it was a great night with good banter, healthy mickey taking and lots of laughter, but we paid in hangovers on Christmas Day. The low point came when a characteristically loud, ex-army American started referring to me as 'son of Rod Stewart' due to my, now rather, large hair. This shattered my opinion that my new barnet was giving me the appearance of Richard Gere or an Argentinean polo player. It got worse when I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and the beer goggles ensured that I convinced myself that I was the spit of Ken Barlow off Corrie. It's got to go. A perm perhaps?
We had a lazy day on Christmas Day, Skyping the family, sitting by the pool and horse riding. In fact, we did very little for the whole time we were there. I, off course, spent much of the time flailing around trying to keep all the nasty wasps away from me (those that have seen me during an English summer will be familiar with this). I felt that my 38 years of humiliating myself in public was justified when I actually got stung. To add insult to injury I realised that the little blighter was taking a drink out of my belly-button and was squashed in a 'fold of James' when I bent down to pick up my beer. Nice. Anyway, I discovered that being stung does not hurt too much, and I don't get the same bad reaction that Dad used to. However, I did swell up, but I am not sure what was swelling and what was the result of eating my own body weight in cow everyday.
We were very sad to leave on the 27th and head off to Cafayate, which is 120km south and the wine centre of the region. We got a local taxi driver to take us there as buses and other forms of transport did not exist. The manageress of the hotel must have realised that we where not on the same budget as the other guests and negotiated 'a local rate for local people' with a Cafayate firm. The car that arrived was fantastically unsuitable for the rugged mountain roads, and I am now a big fan of the Corsa as it can negotiate steep passes, land slides, floods and everything else normally associated with the Robinsons' 4x4s. The driver had a Coca habit (leaves for altitude sickness - he was not snorting white powder off the dashboard) and spent most of the 3 hr trip stuffing Coca leaves into his cheeks so that eventually he looked like a great big hamster. With Aviator shades. And a mullet. A very odd looking, but rather cool hamster.
The journey itself was wonderful and took us through amazing rugged landscapes where only the mad or very desperate try to live, scraping out a living in the very harsh desert. Once again, the rock formations were incredible and a geologists dream.
Once in Cafayate we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and found a small hostel near the centre which at the time was by far the cheapest place that we stayed, but had every thing we needed; a roof, shower, bed and was safe. Cafayate has little going for it besides the fact there are Bogodas (vineyards) all around which all do free tastings. Argentina makes some very good wines, some of which comes from Cafayate; it is such a shame that we did not get to try any, and instead spent a day cycling from place to place, trying not to wince as we sampled terrible, bottom of the range wine which wouldn't be useful even when making gravy. On the upside, we got to play with two very cute puppies and one llama.
Salta and the north.
We returned to Salta by bus on the 29th and began to plan ahead. We have had to change our plans rather radically after discovering that all the busses to North Chile are full until 8 Jan. This would mean spending far too long in Salta so we will now head down to Mendoza on the 4th, and perhaps get up to N Chile later. *****************************************************************After sorting that out, we hired a car and have spent the last two days touring the very north of Argentina, near the borders of Chile and Bolivia. Again, the scenery has been amazing and diverse. We have passed through forested mountains, lush pastures, lots and lots more desert and have seen hills, mountains and rocks of every colour. The harshness of life and the poverty in this part of Argentina is very apparent; it could be in a different country to BA. However, it is beautiful and the contrasts found around every corner make is a very special area.
Last night we stayed in a small town called Humahuaca, which is a real border town, full of dust, Bolivian traders and buses. We almost gave up the hunt for a place to stay after visiting two or three expensive characterless flea pits but on the last wander around town came across a small inn with a few very basic rooms out the back, and despite the damp, had a lovely evening listening to live music and drinking wine. Our cheapest find yet - but so warm Jodie got up to turn off the heater and remove her cashmere jumper at 2.30 am after overheating. The birthday socks stayed firmly on though. Today we covered about 300km around the area, which included a visit to the Salinas Grandes, which are huge salt lakes (unsurprisingly). We were able to walk for about 500m into the lake, first through the drying salt (which has the same sensation under-foot as the 70's sweet 'Space Dust' had on your tongue), then through ankle deep warm water. I remembered the cuts on my ankle slightly too late, which was nice. To get there we spent about an hour climbing through the mountains, on a road full of hairpin bends. It was amazing to be looking up at huge escarpments one minute, then found ourselves looking down at them the next. Eventually, our little VW got us to the summit at about 4000m above sea level, looking out for miles to snow caped mountains and looking down to see the absolute lunatics that thought that they had found the perfect place for a cycling holiday.
It is now 7.30pm on NYE and Jodie and I have found a lovely little guest house in a small town called Tilcara. The town is still a bit of an outpost with many houses mad of mud brick and only a couple of paved roads, but the views to the mountains are great and the guest house is peaceful, well designed and our room has a fire. We are not sure how tonight will pan out!
We hope that you all have a fantastic NYE and all the best for 2009. Thank you all for helping us enjoy 2008 so much. We both look forward to seeing you, hopefully somewhere on our trip, in 2009.