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Our illustrious salt tour ended in rough and tumble town of Tupiza, just a few hours from the Argentine border and in the heart of rugged red rock country. Laynni was simply thrilled to be back in, as she put it, “two sheet territory”, which I assume means it was warm enough to sleep with only two sheets on the bed, rather than 17.5kg worth of wool blankets, and not a rather disgusting reference to toilet paper. Tupiza was a welcome change from the cold high country along the Chilean border, much warmer and with an extremely “refreshing” pool to cool off in. In true Waskesiu alum fashion all water temps around the world are constantly compared to the infamously chill waters of the slough, as in “it was almost as cold as Waskesiu”, “I mean, it wasn’t Waskesiu cold, but still” or, “if I hadn’t already froze my nuts off in Waskesiu they’d be up in my stomach right now”. Either way, it felt good as long as you scorched yourself in the sun long enough first, and were able to ignore the fact that after a couple days the murky water came to closely resemble Gene Hackman’s midsummer ball gravy. Hey-oh!
And, consistent to form, Laynni and I teamed up to sunburn my back, and then I threw in a brand new wrinkle where I somehow managed to burn my belly button. For a couple days my stomach looked like a hairy dart board. But from there it was on to bigger, newer things, like horseback riding. As most of you know we are both avid riders, riding like pros dozens of times over the past 30 years, as long as you don’t count the last 25, which I don’t because, really, what have we accomplished in that time? Anyway, the area around Tupiza was clearly made for riding horse (advice: it is important to very clearly say “horse”, not “whores”, when discussing this with a non-native English speaker, although, really, what place isn’t made for that?) which is probably why Butch and Sundance chose it – for the scenery, and, of course, it’s abundance of gaming cafes filled with teenage punks (even outlaws need a Doom fix every now and then). We pictured ourselves galloping gracefully through the scenic canyons while tipping our hats to pretty maidens doing their wash in the river and casually shooting down pesky buffalo where they could be left rot proudly in the sun. Well, we weren’t too far off, except that with my pink t-shirt, inappropriate shoes and Great Gazoo helmet I probably looked more like an off-duty parking attendant celebrating the legalization of gay marriage with some low-impact go-karting. Our teenage guide, Sergio, sported a patented sneer that was strikingly similar to John Wayne, assuming, of course, that the Duke was only 5’4, struggled with adolescent acne and spent most of his days taunting friends on his bright red cell phone. Cool trip, though, up through some really impressive dry riverbeds and canyons, and two hours on horseback was more than enough for out of practice city slickers such as ourselves. Short enough that it wasn’t absolute torture to wipe our asses the next day, yet long enough for Laynni to develop a slightly bowlegged stride that I subtly hinted I was responsible for.
Viva Argentina. The time had finally come for another new country and we were looking forward to testing its reputation for easy transport and modern women (or was it the other way around?). Paved roads, you say? Count me in! Steaks the size of – but in no way related to – dead cats? Mmmmm, tasty! ATMs as plentiful as K-Fed’s genital warts? Sign me up, amigo!
After a deceptively easy border crossing (a couple stamps and a quick photo with the Ushuaia 5,121km sign) we soon discovered what really keeps the Argentine authorities awake at night – cheap Bolivian contraband. We boarded our bus (amid some minor turmoil, more on that later) and traveled all of about 3 blocks before being stopped at an army checkpoint where everyone was ordered off to collect their luggage and subject it to a thorough search. Unlike most of these exercises which are designed specifically to target sketchy foreign influences such as ourselves, particularly those with fuzzy, vaginal facial hair, this time we were waved through with only the briefest of glances. The real targets, apparently, were cross-border shoppers, not an unfamiliar concept to us Canadians, except instead of returning from Minot with a carton of $4 beer, several cheap casino t-shirts and yet another 14 decks of previously used playing cards, the smuggler’s haul here consisted mainly of cheap shoes, gaudy Tupperware and ill-fitting jeans.
Curiously disturbing aside: Bearing in mind that I have done no actual research and have no hard evidence to back up this claim, I nevertheless am going to proceed in saying that I believe Argentina is the world leader in….not soccer….not steaks….but in camel-toe, baby! Oh, pipe down, Mexico, you’re still a close second (start hiking them up just a little further and next year, who knows?). Anyway, it has made me wonder, during a few of my oh so many idle moments, if this strange phenomenon actually tells us something about Argentine women. Or perhaps Argentine men? Or, most likely, Argentine jean manufacturing. I am happy to report, however, that because the trend is most definitely not limited to women we can probably go with the most benign answer and can, as I always prefer to, blame the Bolivians. Doesn’t make it any easier to look at, though.
It was only after the searches were over and we were re-boarding the bus that we discovered what may have been a much more serious customs infraction as we interrupted the Argentine couple from in front of us digging around in the curtains above Trick and Mel’s seat, two rows back, suddenly producing like magic, or Sham-Wow, a hefty bag of coca leaves as though they had just finally hit pay dirt in Pablo Escobar’s easter egg hunt (“Oh that Pablo, you just know it’s always going to be either the curtain or the rectum. And I always forget to check the curtains….”). Would have made for an interesting headline on the BBC: “Welsh-born Kiwi listens to iPod while being violated in Argentine prison. Also, why dogs lick each other – story at 11.”
This, mind you, all happened after we came within minutes, maybe seconds, of actually missing the bus. Having forgotten that Argentina is an hour ahead of Bolivia we were meandering around town as casual and non-committal as Owen Wilson when we suddenly saw one of the bus guys running toward us down the street (to date the only person we’ve seen running in South America outside of a soccer pitch). He hustled us back to the station just in time to load our bags on and then be flatly refused an extra couple minutes to use el bano and grab some food. Sheesh, sue me for thinking the world revolves around white guys…..Meanwhile, as we wandered around obliviously Trick and Mel were forced to deal with all the stress: do we go or wait? Bring their bags on or leave them behind? Quickly use Dean’s loufa before he gets back? All difficult moral questions.
Smooth sailing after that, spending a couple nights in the picturesque Quebrada de Humuhuaca enjoying the small town feel and rocky terrain, though maybe not as much as if we hadn’t just arrived from “the country that specializes in small towns and rocky terrain”. In Purmamarca the Trail of Seven Colours was pretty cool, at least until the tour buses rolled in like a horde of craft-obsessed locusts, but unfortunately the highlight attraction in Tilcara was a set of shambling ruins (with some admittedly decent views) capped, unbelievably, with a modern monument to the archaeologists that discovered the site. For some reason this felt very tacky, comparable to carving Harrison Ford’s scowling face into the wall at Petra, or paying a prostitute with change.
Next stop, our long awaited return to what we considered a “real city”, Salta – a place with several hundred thousand people, all sorts of street lights and a McDonalds’ which, to our surprise, straightened out Laynni’s on and off stomach faster than a monkey on unicycle. It worked, I mean. The new food theme continued at La Monumental, a place we were told to go for really good, if rather expensive, steaks. But hey, when in Argentina…. We wandered in a little hesitantly, skeptical of this huge, brightly lit gymnasium with about 4 people in it. We needn’t have worried, though, as apparently that’s how they do steak here, not a bunch of pretention, just a lot of strong lighting and plenty of elbow room to get down to it. It turned out the steaks were fantastic, “expensive” meant around $6 and at about 9 pm the place started filling up faster than KFC on Mother’s Day.
We expected warmer weather here, now that we are finally back down to an altitude more suitable for humans than llamas and female wrestlers, but seem to have arrived during a very unusual hot stretch with temperatures in Salta (and Iguazu for that matter) going as high as 40C. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they seem to take the afternoon siesta much more seriously here than we’ve seen most places. The city literally shuts down from 2 to 5, getting as quiet and spooky as a Mad About You live studio audience.
Speaking of wacky sitcoms, one night while having (several) drinks on the square I argued up and down for about an hour that the tall, old guy with the grampa fringe and extroverted manner a couple tables over was the dad from Everybody Loves Raymond. Laynni and Trick assured me I was crazier than Brad Garrett, yet several times nearly managed to goad me into asking him. Luckily, though, he was quite preoccupied talking to a group of girls young enough to be his dates for the Golden Globe, providing what I felt was a very compelling reason to let my innate cowardice run wild. I say luckily, because Mel later informed all three of us that the actor in question is, in fact, dead. End of argument. Really, it’s the lack of ambiguity that I like. On the bright side, though, we all agreed that the two random bald spots on the waiter’s head just had to be the result of a wacky, if unoriginal, jackass prank. I strongly suspected but didn’t know for sure until I applied an electric shock to his nuts….and he screamed, just like they always did on the show. Consider it confirmed.
And time moves slowly on and on….meaning we took a 22 hour bus ride from Salta to Puerto Iguazu, set in a jungly little nook in Northeastern Argentina near the borders of Brazil and Paraguay. Here the big attraction is Iguazu Falls, considered by many to be the most beautiful falls in the world (larger than Victoria Falls, prettier than Niagara Falls, and fewer Woolworth’s than Idaho Falls). We spent two days exploring, and by exploring I mean following the carefully laid out walkways from whence you are physically unable to stray, with one quick boat ride into the heart of the falls thrown in for good measure. However, like only a select few other places we’ve been, I feel I must just shut up and let the photos do the talking. Not my style, exactly, but neither were parachute pants and I still stuck with those for a whole summer in the 80’s. Anyway, stunning. And we once again got lucky with weather, with torrential rains starting up the day after we finished with the falls, allowing us to hang out in relaxed little Puerto Canoas hotel reading and making use of the wi-fi without feeling guilty for not doing anything (just for the record – Laynni steadfastly disagrees that this is ever a problem). All in all, a very successful stay, discounting of course the family of giant cockroaches that were living in the bathroom door of our first room whose nocturnal acquaintance has led to Laynni to now open all doors with a quick violent shove as she jumps back out of harm’s way as though she’s expecting a surprise bathroom party, or maybe just a really bad firefighter. You can never have enough phobias, that’s what I always say. Well, that and “do you think this rash is less red, or more red?”
Tomorrow we’re taking to the friendly Argentine skies and hopefully making our way all the way down to (very nearly) the bottom of Patagonia where the tentative plan is to get a active again with some serious trekking, in all likelihood to be closely followed by some serious whining, complaining and dredging up tales of mountainous woe. Hmm, can anyone else picture a movie starring one of the Baldwin brothers nobody can remember?
In the news:
Discarded Underwear Becomes Argentine Legal Tender
Salta, Argentina – Argentine finance minister, Carlos, stunned the world recently by announcing a revolutionary new plan to turn old soiled undergarments into semi-valuable Argentine currency. In an innovative effort to lower the cost of printing money and stimulate the hand cleanser industry the populace are being encouraged to bring in their oldest, most disgustingly crotch-worn panties, boxers and banana hammocks so they can be processed into limp, soggy and rank new $2 and $5 notes. When asked if there any restrictions on the condition of the material Carlos responded enthusiastically,
“Absolutely not. The raunchier the better. Holes – they make it aerodynamic. Stains – they represent national pride. Wrinkles and curious smells – pleasant reminders of your grandmother. Everybody wins.”
He said it was too early to comment on the rumours that all coins would soon be replaced by kidney stones and dice.