Wine, Women And Trains

When we arrived at our hostel in Cafayate we were greeted with the most wonderful sight imaginable – a firm bed! Lord be praised! Of all the things we miss the most about home, our bed is number one and the South American propensity to provide beds that seem to absorb you as soon as you lay down has only made things worse. But the Rusty-K hostel has restored our faith.

It was quite cold in Cafayate as it is at an altitude of 1700m and we are into autumn here now, so after a superb dinner of some local specialities – locro (a sort of stew-like soup) and humitas (mashed-up corn meal steamed in a corn leaf) – we piled on the blankets (despite the temperature dropping to 5 degrees in winter, they don’t have heating) and had a superb nights sleep.

After a lovely lie-in, we rented bikes and trundled off to the first vineyard for some early morning wine tasting. Most of the wine produced here is made from the Torrontes grape, a variety that only grows in this part of Argentina. We were given a tour around the Etchart vineyard which, bizarrely, is owned by Pernot Ricard in France. A jolly old man who was part of the Argentinian group who were on the tour with us made a point of telling the tour guide to “get on with it” as we were English and were only interested in the tasting, which amused us but it wasn’t strictly true. Once we’d consumed our allotted amount we climbed back onto the bikes and cycled off to a place nearby that makes goats cheese, bought some for lunch and, having supplemented it with some bread and a bottle of our favourite Torrontes – Vasija Secreta, obtained after another tasting – we found a nice spot and devoured the lot. Some more cycling on unmade roads and a ridiculous search for a viewpoint that turned out to be underwhelming followed but we did get to see some of more underdeveloped areas of town and met some very (possibly too!) helpful locals. We’d planned to eat at the same restaurant as the night before but, when we returned to the hostel, we were asked if we’d like to join the other guests for an asado – an Argentinian barbeque so we agreed and cracked open another bottle of the white stuff. Tons of meat and gallons of wine was mixed liberally with some serious socialising and we went to bed drunk for the first time since New Zealand.

Excellent evening though it was, it hampered our plans for the next day which had involved catching a 9am bus with our bikes to cycle 50km through the Quebrada de Cafayate -a stunning gorge nearby. Itinerary abandoned, we simply packed up our things and boarded the earlier bus to Salta which takes the same route. The landscape was stunning to say the least and probably the only place we’ve been to that rivals New Zealand in terms of its views. Huge and imposing rock formations in an array of colours reveal themselves as the road winds through the valley, some of them almost appearing to be carved by hand to look like vast church organ pipes. We felt slightly bad for not cycling but it would have killed us I think!

The Tren a las Nubes (Train To The Clouds) takes tourists from Salta up into the Andes on old railway tracks which once went all the way to Antofagasta and we’d booked tickets for the Wednesday trip, hence our need to leave Cafayate earlier than we’d have liked. The train rises from 1600m in Salta to 4300m which is more than high enough to have the potential to cause altitude sickness so we heeded the advice of the company that runs the train and had a light dinner and no booze the night before.

The weather in Salta wasn’t looking good and when we awoke to find complete cloud cover which looked very low indeed we convinced ourselves that, if the train really was simply a train which took us to the clouds and back, this could be a very short day indeed! The train is quite expensive, especially for people on a low budget so most of the people we’d met in hostels were going to do the trip on a bus, meaning that the bulk of the passengers on the train looked like they were between 50 and 90 years of age, reminding us of the time we went to see Pam Ayres record her Radio 4 show last year (Annika’s idea, not mine!). Slightly grumpily, we said ‘Hola’ to the two older ladies who were sat opposite us in our group of four seats and sat down to our breakfast.

As it turned out, our travelling companions were extremely entertaining and, despite the fact that the clouds lifted once we were up in the mountains and we saw some amazing scenery, they really made our day! Friends since school, these two grandmothers from Buenos Aires were completely bonkers and loved to have a laugh and mess around. Oddly, the ring leader had the same name as Annika’s mum and her personality reminded us of a cross between her and my Aunty Joan who always had an eye for mischief and knew how to wind people up but also always seemed to be laughing and enjoying herself. As the train began to climb the mountains, ascending rapidly at some points by stopping, changing tracks and reversing, zig-zagging up, everyone started to get to know one another.

This process was initiated by one of those spirit-crushing ‘stand up and tell everyone your name and where you’re from’ sessions which surely everyone hates?! It turns out that the Argentinians love it and everyone applauded wildly whenever anyone did their bit, particularly when introduced to people from other countries. Japan and Russia got the most rapturous receptions but even the old enemies, England and Spain, were greeted with loud clapping.

In order to see the views, people had to move around and at one point we were joined by a Yorkshire-born expat who was one of the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ and emigrated to Australia in the 60’s. He was travelling alone and, between our two new friends and the slightly older women in the seats across the aisle, there appeared to be a small competition for his affection. He didn’t speak much Spanish and apparently didn’t offer to buy them all a drink and this, coupled with his solo-traveller status forced the group to come to the only conclusion available to them. Clearly he was gay! The debates that led to this agreement were, bizarrely, carried out in Italian as they could all speak a little and assumed that no-one would understand. However, Annika picked it all up and the women were quite surprised when we began laughing at what they were saying. A younger man joined in from the next batch of seats and made the universal sign for gay people (!) with his hands in order to help explain his opinion and there was much hilarity.

Meanwhile, the train had completed the switchbacks, crossed an aqueduct or two and wound round two spirals and the air was getting thin. One or two of the older passengers started to feel a bit weak and breathless and coca leaves were handed out to try and reduce the symptoms. Neither of us liked the taste or the sensation of having the leaves stuffed in our cheeks so we quickly got rid of ours, but Annika had a queezy few minutes so she downed a coca leaf tea.

The route the train takes is around 300km each way and there are only around 2km of tunnel in total but, when it was time for the train to break down and leave us stranded for an hour, guess where we were! It was such a shame as the scenery up in the mountains was incredible and we’d have been more than happy to sit and stare at one of the views for an hour but the pitch dark, dusty tunnel was really quite dull. Even our elderly entertainers seemed to run out of steam whilst we were stuck and a few people were given oxygen as we were at an altitude of around 4000m.

Eventually, the train lurched forwards to cheers and applause and we inched our way to the Polvorilla viaduct at 4300m, where we were allowed off the train to take photos and buy local tat from the ‘natives’ (we were told that they were to be called natives, not Indians as they were not from India – fair point). After 10 minutes, we began our return journey, stopping at San Antonio de Los Cobres station for more selling and llama photos, as well as llama empanadas.

The return journey was less fun as we’d all seen the views before and tiredness and altitude sickness was the order of the day among many of the older folk and much of their time was spent sleeping or taking oxygen. The last couple of hours were oddly punctuated by a live band and a magician in order to prevent anyone from getting any sleep. At the end of the trip we all exchanged email addresses and we promised to send Leelia and her friend some of our photos.

At 16 hours it was a very long day and for £80 each it was very expensive but it was an amazing experience and probably one of our favourite days in Argentina.

We both slept in until 11am the next morning. We needed it – it has been a very exhausting few days. When we eventually managed to get out, we pointlessly took the cable car up to the top of the hill, came straight back down and saw an incredible museum which displays the bodies of three children that were found mummified in a shallow grave at the top of a 6000m volcano by archaeologists in 1999. The bodies are only displayed one per day to prevent them being damaged by the exposure and on this day it was the boy that was being exhibited in the special case they use to control the air and prevent the oxygen levels getting too high. Convinced that it was a great honour, he was made to walk a huge distance so that he could be buried alive at the age of 7 by the Incas more than 500 years ago. The body was tiny and hunched over but had hardly decomposed at all over all that time. I’ve never seen an actual dead body before and it was quite an odd thing to see. It was difficult to tell whether it felt wrong for all these people to be stood around gazing at his ancient flesh but these sorts of discoveries contribute an awful lot to the modern day knowledge of the lives of the Incas and I guess there is merit in that.

Having booked our bus ticket to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile for the next morning, we realised this was our last night in Argentina so we changed our plan of cooking in the hostel and sought out the best parrilla in town. We ended up in a brightly lit cafe-style place called La Monumental which didn’t really look the part and the fact that the locals all seemed to have gone for the pizza didn’t bode well either. Annika had promised herself that she’d try and eat a whole bife de chorizo (a massive, 2 inch thick rump steak weighing in at between 400g and 500g) on her own by the time we left so it was now or never. We ordered one each, a salad and a bottle of red and crossed our fingers and hoped that it would be OK. It was simply incredible! The best steak that I have ever had in my life, we both devoured it without a problem and even agreed that we could have eaten more had there been any. Superb stuff.

Our early bus to Chile was notable for the fact that breakfast featured a peanut biscuit which I managed to take a bite of before I realised so a very unpleasant hour or two was spent dealing with the fallout as I swung from feeling sick to sweating, swelling and having stomach aches which kind of ruined the stunning trip up and over the Andes somewhat and the last 20 minutes, spent standing outside in freezing drizzle on the top of the mountains at the Argentinian border control was an unwanted parting gift but we have absolutely loved Argentina.

There is so much to see that we feel that we need to come back some time and do it properly as 5 weeks doesn’t seem to have been enough.

We’re off to Chile for a day or two before we take a tour to the salt flats of Bolivia and work our way up to Peru to meet Annika’s mum in Cuzco but we will be back to Argentina for sure. Superb.