Cordoba, Prize of the Plains

Catedral del Sagrado Corazon        
 

I’d long heard about the city, fabled for beautiful women and big heat, and made it a point to see for myself coming back from farther north in Argentina. It’s an easy place to arrive and get around, as both the bus and train stations are located next to each other on Guzman boulevard, which runs along the Suquia River, which wraps around the north side of the city center. The streets are laid out on a grid, with many uniform, square blocks. Another feature is that almost every street is a one way, making it easy to maneuver on foot or a bike without feeling like you’re in traffic hell. As soon as I landed, I walked 11 blocks to the superb Hostel Terraza, one of the best I’ve stayed at. It sits 3 blocks away from Plaza San Martin,
one of the historic points of historic interest. A number of well kept museums and cathedrals are within a short walk from this point.

Electric trams run these streets as well

Cordoba boasts an electric trolley, which runs on Belgrano Street, which becomes Tucuman after it crosses Dean Funes, which itself changes to Rosario de Santa Fe. This switching of street names is a confusing feature if rambling from one side of town to the other. Just be aware and get used to it, as it’s rather rare elsewhere. In terms of proximity,  within a half kilometer radius of Plaza San Martin lie 18 different noted city attractions.

 

Once I dropped my pack and started exploring, I walked 15 minutes to the green grass of Parque Sarmiento, where many locals walk their dogs. There are a number of monuments here, including a tower that serves as a fine landmark. I wandered into the adjacent Museum of Natural Science, paid the 15 peso admission, and spent almost an hour examining all types of compelling things.

Mineral collection at the Museum of Natural Science      

 

It’s worth at least double that amount, and also has a curved flying saucer roof that can be strolled to the top for a fine aerial view. It also must have been popular with skateboarders at one time, as a number of barriers have been installed to keep the rollers from enjoying the sloped roof.

Skating and rolling is discouraged       Roof of the Natural Science Museum

 

Almost directly across the street is the ultra prominent Plaza Espana, notable for the fact that it is the point of convergence for 10 different avenues, all radiating outward from here. As populous a city as Cordoba is, with a million and a half residents, the center is surprisingly compact, and easy to walk. There’s plenty of traffic, but since 90% of the time it’s coming from one direction only, crossing streets is pretty much stress free.

Another notable intersection is the multi street terminus 6 diagonal blocks due north at basically the absolute center of the city center. Patio Olmos, Cordoba’s most important and prestigious shopping mall, is a striking multi facade building remodeled from a historic architectural structure. It faces the fountain roundabout at the intersection of Boulevard San Juan and Avenida Velez Sarfield, two of the foremost traffic arteries in the city. Two other main roads also converge here, and it’s a big open intersection where lots of people meet.

Patio Olmos Shopping Mall               

There are a several streets just north of here which are now pedestrian walkways, lined with shops and historic buildings. he longest, at 25 de Mayo, runs 8 blocks and intersects another, San Martin, itself 7 blocks in length. There are three shorter pedestrian malls in this area, close to Plaza San Martin, and the busiest, Obispo Trejo, covers five blocks. Not often do you find so many traffic free walkways in the absolute center of a big city, and it all adds to the attraction of the place.

One of many pedestrian walkways in  Cordoba

But for aficionados of the vida nocturna, there is one outstanding neighborhood that rivals any belt of bars and nightclubs anywhere, including Austin and Medellin. This is the barrio of Guemes, four blocks south of Patio Olmos, where several clocks are teeming with beer bars, taverns, micro breweries, cafes, nightclubs, and live music venues. There must be 50 different establishments in this zone, many massive with double and triple levels and giant outdoor patios. A dedicated night tripper could spend the best part of a week here and not spend time in the same place twice.

Lots of  live music in Guemes                

It’s also the home of a small, humble sandwich shop which became a go to favorite immediately. Marfer, on Laprida, at the edge of the night zone, serves terrific sandwiches with the crust cut off(migas) at a price that’s hard to believe. Once I found it, after hearing some good reviews, I returned to try another and even bought one to go for the train ride. 60 Argentine pesos, less than 3 dollars, is a bargain for what they offer, and they’re open from 8 am until almost midnight. Their only negative is being closed on Sunday and Monday, but for 5 days a week they can’t be beat.

 

Marfer sandwich        Delicious and economical as hell

Of all the attributes Cordoba boasts, certainly one is the quantity of great looking women, of all age groups. I had heard mention of this before, jabbering with friends who had traveled to the area, and popular belief places only Rosario above Cordoba, in this category. But after spending time in the second city, I can absolutely state that’s it’s reputation as a hotbed of beauties is 100% accurate. I don’t know Rosario yet, but of it’s in the same class as Cordoba that is a very strong endorsement.

Yes, there’s heaps to like about the city, as it is large enough to offer anything without crossing the line into urban stress lab conditions. With lots of open space, organized and orderly, the primary bummer would only seem to be the heat that engulfs the region for much of the year. I had heard about it, and thus planned my trip to arrive at the end of April, hopefully past the big heat of the summer. Nevertheless, it was plenty warm, with temps reaching the mid 30’s which is in the 90’s on the North American Fahrenheit range. But I grew up and spent plenty of time in Arizona, so I knew that there are ways to deal with hot weather, and here it is likely the same. But probably best to plan any trip outside of December through March, just the same.

Tower in front of Sarmiento Park        Cordoba

Finally, the hostel I stayed at in Cordoba was one of the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure of flopping in. Hostel Terraza, in the heart of the downtown at the intersection of Tucuman and Dean Funes, is one I would recommend enthusiastically. In the hospitality business, it’s the people that make the difference, and every member of the staff was super friendly, helpful, and eager to inform at all times. The building has a superb rooftop patio with a barbecue grill, and makes for a fine place to enjoy a beer and watch the sunset. The building is on two rather busy streets, so there is some traffic noise, but the convenience of the location made up for that in my opinion. Bunk beds are cheap, 4 to a room, and bathrooms and the entire interior are kept clean as can be. 8 blocks from the killer nightlife sector, and less than that from almost everything else, the Terraza is a worthy place to base out of.

Cordoba is a gem of a city that merits a few nights to enjoy and appreciate. I heard lots of positive reviews for small towns and places to see a little ways out of town, such as La Falda and Villa Carlos Paz, but in my limited interval there I couldn’t make it. Next time around, and there will surely be one, just not by train.

Train Train The Slow Roll out of Buenos Aires

Retiro station is one of the classics on the continent

This article has nothing to do with the legendary railroad, the Patagonia Express, which runs in the southern province of Chubut, or the train of the clouds, a tourist line operating out of Salta. This is an account, first hand of course, about the passenger trains operating out of Retiro station in Buenos Aires that rolls to Tucuman and Cordoba in the north.

I was curious about these lines because I had heard that the new administration in Argentina was robustly rebuilding and restoring train lines throughout the north of the country. That may well be true, there is work being done, but ask a local about it and he’ll laugh. Progress is leisurely, to say the least. Never the less, there are a lot of signs claiming that the train is coming back to say, Jujuy, and clearly there is work being done.

So, after futilely trying to purchase tickets on line at the official website for passenger sales, I blindly got to the station one Thursday morning to buy a ticket to get first to Tucuman. This leg would help me get to Salta and further into the Humahuaca Quebrada, north of Jujuy, and close to the border with Bolivia.

I was informed that the tickets to Tucuman were sold out, so I went to Plan B, to try to at least take this train to Rosario, where I would improvise and hop a long distance bus if need be. I was able to make this purchase for 370 Argentine pesos, which was about US$18, a relative bargain for a pullman seat, which has no adjacent seat, the only upgrade from first class, which is slightly cheaper. But if you prefer to have nobody sitting, or sleeping next to you, it’s worth the extra scratch. I boarded the fairly new coach and settled into my seat, # 37. Our departure was slow and steady, rolling out of the giant station yards and rusted hulks, taking a northern vector through the greater metropolis of BA.

It took close to an hour and a half to escape the sprawl and slums of the city, with lots of squalor and garbage visible from my slow rolling window. The average speed at take off never exceeded 25 mph, which would explain the 30 hour scheduled time to complete a journey of 700 miles, incredibly, 4 hours more than when first completed in 1896. Apparently, the continued deterioration of the tracks, and inadequate maintenance all this time, is the reason for the crawl. At many places along the way there are places where workers are busy doing something, and hopefully getting the iron horse back up to speed is the goal.

If you’ve got the time, and a good book, the train is the way to go

The terrain opened up and became rural when we finally got out of the BA suburbs, with lots of horses and dogs everywhere. The dwellings were predominantly concrete blocks or reddish bricks, with lots of rebar sticking out. My fellow travelers were all locals, in all age classes but all economizers like myself. As night fell, we were steadily passing through agricultural country, fields of who knows what, tractors and wide open spaces. Our arrival into Rosario was tedious, like a glacier, and this city appeared to be very spread out with no obvious center. At 8:15 our crawl ended at Rosario Norte, where I assumed I would get off, grab my stuff, and head for the bus station which was not far away. However, as I passed through the station lobby I decided to inquire from the lady at the ticket window if the train continuing on to Tucuman was indeed sold out. She informed me that there actually were seats available, but her computer was not working properly so couldn’t process the transaction. So she emerged from the office, escorted me outside, and asked one of the conductors to assist me and get me on the train. He helpfully complied, walked me back onto the train I had just departed, took me to a first class seat and told me to wait there, while he took my ID and processed my ticket.( As I write this now, the Trenes Argentina website is completely down, so that is a major problem with their operations which you might think would be easy enough to resolve. (Think again.)

So now I was back to my original plan, and after waiting around a few minutes, I got antsy and decided to go find the dude, who had told me that the dining car would be opening at 9pm. I found him on his way to get me, take my cash, and give me a ticket. The only problem was that I only had US dollars and a credit card, neither of which he could take, This temporary snafu was resolved when an affable local, overhearing our conversation, offered to exchange my dollars for pesos, no problem. After a quick calculation of the current rate, he gave me 2040 Argentine pesos for my C note, and I in turn gave 400 of those to the conductor. I celebrated solving this snag with a ham and cheese sandwich, about the only item still available on the menu, along with a sprite for $80. Damned reasonable on a train to nowhere, and I wolfed it down back at my first class seat with no neighbors. There were lots of empty seats here, another indictment of the thoroughly dysfunctional train website.

Settling back into my seat, and wisely getting my down sleeping bag out for a pillow and comforter combo, I contorted myself into every angle to get some sleep. The train seats do not recline much, and the massive metal armrest between seats is immovable and a pain in the ass. Nevertheless I did manage to doze off into spells of tormented sleep, punctuated by bursts of racket, ranging from crying kids, to hacking coughs, scattered ringtones and assorted metallic creaks. The rhythm of the train would soon rock me back into a trance, from which I awoke every half hour or so. I watched a lot of barren landscape roll by, and several abandoned looking settlements, ghostlike reminding me of a Twilight Zone episode. Some, like Ceres, had a dilapidated train station, now almost in ruins, from when the old train used to stop there.

Waking up to early light at 7, I was staring out the window when another tiny burg, Pinto, passed by. Here the houses were made of adobe, much more basic than the south in this dry desert. Lots of mesquite trees, cactus, wire fences and horses and dogs. The only other critters I saw were birds, one of which built jumbo branch nests on top of the old power line poles, some of which were close to washing machine size, similar to the ospreys in Baja California. One after another, but I never did see which fowl was doing all the work.

My train mates were a jovial bunch, many traveling with families, and the bathrooms were kept clean as could be expected. The traffic on the nearby road put our pace to shame, and even some of the birds were leaving us in the dust. The big plus was the hypnotic rhythm of the tracks, canceling out many other more irritating sounds, like the branches rubbing against the exterior of the coach. At Colonia, another one horse town, I hopped off to grab a couple of 10 peso empanadas, nothing fancy but hot and adequate. The train actually performs a maneuver of sorts after leaving Rosario, where by we are now facing backwards, leaving the sensation that we’re heading back to big BA.

Actually, we’re continuing north, the land is flat as a pancake with no hills visible in either direction. The nearby traffic is almost all produce trucks, all covered so I can’t tell what they’re hauling, but not much else besides the odd bus or motorcycle. The desert here is quite lush, prickly stuff, similar to parts of Arizona or Mexico, and a machete would be essential to get through the tangle. Goats seem to have replaced cattle as the primary livestock, probably a better beast for this absolute briar patch of cactus and stickies that would be a problem for most living creatures. A few narrow trails, but very forbidding country.

The sky was solid overcast al day but no rain or big wind. I was getting antsy towards the end of the line, timing our progress against the km markers I would see, but I quit when I realized how slow we were going. Kind of like watching food commercials when you’re hungry. I had a free reservation in Tucuman at a place called La Gurda, where I was looking forward to a hot shower, decent meal, and a cold beer.

The advertised 30 hour ride actually took 31, with an excruciatingly slow arrival in Tucuman that was more like a reentry to earth. This was an ancient looking terminal, with heaps of old cars and locomotives rusting away. There was a huge welcoming mob here awaiting their arrivals, and I unloaded, and staggered through the crowd and out the front door. I got approximate directions to my place, and set off for the 5 block walk to find it. As it turned out, nobody knew of the place, it was semi hidden but directly across the street from a busy police substation. I had a $US 21 dollar private room with shared bathroom and breakfast included. The only negative was the smoking area in a courtyard about 15 feet from my door, so I had to get the group to pipe down twice later that night so I could get some z’s. And that was with earplugs, but it worked out.

After a week spent in Salta, Tilcara, and Calilegua, I arrived via night bus from Salta to Cordoba. It’s a grand city that I will expound upon soon, but this piece is all about the train rides. Despite a gruesome 31 hours on the way from Buenos Aires to Tucuman, I was determined to take my medicine and finish what I started with the 19 hour return to Retiro station. Thus, as soon as I arrived at Cordoba’s bus station I walked directly across the street to the train terminal and bought my ticket for 3 days later, just to make sure I got on……very convenient and $600 for the pullman back, US$29. When I boarded that train, Sunday at midday, I was fighting an exotic cold, and had already bought snacks and water for the trip.

The passengers today were an older bunch, likely returning to the big city after visiting family over the weekend. We pulled out of the station right on time, and again our takeoff could be measured with an hourglass and not a stopwatch. Of course this very poky departure provides plenty of time to study the neighborhoods passed through and examine the city scene with a leisurely, steady eye. The afternoon passed by and I was grateful to have a good book to read. The scape became solid fields and plains for hours, sunset came and went, and back out came my sleeping bag to hunker down with as night fell. The coach was not very full, so as I was looking around for a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, I found a set of unoccupied first class seats with a pair facing each other across a fixed table. I was able to stretch out from one seat beneath the table to get my feet on the facing seat, which enabled me to extend almost flat. This was an improvement on all other configurations so far, and I was able to catch some solid z’s. I awoke as we were entering greater Buenos Aires, and checked out the hordes of commuters heading to work on an early monday morning. We arrived on time at 7:30, I grabbed a cup and croissant in the station, ambled downstairs and boarded the line C subway and lurched across town to Constitucion station. Here I got out on the street, brazil I believe, and walked 13 blocks to Colonia Express, where I waited 3 hours for my boat. When I finally arrived at Tres Cruces bus station in Montevideo, my passage from Cordoba had taken 29 hours total. I’m glad that I did it, but there will likely be no repeat of this mission.

The Bike Scene in Medellin

Colombia is very bike centric, boasting some of the best road bikers in the world and terrain that provides challenging routes all over the country. Bogota closes over 200 kilometers of roads every sunday, offering traffic and stress free riding for its’ multitude of participants. And Medellin does the same on a smaller scale every Sunday, and is also promoting biking as a favorable mode of urban transportation through a number of methods.

One of many  Encicla stations in Medellin

Medellin, like most large cities in Latin America, suffers from chaotic traffic with streets choked with vehicles every working hour, including 75,000 taxis. Conditions are not ideal for cyclists much of the time, as motorists seldom yield to anything other than a motorized vehicle. However, a network of bike lanes has been created to give bikers a safe route to travel around certain sections of the city. These are located close to several of the universities, such as Antioquia, Medellin, and Bolivariana.

The immense Laureles neighborhood is covered very extensively with this network of bike lanes, and is thus the safest place to ride. Situated in this barrio is the massive municipal sports complex which includes the main soccer stadium, swimming complex, and several other fine facilities. This area is also closed to motorized traffic every Sunday, and thousands of residents take advantage of the empty streets.

Ride for an hour, drop off, pick up another bike, free

Another progressive idea designed to encourage biking is the citys’ Encicla program, which offers free bikes that can be ridden at any of a dozen stations located primarily in Laureles. Each bike can be used for one hour, at which time it can be renewed at any of the stations for another hour, and this process can be repeated all day long. Many people like myself, pick up a bike for a one way ride to one of the Metro stations, dropping it off and continuing on with that. Helmets are mandatory and provided, and this system is open to all, residents and travelers, after an easy online registration. Encicla operates 7 to 7 Monday through Friday and is very popular.

The Wednesday night Bike Ride is tons of fun

One of the best examples of Medellin’s bike mania is the weekly Wednesday night mass group ride, which attracts thousands of fanatics every week. The route is different every week, and is created by some of the leaders of the event. It always starts at the same place, Carlos Restrepo Park at Avenida Colombia and Carrera 65, and launches at 8pm. The rides usually last about 3 hours total, with a half hour break for drinks and snacks halfway through. Some of the routes can be quite challenging, including lots of hills, and reaching 30+ kilometers in length. But it’s always a fun ride, with organizers up front to stop all traffic at busy intersections to allow the pack to get through. Another bunch trails the pack to ensure that everybody makes it through on time, and Bob the Rastaman holds court in the middle of the peloton, doling out advice and encouragement with his portable PA system. This is a terrific gathering that attracts all kinds; kids, extremists, and casual riders galore, and is one of the best ways to see parts of the city that would otherwise be unknown and under appreciated.

Bike retailers and rentals are popping up all over the city, and the movement to encourage pedaling gains momentum every day. Medellin is not Amsterdam yet, but it’s certainly moving in that direction. In this city, a bike can take you lots of places.

Medellins’s Metro System

Medellin is, in many ways, a lot like other South American metropolises. It has plenty of poverty and more than a few very sketchy neighborhoods. Traffic is chaotic, with very loose enforcement and a staggering 75,000 taxis, almost twice the number of Buenos Aires. What sets it apart from the others is a magnificent Metro system, built almost two decades ago, that is the pride and joy of the Paisas, which is what the people of this region call themselves.

The Medellin Metro is an elevated model, quite similar to the Skytrain that has transformed Bangkok, Thailand. The main line runs north and south from La Estrella to Niqui, two cities 23 kilometers apart. Along this line, called A, are 21 stations, with 2, at Caribe and Poblado, adjacent to the major long distance bus terminals. Line B runs east- west from the downtown San Antonio station 6 kilometers west to San Javier, with 5 stations in between. San Javier is also the base of the line J metro Cable car, which transports 8 people per gondola 3 kilometers and several hundred feet up to the barrios of Juan XXII, Vallejuelos, and La Aurora. This aerial network has helped develop and improve these neighborhoods, which were serious pockets of poverty prior to this leg of the system. The Metro cable has enabled many disadvantaged residents to gain easy access to the city center, where employment is much more available.

 

There are two other Metro cable lines, K, running from Acevedo station on the northern end of Line A, up the mountain 2 kilometers over the Popular and Andalucia barrios to Santo Domingo. Like the J Line, these are 8 passenger gondolas, very clean, modern, and efficient, and very reminiscent of the gondola that climbs up Vail Mountain in Colorado. Riding this stretch of the system affords an eye popping perspective of this massive sprawl of improvised, low economic level housing. In Colombia they are called Comunas, the equivalent of the famous favelas of Brazil. Countless brick and block dwellings piled on top of each other and rising hundreds of levels up the mountain. It’s a bird’s eye view of some very dense settlements, and like the upper reaches of Line J, not a safe place to be for outsiders at night.

The top of K Line, Santo Domingo, marks the bottom of the most spectacular line of all, L, which climbs quickly and silently another thousand feet in altitude and several miles in distance. This 14 minute journey crosses a large tract of wild terrain, a cloud forest that is relatively untouched by development. The fun ride finishes at Parque Arvi, a national park that is home to hundreds of species of animals and birds. It is possible to leave the furthest metro station in the city and arrive at this pristine environment in less than an hour. The Arvi station sits adjacent to the park visitor center, where guided tours and all the vital information is available, along with many food and drink options. This is a tremendous place to have such easy access to, as it provides an antidote for the city, when it’s time to get away from the noise, traffic, and funk.

The Metro system operates every day from 5 am until 11:30, and fares are 1900 Colombian pesos, which is roughly a US dollar. The l line to Parque Arvi is the equivalent of $4 US, which I consider a bargain. The system is very heavily used, and can be quite crowded during morning and afternoon rush hours. But it has been a game changer for many residents who were previously isolated, living on the fringes of the city, and riding 3 or 4busses to get to work. It also eliminates the need for a car when commuting within the city, thus saving a lot of possible related expenses. The Metro has become one of the symbols of Medellin, and is another reason to love this city.

Tayrona Park, Crown Jewel of the North Coast

Tayrona is the best known of Colombia’s protected natural areas, and the second most popular, with over 200,000 visitors annually. Situated 20 miles from the port city of Santa Marta, Tayrona covers 70 square miles total, with a fifth of that in the marine environment. The terrain includes the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world. The park is a haven for wildlife, featuring over 300 species of birds, 100 different mammals, and 400 types of fresh and salt water fish. Among the critters roaming the park are Howler Monkeys, Pumas, deer, and loads of Iguanas.

A total looker

The park is pretty developed, with lots of private businesses providing accommodations, food, and services, such as horseback riding. On the other hand, it’s not the user friendliest park ever, and is best suited for those that are independent and self reliant. On the contrary, with so many cafes, stores, and campgrounds, it’s not necessary to bring everything with you, but the prices for goods are much higher than outside the park. Another negative aspect of so many conveniences is the large amount of trash that’s left on the trails. There are luxurious eco bungalows available, but the price during high season in January exceeds $200 a night. Camping is also pricier than might be expected, with $15 the nightly rate, and minimal services provided.

The coastline at Tayrona is primal

The terrain itself is stunning, with huge round boulders scattered all along the coastline, and the temperature is usually hot and extremely humid. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, and a shop selling something to eat and drink never far away. The ocean is very rough in most places, and several signs warn that upwards of 500 people have drowned here. That is a sobering statistic, but very realistic as the water has lots of rip tides and powerful surges. Even the areas recommended for snorkeling, like the Piscina and San Juan Point, are often too much for many landlubbers. However, the beaches are clean and lovely, though not spacious, and the offshore scuba diving is among the best in Colombia. Tours can be arranged through any number of outfitters in Santa Marta or Taganga, and due to the difficult logistics of getting around the park this is a good option.

http://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/portal/es/ecoturismo/region-caribe/parque-nacional-natural-tayrona/

For those like myself more DIY oriented, a shuttle can be taken from any number of stops outside the park that will deliver to one of the main entrances, Neguanje, Calabazo, and Canaveral. These three portal stretch from West to East, with Neguanje used the most, owing to its’ proximity to Santa Marta. The entrance fee for foreigners is $21,000 pesos, about US $7, triple the price for Colombians. There are a few trails that lead to featured spots like Playa de Muerto, renowned for it’s crystal clear water, and Cabo de San Juan, which is famous for it’s massive boulders spread through the rain forest. There are several different eco habitations available near Canaveral, on the far east side of the park, and horses can be rented at any of the entrances to provide transportation into the interior. Hiking is not a problem, although the distances covered range from 4 to 10 kilometers, so energy is compulsory.

Tayrona is a bird watchers sanctuary, for those with the required patience, and although the trails cover only small portions of the total area, wildlife can be encountered if the timing is right. I came across 3 Mountain Foxes late in the day, beautiful gray creatures who fled immediately. The park is really tailored to travelers who don’t mind spending plenty to rent one of the luxury eco habs and purchase everything needed there. It can be a great destination for well equipped campers as well, but distances are hefty and therefore stamina is a must. It is a beautiful slice of the Caribbean coast that will be appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts with a sense of adventure.

.

La Candeleria in Bogota

Monseratte rises above he Candelaria neighborhood in Bogota

This is the historic old quarter of Bogota, located directly beneath the city’s most prominent landmark, Cerro Monserrate. Many of Bogota’s sites of interest are situated here, along with dozens of hotels and restaurants. Among the most popular are the Gold Museum, Botero Museum, and the church of San Francisco. There are dozens more, and this is the most scenic, and architecturally pleasing part of the metropolis. Personally, riding the tram or cog railway up the 2000 foot high face of Monserrate should not be missed, regardless of the weather.

The roads are rough at the top of the barrio, and steep enough to ski

The streets of Candelaria are mainly rough cobblestones, so comfortable footwear is a must. In addition, some of the streets are exceedingly steep, so much so that many taxis refuse to navigate them. Many could be skied if covered with snow. It is a very walkable neighborhood, as long as you watch where you’re going and pay attention to the many holes and assorted obstacles. In addition, it is home to many poor residents, desperate for anything that helps them survive, and wandering around alone at night is definitely not recommended. During the day, the barrio is heavily patrolled by police and is reasonably safe.

Bogota at night

There are several plazas that merit a visit, and the two most interesting are Plaza del Chorro del Quevado, and just a couple of blocks away, the massive Plaza de Bolivar. The former is almost as high up as you can get the steep streets below Monserrate, heaped with history, and a very popular gathering place for musicians, surrounded by cafes and beautiful vintage buildings. It’s close to many of the hotels and hostels in the area, and adjacent to a couple of narrow alleys that abound with shops selling very funky arts and crafts. The pizza slices available here are excellent, huge, and cheap, hot and crocante straight out of the oven.

Plaza Bolivar is home to the National Congress, National Cathedral, the Colombian Supreme Court and several other important looking buildings. It is often the site of both political demonstrations and performances from the army and Bogota’s Symphony Orchestra. This is the macro to Chorro de Quevados micro, and adjacent to Carrera 7, a dense pedestrian street with multitudes of vendors, selling every type of local specialty. The streets are chaotic with traffic and crowds sporadically, but this is a fine place to wander and work up an appetite.

Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota

A great place to start exploring La Candelaria is from the top of Cerro Monserrate, looming over the city and impossible to miss. It is possible, and quite popular, to hike the trail to the summit, but this is an energetic trek that should be done in a group, as there have been robberies reported. The much easier option is to take the aerial tram, or very steep cog railway. Both are terrific rides, although the tram affords a better view as the railway spends much of the route in a tunnel. From the top the whole of Bogota is visible below and it’s a sight to behold. There is a pretty chapel, acclaimed restaurant, and several other shops providing souvenirs and refreshments. From this vantage point it’s easy to take in most of the major sites of La Candelaria directly below.

 

There are numerous dining and drinking choices in the old section, and several bars offer live entertainment. It’s the true dark heart of the city, and certainly nothing fancy, but if it’s bonafide Bogota that’s sought, La Candelaria is where it’s at.

Calilegua National Park

This is a place that is somewhat difficult to get to, and thus doesn’t attract hordes of visitors like other national parks in Argentina. There lies much of the appeal, as it feels like you have the place to yourself, usually a welcome sensation. it’s located 130 km north of San Salvador de Jujuy, with the closest town Libertador General San Martin 8k from the park entrance. There is a smaller town called Calilegua a couple of kilometers closer, but it’s very limited in terms of tourist services and not very useful.

Calilegua doesn’t get much more crowded than this

Public transportation to the park is provided by a bus that leaves San Martin each morning at 8:30, and returns from the entrance gate at 6:30. There are also taxis available for hire, and the standard rate one way is 200 pesos, about $9. The ranger station at the park gate provides maps and practical information, while the visitor center across the road features remarkable metal sculptures of some of the parks wild residents, such as the redoubtable Jaguar.

The Plush Crested Jays are  numerous in Calilegua

There is a very well maintained network of trails that extends into the park from the station, each color coded and signed. I covered most of four different ones in an afternoon, and would have needed just another day to traverse most of the others. There is a clean, orderly campground with water and fire pits which would make an easy position to explore the park in a leisurely manner. A tent is essential, as well as insect repellant, as the mosquitoes are many. The vegetation is thick and very similar to the dry rain forest of Costa Rica, but without the monkeys. The bird population is stunning, and really the prime attraction for many. I spotted several beauties, including several species I’d never seen before. One, the Pijui Canela, or Cinnamon Spinetail, shined through the greenery like an electric orange lantern. The Irraca Comun, or Plush Crested Jay, is numerous, not shy, and striking, similar to a Magpie. I spotted many types of hummingbirds, fleetingly of course, and heard dozens of unfamiliar calls and whistles. A serious birder could spend unlimited time in this forest and not be disappointed.

The Interpretive Trail close to the Calilegua entrance

I was looking for resident Jaguars, and any kind of mammal, and saw none, but I would venture to say that these would only be encountered at night. Camping would facilitate this, as would spending a few days rambling all the trails, especially early and late.

Calilegua has good camping and day use faciliites

Several locals told me that the other side of the park, called Alto Calilegua, was more remote, higher, and open than this side, and wilder to boot. There is a very small settlement called San Francisco here, and a couple of places to stay, and this seems to be the superior portal from which to discover the parks marvels. The wanderer who is reasonably self reliant, and not tied to any rigid schedule, will find Calilegua worth any effort to reach. The only mechanical noise around is the sound of vehicles winding around the curvy Route 83, the only road in the park, bringing very sporadic traffic from San Francisco, 18 km away. Utilizing the daily shuttle bus permits access to the interior of the park without having to rely on a rental car or commercial transportation. Proper footwear, bug juice, binoculars and a camera will enable wanderers to make the most of their likely limited time here. A tent and proper cooking gear would be the icing on the cake.

If you’re going off trail here, bring your machete

Tilcara in the Quebrada Humahuaca

The Quebrada Humahuaca is some rugged country

This dusty town is situated in the acclaimed multicolored valley that runs from north of the city of San Salvador de Jujuy towards the Bolivian border. Sitting between the 7 colored hills of Purmamarca to the south and the equally vivid hills of Humahuaca 42 kilometers to the north, it’s a transportation hub serving this 100 mile long valley, and provides a plethora of accommodation options for visitors.

Tilcara is a dusty but charming little village

Tilcara lies at an altitude of 2400 meters, sandwiched by stark desert mountains on either side. The population of 10000 is employed primarily by the tourist industry, and most live in adobe houses that cover the level areas near the highway. It’s a picturesque village with most traveler services available and is an ideal base for exploring the region.

 

The points of interest include the rebuilt ancient ruins of Pucara, where the original inhabitants lived until displaced by the Inca’s in the 1500’s.This settlement is located on a hill above the Rio Grande River immediately south of Tilcara and reached with an easy walk. The local indigenous community, Ayllu Mama Qolla, operates the site, along with a very impressive botanical garden full of local flora.The rock ruins are extensive, covering much of the hill which features hundreds of huge, wooly cactus which are shaggier cousins to the Saguaros of Arizona. An hour or two can easily be spent wandering the area, enjoying the views and taking pictures.

The ruins at Pucara 

The other notable attraction is 6 kilometers up the Huasamayo River, which runs into the Rio Grande from the east. The Garganta del Diablo(the Devil’s Throat), is a narrow chasm which was formed by an ancient earthquake. It now includes a hydroelectric plant that produces energy to the Pucara village but is an impressive geographical spectacle. A well maintained trail drops into the gulch from the entrance dwelling, with metal handrails to lend some comfort to folks prone to vertigo. A short walk further up the riverbed leads to a beautiful 10 meter waterfall surrounded by lush desert and some very lovely vegetation.

Like you might find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

I was fortunate enough to start my hike in the morning when the sun was still low enough that the slopes of the canyon offered some shade, but by mid day, that relief was gone, and late comers going up while I was descending were all sweating profusely, with many inquiring, ‘How much further’? I calculated most of these folks would give up before making it to the falls. But there’s plenty of water to splash on your face, and each one of those might be good for a quarter mile.

Where there’s water, there’s green

Tilcara is a total dog town, with lots of hounds with a human to look after them, and even more doing it on their own in the streets. They all seem to behave pretty well, and I saw no fights or even major disagreements. People have a benevolent attitude towards most, and leave water and food out for the hungry. They are everywhere, sleeping in a dirt pile in the shade, wandering around in small packs like fired up pre teens, and quietly patrolling any outdoor patio where they might find some discarded food.

Siesta time for a couple of the Tilcara locals

The town has an abundance of lodging options, from bare bones hostels to sleek stone and glass B & B’s. So many, in fact, that I have a difficult time believing that it ever fills up. The dining choices are likewise bountiful, elegant to way earthy, with many featuring local delicacies like Llama burgers and Humitas, a type of corn tamale. There are loads of free range chickens around, and cheap, filling street food , especially empanadas. My 180 peso hostel, the very chill Andino, served a decent breakfast with coffee included, and that seems to be the rule in Argentina’s north.

A ditch at the bottom of the Garganta del Diablo, Tilcara

All this makes Tilcara  an excellent base to explore the area from, with the fabled dead end village of Iruya two hours to the north, and the colorful trails around Purmamarca. less than 20 km to the south. Two days might not be enough, and maybe 3 too many, depending on how relaxed you want to be, but I know some who could spend a very leisurely week.

Bariloche’s Top 10

This is serious lake country

Known as the Tahoe of South America, and the portal to glorious Patagonia, San Carlos de Bariloche is worth spending a few kick ass days in before continuing on to El Bolson or Villa Angostura. Get a place, drop your stuff, and eat some good nourishment before grabbing a city bus to any of these adventures, except for El Tronador. And get ready to bust out some Espanol Argentina style!

Bariloche is all about peaks, lakes, and lush woods

1. Rent a bike and ride the Circuito Chico, a road loop that covers miles of stunning landscape through dense woods and jaw dropping views with plenty of refreshments along the way. Bike shops on both sides of the road at km 18 will provide wheels, directions, and pointers on where to roll.

2. Rent a kayak or SUP and paddle on that extraordinary lake Nahuel Huapi, full of coves, inlets, and connected to other smaller lakes equally as impressive. Boat shops abound, especially directly on the lake at Playa Bonita, km 8, and playa Serena, Km. 12.

El Tronador looming above the dazzling Hotel Llao Llao

3. Hike around the Llao Llao municipal park through groves of giants, with loads of serene places to stop, look, and ponder the spectacle of this sublime forest playground, a short stroll from Km 25.5.

 

4. Climb the legendary, and imposing, El Tronador, the Thunderer, covered in snow much of the year and a monumental landmark in these parts. This is an adventure for accomplished alpiners and extremists only, and accessed from the end of Highway 82, 50 miles from the center of Bariloche.

These birds are very common in the region

 

In the Southern hemisphere winter of August and September, ski, board, or sled the massive and majestic Cerro Catedral, largest alpine fun area in South America. The views from the top are incomparable and beyond the reach of language. 19 km off the main lake road via bus 55.

https://www.catedralaltapatagonia.com/

6. Hike up to Refugio Frey, a mountain hostel on the slopes of Catedral, and spend the night to wake up in an eye popping mountain wonderland. This can also be day hiked,in order to make it back to town in time for happy hour. The trailhead is on Hwy. 77 at Km 26.8, riding bus 10.

 

7. If energy level is a bit sketchy, ride the chairlift up Catedral and wander around on top of the Andes for a while. This huge peak is reminiscent of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, with a slew of wicked looking pinnacles and spires that attract rock climbers from all over.

The green is visible on the far side of this inlet, a real water hole

8. Play golf at the ultra scenic, extra challenging, and fun as hell course at the Hotel Llao Llao. Just make sure you bring enough balls…..you’re going to need them. The more open front nine is a fine sidehill warmup for the back side, which features several holes cut into the deep woods, and a superb finishing hole across an inlet of the lake. $45 to walk, and good rental clubs another $40. The pro shop is on the main road beneath the hotel and next door to Puerto Panuelo at Km 25.5.

The woodsy back nine at Llao is world class fun

9. Take a boat ride from Porto Panuelo across the mesmerizing giant lake Nahuel Huapi to visit the fetching village of Villa Angostura, a trout fishing paradise. the islands of Arrayanes trees, Quetrihue , and get hypnotized by miles of smooth blue water and snowcapped peaks.

The orange barked Arrayanes tree loves the water

10. Last but much closer to first, conduct your own craft beer pub crawl, by wandering from one end of Juramento street to the other, stopping and sampling at each of the half dozen pubs. When you reach the end after knocking out your last pint at Stradibar, continue another 50 feet across Salta street to Huacho, acclaimed for virtuoso steaks and lamb. Congratulations, you are now ready for El Bolson!

 

The last  stop on the Juramento pub crawl, Stratibar in Bariloche

Quito

One of the high points of a city at almost 3000 meters altitude

It’s a sprawling valley city surrounded by steep hills and mountains and whose main feature is a very clean and well preserved old town. There are cops everywhere, somewhat like Colombia, which lends at least a false sense of security. This section is inclined, and the steepest cobblestone lanes are reminiscent of Bogota’s Candelaria hood. The massive Basilica is the most prominent cathedral of many, and the relaxing Plaza Grande offers a fine place to sit, gaze at the National Palace and get your shoes shined.

El Panecillo framed between the cathedral spires

kilometer to the South sits El Panecillo, a big hill topped with a giant angel statue. It’s a good walk or a cheap taxi to the top, with a terrific view and scores of vendors. From here it’s striking how mountainous this area is, but the highest peaks are often obscured by clouds.

 

A couple of nice parks and 15 blocks to the north sits the Mariscal neighborhood, home to most of the better chain hotels and heaps of hostels. The area surrounding Plaza Foch is ground zero for tourist nightlife in Quito, but my general impression was cheap beers, karaoke, and vomit. It does get packed and there are scores of bars and discos, but the theme remains the same. Miles of wandering and exploring yielded a tremendous Chinese restaurant, Casa China, but zero bars that were anything special. With the galaxy of extraordinary hiking and landscape so close by, the capitol is a fine place to start, but not too long. The Ecuador countryside is eye popping, but the cities and towns not so much. There’s also a gondola that climbs to the top of a hill that has to provide a smashing vista, but two days in Quito is plenty.