Friday, 25 May 2012

snapshots: the best steak of my life

26th April 2012

Salta, Argentina

On the night preceding the Salta road trip and upon the recommendation of the Belgium Gunther, a friend of Steph´s, we all jumped into a taxi and headed towards the Monument parilla steakhouse where for 65 pesos (9 pounds) we were all delivered a hugely juicy rump steak straight off the parilla grill that sizzled in the corner of the restaurant.     
Argentine food can be summed up in one word. Beef. The people here live and breathe meat and the product of the wide open green pastures where they raise their cattle is this fine slab of meat. It was hands down the most succulent, juicy and flavoursome piece of meat I´ve ever eaten in my life. A bottle of the local house red also helped matters.
It didn´t stand a chance. The lightly salted meat was so succulent and tender that it melted in my mouth. The steak in Argentina is usually served without any sauces aside from the traditional chimichurri which consists of olive oil with salt, garlic, chilli pepper, vinegar and bayleaf.
The barbecue or asado constitutes the heart and soul of Argentina´s restaurant scene.The asado is prepared on a parrila (above) and huge slabs of beef are slapped down, grilled and served up as the nation´s favourite dish in restaurants also known as parrillas.
People in Argentina start to eat and drink very late and it´s fairly standard for people to head out for dinner at around 10pm at the earliest and then rarely hit the clubs before 2am. On my final night in Salta, I went for a beer with Damien and Alex from the road trip and looking around town for a place to have a beer we ended up in a bustling bar/restaurant where animated waiters darted from table to table brandishing ice cold bottles of Salta cerveza and platters of meat. Just as we were finishing our final Salta Negras - a delicious Argentine stout -  at 1am a wave of customers entered the restaurant to start their dinners.
Gunther, Damien, Me and Steph. Stuffed.
After dinner at the parrilla steakhouse we headed off to a local Bodega - which translates as cellar - where a local  pena  was  taking place. 
A pena is effectively a gathering or meeting place for groups of musicians. Finding a table at the crowded house, locals were sat around drinking the night away whilst listening to a few old boys in the corner singing some folk songs and strumming away on their guitars. It´s not too clear in this photograph but the guys with their backs to me in the other room were singing traditional Argentine folk songs well into the early hours.
No Argentine gathering would be complete without food of course so the regulation parrilla was out back and I came across our man here hacking away at a fresh chunk of beef to grill up for the singing locals inside.

Monday, 21 May 2012

the salta road trip - pt.2

27th April 2012

Salta, Argentina

                  After retreating back down from the cactus graveyard in Tumbaya we once again piled into our small silver Volkswagen hatchback and tore off down the motorway, plunging further and further into the cactus strewn badlands. The cactus communities and vast rock pillars continued to provide an entrancing backdrop to our journey and as the midday sun toppled from it´s zenith to begin it´s afternoon descent we arrived at the town of Purmamarca which rests 65km North of San Salvador de Jujuy and has to be one of the most captivating towns  in the Humahuaca ravine due to it´s striking appearance. The small town, whose name translates  from Quechua as "The Lion´s Village", was populated by rows of blazing red adobe buildings that nestle between a landscape of craggy rocks and cactus studded hills and the town fits into the scenery so discreetly that the result is an organic settlement where nature and man-made architecture live together as one close-knit homogeneous entity. Purmamarca was actually one of the few places we had planned to visit before setting off in the morning as we had read about the impressive "Cerro de los Siete Colores" or "Hill of Seven Colours" which absolutely dominates the area and the multicoloured rock - caused by layers of sea, lake and river sediments building up over the course of 600 million years - is dazzling and captivating in equal measures. We spent about an hour wandering through the dusty lanes that connect the small town together; resting awhile in the shady gardens of the whitewashed Iglesia de Santa Rosa de Lima which stands elegantly above the low-rise adobe buildings surrounding it. After climbing up a lesser hill that stood in the great shadow of it´s elder brother, I turned my attention towards the peak of the seven coloured hill and I could just about make out a small cross which had assumed a guardian role over the town, watching over the 500 souls that live at it´s feet. Here are some photographs of Purmamarca:

Entering the town of Purmamarca.
Small archways and adobe (mud-brick) buildings form this quaint little town.
Strolling along the lanes which are all watched over by the seven-coloured hill.
Purmamaca life.
Cerro de los Siete Colores.
 Returning back to the car we all had a look at the map and tried to decide where we wanted to head next and after a few minutes consulting our map a choice emerged between the town of Tilcara to the North or the accessible salt flats of Salar de Cauchari which rested on the other side of a range of mountains to our West. A diplomatic vote was conducted and the general consensus was to go and check out the salts flats at Cauchari. With the decision made and some water purchased for the journey, we set off along route 52; a glistening tarmac road which snaked its way up the desert landscape and took us up to a height of 4000m. At this dramatic altitude the views stretched on for miles and looking into the distance it was clear to see the dominance that the Andes had stamped upon the land as piercing peaks and crashing clifftops fused together. Rising in elevation also brought us closer to the sun which was still scorching the barren terrain despite the fact that late afternoon was easing itself into the horizon. Looking back down at the valley we had just ascended, I could see the winding road that slashed the landscape with grey scars that defaced the vast rolling peaks which rested upon the land. Once at the top, we started to slowly descend until in the distance we could see a shimmering white horizon which indicated that the salt flats were about to start. After fifteen minutes the road levelled out and became dead straight all the way towards the vibrant salt flats which glistened in the finals rays of a dying sun. Approaching the first section of the flats, the road divided the landscape: to our left a perfect crystal clear lake spread out across the salt pans; a mere few inches in depth and to our right a fine mud flat stretched into the distance. Getting out of the car we all strolled through the fierce winds that lashed the exposed flats and came across a small group of men who were huddled behind stone walls wearing balaclavas and carving small statues out of the salt gained from the surrouding area. 

And then I lost my shoes.

Getting a little too excited about the alien looking mud flats and believing that they were the actual salt flats - which I later learnt started a little further up the highway - I rushed down the steep bank at the side of the road and as soon as my right foot reached some unstable mud I sunk like an absolute stone down to my knee. The momentum then proceeded to swallow up my left foot as I swayed for stability to the point where I had both legs fully submerged in the mud and every jerk of my body only aggravated the mud into swallowing me up further. Seeing my distress, the others came over and after taking a few minutes to laugh at my stupidity and helplessness, grabbed my arms and hauled me out of my predicament minus a pair of shoes and socks which unfortunately could not be saved from their muddy graves. With no other shoes or socks, the only option was to tackle the rest of the day barefoot and after getting back into the car we drove on a little further to where the actual salt flats began. Turning off a side road through gigantic mounds of harvested salt, the wheels of our car crunched over the solid salt tarmac and after a brief drive towards the centre of the flats we all got out and spent half an hour taking in this bizarre and surreal landscape which looked more like the moon than planet earth. For those unfamiliar with what salt flats actually are and how they are formed you may find the following interesting. What we came across that day was a salt pan and there are many of these pans, or lakes, in this area of the world; the most famous being the Salar de Uyuni which sits expansively in the South-West of Bolivia and is a very popular excursion for most travellers. The white, snow-like vista is, as the name suggests, formed by layers of salt and other minerals which have built up on areas which once used to be water pools. The density of the rock beneath the surface combined with a natural occurence where the rate of evaporation does not exceed the rate of rainfall means that when rain falls, the water cannot drain away and so is left on the surface until the sun evaporates it. Once all the excess water has evaporated, all that is left behind is the raw minerals which cover the surface and over thousands of years and under the glare of the sun the area turns into the iconic white flats. The contrast between the desert landscape we had just travelled from and this new alien world could not have been greater and I was blown away by the variety of scenery that nature had thrown across our path during the course of the day. Getting out of the car completely barefoot, the soles of my feet scraped against the rough surface of salt and I plodded around getting some nice photographs and soaking it all in. By this time 6pm had started to roll around and having travelled a great distance already since Salta we decided it would be best to start heading back and it´s a good thing we did as it took nearly four hours to return to the hostel - despite the Italian side of Roberto coming out with his hectic driving to give Damien a rest from the wheel - and we finally rolled back into Salta under cover of darkness, overwhelmed and exhausted by a hugely eventful 200th day.


Bolivia....See you soon.


The mighty rock pinnacles of the Jujuy province.
Climbing the mountain to the salt flats.
The road snaked its way through a barren landscape whose only inhabitants were the occasional cacti.
Reaching the salt flats. This was on the left side of the road and a shallow lake covered the white salt flats beneath.
Salt flats.
The salt flat lake.
The salt lake to the left and the mud flat to the right where my shoes decided to leave me.
Moments before getting swallowed by the mud.
Turning off the main highway we crunched along the salt flats that stretched endlessly into the distance.
Piles of salt which had been harvested dotted the area.
No shoes! Trousers covered in mud.
A truck hauling a new batch of salt back to the refinery.
Steph had been travelling for awhile and was taking small videos of her dancing with her hoola hoop in loads of different locations as a way of documenting her trip.
Me in the salt flats.
DAY 200. Epic.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

the salta road trip - pt.1

27th April 2012

Salta, Argentina

                  The days stretch on and Brazil still seems so far away. My personal finish line for this trip - the top step of the Corcovado in Rio - has started to enter my thoughts and this notion is predictably accompanied by a lingering sense of sadness that the end is unfortunately yet inevitably approaching. That day however is not today and I realise that there is still much to accomplish before I head back to Bristol and the dreaded "back to life, back to reality" that every traveller/bum fears. Today was instead a special landmark in the trip and as a way to spend my 200th day on the road, the 27th April did not disappoint because it was a day filled with adventure and a healthy dollop of new experiences. Salt lakes, vast badlands populated by cactus armies, the "Hill of Seven Colours", marching soldiers, galloping cowboys, cloud forests and a delicious steaming plate of Locro were all crammed into an exciting 24 hour period. But I´m getting ahead of myself so I´ll start from the beginning. 

               After a fairly uninspiring stop off in the city of Cordoba, I found myself on a night bus headed for the heart of North-West Argentina. To be precise, I was headed for the city of Salta which after a brief bit of research seemed to be the best place to take a pit-stop before plunging into the country of Bolivia which is where the next chapter of my story takes me in my pilgrimage towards Machu Picchu in Peru. Salta though turned out to be so much more than a mere pit-stop and I think that day 200 is definitely worthy of a space in this blog and hopefully a few minutes of your time. Upon arrival in Salta, I undertook my usual routine of checking out a few hostels before finally settling on the 7 Duendes hostel which rested about a 10 minute walk from the centre of town. Owned by the amiable brotherly duo of Carlos and Domingo, 7 Duendes seemed to attract a good bunch of people and I instantly clicked with everyone there which came as a huge relief after a fairly sparse introduction - friends wise - to South America. One evening, after going out for dinner with a crowd of people from the hostel (look out for the "Best Steak of My Life" post which will be up soon), five of us decided that it would be a good idea to rent a car the following day and make our own little road trip to see what the surrounding areas of Salta had to offer. So at 9am on the morning of the 27th, the gang formed and we piled into our newly rented VW Gol, and no that´s not a spelling error which ended up costing us a mere 60 pesos (9 quid) each for the day. The motley crew consisted of myself, Damien from Brighton, North-American Alex, Brazilian Steph and last but not least the wonderfully eccentric Roberto, the French/Italian flight attendant who was as mad as a hatter.

Cruising in the Gol.
This map covers the North West of Argentina. You can just make out Salta, San Salvador de Jujuy and Tumbaya.
 Setting off towards a very ominous-looking gang of black clouds with Damien at the wheel, the chaotic one-way road system caused only minor problems in getting out of the city and we were soon on our way. Once on the highway we headed north with the intention of reaching the multicoloured Quebrada De Humahuaca gorge that stretches for 125 km north of the city of San Salvador de Jujuy; the capital of the Jujuy Province. After about 30mins we decided to pull over to the side of the road as we had seen a vast mystical-looking lake which looked incredible having been covered by a dense shroud of mist that curled over it´s eery waters. Bouncing along a muddy path, through puddles of stagnant water from the recent downpour, we passed through a stone gate and parked down by the water to stretch our legs and our curiosity. Now this next picture I think highlights a very important fact I have recently learnt about photography and the reason that I have included it is for purely comedic purposes. There are times when a photograph can sum up a moment perfectly and a well taken shot allows the viewer to join the moment and appreciate the object or landscape on display as if they were there. This as you will soon see is not one of those photographs because sometimes the only way to appreciate a sight is to keep the camera in your pocket and to instead take a picture with the best camera known to man, the human eye, and keep it locked upstairs in the memory banks. For now the thing to appreciate/mock is the four idiots stood in a perfect line, oblivious to what the others are doing and indeed what they must look like, that is, taking a photograph of  what looks like absolutely nothing.

What a great view.....

After taking a few very discardable photographs in a futile attempt to capture what was actually a very beautiful sight, we all hopped back in the car and sped along route 9 which ended up taking us along a very scenic route through a vast cloud forest that marked the borderline between the Salta and Jujuy provinces. The road hugged the sides of the valley and visibility was poor due to the mist which had descended upon the vibrant green forest of trees but after many many turns we finally descended from the canopy of clouds and entered the valley. After a brief pit-stop in a run down town for petrol we sped along a stretch of road and came across a large road block which was preventing any traffic from passing through the small village. Getting out of the front passenger seat of the car, I tried to make out what the cause of the hold up was. In the distance, marching defiantly along the centre of the tarmac was a brass band headed by a massive brute of a man wielding a pump action shotgun. With our curiosity sufficiently piqued we parked the car up on a grassy verge and got out to investigate further as we had also noticed that the road was lined by crowds of local men, women and children waving banners and all dressed up to the nines. Standing to one side we watched as a full military procession proceeded to pass on by which ranged from regular soldiers wielding machine guns and shotguns to deadly looking doberman dogs leashed to their respective uniformed guardians and trucks which hauled along heavy duty mortar cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Completely baffled as to what was going on I noticed a sign which read, "Dia Grande de Jujuy" and after talking to a local police officer we soon found out that the procession we had stumbled upon in this quiet town was actually a celebration of the 27th April 1821, when the men of the Jujuy Province fought against a Spanish loyalist army in the quest for Argentina´s independence. Spotting a food marquee on the grassy banks next to the procession, we all decided to stop off and helped ourselves to some steaming plates of locro (a hearty thick corn stew popular in the Andean region) and a plateful of Empanadas (meat filled pastry snacks).

Locro and Empanadas.

Just as we were tucking into our food, I took a moment to look around and realised that we were the only gringos present and that nature had decided to respect the town´s important day by holding back the clouds which hung like a bubble around the celebrations. The brass band started up again when we had finished our filling lunch and a procession of Gaucho cowboys stormed through; galloping along on their fierce steeds which flicked their hoofs with outstanding discipline. With the food from the parilla grill all finished, the final few cowboys ended the parade and the roadblock was cleared allowing us to get back to our car and continue on with the journey. Here are some photographs of the procession.

The beginning of the procession.

The officers of Jujuy were dressed to impress.

Wielding the shotgun.

Some brutal looking dogs.

And last but not least the Gauchos.

               Once past the town, the euphoric crowds of locals dissipated and were replaced by rolling hills; brought into visibility by the retreating clouds which had given up their attack against the sun that had started to shine valiantly in the grey sky above. The landscape started to shift radically as the kilometres flashed by; transforming and evolving into a decidedly desert vista populated by endless crowds of green men that waved at our passing car, slowly directing us to the ghost town of Volcan. Pulling over across the train tracks which spliced the town in two, we all got out and had a wander around the small dilapidated and forgotten town taking a few pictures and I ended up buying an incredibly warm and cheap scarf from the only local textile market which sold all sorts of local-made handicrafts. Here is Volcan:

The deserted town of Volcan.
Life on the train tracks.
A run down but photogenic town.
Spent fifteen minutes strolling along the eery avenues.
                 With my newly acquired scarf wrapped around my neck, we all bustled back into the car and tore off down the highway taking in the mesmerising and rapidly changing scenery. Columns of rock soared into the sky, standing proudly in front of the jagged cactus-lined cliffs that supported them from behind. The badlands had begun and looking out of the window constantly felt like staring through the looking glass into a scene from "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and I half expected to see John Wayne tearing past with his Smith&Wesson smouldering at his side. We barely made it ten minutes before we once again came across a small town by the name of Tumbaya which had an alluring looking cemetery ridge that looked down upon the sand coloured buildings. With time on our side due to Damien´s rapid driving we once again pulled over and started to hike up to the ridge coming across an expansive cemetery where gravestones populated the earth; guarded by the ever present legion of cacti. The ground was strewn with crosses and loose rocks but we soon made it to the top where we were welcomed by a simply incredible view of the multi-coloured valley that lay dormant behind the town. Biggle Vision takes you there....followed by some more photographs of the "Red Dead" valley. A lot more happened in this epic day which will of course be covered in Part 2 which follows shortly.


Tumbaya´s cactus graveyard.
The cactus seemed to guard the graves.
Reaching the top of the ridge offered some spectacular views.
Exploring the Argentinian badlands.
On the way back to the car we were greeted by this furry little fella.
Llama time.
Cruising to the next destination....coming up next.