On this trip it is incredibly rare to retrace our steps and return to somewhere we have already been to. It was a strange feeling returning to Mendoza: knowing the one-way route into town, how to navigate the tricky roundabout and the way our iPads knew the wifi password at the campsite. Much excitement ensued as our friends John and Betti pulled in next to us in the parking lot of the supermarket. The girls were literally jumping up and down with joy and very happy to abandon their last day of school. We'd been going to meet them later in the day but they'd seen us parked up and stopped. It has been over 8 months since we last saw them in Bogota but we'd stayed in contact and decided to meet up for Christmas. Betti and John had scoped out a good spot to camp on the edge of a reservoir for Christmas Day but with a day in hand we decided to take the scenic route over the mountains. We all headed out of town though the scrubby desert and up into the hills the road turned to gravel switchbacks as we passed the mineral springs of Villavicencio. There were orange-brown guanacos grazing on the dry spiky grass and fox that was almost as curious about us as we were about her. We parked up for the night near a viewpoint by a "stations of the cross" pilgrimage site. The wind and sun were both out force as we enjoyed the view of the Andes. We could see the snowy peak of Anconagua, the highest mountain outside the Himalayas, in the distance. It felt good to be back in the solitude of the mountains again, even if it was our coldest night for a long time as we were at 3000m. Lucy was just pleased it meant that we could get the porridge out for breakfast again.
The film "Seven Years in Tibet" were filmed around the small town of Upsallata, as the scenery looks very much like the Himalayas. Rolling into town we'd had hoped to go for a coffee in a cafe filled with props from the film, supposedly a rather strange experience in such a South American town, but it was closed. We went for the only slightly less surreal option of a coffee in a Swiss chalet instead.
Alisha was concerned that Santa wouldn't be able to find us and was only reassured when Steve told her that he had used our "Spot" GPS tracker to let him know our exact location. Thankfully Santa found us and we were awoken at 6.20 by delighted squeals. We had presents under our makeshift tree, dead branches in a bucket decorated with lots of homemade decorations that the girls have been working on for the last few weeks.
Luckily it was just a short walk to a small village that had a free wifi signal so we could catch up with our families celebrating in Europe. Of course it isn't as good as being with them but it was lovely to talk to them all. The boys got going barbecuing a huge quantity of beef, pork and sausages. By sun down we were truly full with all the meat, sides and Alisha's delicious apple pie served with custard. And of course, we had to wash it down with some Argentinian Malbec.
As we sat round the fire that night, all the girls indulged in a bit of spa time painting our toenails. It's not often that us overlanding ladies get a chance to do a bit of pampering.
We waved goodbye to the Swiss on Boxing Day as they headed to Mendoza, I'm sure we will see them again as we are all heading south. After not having seen any other Overlanders for months, we are seeing more and more. Everyone is heading south for the short window of better weather in Patagonia, so there is a funnelling affect going on. The two trucks headed south towards Laguna Diamente, a stunning high altitude lake with a perfect come shaped volcano behind. It was a beautiful drive on the flat scrubby pains with the Andes looming on our right hand side all the way. When we got to the entrance to the park we found that the high pass road was still blocked with snow, which would probably take at least another week to melt. Heading down a side track we found a place to park up for the night overlooking a gorge.
We had come to Cordoba for two reasons. To see the city and its colonial sights with its Jesuit roots and as a base to get our weekly jobs done. Neither of these did we manage to do very well. The first day was spent trying to get our jobs done. Unfortunately the campsite was too far out of town for there to be a convenient laundry so it was back to me hand washing while the girls did school. No sooner had I finished than the heavens opened so we had to turn the cab into what looked like a Chinese laundry in an attempt to get the washing dry. The next day we headed into Cordoba to enjoy the sights. But to be honest we were a bit underwhelmed. It did not help that it was a grey day and later that afternoon it pored with rain. The city centre was a bustling modern city which felt like a city in Europe at Christmas time with everyone out shopping. We did visit the cathedral and the Jesuit complex the Manzana Jesuitica but did not find them anything special. Perhaps we have seen too much colonial architecture that we are starting to become picky. We did though have an excellent Parilla for lunch and that evening we met at the campsite a lovely Spanish couple who had been travelling around South America for 2 years. As they were not comfortable in English we spent the evening talking Spanish and were amazed that we could keep a conversation going in Spanish for 4 hours. The next morning we headed out of Cordoba. The weather was beautiful and we had a much better day. We headed the short distance slightly into the hills to the town of Alta Garcia. Alta Garcia is famous for two things. First a lovely Jesuit Estancia which we visited and thoroughly enjoyed, so we can not be completely sick of colonial architecture. We also had a nice picnic of freshly baked Empanadas by the side of the lake. The second thing it is famous for is the museum for Che Guevara. Che Guevara suffered from asthma so when he was small his parents moved to Alta Garcia because the air was better in the hills there. He spent most of his youth there and the house where he lived has been turned into a wonderful museum which Gilly and I really enjoyed. It was great to see the trip he took around South America in 1952 on a motor bike. It looked a lot harder then than what we are doing now. Alisha and Lucy did not really look around the museum though as they met at the entrance two other slightly older English girls who were also traveling. The four of them spent the time we were in the museum busy chatting and playing around. So everyone enjoyed themselves there. From Alta Garcia we were heading to the riverside town of Mina Clavero. As we left Alta Garcia the road wound up into the green hills and the landscape was very different to what we had seen elsewhere in Argentina. It was more moor like and a bit like Scotland. On our maps we could see a small National Park, Parque Nacional del Condorito and decided to head there as we liked the idea of camping in the hills rather than in another town. The park was beautiful and we were able to camp in the car park. There was no one else there and it was a lovely quiet night until the heavy rain arrived in the middle of the night. The next morning it had all cleared and we decided to do the 12km hike to a balcony overlooking a gorge where Condors nested. The walk was beautiful with great views along the way. The view down into the gorge was spectacular and we were lucky enough to see 7 condors. Not as close as we saw them in Peru but they are magnificent birds to see soaring in the sky. Walking in the hills you have to mind your step. I had to call out to Gilly to stop her stepping on a snake. We have no idea if it was venomous but Gilly quickly jumped out of the way and the snake slithered into the grass before we could get a photo. We then headed to Mina Clavero a town that is famous for its swimming holes in the two rivers that flow through the town. It is a tourist town and there were loads of guest houses and camping sites in town but it still seemed quiet when we were there. We thought the holiday season had started but obviously not yet. We had a pleasant wander along the river and the girls enjoyed going for a paddle. As we left Mina Clavero the scenery changed again. We left the green hills behind and entered a much drier flat part of the country. Our destination was Parque Nacional Sierra de Las Quijadas. This is a National Park with sandstone gorges and canyons. The guidebooks describe it as scenery straight from the Roadrunner cartoons. We had some spectacular views from the Mirador that evening as well as a lovely sunset. There was also a small free campsite which was in a lovely setting. Whilst it was very hot when we arrived it cooled down nicely and it was lovely to sit out under the stars. We were the only people there apart from a German couple camping in their tent. As it was so nice Gilly and I decided to have an open air movie experience as we watched the Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries under the night sky. We woke up at 3am to hear a gale howling outside. There was thunder and flashes of lightning for about an hour but it did not rain and when we woke up again in the morning it was to beautiful sunshine. We headed out on a long hike into a canyon which came out at another wonderful viewpoint. Again we were lucky to see a condor soaring above the canyon rim. We spent a lovely day in the Park. There was a nice breeze so the temperature was bearable in the shade and it was wonderful and quiet amongst the sandstone hills. It was time to head back to Mendoza. We had left Mendoza about 3 and a half months ago and had arranged to meet our friends John and Betti there to meet up for Christmas. We had last seen John and Betti in Colombia 8 months ago and since then both of us had down a lot of traveling so we were keen to catch up. Since leaving Mendoza we had done 17,000kms. Not a bad little side trip! Merry Christmas everyone.
There is a strip of northern Argentina that is wedged between Paraguay and Brazil, it's delineated by water. From the mighty Iguazu river and the falls in the East, the wide snaking Parana River to the West and Wetlands in between. Its scenery is flat, green, agricultural and the sky is huge. Scattered between the three countries are the historical Jesuit missions. Each founded by just a few brothers they were populated by a couple of thousand of indigenous Guaranas. They started in the early 1600's and continued for about 150 years until the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish and Portuguese governments. The community worked collectively and shared the proceeds. The Guarana were evangelised, educated and protected from slave traders raids, there were other advantages too like security, better food and prosperity. The brothers were respectful of Guarana culture, spoke their language and the Guarana governed themselves under the Jesuits spiritual authority. Churches and towns were built with beautiful stone work, music and the arts flourished. The prosperity of the communities and the protection from slaving raids annoyed the colonials, that with political wrangling in Europe saw the Jesuits being forcibly removed. The communities were attacked and the beautiful churches and towns were destroyed, the people then disbanded. We'd visited two in Paraguay and were keen to see them in Argentina. They were just as beautiful ruins with the elegantly carved sandstone edifices. The Ibera wetlands are far away from any town, coming from the north the wide sandy road passed huge field after huge field, occasionally broken up by a track up to an estancia (farm). The only other people we saw was several gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) driving their cattle along the track with their distinctive oversized, floppy berets and baggy trousers. On the edge of the Reserve in the small sleepy village of Colonia Pellegrini we found one of the most beautiful campsites we've seen. Overlooking the lake with little cooking cabanas, beautifully maintained with boats going out into the reserve, it was perfect. The only downside was their 3m tall entrance gate, so we couldn't actually get in. Not to be defeated we parked just outside the gate and used the nearest cabana. We also got the tent out for the girls to sleep in, something they've wanted to do for ages. So Steve and I each got a night by ourselves in the truck, while the other bunked down between the giggling girls. Around the campsite the wildlife was pretty relaxed too with capybaras grazing amongst the tents. There was great wildlife spotting the next morning from a small boat: caimans, marsh deers with huge antlers, capybaras and loads of birds. The following day on the drive out the wildlife spotting was almost as good with deer, birds, capybaras and a family of foxes on the gravel road. We broke up the long two day drive south east to Cordoba at a municipal campsite on the Parana river. Being a warm Saturday evening it was packed full of families, groups of friends and couples just warming up after their afternoon siesta. It was all very friendly and convivial on the banks of the river as we watched the sun go down. We are not very attuned to the Argentine day though, just as we were thinking about retiring for the night after our long day on the road, our neighbours were firing up their grills. Thankfully it wasn't too noisy or maybe we are just getting better at sleeping through loud music. Steve enjoying the sunset and having a well deserved rest after driving all day. When we arrived at the Cordoba municipal campsite early on Sunday evening, there was a similar scene with groups of families relaxing, eating, playing football and listening to music. Competing musical tastes ranged from heavy metal to accordion music but the best was the heart achingly, beautiful, traditional Argentinian folk songs sung by one of the group at the neighbouring grill. I wasn't the only one in awe of his talent as rounds of applause from his friends could be heard whenever he finished a song. The crowds melted away as it got dark and it was just us and a friendly German overlanding family left, enjoying a beer.