Travelling gives us lots of opportunities to incorporate our experiences into the girls learning. However it is usually history or geography that benefit but this week it has been maths. Argentina has given Alisha a real reason to get those tricky 8 and 12 times tables off pat. Unfortunately Argentina is currently undergoing an economic crisis, they defaulted on their international loans and therefore there are two parallel exchange rates, an official bank rate at 8 pesos to the dollar and a street rate (blue) rate at 12 pesos. Division suddenly becomes a lot more relevant when Daddy is offering you your pocket money at a choice of two different rates.
The day before we crossed to Argentina we said a bitter sweet goodbye to everyone at the MAN garage in Santiago. In Europe you wouldn’t expect a truck garage to be a particularly hospitable place, especially to a foreign family with just one truck that needed fixing. However they do things differently in Chile or in this garage they certainly did. After having the shock absorbers replaced in Northern Chile the truck needed new tyres and its brake pads replaced. While finding the parts we were able to sleep in the truck in the garage every night, they gave us lunch, breakfast and couldn’t have been more friendly. On our last morning we were invited in for a meeting with the South African/German couple who were also having their expedition truck fixed. The garage wanted to know our thoughts on their customer services and to look at some of our videos of the truck in the wilds. Roberto, Christian and their team were so kind to us, even giving us a bag of super useful gifts before we left. We will probably see them again next March to have the truck’s annual service.
We hadn’t expected to spend as long in Santiago as we did, 5 days, so we were itching to cross the border into Argentina. We drove up through the Andean foothills trying to calculate if we would get over the pass and closer to Mendoza before dark. It was sleeting outside but the road looked good and we were in fine spirits. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, just before we started seriously climbing we came across a roadblock. It turned out that the pass had been closed for 4 days because of heavy snow at the top. The policeman was very patient with my Spanish and explained that the nearest open borders were 900kms south or 900kms north. What a choice! 2 days for us either way. We decided to stay put for the night, although he wasn’t committal about our chances. Parked up in the short queue, we felt the overnight build up of cars was promising. The poor truckers were all queued up 500m back in a holding lane, it looked like some of them had been there for the whole time. The smell of diesel fumes further back was strong even in the clear mountain air but they needed to keep their cabs warm somehow.
We abandoned school super quick the following morning at 9 as Steve shouted back that the road was now open. It was like the Wacky Races cartoon up the mountain pass as everyone tried to get going, we were helped by the guy still asleep in his car when the barricade came down which allowed us to cut into the traffic but were thwarted at the pay booth as the car in front had no Chilean money left. The 30 or so hairpin bends to the pass were now clear and the border formalities easy. We did both out Chilean exit and our Argentinian entry in the same drive though warehouse border post. On the way up the mountain views were spectacular.
Mendoza’s warm sun was a welcome change from our recent cold wet weather and the early spring blossom a beautiful sight. We misjudged the timing of our jaunt into town, on Sunday as almost everything was closed. It was a pleasant enough city though with five central green squares and it is always nice to just wander to get the feel of a new country. We had a couple of Argentinian experiences we wanted to do on our first full day in the country. The first an asado at a parrilla (meat-fest barbecue) was easy to do, delicious. We shared a beer between us at lunch in anticipation of our second experience, trying some great Malbecs. Bizarrely enough, especially as Mendoza is known all over the world for its fabulous red wines, it was dam hard to get a proper drink in town on a Sunday. What we really wanted was a tasting session, with a chance to buy a few bottles afterwards but nowhere was open. Sunday is a big family day in lots of South America with lots of barbecues in the parks or countryside, not the best day to get anything done. Argentinians are also serious about siestas, everything seems to close between 1-5. Fortunately one of the only places open at this time are the ice cream parlours, so we were able to sweeten our disappointment.
We thought we had a better chance of tasting some different wines a couple of days later as we headed to the surrounding area of Maipu, which has many wineries. Using buses, for obvious reasons, Steve had planned out what looked like a good route combining wine tasting with a chocolate and olive oil tasting with buses or short walks in between. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out how we planned after our first pleasant tasting at Trapiche. Our planned bribe for the girls, the chocolate shop, was closed and the buses never seemed to be going in the direction we needed them to. As we didn’t fancy going on a tour, it would have been better to hire bikes if we’d felt confident about the girls cycling on the roads. We ended up doing two more wine tours with short tastings at the end in the town and headed back to camp with a number of new purchases.
For the first time in this trip we headed the truck’s nose north as we continued our way towards Salta. After deviating to Chile to get the truck fixed, we are trying to return to our original plan of seeing Paraguay and Brazil before heading back south to Argentina again. The aim is to be in Patagonia in time for their summer, hopefully, mid January when the temperatures aren’t too freezing. The desert for two long days drive was quite green with lots of low scrubby bushes, occasionally interrupted by red sandstone escarpments. We stopped for the night in the small town of San Agustin de Vallé Fertil before pushing on to Chilecito.
Surrounded by scrubby desert hills dotted with cacti, it had quite a wild west feel to it. There wasn’t much to see in town the following day apart from a museum about a cable car built in 1902 that stretched from town 40km into the mountains to a mine. So we wiled away our afternoon with a long lunch, wine tour and ice cream in the square so we were well fuelled for our 12km walk to, from and around town. This bodega (winery) was far more industrial looking than the ones we had seen in Mendoza, we were amused to see that they moved wine around between vats in huge hosepipes.