Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Viento Zonda Blows

Cafayate, Argentina is one of my new favourite cities. Well, towns ... it`s perhaps about six blocks square so it doesn`t quite rank as a city. There is one main square, and one main street, and a scattering of parillas, cafes and hotels to take care of the tourists who come in droves to drink some fine torrontes wine and explore the weird and wonderful countryside around the town.  How grapes can grow in what is essentially a desert (complete with cacti and tumbleweed), I still haven`t figured out.   Today, on Sunday, the entire population of the town appears to have congregated in the square, and I could hear the church bells ringing all morning

The viento zonda has quieted today. It`s a warm, dry wind that travels down off the Andes -- northern Argentina`s equivalent to Alberta`s chinook -- and it blew fiercely for the past two days. It made for hot, dusty travel as I went south on Friday to just over the border in Tucumán province and the ruins of Quilmes, and yesterday as I went north through the Quebrada de las Conchas in the Valle Calchaquies. But it’s astonishing countryside around Cafayate, and well worth the heat and the dust; I do have some clothes that will never quite be clean again, though. The red dirt here is like the Australian Outback’s that way: once it’s there, the colour is there to stay.

This afternoon I am lazing on my balcony after a late start to the morning and a wander around the town. I am much happier, right now, than I have been for quite a while; time and space and permission to stop and recharge for a few days seems to have been just what I needed. The hotel is lovely, and the owner very charming; she seemed to realize immediately that I knew some Spanish but am not yet fluent, so she speaks to me in clearly enunciated and slowed-down Spanish that I can (mostly) grasp. She does speak perfect English as well, but she seems to have guessed that I like the chance to practice! And she doesn`t react to my attempts at Spanish as some people do, when they coo condescendingly “Oh, isn’t she cute trying to speak our language”.

Quilmes ruins, near Cafayate
Friday I decided on a whim to go to the Quilmes ruins about 60 km south of town along Ruta 40 (the same Ruta 40 that starts thousands of miles away in El Calafate, one of my first stops on this trip). It’s a bumpy, rutted road through wide-open country, ringed by mountains and dotted by towering cardón cacti 4 or 5 times my height. I travelled with a French couple that I’d been chatting to in the square, neither of whom spoke much English; fortunately some French knowledge does exist, buried in the recesses of my brain, and I could dig it out well enough to get by!

It got interesting when we got to Quilmes, though. Quilmes is Argentina’s oldest surviving ruin, dating back to about 1200 A.D., and it made it mostly unscathed through the Inca invasion and conquest.. It eventually fell to the Spanish in the 17th century, and the population was forcibly relocated to Buenos Aires (which still has a suburb named Quilmes, although few descendants remain). It’s a huge open ruin built up the side of a mountain; how far up you lived reflected your family’s social status, with the chief living at the top.

You can wander around on your own, and there are also guides on site to give you a history of the site. This is where it got interesting: our guide didn’t speak any English, but spoke deliberately slowly and carefully so we could grasp most of what he was saying. So if I understood him, I did my best to translate into French for the other two, and if they understood more, they`d translate for me (also into French). Or they`d ask me questions in French, for me to translate into Spanish and ask the guide. My brain physically hurt by the end of the afternoon, as I attempted to keep three languages straight in my head! And I was quite muddled for the rest of the day, throwing in French accidentally when I was trying to say something in Spanish. Fortunately, it`s often quite similar, so I can still usually make myself understood.

The French couple understood me well enough but were quite confused by my accent, though, till they learned I was from Canada; then they decided it was a `Canadian` French accent they were hearing. I didn`t tell them that my French accent is pretty muddled, too; after high school French taught by an Acadian and an Argentine (whose unique Spanish accent may have carried over into her French), I don`t actually know what kind of accent I have! Except that I don`t apparently sound TOO much like an Anglo, which makes me happy.

And in English, my accent confuses people sometimes too – I travelled north to the Quebrada in the company of some Brits yesterday, and they were all convinced (till I told them otherwise) that I was Irish. (Not sure if that`s the Phelpston or the Newfy side coming out ... ) Maybe next time I`ll just go along with it, and make up a whole new history for myself. Part of the fun of travel is that you get to re-invent yourself, after all!

The Quebrada (gorge, in Spanish) is a stretch of mountains and rock formations, that stretches for about 80 km north of Cafayate. The rocks don`t look like they`ve just eroded gradually over time; they look tortured and twisted by a giant unseen hand into fantastic and other-worldly shapes. And they are all the colours of the rainbow, just about, from the various minerals present that have oxidized – red and green and blue and yellow, layered on top of each other and shining brilliantly in the afternoon sun.

Garganta del Diablo
The most spectacular formation is probably the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil`s Throat; walking into this canyon did feel like walking into the maw of the earth, with it poised to swallow us whole. Those of us in adequate footwear (I am so glad I brought hiking boots after all!) scrambled over rocks and up sheer rock walls nearly to the end, walls of stone looming ominously around us.

The rest of the group waited near the entrance; what they were thinking in the outfits they chose that day, I`m really not sure. There was an English girl dressed as if she was off to a club, with cute little impractical slip-on shoes; one German girl in a denim skirt, purple shiny tights and a thick wool sweater and socks (on a very hot day); and a second German girl who was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms with flip-flops. Not exactly the best choices for hiking or climbing up rocks ...

We made it back to Cafayate as the sun set, and it got significantly colder after dark. But, as I have a fantastically large tub for my own exclusive use, it was easy to warm up again in a hot bath, as I sipped a glass of torrontes. I might stay another couple of days here -- I was supposed to leave tomorrow – as I`m enjoying this too much to rush away too soon. I`ll make some other budget trade-offs (maybe I`ll skip the $120 US Tren de las Nubes in Salta), and it`ll all be fine. And I`ll have a glass of torrontes tonight for you, too (but only one, since I`m going hiking tomorrow). Salud!

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