Archive for October, 2009

Mendoza, Maipú & the wine route


Wide sidewalks, pedestrian only boulevards, spacious plazas  and beautiful weather make for pleasant walking around the city of Mendoza.  Countless outdoor restaurants and cafés add to the city’s appeal and the pastas, meat dishes and wines on the menu are representative of the strong Italian influence in the area.  Like their European counterparts, Argentinians dine late in the evening and by 9pm restaurants and cafés are only beginning to fill up with customers.  Eating in Argentina is as much a social pastime as it is a necessity and it’s common to spend hours talking with friends or family over a cup of maté, glass of wine or a good meal.  Sampling all of the excellent Argentinian cuisine is quickly becoming one of my favorite activities.     

wine routeMendoza is located in the heart of Argentina’s wine producing region and the surrounding countryside is home to many of the country’s best vineyards.  In the town of Maipú, 17km south of Mendoza, wine tours and tastings can be had along the popular ruta del vino, or wine route.  The highlight of our day was a visit to Bodega Viña El Cerno a traditional and romantically small winery.

Bienvenidos a Argentina

el rapido to Mendoza

Chile/Argentina border crossing at Libertadores

After departing Valparaíso we traveled eight hours by bus across the border to Mendoza, Argentina.  The first of several planned crossings between the two countries, border formalities were simple and straightforward and the scenery along the way was spectacular.



A few days in Santiago began to eat into our budget so we packed up and headed 120km northwest of the city to Valparaíso.  A Unesco World Heritage Site and the cultural capital of Chile, Valparaíso is beautiful from a distance.  An old port city built on the edge of the water with hills of brightly painted houses running right into the ocean.  Up close the city is slightly less attractive with tangled wires, debris and a congested center detracting from it’s charm.grafitti 1  Valparaíso has fifteen funiculars, or wooden elevators, that connect the residential hills to the lower downtown area.  Built between 1883-1914 they are still in use today.  Graffiti is everywhere, some of it very impressive.  Our second day in Valparaíso we walked 9km along the coast to the beach resort of Viña del Mar.  A popular summer and weekend destination for Santiago residents, Viña del Mar’s palm-fringed boulevards, manicured gardens, grand mansions and high-rise buildings contrast sharply with neighboring Valparaíso.

donde Augusto

fish marketdonde augusto












The world famous seafood restaurant, donde Augusto, is located in Santiago’s Mercado Central.  We stopped by for lunch our second day in town and discovered that the NY Times and New Yorker magazine weren’t mistaken.  Friendly owners and a couteous staff serving excellent seafood in the center of the fresh fish market, this restaurant is not to be missed.

Santiago de Chile

Santiago de Chile cityscape

If our last bus ride in Bolivia was our worst then surely the bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama in the North of Chile to Santiago was our best.  Chile has only a few long distance bus companies and they are all fairly similar in price and quality.  We choose Tur Bus for the 23 hour ride to Chile’s capital city.  It was as if we were traveling by plane.  Our bus had fully reclining seats, movies and an attendant on board to assist passengers throughout the trip.  An electric screen in the front of the bus continuously showed the speed that the bus was traveling and the amount of time that the current driver had been behind the wheel.  We were served meals on board, there were clean bathrooms and the attendant even came around as we were beginning to fall asleep to cover us with blankets and close the curtains.

Arriving in Santiago it was hard not to wonder if the bus somehow transported us from South America to Europe while we slept.  Clean, orderly and safe, Santiago de Chile defies the stereotypical South American image.  It’s the first city we’ve visited since Mexico’s capital to have a modern underground subway system as well as an above ground transportation system that is equally organized and efficient.  A large metropolis set against towering snow-capped Andean peaks, it’s surely one of the least intimidating of all South American capitals.  Pedestrian thoroughfares throughout the center, wide sidewalks and courteous drivers make exploring the city’s many neighborhoods easy and enjoyable.  In fact, Santiago is the first place we’ve visited since leaving Philadelphia where pedestrians have the right of way. 

From polished suburbs to trendy barrios and a lively downtown area, the city defies pinning down.   Outdoor cafés, open-air art markets and clever street performers add to its charm.  Santiago is a major financial center for the continent and several large multinationals are headquartered in the city’s business district.  Just beyond the business district the neighborhoods of Providencia and Las Condes are home to wealthy suburbs boasting gorgeous apartment buildings, high-end shops and fancy restaurants and cafés.  Parks and wide open green spaces throughout the city provide ample opportunity for leisurely strolls and relaxation.  Santiago de Chile was founded in 1541 and the neoclassical architecture that defines many of its worn buildings is quite impressive.  The city’s central station was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni flamingos

We arrived in Uyuni after one of our worst bus rides yet and thankfully we knew it would be our last in the country.  Of all the countries we’ve visited, bus travel in Bolivia has been the most unpleasant.  The majority of the roads in Bolivia, including those connecting major cities, are unpaved, rocky and dusty as was the case with the road connecting Potosí and Uyuni.  After being bounced aroundBolivia busfor almost eight hours in a stuffy, smelly and overcrowded bus with no bathrooms, clouds of dust pouring in through the open windows and a very drunk man repeatedly passing out on Carlos’ shoulder we finally made it.  We decided we would visit the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivia’s southwest region en route to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile on one of the popular three day/ two night jeep tours.  With various tour agencies in Uyuni offering similar tours to the Salares we had originally planned to spend our first day in town comparing agencies and prices.  We were barely off the bus when we were surrounded by people offering tours and hostal deals and one woman in particular caught our attention.  She was looking to fill two remaining spots on a tour that was leaving the following morning and offered us free accommodation that first night in Uyuni and free transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile if we signed on, it sounded good so we did. 

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.  At an altitude of 3653m and covering 12,000 sq km, it was once part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which covered most of southwest Bolivia.  Today, a tour of the Salar and its surrounds is a surUyunireal experience with visits to salt plains, hot springs, geysers, colored lagoons and volcanoes.  The ‘climatically challenged’ landscape is incredible and isolated with just a few small towns scattered across the region.  Heading south of the Salar through the far southwest of Bolivia toward the Chilean border the landscape is nearly treeless with gentle hills, volcanoes and lagoons that are home to three types of flamingos.  Located within the national reserve, Laguna Colorada is a bright, adobe-red lake fringed with white minerals and backed by mountains.  Also within the limits of the reserve is a 4950m high geyser basin.  Tucked into Bolivia’s southwest corner just across the border from Chile is Laguna Verde, a stunning aquamarine lake.  Looming over the lake at 5930m is Volcán Licancabur.

Fortunately, our tour turned out to be amazing and the sights we visited are surely some of the most impressive natural wonders I’ve ever seen.  Our guide, Lucio, was professional and took us everywhere we were promised we would go, the vehicle was in good condition, our food and accommodations were acceptable and everything was included in the price of the tour.  But what made our tour really special waSalar de Uyuni groups the people traveling with us.  Aside from the two of us our group of six included Ivonna and Humbert from Poland and Angela and Johnny from Colombia.  We were all around the same age, spoke English and got along immediately.  Quite a relief since throughout the duration of the tour we were together constantly, even sharing the same dorm room while we slept.   After the tour ended we traveled together across the border to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and when it finally came time to part ways it was like saying farewell to old friends.

balancing act

salar 3

Salar 1

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

light as a feather


Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia



Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia

At 4090m Potosí is the world’s highest city and a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987.  Its impressive colonial architecture is set against the backdrop of the Cerro Rico, or rich mountain.  Potosí was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain.  From 1556 to 1783 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico by  millions of indigenous and slave laborers who were forced to work in the mines.  By the end of the 18th century the city had grown into the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America.  After 1800 the silver mines were depleted leading to a slow economic decline. 

Today Potosí is severely polluted and thousands of men and boys continue to work in the mines to extract minerals.  Working practices are medieval, safety provisions nearly nonexistent and the mines lack proper ventilation.  Work is done by hand with basic tools such as pickaxes and shovels.  Temperatures in the mines range from below freezing to more than 100 degrees F.  Silica dust in the air causes silicosis pneumonia, and most mineros die within 10-20 years after starting work in the mines.  The Cerro Rico has been mined continuously for 400 years.  With hundreds of tunnels running through it experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.

The miners who enter the mountain each day, some as young as 10 years of age, work the mine as a cooperative venture, with each miner selling his ore to a smelter through the cooperative.  The mines are dangerous and nightmarish places with unexpected explosions, falling rocks and runaway trolleys all resulting in frequent injuries and deaths.  Potosí’s ever expanding cemetery is a testament to this fact.  To protect themselves from ‘The Mountain That Eats Men’ the miners worship their devil, Tio, a wooden figure housed deep inside the mine.  They visit him regularly with offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes in an attempt to ensure their own safety. 

Tours of the working mines are popular among foreign visitors to Potosí.  Tours begin at the miners’ street market buying gifts for the miners, continue through the mines scrambling and crawling in low, narrow and dirty mine shafts, and end with tour participants holding lit sticks of dynamite.  Tour companies advertise the tours as, “an opportunity to crawl around inside the terrifying but awe-inspiring labyrinth in which over 200 miners are working.” Participants and tour operators alike will swear that the tours are not exploitative.  Unfortunately, the money generated by running the tours, around $10 per participant and more than many miners make from an entire day’s work, only benefits the tour companies.  

As for us, we opted not to take a tour of the mines, though we talked to several people who had and they all had the same response, “Eye opening, terrifying and unforgettable, but never again.”  Instead, we attended a screening of the documentary film The Devil’s Miner.  Produced in 2005 the film accurately depicts life in the mines and tells the heartbreaking story of a 14 year old miner.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in learning more about the horrific conditions of the mines, the plight of the workers, their fascinating traditions and beliefs, and the extreme poverty and desperation that plagues Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

Tarabuco market

tarabuca market

Located 65km southeast of Sucre, the small indigenous village of Tarabuca is famous for the festival of Phujllay (meaning ‘to play’ in Quechua).  The village is also well-known for its beautiful weavings and colorful, sprawling Sunday market.  The people of Tarabuco are easily identified by their traditional dress; woven red, maroon or black ponchos and decorative hats. 

Chewing coca leaves is common practice throughout much of Bolivia.  Apparently, chewing the leaves helps to eliminate hunger, eases the effects of the cold and provides energy.  The leaves are sold very inexpensively just about everywhere.  Pictured above are two local men in the traditional dress of Tarabuco shopping for coca leaves in the market.