Whenever I reminisce about the years in college, the long nights of watching the World Cup soccer games with friends, the memory of the laughter, I start to relive the adrenaline of youth and chaos. Argentina, which has one of the strongest soccer teams and won the World Cup in those days also emerges from pieces of old memories. The legend Diego Maradona, the tale of how he became a soccer star from a poor boy playing on the street intrigued me, and the touching and inspiring voice of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” sung by Madonna marked its place on my bucket list.
Chapter One Lost in Translation
It was a beautiful day, the blue sky swiping away yesterday’s grey and emitting the pleasant warmth and sunshine onto the city. Jennie got up early and left for a Spanish school she connected with the day before. Julia and I, neither knowing anything about Spanish, sauntered into a nearby cafe for breakfast.
Inside the cafe, there was a handwritten menu on the wall. Gazing at it for a moment, without thinking, I asked for menu in English. The staff kept smiling, nodding and trying a few words they thought were too simple to misunderstand but actually made no sense to me. Helplessly, I decided to give up and use my Spanish translator app on the phone. Just as I pulled out the phone and opened the app, one waitress from the other side of the cafe pulled out a printed menu, shuffled in my direction, and nodded.
“See, English,” she said.
I settled down with Julia and smiled in relief.
“If Jennie was here, everything would be so much easier…Should we take the Spanish class like Jennie?” I suggested to Julia.
This was the third or fourth time I tried to convince Julia about the usefulness of learning Spanish, and I failed again, terribly. Julia shook her head, put her fingers on her lips, and giggled. “No, no, no… I’m going to learn Chinese or English because they are easier.”
The food was not bad: a very tasty and chewy steak, the universal indifferent ham and cheese croissant, and a banana milkshake. But the bill that came after it almost gave me a heart attack. “What is the campinon and cover fee?” I asked. With the help of an offline Spanish translator app, I uttered out my questions with my finger pointing at the items showing on the bill.
After a demonstration of setting up plates, pointing at Julia, then at the fine print of “sharing dish fee” at the bottom of the menu and repeating a few Spanish words, she looked at me with a smile.
The funny thing was that it recalled my old memory of China, when scam was like an epidemic spreading all around the country. Later in the day, I retold the story to my husband, and he chuckled, “It does sound like our homeland.” So, it was my first impression of Argentina, which might have been a biased perception.
The Spanish school that Jennie attended was a 10 minute Uber ride from the restaurant. We arrived a few minutes earlier and waited at the reception area until the principal showed up at school dismissal. Ignoring my invitation for a handshake, he welcomed us with an Argentine kiss on the cheek– a proper greeting as he said. It was quite awkward. As a traditional Chinese woman who takes the cheek kiss as an intimate gesture, I held my cheek half inch away from his and couldn’t proceed anymore. The principle chuckled. “ Welcome to Argentina, this is how we greet. Handshake is too formal…”
Most of the students here were college kids from all over the world which made Jennie the youngest one in the class. Although a little intimidated at first, Jennie became more comfortable the very next day and jumped in the discussion of the global education system, the theme of the week. It excited her.
Chapter Two Human’s Friend
The botanic garden in Buenos Aires was a sizable real estate in the center of the city with plants from South America, North American, and Asia, and it created a well laid-out mini forest where residents could indulge in nature without leaving the city.
Walking across the garden, we entered a huge square where local young families gathered at the playgrounds and the eco garden. Children fed and chased around peacocks; rabbits like big rodents blended in grass, being spotted and photographed by curious people like us; ducks with colorful necks and heads strode peacefully in the grass, and guards in uniforms whistled at rule-breakers. You could say that this place was a little bit chaotic, but the atmosphere was so welcoming that I even valued its unruliness as a major contributor to its overall charm.
By the garden area, there was the Agricultural Fair taking place. Argentina is well known for its gaucho culture, but at the first sight of the Fair, I was not impressed by its scale in comparison to US standards. It turned out to be a really narrow-minded prejudice once the visit started. Can you imagine a cattle fair with well-groomed and fuzzy animals who look just like your kids’ toys come alive? No smell, no mess. That’s how good Argentinian cowboys are at taking care of their cattle. We kept seeing them diligently cleaning out the wastes, adding fresh new hay to stables, and blowing the cattle fur inch-by-inch using an air hose. Compared to peers in many other countries, especially the US, Argentina’s cattle enjoy a much more decent living standard which yields happier cows and higher-quality meat, like Japanese Kobe beef. Admiring their fuzzy fur, big eyes, and the round and cute heads, the two kids gazed in awe at the lovely livestock and couldn’t move away.
Outside the barn, nerve-wracking test drives that either pushed your limit in driving up/down a steep slope or shifting between uneven left/right tracks finally caught our eyes. We watched in utter amazement. When we finally came to the market, it was near nightfall. Live music by our side, we took the pleasure of sample-tasting at ease. If I weren’t a light-packing traveler, I could easily buy a load of meat for the enjoyment.
Chapter Three Expectations
Raining in BA in winter was depressing, and the long wait at a very busy local restaurant plus the unexpected closure of the museum of tango didn’t help either. We ended up heading back after my shoes and clothes became soaked in freezing rain.
A boring day, I have got to admit. It was good that at least Julia and I visited the tunnel museum, a restored historical site of labyrinths & urban archaeology of the first Buenos Aires settlement in 1536. Although the museum was not exciting enough to light up my spirit due to its limited restored area and exhibit, it did serve as a decent indoor escape for me.
Another rainy day…
I let Julia stretch the wake-up time to almost noon, not even boring to drag her out of bed. Finally, she got up and stuffed herself with leftover pasta while reading her favorite Warriors book and glancing at my prolonged Taichi practice.
When we sauntered to the Spanish school after a couple of unexpected events, such as taking care of Julia’s bloody nose and finding the laundry service with a little help from a Chinese pedestrian, which aren’t often encountered in BA, Jennie was about to walk out. It was the perfect timing indeed, though not planned.
The food and service of a nearby restaurant exceeded my expectation from multiple aspects: the salmon ravioli that resembled my favorite dumplings not only in shape but also in taste, easy communication with the waitress, and most importantly, a clean bill w/o “cover fee” and “companion sharing fee”! Since we arrived in BA, only the airport cafe, the busy local restaurant we visited yesterday and this one gave out clean bills, which was quite astonishing. I couldn’t help speculating that the mark-up fees were simply a widely-accepted practice in many touristy restaurants.
Sometimes, an Argentina cashier’s scrutiny over an international credit card could be daunting. For example, a cashier at an ice cream shop sternly demanded my passport for a $10 value purchase using a card while another cashier at a supermarket happily took my US driver’s license as a proper ID. It was a blessing that not all restaurants follow suit and many took my electronic copy on the phone as a sufficient proof, but in some situations, such as exchanging money and taking tours, passports were strictly demanded. Gradually, carrying passports became my habit.
Buenos Aires is the origin of Tango, a popular and exotic partner dance known to many, including me. When it turned out that the Tango museum was all about the music, we were utterly surprised. I couldn’t believe that we were going to watch a Tango performance without dancers! But, the moment the show started, my disappointment transformed into excitement instead. The strong rhythm and excitement ignited by the main bandoneonist’s powerful strokes and sudden pauses, and the graceful and romantic melody accompanied by violin and other instruments aroused my vivid imagination of Tango dancing. AlI I could say was, “Music is magical. It can touch your heart, regardless of your race, background, education, and proficiency of the language…”
Between the legendary Casa Rosada(the presidential house) where the movie Evita’s famous speech scene was shot and this lesser known tango museum, I didn’t expect that the latter could impress me more. We applauded in awe.
Chapter Four Tigre
As the sun slowly emerged, the building was colored in beautiful orange.
Finally, a sunny day! We jumped on the train to Tigre.
Honestly, although China has the most developed high speed train network, the navigation of train stations are hardly easy for foreigners. I have to give Argentina credit for its simplicity of charging the metro card and navigating to the right track without us seeking any signs in English. It is the efficiency that we’ve only encountered in Japan and Europe.
When we arrived in Tigre, visitors had swamped the delta river bank and the amusement park. We bought a boat plus bus tour package at the train station and strolled away from the crowds for an off-street restaurant. The restaurant we picked was located at a quiet and arty neighborhood that recalled my memory of the garden district in New Orleans. It was also relaxing and inviting, with its sidewalks broken by big tree roots along the uniquely designed houses of the elegant neighborhood. Having a good lunch at a plant-covered dining area was not only pleasant but also stimulating. We talked a lot in a short period, from similar places we visited before to food and service qualities we had so far in Argentina. Before we even realized it, time flew by.
We rushed to the port, waiting for the departure while speeding boats ran along the coastline and rocked the floating garbage up and down in the yellowish delta river. I wished it was just one part of Tigre. The boat finally departed, leaving the chaos behind. Houses that sat far above the ground level of the swamp island, swamp plants, and animals gradually came into sight. Further into the water area towards Uruguay, the ecosystem reminded me of East African safaris. Tigre finally revealed its charm.
The art museum at the river bank was marvelous from the outside but relatively thin in exhibits. Although it didn’t give us a surprise, its well designed landscape aroused our interest in strolling along the riverbank which led us to another food exploration: Milanesa. Milanesa is a traditional Argentine dish that looks like nothing special but could easily induce you to stuff yourself without stopping. I followed the urge, fully content.
Honestly, Tigre is touristy and requires some caution if you are money sensitive. For example, the tour package we got at the train station was much more expensive than the same options that were sold by other companies along the river bank. If you have time, shopping around could save you some money.
Chapter Five A Day with Our Greeter
Pablo, our BA greeter, walked in the suite lobby promptly at the meeting time, then ushered us to a convenience store to recharge our transportation card after listening to what we would like to do and proposing his suggestions of activities.
The possibility of charging the card outside the transportation system amazed me and made the failure of charging at the first store due to some sort of credit issues a trival annoyance or even negligible, though Pablo shook his head complained about the goverment’s inefficiency of creating such a stupid issue in the first place. I couldn’t help admiring his high expectations and strict standards.
The bus passed the city center and took us right to the port of La Boca, where one of the four remaining platforms in the world, in parallel with a modern bridge across the river, was kept as a historical heritage. According to Pablo, it used to be the most polluted river in the world. Nowadays, the river looked much clearer than the delta river in Tiger, with a garbage collector moving around the port area routinely.
Walking on a green, yellow, and blue gridded sidewalk, I laid my eyes on the even brighter and more colorful sight of the Caminito street, where tourists, bars, the local art market, and vendors swamped every corner. There was a saying that it was Benito Quinquela Martin, a wealthy and self made painter from Lo Boca, who brought the color theme to this neighborhood. Growing up in La Boca, Benito loved his neighborhood, refused to leave for Europe for a better life even after he became infamous and extremely successful. He devoted his wealth and passion in building a better La Boca with art.
From the rooftop of the fine art museum, La Boca shrunk into one picture frame, largely grey and poverty-infused except for the bright Caminito street and the grand soccer stadium on the edge. The used-to-be working class district, a lively and busy port area, had turned into a ghost city that not only tourists but also locals from other areas of Buenos Aires would hesitate to walk inside. I felt sorry for Benito, but also relieved to see at least his fine art museum, aiming to be a space to spread Argentinian art and culture, still remained a prestigious establishment and instilled his passion of color into visitors.
We strolled around the market, shops, and bars, and immersed into the colorful atmosphere. At an open dining area, the tango dance in front of the store caught our eyes. We settled down, watching the couple dancing elegantly in a tiny space while we gobbled down all kinds of meat in an Argentine Asado- chicken, beef, sausages, blood curd and intestines. The food was fabulous, but the Tango dancing style confused me. There were no big steps, “sliding” moves, legs in the air and open embrace that I thought Tango was all about. Instead, the movements were more mellow than inspirational. My confusion started to clear up later on when I finally understood more about the evolved Tango – the social tango shaped by the environment of the milonga where a crowd dances together. So, in Buenos Aires, the smaller space you need, the better Tango dancers you are.
When the bill came, Pablo scrutinized at the hidden cost of the pasta sauce that was almost the same price as the pasta itself. He took it as outrageous while I kind of got used to it after a few days in Argentina.
The bus took us back to the main square, where the Casa Rosada and the cathedral that Pope Francis used to lead mass in each occupied a side of the square. When Pablo mentioned that Francis never returned to Argentina after his inauguration and he never saw him in person throughout his life, I started to take our encounter with the Pope a few years ago in Ecuador as a very lucky event, even from 100 meters away and as a nonreligious person.
A few blocks away from the square is Cafe Tortoni, the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires. It is well-known for its historic heritage and Tango shows that are always packed with customers inside and entail a long queue waiting outside. We walked into the queue and the wait time turned out not as bad as it looked. In half an hour or so, we were admitted into the cafe by a very friendly waiter who greeted me in Chinese and showed us how to book the 6pm Tango show that was not advertised by the Cafe, online or offline. So the 6pm show did exist! I exclaimed after insisting on giving it a try based on an internet user’s post–which was heavily doubted by Jennie and Pablo.
Sugared churros accompanied by mellow Tango dance, music, and singing put us in content. Though far from professional compared to the Tango Music performance we watched at the museum the other night, the show was entertaining and brought me nostalgia when the lady started to sing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and other popular songs.
Chapter Six Places of Prestige
Teatro Colon, among the 5 best acoustic theaters in the world, was grand and elegant. With highly selected building materials imported from Europe and exceptional architecture features under French influence, including the inspiration from Versailles for its golden hall, it used to be a very exclusive social gathering place for celebrities of BA, who used French for their social interactions and conversions in the old days. Now, the theater was open to the public for tours and performances. Our guide, a guy who was not shying away from singing the musician’s most popular piece in front of his sculpture, enlightened us with his deep knowledge of the acoustic system, the architecture design, the love story of the founder, and a sad one of an artist. Sitting in the most prestigious box that could hold up to 34 people and only reserved for highest officials during performances, I looked at the main seating area, imaging the sound penetrating the holes and hollow air between the seat floor and the building floor and being amplified. Then, my eyes fixed on the golden edge of the dome on the ceiling, amazed by the hidden space where musicians could play from the top for the special sound effects. It was brilliant.
The visit excited Jennie and she started to talk about seeing a live performance here at our second visit of Buenos Aires, though my indifference was quite discouraging.
Buenos Aires’ weather quickly changed. In the morning, we bathed in the bright sunlight and admired the beautiful architecture, gardens, and streets under the blue sky, while in the afternoon, everything turned grey and cold. When we arrived at the cemetery, the cloudy sky could work as a perfect backdrop in case you wanted to picture a spooky scene of cemetery, which I did.
La Recoleta cemetery had many noble’s vaults that reflected their extreme wealth in size, design, and building materials, which made it a must-visit attraction. Walking along the streets of the ghost town, from time to time, we would peek into an interesting house and wonder how the families’ afterlife experiences felt like in those miniature estates, decorated with plants and furniture, with visitors from all over the world peeking at their coffins.
In front of Evita’s vault, colorful flowers and a crowd made it an easy spot to find. Unlike many elaborately designed above-ground vaults, Evita’s was quite ordinary– no sculptures, no carvings, just an inscribed board and a picture.
Chapter Seven Arriving in the Northwest
The dryness, accompanied by heat, deprived the remaining moisture from my skin, lips, and eyes which had already suffered from the same issue in Buenos Aires. We’d arrived in Salta, the desert-like northern part of Argentina.
The next morning, half asleep and half awake, we took the tour bus to Cachi after finishing a typical Argentine breakfast at the hotel. In a typical Argentine breakfast, anything beyond bread, sweets, cheese, yogurt, and hot mate/coffee/tea is a luxury. So, we sat on the bus with a half empty stomach, feeling not quite ourselves.
Sitting next to me was a college girl from Austria, who rarely spoke until she accidentally had a piece of teeth chipped off by a hard candy she bought from a vendor at a tour bus stop and asked for my help to confirm its damage. We started to chat. I admired that many young kids like her took the opportunity to travel around before they commit to the routine and responsibilities that eventually diminish most people’s curiosity and energy.
With huge cacti scattered around its desert-like mountain range, and covered by yellowish low plants, the Cachi National Park at noon was bright and hot. The dryness depleted the last moisture in my skin and started to crack it with burning discomfort that left me feeling fire. Gazing at the straight line across the plain, which was left by the Incas, I formed a theory that the there being more indigous people in the northern regions was because of the protection from the Inca empire. Our guide, who was a mix of Spanish, Italian, and Native, confirmed my speculation and added that most native people who didn’t belong to the Inca empire were killed by the Spanish.
Cachi’s town square was small and basic. It contained a playground, a street market, a small museum, the church of Chachi, and a cafe surrounded by the adobe houses and white colonial buildings which earned its fame in the Calchaquí valley. It was said that locals use cacti as the building material for their houses, which can keep the house warm when cold and vice versa.
In Salta, La Vieja Eestacion’s show at night had its reputation. It attracted crowds of tourists to gather at its place, eat, drink, and watch the region’s Gaucho dancing while listening to local folk songs. We made a last minute reservation that put us at a table on the side, very close to the stage, though not from a perfect angle.
The Gaucho dancers, dressed completely in black with flappy pants and high heels, held their chins high and struck the floor like tap dancers. Their performance ignited the whole audience and received overwhelming applause from both elderlys and young kids. I watched in awe and cheered for Jennie’s great pick.
After our hotel receptionist claimed that no one would offer a private tour to Tilcara less than $7000 pesos, we made a deal involving a private tour from Salta to Tilcara with stops along some small towns and the painted mountain for $4500 pesos, with the friendly taxi driver who picked us up at the airport. Everything worked out perfectly, except that we missed the “never to miss” Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, a museum exhibiting children mummies discovered at a nearby 6,000m (19,700 feet) volcano who were believed to be sacrifices devoted to an Incan god after enduring 30 days of extreme coldness in the wild, before heading for Ticara.
Chapter Eight Hidden Gems
When we finally arrived, Hornocal, a small, bright, and colorful gem in the mountain range, presented its massiveness and color-layered beauty right in front of us, breathtaking. We stepped out of the car, covered in dust, and slowly walked towards the massiveness, light-headed and exhausted under the impacts of the high altitude.
Further away, a small crowd scattered around the mountain slope and became a part of the scenery. We joined them, strolled around, and sat down, letting the wind blow our hair and cut our skin. It was weird to have a sunbathing and freezing treatment at the same time.
As Julia summarized, “This place is amazing, but it makes people uncomfortable.” I think if we visited there a day later, we would have enjoyed it much more when the high altitude was less an issue.
Trudging and short breathed, I chomped on a coco candy, a local remedy to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness, and swallowed it down. With the instant boost from its sugar ingredient and coco stimulation, I made through the last steps of climbing.
Tilcara, full of indegious culture and close to many natural attractions, had street markets, small shops, and nice restaurants all around the center and was chosen by many travelers as a cozy resting place to visit the Northern region of Argentina.
Unfortunately, Julia got her first impression of Tilcara through our hurried lunch at a small restaurant, where a swarm of flies kept on landing on our food regardless of how hard we tried to wave them away. Then, through my poor choice of an Airbnb lodging, we stayed in a freezing cold private house with a micro-power gas heater, which was not even working the first night, and a non functional wood stove. We froze in the cold and started to doubt our decision of choosing this place as a main stop.
What was our turning point? A restaurant that had a rustic, or maybe even could be said to be ugly, appearance from the outside and two skinned llamas being grilled over wood fire by its entrance did the trick. The great meaty food, cozy atmosphere with live music and a well-designed rustic interior completely uplifted our spirit. As Julia said, “Tilcara has houses that are much nicer inside.” We dined there the next day.
As we were getting used to the high altitude, the Salt Flat visit made Tilcara one of the most interesting places to visit on Julia’s list, where she tried all her cool dancing poses, using the white flat and blue sky as the backdrop.
Chapter Nine Horseback Riding
We had an eventful lunch at a small restaurant in the square– where the waitress first sent our food to the next table before putting the wrong sauce on Julia’s pasta, where the owner came out later to apologize for her waitress’ clumsiness which made us feel sorry for her, and where Julia lost her volcano stone necklace and left in despair, crying. After the craziness, we left and went on a horseback riding that finally brought the light to the day.
The horse owner in the front and her boy in the back formed a team and led us up and down the steep rocky trails, through the desert valley that was covered with cacti and dry plants, to the waterfall.
Riding a grumpy horse, who ignores your orders and wants to bite your feet whenever you kick its belly or whip its butt to follow the group, is a little bit scary. After a few tries, I gave it up and learned to wait patiently until it decided to make the move, which normally happened when the boy, following behind, came close, whistling for it to continue.
Kids seemed to be natural riders. While I struggled to follow my horse’s suite, the two sisters comfortably rode on the back, chatting joyfully. An hour later, we arrived at the entrance and had the horses rest while we continued the trekking on foot.
To reach the La Garganta Del Diablo, choosing the right rocks to step on and deciding when and where to jump to cross the river became the frequent tasks that were failed at least once by each of us, including Julia who would normally make frantic cries from getting wet in the past. I almost felt regret that we didn’t return at the first stop. When she got back on track after stepping into the water from a wobbling rock, without a hint of franticness, I cheered.
The waterfall was beautiful and soothing. At the bottom of the fall, a few young people rested on the rocks, relaxing, chatting, and hanging around at ease. We relished the peaceful moment for a few minutes and headed back.
My grumpy horse’s mood seemed to light up on the way back and followed its master without much defiance, though it almost threw me off its back when jumping down a steep slope. I couldn’t help ridiculing myself for bragging that riding horses was never an issue for me to a young Argentinian lady who wondered how I dared to ride a horse at such a challenging trail. Since my two kids had not complained of being yanked off, I concluded, my horse was simply a stupid novice. Or, maybe, I was the stupid one.
The night bus from Tilcara to La Rioja had many stops. When the lights jerked on, I would wake up suddenly and linger in confusion while seeing local Argentines carried huge parcels on and off like villains in a nightmare. Finally, I dozed off in the early morning.
Chapter Ten Talampaya
La Rioja was a small city in the southernmost part of the Northern region, where there were far less tourists if compared to the previous stops we had. After a heavy, tasty lunch, we shopped for groceries at a nearby market and made our first supper since the trip began. It was delicious and satisfying. We fell asleep in the nicely decorated and well maintained apartment, exhausted .
Our driver, Juan, who spoke a decent amount of English and had biked from Mexico to Argentina, was an interesting young guy. Listening to his travel stories while sitting comfortably in his well maintained white SUV was almost like a pampering after the long haul night bus.
It seemed that most of Argentina didn’t like their current president, and Juan was one of them. Answering our questions about his country, he complained about the uncontrollable inflation and his government’s incapability and corruption. Talking about inflation, I could easily relate with the exchange rate I frequently checked these days, which was getting worse on Argentine currency almost everyday. What was the solution to Argentina? Probably not many people could answer it.
The Talampaya National Park recalled my memory of Utah– its red earth, and hoodoos. But, it had its own uniqueness. This used-to-be river bed had become the red sand floor and scattered huge red walls that were occasionally decorated with thriving green plants at the bottom. We could easily spot interesting shapes in the form of hoodoos, walls, or isolated huge rocks and notice animal shapes and other symbols of native’s civilization carved into the rock surfaces that intrigued today’s archaeologies. It was said that there could be a river running through the valley in case of rain, which had once put a passing vehicle in danger. But it was not happening often for this dry region.
Fortunately for us, although the tour guide couldn’t speak any English, a lady in our group always explained the main idea of each site we visited. With its story and history, the national park, in my mind, gained its glamour not only in nature but also in culture.
Standing in the red sand, surrounded by the used-to-be-red river bank, we had our luxury banquet with wines, soups, lemon water, bakeries and other sorts of snacks, while hearing echoes from other groups and feeling content.
On the way back to La Rioja, Juan joined our road games of making stories and finding country and city names. We learned quite a few places in South America that we never heard before.
Chapter Eleven A Pampering Day
Another bus took us to Mendoza, the winery capital, at midnight. Exhausted from the prolonged delay due to a road construction, we cheered when the staff showed us assorted pastries that had been placed in the room for our next day’s breakfast. That was really heart warming.
Next day, we strolled around the parks and streets of Mendoza, discovered the most authentic Italian pasta since our visit to Italy, and fully recharged our diminished energy.
The Uco Valley, situated at the foot of the Andes and bordered by the Cordón de Plata, a perpetually snow-capped mountainous belt that acted as a beautiful backdrop for the rows and rows of vines, created a picturesque setting for its famed vineyards. Our waitress at the La Azul winery restaurant was a young girl who spoke fluent English and always talked to us in an overwhelmingly warm and friendly manner . Whenever introducing us a new wine, she would raise the wine bottle by side, big smile on her face, white teeth shining, like a TV advertisement model, and gracefully poured it to my cups. Not very good at drinking wines, I felt light headed pretty quickly, but didn’t want to stop. Who would? The atmosphere and the waitress’s hospitality were too persuading for anyone to restrain from taking more. We indulged in the delicious 5 course meal, selected wine tasting and unlimited wine drinks in the sunny afternoon, surrounded by snow capped mountain range and boundaryless vineyards and pampered like lords.
The Uco Valley is not all about wineries but also a ham factory and restaurant famous for its high quality Spanish ham products; the monument of general San Martin, a legendary hero who liberated Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru; and a beautiful look out view at the Cross on the mountain top. Chewing the tender and tasty ham back at the lodging and reminiscing about our visit to the valley, we admired that locals could have such a nice excursion for food, wine, and beautiful scenery at their leisure.
Our driver, Daniel, a white man in his fifties who always spoke in a flat and low voice, made me think of “The Professional”’s Leon. His classy manners intrigued my curiosity. It turned out that Daniel used to be a salesman of medical equipment and only became a tourism uber driver after losing his white-collar job in 2012, when the previous president suddenly stopped all imports. Like Juan, he didn’t like the current present, Macri, but he also hated Crisina. From his own life experience, he summarized that Argentina’s economy had been a roller coaster for a long time. As of now, it was getting worse and job opportunities were so few that many young people had to go to other countries to find work. As the presidential election was near, it seemed to him that there was only bad candidates and worse candidates, which was depressing.
Chapter Twelve Riding with Gauchos
It’s hard to imagine a gaucho’s life without being part of it, and luckily, we spent one day with two Gauchos (cowboys) on their family owned land at the foot of the Andes, where over 200 cattle were raised.
In the morning, after a two hour drive from Mendoza, we settled in front of the fire place at José’s ranch. While José, who wore a bright knitted red belt around his waist, and his buddy, a friend since his childhood, who had a darker skin and wore jeans and high boots, were preparing our breakfast at the backdrop of the blue sky, the land, and an artistically-shaped dark tree trunk seen through the big window, we let the heat spread from our feet to our bodies. The apple cake, the quick fire toasted bread, and the Argentine mate, were simple and enlightening.
Not totally new to riding horses, we learned another lesson- sturdy pants and boots were the riding tools that should not be missed if your riding trail went through bushes. Otherwise, you could end up with scratches on your legs and ripped holes in your pants like us.
Laughing at our inexperience and claiming the pants ready to be retired, we sat down by a river and played with the dogs while José and his friend made the fire, placed freshly cut steak, squash, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers to the grill, and washed greens and tomatoes for salads. Admiring these two buddies, who could not only take care of a business but also cook, I couldn’t help glancing at them busy preparing the food and shooting pictures from different angles to capture the tale of gauchos, the story of the surviving westerns.
José proved himself not only a Gaucho but also a good chef. The steak, a cut from his natural free range cow, was the best meat we ever had since a long time ago, and the grilled veggie salad resembled a less oily Chinese style fried dish.
Following José, we encountered one of his cows in high grass, charging towards our direction and followed by his friend, lassoling. The cow’s speed and the dust following its track left me mouth-opened. Never having seen a cow running so fast, I clutched the saddle handle nervously, worrying that my timid horse would suddenly flee away and throw me off like he almost did when crossing an iron fence earlier.
After the cow and José’s friend passed us and disappeared into dust, I returned to my senses and started to regret missing a perfect photo opportunity. I took out my phone and got ready for the next chance, while my horse decided to trott and threw me off the balancing. I finally gave up the intention.
If you can lasso well, you will look cool for sure, just like José’s friend who was gaining my admiration for his handsome throw and powerful drag. On the other hand, my clumsy throw, which must be really amusing, got a big laugh from my kids and even I couldn’t help laughing my head off.
Encouraged by my shameless tryouts, Jennie, a natural athlete, did a few more practice and almost got the grip and lassoed one cow, which was very fun to watch.
Around sunset, we rode back to the ranch. Resting in front of the newly built fire, we gobbled down the apple cake left from the breakfast, watching José making a fresh new bread from scratch. He was fast! In a moment, the fried thin bread, which tasted like Chinese fried dough, was ready. We stuffed ourselves with it and took the rest with us. Yes, it was this good!
In Chinese, we chatted about José and his friend and their talents in both outdoor and housework, feeling comfortable in our own encrypted discussion. Then, the minute Jennie concluded in English that it would be good to have somebody else do all the work while herself enjoying life, José added with a laugh, “Better find a boy who can ride horses, raise cows, and take care of everything, like me.”
Shocked by his perfect relevance, Jennie refused to chat with me anything personal in public anymore, even in Chinese.
Chapter Thirteen Freezing Cold
As it was the night of the primary election, everything was closed early. We stayed at a hostel in El Calafate, overviewing the lake and snow capped mountains and getting ourselves comfortable in the atmosphere of youth and energy, which was part of the reason that I considered this option despite its very basic rooms. Listening to a new friend’s romance in Argentina and discussing with her about current affairs in China, like old friends, made the night pass quickly.
The next day, we learned that the Argentine pesos depreciated over 30 % overnight. A few days later, the food prices in restaurants shot up at least 10%. I couldn’t imagine how people could live through such a financial turmoil and bear with astonishing fluctuations as a norm.
No words can describe Perito Moreno’s magnificence and stunningness. Its glacier blue, snow-capped mountains and greenish milky lake, backdropped by the cloudless blue sky, composed a spectacular view that would take away everyone’s breath and leave them open-mouthed in awe.
Strolling under the sun, we took our time, slowly strolling around the trails and letting our senses lead us to the front of the magnificence and the milky lake, thinking nothing, worrying about nothing.
Having such a warm and lovely day at the Perito Moreno was our luck, but luck was a luxury. The next day, a cloudy winter day, we went on a horseback riding that reminded me of the northern scenes in Game of Thrones, spectacular and freezing. Wearing three layers of long socks, three layers of warm clothes, mittens, and hoodies, I gazed around the snow-capped mountains, the yellow and red patches of grassy field, birds, and scattered sheep and horses. I relished the wilderness and beauty while the numbness slowly took over my feet, legs, and the whole body.
Heading back, I jumped off the horse and sprinted to the ranch to warm up my frozen limbs at the fireplace. I reminisced holding the 15-day-old baby sheep and feeding them bottled milk in the morning and tried to imagine their survival through the harsh winter while I gobbled down a big chunk of steak with beer and shivered when the heat took away the numbness and woke up my senses.
Sitting by the big window, back at the hostel, I started to jot down my thoughts in the sun, feeling warm and content.
Chapter Fourteen A Scenery Only Existing in the Avatar World
Perched in the middle of a tropical forest, above the Iguazu river, the hotel balcony in the middle of trees and dangling vines was my favorite place. Every morning, I would have a tea time at the balcony, write, and let the mind drift while listening to the chirping and babbling sound and looking over to the Brazilan side across the river.
About 16km to the east, on the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, there is the national park of Iguazu falls. It attracts visitors from all over the world and leaves them in utter awe with its magnificence and magical scenery of scattered green islands standing in the rapids of the falls, which seems to only exist in the Avatar world. I was one of them, astonished by its picturesque grandness, and started to feel sorry for the Niagara Falls, which used to be my favorite and now looked like a vulgar noble, prestigious but empty.
Initially, Julia disagreed. She claimed that watching falling water was simply boring and her encounter with an aggressive coatí that left her with bleeding scratches on her arms, belly, and legs, didn’t help either. Fortunately, we found the park doctor and had her bruises cleaned properly. With a ride to the restaurant, good food, and a new toy, Julia was finally enlightened and continued the visit with us, happily.
After we strolled all the trails to get closer or away from the falls, viewing the panoramic scenery from the distance and enjoying its powerful force from an inch away, she changed her mind and thought that the fall did have some merits.
Argentina is a big country blessed with both nature wonders and rich cultures. When people asked me how we could spend 4 weeks for this single country, I said, “Four weeks only got us started …”