Argentina at last!
We set out early from San Pedro de Atacama for Argentina on 20th February.
The border crossing at Paso Jama meant climbing to 4820 metres above sea level, and it was cold!
As we climbed higher we were passing snow and had to stop and put on extra jackets and winter gloves as the ground was frozen and the temperature guage was registering -2 degrees C. We had gone from temperatures of 50+ two days before to -2!
We passed by a frozen lake at Reserva National Los Flamencos and saw our first Flamingos ...standing on top of the ice! There was also a herd of hundreds of Llamas and some wild Donkeys. And all these animal were surviving very well at around 4600 meters.
When we reached the border crossing we were pleased to find that there were heaters in the main building so we could at least thaw out our fingers. The paper work was relatively easy but as we were about to cross through the checkpoints looking for food (its illegal to bring meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy products into Argentina AND Chile) we realised that we had our lunch leftovers on the bikes so at 10:30am we were munching our way through 4 hard boiled eggs and a big bowl of chicken and rice next to the checkpoint and much to the amusement of the border guards who then waved us right through the checkpoint without searching our bags!
ARGENTINA…. we have made it! and are delighted to be here.
Our destination for the night was Purmamarca in the Jujuy region and we had an amazing ride through colourful rock formations and past a salt flat at Salinas Grandes.
Up to this point the roads has been empty but as soon as we reached and passed the Salt flats there were people EVERYWHERE.
The road started to twist and descend and still the cars were coming in both directions. we ironically passed a sign that advertised the fact that it was 4200 meters (only!!!) at this particular point and the world and his siblings were stopping for selfies and photos next to the sign.
We had no idea what was going on, it wasn't even the weekend ...maybe Argentina was heavily populated??? Maybe this was going to be completely normal where ever we went???
A sense of dread descended.
By the time we reached Purmamarca the road was swarming with parked cars and coach loads of people ...and there was no accomodation available anywhere.
We asked a local what was going on and they told us there was a BIG 2 day national holiday to celebrate Shove Tuesday; basically the Argentines full out party for 2 days before the start of lent and it was customary to head out of the cities.
We rode on a bit further to the town of San Salvador de Jujuy but their celebration were even bigger with a massive festival full of tens of thousands of party goers.
Salta was the next available place to stay but it was already getting late in the day. Because it was a larger town/city and everyone had headed out to the country to play we found a nice and reasonable hotel; booked it online, and then ambled there via the back country route in the late afternoon sun.
By this point the straight road desert landscape has changed to lush green meadow and forests with lots cattle.
Once settled into our hotel we headed off to find something to eat. We were quite worried as it was almost 9pm by now and we didn't think anywhere would be open. Fortunately Argentina only comes alive at 9pm at night and most restaurants don't even open until 8:30!
Nick ordered his first Steak ...a massive 21 oz/ 600gm Tomahawk steak ...just the steak!!! no sides or salad!
Steak and a nice bottle of Malbec. Perfection!
The following day we realised that we needed to get some Argentine pesos.
Getting hold of Argentine cash and exchange rates is very confusing and complicated.
Due to the incredibly high inflation rate in Argentina there are many different exchange rates. There is the official cash rate of 190 pesos to 1USD, the foreigners exchange rate of 330 pesos to 1USD (if you pay by credit card with visa then you will be charged this rate) and the best rate is the Blue Dollar rate of 370 pesos to 1USD where you change crisp brand new "blue line" $100 bills for cash on the street.
We had luckily discovered about the Blue Dollar rate while in the USD cash using country of Ecuador so had exchanged a large amount of money for Blue $100 bills especially to use in Argentina.
Travel in Argentina can be incredibly cheap and good value BUT only at the right change rate.
We asked the guy on the desk of our hotel where to go to exchange money (it was the 21st Feb, Shrove Tuesday and a national holiday so we didn't hold out much hope). he told us to head to the corner of the town square and just "hang about". It all sounded very covert and dodgy! But we did as instructed and sure enough the two very pale looking gringos that we are we were approached within a minute by a guy guy asking "cambio?" We haggled a rate... he offered 340 and we looked offended and walked away, and then he asked what we wanted (370), he then looks offended and sucks in air between his teeth before agreeing and paying up.
We ended up staying two nights in Salta. It had a lovely relaxed vibe and was a great way to start to observe the relaxed Argentine way of life that we were about to fall in love with.