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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Salta/Jujuy: Day 3 - Cafayate

On our third day in Salta, we packed up yet again, and headed out to Cafayate, a town 5 hours south of Purmamarca.  To recap, we started in Salta City, drove north to Purmamarca, and then drove south - past Salta City, to Cafayate.  In short, Salta is big.  Really big.  Bigger than we knew when we booked the trip with 2 babies.  Apparently, it is bigger than our travel agency knew when they helped us book the trip - they actually had us scheduled to spend more time in the car.  Luckily, our awesome guide Yaco advised us to alter our plans and saved us some in-car time.

Anyway, the drive to Cafayate was spectacular, a whole lot of spectacular.  Here are some examples of the spectacular-ness:

Some of the rock formations are so unique that they have their own names, we stopped at two, the Amphitheater, named for the obvious reason that it has a great echo potential:

And the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's Throat.  Not to be confused with the Garganta del Diablo waterfall in Iguazu Park, Argentina's got a whole lot of Devil's Throats to be aware of.  

Jon and I in one small part of the Garganta del Diablo
This formation makes Jeff look tiny, and he's a tall guy
Gretchen slept through all the stops, which is sad to not have any pictures with her during this portion of the trip, but it made for a much more pleasant drive.

One more photo op stop

 Another great part of having a guide is that he steered us to a cool, local restaurant to stop at on our way. The name of the place was "Papabuelo", a mix of Dad and Grandpa in Spanish, and it was a nice, authentic spot with dirt floors and wooden picnic tables under a tent-like roof.  We enjoyed humita, empanadas, and tamales that were all straight out of the oven and served with spicy sauces.  Good food and cool atmosphere aside, the best part of Papabuelos were the prices.  We fed five adults with drinks and salads for under $100 pesos/US$25.

Good times at Papabuelos
Even with the great views and the good food, we were more than ready to arrive at our destination - and it  was well worth the wait.  We stayed at the Viñas de Cafayate wine resort, and it was beautiful.  The resort only had 12 rooms, was surrounded by mountains and grape vines, and had a beautiful pool area - it was truly an oasis after a long day in the car.

Daddies watching babies poolside 
Gretchen and Talia were not sure what to make of the grass, we realized we have some very urban babies.  We need to get them out into green spaces more often!

The view from our hotel's pool
Even the nighttime was photo-worthy
We were sad that our stay at Viñas de Cafayate was only one night long.  We would seriously consider going back to this resort as a destination, it was the perfect last night of our trip.

 The trip wasn't quite over, we needed to head back to Salta to catch our flight the next day.  Once again, we ditched our agenda from the travel agency and followed Yaco's advice for our last day in Salta.  He made reservations for us at a local winery, Domingo Molina, which is open for wine tastings on a daily basis, but only books tastings in conjunction with food on a private reservation basis.  This winery might be located in the most beautiful part of Cafayate.

We had an outstanding meal, drank some fantastic wines and took full advantage of their beautiful grounds.

What a fun vacation!  Thank you to the Newhooks for being our great travel buddies!   It was a wonderful way to spend a four-day weekend in December, and we highly recommend adding Salta to your list of vacation destinations in Argentina.

Now we change gears and head back to the US for our fourth (and last) trip this year.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Salta/Jujuy: Day 2 - Purmamarca

For the second day of our Salta/Jujuy trip, we headed north into the province of Jujuy to a town called Purmamarca.  Purmamarca is a very small town, population of only 2,000 people, located 2.5 hours north of Salta City.  Purmamarca is part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a gorge located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.  It's easy to see why this area of the country is protected, the drive (though long) was incredible.  Perhaps the most popular site in Purmamarca is the Cerro de Siete Colores, the Hill of Seven Colors.  Can you guess which hill they are referring to?

The land in this area is so rich with minerals that it casts off a multitude of different colors.  There are many bright red and orange hills in the landscape, but this specific hill really pops against the background of its green, blue and brown neighbors.
Cerro de Siete Colores
Gretchen was unimpressed with the Seven Color Hill, she was far more interested in Daddy's sunglasses.  

Our hotel was nestled right next to this colorful hill, and after a morning filled with driving, we were all very excited to get settled at La Comarca.  This small hotel was perfect for our needs, the rooms varied in size, ours was small with a nice patio, our friend's was large with no patio, but the location and views could not be beat.
La Comarca

After we had a moment to stretch our legs, it was necessary to get some lunch.  We headed into town, where there is a daily market setup with a mix of hand and machine-made goods.

What an amazing backdrop during your shopping experience
 At the advice of our guide, Yaco, we stopped at Tierra De Colores for lunch.  This small, authentic restaurant gave us our first true taste of Northwest Argentina cuisine.  We had tamales, humitas, empanadas and tried Salta beer, all of which were pretty darn good.  It was a nice alternative to the normal fare in Buenos Aires, the sauces and entrees actually had some spice.

The last activity that we crammed into this jam-packed day was a visit to the Salinas Grandes, or the Salt Flats.  The Salinas Grandes are basically a field of salt that was formed by a combination of volcanic activity and geological movement somewhere around 10 million years ago.  Only one road leads to the Salinas Grandes, and it is not for the faint of heart.  The trail is not incredibly long, distance wise, but it takes a good 2 hours to get to the flats from Purmamarca.

Windiest road ever.  Bring carsick bags just in case.
 Additionally, the altitude is incredibly potent on the drive.  Altitude sickness is a very real concern, especially for whomever is behind the wheel.  One of the symptoms of altitude sickness is drowsiness, and these roads don't leave room for mistake.  It was beautiful at the top, a cool 13,680 feet above sea level.

 The Salinas Grandes themselves were also very cool.  A large expanse of flat land, all white with salt, in the middle of two mountain ranges.  The sun was crazy strong, so we were lucky that the babies were sleeping and stayed in the van.  We jumped out to take a few pictures but it's not recommended to spend any length of time in the sun due to the strong reflection off of the ground.

Underneath all the salt and dirt lies water, which can be exposed through these large water holes, and then clean salt crystalizes on the surface in a potent, pure form.  According to Yaco, sea water is roughly 80% salt, this water is roughly 95% salt.  It's pretty salty, we tasted it ourselves.

Once back at La Comarca, we were able to relax, walk around and take some pictures of the landscape.  It was also blooming season for the cactus species in the area, so we saw lots of beautiful cactus flowers.  We also stayed for a delicious dinner, served at the hotel restaurant, by a friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The next morning, we got up nice and early to start the journey to our final trip destination, Cafayate.  We grabbed a quick breakfast, and loaded up the bus, and headed on out.  Thank goodness for happy babies, the girls rolled with the punches this weekend.

Purmamarca was a beautiful, remote, unique destination and I'm so glad it was part of our trip.  La Comarca was actually our second choice of hotel, but it worked out perfectly, and provided great scenic views of the surrounding mountains.  It takes a lot of driving savvy to accomplish this part of the trip, but if you're up for it, Purmamarca and the Salinas Grandes are sites worth seeing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Salta/Jujuy: Day 1 - Salta City

This year, the Argentina government added a whole bunch of extra days to their already ample holiday calendar (totaling 14 non-workday holidays in 2011, wow!).  For the first set of added holidays, we decided to have a baby (obviously, this was a coincidence that worked amazingly in our favor), for the second set of added holidays, we decided to go to the Salta and Jujuy provinces in the northwest part of Argentina. We were fortunate to be joined by our friends, the Newhooks, who also have an adorable baby girl that is a month older than Gretchen.

For some reason, Salta seems to be a second-tier destination to foreigners living in Buenos Aires.  It ranks behind some of the more popular trips, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza, the glaciar in Calafate, but now that we've gone, I'm convinced it is just as spectacular.  Salta is the name of a province in Argentina, as well as the capital city of that province, and it is where we began our trip.

The altitude in Salta is something to be aware of, the city itself is 3,780 feet (1,152 meters) above sea level and though that is not enough to bother most people, some of the other destinations nearby can cause altitude sickness.  It is approximately 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires, so we decided to fly, which took a little under 2 hours (if you don't count the delays, courtesy of Aerolineas Argentinas).  We headed directly to the hotel, Casa Real, which was a simple, but clean and friendly hotel located a few blocks from the main square.  They did a hilarious job of setting up the rental crib for Gretchen:

Aside from the fact that the crib is from the 1940s (or so it would appear), they made it up like a little bed!  Pillow and turndown service too!  This cracked us up at every hotel we stayed at, the Argentines give us a baby pillow and multiple blankets, the Americans believe that a pillow for a baby means certain death.  (We did, however, remove the pillow and extra blankets, just to be sure...)

Iglesia y Convento San Francisco
We did have a bit of rain on our first day in, luckily, it stopped raining just long enough for us to stroll around the city. The city of Salta has retained much of it's old-world charm by preventing the construction of new-style buildings.  Additionally, there are laws that limit the height of buildings, so there are very few items breaking up the skyline.  Some of the tallest buildings in the city are these beautiful churches, including the Iglesia y Convento San Francisco.  This church and convent was built sometime during the 18th century, and then the front facade was added in 1870.  This is by far the most well-known landmark in Salta, and it stands out due to the height, color and grandiose of the building.  We arrived as mass was starting, so we didn't see much of the inside, but the outside was worth quite a few pictures.

Inglesia Catedral

The other landmark that we visited was the Iglesia Catedral, another beautiful church near the main square, Plaza 9 de Julio.  This church dates back to 1882 and though it is not quite as intricate as it's partner San Francisco, it is still a nice demonstration of the European architecture that dominates the city's buildings.

Jon and Jeff were driving the babies through town.  It was cooler than either of us had expected, we had heard that Salta was going to be unbearably hot, I assume the rain helped us out a bit, and then the altitude makes for cool mornings and nights, even if the days are quite warm.
Daddy Driving Duty
Gretchen loves her stroller and was pretty excited to be pushed around town by her Dad.  Here she is kicking back during the walk around Salta.

We made dinner reservations at Jose Balcarce (for reservations: (54) 387 421-1628, at the corner of Mitre y Necochea), which was recommended by more than one of our travel books.  It was a fantastic dinner.  They had a great mix of regional cuisine and everything we ate was delicious.  Check out the cool decoration and ambiance:
Turquoise skulls, I never would have thought of it, but I like it!
We tried all sorts of different dishes, from an octopus appetizer to llama to trout to chocolate volcano dessert, it was all beautifully presented and very tasty.  Here is the llama that both guys opted for, served with quinoa and Andean potatoes (though our guide, Yaco, told us later in the trip that all potatoes in this area are Andean).  I preferred my beef, but the llama was more tender and delicate than I would have thought.

Here was one of our pretty desserts.  I couldn't even tell you what it was, but I know it was delicious.

If you are staying in Salta, Jose Balcarce is a great dinner option.  The staff was friendly, they were polite and helpful with our babies, and the food was delicious.  Another high-point to Salta, the prices are about half of what you would pay in Buenos Aires.  There were a number of bottles of wine on their list that were US$10 - US$15, a price that is virtually non-existant in a US restaurant.  We tried some of the regional varietals, especially the Torrontes, which this area of Argentina prides itself on.

Our stay in Salta city was short, but eventful, as we drove out of town, you can look down on the Lerma Valley, and over the whole city.  Hasta luego Salta, thanks for the hospitality!

From Salta, we headed north to the province of Jujuy, to a town called Purmamarca, but that will need to wait for my next post.  For more pictures of Salta city, and for the rest of our trip, I've added an album to the Shameless Photo Sharing, enjoy!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

San Ceferino

Jon's department does a great job of bringing the employee's families together for an end of the year "Family Day" that takes place at an estancia about 45 minutes from the city.  This weekend, we packed up and went out to San Ceferino to enjoy a day of meeting other families, swimming, eating and enjoying the fresh air.

Remarkably, this is the third year that we have participated in Family Day, I still cannot believe that we have lived in Buenos Aires for that long.  The weather makes a huge difference in the success of this event, and we had the most perfect day possible for this year's festivities.  To add the the excitement of the day, we drove there in our own car, which we just purchased last week, so it was a trip that combined the freedom of owning a vehicle with the anxiety of driving in this slightly-chaotic city - and I'm happy to report that Jon was a natural.  I'll have to try my hand behind the wheel another day.

Like most estancias, San Ceferino is a multi-functional facility that can be used for corporate events, weddings, social events or people looking for a little respite from the city.  They have 75 rooms , 2 pools, 2 kiddie pools, tennis courts, soccer fields, horses, bikes and carriage rides.  It is an easy drive, only 30 miles outside of the city and even better, just  two turns off of the highway.  There a few banquet rooms, we have attended when there was a served meal, and this year there was a buffet, both rooms were ample for the event.

When we first arrived, there was a large canopy to keep us from the sun.  They passed drinks and picada plates while we mingled, and they staff was attentive and friendly.  There was a huge turnout, it was great to see everyone from the previous year, and meet lots of new folks too.  What was most impressive was the number of new family members that had joined in the last year, Gretchen included, and she really enjoyed playing with the other babies.

I'm not sure how much of the event was organized by the estancia, or if there was an outside company that took care of the flow of events, but they did a fantastic job of providing entertainment for the "older" kids, having an earlier lunch time with kid friendly food, bouncy houses and other playthings with staff to watch the kids, all so that the parents could enjoy a meal together in relative quiet.

Look at all the open, green spaces!  If that wasn't enough, there is also a lake which makes for a picture perfect scene when you're riding a horse or taking a carriage ride.

Gretchen was extremely well behaved, and we were able to eat lunch with the adults in relative peace.  After lunch it was time to go for a quick swim, but as you can tell from this picture, she was getting sleepy well before we made it to the pool.
Daddy and his sleepy baby girl
After pool time, Gretchen was pretty amped up and needed some extra loving to get to sleep.  Jon's boss's wife, Silvina, was a complete baby whisperer and helped Gretchen to sleep while we were able to spend a few minutes of adult time chatting with other people around the pool.  This was a lifesaver!  Thanks Silvina!

If you're looking for an estancia, there are a thousand to choose from, but San Ceferino has my endorsement.  We would certainly consider it for a nice weekend away, and we hope that they will continue to hold the yearly Family Day event at this location.