Ar­gentina spe­cial Plus Hong Kong’s new bul­let train Lo­cal’s guide to

From the bad­lands to the bar­rio bars of Buenos Aires, and where to stay in be­tween

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joins us later – to show us around and un­cork a few bot­tles.

An at­trac­tive lit­tle bodega set in the mid­dle of the vines, it’s re­fresh­ingly lowkey for a non-afi­cionado like me. The four reds are gor­geous but the best is a knock­out dessert wine, a tor­rontés, the only na­tive Ar­gen­tinian white.

I spend the evening at an­other small vine­yard, the iso­lated and beau­ti­ful Graf­figna Yan­zon in the Ped­er­nal val­ley, which looks out over vine­yards to the snow-capped pre-Andes. I en­joy a fan­tas­tic ses­sion (sorry, tast­ing) with the owner’s son, the bound­lessly en­thu­si­as­tic San­ti­ago, of more de­li­cious wines, in­clud­ing an im­pres­sive chardon­nay/ sau­vi­gnon blanc blend.

“That works,” I tell him. “It’s got the cit­ric nose of a sau­vi­gnon but more body, like a good chardon­nay.”

San­ti­ago – who is more used to en­ter­tain­ing the likes of for­mer Ob­server wine writer Tim Atkin, a big fan of the re­gion, than duf­fers like me – shoots me a where-did-that-come-from look: “Yes, that’s ex­actly why we cre­ated it.”

It comes from sit­ting down with a wine­maker and en­joy­ing the wine in a re­laxed way – rather than the hur­ried sniff­ing and swirling you’d get on a tour in a more es­tab­lished wine re­gion. The aged mal­bec is even bet­ter: beau­ti­fully rounded, it’s the best wine I taste in Ar­gentina.

I’ll have a bot­tle of that with din­ner, please, with a fat, juicy Ar­gen­tinian steak of course. Be­cause luck­ily I’m stay­ing the night in the bodega’s equally im­pres­sive two-bed­room posada.

“I’m a wine­maker,” says San­ti­ago. “I’m not re­ally into tourism, but thought I’d give this a go.”

If that’s true, he’s hit the bulls­eye with his eyes closed. It feels at once classy and re­laxed, tra­di­tional (fur­nished beau­ti­fully with an­tique heir­looms) and mod­ern, with huge pic­ture win­dows over­look­ing the moun­tains on one side and the vines on the other. I could stay here for a week, gaz­ing at the moun­tains and work­ing my way through the wine cel­lar.

This is the first bodega ac­com­mo­da­tion in the area, and it took some find­ing from the UK. My trip was run by Trav­elLo­cal, which, like all UK op­er­a­tors, re­lies on lo­cal agents to or­gan­ise itin­er­ar­ies. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates this firm is, as the name sug­gests, that it puts clients di­rectly in touch with the lo­cal agent. So while plan­ning my trip, I honed my itin­er­ary over dozens of emails with the op­er­a­tor in Buenos Aires. But even they had trou­ble find­ing a bodega stay in San Juan (sug­gest­ing in­stead that I go to Men­doza, where there are dozens). It was my guide on this trip, Car­los, who told them about the lit­tle gem that is Graf­figna Yan­zon – a good ex­am­ple of how Trav­elLo­cal works.

Like Au­gustín and San­ti­ago, Car­los is a pas­sion­ate San Juanista, who knows ev­ery road and vil­lage of his prov­ince – and is keen to show me all of it. He takes me to outof-the-way places such as the lit­tle white adobe chapel in Calin­gasta, built in the 17th cen­tury, where in­de­pen­dence hero Juan Martín stopped to pray be­fore walk­ing to fight in Chile. An­other cu­rios­ity is the Viejo Molino in Huaco, an elab­o­rate, bril­liantly bonkers 200-year-old wa­ter­mill whose ev­ery com­po­nent is made of wood and which looks like a mu­seum piece de­signed by a mad pro­fes­sor; it still shud­ders into life once a week to grind the lo­cal wheat.

But th­ese are just stops en route to the re­gion’s star at­trac­tions: Ischigualasto pro­vin­cial park and the con­tigu­ous Talam­paya na­tional park, just over the bor­der in La Rioja prov­ince.

Ischigualasto takes its name from an indige­nous word mean­ing “land with­out life” and is also known, fit­tingly, as Valle de la Luna. The sur­real moon­scape of rock for­ma­tions re­minds me of the fa­mous na­tional parks of Colorado and Ari­zona, but with two dif­fer­ences: there are no crowds, and this re­gion is as fa­mous for what’s in the rocks as for the for­ma­tions them­selves. There are fos­sils here rep­re­sent­ing the en­tire Tri­as­sic pe­riod, the era of the first di­nosaurs, be­tween 251 and 199 mil­lion years ago. The way all seven epochs of the Tri­as­sic pe­riod are

ex­posed to the sur­face makes the place a palaeon­tol­o­gist’s dream.

The park’s mu­seum has a com­plete fos­sil of a vi­cious-look­ing her­rerasaurus, one of the ear­li­est di­nosaurs in the fam­ily that in­cludes Tyran­nosaurus rex and the ve­loci­rap­tor. On a three-hour jeep tour, we ex­plore a desert land­scape so raw it feels like the Earth at the be­gin­ning of time. It’s easy to imag­ine di­nosaurs roam­ing this des­o­late land mil­lions of years ago – it looks like a de­serted Flint­stones set. While we’re there, a brood­ing sand­storm turns the sky chalky white and the lay­ered rocks into a mono­chrome ver­sion of the Grand Canyon.

The next day, by con­trast, the ad­join­ing Tam­palaya na­tional park is bright sand­stone red un­der a sear­ing blue sky, a South Amer­i­can Mon­u­ment Val­ley. And here we are free to walk, still with a ranger, through the in­cred­i­ble land­scape. As with other places in San Juan, our guide, Hec­tor (a ringer for Fidel Cas­tro), doesn’t speak English; but Car­los trans­lates, and I don’t need many words to ap­pre­ci­ate the spec­tac­u­lar canyon un­der sheer, 150- me­tre sand­stone cliffs and the stun­ning moun­tain­scapes. “Ev­ery­one finds their own beauty in the rock for­ma­tions – an­i­mals, faces, pat­terns,” says Hec­tor.

On a half-day walk the three of us have the place to our­selves, save for the odd gua­naco (small llama) rest­ing in the shade and long-legged mara rab­bits scut­tling into the bushes. It’s a rare priv­i­lege to be so alone in such a place.

San Juan’s ob­scu­rity will end, at least tem­po­rar­ily, on 2 July next year, when it will be one of the best places to wit­ness the to­tal so­lar eclipse (see panel, right). Ex­pec­ta­tion is al­ready mount­ing – Car­los emailed me last week to say “Yes! All the planet will visit us in 2019!”

What I love most here is driv­ing through vast empty land­scapes. We do a bit of off-road­ing, but Ar­gen­tinian high­ways are ex­cel­lent (bet­ter than in the US, for ex­am­ple) and with a tiny bit of Span­ish and a good map it would be pos­si­ble to do a self-drive ver­sion of this trip.

On my last day we take the high­way south down the dra­matic west­ern side of the prov­ince, in the shadow of the glacier­topped An­dean peaks to­wards the Chilean bor­der. The smooth, empty roads give us plenty of time to ob­serve the con­dors soar­ing over­head, grey foxes in the bush and South Amer­ica’s high­est peak, Aconcagua, glis­ten­ing in a cloud­less sky.

On an all-day drive, the clos­est thing we see to any real traf­fic is a group of gau­chos herd­ing cat­tle down the road. We pull over ahead of them to take pho­tos and, as they ap­proach, one plucky calf makes a bid for free­dom, scarper­ing through the bushes. Like a bul­let from a gun, a gau­cho flies up the bank af­ter it, gal­lop­ing at full pelt, and las­soes the an­i­mal first time. This sends him, the horse and the calf ca­reer­ing down to­wards the road. The other an­i­mals start to kick off, the gau­chos are shout­ing and there’s a stupid, awestruck tourist in the mid­dle of it all, try­ing to take pho­tos. Car­los screams at me to get out of the road to avoid be­ing charged by a mad run­away cow, but I freeze, more with the sheer ex­hil­a­ra­tion of it all than with fear.

I had come to San Juan for a taste of back­coun­try Ar­gentina … and here I am, caught up in the mid­dle of a real-life gau­cho cow­boy movie.

• The trip was pro­vided by Trav­elLo­cal

(trav­ello­cal.com), whose eight-night trip to Buenos Aires and the San Juan re­gion costs from £1,530pp, in­clud­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, some meals, ex­cur­sions, trans­fers, driver and guide, but not flights. A six-day San Juan-only pack­age, which can be bolted on to a longer itin­er­ary, costs £1,480pp

There will be a to­tal so­lar eclipse for a full two min­utes over the south­ern hemi­sphere on 2 July, 2019. For most of the day the sun will be over the south Pa­cific and only vis­i­ble from land near sun­set, over a nar­row band of cen­tral Chile and Ar­gentina. The good news is that much of th­ese re­gions is desert or semi-desert, so there is lit­tle chance of cloud cover and good po­ten­tial for ex­cel­lent view­ing con­di­tions.

Best places to see it

To­tal­ity will be ex­pe­ri­enced on the coast of north­ern Chile, near the port city of Co­quimbo, and in cen­tral Ar­gentina. The best places to see it in Ar­gentina will be the desert ar­eas of Pis­manta, be­tween the Andes and pre-Andes moun­tains, and near the town of Bellav­ista – both are in San Juan prov­ince and less than 200km from San Juan City. The eclipse will also pass just south of Buenos Aires and the coun­try’s other ma­jor cities, Cór­doba and Rosario.

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