Sunday, 15 March 2009

Villa General Belgrano and La Cumbrecita

We checked out of Le Grand Hostel in Córdoba, and got on the bus to Villa General Belgrano. I'd been looking forward to visiting this place since reading about it in my guidebook: I was promised chocolate and fresh German beer from the microbreweries in the town... It sounded like paradise. Indeed, as the bus rolled into the village, I began to think that it was actually paradise. The town's very clean and very posh, and it really did seem like being in Germany or something. We hadn't got round to looking for a hostel or anything before arriving, so we just followed some signs to a suitable inn. March isn't the peak season for the town (or for anywhere, for that matter), so we were lucky with the accommodation prices. We got ourselves a very nice room in a very nice little place, for not too much money ($145 a night, and this wasn't a hostel). I was a bit gutted that I hadn't packed my swimming shorts, as the place had a pool and everything. As it was, we didn't really have much time for swimming in the end (and I don't think I had the energy, either).

After dumping our stuff, we went straight out in search of some food (to be honest, I was in search of beer more than food). I had a nice honey beer. And some nice potatoes, too. It was siesta time, for me at least. The general story of our holiday was that I was continually falling asleep, while Cecilia did whatever Cecilia does while I'm asleep (to some degree, this seems to involve watching me and laughing at how much I twitch and jump while I'm asleep... Before the holiday, I had little idea that I did such a thing... Also, if I sleep on a bus, I look like a sack of potatoes being jostled about, allegedly).

Anyway, with my batteries recharged, we set off to go on one of the walking circuits available to us. We headed beyond the city limits and made our way up El Cerro de la Virgen. It was quite a nice trek, as it goes, although we both managed to sweat an incredible amount. The walk starts in earnest with a fairly steep set of steps - I counted over 110 of them. We climbed them without stopping, then stopped at the top for water and tic tacs. A bit of a rush. The view was worth it, though. I couldn't quite believe how much fun we were having, or that I'd chosen to spend most of my time in a busy and dirty city instead of just living in the country...

Cerro de la Virgen #6

It's a shame that I didn't actually take any pictures of the town itself... I must've been too busy looking for beer and chocolate. Still there are plenty of photos available, so here's what the town looked like:

We stayed in Villa General Belgrano for three nights and four days, which was slightly longer than planned. I would have liked to stay even longer, I enjoyed it so much. For the second and third days we were in the area, we took the bus to La Cumbrecita, which was even quieter still...

La Cumbrecita was further away than we'd imagined, but the trip was worth it. We only planned to spend a day exploring the area, but it had lots to offer. Our first day was slightly wasted, anyway, thanks to a later-than-expected arrival, and then a hilarious episode of trying to get lunch (i.e. we went somewhere with virtually non-existent service, before eventually just getting up and walking out). We saw a couple of nice places.


However, upon learning that there was a hill in the town called 'Cerro Wank', my juvenile impulses took hold and I demanded that we return the next day to climb this magnificently-named hill. And so we did, leaving on the earlier bus the next day and wasting no time trying to get served in posh restaurants. A mandarin and an alfajor were enough to give us the energy to climb the hill.

As it goes, I think we took an exceptionally long route to the top. My fault: I was leading. But the paths weren't at all clear, and generally bifurcated with no indication of which way to go. The only sure guide for us was a trail of manure left by the horses that lazier people use to climb the hill. Not us. We're hardcore, and in no need of horses. We climbed higher and higher. I didn't find it as difficult as the Cerro de la Virgen that we'd climbed a couple of days earlier, as it wasn't as steep, but I think it was a longer trip. We found the summit eventually.

At the top of Cerro Wank #1

The descent was far quicker than the ascent, even though we took a few wrong turns. We got to the bottom, ate a banana, and cooled our feet in the beautiful yet freezing stream. There was only one place left for us to see: the "big" waterfall (hey, I saw Iguazù falls earlier in the year: this wasn't going to be impressive...). We ate some lunch then got going to see that too.

The big waterfall was a lot further than imagined, and I don't think we were the only ones who were surprised by the location, as we passed some older and less fit people on our way there, and they must've found the whole trek incredibly difficult. It was by no means simple, even for an action man like me. But the fall was fairly nice, I suppose. By the time we got there, I was in desperate need of sleep. Thankfully, the bus home wasn't far away...

Sleepy Pete

Indeed, time seemed to fly in La Cumbrecita: we almost found ourselves rushing to get the bus in the end, after stopping off for some refreshment at a little place where the old lady served us tea and raspberry juice instead of tea and raspberry cake. In hindsight, it was better that she served us juice instead of cake, as we were more in need of liquid at this point than food. Whatever, we were soon on the bus home, which was what I'd been wanting for a while. I sat down, put on my iPod, and shut my eyes. Time to mimic a sack of potatoes again!

- - - - -

On our final day in Villa General Belgrano, we had a lie-in before going on another one of the walking circuits: to Pozo Verde.

Pozo Verde

The walk to the area where the Pozo Verde was located was a lot longer than expected, and far longer than the walk from the park to the Pozo Verde, which was a slight disappointment. It didn't bother us greatly, though, as the place was nice and quiet and we got to sit down and have a relaxing chat. The other attraction of the circuit was another hill. We started the ascent, but decided against continuing, as the midday sun was in full effect and the walk didn't seem to have much shade. So we made our way back to town for some food, beer and sleep before catching the bus back to Buenos Aires. It had been a very enjoyable week...

Alta Gracia

Alta Gracia is a shortish bus ride away from Córdoba: I can't remember exactly how long it took to get there, but the trip didn't seem long (maybe about an hour?). Perhaps Alta Gracia's biggest claim to fame is that it was the home of Che Guevara at various points of his youth: Che was an asthmatic, and back in those days they sent people with breathing difficulties off to the Sierra. And it's true that the air there is clean even today: as soon as we got off the bus, we were struck by how beautiful it was. It was very refreshing and I felt happy and relaxed instantly. We went to stand by the nearby pond to enjoy the freshness for a while.

Pretty pond

My Lonely Planet guide only mentions two things to visit in Alta Gracia: the Jesuit Estancia and the Museo Casa de Ernesto Che Guevara. The girl at the tourist office highlighted a few other places on the map for us, but in the end we only saw the aforementioned places. I found the Jesuit Estancia to be very interesting: full of old engineering tricks (nice toilets) and creative designs, such as different uses of leather. My interest in learning more about the Jesuits was growing, but maybe not to the point where I'll ever know quite as much about them as my guide, Cecilia... Whatever, the Estancia was certainly very pretty and well worth a visit.

Estancia Jesuita - inside

We mooched around looking for a place to eat, found very little on offer, and ended up back at one of only two eateries we'd come across. After eating, I needed to lie down in the park under the shade of a palm tree and have a snooze. It was quite blissful: a quiet town, at a quiet time of the day, with fresh air galore. The experience would have been perfect had the ants not annoyed me: at one stage, one of them decided to actually crawl into my ear, which I found a bit annoying...

After my little snooze in the shade, we headed for the Che Guevara museum. Neither of us had any real interest in seeing the place (if anything, we had more of an interest in not seeing the place), but there was little else on offer. We had a nice walk from the town to the museum, passing plenty of big houses. We asked ourselves what the people of Alta Gracia do to earn such a tidy living. The neighbourhood of the museum is clearly for rather wealthy people (a quick glance at a couple of posh girls who passed us by in the street confirmed this belief). Anyway, we got to the museum and reluctantly entered. It was small, it cost $5 to get in, there wasn't really much of interest there for either of us. Although I did learn that Che wasn't massively fond of killing animals or eating meat. He made an exception in the case of cows, though. The man couldn't resist a bit of beef! I must admit, resisting the red stuff over here is far from easy... Anyway, the museum was one of several houses Che lived in while growing up. I got to see the toilet he used to sit on and everything. Special.


That was Alta Gracia: we headed back to the bus stop, pausing for a good while at the pond where we started our visit. There were some nice creatures hanging out. It was a very relaxing place. The holiday was getting better, and I wondered what the next port of call would be like... After tasting the air, I was certainly looking forward to staying a few nights in the Sierra. I decided that I'd stop taking my asthma medication to test how I coped in the cleaner environment...

Orange-beaked duckie


I was lucky enough to spend last week away from Buenos Aires again, and my latest adventure proved to be my favourite trip so far. Cecilia and I went off to explore Córdoba, which isn't too far from us by Argentina standards (only 8 hours). We left at about 11pm on Saturday night, slept on the bus, and woke up at our destination. That's what I call an easy trip :-)

Córdoba was perhaps my favourite part of Spain, so I was curious to see what I'd make of the Córdoba in Argentina. I'd been told three things about the place: the accent was difficult to understand, the girls were the most beautiful in the whole of Argentina, and the Sierra was about as beautiful as the girls. It didn't take long for me to confirm the first of these points, as we checked in to the hostel we were staying at and the guy at reception started trying to explain something to me in a roundabout way, regarding a potential confusion of the booking. Sure enough, we were given a room with three beds in it. Things were looking hilarious. Thankfully, Cecilia took over and we got our point across. There had indeed been confusion with the booking, on a couple of levels: firstly, we weren't after a room with three beds, funnily enough, or even a room with two beds. And, secondly, the site I'd used to book had charged double the price. I had thought it was a bit steep... Anyway, everything got sorted by the time we'd had breakfast: we were promised a double room at a bargain price. Joy! The hostel was beautiful, as it goes. It was more like a hotel than a hostel. If you ever go to Córdoba, be sure to check out Le Grand Hostel. Anyway, enough talk about the hostel... Here's a picture of the church next to the hostel instead:

Pretty on the outside, dull on the inside

We kicked things off with by visiting a couple of art museums. The first, Museo Caraffa, had a massive photography exhibition going on. It was the usual mix of photos that were actually interesting and photos that were completely mundane, the latter being accompanied by the standard bullshitty blurb about their artistic merit. As proof of the fact that I wasn't alone during my visit, I took very few notes about what I saw (if I go to an exhibition by myself, I generally spend hours staring at stuff, but if I'm with someone else then I often feel a bit rushed). I did jot down one name, though: Tomy Ceballos. His photo 'Piel de mujer' had me wondering what technique he'd used to get the effect. Unfortunately, the accompanying blurb didn't go into much detail. Whatever, the museum building itself was rather nice. And, as promised, the girls who worked there were rather attractive (and remarkably charming and friendly, too). I don't have any pictures of the girls that worked there, but I too have a picture of the polar bear that was outside the museum:

Museo Caraffa, from the side

After a bit of lunch, we went to the Museo Superior de Bellas Artes to see a collection of art from across the ages. From the pre-modern era, there were a couple of nice paintings of animals, but other than that the work was standardly dull. However, the modern and contemporary pieces were a joy. It was a strange building; part posh palace, and part modern nightmare, complete with cowskin material covering the walls and banisters leading to the upper galleries. There was a very nice tearoom, which wasn't in operation, unfortunately. I sat there and stared at the big piece on the wall, regardless.


And after that, we checked in to our new room, got washed, and went for a Fernet and Coke. Córdoba is famous for Fernet, so I just had to drink it while I was there. I'd only tried it once before, on Christmas day. I won't explain what it is: you can read all about it on Wikipedia if you want to know more. All I'll say is: the best description I've heard of it is that it's a bit like drinking Coke after brushing your teeth. Regardless, it's quite tasty. I drank it every night we were in Córdoba. The generosity of the servings varies from bar to bar. One night I was given very little, and another night I was given so much that I was a bit tipsy...

On the first night we were in town, I had a strange dream involving an ex-captain of my school. Funnily enough, the next day we visited a school. It was very nice indeed: one of the many gifts left by the Jesuits. I know very little about the Jesuits, but Cecilia tried her best to educate me, and after seeing some of the good things they did for the development of the country I feel obliged to learn a bit more about them. Anyway, we saw the Jesuit school, then the non-Jesuit and not-so-pretty Faculty of Law that was opposite. A couple of students had just graduated, so they were getting covered in eggs, flower and vinegar, and being stripped. It's a tradition over here...

Law Graduate gets messy

Afterwards, we visited a pretty little Jesuit house quickly, then stopped off at the museum of the National Bank where I was fascinated by the early machines they had for counting money, and the handwritten ledger that they relied upon in the pre-spreadsheet era. It was far prettier than any spreadsheet I've ever seen, but it must have taken a lot more time and effort to maintain.


One of the things that stood out for me in Córdoba was how vegetarian-friendly it seemed to be compared to Buenos Aires. We had lunch at one of three vegetarian restaurants that I know about in the town. It was a self-service, pay by the weight affair. We got some beans in us. In fact, we went to another self-service (they're called tenedor libre over here) place for dinner, too, after spending the afternoon wandering around the big but not hugely attractive park. I got to play on the swings in the park, anyway, so I was happy.

And that was Córdoba: like I say, it's very pretty, but nowhere near as big as Buenos Aires (perhaps that's why it's so pretty). Allegedly, outside of the part that we saw, the city is a bit ugly, so we didn't venture there. Instead, on our third day in town, we got on a bus to nearby Alta Gracia...