Since we didn’t manage to make it down to the potentially breathtaking Patagonia, only the Northern Jujuy district managed to make an impression on me. It’s a real shame we didn’t have time to really see the best of Argentina in this trip.
The boarder crossing was a piece of cake unlike what we expected to be queuing up for hours. Perhaps it was Jan 1st and everybody’s on festival mode, we simply walked across the boarder at 7am without waiting in line at all, apparently the Bolivian side don’t even give an exit stamp ( we had to triple confirm that’s the case before we moved on since nobody speaks English here).
Crossing border changes everything. We totally forgot the one hour difference here, and also didn’t expect the sudden time organization on public transport and the disappearance of such thing called collectivo (mini bus that leaves whenever it’s full). Everything has a strict schedule here, so we missed the bus by 10 mins and found out there’s no way to get to our next destination without waiting for another two hours. Imagine two super hyperactive backpackers in need of stimulation stranded on a ghost town that has absolutely no shops opened on a new year day. At 3442meters, we burned calorie fast with our heavy backpacks and we were getting low on sugar that we had to feed on half a bag of local cereal that’s basically corn puff coated with sugar, raisin and nuts.
Two hours was quite a torture, we end up entertaining ourselves by firstly pulling out everything in our backpack for a serious repacking to make things easier to carry, then we pulled out all our wet laundry for an open display under the strong sun, chat amongst ourselves and getting a sun tan.
Even the bus culture changed dramatically, all our previous bus journey were with local travellers that were pretty quiet and speak softly. We now embarked on a party bus filled with young adults playing loud music and moving around the bus ready for a dance…
It was the night in the shabby $7USD hotel that I made up my mind to skip this entire section of JuJuy district because of the many unknown of bus schedule and timing, gladly a good night sleep totally fixed my faulty mind. Indeed transport was quite a bit of hassle in this part of Argentina, but if you are willing to just endure it a bit, you’ll find this provence as one of the most memorable part of Argentina (exclude the unbeatable Patagonia).
Humahuaca is famous for the colourful mountain but we already have been sensory overloaded with these ever since our ride from Tupiza. We decided to save our money not taking the shared jeep ride up to the hills and spend time strolling around the rather empty small town.
I stumbled on a backpacker’s blog mentioning this town that’s full of folk music at night, considering pretty lucky that we read about it and decided to stay here for the night, as this was the place where we found the best live music ever in our trip.
This is the most logical overnight stop fitting with the bus schedule, one can also consider staying in Purmamaca but seems to be much more expensive and much less accommodation options. Even the hostel in Tilcara was already considered to be quite expensive compared to what we’ve experienced in Peru and Bolivia. We paid $11.5usd each for a dorm bed and at that moment we felt like it’s an outrageous price…
Tilcara is tiny that it basically has one main street and a market at the park, but this place has its charm with the surrounded coloured hills and a very chillout vibe.
Most restaurant opens after 9:30pm and this is when the town came alive. A random search online took us to a small crowded restaurant, it took us no time to decide it’s the place we would spend the night at and we were lucky to take the last table available! The band is called ,local folk fusion music utitlizing all the local instruments including a variety of quena and the iconic panpipes, the traditional bombo bass drum and the 10 strings charango. The music kept us on the edge of our seats and our hearts pumping for a few hours until midnight. For most Argentinian, it seems like 9:30-11pm is the official dinner time, and for us we were already well starving and finished dinner at 6:30pm but regret not trying out the local dish during the live music. So two poor backpackers just sat there with a huge jug of lemonade for 3 hours!
Tilcara has a strange backpacker’s atmosphere, the moment when we checked in at 4:30pm there were people sleeping, at 12:30 midnight we were like the first one to get back to the hostel…be prepared to be nocturnal in Argentina!
My travel buddy seized the moment to talk to the musician who play the variety of flute yesterday on stage, found out that they would be playing again in this town and will be willing to give quena lesson for a price.
A massive crowd at the bus station and most bus to Purmamaca had been booked out, we had to make quite an effort to catch a taxi to arrive on time for the quena lesson and the lunchtime live music. Only a short 30mins away from Tilcara, the journey is absolutely stunning under a good weather, it’s a road following the river with coloured mountains on both sides. On arrival of Purmamaca, we were acting smart this leg, booked our ticket to our next stop Jujuy right away before wandering around otherwise we could have been sleeping on the streets or a need to backtrack back to Tilcara for accommodation.
Purmamaca is my favourite town of JuJuy provence, it almost felt like a cute tiny tourist town filled with handicraft shops and restaurants. The best thing about these shops in this part of Argentina is the uniqueness of each shop, especially the textile products are all very attractive and a massive variation can be found within and across different shops. We spotted a really nice poncho at a shop, with no hesitation we bought it right away…then we did the unthinkable—-we asked the shop keeper to keep our heavy backpacks there for a few hours so that we were totally burden free to explore the town. The shop keeper were so kind and really looked after our bags by hiding them securely at the far corner of the shop.
There’s a hill you can pay a price to get in to see the overview of the entire town of Purmamaca, but for us two cheapskate backpackers didn’t bother with it at all.
There’s very limited info online regarding bus connection, so a summary of tips for backpacker for Jujuy province:
-everything has a schedule, you can’t just hop on collectivo to take you somewhere, unless it’s a private taxi
-There are scheduled bus from La Quiaca–Humahuaca; Humahuaca-Tilcara; Tilcara-Purmamaca; Purmamaca-Jujuy; Jujuy to Salta.
-a few bus company available at each station, make sure you check the schedule.
-Better get your bus ticket the day before at the bus station,(we went during late December-Jan period and bus are packed)
-If no seats available(due to the crowd) from Tilcara- Purmamaca, taxi costs 300 peso for half an hour ride.
-Visiting each small town individually is much cheaper than taking a tour from Salta. Tilcara is worth a stay as the folk music is simply the best we found in our trip in South America.
-It will take two days from La Quiaca to salta (overnight at Tilcara), don’t think it’s possible to do it in one day because of the bus schedule.
-The best town we enjoyed is Purmamaca, two main place for more folk music during lunch time, lots of shop for buying cheap souvenirs.
We arrived at Salta around 8pm and was in a mad rush trying to find a travel agency to sign up for a tour heading to Cafeyate the next day before the shop close. Again it was similar to our Uros Island experience, we act desperately because we didn’t wanna be potentially stranded in a modern city with nothing much to do for the entire day. It ended up to be another bad decision to make to go on a tour without first checking the rainy season’s weather………
According to the tour guide this side of Argentina is basically a desert that has 360 days of sunshine, so we seriously hit the jackpot…..and it rained pretty heavily to the point of serious flooding on the street. A long bus journey from Salta to Cafeyate with the not so attractive view outside with the gloomy weather and the self entertaining non-stop talking bilingual tour guide onboard.
Perhaps we were already sensory overloaded and very satisified with the scenery at Bolivia, the tour to Cafeyate was a bit of a letdown all the way, taking the weather into account, it could have been a different experience if it were sunny.
But the tour was only $25 USD per person, if doing this independently it would cost around $20usd for a return bus (4 hours bus ride one way). So we shouldn’t be complaining really…the tour stopped at a few viewpoints for photo, including the gorge and also an included vine tasting and tour at the vineyard (we were very unimpressed).
The best thing about this tour….was the fact that we landed at Cafayate, a town that has loads of cheap cactus rainstick for sell. It was only in here we found them and invested on 6 long rainsticks that we began to get a little worried whether they are allowed on the plane and into the U.S.
We didn’t have time to explore Salta at all in the end….we spent most of our time in Salta with the Couchsurfer host who speaks minimal English.
Many travellers have been raving about a music jamming restaurant called La Casona del Molino, again it opens at 9pm. We went all the way only find a massive queue for table and an extremely crowded atmosphere. There’s no live band on a stage, this is more like a place for local musician to gather for jamming.
We were starving again at 10pm and decided to give up on this place, got a taxi taking us to Balcarce street lined with restaurants offering different kinds of live music on stage-from Tango dance to folk to loud traditional folk music. We ended up in one that has a poor PA system blasting way too loud music from the stage that we basically wanted to finish our food asap and leave right away…
Overnight bus in Argentina
Overnight long distance bus journey in Argentina is ridiculously expensive, from Salta to Buenos Aires a regular bus fare costs you $80 USD for a painfully long 20 hours journey. (If you book well in advance, a less than 2 hours flight would cost just less than $30usd) Someone was raving about how luxurious the bus service in Argentina is and we’ve been really looking forward to it since day 1 of our travel.
Our couchsurfer host disclosed a bus company Mario Ibarra that costs just half the price of the regular bus ticket around $35usd, the bus service run directly from their own bus station in town without heading all the way to the main bus station. Unfortunately they sold out of ticket for the day we wanted to leave…..we could have been wise to couchsurf another night with the host to save that money!
We used Flechebus, a regular semi-cama bus similar to those in Peru minus the luxurious service…only when we finished checking in our backpacks in the bus luggage storage that we realized that there’s no blanket and pillow provided. I almost had hyperthermia with that aircon in the bus…grateful that my travel buddy spared me a bit of her jacket for my survival.
There’s snack provided, but nothing compared to the proper hot food meal provided by Cruz del Sur in Peru….nothing came close to the experience we had in Peru that’s even half the price.
Our schedule had been changing ever since….a sudden impulse to tick off one more country drove us to Uruguay, just one hour away from Buenos Aires.
We got off the main bus terminal at Buenos Aires and decided to hit the ferry since the terminal is kinda right next to it.
Ferry to Montevideo/Colonia
Same as the long distance bus in this part of the world, the ferry service also was a bit of hassle for backpackers who’s looking for a less ridiculously expensive way to get around. There are three companies, there’re tricks to get a cheaper seats if you go with SeaCat (apparently you go on the same boat as the expensive Buquebus) or Colonia Express (that arrive at a different port in BA).
The whole ferry experience was quite surreal, as if we were suddenly transported back to an overly developed city that has overflowing resources to be spent on seemingly unnecessary places.
Firstly there’s the overwhelming modern building for Buquebus and their seriously complicated, time consuming way of getting a queue ticket for simply buying tickets were quite frustrating. Then there’s the puzzling check-in counter where we received like 3 duplicated copies of paper tickets after the initial paper ticket we got from the ticket office and the unusually clean immigration building. We were having a culture shock!
The cheapest way to Montivideo was via Colonia, another tiny chilled touristy town with Portuguese flavor filled with cafes and restaurants that’s pretty only on a sunny day. As we started to relax and wanted to unwind at a local ice cream parlor on a sun scorching day, only to find out a shocking reality here in Uruguay—everything is so damn expensive!!!! We couldn’t believe the price we saw on the menu, one cone of ice cream costs around $5 usd. 1 peso to 0.6 Uruguay. It’s even more than the European standard. We retreated from treating ourselves the ice cream thinking we could get a proper meal for this price in Argentina!
We then got onto the bus heading to Montevideo, a very comfy bus ride with amazing long long stretches of greenery outside all the way until the main city.
Apparently is the richest country in South America. Indeed judging from the street scene and the standard of living here, it’s rather outrageously rich and expensive, the contrast to other countries nearby is just too great.
Immediately we were transported to another world that has heavy European influence. Everybody speaks perfect English here. We were very grateful to be able to Couchsurf here with a very hospitable couple who dedicated their time on a weekend to show us around town and we’ve learned so much more about the local culture.
The weekend market was very vibrant, a massive area where all the streets are turned into an open flea market where you can basically find anything from second hand toy to musical instruments and furnitures here.
Seize the day when it’s sunny especially in this part of the world..on our second day in Montevideo it rained heavily as we ventured out to the old town that’s located right on the peninsula. A miserable morning, there’s nothing much to see apart from the typical European building and moderns shops….we headed back to the host’s home, fully soaked wet…quickly packed our bags to catch the bus and ferry back to BA.
The Mate (tea) drinking culture
This is the most interesting phenomenon on the streets of Uruguay and Argentina, we saw the market lined with people carrying large thermo pot and a Mate drinking cup on their hand with a metal straw. For the locals, mate is the equivalent of coffee, one take it with them wherever they go. It’s also a very sociable activity just like the western culture of people hanging out in cafe, here it’s free socializing…pick a spot, pick a random crowd, share the saliva and the tea (and pray that your new random friends don’t have any transmittable disease). They seem to have unspoken rules governing the sharing of the tea, the mug has to pass in the exact order, one person finish the portion until there’s no more tea, pass the mug back to the owner, the owner pass to the next person in the round…and so on it goes until forever. The mate powder never seem to run out of flavor!!
This is no ordinary tea, its intensity of flavor can beat the strongest Chinese tea, well it makes sense considering the large portion of tea leaves/powder they put into one single mug.
Crossing the border we immediately felt so rich again, we ordered a taxi to our next Couchsurfing host without thinking about saving money…
Uber is big misery for non Spanish speaker. Our host suggested Uber in the beginning as it’s cheaper than a regular taxi, we tried a few times, the drivers ignored us after we failed to communicate in Spanish. Off we went to queue up at the taxi stand, surprisingly find out it’s incredible customer service even at the taxi stand! First there’s someone asking us for the destination, then another person helping us to open the taxi door and even help loading all our luggage…two person serving us without any intention of asking for tips.
Argentina suddenly felt so much more down to earth, we were right about not treating ourselves for that crazily expensive ice cream and spared it for our dinner instead. Our host took us to a cheap empanadas chain shop, this whole box of tasty empanadas costed us only around $3.2 usd, less than a cone of that ice cream in Uruguay, and this box already feeds 3 person!!
Everybody online (forum post dated back to 2016) and our CS host warned us not to walk to La Boca but take a taxi as it’s a very dangerous area. We simply thought about the idea of taking taxi very unattractive and understimulating….we ignored all warning and walked to La Boca following the main road before cutting back into the La Boca area. There were nobody walking on that main road even in the middle of the day after we got out of Constitucion metro stop, more local appeared as we approached Caminito and it suddenly turned into a colourful tourist area. We walked there and back another way to the city center without any problem at all, it looked like a pretty well developed area unlike what we read online….so perhaps the government has done something about the area these few years or we were just lucky not to stumble across anyone that would hold us at gunpoint.
Anyway, La Boca wasn’t my cup of tea, you can no longer find any unique handicrafts like what we saw last in JuJuy provence, everything selling here are commercial factory made mass production items.
Dulce de Leche is an extremely sweet condense milk thing that’s been made into all sort of chocolate, drinks, spread, biscuit, ice cream…whatever you name it. Both of us don’t have sweet tooth, but simply curious what the local drink is like with it….and wrong move! We blame it all onto this drink that might have put back all the weight we’ve been trying hard to loose…….and we were so sick of anything sweet for a few weeks after this one intensive drink here in La Boca.
It’s very frustrating to find places to eat in Argentina. Most restaurant don’t have an English menu, and most place have a very specific period of time allocated just for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We attempted to try out a seemingly promising vegetarian restaurant at 11:30am for lunch and disappointment guaranteed, they insisted to serve us breakfast only. The breakfast menu we couldn’t read and it turned out to be another huge letdown……for the slightly pricey price we pay, we get just a whole plate full of bread and jam….
The food here in Argentina didn’t seem to impress us at all, only empanadas were the only exception.
Buenos Aires concluded our 26 days trip in South America. Home bound journey was as epic as the journey we had for the month in South America. United airline paid us $1500 usd each to give up our seat on our original flight and changed to an even better American airline to arrive in HK even earlier as scheduled!! We now have a technically free trip waiting for us to be back for visiting Patagonia and Iguazu Falls!!!