Hitchhiking through NW Argentina and eating everything in my way

I love Argentina – and I haven’t even eaten the steak yet. There’s too much else to eat. Churros, ice cream, empanadas, fried hotdogs – and the hostel I’m in offers breakfast AND dinner, which is a first in my whole four and a bit months’ travelling. Empanadas tonight.

Argentina is the food section of my travels, and I’m getting fatter by the day – a man in the street even called out ‘engordar‘ to my friend and I as we walked past eating figs. That’s right Argentina, I’m here to get FAT.

My time in this beautiful country began in Purmamarca, a small town in the northwest that is famous for its rock of seven colours. It turns out there’s a rock of 32 colours down the road, just to compete.

I got off the bus bound for Salta early with a Chilean girl called Tamara. She’s a gorgeous hippy chick with super-long hair and a back-breaking 95-litre backpack full of awesome clothes. We arrived in Purmamarca at 9.30pm after a six-hour bus journey became a 12-hour bus journey and it was pitch black and completely deserted. I hadn’t even planned on getting off in this small town, as the bus was ultimately bound for Salta, but I decided I’d been on the Gringo Trail too long and made the executive decision to get off it and explore.

Tamara decided the same thing, so we headed out into the very dark but delicious-smelling streets of Purmamarca, full backpacks on, to find somewhere to stay for the night. After countless unfriendly hostel owners and not a single other tourist in sight, we heard some music, followed it into a folklore bar and discovered they had nice rooms above the bar for only just a bit over our budget. We spent the evening drinking Stella and listening to the local band play, much to Tamara’s absolute delight and my ever so slight disinterest.

The next morning, eager to see the sight the town is famous for – its mountain of seven colours – we had breakfast with two Argentinean guys who had a car and promised to drive us to the big rock. It turned out they were officially the laziest people in the world and the mountain was 20 metres from the hostel, which they knew. We then went for a little drive around the area to see the canyon and mountain landscape while the designated driver got high on weed.

We soon got rid of the 30-year old teenagers and made the much more mature decision to hitchhike to Iruya, a small canyon town several hours north; not because there were no buses – one went past us in fact – but because it would just be more fun.

It was more fun. After 20 minutes of standing on a sunny, tree-lined road and teaching Tamara the word ‘thumb’, a big shiny black truck came past carrying two Argentinean tourists on their way north to Bolivia. We hitched a ride with Leo and Sebastian all the way to Iruya stopping at all the small towns on the way. The drive was spectacular – coloured rocks on either side of the windy road. We drank mate tea and I daydreamed about my first Argentinean steak while they chatted in rapid Spanish. Iruya was a pretty town that would have been lovely to spend more time in, but we had to get moving, so we rode back to the main highway and hitched a ride back south to General Guemes, near Jujuy, with a young truck driver carrying beer and Coke. We stopped to drop off the cargo and a few hours later said goodbye to Sebastian Number 2 – but not before he bought us dinner and a bus ticket to Salta…

We then managed to find the worst hostel in Salta. For $40 pesos (US$10) you get hot water for tea that you have to provide yourself and a bed with unwashed blankets. When we left for a hostel recommended by two English girls we’d met on the bus before we suddenly found ourselves in a brand new hostel with comfy beds, huge spaces, clean everything, a bath (yes, a bath!), plus breakfast and dinner, for the same price. They also played Britney and Backstreet Boys on the speakers all day, which was the real clincher for me.

We spent the first day eating – well, I did. I had ice-cream, figs, steak, mashed potato, sweet pastries, lots of veggies, chocolate yoghurt and bread and jam (what day goes by in South America when you don’t eat bread and jam?).

Later, Tamara and I went out to a folklore bar with a Kiwi glacier guide who’s cycling South America. My first steak also happened here and was a devastating disappointment. Next time I’m ordering a cow still mooing.

The next evening I found out why my credit card had been declined constantly over the past week. It had been cloned and some moron in Austin, Texas, has been buying sports shoes and tat from Walmart with it. Classy use of my money, idiot. I called the bank and they told me to call them back on reverse charges because it would take a long time. So I called them through the operator and just as we were getting to the bottom of it (after being asked by the girl at Halifax “So is Argentina not in the USA then?”) the phone booth operator realised I was making a collect call and cut me off. I yelled in my best Spanish, stormed out in a huff and stuffed my face with pizza and empanadas after having a little cry.

We also decided to hire a car. We wanted to go to Cachi and Cafayate, a wine region, but didn’t want to take the tour where you get out the bus when they tell you to, take pictures of what they tell you to, then herd back onto the bus like sheep. But we couldn’t afford to go it alone. As soon as word got out in the hostel that we were looking for people to join us, we suddenly found ourselves enquiring about 12-seaters. In the end we settled on two French boys, Ben and Philipp, and a fellow Brit Rosie, who’s currently writing her second chick-lit novel.

It was a fantastic and hilarious two-day road trip. Rosie and I taught the others the term “take a slash”, and realised how much we miss British humour. My favourite part was her tale of dysentery (sorry for this Rosie) where the doctor asked her for a urine sample, but her Spanish didn’t stretch to medical terms, so she assumed she understood him and pooed in a cup. For the second day in a row I cried, but this time thankfully with laughter. We had such a blast on the road trip, stopping every 20 seconds to take goofy photos of us jumping, dancing, lying in the road, making llama shapes and climbing big rocks. It was sunny, we had Backstreet Boys CDs and we had Oreos. We spent one night in a campsite hostel, putting extra mattresses on the floor to save money and whiled away the evening in a café eating beef and drinking beer. And as always when you’re new friends, conversation never dwindled and no one wanted to punch anyone.

There was only one tiny little incident that almost forced us to turn back on our three-hour journey and go back to Salta: we managed to time our drive around Argentina’s famous Ruta 40, a single road around the mountains, with a very recent landslide. We were the second car to turn up at the point on the narrow mountain road where the cliff had crumbled into a pile of precarious (and still falling) rubble, with nothing but a sheer drop on the other side. A daring 4×4 braved it and survived, while we stood there eating sandwiches on the boot of the car and wondering what happened to the car full of Dutch tourists we’d passed with a cheery hello earlier on in the journey. There was only one way to go after all. As soon as this was vocalised we all peered over the drop off the side of the mountain to see if there was a car of Dutch over the edge. Thankfully there was not, so we resumed our cheese and ham sandwich eating, cursing not having made more, and watching while more and more cars sped up to the landslide and skidded to a halt. Eventually a couple of enterprising old men with shovels came along and started tipping the rocks over the edge. We tried to help but just got told to keep eating our sandwiches and stay out the way. Eventually one brave car crawled across the rubble, and everyone else followed, including our own Philipp – alone I’ll add. A high-five for Philipp and we were back to the important task of finding the exact spot the photo on Rosie’s postcard was taken from.

When we finally arrived in Cafayate at lunchtime on the second day we celebrated our journey with a hamburger and a wine-tasting tour at one of the many bodegas. This one was extra awesome because it had a ginger cat wearing a cork collar. And some nice wines too.

We then said goodbye to Rosie, who wanted to spend an extra day in Cafayate to sunbathe (I’m painting a really good picture of you here, aren’t I? So sorry…), and sped off in the direction of Quedebra de las Conchas, a road flanked on either side by bright red rock formations. We took the obligatory 3,465 photos, while singing (and dancing) to Eye of the Tiger, Full Monty and Backstreet Boys, and several hours later were sadly back in the city, with Tamara ready to hit the town for some folklore music, and me and the boys ready for a quiet beer at the hostel, lame-traveller-style.

This morning I boarded my first proper long-distance bus from Salta to Buenos Aires, party capital of South America. I now have 21 hours to kill and am the least prepared I’ve ever been for a bus trip. I have no Oreos, sandwiches or anything fun. I have two apples. Two apples! What was I thinking?