Cordoba & Cumbrecita

Last Sunday I started the week off by wandering around and getting to know the eerily empty streets of Cordoba. Argentine mother’s day ensured everyone was celebrating with their families and not in the city center, giving the town a ghostly feeling. Eventually we happened upon the city’s main plaza and that’s where huge crowds had congregated, but it was just to form a two block long queue to catch a bus to the afternoon’s soccer game. 

Stefje and I searched a while before finally finding an open restaurant, but we found a fancy brunch spot serving up a mother’s day set menu. Two entrees and a bottle of wine later we were fully satiated and slightly inebriated, the perfect afternoon to lull us into a late afternoon siesta. 

That afternoon the streets really came alive for the first time for the weekend’s street market. Unlike some South American markets hawking factory made goods and DVDs, Cordoba’s night market was packed with meticulously detailed handmade fare, including jewelry, ceramics, mate cups and specialty notebooks. The quality and attention to detail combined with the energy of live music everywhere we turned made the whole scene exhilarating. 

Monday Stefje and I decided to be productive humans by taking care of some traveling to-dos. First and most important was a long overdue trip to the lavenderia to get some clean clothes. Second, we tramped all the way across town to the Argentinian equivalent of a Western Union to pick up money I had transferred myself. The local currency is in such flux that fledgeling secondary markets provide up to 1.5 times the international exchange rate for US dollars, with the highest rates being for hundred dollar bills. At the ATM, $100 would have been equivalent to about 950 pesos. By doing a direct exchange, it can fetch up to 1,560 pesos. Freshly rich, our third stop was some overdue medical treatment at the local hospital. Although I thought I had broken my toe running the previous week, I got some x-rays and it turned out to be just a fracture, so I was sent on my way with a clean bill of health. 

That afternoon we returned to some more exciting touristy ventures, strolling through the colonial heart of Cordoba. Established in 1588 as an important city for conquistadors to get South American trading goods to the central port of Buenos Aires, the Spanish invaders brought a strong sense of culture with them. Quickly they established churches and some of the oldest universities on the continent, but tragically also wiped out all the indigenous people. Today the city is one of Argentina's finest center for the arts, due to its contemporary museums and colonial churches. 

Walking around, we marveled at the sheer volume of human traffic in the city center, which primarily consists of peatonals (walking streets). Compared to the deserted scene we encountered on Sunday, all the shops, pedestrians, and energy was a sight to behold. For five months now I’ve been in South America, but I can honestly say that no city I’ve encountered has been anything remotely similar to Cordoba. The culture is decidedly more European, with plenty of wide avenues, trendy boutique shopping, and for once even a multitude of bookstores.

There were even plenty of aspects which made me feel like I was back in an American metropolis: cigarettes! yellow taxis! crossfit gyms! high heels! In fact the most curious aspect of Cordoba may be the ridiculous proliferation of platform shoes among the women, who must feel as though they are an integral part of any outfit. 

Tuesday was actually my 25th birthday, so I celebrated my quarter century in style: chocolate cake for breakfast, delicious craft beer for lunch, and champagne, wine, and steak for dinner. Stefje and I also decided we wanted to check out the mountain villages of the Sierras before returning to the big city for some weekend celebrations, so we caught a bus that morning and made our way out to the gorgeous countryside, winding through the curvy mountain roads. 

In the early afternoon we arrived at Villa General Belgrano, one of the oddest sights I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Right there, tucked in the middle of Argentina’s Central Sierra mountain range, is a town that is 100% German. Established by the crew of a German submarine which sank off the coast of Argentina in World War II, the residents preserved German culture and today it’s still full of typical German architecture, restaurants serving up bratwurst, and even an Oktoberfest, for which we unfortunately arrived a week late. Nevertheless, we were still able to procure some smooth artisanal beer and traditional German fare for lunch. Our arrival also brought the average age in the town significantly lower, as both tourists and residents were mostly of the white-haired variety. 

A few hours later we moved a little deeper into the mountains to the little village of La Cumbrecita. Delightfully charming and surrounded by picturesque views of rolling hillsides, Cumbrecita is a tiny yet extremely popular weekend getaway for Argentinians in the summer months of January and February.

We arrived in early spring and most of the hotels and boutique lodges were still closed, as there were maybe less than a dozen tourists in town. On the outskirts of town we found a nice campsite with rolling green hillsides and set up our tent, happy to find that the only other inhabitants were a few dogs and two majestic horses. 

When we went back into the center of town to try and find some dinner, it was a spooky sight: the streets were completely empty and almost every restaurant was closed. To celebrate my birthday we resorted to purchasing a bottle of bitter champagne and popping it off on the bridge, which was the lone hot spot for the town’s young people to congregate, whipping their motorcycles around and laughing boisterously.

Afterwards we went to the one open restaurant and enjoyed the perfect Argentinian meal: malbec wine and bife de chorizo, a fine cut of steak. 

Wednesday we took it slow in the morning, so that by the time we made it into town there were already more people than the night before. At the tourist office we picked up a map of the trails in the area around town and picked out a not very strenuous hike to see the surrounding scenery. We started by walking through town, which is basically a park itself when you consider all the wooded trails and sense of seclusion. Each curving mountain path is populated by at least one set of cabins for lodging, each one with their own wood-carved sign. 

Our first destination was La Cascada Grande, the biggest waterfall that’s just a short walk from town. It wasn’t at full force after nine consecutive months of the dry season, but it was still flowing beautifully, the water falling softly into a crisp, clear swimming hole and slowly crawling over moss-covered rocks. We relaxed for more than an hour under the fall’s enchanting sound, entertained by a family of six snapping dozens of photos, their small boys overflowing their pockets with rocks to take home. 

From there it was on to La Olla, a watering hole too cold to swim in, but beautiful to ogle at nonetheless. 

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 4.33.12 PM.png

Our final stop on the ambling walking tour was just a few hundred yards away, where we stopped a little further downstream at Lago de Las Truchas for an afternoon picnic. Unpacking the groceries we had purchased and finding a nice flat rock to lie down on, we lounged for as long as possible until some dark clouds rolled in and ruined the party.

That was our warning to return to the main part of town, but luckily the rain held off and we were able to enjoy an afternoon beer on the rocks next to the stream that runs through town. It was the perfect place to just take a step back and observe the absurdly slow pace of life in La Cumbrecita. 

For dinner that night we again struggled to find an open restaurant, venturing far into the outskirts of the pueblo before finally finding La Colinas. An impressive gastronomical feat in a town devoid of fresh ingredients, the upscale German family-run restaurant was far out of our normal price range, but as the only option available we enjoyed the rare fancy meal. 

Thursday morning I peeked out of the tent and was hopeful that the sun looked like it was about to start shining through, but eventually the weather fell victim to an overcast sky. That day we decided to opt for a more adventurous hike, starting by chugging to the top of Cerro Wank, only 1715 meters in altitude but a far cry from the minuscule town far below. 

In the distance we could see that we were now higher than the other viewpoints we had planned to explore that afternoon and they didn’t look nearly as promising, so we changed plans and chose the more challenging route higher into the Sierras behind us. To get there we had to scramble up and down some rock faces, following a trail at some points yet making our own way at others. At the peak of one particularly challenging climb we were finally granted a flowing panorama of the valley surroundings us; from that vantage point we could see the promised land. 

As a river wound like an S through the valley with mountains of either side, it framed a beautiful spot of land that we simultaneously agreed would be the perfect spot for lunch. We traversed down the cow poop riddled hillside to get there, trampling the underbrush and crossing the river until we had the whole untouched valley to ourselves. In the future it will be hard to beat that afternoon, filled as it was by laughter, gorgeous views, and the ever-present sound of water rolling by. 

On the way back Stefje and I conferred and decided the only thing that could make the day any better was some Argentinian wine. In town we purchased a box - for just $1.25 USD, oh Argentina I adore you! - and wiled away the afternoon on what could optimistically be called the town’s main drag, watching the few passerby. That evening we both agreed we were simply not interested in another fancy restaurant, so we eschewed the town’s meager options and self-catered a feast back at the campsite. Just as we stepped into the kitchen’s protective overhang, a light rain enveloped the town, pattering the aluminum roof all through the night. 

Friday morning I peeked my head out of the tent and was astounded at the sight: a thick layer of fog blanketed the hillsides, dropping the visibility below 50 feet. We packed up our things and headed off into town, where a power outage had turned the early morning town into an even more lonesome sight than normal. Despite the fact that we could barely see the road in front of us, we set off at a brisk pace on the only road out of town. At the onset of the paved road we expected some kind of intersection with the possibility of more cars coming by so we could try and hitchhike, but Cumbrecita is truly the end of the line. The two of us kept walking until we found an overhang where we could safely stay dry while trying to hitch a ride. Again we used Stefje as bait, putting on her friendliest face and sticking her thumb out in pleading desperation. 

Due to the paltry flow of traffic it took over an hour for ten cars to go by, but that tenth one stopped! In the course of the next 22 minutes our driver covered the same ground that would have taken our bus over an hour, speeding along at upwards of 150 km/hr and depositing us right back in the center of Villa General Belgrano. Thanking our lucky stars for the quick ride, we triangulated our position in reference to the road back to Cordoba and ended up hauling all the way across town to Route 5, positioning ourselves on the South side. No sooner had we stopped walking than we were picked up for the second time, a stroke of simply amazing luck. 

This time our driver was managing a beat-up pickup truck that topped out considerably lower in speed, but he was still wonderfully friendly and told us all about his job as a phone technician for Claro, one of South America’s biggest cellular providers. Due to having three passengers and only two seatbelts he could only take us as far as Alto Gracia, dropping us off before a police check point. We pulled into a gas station, him lamenting our departure as much as us. But good things come in threes, and our luck for the day hadn’t run out just yet. After 15 minutes an old sedan and its driver accommodated us to Cordoba, covering the final 30 kilometers. The effervescent Lucas led the way here, a car mechanic rich in laughter and full of Argentinian stories, yet devilishly difficult to understand due to his thick accent. Even though his car shop was on the outskirts of town, he drove us all the way to the center and pointed us in the right direction back towards our hostel. 

Maybe we’ve just been extremely lucky so far, but hitchhiking in Argentina has been infinitely more rewarding than riding expensive tourist busses. Each driver has been more than willing to share his hospitality, stories, and knowledge of the country while meanwhile being equally eager to learn about us. In short, they want to ensure that our experience traveling across Argentina is one to remember. So far, they've certainly succeeded. 

So Friday afternoon we were back in Cordoba city, four hours earlier and 150 pesos richer than if we had taken the bus. Even though we had already spent a few days in the city, we also had the feeling that there was so much more to see, so we spent the afternoon exploring on foot. Eventually we worked our way over to Parque Sarmiento, the largest in the city and a burgeoning mecca for afternoon fitness classes. After months traveling through countries without so much as a gym in sight, it felt weird to be surrounded by joggers, small group classes, and workout equipment once more. In the evening Tango hostel hosted a big grill out, roasting a big mix of meat and offering drink specials to get everyone ready for Friday night in the town. 

In standard fashion for this country, it was after midnight by the time a group of us hit the streets in search of some of Cordoba’s legendary nightlife. Venturing into the student-filled section of town, the streets were packed with pedestrians and many of the clubs sported long lines. Thankfully the girls in our group ensured we got in straight away and for free, dancing long into the night. 

On Saturday I laced up my walking shoes and pounded the pavement yet again, trying to see a few more of the city’s numerous sights. Cordoba is gluttonously rich in culture, with plenty of museums, churches, and colonial sights to choose from in addition to a burgeoning theater, dance, and music scene. First up was Paseo Buen Pastor, a kind of outdoor museum built into a city block that’s lined with photography exhibits and artwork made from recycled glass. 

Then it was on to Capuchinos Church, a stunning display of architecture on both the outside and inside. The curiously designed steeples of different height are supposed to represent the juxtaposition of God and man: God’s is complete, whereas man has tried to imitate him but perennially falls short. 

In the afternoon we ventured back to Parque Sarmiento, this time exploring the other side, which is decorated with some modern architecture and offered some spectacular sunset views of the city skyline. 

In the night we wrapped up the week with another spectacular dinner: a dozen fresh empanadas in various flavors from a perfect little hole in the wall shop. My favorite by far was the caprese, made with fresh tomatoes and gooey cheese. 

The crafts market was back again that night and I ventured out to scope the scene, admiring the energy and camaraderie among the shopkeepers. But what really caught my eye was the impromptu circus performers, with two guys on giant unicycles juggling bowling pins from 10 feet in the air. It was just another reminder of all the crazy sights Argentina has to offer: I'm on a mission to experience as many as possible!