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Ascending the pass

After riding an overnight bus from Córdoba to Mendoza, I got right on another bus bound for Santiago.  (Mendoza will have to be explored at another time, when I have more time and hopefully either when it’s not so cold or I have appropriate cold-weather clothing.)  The bus heads west and follows a stream that’s about half as big as the Arkansas east of Salida, Colorado–and much of this area looked like the Cañon City area of Colorado.  

While the Córdoba-Mendoza bus didn’t appear to have heat at all, this bus did, but it was so cold outside that frozen condensate obscured views out the window, and I had a hard time keeping a 4 inch square part of the window clear to photograph the landscape.  Some Brazilian passengers up front attempted to clean the entire front window of the bus–which remained a futile effort until we were near Santiago and the weather was sunny.

The approach to the summit from the Argentinean side is L-O-N-G.   The road follows the river and an abandoned railroad bed (in this photo, you can see a railroad tunnel at left).  The mountain views are impressive, which helped me forget just how cold my feet were.

One thing you notice right away about these mountains is that there are no almost no trees.  At lower elevations (as in this first picture), there are low, scraggly bushes, grasses, and plenty of rocks.  In other places, you can see poplars or eucalyptus, neither of which are native to this area.

Railroad bridge over a river of sand

The effect that the elements have had on the railbed are impressive.  It appears this line hasn’t been used in 10 to 20 years.

A grass fire along the way

A mountain and valley view


Rocks, assembled together in the cold


A mountain sentinel




Homer Madness

Homer Simpson just sounds better in his southern cone accent–the Mexican versions are annoying, so it’s no surprise that he’s more popular here.  In fact, he has his own bar in Córdoba (Sorry, Moe):

and, he seems to live here in Santiago.


When I arrived here at the hotel in Córdoba, I was greeted with a friendly “but we don’t have a room for you.”  It seems that my reservation, credit card info, passport number, etc, weren’t enough; I actually had to wait for a confirmation.  Oops.  However, in my defense, it came AFTER I had left San Ignacio, and one would think that a confirmation (or denial) would come more quickly…than it did.  Anyway, they had one room left in the “standard” part of the hotel (i.e, unrefurbished); a room that reminded me of the Hotel Nacional in Oaxaca (don’t ask).  After the arduous trek from the bus station, I was ready to settle, and only after moving in did I realize the room didn’t have a shower.  So, I went looking for the shared bathroom down the hall, and after seeing it, I realized that my bathroom probably DID have a shower:  and there it was, on the wall behind the sink, hiding behind the open bathroom door, which is why I didn’t see it.  Yes, the entire bathroom was the shower.  That explained the squeegee on the long handle in the corner.  (Regrettably, I forgot to take a picture.)

So why were there so few hotel rooms?  “Conferences.”  I suspect this has to do with the fact that Córdoba is a university town—actually, a seven-universities-town.  So, imagine my relief when I discovered today that Córdoba will be hosting, in less than a month and not this week, the Copa América 2011—a really big soccer championship that EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WILL BE WATCHING, except, of course, viewers in the United States, which will be busy following golf tournaments and reruns of Murder, She Wrote.


 So, these were today’s highlights:

-Cripta Jesuítica:  While installing telephone cable in 1989, this Jesuit crypt (architect: Johann Krauss) was rediscovered after its top had been demolished in the ‘20s to make way for a wider city thoroughfare.  It’s a very nice space, with brick and stone columns whose arches end just shy of the top spans.  However, it’s a space in search of artifacts:  my favorite vitrine had an explanation of the International Day of Museums, a photocopied piece of paper helpfully glued to cardboard so that it might stand proudly, alone, in its glass case.

-Palacio Ferrerya:  an Italianate mansion in the former aristocratic neighborhood of Nueva Córdoba, the building is the attraction.  Much of the mostly Argentinean art is forgettable (there are some standouts), but the architecture is clearly the draw here.  The mansion has been retrofitted with a very modern glass extension on the front, which normally is something that just doesn’t cohabitate well with original styles (the Louvre and the Reina Sofía in Madrid are two examples), but this work is genius.  Patterned frosted glass allows you to see the original steps and entryway below the new handicap-friendly entrance.  Materials and lighting in this addition create a sense of mystery:  green and white backlit glass panels run from basement fourth floor; black wood stain and paint in the stairwells and the general lack of light in these spaces give you the sense that you have to feel your way up and down the stairs.  The stair walls and the space under the stairs are finished in black cowhide (with the fur); creepy, at first, but this design is as much a work of art as any painting or sculpture in the galleries.  Clear glass retaining walls that look over a four-floor atrium intensify the sense of height (and fear), and backlit milkglass floors in front of the elevators make you hesitate to step on them–are they solid?–as you move toward those doors from the black floor.

-Museo Historico del Colegio Monserrat:  a tour of the public spaces in a public magnet-style secondary school in the former Jesuit school.  Imagine going to school in a UNESCO World Heritage site!  Of course, you’d have to wear a black blazer to school everyday.  Some of the students were wearing their blazers with shirt and tie; others, over collegiate-style t-shirts.  Students attend the school either in the morning or afternoon classes—there are some 1700 (?) students in the school.  Until the ‘70’s, there were no women teachers, and, sometime after that, girls were invited to attend.  Students take a test to enter this competitive school in sixth grade (normally, students in Argentina start secondary school in 7th grade).  Tuition:  about 80 pesos, three times a year.  Total:  US $60/year.  I got to see the faculty lounge:  it’s about as big as our biggest classroom at Harding, and features a grey carved mantlepiece and fireplace, as well as one of the most important paintings at the University, a Cuzco school painting of the founder.  After having seen this, I know what the faculty needs and deserves at Harding Charter Prep.  One of my favorite parts:  seeing the detention book in the museum.  Miscreants were sent to a small, dark room with a low ceiling, where they would kneel on some kind of spiny local plant for several hours in penance.  Now I know what students need at Harding Charter—a serious detention room, plus the blazers.

-Religious goods store, near the Dominican library.  People here are serious about their religious goods.

-Tour of the Museo de la Universidad, part of the Jesuit block.  We pretty much ran through these rooms; you must do this as part of a tour.  This part of the Jesuit block is also pretty fabulous (though I’ve seen better sacristies in Spain, and the whole place smelled of kerosene).  The library was housed within sealed glass cases, and the walls were a beautiful mix of large round stones and long flat bricks.  The “graduation room” was an overdone, ornate thing where professors grilled doctoral students for three days (the public was invited; if candidates were successful, they’d ride a donkey around town after the examination).

-Vespers with the nuns at St. Catherine of Siena.

-Saw part of a demonstration of the Mothers of the Disappeared in the main plaza (General San Martín).

My continued efforts to get into the Ignatian Capilla Doméstica have been frustrated by closed doors; the Museo Arte Religioso Juan de Tejada is en refacciones.

Check out the pavers in front of the cathedral and cabildo (kind of like city hall; that will have to do for now) at this Google Maps satellite image.

Buses I

Buses here in Argentina are much like those in countries south of the Rio Grande/Bravo.  The world could learn a LOT from bus service in Latin America. They’re relatively comfortable, inexpensive, and practical. Here, they generally run on time or close to it.  Bus stations here have been nicer than those I remember visiting in Mexico, and that’s based on one simple criterion: they just smell better.

Most buses here are Mercedes or Volvo/Iveco built, many with MarcoPolo (=fancy) carriageworks. The line I’ve used the most is Crucero del Norte. If you like yellow and brown color schemes, you’ll be delighted. Their advertising shouts, “Buy your tickets online! Make 6 payments with credit and no interest! All destinations!” Their drivers wear navy slacks and yellow-orange shirts, with epaulettes. This company is only one of the transportation companies that offer varied classes of service within first class: semi-cama (2 seats x 2 seats, center aisle), cama with service (2 x 1) with seats that fold about 130 degrees, and suites (which I have yet to see, supposedly fully flat beds). The suites do look pretty fancy, what with their individual monitors and all.  Only “basic” First Class lacks attendants–who is frequently the relief driver.

Crucero del Norte serves a hot dinner, about 10 pm, of course; it puts airline “food” to shame. This hot dinner–both times I’ve overnighted on this line–was roast chicken on mashed potatoes, and assorted sides: one time, a rice salad with some suspicious green vegetables stirred in; another time, something that looked like a jelly roll–but, wait!  That’s not jelly, it’s sausage!  (It was not delicious.)  Also, rolls, mayonnaise, crackers, cookies (lots of nourishing starches) and a dessert.  Dinner is served with soft drinks, wine, beer, or just water, if you like. I was surprised to see last night that dinner was preceded by an offer of whiskey; shockingly no one on the bus took up the offer; I immediately regretted that I didn’t sample some of that special whiskey in the funny globe bottle. (Research question:  where is the Kentucky of South America?) After dinner, we were offered champagne; a sparkling wine with a Crucero del Norte label featuring pictures of its buses! A bus line that’s also a vintner! Now that does explain some things.

Is it open?

A store without light is no indication that it is closed. Many stores, especially in rural areas or where the store does not require light down every aisle–say, a paint store or bakery in San Ignacio, Misiones–operate with a single light bulb or none at all; lights are sometimes turned on for customers. Sylvia says utilities in Argentina are very expensive (although hydropower supplies more than one third of the electricity consumed).  The high cost of electricity has led to a proliferation of those loopy fluorescent bulbs everywhere—even in spotlight fixtures at UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Society of Jesus Church here in Córdoba–impressive whether lit or not.


Safety in developing nations is always a topic of interest to those of us who live in the first world.  Here in Argentina, as in many other nations, pedestrians have few, if any, rights, so it’s essential to stay alert if you want to avoid the Flat Stanley.  Traffic is generally frenetic, and the bigger your vehicle, the more rights you have (especially if you are a bus).  So, transit laws are, as my friend Paul says, merely a suggestion.  There is an entire set of traffic customs that I do not yet understand—for instance, at highway speeds, a left-hand turn signal can either mean, “I’m turning left ahead,” or, “Go ahead and pass.”  It’s OK and expected to use more than one lane on a multi-lane highway.  At night, the bus drivers I’ve rode with normally flash their brights just as other large vehicles are approaching.

On Monday, I took a bus from Puerto Iguazú to San Ignacio, at the southern end of the province of Misiones.  The attendant at the Crucero del Norte counter (an upscale bus line) referred me to a line with service in Misiones, the A. del Valle line.  These double-decker buses are blue and white with big pink tropical flowers and “Semi-Cama” (cama: bed) plastered all over them, which look great in the promotional pictures, but with road dirt on them, they’re less than attractive.  It’s typical that provincial bus lines like this will stop to pick up passengers at roadside stops, even if the bus is labeled “Fast.”  The driver will stop to pick up any passenger with an extended arm, as long as there’s a seat on the bus.  Because this bus started at Puerto Iguazú, I got to choose my seat at the counter, so of course I chose one at the front corner, as I’d done on the trip up from BA.   Boarding the bus, I was dismayed to see that this seat I’d chosen was the only one covered in toxic brown stains which, fortunately or not, seemed permanent.

When you sit in the front row, there is a 30 square foot piece of glass in front of you.   There are big red stickers on the front windows of the bus that inform passengers that they MUST wear seat belts in the front row.  And, the A. del Valle bus does indeed have seat belts up front—except they’re missing the male connector at the end of the belt.  So, you can still be in compliance by placing the belt on your lap, but I’m not sure you’d want to, as they’re even more stained than the seat in which I was sitting.

Most buses come with air conditioning—essential on sunny days when you’re behind so much glass—and this bus, did, too! although it lacked a fan powerful enough to push that cool air around the cabin.

Yesterday, Tuesday, I went to San Ignacio’s small bus terminal and took the first fast bus that was headed to Posadas, to catch a nice bus to Córdoba.  The bus from San Ignacio was not a colectivo (a junior-sized bus, always one level, sometimes like one of those stretch church buses you see that are actually bloated Ford vans.  They’re also sometimes like a city bus.)  No, the bus bound for Posadas was a double-decker, with real seats.  Unfortunately, it was standing-room-only; I chose to trade the comfort of an actual ticket on a later bus with the possiblity of arriving at an earlier hour.  On these big buses, you board behind the front wheel and climb a stairwell that goes up over the wheelwell to the upper level.  There’s usually a small seating area, 8 seats or so, on the lower level, and they’re supposed to be reserved for the aged and infirm.  So, on this bus, I got as far as the fourth step.  This vantage point allowed me to see nothing but part of the stairwell wall, lots of work and tennis shoes on the upper level, and about 2 meters of asphalt right in front of the bus.  Oh, and did I mention that it’d been raining?  A lot?  And that Misiones is famous for its red dirt?  So, after about eight or ten kilometers of riding in the mud on the fourth step, considering how many bones I would break in an emergency stop, some passengers from above descended, and I moved to the top, where I then had a ten meter view of the pavement in front of the bus.  And that this bus also did not have seat belts for the front-row passengers.

Shortly afterwards, there was a traffic slowdown, and police were directing traffic in a single lane over a bridge over an arroyo.  All that could be seen of an accident that had taken place on the bridge was the drive train of a truck or bus, upside down on the highway.  The concrete guard rail had been sheared off for half of the bridge’s length.  There was no other wreckage to be seen, probably because what was left was far below the bridge’s surface.  Passengers around me emitted gasps of astonishment for the violence of this accident, and some speculated that it had been a colectivo.  I looked at the front window of our own bus, where a crack the length of the window had been siliconed, and hoped there would be no occasion for me to cannonball through it.  Safety in developing nations seems to be a concept only for the rich; lives are simply worth less here.

Names of businesses

Mexico doesn’t have the market cornered in names (e.g, “Pan Bimbo.”)  Here are a few:

Moreno Moron (logo seen on a T-shirt; I don’t know what this is)

The Scorpion Motel (somewhere around Santa Fe, AR.  Motels in Brazil are generally not for sleeping; I’m beginning to think the same is true here in Argentina.  Another one I saw last night from the bus was “Motel King Kong,” with a very buxom blonde in his arms on a huge fluorescent-lit sign out front.)

Disco (A grocery store.  I imagine Granny saying, “I’m going to the Disco.”)