12 MAR 2012 – Malbec and Straw Bales

We left off on the last blog, waving goodbye to Chloe’s parents on the dock, and then enjoying the sights of Valparaiso. And what a pretty place it was too, all colourful with painted houses perched on the hillsides surrounding the bay and the old Victorian funiculars still (mostly) in action.

We spent a couple more days in Valparaiso before getting back on the bikes to head towards the Argentinean border once again, with Mendoza in our sights. After riding northwards along the coast, past exclusive seaside residences and golf resorts, (no poverty seen here!), we eventually turned inland.

The border crossing we were aiming for is at 3185m above sea level, so on leaving the coast, we had quite a way to go. Up. And how does one get 3185m above sea level to cross the Andes? By traversing the side of the mountain, 29 times in this instance, up a narrow valley between the monstrous mountainsides that were Mount Aconcagua on one side, (the highest peak in the Andes, and in the South American continent, standing at 6962m), and Mount Juncal, (standing proud at a modest 5180m) on our other side. The scale was almost suffocating as we wound our way up in-between them. This is a route that you would not want to do in the winter! All those curves could send anyone off balance just looking at them. A couple of half-tunnels had also been cut into the rock where they obviously couldn’t be quite sure that the side of the mountain wasn’t going to come crashing down onto the road…

Safely on the other side of the border, the Argentinean side of the pass steadily cruses down the mountainside without the rush of having to get up over 3000m with too little space. On the way down we passed the Punte del Inca, a natural bridge originally formed by the river below, and also the site of thermal springs. The water from the thermal spring is high in calcium, sulfur and iron, which combined, gives the bridge and adjacent rocks an interesting orange crusty coating. Back in 1925, a hotel was built across the bridge, and a bathing house built on the rocks. The hotel was destroyed in a landslide in the 60’s, but the bathing house is still there, tormenting all the visitors because we were not allowed to cross the bridge to explore its caverns!

Dropping down from the mountains, the heat began to build and we found ourselves descending into a rocky, barren desert. Our first sight of South American cacti did make us smile though, so despite the sweat dripping off us, we made a quick stop to inspect a couple and have an obligatory photo next to one!

That evening we arrived in Mendoza. The temperature was nearly 40deg at 7pm and we were wondering how on earth we were going to sleep in a room with only a fan blowing around hot air. We needn’t have wondered – we didn’t sleep, and staggered down to breakfast the next morning with puffy eyes. Luckily the hostel had another room we could use which was much cooler, so we had a mildly better sleep for the next few nights.

Apart from being ridiculously hot, at least when we were there, Mendoza is a pleasant town surrounded by bodegas (vineyards). A wine tour is a must when you are in Mendoza, especially to see and taste their speciality which is Malbec. The grape was apparently brought over from France where it had completely failed and the name Malbec in Europe was scorned as being one of the worst wines produced. In Mendoza however, the grape has thrived in the intensely hot dry climate and is now known as Argentina’s best name in wine, and the traditional tipple throughout the country. So if you’re in a supermarket and are looking through the wines, try an Argentinean Malbec and see what you think! For those who don’t know their wines, it is a red!

So we went on a wine tour to several bodegas, tasted lots of different wines, and had to buy at least a couple to keep us company one those long cold nights…. Or not so cold nights.

When we weren’t drinking wine, we wandered through the multitude of plazas that are overlooked by grandly decorative buildings, sat in nice little street-side cafes and walked through the humongous park that adorns the north of the town, complete with lake and everything – All very nice!

From Mendoza we were going to a small town just south called Tunuyan where we were to spend a few weeks working as volunteers on a small, self sufficient homestead, aptly named Huerta de Vida, ‘Garden of life’. Although it is actually named after the owner’s daughter, Vida, it translates pretty well!  On the way to Huerta de Vida we made a quick detour for a night to San Rafael and the Canyon del Atuel. A lovely evening was spent sipping tea next to the plaza and watching the sun go down, followed by an exhilarating ride through the canyon the next morning.

We arrived at Huerta de Vida in the afternoon, met Margot briefly before she dashed off on an errand, and were left to find a shady place to pitch our tent amidst the animals, trees, ditches, new house (under construction) and the other volunteers’ tents. Not before stripping out of our sweaty riding gear and hanging it all up to dry! We soon learnt that the organized chaos mellowed later on into a genteel fireside dinner accompanied by beer, wine and good chat. With a late night trip to the sauna in the woods on a couple of occasions!

We spent the next three weeks working at Huerta de Vida. Other volunteers came and others went – continually changing faces and a sure feat to handle for owner, Margot.  As well as the vegetable garden to tend, the water irrigation, the animals and the general land management, Margot is also in the process of building a new house. The new house is now four years old and is still under construction! Volunteers have built the vast majority of the house during the summer months, over the last four years. In the winter, Margot has some peace and quiet to herself, living in her little cabin which was the original building on the site.

We got stuck into the building work straight away, although we weren’t without other chores. We were both in charge of the animals, consisting of approximately 20 chickens, two sheep and eight rabbits. Chris favoured the sheep, Chloe favoured the rabbits and the chickens were a necessary evil! Apart from the eggs that they laid which were definitely not an evil, especially on the breakfast plate. All the volunteers had to take turns cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner too, to spread the load a bit. We didn’t spend much time in the kitchen though, as being ‘building specialists’ we spent 95% of our time working on the house.

The house – constructed of locally sourced timber for the frame, straw bale infill panels and mud/ clay render, is an example of naturally sustainable construction, with the ability to be a sustainable building once it is finished. The thick straw walls are great for insulation, and will keep the heat out in summer and heat in in winter. The plan and setting of the building is such that it will take advantage of the sun and light at all the right times. There is space for an internal greenhouse for growing plants and of course there is the natural irrigation system already in place around the whole of the site.

When we arrived, we asked Margot which areas she was concerned about, and then set to, fixing the leaking roof, resolving misaligned walling and finally infilling panels in the last remaining room in the southern external wall.

Chris had his hands full setting out the framing for the external doorway, infilling the wall panels with cañas, (like thin bamboo) and straw, then covering with a clay render. Hanging the second-hand doors was a little bit of a challenge, especially when the frame had been measured wrong(!), but he made it in the end, especially with the help of Ana, his budding assistant and (relatively) newly qualified architect from Spain.

Chloe spend her time trying to work out a way to incorporate the Zia sun symbol into one of the straw bale panels, using glass bottles. There was a lot of time spent thinking, drawing, and then making up a frame to support the bottles. After the frame was made and in place, it was all covered up in mud to be seen no more – shame! Next to it was another window where we used a reclaimed car windshield for the glass. Both the glass bottles and the car windshields have been used throughout the house because glass is expensive, and reusing old glass is of course more sustainable.

We left Huerta de Vida feeling good. Feeling good that we were able to make a difference and do something productive for Margot in her search for a better, more sustainable lifestyle. We learnt a lot, we met lots of great people, and we now know how to look after sheep, chickens and rabbits! Even Sam learnt how to plane a log – well done Sam!

So three weeks after landing on Huerta de Vida’s soil, we were off, back on the road due east towards Cordoba. Having been living with Margot and the other volunteers for three weeks, it because abundantly clear how abysmal our grasp of the Spanish language is! We duly decided to enroll onto a Spanish course for two weeks in Cordoba.

The road to Cordoba passes through the region of Santa Luis, amazingly green and lush compared to Mendoza which is barren and dry only a few kilometers to the west. We stopped off in an attractive ‘holiday’ town called Merlo for one night, nestled within the western hills of the Sierra de Cordoba. Although only considered a small hill range here in Argentina, the ‘hills’ actually stand between 2200m and 2790m – almost twice the size of Ben Nevis! Riding due north along the western edge of the Sierra de Cordoba, we passed dozens of small little roadside stalls, outside little individual homesteads, selling local crafts, jams, oils and colourful woolen-wear. We wound our way through the countryside, through small villages and then up and over the pass to the other side of the Sierra.

Before reaching Cordoba itself, we took in the sights of Alta Gracia, a town built up around an old Jesuit Estancia, (Estancia – a self sustained farming estate, usually with workers’ housing, church, school etc.). Dating back to the 16th Century, the original Jesuit estancia was centred around the main chapel, with the administrative and sleeping quarters built to the side in a cloister-style fashion. This central courtyard still remains, but the surrounding area has been taken over by the more modern town.

The next best thing in Alta Gracia is the childhood home, and now museum, of Che Guevara!  Ernesto Guevara was born in Rosario hospital, near Buenos Aires, and for his early years the family lived in Buenos Aires city. Ernesto was born with breathing problems which lead to severe asthma, which led the family to move to Alta Gracia when Ernesto was a small boy, for the ‘better air’. The house they lived in has been turned into a museum, containing many family photographs, the full history of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s life, and a bronze statue of him as a boy, seated on the wall of the veranda.

A little fact: The name Che was only given to him as a nickname when he was on his third, (and life-changing), trip around South America when he was in his mid twenties. ‘Che’ is actually an expression used commonly in Argentina which means ‘hey’ , or ‘dude’, or ‘bro’ and is often slipped into sentences as common slang. Ernesto Guevara’s Cuban comrades nicknamed him ‘el Che’  (the Che), because of his frequent use of the word which they found highly amusing. The nickname stuck and he even took it into office with him after the success of the revolution, signing his signature as only Che on official governmental documents.

Without wanting to go into his life history on our blog, if you’re interested in brushing up on what you know about him, look him up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara

And we also learnt that the motorbike he rode on his second trip, (which subsequently broke down!), was English-made! Good ol’ British engineering!

After being thoroughly bombarded with talk of motorbikes and revolutions, we got back on the bikes and made for Cordoba where our host family were waiting for us, and we were anxiously waiting for our return to school!

Revolutions started                                                          Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

Person who noticed altitude sickness first              Chloe 1 v 0 Chris

Bike crashes on gravel track                                          Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

Bike crashes while wearing shorts and t-shirt        Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

Skin missing from knee and shoulder                         Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

Mullet hair styles                                                                Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

Walls built with bare hands                                            Chloe 1 v 1 Chris

Scared by giant spider in sleeping bag                      Chloe 0 v 1 Chris

First to see boutique hotel in middle of nowhere   Chloe 1 v 0 Chris

Recommended reading for those of you who like a bit of controversy and politics:

Confessions of an Economic Hitman , by John Perkins

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4 Responses to 12 MAR 2012 – Malbec and Straw Bales

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  3. katie maher says:

    I wait with eager anticipation for the next instalment of your adventures and you never fail to meet expectations. Glad to see the glass bottle window wasn’t quite covered up — it looked truly amazing and an absolute dedicated work of art. hope Margot was appreciative. Good luck at “school” xxxxx

  4. Anna Yeung says:

    Great installment! Those windy mountain roads looks fun!! And nice pose Chris!

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