Volunteering in San Rafael-wine country!

Following our injection of tourism, it was time to settle for a volunteer placement once again-this time spending 6 weeks in San Rafael, Mendoza region, wine country!
Quite the different proposition to Aldea Luna, here were volunteering at an Argentinian finca and boutique hotel-as we had arrived during low season there weren’t too many guests to tend to, and so we spent a lot of the time preparing the hotel for high season.

While we had the experience of organic farming in isolation in Northern Argentina, here we found ourselves tending to horses, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats and geese in the shadows of the Andes. Daily duties were simply to feed the animals and tend to any odd jobs around the hotel, and to sort out lunch for Nicole, the owner, and her parents, Hugo and Carmen. Once again we found ourselves in a predominantly vegetarian environment, and to be honest I thoroughly enjoyed adding a number of delicious vegetarian recipes to my repertoire…Including the taste sensation of beetroot, carrot, ginger and garlic gyoza!

Overall it was a super relaxed and thoroughly social placement-Nicole, Hugo and Carmen were absolutely brilliant, and we had many a laugh and good night!
As with all of our placements, even though the work didn’t exactly fall into the ‘life skills’ category-it was invaluable to work with someone like Nicole-who has an keen eye for detail and impeccably high standards. Not surprisingly there are a number of awards from TripAdvisor proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel.

San Rafael itself is a quaint little town full of bodegas and, more importantly, delicious ice cream parlours. Obviously it wouldn’t be acceptable to be in Mendoza region without some wine tasting, and so we indulged in the local favourite of Jean Rivier to whet our appetites-an appetite that would be fed quite regularly during the remainder of our time in Argentina! Here we also finally broke our duck on Argentinian ice cream, and what an experience that was. Cheap and delicious gelato, with a list of flavours as long as your arm, ice cream is something of a passion in Argentina, and now we truly understood why!

Other highlights from our time here came from interaction with the guests and Nicole’s friends-particularly the opportunity to attend, and then conduct, Argentinian BBQs-or asados as they are known. Unlike the British equivalent, where you go to the shops grab as many burgers and sausages as possible before rushing to a gas powered BBQ to cook them before the sunshine disappeared, an asado is a much more considered event. Obviously the fact that you have glorious sunshine certainly helps-so great big hunks of meat would be slow cooked over a couple of hours on wood coals made from burning local hardwoods…Certainly no gas powered BBQs or bags of coal to be found here! Chorizos, morcillas (black pudding), chinchulines (cow small intestines), mollejas (sweetbread), and other organs, are served first while the larger cuts of beef are left to slow cook over the coals.
The result is a wonderfully tender and smoky beef sensation, including the salty deliciousness of small intestines (chinchulines), a delicacy that, prior to tasting, I would have definitely turned my nose up at!
Obviously it helps that you get to use Argentinian beef, regarded by some (mostly Argentinians, obviously!) to be the best beef in the world…Why? The beef’s quality apparently comes from the grass the cattle feed on. Unlike other countries, most Argentine cows are not fed on grains, but are raised eating grass in the pampas, the biggest beef producing region of the country where open flat plains dominate the landscape.
All of this washed down with wonderful red wine-obviously!

For sure it was an unexpected injection of some luxury into our volunteer journey-and we did get pretty comfortable there-but by the end of the 6 weeks we were ready to continue, a bus journey across the Andes awaited, Chile was calling!

 

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!

Argentina and the moon-Aldea Luna

Having had a ‘holiday’ from our travels back in the UK, we excitedly boarded our next long haul flight to Buenos Aries for the South American branch of our adventure. Having been the perpetual tourist in South East Asia, this leg of our journey is something of a different proposition, not least because of the expense. The plan for South America is very much to do more volunteering, try to learn Spanish, and be more of an intermittent tourist.

During the end of our time in Asia, and throughout the summer in the UK, we scoured HelpX for different opportunities to plan out our time in Argentina. Being blessed with a UK passport, we have a 90 day VISA on arrival throughout the South American countries, and so plenty of time to get settled at various projects. Our first confirmed opportunity, a month at Aldea Luna-a private nature reserve and organic farming project in Jujuy Province, Northern Argentina.

And so we arrived-ARGENTINA!

Yeah that’s right, we were in Buenos Aries!

We landed at Buenos Aries and literally had 24 hours before having to make the 1000 mile, 24 hour bus journey to Jujuy-so what do you actually do in that time? Well we paid a visit to the cemetery of course! As per our guide, TripAdvisor, the grave of Evita is one of the must see things to do in Buenos Aries, and given the fact that it was free and relatively easy to find-we decided that would be the best use of our time. From being in predominantly Buddhist countries for the last 8 months, and spending a lot of our time visiting sites of worship, it was quite ironic to now be visiting Catholic sites of importance-given our own apathy towards religion. The cemetery in Buenos Aries certainly is ‘up there’ in terms of the grandiose and bizarre-with rows and rows of mighty funeral chambers for the families of the wealthy and influential in Argentina. You’ll see from the pictures that this was like no other cemetery that you would find in the UK:

Streets of death...!

Streets of death…!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Grand monuments and palm trees!

Don't you open that Trap Dooooooor.....Cos there's something down there!

Don’t you open that Trap Dooooooor…..Cos there’s something down there!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was some element of humour?! Or perhaps alluding to the fact that they were poisoned!

Certainly we didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore this vast capital, but that was down to our own miscalculation in thinking that our upcoming journey was only going to be 8 hours, rather than the 24 hours that it actually was. Still, it gave us an immediate opportunity to gauge the standards of the much lauded long distance bus services in South America-and first impressions certainly were positive. You choose from a number of seating options, from which we chose one down from the top where you enjoy a fully reclining seat and some sort of food for the journey. The seat was comfortable enough, the food was lousy, and we ended up with a bit of cabin fever due to the fact that the driver wouldn’t let us leave the bus! Still, nowhere near as terrifying as the various land transportation that we encountered in Asia, and pretty much bang on time we arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy. Weary and hungry, we soon found ourselves a hostel for the evening-and hightailed it out to a restaurant recommended for llama steak! Yes, that’s right, we ate llama and it was delicious!

All of this was just a precursor for our destination proper-Aldea Luna. This was our first true experience of ‘off the grid’ living for a little while, solar energy, cold showers, organic gardens providing the majority of our meals-and a chance to really learn some of the life skills that I always bang on about. With some difficulty we eventually managed to get in contact with the hosts to inform them of our arrival, and got ourselves an early night prior to our 7AM bus into the unknown. All we knew was that we would be getting off the bus at Tilquesa, and someone would be there to meet us and take us on the 3km hike to our home for the next 4 weeks. This time our bus journey was a much more ‘local’ experience-dusty winding roads taking us through the mountains before eventually dropping us in the middle of nowhere-just a sign to signify the fact that we were at our desired destination. We were met by Annabella, a long term volunteer at Aldea Luna, and she lead us off on the surprisingly challenging hike-fast forward one hour and we had arrived, breathless and sweaty, ready for action! First impressions were breath-taking, as I’m sure you would understand:

Aldea Luna 'clubhouse'!

Aldea Luna ‘clubhouse’!

Aldea Luna in all its glory

Aldea Luna in all its glory

The month that followed really is difficult to describe-it was absolutely incredible. In our hosts, Martin, Elizabeth, Matias and Ana-we found inspiration, warmth and a wealth of knowledge. We learned about organic farming, construction, cow conflict, life and laughter-and thanks to Matias we also learned a little about philosophy! Martin and Elizabeth bought the land that Aldea Luna sits on about ten years ago, they spent a couple of years walking the cow trails and through the forests-really getting to know the land, before deciding on a spot to build their home and a couple of extra cabins for volunteers and guests. Since then they have shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with countless volunteers-and I feel honoured to now count myself as one of the lucky few to have benefitted from their hospitality. To give you the ‘official’ Aldea Luna description:

Aldea Luna is a family enterprise, financed only by tourism and volunteers, without any financial contribution by the government or ecological organization or NGO.

The family members include Martin and Elizabeth and our son Matias and daughter Anna.

We are open to other people that want to live in our village (Aldea) for long periods of time or permanently…. We listen to propositions…

The experience that we chose is certainly not for the lazy or workshy, we had opted to be full time volunteers-and as such we committed to seven hours of work per day….And the work was tough, extremely rewarding, but tough! We were not looking for a holiday resort-here we really learned what it is like to live in a different way-to be as self-sufficient as possible, and to have to meet problems and challenges on a daily basis. We lived in a house in the forest made of clay, no electricity and no hot water-which in itself presented a shock to the system. Not to mention the fact that we were in bunk beds….Albeit bunk beds in a wonderful clay cabin in the forest!

Our Aldea Luna home

Our Aldea Luna home

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

Not a bad view to wake up to each morning!

I'm sure you'll agree it's a 'strong' look for cementing!

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a ‘strong’ look for cementing!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Then the paving just got a little crazy!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

Sam took me on as his apprentice, and this is what we made!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

And then there was the washing up, oh the joys of the pots!

For those that read with interest but do not fancy volunteering, they do host guests, and do a part time volunteer course where you can also learn Spanish. In hindsight we would have loved to have taken advantage of Elizabeth’s excellent language classes-but for sure we came away with a lot more than what we arrived with.
Not only does Elizabeth teach Spanish-her gardening and cooking ‘seminars’ are brilliant! Often we would find ourselves tasked with a job in the garden, and with no idea how to complete said task-queue a gardening master class from Elizabeth. Usually accompanied with a pressure relieving assurance that everyone makes mistakes-it’s OK that you thought the garlic was actually a leek! From the garden to the kitchen, again under the tutorage of Elizabeth, and more often than not Annabella too. Very much a group activity, the vegetarian fare was incredible, so much so that I can honestly say that over the month I really did not miss eating meat at all! We had revelations in peanut soup, and something of a collective addiction to chilli-and bread, oh so much bread!

For the times that you weren’t in the garden or cooking, you may find yourself filling your time collecting cow poo…invaluable manure for the vegetables. Or you would be with Martin and a team of people trying to ‘cow proof’ the garden with ongoing fence repairs. It doesn’t sound like something that would be too taxing, cow proofing a garden, but seriously-there was one cow at Aldea Luna that had skills like no other! Deftness of foot, dexterity, astute fence breaking skills-the bane of our existence for four weeks. It was funny how these things bring people together, together we built up an entire persona for the animals and together many a laugh was had with the cows as the central characters!

Martin and Elizabeth taught us how to lay concrete floors, repair chairs, cement crazy paving and build tables-but it wasn’t all work, work, work….For come the weekend something quite spectacular would happen in the mountains of Aldea Luna-the generator would be powered up, the disco lights would spring into life, the glitter ball would start to rotate on its axis and you will see Martin bouncing in front of his laptop entertaining us all with banging tunes on a fantastic sound system! Never would I have believed that just twelve people could create such an atmosphere! As we would be gluttons for punishment, the party was usually on a Saturday night leaving us in a right old state to tackle one of the many hikes on the following day. The forests, rivers and mountains that make up the reserve offer some wonderful treks with plenty of food for the soul-perfect for soaking up the excesses of the prior evening.

Our final walk, the most challenging...(the biggest hangover)

Our final walk, the most challenging…(the biggest hangover)

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

Mountains, forest and river-we had it all!!

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

The many hiking trails to explore during your free time, each one offering something different.

While we were there we had the good fortune to be accompanied by some fantastic people who we worked, cooked, danced and hiked with-we shared in the joys of success at finishing various projects, as well as some frustrating defeats at the hands of extremely wily mountain cows. All of whom we can now call good friends-who knows, perhaps sometime in the future we will call upon them to help us with a project of our own!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

Aldea Luna Dream Team!

And that’s just the people, I haven’t even begun to wax lyrical about the dogs, woodpeckers, fireflies, chickens, many wonderful birds of prey or the toucans! Everything working together in its natural environment to make this a truly wonderful and special place.

Toucan play that game....

Toucan play that game….

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Spot Woody-the woodpecker!

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

Tree, mountain, cloud-repeat

The gardens!

The gardens!

Ever seen a 'moonrise' like this? Me neither

Ever seen a ‘moonrise’ like this? Me neither

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Some of the local bugs were spectacular

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

Possibly the most photographed tree in Argentina!

It was hard to leave at the end of our month there, but I do not think that is the end of this story-we may well return to Aldea Luna at some point….

Adios amigos!

Adios amigos!

If you want to get in contact with Martin & Elizabeth, check out their website Aldea Luna