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January 29, 2013
During our time in South America, we are visiting six countries and one territory (French Guiana). Argentina is the country where we will spend most of our time, totaling almost one month. The eighth largest country in size in the world, Argentina has a variety of terrain, as well as history and culture. We began our time in Argentina by visiting two of its cities: Córdoba and Mendoza.
Córdoba is Argentina’s second-largest city, after Buenos Aires, with a population of about 1.3 million people. To get here, we took our second overnight bus journey in five nights from Montevideo, Uruguay. Upon our arrival in Córdoba, we spent a couple of hours chasing down a SIM card for Darren’s phone. In countries where we spend an extended amount of time, having a local SIM card (and phone number) helps with local area coordination. After asking several people for directions, we finally ended up at a mall with a mobile carrier store in which you take a number to be helped. It was a busy place and we had to wait about 40 minutes for our number to be called. Finally armed with a SIM card, we began our city discovery in earnest.
Located near the geographical center of Argentina, Córdoba is known as a college town as the home of several schools, including the oldest university in Argentina, the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. It was founded in 1613, 40 years after the city was established. In 1599, the Jesuit order arrived in this small settlement, and, in addition to founding the university, they also created what is known today as the Manzana Jesuítica or Jesuit Block. This area, which contains schools, a church (called Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús) and residential buildings, is located right in the heart of Córdoba. The Jesuits also built six estancias (ranches) around the province of Córdoba to support the Manzana Jesuítica. All of these sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.
We explored the downtown area of Córdoba, beginning in the central San Martin Plaza, which dates from 1577. It is named after José de San Martín, who was an Argentinian general and a leader in gaining Argentina’s independence from Spain. The central cathedral, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, stands at one end of the square. Its construction began late in the 16th century and took over 200 years.
After visiting the Iglesia Cathedral and the buildings in the Jesuit Block, we decided to take a day trip to one of the estancias. We found the mini-bus terminal a short distance away and tried to determine where the ticket office might be. Everything takes a little longer for us as there is no English spoken and we have limited Spanish language skills. We finally found the ticket office in the basement and communicated our request. The woman behind the counter wrote on our ticket that the mini-bus would leave from platform six in five minutes. After going back upstairs we discovered that the platforms started at number seven! As we attempted to communicate with several people around us we discovered that the mini-bus had pulled up right in front of where we were standing!
Relieved, we boarded the vehicle, and 45 minutes later, we arrived in the town of Alta Gracia, which is the closest of the six estancias to Córdoba. Estanica complexes contain their own church and set of buildings. Unfortunately, Alta Gracia’s church was closed for renovations, but we were able to tour the other buildings of the estancia.
After three days in Córdoba, we took a 12 hour bus journey to Mendoza, which is Argentina’s fourth-largest city. In Mendoza, we got our first glimpse of the Andes Mountains to the west of the city. These form the border with Chile, and its capital city, Santiago, is only about 240 miles away from Mendoza. Located in this Andes range is the mountain of Aconcagua, which is the highest peak in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres at 22,837 feet (6,961 meters).
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Mendoza is situated on a long, narrow strip of desert landscape that is adjacent to the Andes and, as it was hot and humid in Córdoba, we welcomed the change to a hot and dry climate here. We found the downtown area a joy to walk around and, in the process, we visited five plazas that are located just a few blocks apart from each other. Walking around Mendoza, one would not know it was in a desert. The streets are lined with thousands of large, shady trees. The Huarpes tribe, who lived here prior to European settlement, created an irrigation system that was later refined by the Spanish. The acequias, or irrigation ditches, run along all city streets and keep the estimated 100,000 trees watered and growing.
Irrigation is also important to the agriculture in the area, which includes apples, pears, tomatoes, onions, plums, olives, cherries and peaches. Olive oil production and wine making are two of Mendoza’s main industries. In fact, the Mendoza region accounts for 70% of Argentina’s total wine production and is the largest area in South America.
Now, after our city discoveries of history and culture, we will continue to move south in Argentina toward the Patagonia region. Here, our focus will change to smaller towns and natural activities, including our next trek in a couple of weeks.