Los Valles Calchaquies, Argentina

Vineyard near Cafayate

The Calchaqui Valley is situated high in the mountains of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina.  A river cuts across this long and arid valley that is defined by its stunning variety of landscapes: lush oases, strange and colorful rock formations, snowy peaks and vast plains dotted by sand and flowering cacti.

This week, Jorge and I embarked on a three day road trip through the Calchaqui Valley. We started in Salta, a busting city of 650,000 inhabitants and the capital of Salta province.  From there, we drove to Cachi, a tiny mountain village with cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings in the shadow of the towering Nevado de Cachi and finally to Cafayate, a larger town encircled by vineyards and red rock mountains.  Below are some photos we took from the road.

Parque Nacional Los Cardones

Oasis near CachiSeclantesQuebrada de las FlechasQuebrada de las Conchas

On preparing for a trip

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Tomorrow I leave for a month long trip, first to the desert and salt flats at the intersection of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and then to Easter Island.  I have been fantasizing about this trip for many years and preparing for it actively for the past two months, pouring over maps, contacting hotels and tour companies and immersing myself in books, films and documentaries about the regions I will be visiting.

Each time I travel somewhere new, I try to learn as much I can about it, not just from my guidebook, but from those authors and filmmakers that know it intimately.  This process allows me to visualize myself there before I arrive so that I can adjust quickly to my new surroundings and take full advantage of the trip.  The more familiar I am with a place before I arrive, the deeper I can go once I’m there.

Here are the books, films, documentaries and T.V. shows that have guided me in the preparation of my upcoming trip:

Chile/Bolivia Desert Region

1) Nostalgia for the Light: Breathtaking documentary by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán about two parallel searches in the Atacama Desert: for cosmic origins and people who disappeared during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  Highly recommended!

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7f4MLL-Hk

NYTimes Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/movies/nostalgia-for-the-light-chile-documentary-review.html

2) Prófugos: One of my favorite TV shows of all time!  Follows a group of Chilean drug traffickers on the run from law enforcement.  Season 1 begins in the Atacama Desert, where the traffickers have come to pick up a truckload of cocaine from Bolivia, and tracks their subsequent escape from Valparaiso to the snowy mountains near Santiago and the volcanoes and forests of the Lakes District.  The cinematography is beautiful and will introduce you to Chile’s varied and magnificent scenery.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsMvr5zQHsY

Comcast Link for Streaming: http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/watch/Prófugos/7115856309296967112/full-episodes#episode=7747768056666408112

3) Alicia en el País: Independent film based on the true story of a 13 year-old Bolivian girl who walked 180 km across the desert from her home in an indigenous community of southwest Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) in search of work.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBA0Yu4xZkQ

 

4) Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes by Nicholas Robins: A historical look at the colonial history of mercury and silver production in present day Bolivia.

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Mercury-Mining-Empire-Ecological-Colonial-ebook/dp/B008561F0K/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Easter Island

1) The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, by Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo: Recommended to me by friends on Easter Island as the most reliable and well-researched account of the mysterious series of events that led to the building of the Moai statues and the decline of the once flourishing society that built them.

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Statues-that-Walked-Unraveling/dp/1619020203

2) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond

The classic account on why societies fall apart, highlighting Easter Island as a central example of how environmental damage leads to collapse.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Succeed-Revised-Edition/dp/0143117009/ref=pd_sim_b_12

3) 180 Degrees South: Documentary that follows the journey of Jeff Johnson, as he travels from Ventura, California to Patagonia, Chile, retracing the 1968 journey of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (founders of Patagonia and North Face).  On his way to Chile, Jeff takes a boat, which accidentally lands on Easter Island.  He remains for several weeks and falls in love with the island.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWBz_pxYC0A

If you have any other books or films to recommend about either of these places, leave a comment below or email me at virginia@deeper-skies.com.

On food

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My favorite way to explore new cities is through food.  Food provides the pretext for venturing to neighborhoods beyond the major attractions and a medium for tapping into local culture.

The first step is to identify the typical foods for that city or region.  The second step is to research the best eateries serving these foods, preferably in a wide variety of environments: bakeries, stalls in the central market, teahouses, stylish upscale restaurants, the local diner that is a favorite among cab drivers.  The greater the variety of eateries, the more of the city you will see and the more likely you are to stumble upon unexpected and delightful surprises along the way.

How do you find out about these places?  Tripadvisor and Yelp provide a helpful starting point.  Food blogs are an even better resource, especially those written by bloggers on the ground.  Another strategy is to find out whether you are connected to anyone from this place.  If so, email them to ask for their preferred eateries.  My own favorite approach is to see if Anthony Bourdain has been there.  If so, I download the episode and take notes.

A wonderful place to do this kind of food tourism is Istanbul.  Not only is Turkish food delectable and varied, there is a goldmine of information available on where to go in Istanbul to sample authentic foods.  The best resource available is the Istanbul Eats food blog, which specializes in introducing readers to “the best undiscovered local eateries.”  Istanbul Eats also offers enormously popular culinary tours.

During my own trip to Istanbul in 2011, I salivated over the culinary tours I had read about before arriving, but ultimately opted not to book one based on the exorbitant prices (around $125 per person for a day long tour).  Instead, I crafted my own food itinerary by compiling recommendations from Istanbul Eats, an acquaintance of my father’s and by watching Anthony Bourdain’s Istanbul episode four times and taking diligent notes.  The result was an exhilarating multi-day tour that took me to places I could have never found out about if I had relied solely on my guidebook.

Here are some of my favorite food finds in Istanbul:

Breakfast

Turkish breakfast was my favorite food discovery in Turkey and I highly recommend skipping the hotel breakfast and eating breakfast elsewhere in order to experience it at its best.  The food is mainly savory (cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumber and flatbread), though the best part of it for me was the sweet kaymak (clotted cream with honey) which is used as a dip for the flatbread.  Also, keep in mind it is acceptable to eat Turkish breakfast at any time of day.

1)    Van Kahvalti Evi, Defterdar Yokuşu No: 52.A, Cihangir.  Tel: 212-293-6437:  A small, unassuming restaurant in bohemian Beyoglu run by a crew of hip, young Kurds serving breakfast from the Van region of Turkey.  This was my favorite meal during my entire three weeks in Turkey.  Read the complete review on Istanbul Eats.

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2)    Kale Cafe, Yahya Kemal Caddesi No: 16, Rumeli Hisari. Tel: 212-265-0097:  This is where Anthony Bourdain goes to sample Turkish breakfast on his first morning in Istanbul.  It is a simple restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous in the picturesque neighborhood of Rumeli Hisari.  Ideal place to start your day with a pleasant breakfast and stroll along the Bosphorous.

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Lunch/Light Dinner

For smaller meals, I recommend zeroing in on everyday staples, those easily found in the most authentic eateries of any city: markets, food stands, hole in the wall restaurants.  In Istanbul, two of the most popular foods in this category are lahmacun (similar to a rolled up thin crust pizza) and kebab.

1)    Halil Lahmacun, Guneşlibahçe Sokak 26, Kadıköy, Tel: 0216-337-0123:  Tiny, inexpensive restaurant in bustling Kadikoy (on Asian side of Istanbul) that serves two types of lahmacun, each for only $2.  I recommend getting both.  Here is an article on Istanbul Eats on finding the best lahmacun in Istanbul.

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2)    Durumzade, Kalyoncu Küllük Caddesi 26/A, Beyoğlu, Tel: 212-249-0147: Anthony Bourdain loved this place.  I enjoyed it, but not as much as he did.  It’s located on a peripheral block of Beyoglu, and if you aren’t careful, you could end up lost in the neighboring red light district.

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3)    Fish market under the Galata Bridge: This market is comprised of numerous small stands serving full meals at small picnic tables with plastic chairs.  The two favored foods are fish sandwiches and hamsi (anchovies).

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Dinner

The one meal for which we dressed up and splurged a little.

Antiochia, Minare Sokak, Asmalimesict, Tel: 212-292-1100.  Hip restaurant in the maze of narrow alleys that make up the heart of Beyoglu.  Recommended to me by a local resident for serving the best meze in town.  Reservations required.

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On hotels

There is a certain category of hotels that thrills me.  These hotels are not luxurious in a conventional sense.  Nor are they easy to find.  But the challenge of identifying them and the reward of staying in one is enormously satisfying.

The hotels to which I’m referring are small and unique and offer maximum comfort in a way that responds to the natural environment in which they are situated.  Ocean breezes and ceiling fans replace air conditioning.  Local foods are served in lieu of continental style buffets. The scenery is stunning, the service impeccable and you as a guest are made to feel so at ease that you could happily melt into your surroundings and never leave.  These are hotels where the experience in itself is a destination.

One of the goals of this blog is to introduce you to such rare and wondrous hotels, especially those that are reasonably priced.  Here is one of my favorites, located on Point Reyes National Seashore, about 45 minutes outside of San Francisco:

Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, Inverness, California

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The Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast is a tiny inn with only two guest rooms hidden deep in the wooded hills that surround the coastal town of Inverness, California in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Do not let the term “bed and breakfast” deter you.  You need not fear faded floral wallpaper, musty bed sheets or outdated bathrooms at this bed and breakfast.

From the first moment you enter Osprey Peak, your senses will be overcome by the serenity and beauty that surrounds you.  The dominant aesthetic is Japanese.  The exterior is meant to evoke a Japanese style farmhouse with its distinctive sloping roof, while sliding doors and “ikebana” flower arrangements grace the interior.  Every room, from the two guest rooms to the common breakfast area with an adjoining deck, is immaculate and harmonizes seamlessly with the views of the forest and mountains beyond.

The service is also impeccable.  The innkeepers, David Herbst and Nancy Beck, anticipate every need of their guests, leaving a jug of water, Japanese robes and good reading lamps in each room, and preparing a personalized breakfast that is the pinnacle of the Osprey Peak experience.  David and Nancy ask guests to make their own breakfast selection from an elaborate menu that includes fresh ingredients from the farms, bakers, cheese makers and other artisan producers of the Point Reyes area.  A typical breakfast could include a morning bun from the enormously popular Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station, yogurt from Strauss Family Creamery in Petaluma, fresh brie from Marin French Cheese Company and various fruits from local farms.

Finally, Osprey Peak offers an excellent value.  Rooms are priced at $195 every night except for Saturday (when the price goes up to $225) and there is never a two-night minimum.  This is one bed and breakfast where I will happily stay anytime.

Virginia studying Osprey Peak's extensive breakfast menu

Virginia studying Osprey Peak’s extensive breakfast menu

Welcome to Deeper Skies

Welcome to my blog, Deeper Skies.  Deeper Skies is a resource for people planning trips.  The destinations l profile are relatively obscure and not easy to obtain information about.  Many of them are far away, like Mozambique, the Republic of Georgia and Colombia, while others are closer to home, like weekend getaways around the Bay Area.  In every case, the goal is to introduce you to destinations that are probably new to you and to inspire you to consider these places when planning your next trip.

For my inaugural week, I will post three entries: one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of next week.  These entries will lay the framework for the way I approach travel and analyze the places I visit.  The first entry will explain what I look for in a good hotel, the second will outline how I decide where to eat when I travel and the third will describe how I prepare for trips.

After these first three entries, I will post one entry a week with recommendations for places I have traveled to in the past or places I am currently visiting.  When I’m in the midst of a trip, my entries will be in the form of short narratives and photos designed to evoke the places as I experience them.  The rest of the time, my entries will be practical and informative, in the form of suggested itineraries, country overviews and specific recommendations for hotels and restaurants that blew me away.

Starting November 23, 2013, I will be traveling for four weeks, first through the Martian landscapes and salt flats that lie at the intersection of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and then to Easter Island.  I will be blogging live from my trip (one entry a week) so stay tuned!