Why Iran?

 

 

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Last month, I embarked on a three-day journey by plane to a country I had longed to visit for many years: Iran. My decision to visit Iran puzzled nearly everyone I told. They could not understand why I would choose to vacation in a country synonymous with American-hating ayatollahs intent on building a nuclear weapon. Had I not heard about the hikers who were held for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on baseless charges that they were spies for the U.S. government? What about ISIS? What about the war in Yemen? Wasn’t Iran dangerous?

Those less hysterical, and less interested in recent developments in the Middle East, would simply stare at me dumbfounded: Why Iran?

I, too, may have thought of Iran as a peculiar travel destination if I had not discovered it several years back through a pair of films by Iranian director Majid Majidi. The two films—Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise—introduced me to a fairy world I had hitherto known nothing about.

Bucolic mountaintop villages set against verdant valleys with dazzling fields of wild flowers. Labyrinthine streets with winding canals and shadowy arcades from which cobblers and coppersmiths toiled diligently. Kind-hearted schoolteachers, adoring grandmothers, generous and obedient children. For a country about which I previously had only vague associations of violence and Islamic fundamentalism, the films were a revelation.

Eager to learn more, I delved into books, articles and films about Iran. They led me to Iran’s long and storied history of powerful empires and ruthless invaders, its reverence for poetry, roses and rugs and the fierce pride of its people in their unique culture and language. They also unveiled a more complex face to modern Iran, grimmer but more intriguing than the hyperbolic wonderland depicted by the Majidi films.

In Iran, I learned, nothing is exactly as it seems. Though the government is deeply conservative, the population is often willing and eager to rebel against the restrictive policies imposed on them. The result is a state of constant contradiction– women who don headscarves in compliance with the official dress code while flaunting bright red lipstick and designer jeans; families who profess loyalty to the state but eagerly watch prohibited television channels via illegal satellites.

For me, Iran became the epic travel destination— steeped in ancient history, unknown to outsiders, surreal. Tentatively, I began to research whether a trip there would be feasible. To my surprise, I learned that U.S. citizens are not prohibited from touring Iran, provided a licensed tour guide accompanies them at all times. In my own case, I could avoid the guide requirement by traveling as a citizen of Uruguay, the country where I was born. Still, the idea of visiting Iran seemed far-fetched and risky. Perhaps it was possible to travel there, but could it really be safe?

To answer that question, I turned to online accounts by foreigners who had been to Iran—bloggers, journalists, travelers who had posted their impressions on chat boards. Amazingly, not a single traveler spoke of harassment or ill treatment. In fact, they all swore they had never felt so safe and raved about the warmth and hospitality of the Iranian people. The Americans, above all, spoke of being treated like rock stars. Their descriptions of the places they had seen only fueled my intense desire to see it for myself– desert cities with beguiling wind towers and fire temples, refreshing oases and gardens, spectacular mosques and palaces, lively bazaars.

Yet, for many years, I wavered. I could not shrug my deep sense of suspicion towards a country I had been taught to distrust. I fixated, in particular, on the story of the American hikers. I knew they had been caught under unusual circumstances— illegally entering Iran while hiking through Iraqi Kurdistan—but their imprisonment on charges of espionage spooked me. Was it rational to fear that I too might be accused of espionage? Or should I trust instead the many reassuring accounts by tourists who had traveled to Iran without incident?

My uncertainty persisted until I finally set foot in Iran earlier this year.  Only then did my paranoia seem laughable.  Over the next few weeks, I will be posting entries about what it was like to visit Iran. Through my stories, I hope to dispel some of the myths that caused so many people– including myself– to worry I would be in danger there.  I realize that many of you will not be fully convinced.  I only ask that you keep an open mind—you will likely be surprised by what you hear.

Chile: Santiago Hotel Recommendation

Casa Moro, Corte Suprema 177, Santiago de Chile

Casa Moro, Santiago, Chile

In the heart of Santiago just two blocks from the presidential palace, this funky bed and breakfast has garnered a large and enthusiastic following on Tripadvisor thanks to its stylish décor and welcoming hosts.  The hotel revolves around a lush, open-air courtyard of bright plants, colorful folk art and the soothing trickle of a fountain, an ideal place to relax after a long day of sight seeing.  Guests also have access to a communal kitchen and a gallery that features jewelry, woven tapestries and crocheted garments from the south of Chile.

Innkeepers Marcelo and Walter are adored for their warmth and attentive service.  They also serve an exceptional breakfast of homemade scones, eggs and fruit.  At $130 for a double room, Casa Moro’s rates are on par with hostels in pricey Santiago.  However, staying at this delightful inn feels more like visiting the home of a dear friend.

Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

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Photo by Paul & Paveena McKensie from Wild Encounters 

For many years, I dreamed of visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia.  At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, it is a the largest salt flat on earth, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see.  During the rainy season (December – March), it transforms into an immense mirror, producing an astounding reflection of the sky and clouds above.

When it came time to plan my trip, however, I found the process of selecting a tour operator so perplexing that I almost chose to skip Bolivia altogether.  Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is essential to ensuring you remain safe.  Dozens of tour operators based in Uyuni offer tours of the Salar, but the challenge lies in identifying one that is both reasonably priced and responsible.

Two types of tours are offered: private tours, which are reliable but pricey and group tours, which are cheap but potentially unsafe.  The price difference between the two is significant.  While a four-day private tour costs about $1000 per person, the standard three-day group tour costs about $150 per person.  Many budget travelers opt for group tours and emerge satisfied with their experiences.  Others, however, return with horror stories.

In 2008, ten tourists died after two jeeps from competing agencies crashed into each other on the Salar and the gasoline each vehicle carried on its roof exploded.  Though no one is certain how this collision occurred, it is common knowledge that many tour drivers come to work drunk or deliberately fall asleep while traversing the Salar.  During my own trip to the Salar, I was alarmed to hear a rumor that some budget operators serve as fronts for drug trafficking gangs.  By posing as tour operators, these gangs are able to both launder their money and deliver drugs in the same jeeps used to transport tourists.  Not surprisingly, they often offer the best prices since they do not actually rely on tourism to finance their operations.

Given the risks that come with booking a group tour, and the fact that even the most reputable budget operators fail their clients on occasion, it is advisable to pay more and opt for a private tour.  This is undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable choice.  By booking a private tour with a reputable company, you will stay in the best hotels, eat well and be able to stop whenever you like for photos or bathroom breaks.  In contrast, even on the best budget tour, you will be crammed into a jeep with up to eight tourists and sleep in dorm style barracks with an outhouse.  If comfort is important to you, the private tour is the way to go.

If, however, you are on a tight budget and don’t mind sacrificing creature comforts, booking a group tour should be safe as long as you select a reputable company.  During my visit to Uyuni in December 2013, I heard consistently positive reports for two budget operators in particular: Cordillera Traveler and Red Planet.  Below I have included a list of reputable companies, recommended to me during my time in Uyuni, that offer both group and private tours.

Group Tours

Cordillera Traveler

Red Planet

Licancabur Tours

Private Tours

Fremen

Ruta Verde 

Hidalgo Tours

Northwest Argentina: Planning Your Trip

Cactus, Tilcara, Argentina

When To Go

The best time of year to visit Northwest Argentina is in April and May, when the heavy rains and intense heat of the summer months (December – March) have subsided and the foliage is at its finest.  April is also the month when red peppers are harvested and laid out to dry in the lovely mountain village of Cachi.  Do not despair if visiting during these months is not feasible.  Northwest Argentina enjoys a mild climate year round and can be visited comfortably at any time.

Suggested Itineraries

The distances in Northwest Argentina are immense.  To visit the three most important sub-regions– the Calchaqui Valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the Puna— you need at least two weeks.  If you have less than a week, you will need to select only one of these places to visit.  In that case, I would suggest limiting your trip to the Calchaqui Valley, which has both spectacular scenery that can be enjoyed while driving and hiking and world-class vineyards and spas for relaxing.

Below I have included two sample itineraries.  They are deliberately brief with links to prior entries for you to obtain more detailed information about each place.

Five Days

Road from Cachi to Cafayate, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 3: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 4: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 5: Return to Salta (3 hours from Cafayate) and board flight home.

Two Weeks

Red and Silver Mountains, Puna, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Explore Salta.

Day 3: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 4: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 5: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 6: Arrange for a local guide to pick you up from Cafayate and drive you to El Peñon in the Puna.  Though the drive from Cafayate to El Peñon can be done on your own, once in the Puna you will need to be accompanied by a professional guide in order to explore this region safely.  We had a fantastic experience with our guide, Pompon, from Socompa.

Day 7: Day trip from El Peñon to Campo de Piedra Pomez and Laguna Grande.

Day 8: Drive from El Peñon to Tolar Grande.

Day 9: Day trip from Tolar Grande to Mina La Casualidad or Desierto del Laberinto.

Day 10: Drive from Tolar Grande to Salta.

Day 11: Depart for Quebrada de Humahuaca.  Stop in Purmamarca for photos in the late morning and then continue to Tilcara to spend the night at Las Terrazas.

Day 12: Visit the Pucara (indigenous ruins) of Tilcara in the morning and return to Salta in the afternoon.  Stay at Selva Montana in the suburb of San Lorenzo.

Day 13: Enjoy a relaxing day of hiking and lounging by the pool in San Lorenzo.

Day 14: Fly home.

Northwest Argentina: Food and Nightlife in Tilcara

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

Tilcara is one of several sleepy colonial villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow, arid ravine 155 km long in the extreme northwest of Argentina, bordering Bolivia.  Travelers flock to the Quebrada for its breathtaking views of orange, pink and purple tinted mountains and to explore indigenous ruins and a rural way of life.  During my recent visit to Tilcara, I discovered that this particular village offers an unexpected surprise for such a remote corner of Argentina: quirky restaurants, cafes and live music venues with delicious and creative food.  Tilcara’s food and nightlife make it an ideal base for visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Here are my favorite Tilcara food and nightlife discoveries:

1) La Casa de Champa, Belgrano 249, Tilcara

In an old colonial style house with a cozy interior adorned with clay tea pots, religious icons and hand-woven ponchos, this tea shop is the perfect place to experience my favorite Argentina custom, the afternoon tea ritual known as merienda.  Here you will find a wide selection of loose-leaf teas mixed with local herbs (my favorite “Yungas” is named for a nearby jungle), as well as exquisite homemade desserts, like the heavenly torta alemana made with fluffy layers of meringue, cake and chocolate.  An absolute must for lovers of tea and cake!

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

2) El Nuevo Progreso, Lavalle 351, Tilcara

This stylish restaurant owned by a hip young couple from Buenos Aires functions as an art gallery as well as a restaurant.  Contemporary artwork illuminated by candles hangs from the walls, while the high ceilings and elegant façade provide a reminder of Tilcara’s colonial heritage.  The menu takes a creative twist on local cuisine with many excellent options for vegetarians, like the quinoa salad with mushrooms, sesame and grilled vegetables.  The highlight of the meal was the dessert (I ordered the chocolate mousse), which was out of this world.

El Nuevo Progreso, Tilcara, Argentina

3) La Peña de Carlitos, Lavalle 397, Tilcara

The most famous peña in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, this is a wonderful place to come for a drink after dinner to listen to lively stories and music by local performers.   Here you will appreciate the distinct cultural heritage of Northwest Argentina.

La Peña de Carlitos, Tilcara, Argentina

Northwest Argentina: Best Empanadas

Empanadas, Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

The empanada salteña, from the northwest province of Salta, is the most beloved of empanadas in Argentina, a country obsessed with these small and savory pastries.  Empanadas originated in Salta and are made differently in this province than in other parts of Argentina.  They are miniature in size and typically filled with finely chopped steak, potato, egg and chili pepper.  Though they can be ordered fried, the traditional version is baked in a mud oven.

I have always loved empanadas and part of what attracted me to Salta was its reputation for empanadas.  During my two weeks in Northwest Argentina, I embarked on a search for the best empanadas, constantly hounding locals for recommendations and sampling as many as I could.  What I found surprised me: the most popular spot among tourists and locals alike, the Patio de la Empanada in Salta City, disappointed me.  However, near the end of my trip, while stopping in the remote mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an empanada so sublime that I will never forget it.

Here is my list of favorite empanadas spots in Salta Province ranked from best to worst:

1) El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta Province, Argentina    

In a sad and dusty mining town in the heart of the Argentine Puna, I found my favorite empanada in all of Salta Province.  Rich in flavor, with a soft, delicate dough that will melt in your mouth, they can be ordered fried or baked and with a variety of fillings.  This is a perfect place to stop and have lunch on the road between Salta City and Tolar Grande.

El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Argentina

2) Doña Salta, Salta City, Argentina 

A block from the central plaza of Salta City, this large and affordable restaurant featuring an extensive menu of regional specialties serves excellent empanadas.  The empanada de charqui, filled with salted dried meat, is particularly tasty.  However, the empanadas, though delicious, are overshadowed by the fabulous carbonada, a thick pumpkin soup with veal, potato and spices, possibly my favorite dish in all of Northern Argentina.

3) El Papabuelo, El Carril, Salta Province, Argentina

This rustic roadside eatery, about 45 minutes south of Salta City, is a convenient place to stop for lunch when traveling to either Cachi or Cafayate.  Meals are served at outdoor wooden tables in a patio surrounding the traditional mud oven used for baking empanadas.  The empanadas are decent, as are the corn-based humitas and tamales.

El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

4) El Patio de la Empanada, Salta City, Argentina

Ask almost anyone who has lived in or visited Salta where to go for the best empanada and you will likely be told to come here.  Every blog I read and every taxi driver I asked insisted that this was the place where I would taste the best empanada of my life.  With such high expectations, it is perhaps not surprising that the empanadas I had here disappointed me.

Still, I would recommend that anyone visiting Salta stop here at least once for a quick empanada run.  The setting, a collection of colorful empanada stands clustered around a sunny courtyard, will appeal to anyone with a penchant for street food.  The prices, too, are hard to beat.  And, though I found the empanadas to be bland and generic, keep in mind I only sampled empanadas from two of the stands and there were several more options I could have tried.  To avoid a similarly disappointing experience, I recommend ordering a single empanada from each stand until you find the one you like best.

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

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!