Road Trippin´ - Salinas, Stars and Summits

Trip Start Jul 19, 2009
Trip End Aug 23, 2009

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Flag of Argentina  , Northern Argentina,
Monday, August 10, 2009

And so, on Monday morning we woke up nice and early to make sure we could make the most of the day. Although definitely excited I was also a bit nervous about driving in, essentially, the middle of nowhere and also on the right hand side of the road. We had also been warned that alot of the road was only "consolidado" and not paved, so I was a bit worried about what kind of state our car would be in, and hoped it would make it to our prospective night stop - Purmamarca.

The car arrived just after nine and it was alot better than I had hoped - a VW Gol with CD/mp3 reader, air con etc - which would prove to make our journey alot more comfortable. We named him Carlos. After getting some fresh pastries from the pasteleria (my first full conversation in Spanish!), and some flavoured sweeties to make the coca taste less like the bunch of foul leaves they are, we headed off to our first stop, San Antonio Los Cobres.

To begin with, the road was smooth and clear, and we were excited to leave the town and see the landscape change drastically with every twist and turn. At the beginning the road was grey and gravelly and the foreboding lifeless mountains were just huge masses of grey and brown. Climbing higher, and journeying further into the range, cacti started to appear everywhere, a real contrast to the dark jagged rocks, as they all stood green and perfectly vertical in ordered rows.

As we climbed higher we eventually reached the dreaded unpaved road which made the driving experience a hell of a lot noisier although at this point we did have local radio to cover the noise somewhat. Unfortunately for us though, the channel liked to repeat "Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz incessantly, only redeeming themselves once by playing a Choon by Rick Astley - weirdly enough after that song the radio sent itself into shutdown...

After a lot of windy turns and burmpy corners, eventually we got back to the paved road and I drove for a while. As the road progressed different colours began to emerge in the grey stone; a hint of red, a layer of beige. We were entering the puna - the puna was stark, sparse and huge with beige sand and sweeping summits of brown and warm red.

Driving forward we were also climbing considerably. I started to get a fuzzy head feeling and felt a little motion sick, so T and I shoved a load of the coca leaves and a sweet in our mouths to try and ease the symptoms. Although slightly cynical about the remedy and feeling slightly uncomfortable with huge hamster cheeks of plants, the sickness passed and I soon felt better.

At midday we stopped of at Tastil, where there was a fascinating cemetary with white graves all adorned with bright ribbons and flowers. After hours of beige and bright white nothingness - apart from the occasional passing truck - the vibrant colours were a surprise to the eye. More of a surprise though were the stunning pre-Incan ruins laying over the hill behind. It was amazing to think that after 2000 years, the outlines of their city still remain.

Every now and again we would see small herds of sheep, donkeys or llamas wandering through the vastness accompanied by a single man. It was astounding to think about their way of life, wandering through the desolate land, and fascinating to see the small collections of adobe houses they live in. I can't think of a lifestyle more different from my own.

San Antonio Los Cobres was a similar collection of small houses and dusty cobbled streets. Made famous by the Tren de las Nubes (the Train to the Clouds), the town is sustained by the tourists that stop off here on their way further up. SALC, to quote the Lonely Planet, is fairly grim. Small box-like houses lay row after row. It was incredibly desolate, and a world away even from Salta, despite being only 170km in distance.

After passing through the town, Tiago wanted to see the nearby viaduct so we set off down another bumpy, rocky road. About twenty minutes in, the bumpiness was putting alot of strain on the car, and a brief stopped showed that the bolts holding the boot lock on were falling off. Until Tiago intercepted some random lorry drivers later on and borrowed some tools, the boot-bolt situation was a bit of a worry.

We continued on, admiring the vastness of the area and the stunning rock formations. As we drove ever closer to Purmamarca, the rocks became redder, and the fauna more frequent. I was most excited by the groups of llamas with little red ribbons on their ears, so much so I bought a handcrafted llama. Some hours later, just before nightfall, we made our target of the day - the Salinas Grandes.

The Salinas are huge off-white salt plains, stretching as far as the eye can see and surrounded by huge mountains. At first it looks just like a frozen-over lake but at closer inspection you can see enormous hexagonal shapes of salt. I later found out that the salt plains cover almost two thousand kilometres, that is to say bigger than Luxembourg. We left Carlos behind and walked around taking photos, enjoying the hugeness of it all and the sun setting behind the distant mountains.

Back on the road, we were pleased to drive on smooth tarmac (bliss for my poor bum) to Purmamarca where we hoped to find a hostel for the night. With no light pollution for miles, I spent most of the time looking up out of the window at the stars. It was so clear, there seemed to be more stars than sky, all brighter and more twinkling than I'd ever seen before. It was amazing to think that compared to the UK, we were upside down and looking at a completely different sky, with stars I'd never seen before. Tiago was busy concentrating on the road, but we got out on a random hill for a bit to have a proper look.

In Purmamarca we found a hotel and headed to their restaurant for some food. We grabbed some dinner and enjoyed the in-house entertainment: a local man playing all kinds of weird instruments and doing a bit of throat-singing, and a cheerful duo who played the panpipes and guitar and whooped alot.

Absolutely knackered from our epic journey - we had covered 200miles with 70 of bumpy gravel - we fell asleep still able to hear the panpipes from the restaurant. Tomorrow was going to be another long day.

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