Crossing the Andes

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Sunday, April 9, 2006

We have just spent two days crossing the Andes, and despite significant trepidation, we found the experience to be quite delightful. We started the trip in Salta at an elevation of about 3200 feet and our map said that Jama Pass (the border with Chile) was at 13,600 feet. Little did we know that the road rose and additional 1600 feet once it crossed into Chile. (All of these altitudes are taken from our GPS unit, which, unfortunately seems to use a random number generator as part of its altitude calculation algorithm. My guess is that I will usually be within a couple of hundred feet, which is more accuracy than the inconsistencies of the various local maps and signs we have consulted.)

I have had a couple of tough experiences with altitude and told Kia that I was concerned that at 13,000 feet my head was likely to explode. Kia took this somewhat literally and reacted with the morbid curiosity of a 12-year old boy, "Wow, that'll be cool to watch." I had been hoping for a bit more sympathy from my beloved wife.

We spent the first night in Purmamarca a delightful Indian/tourist town about 130 miles from Salta. The drive had taken us through a very lush rainforest into a dry desert with saguaro cacti. I had never seen as much diversity of microclimates in such a short distance. Purmamarca seems to have been recently discovered , a couple of the nicer hotels were full and there were more under construction.

The second day of our plan was to drive about 260 miles over the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama where we would meet Kia's parents. The map suggested that much of this was unpaved (not true, the road was excellent) and I expected the trip could be quite time consuming. We needed to leave near dawn to avoid driving at night. I extracted my revenge for her lack of sensitivity to my potential cranial issues by suggesting we make the drive with the top down to enjoy the spectacular scenery. (Kia, who grew up in Atlanta, does not have the thermal fortitude of hearty New Englanders, such as myself. In fairness, however, I would probably melt into a puddle of goo if I visited Atlanta in July.)

Leaving Purmamarca, we quickly climbed to 13,000 feet and drove the next 200 miles through a gorgeous plateau with stark deserts, salt flats, herds of vicunas (wild cousin of the alpaca) and a few snow capped peaks. The air was thin and brisk, but Kia stayed relatively warm with the heater cranked and several layers of high tech camping clothes. The Jeep protested climbing hills at 15,000 feet, but a few downshifts later we were over the top.

We saw several gringos on bicycles who had decided to make the crossing. For those of you who are into masochistic high altitude adventures, (Bubba, are you reading this?), the route would actually be a lot of 'fun'. The road is quite well paved, often has a small shoulder and there is limited traffic. (Personally, I would not enjoy even the most beautiful scenery if there were cars constantly whizzing past me. Highway 1 in California has no appeal as a cycling destination.) The downside, of course, is lack of oxygen at 15,000 feet and the fact that there is only 1 hotel, restaurant and store along the route.

Between Cafayate vineyards, the beautiful desert, the canyons and the Andes, I would recommend the area as an interesting tourist destination for a week or two. You would definitely be off the beaten path.

We are enjoying visiting with Kia's folks and are pleased with the various supplies they have brought for us. Most importantly, we now have a mechanism for listening to our iPod over the car stereo. This will thankfully save Kia from listening to my a capella renditions of the Grateful Dead.
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