Kite Buggy racing in the Salt Flats

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kite Buggy racing involves finding a flat, windy location, gripping a kite (a small parachute about 6 feet wide), strapping yourself into a three wheeled buggy - and then hanging on for dear life as the wind propels you at incredible speeds.

It feels a lot like water skiing - you are pulled along by a rope with two handles.  However, not only do you have to control your buggy (and avoid big rocks or falling into streams) but you also have to drive the boat (in this case, the kite).  It took a lot more skill than I thought.  But we took two days to learn.

One of the big things to do in Salta is the Train to the Clouds, which is like the Ski train in Colorado - it goes through spectacular scenery to 14,000 feet and you can get a nice lunch while tunnels, massive viaducts, and spectacular scenery whiz by. 

Our plan was to take the same route but a little more extreme.  We took a 4x4 along the dirt road that follows the tracks and would stop at key points to learn the basics of controlling the kites and the buggies. 

Step one: learn to fly the kite.

Kite is such an understatement for this thing. The word Kite evokes images of kids in the park smiling and laughing.  These kites were a lot more serious.  Six feet wide and built like a parachute, a good gust of wind would pull hard enough to get a person airborne then drag them along the desert if you weren't paying attention (e.g. smiling for the camera).  For that reason, we spent a long time learning  the correct body position to leverage against the kite.  Even so, it was really difficult to hang on - and you can't believe the number of photos of me trying to turn and smile for the camera only for the Kite to yank hard and drag me forward leaving a photo of me bent half over, an awkward look of terror on my face and a little cloud of dust behind my feet.  

The kite was also difficult to maneuver.  It had two handles and four lines to control the direction.  Pull right and the kite would go right.  Left and the kite would go left - which, in principle sounds easy, but the wind would make the kite lurch to the right and you'd have to get it back on track.  When we were in the buggies we'd have to have the kite in precise locations relative to the wind to tack and control our speed, so our instructor, Gonzolo, would call commands.  "Put the Kite forward of the power window" and we'd have to get the kite to the left the direction of the wind.  "Increase power" and we'd move the kite into the direction of the wind slightly and it would pull surprisingly stronger.  "Swing the kite across the power window and tack" and we'd move the kite to the right of the wind and turn around.

Lesson two: learn to control the buggy.

Gonzolo took us to a tiny village with a long gravel road at a nice incline.  Our task was to zoom down the gravel road and learn to steer and maneuver the buggy with our feet.  There were a lot of locals walking up and down the road, and we were definitely a spectacle.  Everyone stopped to watch the crazy gringos flying down the hill. 

Our next stop was a soccer field (every little village has at least one soccer field).  The village we chose had only four homes (but it had a soccer field) and we began practicing using the kite and the buggy at the same time.  Everyone in the village came out to watch the crazy gringos.  

Finally, we got to our destination - the salt flats.  The advantage here was that it was so flat that there was not much out here for us to hit, and the winds usually whip at sunset, so we could really get some speed.

Unfortunately, mother nature was not on our side and it was a calm night - but we made camp in the middle of the salt flat.  Watching the sun set across the salt was amazing, and the stars were absolutely incredible.  We were at 12,000 feet, and the salt ensures there is no moisture or dust in the air, so there are few better places in the world to observe stars.

The following day, we continued our journey through the Humahuaca valley north of Salta, where the mountains look painted - orange, red, purple, green, white, yellow, and every color in between.  Wherever we found a nice flat spot with good wind, we stopped to practice using the kite buggies and I began using the kite board, which is like a skateboard with off-road tires.  It performs like a snowboard, so I felt right at home and caught on quickly.

In all, it was an amazing trip - but this one is going to be expensive: Now, I have to buy a kite and a board when I get home!

Next stop - 24 hours in a bus across the country to see the worlds widest waterfall in the world:  Iguaz˙ Falls.

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Where I stayed
Camping in the Salt Flats

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