SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #6

17-Sep-2009: San Pedro de Atacarma (Argentina)

After 6 months at home in Alice Springs, it was time to hit the road again. We arrived at Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires to very hot and humid weather. We shopped around for a taxi to the German Club but they all charged the same price....everything included they said! Well, first they asked us for a tip which we refused to pay. Then the taxi driver had no idea where the German Club is, so we had to use our GPS to take us there. When we arrived at the German Club, the driver tried to charge us 40 more pesos but again we refused!

Anyway, we were very pleased to see Troopy again! There were about 14 other overland vehicles parked at the German Club. Ours was one of five Toyota Landcruisers. We did a quick inspection and everything looked good except for a crack in one front headlight, the Toyota emblem on the back door had been removed and all the tyre valve caps were missing. In fact, we noticed that all the other vehicles had no valve caps on their tyres either! Obviously valve caps are a priced item in Argentina. We got straight to work giving Troopy a good wash to get rid of the dust, grime and cobwebs. Troopy must have been excited to get going that she started at the first turn of the key! We were so pleased that all batteries and tyres were all in good shape.

We spent three nights camped at the German Club getting over jetlag, unwinding from work and easing into holiday mode. We took Troopy for an oil change, organised car insurance, refilled one of our cooking gas bottles and did grocery shopping. The weather in Buenos Aires turned cold and wet. We were glad to finally get on the road again and found our way out of the maze of freeways onto Ruta 8 heading north west towards Cordoba in mountainous North West of Argentina.

We called into Lujan briefly to check out the massive Basillica of Maria visible from the highway. This cathedral was undergoing major restorative works. It stood very imposingly at the top of the big city square with its very tall twin spires. The stained glass work in the cathedral was very colourful and meaningful. There were different stations for prayer and meditation inside the cathedral. All around the square, the buildings have also been recently restored. We imagined it would be beautiful to sit outdoors at one of the cafes or restaurants on a nice summer evening to admire the archways illuminated by colourful neon lights.

Our  first evening on the road, we stopped at a service station just south of Colon to ask if we could park in the parking lot and sleep inside Troopy. We also offered to pay for toilet facilities. They very kindly refused payment and did not mind us camping in their car park. We decided to buy hot chocolate from the cafe. Upon settling in for the night, we discovered open access WiFi and were able to check emails.

The next morning was cold, windy and wet again. We drove on through pampas country to Rio Cuarto. Late in the afternoon, we found Ruta Provincial 5 and found our way to Villa General Belgrano. The countryside would have been beautiful except for the fact that it is early spring and only the cherry blossoms were out in bloom. All the other trees were bare. There was evidence of a recent bushfire in this area as the hills were a charcoal black. Fences and power lines were damaged too. We arrived at La Florida Camping, well known amongst many overlanders as a good place to park their vehicles for a few months over the winter. The owners are German. We were also able to pick up open access WiFi from our campsite which was an added bonus.
 

We had a very lazy first day in Belgrano. The weather was cold again. We decided to explore the village of Belgrano. The streetscape in Belgrano is very German with lots of wooden shop houses and restaurants. The locals here speak German, drink German style beer and the village was even preparing for Oktoberfest! The shops were selling German arts and crafts, cheese, sausage and Old Munich beer! It was very pleasant strolling, looking into every shop window and admiring the local craftsmanship. We returned to camp later that afternoon and caught up with three other overlanders in the campground from France, Netherlands and Germany. They all have different set-ups for overlanding and it was very interesting to hear their travel stories.

The next morning, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine. How our spirits lifted as we basked in the warmth of the sun. We decided to take a day trip to Alta Gracia, Mina Clavero and Merlo on a very good sealed road that took us to an altitude of 2100 metres. The mountains were very rocky and devoid of vegetation. From Merlo, we took an alternate route marked for 4 wheel drives only. The road was sealed for the first 8 kilometres. It was a very steep climb up with amazing switchback turns winding back and forth, like going up a never ending spiral staircase up to the top of a 10 tier wedding cake! This road is popular with many paragliders soaring gracefully in the air alongside the condors. The rest of the 50 kilometre track to La Cruz was a small winding mountainous track. We spent the rest of the afternoon slowly traversing across the tops of the mountain range. This is rich grazing country with cows, sheep, goats and horses grazing contentedly on the mountain slopes. From La Cruz, we cut back to Belgrano through Embalse. We got back to camp just as the sun was setting.

The next day was another fine day. The jetlag was gradually wearing off but we somehow managed to sleep in again! We did some grocery shopping and drove back to Embalse to have a picnic lunch by a lake, near a nuclear power station! What a tranquil setting this was, under an avenue of gum trees looking out to the lake. There were houseboats on the lake and small sailing boats. This lake was also popular with the locals. We saw teenage boys riding their motorbikes on the grassy banks of the lake. Young boys and girls were also having fun on mini quad bikes whizzing back and forth on the park lawns. After lunch, we were able to follow a small track lakeside right up to the nuclear power station. It was a beautiful drive through some of the healthiest Australian river gums we have ever seen! The gum trees had very thick trunks and were very tall and leafy.

After four very easy days in Villa General Belgrano, it was time to hit the road again. We drove around Cordoba on Ruta 9 through some pretty bleak countryside of dry salt plains and salt lakes. We felt sorry for the poor cattle trying to feed off the salt bushes and thorny trees. We turned west on Ruta 60 and found a campsite not far from Casa de Piedra. We were just off the highway but well hidden by tall thorny trees and shrubs. The afternoon turned out to be a very hot 34° Celsius! The Argentine flies were also very friendly, arriving to see what we were cooking for dinner. We had a peaceful first night of bush-camping.

The next morning’s drive to San Martin and Catamarca was a little more interesting with rows upon rows of olive plantings along the foothills of Sierra Ancastio del Alto. We topped up with diesel in Catamarca and bought e few empanadas for lunch. The empanadas were so delicious that we went back to the shop and bought another half dozen for the road. The road from Catamarca to Las Juntas on Ruta 4 was a narrow winding gravel road. We could not believe seeing pink and white cherry blossoms in full bloom in Argentina! When we climbed to 2040 metres, the road very quickly became foggy and misty. As it was getting late, we managed to find a lay-by off the side of the road. There was just enough room for Troopy beside a small stream. It was cold and very misty and we were thankful that we could easily heat up our empanadas and wash them down with hot chocolate. Apart from a couple of vehicles that passed us early in the evening, we had a very quiet night. The night was pitch black, cold and damp but we were snug in a few layers of winter clothing and down sleeping bags inside Troopy. The temperature got down to well below 0˚ Celsius.

We were very reluctant to crawl out of our warm sleeping bags the next morning. The mist had cleared and the clouds lifted a little. It was an effort to get breakfast and brush our teeth. The water was so cold when we brushed our teeth that we thought our teeth would crack! The windscreen washer and wipers were frozen solid! There was even ice on the inside of Troopys windows.

As we set off for Cafayate, the road took us over gentle, undulating high plains at about 2000 metres. The trees and grass had frost and snow on them. We were thankful to have camped sheltered beneath a few trees. As we climbed a further 200 metres, the scene before our eyes was like driving up to the snowfields. All the vegetation had a light sprinkle of snow. An hour after travelling along this good gravel road, we found ourselves on a grassy high plain. It was very interesting how we went from one season to another in a couple of hours’ drive! The mountains along this route to Cuesta La Chilca were very convoluted and tall. The road twisted and turned very close to the edge. With each bend in the road, an every bigger mountain dominates our view. We could look out to the opposite peak about 1000 metres away yet be divided by a very steep drop down to the valley below. It was quite a dizzy experience!

At the town of Andalgala, the police stopped us and asked for our vehicle permit, insurance and licence. They recorded the details down in their big black book. This seemed to be common practice as one crosses from one province into another. So far, all the police stops have been very friendly and professional. After lunch on the road, we stopped in Belen and visited the town cathedral with very nice stained glass work, high arched ceilings and ornate altars. Belen is a small laid back town near the foothills of the Andean mountains. We saw remnants of the local indigenous culture carved onto overhead structures in the streets and roundabouts in and out of town. From here, the road took us through outback desert type country. We travelled alongside very big, wide, dray and sandy river systems. We were in canyon country.

We seemed to be travelling along an endless high plain at around 2300 metres. We even passed a small airport with 3 small jets landing and taking off one after the other. We suspect that there is a mining operation out here somewhere. There did not seem to be anything else around in this harsh landscape. By late afternoon, we came through San Jose and from here on, the towns seemed to be linked by long avenues of trees and homes that lined the edge of the main road through town. We eventually arrived in Cafayate in the southwest of the province of Salta. This is a tourist town as many locals and foreign tourists use Cafayate as a base to explore the Quebrada de Cafayate and to taste the locally produced wines. After checking into the Autopista Campground and ate dinner, we drove a short distance into town and found open WiFi access. Even with the good weather during the day, the night was quite chilly.

After having lukewarm showers the next morning, we walked into town to drop off our laundry and took a stroll around the town square, the cathedral and checked out some of the arts and crafts on offer. The main streets of Cafayate were cobble-stoned and the buildings were a mix of old traditional and new. There were a number of hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast establishments. We also saw more of the indigenous people in this town. They are of a shorter stature. Some looked and dressed just like they had come from Bolivia.

Later that morning, we went for a drive to Tafi Del Valle. We started out with desert country and cacti covering the hill-slopes. As we climbed to over 3000 metres, the nice blue sky changed to foggy mist and the countryside was like a winter wonderland. All the trees and grasses had snow and frost. At the highest point where we stopped to take pictures of a snow covered fence, there was even a stall selling pottery, scarves and small tapestries in the howling winds and freezing temperature! Our excursion extended as far as Tafi Del Valle where we did a small circuit of the area. At the higher elevations we drove through very thick fog from a low cloud in the area!

We then backtracked towards Cafayate. About 50 kilometres south of Cafayate, we visited the historic ruins of Diaguita City managed by the indigenous group themselves in order to preserve their culture. This was an important city during the time of the Inca Empire that once boasted a population of 5000. The city was set against the foothills of a mountain range. All that remained of this once flourishing city were the stone walls of every household. It was an elaborate and extensive city as far as the eye could see. Up towards the rocky outcrop, were many stone steps that took pilgrims up to the sacred site at the top. There were many piles of carefully placed stones and a threshold of about 10 little fist-sized holes/pools carved out of stone that we were not supposed to step over. There were also a number of resident llamas grazing in the area.

After another cold night in Cafayate, we headed north on Ruta 68. Our drive took us through the Quebrada De Cafayate. It was very stunning canyon country with red rock and dirt just like in Central Australia. There were lots of places suitable for bush-camping too. Every turn of the road unfolded more breathtaking views of the canyons, valleys and the mountains. Sometimes, the sun would shine in the right places at the right times and we were able to see an artist’s palette of colours splashed on the exposed seams of the canyons. It was very colourful indeed! We stopped at a very interesting chasm. This was a circular chasm with high walls going skywards. A trio of indigenous men started playing their pan pipes, guitar and a ten-string ukulele made out of cardon cactus wood.  The acoustics in the chasm carried the music very well and we enjoyed listening to the three amigos performing a selection of Andean music. The Quebrada country extended to Alemania and finished in La Vina. That evening, we managed to find a bush-camp near La Calderilla, just north of Salta beside a cemetery on top of a hill. There were a few horses in the paddock next door and a man was working on a headstone in the cemetery. After asking for permission to camp, we settled in for a very quiet night’s sleep. We think our second most favourite place to bush-camp after gravel pits is next to cemeteries. We have found cemeteries to be a very tranquil and secluded places to camp.

The sunshine and blue sky was a real blessing despite the cold temperatures. We continued our journey on a very narrow winding Ruta 9 over the Sierra De Chani. We were gradually climbing in altitude, following a valley with very tall mountains on either side of the road. The road became wider and nicer as we travelled on to Tilcara at 2547 metres. With our hearts pounding upon exertion and occasionally feeling a little breathless, we were content to stroll around the market square of Tilcara. There was a colourful array of pashmina shawls, scarves, beanies, rugs and tapestries on offer. Much of Tilcara is built of mud brick with mud roofs with only the occasional tin roofs. The streets are narrow and of cobblestone. A truck got stuck while trying to scrape past a parked vehicle. It caused a small traffic jam. We had parked Troopy in the market square. We could not believe our eyes when we returned to Troopy to find another Victorian registered overland vehicle, a Land Rover owned by Barry and Carol from just outside Melbourne.

We left Tilcara and continued northwards to Humahuaca crossing the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23° 26’ 22”), the same latitude as our hometown of Alice Springs. We were now at 2691 metres above sea level. Once again, it is a nice wide highway along a picturesque valley through the colourful World Heritage listed Quebrada De Humahuaca. We wondered how people eke out a living at this altitude in their mud brick huts with a few animals and a small plot to cultivate crops. Some have a small solar panel, not all have a chimney but they all have a small kiln in the backyard for firing more bricks or traditional pottery.

Humahuaca is the largest village in Jujuy in northwest Argentina. This town is made up of quaint adobe houses, cobblestoned streets and has a vibrant main square with a colourful market offering Andean arts and crafts. We walked up to a monument of an Indian statue that looks across the valley to the fantastic view of the canyons in the near distance. Native Andean culture is very prevalent in the Andean Northwest of Argentina. The music here is also hauntingly beautiful. We found the municipal campground but decided not to camp here as the facilities were very bleak. Instead, we bush camped near the river halfway between Humahuaca and Tilcara.

We had a cold -4˚ Celsius overnight. It was windy and cold and there was a thick frost on Troopy’s windows. We started Troopy to warm up the engine so we could turn the heater on in the car while we packed up our bedding. We moved to a sunny location where we could have our breakfast cereal without shivering to death! We then continued to Purmamarca on Ruta 52. Purmamarca is a village set around the Cerro de los Siete Colores or Hill of Seven Colours. This is a village worth stopping at. The deep rich red hill is just an incredibly rich palette of rainbow colours and a photographer's delight! We were able to climb to the top of hill to get a better perspective of the village and its beautiful location. Once again, there was a colourful traditional art and craft market in the town square. Purmamarca can definitely cater to busloads of tourists with a lot more upmarket shops that accept credit cards. We decided that it was time to try an Argentinean hamburger for lunch. It was delicious!

From Purmamamarca, the road steadily increases in altitude, zigzagging all the way up to 4170 metres in altitude. Troopy definitely had altitude sickness. Above 3500 metres Troopy's engine constantly surges as it gasps for air. By using the right engine revs and the right gear the black exhaust smoke going uphill and the white exhaust smoke while going downhill can all but be eliminated although it requires a constant shuffling of gears and throttle. Geoff had to drive keeping one eye on the road ahead and one eye on the exhaust. Slowly but surely, Troopy chugged its way to San Antonio de los Cobres. From here, we turned south along Ruta 51 on a very spectacular road through Quebrada Del Toro. Here, the mountains were just of mammoth proportions, height and formation. The colours of the mountains here were once again very spectacular. There is also a train line following this valley. It is called the Tren A Las Nubes leaving from Salta. It is the fourth highest operating railway line in the world. The journey passes through 21 tunnels, 31 iron bridges and 13 viaducts. The high point of this train journey is the viaduct at La Polvorilla, a viaduct of an amazing engineering achievement. It is 64 metres high, 224 metres long and straddles an enormous desert canyon.

We came to Campo Quijano and found quite a pleasant campsite at the Municipal Camping. Poor Kienny had to run around looking for change to pay $11 pesos to the guard on duty as he did not have any change for $50 pesos (US$12). Small change especially coins, are a rare commodity in Argentina. We offered to pay $12 pesos if he had $40 change but the guard was adamant not to let us through the gate! In the end, Kienny found a bus driver with a wad of $10 peso notes! So much less hassle to bush-camp!

The next morning, we continued on to the main Salta highway for a few kilometres and turned on to Ruta 33. We were again in canyon country driving up to an altitude of 3348 metres after which the road pans out to a nice wide gravel road through a bit of grassland. This road took us through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a national park full of cacti shaped like candelabras! The wood from these cacti is called cardon and is used extensively as timber for rafters, doors, window frames and decorative objects like lampshades and feature beams in homes. We also stopped at a little market stall on the roadside which sold an amazing selection of spices, dried fruit and nuts. We arrived in the village of Cachi which is at the gateway to Ruta 40, well known to many travellers as one of the best roads in Argentina. It runs the length of Argentina and holds the same mythic persona to Argentines as does Route 66 in the US. Between La Poma and San Antonio De Los Cobres, Ruta 40 snakes its way up to Abra Del Acay pass where it crests at 4895 metres (16,095 feet), one of the highest navigable tracks in the western hemisphere. It is also claimed to be the highest gazetted road in South America.

We checked into the Municipal Camping at the top of the hill. This was an excellent campground with good facilities and hedged in campsites under shady trees. Geoff did some maintenance work on Troopy, while Kienny did some laundry and also gave Geoff a haircut. We enjoyed our hot showers after waiting all afternoon for the water to heat up! Just as we were about to cook dinner, another Troopy arrived. It was Anne and Rainer who we met at Club Aleman in Buenos Aires. They arrived a day after we did.  We had a lovely catch-up and got some really good travel tips from them.

The morning was very chilly as we started out with some trepidation as to what lies ahead for us. We prayed hard that Troopy would make it over Abra Del Acay and hoped Troopy would not break down or run out of oxygen. We picked up Ruta 40 at Payogasta, winding our way through a picturesque valley with colourful green, purple and red canyons, candelabra cacti, clumps of river grasses, sandy riverbanks and rocky riverbeds...all at 2655 metres. Some of the streams were frozen on the surface and there was snow on the tops of the mountains. It is a very pretty area and reminds us of the Quebrada De Cafayate. Before long at just under 3000 metres, Troopy started surging again. This time, Geoff decided to engage Troopy in 4WD low range second gear at keep the revs at 3000 rpms as we negotiated very tight switchbacks on rough, rocky tracks. We sometimes wondered if we were on the right track but the GPS kept us on the straight and narrow. Finally after a long and slow ascent, we made it to Abra Del Acay 4895 metres! We were not exactly sure if Troopy was running on diesel or soot, but we were so very relieved and thankful that Troopy kept chugging along.  “Oh what a feeling...Toyota!”  It was scary looking down at all the switchbacks we have come through. From here on, the road levelled out gradually to high plains for the rest of the afternoon at around 4000 metres.

We have come 140 kilometres in 5 hours and have not seen another vehicle. We eventually arrived at San Antonio De Los Cobres again and found the northerly section of Ruta 40. The track was very rough to begin with up till the Viaducto La Polvorilla. From here the road improved to a nicely graded track. We decided to camp at lower than 4000 metres as Kienny had a mild headache due to the high altitude. We stopped to camp on a dry riverbed 28 kilometres before Susques.

Our last day in Argentina saw us continuing on to the windy town of Susques on Ruta 52. It was another cold night in Argentina, down to -5˚ Celsius. We drove till the sun appeared above the mountain tops and then stopped to have breakfast in a really pretty valley surrounded by a very colourful mountain range, similar to Rainbow Valley just south of Alice Springs. We contemplated boiling water to brush our teeth but decided to be brave.

We topped up with diesel at the cheaper Argentine price before resuming our journey towards the border post near Paso De Jama. It was a very nice paved road that took us to heights of 4789 metres. Troopy could only manage 40 km/hr and was again suffering altitude sickness. When we got out of the car for toilet stops, we realised that the strong headwinds would not have helped Troopy very much at all! It took all morning to travel about 122 kilometres to the border with Chile. The border exit proceedings were very quick and friendly. We had another 160 slow kilometres to go! The landscape began to transform from high undulating bald mountains to desert. The mountains and high plains had not a single blade of grass! We were now in the Cordillera de los Andes. The Atacama desert is one of the dries places on earth. For most of the journey we followed the desert high plains at an altitude of around 4350 metres. Volcanoes could be seen in the near distance, some with snow and others looked like they had erupted not too many years ago. Late in the afternoon, the road started a steep and long descent from over 4700 metres to 2600 in about half an hour. There were many trucks plying this route between Salta in Argentina and San Pedro De Atacama in northern Chile. We imagined it must be very tough for the trucks to endure this stretch of road.

We are very thankful to have made it to San Pedro De Atacama in northern Chile. We have journeyed many miles throughout Argentina and seen lots of special and beautiful mountains, rivers and lakes. We have encountered many wonderful, friendly and hospitable Argentines in all our travels and hope that they will continue to be hospitable to other travellers as they have been to us. Kienny's Spanish is getting better. Geoff now knows that he is an “hombre” and not a “mujer” so he should not make a mistake when there are no pictures on the toilet doors. Troopy has once again been a very faithful old friend, never letting us down!

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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