TAKE TWO! Apologies blogarettes for the previous technical malfunction! The corrected and updated blog is here!! Enjoy.
At a wonderfully leisurely 11am, we left our lovely Dutch B&B hosts of Casa Hernandez in Salta, ready to brave the road north into more wild and remote Argentina. Until we reached Jujuy that is, which is the last ‘colonial’ town in the north and disappointingly not so wild or remote after all. The route to Jujuy was short and sweet – however the winding precipices dropping away into dense cold and dark jungle did nothing to prepare us for the desert and dust that was to follow.
We spent a couple of days in Jujuy on business – Chris had a session with a mechanic friend to change the chains and sprockets on the bikes, and Chloe had to trawl into town to the post office and run a couple of errands which included drinking coffee in a pretty little corner café.
Our dealings done, we could then get on with the business of reaching the furthest point north we were planning to travel in Argentina. That point being a little town called Iruya, (we promise we will get a map sorted so everyone can see where all these places are!). Including ones such as Tilcara and Humahuaca, Uquia and Purmamarca, nestling within the northern reaches of Argentina, surrounded by dust, rocky dry hills and cacti cannot but help to capture the imagination – think wild-west, with truck loads of randomly dispersed donkeys thrown in for effect.
North of Jujuy we had started to climb in altitude, the slowly depleting oxygen relatively unnoticeable until we found, in Humahuaca, that we had suddenly developed lungs of 80 year old, life-long smokers. Ahhh… that will be the altitude then! The start of the acclimatisation process had begun.
Continuing north, and upwards, towards Iruya, the landscape changed from the dusty barren wild-west film set, to lofty sparsely covered plateaus, complete with clouds swirling, condors circling and a sure nip in the air. We reached 4000m before we began descending down into the valley carved out by the (apparently) immense Rio Grande, but at this time of the year, looked like a remarkably feeble trickle. But at least that meant the several river crossings were made without any undue stress, and Chloe’s bike made it through each pass without ending up swimming again.
Iruya – Our most northerly point in Argentina. A little slip of a town, quaint with its steeply cobbled streets and screaming children running havoc. We opted for the most expensive hotel in the village, perched atop the highest hills, allowing us to survey the goings-on in the town below from our breakfast table. It was not meant to be that way – we had genuinely meant to scour the hostels in search of something reasonable, but having battled to get the bikes up the hill, we felt we had no other choice than to just stay put, at the top. So we did! Now where is that credit card…
Despite all good intentions of romantic walks and star gazing, we were thwarted on the first night when Chloe woke with the most horrendous cold imaginable to man. Some may say she had man-flu. Not being able to stir from the bed due to all manner of ailments, including, we now suspect, a good bout of altitude sickness, Chloe tangled herself in the sheets while Chris went in search of his own adventure. The first day, a walk to nearby San Isidro sufficed. An 18km (return) walk along the river and up precarious looking tracks in the hillside led him to the equally as quaint San Isidro, except this village has no road access. Only donkey access. Remarkable.
During the subsequent second, third and fourth days of Chloe’s bed confinement Chris became so restless that on the fifth day he dragged her out by her hair. Well, not quite that bad, but suffice to say that our two night stay in an expensive hotel turned into five nights at great cost to the Scotsman, who just couldn’t take anymore. Oh well, at least the view was nice from the bedroom window!
So we left Iruya, our ‘northernmost destination’ in Argentina, and proceeded to pack-peddle just a little bit, south east towards the pass into Chile. Dropping out of the patchy-green plateau, we were greeted by the dust and cacti again, plus some elaborately coloured rock formations which set the backdrop for Purmamarca.
From Purmamarca we headed directly west, up and over the 4170m altitude mark, then careering down into valley where the huge salt flat of Salinas Grandes lay glittering in the sun. There is definitely something different about mountains reflected into a lake, and mountains reflected into a water-covered salt lake… there is something ethereal and crystallising, and you are really, really aware of the deafening silence, like someone has thrown a blanket over your head and you’re peeping through a tiny hole. All very pretty and magical!
And then there’s the hard crusty stuff that you can actually ride on! Wah-hay!
So after fooling around in the salt, particularly blinded because the brightness burns your retina, we thought it was best time to leave the salt flat and head on towards that border crossing into Chile we were meant to be aiming for. A quick detour into Susques for some sustenance was a necessity, and a going-over of the pretty little church definitely needed to be ticked off the list of ‘Chloe’s pretty churches to visit’.
Onwards and upwards, we battled on, right up to the border with Chile where we, (stupidly), decided to bed down for the night at an altitude of 4300m. Normal people, like us, should not try sleeping at an altitude generally only reserved for people planning to climb Everest. It was silly and will not be attempted again. Large elephants sat on ones chest while trying to drift off into a restless and dehydrated slumber does not constitute a good night’s sleep.
So, we left Argentina for the last time, and entered Chile for the last time. We have made so many friends in Argentina, and have spent near on six months there, it was pretty sad to leave. Chris even had a tear in his eye, the big girl! Moving on…. From the heady heights of the Paso de Jama, we edged back down again, this time down into the Chilean Atacama Desert.
Regal looking rock formations sprung out of nowhere, taking us by surprise in the otherwise nothingness. A couple of salt lakes shimmered in the heat, or were they mirages… hard to tell. After feeling like we were endlessly moving on the same spot, surrounded by sand and sandy hills, the ground suddenly dropped away and we found ourselves hurtling down towards a flat bowl bottom. Otherwise known as Salar de Atacama, and San Pedro of the Atacama Desert.
San Pedro de Atacama is another dusty, authentic, wild-west town. Unfortunately one packed full of tourists. Who let them in?! And why is it packed full of tourists, namely back-packers? Because this is one of the Mecca’s on the Gringo trail, and is the centre for going off and going lots of exciting trips. One being a trip in a jeep, packed with other tourists, to see the Gysers at the break of dawn, and one which we begrudgingly succumbed to, despite the 4am early start. But having been up at 4am, one can really appreciate a good breakfast at 7.30am, surrounded by the sweet smell of sulphur, (rotten eggs), and boiling bubbling water and steam coming up through the rocky surface, making you feel slightly vulnerable. Prehistoric is a good way of describing it – all we needed was a couple of Pterodactyls to set the scene.
Then as the sun rose, some of us stripped off to brave the freezing cold, (-5 degC), in order to wallow in the thermal pool. Sounds terribly inviting, until one remembers after being nice and warm in the pool, you then have to get out again and be plunged into to near death coldness while you try and dry off….
Round and about the rest of the surrounding area we visited quaint indigenous villages, chickens, caves and sand dunes. We saw the Valle de Luna at sunset, which according to our guide book is a ‘must see’. So we saw, and then traipsed back to town with the rest of the hoards of people, promising ourselves that the next day we would get back on the bikes to get a bit of peace!
So the next day we jumped back on the bikes and set our course north, with a small minor detour south – to see ‘the hand of the desert’ sculpture. What started as a small two-hour detour turned into a full-day detour when we found out someone had got the directions wrong and it was actually another 200km south. The lengths we go to in the pursuit of art!
Back on track, heading north and not south, we came across an interesting chap, propping up the bar in a beachside café. He was Chilean but worked as a translator for the UN and now lives in London, having spent most of his working life living in Sweden. At first, we had a very nice conversation about our travels and his three wives.
Then he deviated a little, telling us about Prince Charles’s two previous engagements (apparently) – Google cant confirm or deny this accusation – but its new to us – before he married Lady Diana. This surprisingly led on to him reciting (his version) British history and that no one in their right mind would marry into our Royal family because they are all, ehem, b@stards!
B@stards in the true sense of the word, meaning being from illegitimate lineage. Ahhhh… of course, a stalwart Catholic dragging up Henry VIII’s break from Rome, Elizabeth I, and castigating the whole of British Royal family since the 1580’s. Clever.
So we over looked that part, but he swiftly moved onto the fact that he hates the British…! What?! But we are British, we say! No, no, no, he replies, you are Scottish, that is different! Ermmm… how so?!! And so the political wrangling continues.
From Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia and back up again in Argentina and now Chile we’ve had it …. In Chile we thought we may be free from it, but no. No-one seems to know the difference between England and Britain, and everyone hates the English, (or the British), but love the Scots, and still hate the British. Hmmm. For someone who works for the UN and lives in London, we were more than surprised when this chap promptly came out with the bold statement that he thinks the British people are horrible people. Nice to meet you too mate. But – wait for it – the Scottish are lovely, of course, because they are not British….!?!
Anyway, as a sideline, our experience of being either British or English has not been a pleasant one so far. The Argentineans, (in general) have a bi-polar view on the Falkland/Malvinas legacy and more recent disastrous war, even though it was their failing government who ordered the invasion. And of course, what do ‘England’ want with a rock in the southern sea anyway, they say.
Trying to discuss the original history of the islands and how Britain actually came to occupy them is fruitless because that part of history has not been taught. And then there is the way Britain traded with Argentina in the 19th & early 20th Century, which ‘stripped Argentina raw’ and led to one of the many depressions. The fact that the government at the time didn’t develop any of the offered industry, but instead lined their own pockets is still, of course, Britain’s fault. It has certainly been an eye opener. We can acknowledge that there is fault with the way Britain has treated many countries in the past, but surely we should not have to live with (the guilt) or try to justify of the Colonising era, or for being at the forefront of the industrial revolution.
How sad that the Argentinian nation are so ill-informed, but can judge so wholly and unreservedly against the English, or the British. At times, being British, or English, has never been so bad. Being Scottish, (and not British), has been life-saving.
Moving on from our little political reprieve, and moving on from our friend in the beachside café, we carried on our little trip north with our sights firmly on Bolivia.
After talking with a few discerning locals, we avoided an overnight stay in the crime ridden city of Calama after being advised to turn and run. So we opted to carry on to the delightful village of Chui Chui where a nice lady cooked us dinner and the next morning, (Sunday), we were able to watch the church cleaning lady run up the outside steps and ring the bell for service – how cool!
Our last day in Chile! The border with Bolivia loomed ahead, the little frontier-village of Ollague surrounded by seven magnificent volcanoes. The dirt road leading from Chui Chui to Ollague passed through salt flats, iridescent lakes and desert, punctuated by numerous other snow capped volcanoes, some of which smoked and puffed like old men smoking pipes. Wouldn’t it be cool if one erupted now?! Asked Chris….?!!! Ermm, no…!!
And so we ended the day riding the dusty, sandy route into the frontier village of Ollague. At only 3600m altitude, it was one of our recent lower crossings! The early evening was spent drifting through the train yard trying to be poetic, and ended with a good ol’ lamb stew back at the hostel.
At about half-past nine, wrapped up in all our woolies, we climbed into bed and waited to stop shaking so we might get some rest before the morning.
The morning would be the beginning of a whole new chapter. Tomorrow would bring Bolivia. A truly epic couple of weeks!
Days with man-flu Chloe 5 v 2 (but really 25!) Chris
Bike needed jump starting Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Glad he brought the tow rope Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Llama steaks eaten Chloe 3 v 1 Chris
Llama kebab for breakfast Chloe 0 v 1 Chris