Posted by: glenswatman | November 22, 2009

20091111-20 Argentina Chile


Bruce & Louise are leaving today as the advance party
heading to Salta.  Mid morning we take a
taxi, AR$30 (£5) for the 20 minute 8km steep ride up the mountain.  At the top we want to do the walk to “Giganta
 del Diablo”, AR$3 (50p).  Initially we walk down to the bottom of the
gorge then follow the course of the stream hopping to a fro across it.  The rocks here are purple and turquoise and
make a beautiful backdrop.  At the end of
the gorge is the waterfall, so tempting to duck under it but signs tell us this
is the towns water supply so no bathing. 
Back tracking we go the opposite way following the water course channel,
at one stage balancing on the edge of the channel with a sheer drop at the side
of us.  You can continue this way to join
the track back to town but it seems quite dangerous so we return to the entrance
and the main road.  Further down the main
road is a much easier and safer track of 4km taking us back to the village?  As we are now much higher we can see more of
the orange/red uplift amongst the hills opposite – an amazing area for
geology.  It only takes 45 minute to get
back so we are glad we opted to do the hike rather than keep the taxi waiting.  In the evening we want to try a meal at the
local cookery school,  Fellow backpackers from Germany Andreas and
Beata are game to join us.  The food is
quite pricy by local standards so our hopes are high for some gourmet
cuisine.  We share a platter of cheeses
and meats as a starter. AR$36 (£6), then Steve has huge medallions of beef as
his main whilst Beata & I do less well with the lasagne.  No sign of pasta just meat layered with
creamed purple mashed corn.  Overall not
a huge success.



Our last day here so we have a lie in then relax on our
terrace.  Book the Balut bus to Salta for
tomorrow, AR$38 (£6.40) and we are given seats 1 and 2.  These are at the top of the bus at the front
and in other South American countries are known as the death seats but
hopefully not here in Argentina where driving standards seem higher. Take lunch
at the local restaurant then home again. 
  Laze around and watch a movie in
the evening, thank you Bobby for putting so many on my hard drive.



As we have stayed for 5
nights Danny kindly charges us AS$70 per night the same as the other room.  Both he and his nephew Pablo have been
brilliant in offering us lots of help and travel advice.  It is Friday 13th, a good day to
travel or not – time will tell.    We rather enjoy the front seats at the top of
the bus as we have a panoramic view of the scenery.  At Salta bus station there are a few hotel
touts.  We are amazed to be offered the
3* Cumbre Hotel with a double en-suite and buffet breakfast for AR$80
(£13).  It looks lovely in the brochure
and we fear there is a catch but with a free taxi ride there with and commitment
what do we have to lose?  It lives up to
the brochure pictures and the price includes free internet, cable TV and
air-con.  We are a little further from
the centre than other hotels but it makes for an interesting walk.  Surrounding the main square are numerous
fascinating sculptures made out of scrap metal. 
The main cathedral looks very pretty in pink but a couple of blocks away
the church of San Francisco is magnificent. 
It has the most unusual entrance doors with concrete shaped to look like
a curtain pelmet above each one.  As we
walk back the streets are coming to life and our area seems to be full of hairdressers
and wholesalers selling sweets and packaged cakes.   We
have to double back to find a restaurant and I get a shock when my AR$15
(£2.50) promotion meal arrives. A 1 litre bottle of coke and a 12” pizza, no
wonder the waitress was confused when Steve ordered another meal for


AR$80 (£13) Inc buffet breakfast


Bruce & Louise are due back in town this morning so we
hang around until mid day then decide we need to get things done.  At the bus station we buy our onwards tickets
to Chile with Gemini’s, AR$170 (£28).  At
a tour office we book to go to Cafayate tomorrow and Cachi on Monday, ARS190
(£32) for the two a saving of AR$50 on booking separately.   Just after we get back to our hotel Louise
arrives.  After their stay on the ranch
they were dropped at a hotel in the city centre and she has left Bruce there
sleeping.  Our hotel has a swimming pool
that is closed until December but at the moment they give you free tickets to
use another one.  Steve is glued to the
TV watching sport Louise & I decide to go for a swim.  Unfortunately the baths are public ones and
heaving with kids so we pass.  In the
evening we are supposed to meet Bruce & Louise in the square at 7pm but
around 6 the heavens open up with thunder and lightning.  The rain is so bad that the street quickly
floods with cars having a hard time getting through.  It’s a fair walk to the square so we cop
out.  Needing to eat Steve pops to the
shop next door which is also flooded so the man has people waiting at the door
and passes stuff out to them. 



Up just after 6am as our tour bus should arrive between 6.45 and
7.15.  Breakfast starts at 6.30 so we fit
that in.  Just about to give up when the
bus arrives at 7.45 as we are the last pick up. 
Bruce & Louise made it to the square 10 minutes late, and eventually
figured we were no shows.  Our tour bus
takes us out into the country and after an hour or so we reach the gorges which
impressive rocks.   Garganta Del Diablo
(Devils Throat) is one stop as is the natural amphitheatre with acoustics
proven by amateur musicians.  Other rocks
are shaped like a duck, titanic, frog and prince.  En route guide Pablo has us chewing coca
leaves and we reckon this helps us see the shapes!   Cafayate is in the middle of the wine region
and we call in at a winery before lunch. 
The dry aromatic white is delicious. 
In the town the tour stops at a restaurant for lunch but it is packed
out and has loud music.  We have 2 hours
until meeting up in the square so find our own place and wash down our tasty
food with a litre of wine.  A second
winery is the next stop with a few more photo stops in the gorges on the way
out.  All in all an interesting
trip.  Back in Salta we go for a final
drink and snack with Louise & Bruce (they are flying to Buenos Aires
tomorrow).  Leaving the restaurant it is
raining heavily so we call it a night.



Well this morning our wakeup call is late and the bus is early –
typical.  The bus is only half full but
we drive up onto a housing estate, with fine views over the city, and pick up a
family group of 11 people.   For over an
hour we drive out towards Cachi then begin to climb the mountains.  We are the only English speakers on board so
guide Monika just gives us an abbreviated version of the talk.  Today we are going to traverse 4 areas of
vegetation beginning in a cloud forest jungle. 
Walking just a few yards into the forest we can see the strange moss on
the trees and the way many of them have roots growing upwards out of the earth
whilst others cling to rock walls.  The
next area higher up is sparse trees, occasional cactus and farming.  One of the many stops is so we can walk over
an old road bridge.  It is made of planks
going across with other lengthwise for the vehicles.  One lady opts to walk in the middle but
doesn’t notice the gaps.  Her leg falls
through one and her camera drops to the river below.  Luckily she has just grazed her leg and her
camera falls onto gravel beside the water and still works once retrieved.  Meanwhile our driver is mending a puncture
from where he hit one of the rocks from the recent rain induced rock falls.  We then begin the climb proper, a steep
ascent along valleys then directly up with lots of hair pin bends.  The minerals in the rocks create amazing
colours.  It takes 40 minutes to climb
the famous bishops something or other.  Up
and eventually above the clouds we reach a plateau.  We travel part of the famous Inca road.  Here they achieved the amazing feat of
producing a road over 20km long with only 3cm deviation from the straight.  They did this by building at night and lining
up torch bearers to show the way.  We are
now in a forest of Cordones cactus and hear the fascinating story of how they
are born and live to over 400 years. 
Higher still we meet local people selling all kinds of herbs and spices
very cheaply.  These are the families of
the “gauchos” who live off the land and still farm in the primitive
manner.  The lunch stop is at a rather
posh and expensive restaurant in the middle of nowhere.   Steve orders the starter of roasted lamb
tripe and says it is excellent.  Once we
arrive in Cachi we have 1-hour to look around. 
Probably about 45 minutes too long as other than the streets having high
pavements, to enable the short women and children to mount horses, there is
little of interest.  In fact most of
these tours could be at least 1/3 shorter if they didn’t take such frequent and
long stops.  Even a toilet break ends up
being ½ hour.  The journey back is in
better weather so we manage to stop at a few viewpoints that on the way up were
shrouded in cloud.  It is still a long
haul and we don’t get back until after 8pm. 
It is funny when Monika does her final speech and thanks us for being
nice English people, always smiling laughing and being funny and not as she



Another early morning start.   Our Geminis bus leaves at 7am and is nice
and comfortable.  We do two pickups en
route then begin to head toward the “Jama Pass”.  It is a spectacular journey and we wonder why
we bothered with the last two trips – isn’t hindsight wonderful.   We get to see all the coloured rocks in the
Quebrada de Humahuaca then climb up the mountains just like yesterday.  On the plateau we cross numerous salt
pans.  Lunch is a couple of sandwiches
and a wafer biscuit washed down with Coke. 
Funnily enough we are served this whilst bouncing along then shortly
after we stop at the Argentinean exit border. 
As the exit stamp formalities take quite some time it would have been so
easy to serve lunch whilst waiting there. 
It is a desolate place with nothing other than the few customs
buildings.  It is 160km’s from here to
the first town in CHILE where we will complete arrival formalities.  Many stretches of road are long and flat but
we also do more up and down mountain climbs with views, interesting sand dunes
and rock formations.  In the afternoon we
get a hot drink and a croissant.  Now why
serve this on a nice flat stretch of road when you can pull up on a slope,
serve the drinks then set off on a bumpy winding stretch downhill.   At San
Pedro the customs office is at the edge of town and would be very easy to skip
if you were so inclined.  All our bags
have to off loaded, searched then put back on for the 2 minute journey to the
bus stop.   We’ve arranged to be met by Couchsurfing host
Marta at the bus station but we just arrive at a dusty car park.  No sign of Marta but by the time our bags are
unloaded she has arrived.  Walking
through the town we can tell it is really only thriving due to tourism.  It is said to be the most expensive town in
Chile, even more expensive than Santiago the capital.  The ATM is out of order but Hostal
“Corvatsch” takes credit cards.  Chilean
Pesos 800 = £1 so our basic room with just beds and a table at CH$15,000 works
out at just short of £20.  En suite rooms
are roughly double so we may not be having many of those!    The
main attractions here are the tours of the salt pans, geysers etc but the
reason we have stopped is that it was the first possible break in the
journey.  We wander around the town with
narrow dirt streets and are amazed to see a motorhome coming towards us.  Even more surprisingly it is a conventional
European “A” class with Italian plates. 
The other motorhomes we have seen have been converted Mercedes panel
vans.  Before we get near enough to be
able to direct him to the campground he takes a wrong turn then has to battle
down a narrow street.  In the evening
Marta calls round for us along with her Couchsurfing guests Sarah from
Australia and Romulo from Brazil.  We
head to “La Estaka” because Couchsurfer Siobhan from New Zealand works there.  It is one of the most expensive restaurants
in town so we have a drink and share a starter platter between us.  We draw inspiration from Siobhan’s trip
through the Middle East and love hearing the other travel stories.


CH$15,000 (£19) basic room no bathroom


Not happy without a bathroom, when I need the loo in the
night I find that there is no water, someone has done a poo in the one with the
light and the other is dark.  Worse still
we are underneath an en-suite room and they are forever flushing their
toilet.  We want to do the walk to Valley
of the Moon, according to the map 4km from town.  The hostal has no luggage storage and you
have to vacate your room by 11am and Marta is picking us up here at 1pm  The owner says we cannot stay there as water
is short in Atacama and they only have enough for departing guests until 11am
and new guests from then onwards so we would not be able to even use the toilet
if we waited!  She suggests leaving our
luggage with the bus company and as we cannot reach Marta on the phone this is
our only option.  We walk to Frontera office
but have to wait for them to open.  Book
our ticket to Calama for 16.15hrs, CH$2500 (2.80) and leave the bags.  Walking out towards the desert it is not
clear which track we should take.  We ask
a few people and get varying answers from unknown to 15km up the road.  As we started late it is really hot so we
just do a short walk to enjoy the scenery then return to the hostal to visit
the bathroom before the 11am lockout. 
Phone Marta and meet in the square then go back to her place, collecting
our bags en route as she says she doesn’t trust Frontera.  Along with Siobhan she is renting a room in a
small house.  It is of traditional adobe
construction and has big tyres built into the walls as window frames.  Sarah left this morning to hitch to Antofagasta
but they have another friend Almenada round. 
Early afternoon we go for lunch at “Delicias del Carmen” where we both
try some typical Chilean food.  This has
been another excellent Couchsurfing experience including meeting very
interesting and intrepid young female travellers.  On the bus we travel for about 10 minutes out
of town before the driver pulls up and comes round to collect our tickets.  Arrive in the city of Calama after about 1 ½
hours and only have a few minutes to wait before our host Oscar arrives.  He is very enthusiastic to improve his
English.  He owns a large building with
many of rooms and has a spare one for guests whilst the other rooms are rented
out to the miners.  The biggest and
largest producing copper mine in the world is nearby and the men come here from
all over the country for the work.  Oscar
has plans to turn it into a backpacker’s hostel in the future.  Once we are settled in we all go for a walk
around town with Oscar.  It is much nicer
than we expect and will give us plenty to explore tomorrow.  Stop for some delicious empanadas as supper
before returning and watching TV in our room.



We are both happy to have a lie in, there is a bit of noise
when the miners leave at 5am but it is quiet after that.  Oscar suggests we join him and his sister,
Sibyla, for breakfast so we go out with him to buy fresh bread.  The bread he chooses is actually dry and
flattish like a cross between a scone, a bread roll and a slap of pastry.   They eat this with butter and cheese and
often have the same in the evening. 
Oscar is really keen to practice his English and learn more about
travelling so we spend as much time with him as we can.  Explore a bit of the town and book our onward
ticket with Pullman to Caldera CH$14,000 (£17.50)..  We didn’t want to do any more long bus
journeys but the 12-hour one tomorrow will get us to a coastal resort and we
need to see the ocean.  The one thing I
am noticing in Chile is that they seem to understand my bad Spanglish much
better than the people in the other countries but once they reply I can
understand almost nothing.  They speak
very quickly, miss the endings of words and often use slang.  Oscar has a number of copied movies in
English so we spend part of the afternoon putting them on to our computer.  He invited us up for tea and more of a
chat.  Later in the evening his sister
arrives with her friend Monika who is doing a European trip in January.  We look through her 17-day itinerary and
offer a few suggestions and she seems really pleased but would really have
liked us to go and stay with her to chat more.



Oscar sees us off in a shared taxi to the bus station, CS$500 (65p)
pp.  The bus station appears to have a
resident population of dogs, we see over 20 hanging out there.  Stray dogs do seem to be a big problem in
Chile but at least they seem placid.  Our
bus arrives a little late but is a very comfortable 2-storey one.  We have the panoramic seats at the front but
the view is obscured by the “Elqui Bus” sign across the window directly in
front of us.  Heading out into the desert
the scenery is very similar all the way to Antofagasta.  This is a large industrial city but our first
view of the Chilean coast.  Onwards the
scenery gradually changes from sandy desert to stony then dirt and finally nice
granite rocks.  There are many shrines
along the way, often very large ones dedicated to saints.  Just outside Caldera we are stopped for a
drug inspection.  A dog comes on board
and sniffs our bags then also the luggage compartment.  We comment on what amazing obedient and well
trained dogs they are.  A few minutes
later we see him running off into the bush with the handler having a hard time getting
him to come back to the amusement of everyone on the bus.  In Caldera our Couchsurfing host lives just a
block from the bus station and we are soon in Andres home.  He speaks very good English and works with
the schools setting up libraries.  His
home is directly behind the fishing beach and we have a separate room with 2
sofas and mattresses to sleep on so will be very comfy.  His girlfriend Priscilla returns from doing a
big shop in the city of Copiapo, about 1-hour away.  She speaks no English but understands
some.  We pop out to pick up some drinks
and get a quick orientation walk of the small town.  It is after 10pm by the time we eat and
midnight before bed but Andres & Priscilla are then in full flow and head
off to party leaving us to retire. 



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