Santiago - Cachi (22/03/16 - 20/04/16)
Santiago - Salta
Heading north from Santiago up the Pacific coast through dry dusty desert was a bit of a shock after the greens and humidity of tropical Easter island and camping in the dust also took some getting used to again. From Copiaco we climbed toward the paso de San Fransicso spending one night at 2900m to acclimatize, then on to laguna Santa Rosa, the salar (salt lake) de Maricunga, and laguna Verde but unfortunately the road just kept on climbing and instead of camping again we had to continue over the pass and descend as quickly as possible due to Naomi not coping with the altitude. Dropping back into Argentina through an incredibly colourful mountain landscape and on to green river valleys dotted with villages and agriculture.
After a mostly sleepless night in the surprisingly party town of Santa Maria, we visited the ruins of Quilmes which was once home the the feisty Quilmes people who managed to keep the Incas and then the Spaniards at bay for several centuries until finally falling to the Spanish and being all but wiped out. The remains of the city which once held nearly 10,000 were fascinating with fortifications around the perimeter and extending up the steep mountain with lookouts and dwellings for hundreds of metres up the cliffs. It is one of Argentina's most important archaeological sites with much of it having been restored and is surrounded by an impressive landscape dotted with the majestic cacti, prolific in number and variety.
Heading for Salta, we were next surprised by the Quebrada de las Conchas, a river valley with strange geography and a huge range of contrasting colours and vegetation, mesmerised we drove up and back on sections of it as the light changed – magical!
Salta - Polvarilla Viaduct
Famous for the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of seven colours), Purmamarca was a cute dusty little tourist town with a huge daily craft market in the square. The current economy seems to be based mainly on tourism so nearly every shop and or household seemed to be trying to provide something to entice the tourists. We found a great spot to camp in the centre of town and spent several days exploring, photographing and sharing meals and Schnapps with new friends from Germany. From here we headed for the famous Humahauca but were a little disappointed after Purmamarca and only stayed one night, although also very touristy it was neither cute nor inviting.
Hearing that there would be Condors in the area around Iruya was the reason for driving hours over an incredibly steep dirt road, complete with corrugations, dozens of switchbacks and a pass of over 4000m. Not only did we have stunning views over the river valley and mountains patchworked with agriculture but as we had lunch on the edge of the road at about 3500m the Condors arrived and circled overhead! The town itself was small and very pretty with steep cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings but definitely no space to maneuver our truck so after exploring on foot we left in search of a high altitude campsite.
Polvarilla Viaduct - Cachi
The famous Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds) is an incredible mountain railway that formerly linked Argentina and Chile between Salta and Antofagasta, nowadays it is only a tourist train taking passengers to see the Viaduct de Polvarilla. Sadly it wasn't functional during our visit so the next best thing was to visit the viaduct ourselves, parking underneath and clambering up a track to the top, also encountering a very cute and unusual resident Vizcacha, a type of Chinchilla. Completed in 1932 the viaduct is the highest one on the line at 4220m. Construction of the railway itself began in 1921 but wasn't completed until 1948, it is the fifth highest railway in the world and the third highest in South America. On our way west we encountered the railway many times and were constantly impressed by the incredible construction, twice seeing a draisine trundling along like something out of a Charlie Chaplin movie and one night camping at an abandoned railway village high in the mountains.
While in Australia we saw the stromatolites in Shark bay, WA , there are only two places in the world where you can view these unusual micro-organisms and funnily enough we came across them again in the Ojo de Mar in Salar de Arizaro. These are presumed to resemble those which were involved in the early phase of evolution of life on earth and are strange and beautiful.
We visited the Tolar Grande area of NW Argentina on the advice of the very helpful tourist office staff in Salta, it was another long dusty corrugated route but with stunningly varied scenery and very little other traffic. The village of Tolar Grande is on the edge of Salar de Arizaro and appears to have been a more happening place in the days when the railway operated, walking into the one store was like a step back into the 60's and totally fascinating with a helpful chatty proprietor who appears to stock a range of products equal to a department store.
About three hours of bumping across the salar brought us to the Cono de Arita, a near perfect pyramid mountain poking out of the completely flat salar – Martin delighted in the photographic opportunity …. until being visited by the local Gendarmerie, the second visit in a place we thought was totally desserted – again being reminded there are eyes everywhere!
After nearly a week of wild camping, freezing nights and dust everywhere we returned to Cachi to recover, the scenic route, part of the famous Ruta 40, took us over the Abra de Acay mountain pass at 4972m and down a very dodgy narrow road where we were very relieved to meet only cyclists!!!
Our two visits to Cachi and its surrounds left a lasting impression on us both, a very cute little town with a lovely plaza, friendly people and a huge green campground with its simple and amazingly effective channeled irrigation system. Driving into town in autumn with the bright red patches of drying peppers on either side of the road, a crazy mountain road drive to Laguna Brealito and the dry countryside scattered with hundreds of weird and wonderful cacti, desert flowers, mosses and very cute wild donkeys.