Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great
Chapter 6 - North-west Argentina, the Andes and into Chile
By Lynne Douglas
|When we left the
Iguazu Falls, we had no experience of dirt roads, especially not this red dirt sort of
road. Missing our turning out of town, we ended up on a hard, crusted, pockmarked dirt
road and made a note not to do it again. "Slippery When Wet" should be the
warning, or when recently wet. When dry the red dust coats most things half way up
houses, half way up lorries, legs, feet, clothes, animals. Rain bounces up liquid brick
red dye. It coats roads with a slimy red tint.
This part of Argentina is very similar to Brazil, an area of small subsistence farms producing tobacco, bananas and other hot climate crops alongside timber processing plants. Our course was south-west following the course of the river Parana which forms the border with Paraguay. On reaching the city of Corrientes we altered course north-west towards Salta in the hot, far north-west of Argentina, close to the border with Chile and the last place to stock up on fuel and provisions. On the map it looked like a dead straight road 600kms long and if it had been, it would have beaten the 90 mile straight that we have driven in the TC on the Nullabor Plain crossing in Australia. We started to log the distance, but several 10 degree kinks blew our record attempt apart.
Hot and humid and rich vegetation gradually gave way to hot and dry and arid, the brick red changing to salmon pink. Again, rural poverty was the norm with horse and cart the main means of transport. Towns were tiny, clay brick charmless affairs.
We have heard from other travelers, and read many reports on the internet, of corrupt police officers in this area of Argentina and further north. North of a certain latitude something strange happens to law enforcement. We knew that we stood a chance of encountering something and we had absolutely no idea how we would react. We agreed to proceed with caution and treat "instant fines" to make non-existent "traffic violations" go away as a form of road toll. Suffice it to say, we discovered that both of us have a noisy, obstinate temper on us. Robertos confiscated passport was thrown back at us with disgust. Such an encounter leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth and all the kindness shown to us previously by police officers and the army was blown to smithereens. Roberto was also suffering his third, and worst attack of Travellers Diarrhoea.
Next day we thought it wise to visit a motor accessory shop to stock up on "legally required items". I thought the shop staff were holding Roberto to ransom. The transaction took ages simply because they spent ages rolling around on the floor laughing at us. They couldnt believe that we had fallen for the old "traffic offence" ruse and wondered why we had bothered to stop at all. (Maybe because they were gun toting coppers.) The staff werent satisfied with that, they carried the joke to its ultimate extreme by offering us a red flashing light to fix to the hood. I think we made their day and they probably dined out on it for weeks.
Crossing the Andes in a TC was never going to be easy. We chose our route, not to push ourselves and the car, but to allow us to see the Chilean Altiplana and the Atacama desert. There were easier routes further south and a much more difficult route further north out of Bolivia. We settled on Paso Sico to cross from Argentina into Chile. We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
Trying to find the route out of Salta in Argentina towards San Antonio de los Cobres was an issue. Chile and Paso Sico were signposted clearly at first and then nothing. The road deteriorated rapidly to single track ripio with rivers running across it after heavy rain. "Surely not" was a phrase we used a lot on this crossing. The track, for that was what it was, reduced to barely passable. How could this be a road to a mining town for goodness sake?
The road widened enough for 2 cars to just pass with care and then started to climb, firstly through a winding, barren, river valley and then up through huge cactus and bare rock. It was like something out of a cowboy movie. The cactus disappeared to give way to tundra vegetation, low, sparse and just about adequate to feed a few llamas. The few settlements we drove past were tiny, forlorn affairs of pueblo block with tin sheet and/or thatch roofing. The people scratched a meager living from the llamas they herded up here.
The TC plodded along, we didnt push it hard, we werent in a hurry or trying to set any records. We popped out from a series of hairpins onto a plateau and a sign that said 4000m altitude. How can this be? We worked it out that we had started out at around 2000m altitude at Salta. We were delighted at how the car had performed after expecting problems with the engines breathing capacity. It was a good thing too since we only had one flat left to play with on the carburettors.
We got out of the car to take some pictures and whoa, whats going on? Sirocha is what its called in South America altitude sickness, and we had all the symptoms. Dizziness, nausea, wobbly legs, no joined up thinking, headache, breathlessness. Later on we added another classic symptom sleeplessness. What a performance just getting out of the car and finding the camera and walking a few yards to frame the shot and then back uphill back to the car, gasping for air. How dare the TC take it so much in its stride when we struggled.
We lost a bit of height to reach San Antonio de los Cobres, another forlorn little town set in a windswept dip in the plateau, a disorganized array of pueblo housing, some in poor state of repair. The sun went down and the temperature dropped like a brick. The hostal we found was like an oasis in a sea of cold despair. OK, it was a productive mining town but who in their right mind would want to live here? Where did water come from, food, fuel and other basic necessities? How did they put up with so much dust and dirt floating about? What did they do for jollies?
The locals have never become accustomed to the cold, they were swathed in layers of clothes to keep out the biting wind. Somehow the spacious hostal felt warm inside, the rooms and bathrooms were warm, the large public lounge and bar and dining area were comfortable in a modern but simple way. However, just unpacking the car became an issue. Will we ever get used to sirocha?
We knew that almost the entire route was ripio. The climb out of San Antonio towards Paso Sico started well enough. We passed a couple of lorries crawling up the barren hairpins at less than walking pace, so that was easy enough. A friend of ours explained that the relationship between performance and altitude is not linear. The closer we got to the eventual 4500m altitude, the more the TC struggled for air on the increasingly steep climbs. We ended up in first gear for the steepest bits. We proved his point.
We ended up on the Altiplana proper, a sort of undulating plateau that is quite unique and very difficult to describe. The sky was brilliant cerulean blue with intense white clouds. The light was penetrating bright, as though we were seeing things for the first time. Rock formations followed no pattern at all. Some mountains were smooth sided, gently sloping in shades of grey-green and mauve-grey. Some were rugged, rocky, wind-eroded, salmon pink with bright brick red outcrops. Some were disorganized jumbles of ochres and siennas. The flat desert was clothed in short conical clumps of bright yellow ochre and green tundra grasses, interspersed with huge expanses of pure, salmon pink sand.
Classic conical snow capped volcanoes formed the distant backdrop. Not a sound could be heard. Not a breath of wind blew. Not a living thing moved. There was just us, the TC and not another living soul. This last point took a while to sink in. Ripio can be damaging as we already knew and we had lots of it to come. We didnt expect, or had planned for, the patches of deep, soft sand that had drifted across the road, perversely on the uphill sections. It was at this juncture that we realized how vulnerable we were. If we got stuck in sand, or the TC broke down, we were sunk. If we could pull this one off, it would be a wonder. It would also be the drive of a lifetime.
By lunchtime we made the Argentinian side of the border a bleak, ramshackle building housing a couple of officials with a recording system from the dark ages. Our details were entered in a huge ledger straight out of a Dickens novel. Thats when we spotted that there were 17 entries for the month of March; we were the 18th. That worked out at less than 3 vehicles a day driving over Paso Sico to Chile.
No Mans Land lasted for half an hour. The Chilean buildings were even more frugal and uninviting, but we did see a couple of Andean foxes scavenging for food. "Zorros" said the official. Mask of Fox doesnt exactly have a ring to it. Zorro sounds so much better.
Chile has done it again got the better bits of scenery. There was more upping and downing, more stretches of sand, more really grim ripio with close deep corrugations. Two 4-wheel drives passed us in a cloud of dust, just to add to the fine sand that had puthered up into the cockpit and covered everything. Thanks for slowing down guys.
Just as wed had enough of the juddering, we came across salars. These are high altitude lakes that have evaporated to form salt flats, the deeper stretches of water that were left were bright milky azure blue in stark contrast to the glaring white of salt. Salar de Rincan and Salar Aguas Calientes stood out as particularly stunning. In the winter time, flamingoes make these salars their home, as many a postcard testifies.
And then we started to loose height as more and more volcanoes came into view. We dropped into the pueblo village of Socaire and finally found tar seal. What a relief with only 50kms left to go. It looked like we had really pulled it off. San Pedro de Atacama came into view around 6pm. Fourteen hours in the saddle and we felt like we had walked every bit of it. The TC was covered in dust and sand, the insides of all our luggage compartments were full of sand. We were covered in sand. But what a day.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small pueblo village at 2300m, a popular weekend resort for Chileans and an international tourist destination. Streets are narrow dirt roads, houses are single storey of mud bricks with tin sheet or thatch single pitch roofs. Windows are small to keep out the heat. It never rains yet water comes from underground, in this case not contaminated by poisonous minerals so can be used for irrigation and provide a bit of greenery. Tourism means that most houses have been converted into hotels, hostals, restaurants, excursions providers and shops, yet it hasnt lost its small settlement feel.
The white painted church is a much photographed landmark, still functioning for services. When we walked past, the pastor was giving a fire and brimstone sermon. It is an oasis in a sea of most peculiar desert landscapes. After cleaning ourselves, clothing, car and contents, we tried a high altitude mountain bike ride to Valle de la Luna, so called because of its lunar landscape. Well named, but haunting to look at. Again, salmon pink predominated. We cannot ever contemplate using anything like this colour for wall decoration ever again; it is quite overwhelming.
Sand dune of huge proportions and wild rock features formed by wind erosion, canyons and escarpments confirm that this is the driest desert on earth. We thought that all deserts were dry but apparently there are degrees of dryness and the Atacama sits at the pinnacle of dryness. It makes your eyes sore, your nose sore, your lips sore and your skin burn like crazy.
This landscape continues for ever, down to Calama where the biggest copper mine in the world is located and the biggest eyesore in the world, and on towards the Pacific ocean. The Atacama starts way south from where we entered and way north and on into Peru. We headed north towards sea level at Arica, but not before we had to tackle more 1000m climbs and descents through a series of spectacular canyons and dry, dusty spectacularly uninviting towns.
Arica appears to be a thriving seaside tourist destination as well as a busy port. We found a simple coastal restaurant and had a good feed. The head waiter had toured New Zealand on his motorbike so was delighted that a TC with an NZ sticker on the door should grace his carpark. It was very hot and very dry. It wouldnt be long before things changed dramatically.
© 2008 Lynne Douglas