Monday, 30 April 2007

4000 metres up and freezing cold

I decided I needed to get away from the city at the weekend to get some fresh air and stetch my legs a little. With the Andes looming over this city, I opted to head up to one of the highest and loneliest towns of the Puna, San Antonio De Los Cobres.

San Antonio lies along the railway line built in the early 1920's from Salta to the Chilean port of Antofagasta. It was built to transport the various ores and minerals that are still mined today high up on the Argentinian Puna and Altiplano. The railway today is only used for a tourist train, although it has not run for the past few years, due to the need to do track repairs. The train is called El Tren A Las Nubes (the train to the clouds).

My bus up there was old and battered. I shared it with the indigenous people (I think they are Quechua) going back home for the weekend. The bus ride took six hours to cover 100 miles, as it stopped so very often. The ride up was spectacular.Up through the coloured sediamentary rocks, grey gullied slopes, following the Rio Tores.

As the bus got higher and higher, even the cacti could grew no more. Prickly bushes were the only vegetation. Hitting 4000 metres, the road levelled out, we had reached the stark high Puna. By now it was dark, and stars as bright as chrystal orbs. But it was so cold, and it just got colder and colder.

I was the only person to stay at Grandma Indigena's. There was not heating so I took the blankets from the next bed to add to mine. I was not surprised to see ice in the river the following morning. High up here, when in the shade it was cold, but in the strong sunshine it was warm.

The town was just a windy, dusty place, typical of the high plains. Certainly not touristy, but I liked it, as it was so very different. I asked in the small yourist hut how I could visit the one site up here, the 64m high, 224m long, railway viaduct. Got there in a Paul Culley style builders van.

On Sunday I took the bus back to sultry Salta, ready for more Spanish.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is the Labour Day holiday, so I get a break from verbs and adjectives. But on Wednesday it's past tense time. Hopefuly tomorrow I will share some pictures of Salta.

Monday, 23 April 2007


Sunday is the Andinas pueblo is the day for religious processions, accompanied by a brass band and fire crackers. We spent the next morning, our last together, just exploring the town.

After lunch Ezequiel and I said adios to Delfina who was continuing her exploration of the north west. In Salta, a mere 4 hours down, I bade farewell to Ezequiel who was flying back home to Buenos Aires. We will all gather again when I reach Buenos Aires in December of January.

I have decided I have time to linger a while in Salta, and will take some Spanish lessons, as I recognise my tourist phrasebook Spanish is not good enough for really getting to understand and appreciate this part of the world.

Tilcara and on up the Quebrada

Early on Saturday morning we took the hour long bus up the Rio Grande valley, north to the small town of Tilcara. Here we stored our bags before enjoying a homemade pasta lunch (Italian food is great here in Argentina, as a huge proportion of population is of Italian origin. Even I can hear that the Spanish language here is spoken with a semi Italian style accent).

Humans have lived in this valley for at least 10,000 years. Dense patches of cacti are clues to human habitation here, for the Andean Indians ate the seeds of the cactus plants, which then sprouted in there latrines. Tilcara has one such patch, where 1400 year old ruins have been uncovered and restored. Very little is known of these tribes, but their settlements are large and suggest great power and success.

In the early evening it was onto another bus to climb up to the town of Humahuaca, just 100 miles south of the Bolivian border.

Again this charming colonial town, sits in within the multi coloured mountains that were a principle route through which the Spanish transported the silver from Potosi (in current day Bolivia, once the richest city on Earth, and a place Sam and I will visit in August) to Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast.

Seven Colour Mountain

Having arrived in Purmamarca in the dark we did not know the sight that would greet us the following morning. Cerro de Siete Colores is what brings folks to this tiny colonial Andean village.

Walking through these coloured rocks was a treat, as was my locro lunch (a maize and meat stew).

In the late afternoon we had arranged transport up over the 4100m pass to visit Argentina's largest salt flats, the Salinas Grandes.

This remnant of the sea was carried high by the tectonic forces driving the Andes high. The arid climate evaporated the water, leaving behind the minerals and salts, crusted hard on the bedrock. A white shimmering lake, whose luminescence grew as the sun began to set.

This was to be my first salt flat, for there are many on this the Andean altiplano. Weird and unique landscapes.

Stranded in the Puna!

From Cachi we headed to Salta the regional city established by the Spanish. The same driver and tired old car offered to take us to Salta for a similar price as the bus. We stupidly accepted, thinking that again we could stop as we liked on this reported scenic road. We certainly stopped! Within half an hour, ajacent to the Cardonnes National Park, steam and black smoke billowed. We were pretty well stuck. The driver thought he could make it to salta, but we felt it was time to give up on French engines, and opted not to continue and see if we could hitch.

For three hours in the hot sun we waited on a lift. Very little traffic passed us. Most vehicles were already full. I sat and read my novel, occasionally joking as to who would eat who first if we became hungry.

We were rescued by an electrician heading back to Salta in a very smart 4wd pickup.

Leaving the flat puna we reached the 3000m pass to drop down to Salta. From the pass the view was quite something. We were above the clouds, looging down on sharp, red peaks. We corkscrewed down the road at quite a pace, passing our rather forlorn looking driver who seemed totally stuck. We were dropped off at the bus station in Salta, had a quite lunch and jumped on the next bus north to our next destination, Purmamarca.

It was getting dark as the bus dropped us off at the main road junction for Purmamarca. We had just 2km to walk to the village.

After settling into to our 1.5UKP a night rooms, we went in search of food. Music was playing in one place so this was the one where we headed. Given I was the omly foreign soul, I was forced to pick up the microphone for a Queen and Beatles rendition. Poor souls having to suffer me mumbling through two songs!

Heading up to Cachi

My guide book (The Lonely Planet's Argentina - incidentally the worst LP I've ever used - pretty sure the authors didn't leave their 4 star hotel in Buenos Aires!) says children are held up to the bus window on the journey to Cachi to keep them quiet, so wonderful are the vistas.

But there was a problem. No public transport from Cafayate to Cachi, only from the city of Salta. This did not deter me, Ezequiel and Delfina (both Porteños)searched and searched for reasonable cost options to make this trip. It worked. A young chap with a very old and tired Peugeot was will to take us for a tenner each. I am so glad he did.

Heading up towards the mountains we passed through the sharpest most jagged peaks I have ever seen. The tilted strata had eroded to form teeth like peaks with narrow valleys in between. It resembled to me the landscape of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films.

Crossing this range we began our ascent to the Cachi valley. Multi-coloured mountains, dotted with cacti, surrounded us. There was very little traffic on this dusty road, and settlements were few and far between. This was definately off the beaten track.

So imagine the alarm when steam billowed from the bonnet! I think the driver knew this would happen as the boot was full of water bottles to refill the cooler system. Water exhausted we broke down again, but fortunately near a few peoples homes who were able to replenish the water needed. We just made it to Cachi. A six hour journey through wonderful, but lonely, scenery.

Cachi was a tiny village, full of colonial charm. Just a few streets surrounded the tree shaded central plaza. Looming over the village was the snow draped Nevada to Cachi. Although the road Ruta 40 continued northwards over these peaks the next section is only passable with a 4 wheel drive vehicle.

Dinner for me in Cachi was something new. Roast shank of goat, a regional speciality, and very good it was too. Up here in the remote Andean valleys the people are mainly indigenous. Dark skin, small stocky stature, and thick black hair, generally plaited for the women folk. This was not European Argentina, this was the area where Spanish rule was resisted most strongly.

Pachamama's Sunday Best

From Amaicha we took the bus to Cafayate, another great wine growing area. Cafayate is a pleasant small town well geared up for tourists, sitting in an arid valley below the high Andean peaks.

After settling into the hostal, we headed over the road for lunch. Whilst sitting there in the sun I saw a kitten fall from the hostal balcony. So it was blue light on as I rush over to see if it was alright. She shook herself and then passed out. I thought she had died. I picked her up, she was still completely out, and ran into the hostal. She twiched, and then collasped again. Putting her down she tried to stand but was unable. Others now gathered to see the drama. I heard that my lunch was ready so left the little cat to the care of others. Later I heard she just picked herself up and shot out of the door. One life down, eight to go.

On the bus from Tucuman to Tafi Del Valle I got chatting to Emma from Liverpool, and we bumped into each other again at the hostal in Cafayate. We agreed that the next morning we would hitch to Rio Colorado. We had hardly walked to the vineyards before we were in the back of a pick up, which took us most of the way. We then got a further lift with an Argentinian couple in their hire car.

In the car park a guide offered his services. Initially we thought why bother with a guide, we could just follow the river up to the waterfall. But he told us there were two waterfalls and the second one was in a secret place! So for a pound a head he led us into the gorge.

Pink granite closed in around us as we followed the river, crossing it on stepping stones frequently. Cacti dotted the canyon walls and green shrubs hugged the river. It took just an hour and a half to reach the first waterfall. The water was freezing cold yet the weather hot and sunny. No way was I going swimming in the pool below the falls as the guide book suggested. The second waterfall truly was in a secret place, for we had to crawl through a rock cave to reach the site. We would never have found this without our guide.

We got a lift back into town for a quick lunch before climbing into a mini van to head out to Cafayate's principle attraction; the Quebrada Del Cafayate. Wow. For someone who loves landscapes this was the Earth at her most colourful. Here minerals have painted sediamentary rocks every shade there is, and twisted and folded the strata into the most fantastic shapes. The photos aree below. Geology can be the most interesting and jaw dropping subject!

Monday, 16 April 2007


Quilmes is the name of the best selling lager in Argentina. It is named after the Andean Indians who were strong and cultured enough to withstand Incan attacks. They were however, as like all indigenous South American groups, unable to hold out against Spanish gunpowder and horses.

Leaving Tafi Del Valle we headed up to the 3000m pass into the next much drier valley. Topography and altitude are the climate drivers here.

Arriving in Amaicha Del Valle, three of us found Mama Maria´s place, and did she look after us well. A lovely old lady, with a wonderful vine covered courtyard to shade ourselves in.

Late on this quiet Sunday afternoon we took a car to explore the old, ruined, Quilmes capital.

Built in a small valley in the mountains, dotted with 5 metre high cacti, we were alone as we explored the site (except for 4 friendly llamas).

Tafi Del Valle

We were now a group of five. Two Porteños (Buenos Aires chaps), two French and myself.

We took the two hour long bus ride up into the Andes and what a ride it was. Starting in the farmland we could see the mountains cloaked in green forest. This forest turned out to be dense sub-tropical forest with every tree drapped in parasitic plants. As we rose in altitude the trees became more temperate in nature, all this as we hairpinned our way up. I sat on the left of the bus and the view into the ravine was quite scary.

Eventually we reached the tree line and entered the high Tafi Del Valle. A good name I thought as these green mountains did resemble those in Wales.

On arrival some negotiation took place between our Porteños and it was revealed we had a cabin with a view for two nights, and at less cost each than the villages hostal.

The cabin was wonderful. Dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bed packed bedrooms. Up went my Welsh flag and it was home!

Here's a photo of the view.

Spent the two days here just enjoying the cool mountain air and relaxing. One strange thing happened though. I said "Hola" to one dog and he started to follow me. Within 30 minutes he was joined by 5 others. I became known as the dog man! The villagers all wanted to know where these dogs came from and laughed when told they had adopted me. That night they all slept on the veranda of our cabin.


After the night bus arrived in Tucuman with my mates Chris from Buenos Aires and Nico from Bordeaux (France). There we added Aileen from Paris to our group, and headed out for an Argentinian lunch of Empanadas (minced beef, vegtables and spice in a pastry wrap, very similar to Cornish pasties) and Tamales (minced beef within pollenta, steamed within maize leaves).

Tucuman was really just a stepping stone, with very little to see (the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the last century), but it was here that Argentine independance from Spain was declared.

Argentinians love to stay up late and that night we were chatting away until the small hours. Most of us were heading off to the north west next so we opted to travel together.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Stowaway 3

Yeah heard about bones. Greeeeaaat!! Love lovely old stinking bones so had a good dig about here to see if I could find one! No such luck!

Found a dino egg though. Think it was hard boiled!


Ischigualasto - Dino Bones

After the beautiful tour of Talampaya park, we headed out to Ischigualasto, where a great many fossils of dinosaurs have been discovered. Some refer to the park as the "Valley of the Moon" and in places its white cracked surface did resemble what you might think the moon might be like.

The park must be a geologists dream, and we were lucky to have our own resident geologist Brigitte, from Greenland on hand to help us understand the processes that lead to what we were viewing.

Some formations are just not fully explainable. The round football like boulders are particularly peculiar, and know one can fully agree on how these were formed. They make for great photos though!

It was an excellent day and we all had had a lot of fun. After the trip to the park myself and a few others were dropped off in the middle of nowhere (just one shop nothing else, but it did sell a well deserved beer) to catch a bus to La Rioja and from there an overnight bus north to Tucuman.


At the bus station in San juan I noticed a lot more Western travellers waiting for the same bus to the Valle Fertil as myself. There were Israeli´s, Germans, French, a chap from Guernsey and a few Argentines. All were headed to the two national parks, Talapaya and Ischiguasto, north of the village of San Augustin.

On arrival accomodation touts offered tours and beds. I together with most of the others headed off to take advantage of the 1.5UKP a night offer. We bonded over beer and dinner, and we all decided to do one park in the morning and the other in the afternoon, before heading further north.

We bumped along to our first national park, Talampaya at 8am.

This park is very similar to scenes from the American west (Arizona and Colorado). A red rock, river canyon, shaped, and further sculpted by the wind and water.

Our first stop was to look at some 3500 year old petroglyphs.

Even more impressive was the smooth red sandstone walls, and the chimney like indent (which help produce some wonderful echoes) On the wway towards the canyon we were lucky enough to to see Guanacocos and Rheas.