Northern Argentina

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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

…further in the waiting loop!

Our additional loop stretched from Bolivia further into the northern part of Argentina, with the hope that the impossible would still be possible. It is true that our travel organisation in faraway Germany was under heavy pressure, but as long as the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany did not reduce the travel warning, a further journey northwards through Peru is hardly possible – as far as the legal situation is concerned for an organised trip by a German company. Despite all these problems and inconsistencies, we would like to pay tribute to the person in charge of Panamericana and his team on site; they responded to almost all our wishes and suggestions and turned the almost impossible into an acceptable onward journey again.

Despite the queue and a certain amount of tension about our further itinerary, we experienced beautiful and exciting landscapes and places that we would not have seen otherwise.

As soon as we returned to Argentina, we immediately noticed the cleanliness (there is much less rubbish lying around than in Bolivia) and most of the houses are finished. (In Bolivia, the houses are mostly in shell construction and probably wait forever for completion).

Our next destination was Salta, where we were supposed to meet up with the rest of the group again. But the road was long and after initially very flat pastureland, it soon changed to narrower valleys. Erect rock layers showed their splendour of colour; around us, the peaks rose more and more in height, while we descended deeper and deeper into the valley. Besides the countless extinct volcanoes, the “Quebrada de Humahuaca” is home to many settlements from the pre-Inca period. The many highlights are big tourist attractions and during the summer holidays – everything is a bit different in the southern hemisphere – many people from near and far move through the ancient ruins.

Shortly before Salta, we turned off the wide country road again and followed the old road course of the “Ruta 9” through the northern mountains towards the city. It was an extreme change of landscape: after dryness and more or less intensive agriculture, a very beautiful and varied landscape with extensive primeval forests followed. I felt as if I was driving through the native Jura. According to our information, monkeys should still swing from tree to tree in the core area of this forest.

In Salta, there was a friendly hello with the rest of the group and what we had experienced was exchanged. Apart from minor and major repairs to the vehicles, washing clothes and relaxing, there was again a lot to experience. The guided tour of the city and the cable car ride into the fog, the folklore evening in the nightlife district and much more rounded off the visit to Salta. For the bike fans, another bike tour was organised in the surrounding mountains, but instead of single trails, it ended up being a short pass descent and I (Tom) returned disappointed from the event.

In the meantime, we had to make a definite decision about our onward journey. The German travel warning for Peru was still in place and we definitely had to register for a possible ship transport, i.e. to circumnavigate the crisis region. Actually, we would have loved to go further north with our own vehicle. But the highlights in Peru around “Cusco” were in the epicentre of the unrest anyway and we would have had to drive along the Pacific. In Ecuador, almost all planned excursions are covered by the alternative programme, and with the jungle lodge we got an additional offer right away. The remaining cancellations of visits are always possible on a long-term trip, and whether we visited coffee plantations in Colombia or not is probably of secondary importance anyway. On the onward flight to Panama we will make a stop in “Cartagena” and can enjoy this city, supposedly one of the most beautiful in South America, without the stress of loading our campers.
Instead of sitting behind the steering wheel now, we will become “point hoppers”, fly to our destinations and become package travellers in a luxury bus, while our campers can experience a cruise on the Pacific 😉

From Salta, where the alternative programme continued, the visit to the ruins around “Tilcara” to the north would have been planned. We, Chantal and I, didn’t feel like doing this tour and decided to contact the tour guide: We wanted to make a short detour into the western hinterland, or mountainous country, and be back on the road with the group in three days. Unfortunately, we did not pay enough attention to the rainy season and our planning literally went down the drain: In the direction of “Abra Blanca” (pass) we left the well-built road and wanted to follow the railway line through the mountains. Somewhere in the back of a narrow side valley we got stuck due to a debris flow and had to start our return journey to the paved road. In the meantime, a landslide buried the “RN40” (road), so that we could not drive over the pass “Abra de Acay” towards “Cachi” either. Of course we didn’t want to go back the same way and immediately studied the map. Somewhere we found a path that would take us through the vast landscape to our destination. As soon as we had marked the route on our tablet, we started our journey. We took a quick look at the fuel gauge so that we wouldn’t get stuck somewhere in the vast pampas due to lack of diesel.

It was still a short distance to “San Antonio de los Cobres” and the railway viaduct of “Polvorilla”. But from the “Salar de Pocitos”, driving became almost a duty and the way between the “Sierras de Calalaste” and “Sierra de Aguas Callentes” to “Antofagasta de la Sierra” was endless. In the latter town we wanted to fill up our tank at the only open petrol station, but until we got the fuel we had to wait a long time; the petrol station attendant was having a siesta.

South of “Antofagasta de la Sierra”, we both experienced almost unreal perceptions when passing through the plain of the “Laguna Carachimpampa”. It was a special experience how the brain can no longer properly absorb or process the visual impressions. In any case, we were glad to reach the “Sierra Laguna Blanca” and to experience again what we had seen visually as normal.

Our detour doubled in time and until we were back in the greater Salta area, we still had many kilometres to cover. I (Tom) really wanted to be part of the rafting and so we roamed the “Valle de Lerma” with its wonderful rock formations at a very brisk pace. Despite the hurry, there was always a stop at the various highlights and the place called “Alemania” was not to be missed either.

Until recently, I had no idea that I (Tom) had to travel all the way to Argentina to once again glide down a river in an inflatable boat. But the rivers around Salta are a true Mecca for such adventures and our main tour guide of the “Panamericana Tour” is a rafting guide in Salta on the side. The pleasure was an absolute blast and unfortunately the 2 hours of rafting were almost too short. After the many rapids, we were all really addicted to these waves and quite disappointed when we had to leave the rubber dinghy. Chantal and other participants who could not take part were allowed to spend the time in extreme heat with many mosquitoes.

We continued together towards “Cafayate”, where a rest day and a visit to a goat cheese dairy were on the programme. Since we had already driven the “Valle de Lerma”, but could not visit “Cachi” due to a landslide, we climbed westwards up the “Cuesta del Opispo” and reached the “Valle Calchaquíes”, where, among other things, large wineries can be found that produce very good wines and export them all over the world.

Our goal for the day was actually quite clear: to be back with the group in time for the briefing. But the muddy path and the corresponding wet sandy passages once again put a spanner in the works. No, we didn’t get stuck in the sand, but our help was gratefully accepted in this vast and almost deserted area. So we shovelled until the stuck car was free again.

After a goat cheese dairy in “Cafayate”, we visited the ruins of the “Quilmes”, an ethnic group that was subjugated by the Incas, but later, when the Spaniards eliminated the Incas in a short massacre, resisted the Spaniards for over 130 years. After a long siege, they too had to lay down their arms and were then driven on a “death march” to the Atlantic coast, where a quarter finally arrived and ended up in slavery. Pure “Quilmes” no longer exist today, too much foreign blood is in the veins of today’s descendants, but the culture survived and the people are proud of their past. During the guided tour and visit to the museum, it became clear to us – or to me – what we are striving for today in modern society, these people lived a very long time ago and equality between men and women was not a foreign concept to them. But even Darwin, on his South American journeys, deeply disregarded these people and their cultures and placed them below the dignity of animals.

On the onward journey, according to the alternative programme, cities were again visited, wellness was offered and many rest days were on the programme. This was not suitable for us, as we preferred to enjoy the wide landscape. Besides, the “Paso San Francisco” with its 4’720 m above sea level appealed to us more than driving over the pass from “Mendoza” to “Santiago/Chile”, which we were already doing coming from Chile. No sooner had we announced this plan to our tour guide than we were already heading back towards the Andes and enjoying another few days of freedom in an almost deserted Argentina.

It was a great coincidence that we were able to listen to Argentinian folk music until well into the morning, or suddenly found ourselves in the middle of this year’s Argentina Rally. On the other hand, we planned the crossing of the “Paso San Francisco” very carefully, as – due to Covid – it has only been open for two days a week since this year. It was a very long way to the Argentinian border post, which was far back in this high valley at 4’000 metres. The sun was smiling on us, but the cold wind blew mercilessly around our ears as we approached the officials at the border. We were told in no uncertain terms that the pass would be closed today. Supposedly there was snow on the road further up and it was not allowed to pass, neither for cars nor for campers. Despite a polite request and explanation that we had winter tyres and snow chains with us, the barrier remained closed for the day. We could try again in three days, hoping that the road would be snow-free by then. Somewhat disappointed, we turned our jeep around and headed back; after all, we have to return our vehicle to the harbour soon and we simply didn’t have the time for further experiments. So we drove back again several hundred kilometres through the endless expanses. So we were able to enjoy the Argentinean highlands once more by force, but it was very far. 

The next possibility to cross the Andes into Chile would be the “Paso Agua Negra”. But we had already driven through this pass from the Argentinian side and the subsequent stretch on the Chilean side to the port for embarkation in “San Antonio” suddenly no longer appealed to us. So we changed our plans again and enjoyed the continuation of the Andes in a southerly direction on the Argentinian side. Although not on our desired programme, we headed for the “Paso Cristo Redentor” again. And, if the weather cooperated, I would finally get to see the highest mountain in South America, the “Cerro Aconcagua”.

In the meantime, I heard that the port of embarkation for our motorhomes might be moved from San Antonio to Coquimbo, 500 kilometres further north. Again many kilometres for nothing? Hopefully the stormy weather in the Strait of Magellan will calm down a bit so that our ship can dock in San Antonio on time. We really didn’t feel like following the ship and driving northwards on the Chilean coastal road.

We briskly roamed the wide open spaces and followed the Andes in the opposite direction than had been planned. But we enjoyed our independence and freedom. So we could enjoy the last nights far away from any civilisation with wonderful starry skies and absolute silence. Maybe we could hear some animal roaring in the distance or the wind gently gliding over the landscape, but this silence had great addictive potential for us.

In “Uspallata” we turned west for the last time and followed the “Río Mendoza” up into the mountains. As the weather prospects for the next few days were promising, despite the rainy season, we slowed down our pace and enjoyed this unique mountain landscape where the rocks shimmered in all kinds of colours.  Far above, we could already see snow-covered mountains. So we stopped our journey before we went on the gravel road to the “Paso de Uspallata” – so called by the Argentines, for the Chileans it is called “Paso Cristo Redentor” – and enjoyed the last night at the foot of the “Cerro Aconcagua” with a clear sky and counting stars until we fell into a deep sleep.

It was really worth it – at least for me (Tom) – to spend the night up here. As well as being driven in by a gaucho, I was able to see Cerro Aconcagua in all its glory from the south. Wow, this majestic mountain; would certainly be worth a climb. Instead of continuing to dream of a climb, we scrambled up to the 3’860 metre high pass with our jeep, while the newly constructed road leads through a tunnel at around 3’100 metres. At the top of the pass, I (Tom) couldn’t resist leaving Chantal and our “RuGa-li” behind on the pass and taking the short climb to the “Pico del Cristo Redentor” under my feet. At the top, I could hardly get enough of the mountain scenery. I could have continued to gaze into the distance for a long time. To the left of “Cerro Tolosa Oeste” I saw the south-west ridge to “Cerro Aconcagua” and mentally I was already looking for the right way to climb the summit.

Still firmly in my (Tom) dreams, I made my way back down to the pass. After all, Chantal should not have to wait for me indefinitely and we wanted to enter Chile today, as a lot of preparatory work for the vehicle shipment awaited us.

No sooner was our diesel humming away again than we crossed the border to Chile and looked in the rear-view mirror with some melancholy; well, “adiós Argentina, te quedasen buen recuerdo” and even before we went down the gravel road into the valley, we read “Buenvidos en Chile”.
We were curious to see what else we would experience in the next few days.

Chantal & Tom/2023-03-12

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