Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

17 May 2010

The zig-zagging comes to an end: part two

After a quick hostel change, we arrive at Hostal del Centro which is a stone’s throw from the main square of Salta and has some of life’s little luxuries – marmite and HP sauce! We bump into English Lou, the chick I met on our girly shopping trip in Bariloche. She is meeting up with a girl she also met in Bariloche and it turns out to be, Rachel, who we met in our hostel in Ushuaia – ahhh... the small world of backpackers! So the four of us form a delightful  travelling pack. Rachel - the Irish doctor, Lou – the English performance arts teacher, Geezer and me!

Salta is a lovely town in the very north of Argentina. It is a hopping off point for tours to the Argentinean salt flats, stunning mineral-rich mountains of every colour imaginable and quaint villages. We opt for a tour that takes us to the salt flat and Pumamarca, a tiny cactus village that has great views of the mountain of seven colours. 

We are picked up before dawn by Juanco, our guide with terrible breath, good English and a great sense of humour. Thinking we would be on a giant tour bus, we are surprised that there is only four of us in a little car – an Austrian couple and us.

Our first stop is Pumamarca then we climb our way up a mountain pass that hits a breath-taking altitude of 4170m above sea level. I run to take a photo of the view and have to grab on to the car to catch my breath. Puff, puff, puff! 

Madly chewing on coca leaves to combat the altitude, we wind our way through the desert arriving at the salt flat which makes for great pics and a view that leaves us spinning. Next stop is San Antonio, a very poor village that serves a mean lunch of baby goat stew (eeek!) and a weird dessert. Strangely, it starts to snow even though there is blue sky.

We drive alongside the tracks of the Tren de Las Nubres (the train to the clouds) and make our way back to Salta where we discover that the border to Chile is closed. So it looks like we will be stuck in Salta until it re-opens. We don’t mind. There could be worse places to be stuck!

Salta has a museum displaying the Sleeping Children of Llullaillaco - three perfectly preserved children that were sacrificed to the mountain by the Incas 500 years ago. They were found in a crypt several years ago high up on a mountain and brought to Salta. There is only one of them on display – a six year old boy who looks like he is sleeping. He is so immaculately preserved that you can see the dirt under his finger nails. I feel a bit traumatised by it. He is so little and hardly has any clothes on.

The Chilean border finally opens and Lou, Rachel, Geezer and I leave Argentina with a bang, not really caring that we have to be up at 5:30am for a bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It seems to have become a habit to get stuck in to the red wine when we have an early bus to catch.

San Pedro de Atacama – our last stop in Chile and the end to all the zig-zagging between Argentina and Chile up from Patagonia. We have zig-zagged between the countries five times and our passports are filling up!

We are marched off the bus late afternoon to have our passports stamped into Chile not realising that we are already in San Pedro. We walk into the dusty, desert town, hungover as hell and my first impression is – where the hell are we?? But a short walk around town reveals a fabulous place with unbelievable food and a list of sights to see as long as my arm. We run around like maniacs booking tours for all the things we want to see – five tours all within a 30 hour time period!

The first is sandboarding down one of San Pedro’s massive sand dunes in the Valley of Death. Our guide is as useful as a shag on a rock so the four of us fudge our way into boards and climb up the ridiculously steep dune. I nudge over the edge and face plant the sand (apparently while making chimp-like noises). 

Realising it’s not my forte, I watch Geezer fly down the dune at lightning speed. On his second run, he crashes and burns with a full 360 flip, his board flying off, catching him in the ribs and leaving him shaky and winded.

We drive to the Valley of the Moon to watch the sun set over the 20 volcanos that surround San Pedro with a pisco sour (THE Chilean drink) in hand. 

We arrive back in town for a short rest before heading off on our next tour – stargazing in one of the world’s best night skies. It’s 10pm and we arrive in a Frenchman’s backyard full of giant telescopes. Ordinarily there are 1000 stars visible to the naked eye but here there are 6000! 

The Frenchman’s wife gives us a talk about the differences between the northern and southern skies. She shows us the plane of the milky way. When you look at a picture of the universe, it looks like a giant ring of stars and here the milky way is so clear that you can actually see this plane.

She points a laser at various constellations – the Southern Cross, the Centaur, Scorpio, Sagittarius, the big dipper (upside down because we are on the other side of the globe), Saturn, Venus and Mars. We then get to look through the telescopes and see the rings of Saturn, a gas cloud, a cluster of stars that to the naked eye looks like one star and a line of stars of different colours (called the Jewel Box). I whirl around in the dark, mouth wide open, eyes up at the sky in awe of yet another of Mother Nature’s marvels.

We arrive back at 1am with our next tour departure at 4am to see the sunrise over a field of geysers and mud pools.

The girls head off on no sleep without us because Geezer needs to get his ribs checked. We arrive at the medical centre (or makeshift hospital) to be told that there is only a doctor in on Mondays between 8am and 12pm (it’s now Friday!). The alternative is a paramedic and I explain to her in poor Spanish about Geezer’s ribs. The medic prescribes Geezer some painkillers, tells him to wrap a towel around his middle (!?) and thankfully thinks he is probably OK. We leave with a healthy appreciation of our own health system - the sheets on the bed here are filthy and there is a woman giving birth a few rooms away.

We bolt to meet the girls and go on to our next tour of Laguna Cejar – a lagoon made of 30 per cent salt so that you can float in it – a bit like the Dead Sea. I jump in and immediately flip over, unable to keep my balance in the salty water. 

Our final stop is sunset at a salt flat surrounded by desert and a ring of more than 20 volcanos.

We end our stay in San Pedro – and Chile – with another delicious meal in front of a bon fire and declare San Pedro a winner of a place. None of us want to leave.

So the zig-zagging comes to an end. Our next stop is the Salar de Uyuni – the Bolivian salt flats.

In four days we have said goodbye to two countries that have blown our minds. The jaw dropping beauty of Chilean volcanos, desert and skies, the gobsmacking landscapes, stunning treks and glaciers of Argentina and the people... from the polite, music-loving Argentineans to the friendly, fun Chileans... we leave Argentina and Chile on a high note. Every single day has been an adventure. And as we cross the border into Bolivia we wonder if our trip can possibly get any better!

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