Wrinkly backpacking in Argentina - 5

Mystic of Holyhead (successor to Lynn Rival)
Rachel and Paul Chandler
Fri 17 Jan 2014 01:31
Just an overnight stop in BsAs this time.  In the run up to Christmas the city was suffering a heat-wave and power cuts.  (Electricity is very cheap so the system is overloaded.)  The airport check-in was chaotic with everyone wanting to get away for the holidays and from the heat: not a good time to be travelling, but the flight to Salta was only half an hour late so we got off lightly, happy to escape.

Salta from the local hill - the locals run up but there's a cable car for the lazy/unfit/over indulgent

We planned to stay in Salta until Boxing Day, then make a tour of the surrounding provinces in a hire car.  The museums were closed but we found plenty to do.  The weather was hot, but not humid, so much of the time we were happy to sit in the pretty colonnaded square watching the world go by, trying the local wines and snacking on empanadas.  On Christmas Eve we went to an Italian restaurant and ate our way through their 'special' menu with numerous courses and wines to match.  Walking back to the hotel after midnight the city was alive with noisy firework displays.

Plenty of choice for an anytime snackette - empanadas and a cold beer - in the Plaza

The Christmas tree was rather smothered, but it looked great at night

The cathedral was not the only well maintained building

The renowned
Pena is the mainstay of Salta's nightlife

During our previous visit to Argentina we'd heard on the news that the police were striking for more pay, and people were looting shops as a result.  Luckily we were not in any of the cities involved at the time.  In Salta the police were very visible - on foot, on bicycles and on motorbikes - lots of them and all very young.  It seems there is commitment keep street crime low.  As obvious travellers people sometimes warn us to be careful with our belongings, but so far we've not seen or heard of any problems. 

One thing we couldn't do was a trip on the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), which winds its way up into the Andes west of Salta, as it only operates in the winter.  We decided to drive along the road which runs a similar route, ending near a town called San Antonio de los Cobres.  The drive up was not difficult, with little traffic.  Some of the way the road was "ripio" (unsealed consolidated gravel) where you have to negotiate watercourses which erode the track until someone brings a digger to rebuild it again.  As the road winds it's way upwards the scenery is continuously changing with the snowy mountains getting closer all the time.  The magnificent cordon cactus and other smaller cacti were all flowering.  Herds of llama, donkeys and the occasional vicuna graze the sparse pastures.  Higher up, San Antonio sits in a harsh and dusty landscape.  It's a former mining town with just a hotel, a few bars and shops.

The cordon cacti are reputed to grow about 1cm per year, so these may be 200 years old

Paul risking a few pricks to provide a height reference!

Talking of snacks . . .
At 3,775 metres we were feeling the lack of oxygen but continued on a little further to join Ruta 40 and reach the Polvorillo Viaduct - the famous terminus of the Tren a las Nubes

We've made the 4,200 - by car - can we do the last 64?

Rachel's halfway up and struggling!


Wrapped up against the cold wind we managed to scramble up to the top but were rather disappointed to find the structure looking neglected and in need of repair. 

There's the car - going down should for once be easier

Someone should tell Paul what
PELIGRO means!

We couldn't imagine enjoying the 14 hours (there and back) on a train from Salta!   What we were fascinated to see was motorcyclists, properly dressed in leathers and covered in dust, making their way along the ripio road.  The iconic Ruta 40 (of Motorcycle Diaries' fame) is a draw all year round.

Just one last pic - we don't get this high every day - looking back down the valley

Back at San Antonio we checked-in to the hotel, ate llama steaks for supper and even bought woolly knitted llama souvenirs, feeling that the local economy could do with every bit of help it can get!  It wasn't a good night.  Apart from feeling the cold, both of us had headaches - altitude sickness.  We should have driven to a lower altitude to sleep...

The next stage of our tour took us on a long ripio road northeast through the Puna (what the highlands are called hereabouts) with not much to see apart from more herds of llamas and donkeys feeding on scrub.  It's a hard life for the people who live here. 

I don't know how to say this, but we might have eaten your uncle last night

Llamas come in a surprising variety of colours

After crossing the provincial border (from Salta to Jujuy) we eventually reached the Salinas Grandes. These vast salt flats are quite a sight, but the glare is not good for a headache. 

The road 'floats' across the salt pan, carrying buses and trucks to and from Chile

And the salt mining continues at a fairly relaxed pace

Still at 3,500m we needed to go on down.  We joined the paved road, quite busy with traffic going to and from Chile as well as tourists visiting the Salinas, and descended towards the big tourist attraction of this area: the Quebrada de Humahuaca.