Week 50: North Argentina

...to 14 color mountain!
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...to 14 color mountain!

Week 50: North Argentina

Crossing into Argentina again

Having learned from our mistake at the Iguacu, we now diligently filled in our DDJJ to cross the border so we happily drive up the mountains towards the crossing. The road is again fantastic, parts of it as if you are driving on Mars, then a lake with guanacos and coming down into Argentina there is another big salt flat to pass through (on a tarmac road this time, so no worries :-)). At the border we get pulled into some complicated processes again – first a cleaning of our car we have to pay for, than a walk to a small post for the ‘Covid check’ (currently just a vaccination record check and if you are insured), then it is on to the regular stretch of windows. As both countries are in the same building we diligently work our way through the windows, always surprised at the difference between all the crossings we have done and how it is handled. But as we happily wave goodbye one hour later after we had NO check of our car, we are glad to have pulled into Argentina again.

We decided to take this route as we need to drive south again and Argentina is by far the cheapest way to do this. Beyond that, it seems to have more sights on the way down than Chile, so both reasons are enough for us to do another border crossing. As we push on into Argentina we make it all the way downhill to the picturesque town of Purmamarca, where we settle in for the night. It is a very touristy but colorful town, and we enjoy a stroll through the center and a ‘tortilla rellenada’ – which is basically like a flat pizza calzone – on the street. The next morning we climb up the mountainside to a viewpoint to see the ‘7 colored hill’ Purmamarca is famous for before we take a detour north.

Serranias del Hornocal

The reason for the detour are the Serranias del Hornocal, which are incredibly colorful mountains (14 colors they say :-)) that put any rainbow mountain in the world to shame. To get there we have to take a 21km gravel road up, but it is well worth the drive and the hike down to the viewpoint. In the gateway town of Humahuaca we have a beautiful cabin for the night, and as we are nicely on time we spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun – it has been a while since we could wear shorts! We have also filled up on gas (having to wait one hour for the gas truck to fill up the station), pulled in some more money through Western Union and cleared out the car again… very effective day!

The next day we do not have a lot of kilometers to go, but the drive down to Salta is one of different levels. First we follow the main road down which is quite nice all the way to San Salvador the Jujuy, where we do some groceries. Then it is on to the old Ruta Nacional 9, a road that turns into what we dub as ‘a wide bikelane’ which means a 4m wide tarmac road that snakes its way through the jungle like landscape. Before we enter this however we have lunch at a artificial lake, where mom gets attacked by a wild goat as she was looking for a place to pee :-). The change of scenery is very bizar – after weeks of dry highland and desert we now drive through a thick, dense green jungle. It is a magnificent road and well worth the slow going, before we drive into the city of Salta.

Salta – Meeting fellow travelers

Of course it is saturday again so anything we want to get done is not possible because of closed businesses, but we had one plan that is certainly going to happen and that is having dinner with some fellow travelers from the Netherlands. Minke, Erwin, Tije and Siebe are traveling through the Americas as well, and we have run into them before (all the way down south in Tierra del Fuego) and kept in touch. Coincidentally we find ourselves in Salta at the same time so we spend a great evening out for dinner with them. It is really nice to share travel stories and epic fails, while the kids can also finally speak to somebody new in their own language.

The next day we explore the city of Salta, which is again quite a unique place. The most interesting sight being the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, or highland archeology. More importantly, it devotes most of its exposition to the ritual of sacrificing children to the gods high up on top of the mountains. It is a fascinating ritual to begin with, but the most astonishing is the fact that there are 3 mummified kids – displayed in rotation one at a time – that they found on top of a volcano some 30 years ago. The cold (at over 6000m high) and volcanic environment has protected and preserved the children and everything that was put with them at the moment of sacrifice in pristine condition (bright colored puppets and feathers, as if they were just plucked off a parrot) and really leaves a long lasting impression when you see it.

From the museum we walk on with a thunder in the belly, so we jump into a ‘milanesa’ cafe. It is basically what we would call a schnitzel, i.e. breaded pork, but here you can order a huge portion of it with any topping you can think of and share it amongst yourselves. We go for the ‘American’ version with eggs and bacon, and are not disappointed. Now in order to get rid of all this extra food, we take on the climb up the Serra San Bernardo, passing the 12 stations of the Cross as we go along. Hitting the top the boys are utterly frustrated that there is a road AND a cable cart going up as well, so we treat them to the ride down in the cable cart, back to the city center.

The boys then spend their 2 euro per person eagerly on the market that has been burning a hole in their pocket all day (toy snake, ice cream, foam plane, chocolate) and satisfied make the way back to our place to stay. With the milanesa still very present, we fill whatever gap there is with the leftover pizza from yesterdays restaurant and go to bed early. There is a long day ahead!

Cachi – Mountain getaway

As we get up in Salta on time, we get some quick chores done including buying car parts we need for later on. Another fun stop before we head out is the fruit and veg wholesale market where we scoop up some great deals on fresh produce before we drive out of the city. For the upcoming days we have planned the ‘Salta Triangle’ a road connecting Salta with Cachi, Cafayate and back to Salta again, covering many beautiful spots and scenery. Todays program takes us high up again through the Quebrada de Escoipe, climbing 2250 meters of which the last 20 km are a gravel road winding its way up. At the top is of course the perfect place for lunch, so we take a break from the drive and say a hail Mary at the chapel there.

Coming down on the other side you are surprised by plains dotted with cacti, and around the corner what is known as the ‘Recta del Tin Tin’; a 19km straight line road that was laid there already in Inca times (over 500 years ago). What is astonishing about it is how straight it actually is, at 3000m altitude and without the technology of today (or even 100 years ago) to get it so perfect. It certainly is a nice breather after all the winding on gravel – straight and paved :-). Rolling down further we hit the Ruta Nacional 40 again towards Cachi, where we have booked a house outside of town on the hillside. It is a beautiful place to stay, and we thoroughly enjoy the afternoon sitting out on our porch enjoying the view, shame we only stay one night!

After a slow breakfast – the house is too nice to say goodbye to – it is time to pack up and take the next leg of the Salta Triangle, the road to Cafayate. This leg is only 160km, but it is almost entirely made up of gravel so we are warned it is a very long way in terms of time. The warnings are reasonable, but it turns out to not be THAT bad… or maybe we have gotten used to bad roads after 5 months of them? Anyways, the road is slow going, but again through some beautiful scenery – especially Quebrada de las Flechas where we have lunch -, sleepy towns and dusty water crossings dried out by now. Knowing it will be the last long stretch of gravel on with our trusted Hyundai Santa Fe almost makes us sentimental!

Cafayate – Waterfalls, wine and wheels!

Driving into Cafayate it is clear we have entered a touristy town again, with plenty of facilities to keep the guests entertained that pass through town. We have decided to stay here for 3 nights, so we have time to explore the surroundings in different ways. First things first, we have the oil of our car changed for the last time, so it is ready for sale next week. Then on to get groceries and check on bike rental before having dinner and bed time.

Our first trip out of Cafayate is towards the river of the 7 waterfalls, just a few kilometers outside of the town center. When we get to the start of the hike we are welcomed by guides who offer their services to take us along the path, which we don’t really want so we agree to take the guide until the first cascade and then be left by ourselves. Of course a small fee is paid for entrance to the area, and the guide rushes us to the drop off point so he is back quick enough to make some more money on the next guests :-). The most fun of this trip is the fact that you hike upstream and constantly have to find your way along the sides.

Sometimes the path is clear, sometimes you need to find a crossing or climb over a few big boulders, but the direction is pretty simple: keep following the water. Also maps.me is our trusted guidance and so we spend a few hours climbing, hopping and skipping until we reach the furthest point of the stream and the largest waterfall. From here we are told the stream can be followed a few hours more on horseback to its origin high up in the mountains and it gives fresh water year round! The water is also guided by a small channel towards Cafayate to provide the town with the same water.

Once we have taken in all of the waterfalls along the way, the score is one wet foot (Bo) which is quite an achievement looking at the different crossings we have taken. Next step is a short walk back to find the trail away from the stream up and over the hill top to the other side and another riverbed back towards our car. With the trail finding skills of the boys we manage to find the right track up and climb our way out of the canyon. Once over the hilltop we zigzag down only to find a very dry and dusty riverbed in the sunlight… not really what we were expecting after the fresh water stream on the other side!

With that the last stretch is much faster as we muddle through the dusty tracks back to our car. After this hike we deserve a bit of downtime, so we check out the winery right outside of town for a small tour of the premises and a free tasting. With the harvest season over all the fields are brown and dry with not a grape left, but that does not take away from the flavor and relaxing atmosphere. Walking back through town we pass our bike rental shop to pick up our bikes for the next day.

Bo is very excited as he gets to sit on the back and not bike, and Luc can’t stop riding up and down the street on his bike. It has been too long since we rode bikes, and we can’t wait to get back to our bikes in the US, as mom and dad are not too excited about the quality of the bikes… but it will have to do. With most of Cafayate’s stores only opening at 7pm (to 11pm, go figure?!) we have a basic meal in the cold kitchen of the hostel. It will be an early rise, so we need to save our energy!

Day 2 in Cafayate is BIKE DAY! The third leg of the Salta Triangle is the RN68 from Cafayate to Salta, which goes through the Quebrada de las Conchas. 48km away from Cafayate is its highlight ‘Garganta del Diablo’, not to be mistaken with the Garganta at the Iguazu falls, but same principle – a canyon created by a waterfall only this one is long gone. From there all the way back to Cafayate are dozens of stops along the way with natural features worth visiting. To get to the Garganta however, we need to take a bus to Salta which only has 2 options in the morning; 08:30 and 11:30. Needless to say we have to take the first one if we want to make it back in time, so we get to the bus station on the other side of town very early and load our bikes into it.

Because of our early rise, we have the Garganta all to ourselves, as the trinket sellers and other locals are still busy setting up shop as we ride into the canyon. Of course we have to try and climb up the Garganta which is not as easy as it seems, but as the morning is still very cold we have to cut it short and move on. Next is the Amphitheatre which again is luring the boys to climb it, this time coming down however proves to be a challenge and Luc get stuck on the side of the wall :-). Thankfully there is always dad to help them come down and with that we can start the rest of our bike ride.

The total distance is 48km, and the general jest is that it is uphill, but in a up and down fashion… This means the ride will not be easy, and to top it all off we start the day with a strong cold wind in our faces! Of course we have a backup plan where we will hitch a ride back with whomever is willing to put our bikes in the back of the pickup truck, but as we plough on the weather gets better and the sights we see are fun and some really impressive views.

We basically are two teams, Bo and mom who is trying to help by cheering as we try to get uphill, and Luc and dad who gives a push now and then when the uphill gets too steep. And so we continue as we pass ‘the Friar’, ‘the Toad’, ‘Castles’, ‘the Windows’, and many other naturally shaped rocks, some of which we give names of our own. The road is fine, traffic slows down as they see us and we often get waved or honked at, as people seem to enjoy the sight of these crazy Dutch people with kids on bikes. We swerve around mountainsides and past riverbeds, and enjoy the few (short) downhills we have in between climbs to the max.

Sometimes we run into a shack selling souvenirs or snacks, or even has llamas standing by for a photo-op. By the time we need lunch we are almost halfway and that backup of giving up sounds quite good, but surprisingly Luc is really enthusiastic and has plenty of energy! So we continue on and tack on some more sights as we continue on. We come out of the Quebrada with some 15km to go so we have a snack at an abandoned bodega and consider our options, but again Luc seems unfazed by the idea of 15 more kilometers.

Not wanting to give up, mom decides to continue on, with what turns out to be the toughest part of the ride. It is a continuous climb, no respite from short downhills, and as the road is straight the traffic that passes does so at much higher speed as well – throwing wind and dust in our faces. 5km before town there is a cycle/walk path on the side of the road, but tree roots have created big bumps in them and these almost push the Bo/mom combination to a standstill. When the end of the RN68 is in sight, with Luc and dad already there, it is a true achievement and relief to have arrived. As a reward the last kilometer into town is a slight downhill, and while we are allowed to hang on to our bikes a few hours more, we are more than happy to hand them in.

As walking proves to be difficult we get a big bottle of Fanta and a bag of crisps to quench our thirst and add a bit of salt to our bodies, incredibly satisfied with the ride we have done. Mom gives up, dad takes care of dinner and the boys relax in our room. We have really taken the max out of Cafayate and its surroundings, but next time we bike we do so on our own bikes! Time to pack up our things and get ready for the journey down south…

Next week: The road to Santiago de Chile

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