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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

south american road trip part II: the cactus chronicles

On the road again. We had a few goals and reasons for traveling to Salta in northern Argentina. The first and foremost, after waiting around for snow in patagonia and getting soaked in the rain, we wanted heat. While Mendoza was sunny, it was not very warm, Salta however was a nice dry and toasty desert.

Second, Salta is within a manageable proximity to the Salt flats in Chile and Bolivia. Only 12 hours worth of travel from Salta rather than 22 from Santiago. So we booked a few nights at Casa Hernandez, run by a nice Dutch couple, and decided to venture back to Chile and the salt flats from Salta, or possibly to the Bolivian salt flats.

The problem is when we got here we did not feel like dealing with the Bolivian border and travel logistics (we are lightweights and are out of travel gas, so we will save the Bolivian adventure for another trip), and the bus to San Pedro de Atacoma (and Chilean salt flats) recently changed the run schedule and the bus left Salta at 1 AM to start a 10-12 hour journey, which is something we totally did not want to deal with.

While we were mulling our next travel steps our new Dutch friends presented us with two options. One, go to the Argentine salt flats to the north, while smaller than Bolivia, are still impressive. Second head south through a mountainous desert route, cactus forest, and the northern Argentine white wine region of Cafayate.

The bad news is Nicolette got herself some good ole food poisoning from some funky chicken empanadas at the market the night before we were suppose to go to the salt flats, so we unfortunately missed out on the salt flats, but maybe fate was saying we need to come back to see the Bolivian salt flats. While Nicolette recovered, we lounged by the pool and absorbed some much needed vitamin D.
Do the funky chicken, yes these are the infamous empanadas 
When she did recover, we rented a car and went southish and west back into the Andes through Parque Nacional Los Cardones and the Valley of Arrows. A cardon is a type of cactus found in abundance in the region, and the Valley of Arrows is a valley full of rocky arrows.

We set out from San Lorenzo for a 6 hour drive through a precarious and mostly single lane cliff hugging gravel road with no guard rails, steep ascents, and is sort of what I think the West US was until the '50s when the Interstate system was started. The road to Cachi passed through a high elevation plateau full of dust storms, and the cactus forests. A side note, cactus are really sharp, and they really can hurt you if you touch one.
The road rarely traveled
Nicolette's first cactus
Watch the idiot hug the cactus
Mucho Cactus
Remote and dusty
Very remote
The local church in Cachi, the ceiling is made of cactus
We made it to Cachi and crashed at a really nice inn called El Corjito for the night for a towards the end of the trip splurge. We wandered the town, ate at the inn restaurant, and busted out the next day. Cachi is an incredibly small town with little to offer but a few cute streets, old buildings, and a few tourist shops, nice through. We left early the next day for a promised tough, rough, long, sparsely populated, and dusty Ruta 40 drive to Cafayate. Ruta 40 is a long stretch of roadway through Argentina, much like Route 66 in the US. All in all, between this trip and the Las LeƱas trip, we managed to drive a good 600 km of the road.

An interesting side note of travel, last February when we were planning this shindig we found another travel blog website by a couple that traveled Latin America. I remember reading a post about how they hitch hiked the same bit of Ruta 40 we drove. Reading this story I remembered how foreign and distance these places seemed, dry little areas in northern Argentina I never thought I would even remember hearing about, and now here we have traveled through these.
Hitch hiking Ruta 40 (no Mom, we did not actually hitch this route)
From Cachi we drove on an incredible dusty winding mountain road with tight narrow turns which we honked around every corner as to alert oncoming drivers. We had a little car that we really had to rev up to get the tiny machine up the hills. At one point we charged a rocky bumpy part of a single lane dirt road uphill when at the top we found ourselves head to head with a rather large truck that clearly stated he wanted the right of way. I quickly threw our car in neutral and rolled embarrassingly back down hill for another try. Other than this event, the route was actually pretty lame until we made it to the Valley of Arrows. Like I mentioned before, the arrows are simple soft rock carved by erosion into the shapes of arrows, much like the arches in Utah. After scrambling around on the arches, enjoying the views, and having a ceremonious moon of Argentina for no good reason other than it gave us a good laugh, we made our way to a winery and vineyard for lunch for some killer tamales. Did I mention this area is unbelievably dry and dusty?
At the top of an arrow

Valley of Arrows
Can you see my little arm?
We were excited for this part of the drive
We made our way to Cafayate, stayed at a sort of lame inn in town. With that said, the entire town of Cafayate was not very interesting. As our dutch buddy Alex from Casa Hernandez would say, it is a little too 'Mickey Mouse.' We spent two nights here, which was fine because we had a significant amount of exploring to do in the Quebrada De Cafayate. The Quebrada is a canyon with immense amounts of soft multicolored rock that has been carved by rivers into amazing forms. We spent an entire day trekking, driving, and climbing over tons of rocks in this area. Looking back at the pictures now I still cannot believe how intensely bright the colors are. 
Colorful cliff sides of the quebrada
Folded rocks of the quebrada from tectonic plate movement
In devils throat
A little fun rock scrambling
After some mediocre meals from a few local restaurants, we ditched Cafayate drove our little car back to Salta to prepare for our trip to Iguazu Falls. In retrospect, our trip hit epic amounts of snaffoos and our plans were thwarted, but because of these unexpected changes we were sort of forced into doing something we did not plan on doing. Seeing the beauty of the desert, and driving through the remoteness of this part of the world was something neither of us have ever really experienced before. In short, I am glad our trip was once again thrown off the rails, because this was a hell of an adventure.

Our VW Gol, which we named Raul the Mexican wrestler
A little patch of grass being blown in the sand
Intense red rocks
A full view of devils throat

1 comment:

l. and J. said...

Incredible again. You guys bowl us over every time. Stay safe! Love you!