While in Salta, we decided to rent a car during a few days so we could explore the area around.
Comparing the different offers in town took us almost a whole day, as we received so many different information about the state of the roads (some of them are unpaved, but good enough for a rental car, or terribly bad depending on who you ask). We did not want to get a car from a lousy guy sending us on every bad road, just to get our cash.
Once we were happy with our deal, we planned our trip, and decided to do two small circuits away from Salta. South part first and then North, both with one night out, and back in Salta the second evening.
We started the first morning, got the keys of our not so young and immaculate Chevrolet Corsa Classic, the car that everybody was renting out to gringos for these trips.
And as soon as we set of, we got our first little drops of sweat as we had to leave town. Everybody warned us, out there in the deserted unpaved tracks, it is easy to drive, but here in Salta, they are all locos! And yes, it was not so simple, even though like in every place in South America, the city streets are one direction only. One could imagine that it makes it easier, and you just have to check one side, one would be wrong. The danger can come from anywhere!
Once away from Salta, things got smoother and we took the direction of Cachi. To go there, we had to follow a road to a small valley, where after that the road would turn to dirt road, and start to go up and up until 3348 meters above sea level. Once on the top, we crossed the Parque Nacional de Los Cardones. The Cardones are big cactuses that can live several hundreds of years. They are a familiar sight in the high Andeans, and it was our first (but not last) encounter with them. We took our time up there, taking pictures and enjoying the sun, even though it was quite windy as well.
Then the road went on and on and on in a straight line for almost 20 kilometers, before starting to go down again towards Cachi. Cachi is a very little, nice, charming and quiet village in the valley with old colonial buildings. White washed walls, colonial architecture, and dead or alive cactuses for decoration.
It was a pleasure to finally step out of the car, and take a walk into town with a coffee and later dinner (including some humitas for Merima, but also goat and quinoa stews).
New day, new adventures. We left Cachi at sunrise to continue the road South. The road follows the fertile valley Calchalquies where we encountered several little pueblos with colonial design and charming little plaza de armas, and churches.
Each stop was very welcome as all the road was a dirt track, not all the time very good, meaning lots of bumps and noise and dust in the car. At some point, the valley became very narrow and straight, and that is where the Quebrada de la Flecha started, which means the arrow canyon. Suddenly the landscape changed and the road took us into rock formations. Crazy rock formation, carved by time and erosion, but still with very sharp edges like arrow heads. You get it now? It felt like another planet (one more time!), a planet made for geologist for example.
And once we were out of the canyon, we reach a totally new landscape. Wineyards! We were getting closer to Cafayate, a bigger settlement that is very well known for its wine. Not time for wine degustation though as Fred was driving and Merima, well was being Merima. But that did not prevent us to go to the empanadas house, to try out new types of empanadas, including some with corn. Yummy! After a good lunch, the road back towards Salta got more and more scenic. With more landscape features, all crazier than the previous one. We saw a gigantic lonely rock, called el obelisco, another one called el amfiteatro, and many other ones with no names. Just a brilliant display of rock formations. The road was scenic, and we really enjoyed it. We reached the lower valley at night time, and had another hour of night driving to reach Salta. That was another hour of sweat, but all went all right. We came back to the same little charming house in Salta, for a good night of sleep.
New morning, new road trip, and this time we head North for the second circuit. For the first time in very long, we are on a highway, and it is much smoother to drive that way. After the highway, it is smaller mountain roads again, and we are heading for the very small village of Purmamarca. The village is coined between mountains, and that is what makes it so famous among travellers. On the main square were dozens of stands with people selling local product, lots of colourful textiles with Andeans motives. This is also where we bought our first little bag of coca leaves because we knew that later during the day we would climb higher up with the car. The hills and rocks around Purmamarca have so many different colours. The closest is called the Seven Colours Hill. We took a little walk to go and see it from closer.
Right after starting to walk, we realised that it was harder to breath, and ran out of air very fast. Like if we had been running upstairs, even though the path was almost flat. That is the moment we decided to try out the coca leaves. Except for the oxygen thing, we were not feeling particularly different but we wanted to have a first taste before the real deal will start later during the day. And we had a good laugh trying to fit the coca leaves in our mouth and then with the help of our saliva try to suck out some juice. It was a bit bitter taste, very herb-ish. A bit like if you had bitten into a dry green tea bag.
After the walk, we went back to the market place, having a look at the different textiles, and had to work very hard to not buy half of the shops! We convinced ourselves that from now on, every place or every market will have llama based motives and it would be wiser to wait a bit before adding kilos to our backpacks.
Back in the car, and this time, the daily real deal starts as we climb up a high pass, at more than 4100 meters. It sometimes felt a bit hard for our little car, but for us it went all right. Our body seemed to answer nicely to the altitude. We did not stay that long though, just took a picture at the pass where it was very cold and windy and then went down the other side of the mountain to reach the Salinas Grandes, a Salt Lake. It was a very big, impressive, flat and white surface. We went to walk on the salty surface for some time, and had fun trying to take a few pictures doing some jumps. But we realised that after two or three jumps at more than 3500 meters high we needed time to recover our breath!
After that, it’s back in the car, and going through the same pass again, and down to Purmamarca before heading to the village of Tilcara where we will spend the night. On the way, we pass crazy coloured landscapes including one brilliantly named the painter’s pallet.
As we arrive in Tilcara, we notice that it had been some big celebration and party in town that day. There was excitement in the air which was just subsiding, and the locals were packing up and heading home with content faces, including some of them riding horses in fantastic clothes. We took a walk around town, had a coffee and awesome cake, but as always a bit too late and close to dinner so Merima wasn’t hungry anymore and Fred had a gringo pizza by himself.
Next day, we had another walk around town and made the typical mistake to enter “one last shop before we go”, where we spent some 30 minutes trying and then buying some awesome cowboy leather belts.
Back in the car, with some fresh coca leaves in our mouth, we headed a bit higher to the bigger village of Humahuaca. We arrive there around noon, just in time to see an animated Saint Francisco come out from a window and bless the crowd. Felt more like Disneyland than real deal, but it gathered a big crowed of Brazileros and Italian tourist, as well as lots of street vendors selling everything from hats, to dining table clothes, to socks and coca sweets. Once Saint Francisco had returned in its den until the next day, we sat back in the car, and started a 25 km climb on a not really well maintained dirt road. It took us more than an hour because we took pictures of vicuñas on the way (an animal related to the Alpaca, but wild), because of the poor quality of the track, but also because of the climb. From Humahuaca, 3000 meters above sea level, to the top of the road, some 4350 meters high. Why going that high? Well, up there, well hidden in the mountain is the vantage point over the fourteen colours mountain! So from the seven colours hill of yesterday, we have now doubled up the rainbow range! But what a sight! The pictures we took do not come half as close as what we witnessed. The picture also doesn’t show the altitude, but because we went a bit downhill to have a better view of the mountain, we had to come back up to the car, and that took us more time than usual, as we had to stop three to four times to catch our breath.
After that, back to the car, back on the dirt road for one hour or so of descent and vertebras reduction, and we were back in Humahuaca for lunch, more quinoa pie and humitas for everybody before the long drive back to Salta.
Long drive that started well, ended well too, even if halfway we had a lot of rain outside of the car, and some rain inside the car too (it seems that there is a pattern here…). The ventilation decided for some reason to work as a sprinkler as well for some 30 minutes.
But all is well that finishes well and we made it in town, and were fast asleep after a good dinner.
Soon we leave Argentina one more time, but maybe the last?