After an early start from Aunsuncion, I hopped on a local bus heading to the sprawling mercado cuatro where seemingly a thousand buses pass every minute. I managed to flag down my next hourly bus to the border, walk over the frontier bridge, gather my exit and entry stamps just in time to hop onto another local bus into the Argentinian border town, Clorinda.
After a quick meal to kill some time I was sauntering back to the bus companies office before my mammoth overnight journey to Salta. With ice cream in hand I was feeling quite pleased with myself, having negated such a smooth border cross of multiple stages. So it was to my surprise that as I approached the office a group of people outside were gesticulating towards me with some fervour. Unsure of quite why these people felt so animated I maintained my casual gait untill within ear short where I was told the bus had left twenty minutes prior. I pulled out my phone to confirm I had half an hour to spare, in turn the guy next to me pulled out his phone and highlighted the inconsistencies between the two sets of digits. Paraguay is an hour behind. So close. After some commotion I grabbed the nearest motobike taxi that looked capable of chasing down a coach and we flew down the highway. Ten minutes later we caught the bus held up at a police customs checkpoint. Thank God for the diligence of the Argentinian border forces, who completely unpacked my bag in turn but I was on the bus and heading towards the Andes.
Salta itself is not a bad little town, some eye catching cathedrals, open squares, pedestrianised shopping streets and a smattering of colonial architecture meant that spending a few days there while looking for a bike was rather pleasant. Along with the modern art gallery, and the sinuous path up to the viewpoint overlooking the town, the most notable attraction is probably the museum of high altitude archeology. Documenting incan relics found in the nearby Mountains and volcanoes, it’s most surreal exhibit being the bodies of two children and one adolescent, perfectly preserved as they were left. Waiting cross legged for death to take them, offered as a sacrifice to the Gods. It takes a lot to understand the mindset of those children and the parents that sacrificed them (often the strongest, and most beautiful children of the tribe) sitting their motionless on top of a freezing mountain, it’s seems unbelievable to us now. It made me question what will future generations think, centuries from now when looking back at elements of our culture and find completely incomprehensible.
It didn’t take me too long to find a decent bike on which to explore the wider provinces which I hoped promised salt flats, canyons, volcanoes and an abundance of wildlife amongst other things. The South American model of the Honda XR 250 would be my trusty steed, nicknamed somewhat over overzealously by Honda the “Tornado”. Tornado or not, it ticked the boxes. 50/50 tyres, 250cc so enough juice to make decent ground if I encountered any tarmac (which was rarely) plenty of torque to power up riverbeds (more common) and light enough to lift solo if worse came worst (thankfully not relevant). As I was driving alone be prepared for a plethora of landscape shots with said bike as subject, which may get tedious.
The first day, for the first hour at least, was a reminder of just how fun driving through an urban centre can be on a machine that has enough torque to abolish to concept of gradients and reposition ones nose. Out of the city the road climbed through the clouds and past some pleasing little villages before opening out into the desert littered with some interesting artefacts.
I spent the first night camping in the wild just away from a small river, the Río Blanca far from any form of habitation and not a sound to be heard except the flowing water and the gentle tick of the bikes engine cooling in the twilight. As darkness fell a ridiculous array of stars began to appear, the milky way glowing as a huge scar across the night sky, it was so ridiculous I couldn’t help laughing to myself. I picked my camera up at the airport on the hop after realising I didn’t have one, and it is by no means a top quality camera, but I still managed to take some photos that night that looked like more like something the hubble telescope would turn out than a crappy little point and shoot.
Despite the altitude the evening was warm enough to sleep well, and waking to the warm sun rising over the volcanoes to the East was a delight. Full of beans in every sense I headed north to the salt flats of Salinas Grandes. I keep a diary of thoughts, recommendations, food tips, phrases and a record of everything I spend while I’m travelling. The thoughts are sometimes sporadic outbursts or mumbling diatribe, however most often they read as a very factual, logical and emotionally detached account of the days event. On that evening I penned into my notebook the following:
“I am sitting in the middle of a vast plain. Not so vast that I can’t make out the mountains that encircle it on every side, but vast enough to feel awed at its scale. At the heart of the plain lies a gleaming salt flat, itself huge in its own right. The crystalline surface of Salinas Grandes is cracked and abrasive, interrupted only by dazzling blue pools of saline water. The clouds are dark and threatening, their frayed undersides reaching out towards the dry earth below. But it doesn’t rain. It rarely does here. The plain sits high above seal level, but the mountains that guard it are not capped with snow this time of year. Instead they sit brooding in earthy tones as the last of the days sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates their volcanic crowns. Absolute silence reigns and I am taking the time to absorb these natural wonders because these are the moments worth keeping somewhere safe. To look back on at times when I might need reminding of how wonderful this life can be.”
Re-reading my Arthur C Clarke collection has clearly resulted in my thoughts taking on an overly dramatic tone. But strip away the somewhat embarrassing dramacism and the underlying feelings of contentment, bewilderment and tranquility at that particular time and place were both deep and personal.
The next day was a contrast of noise, power and the threat of brown stains on my silky blue elephant print boxer shorts (I’m writing this knowing I am stepping over a personal line and yet the words remain forthcoming) I had found my first stretch of tarmac since leaving the city, a welcome reprieve from the harsh, uncompromising terrain of the desert trails. And what a stretch of tarmac to stumble upon. A sinuous ribbon of smooth grey asphalt snaking it’s way through the Cuesta De Lipan. Without expounding too much I absolutely thrashed the Honda through the endless switchbacks and sweeping curves and I started to get on board with the whole “Tornado” name tag. Although too be completely honest, I would have preferred a 600 or 1000cc underneath me on that particular stretch which no doubt would have increased the chances of putting my travel health insurance to the test. The canyon ends in a bewitching display of colours, around the town of Purmamarca. With overhanging mountains of blues, crimsons and orange competing with one another in a beautiful geological collage.
The next day I headed north towards the border with Bolivia before veering west towards Chile and the protected bird sanctuary of Laguna Pozuelos. There was a certain creature I was hoping to see, but not wanting to be dissapointed I approached the laguna suppressing any thoughts and just enjoying the beautiful lake and surrounding mountains. It goes without saying when the first pair of flamingoes flew over my head, their pink plumage almost iridescent in the harsh Andean sun, I almost let out a little scream of excitement. The earth on the plains is baked and cracked, giving way to thick glutinous mud underneath. So making my way towards the group was slow progress as I gradually built up a sizeable chunk of mud on each shoe. But I eventually got my chance to sit within a comfortable distance and observe the birds on their slender appendages socialising and feeding.
Happy with the time spent at altitude in Jujuy I headed south down the notorious Ruta 40 to the lower reaches of Salta Province and into wine territory. Navigating my way down riverbeds, across sheer overhangs, and through challenging sand sections was by far the most testing terrain I had come across and I was not surprised that, on passing the first settlement a few hours after negotiating the mountain pass, the road was in fact closed to 4WD’s heading north. I got some bewildering looks from locals as I passed, coming down from the mountain. I’m sure not because I had managed to traverse the road, I’m fairly confident they are able to do it comfortably on their knock off Chinese 125cc’s, but maybe I had been the first gringo to come down since the conditions on the road had become impassable for anything with four wheels.
Arriving into the town of Cachi was a tonic for the soul. Whitewashed adobe restaurants and bodegas set around a leafy green plaza in the afternoon sun. I immediately headed to the nearest bodega to sip on a glass of house red. Why venture further than house red when it’s £1.50 for a large glass and the wine is Malbec produced in the fields I had just driven through. Needless to say it was glorious and I made full use of my proximity to the vineyards both that evening and for the coming days. So perhaps it was the wine that drove me to excess when I decided to treat myself to an individual house for the evening, set on it’s own overlooking the valley. I picked up a £2 bottle of local Malbec from the store and settled in for a rare night of luxury. You have to have them every now and then if your camping wild, although as I get older the frequency of need has seemed to increase. So that brings this (prolonged I know) account to a end in a swirling haze of rouge.
I stayed another night in the village of Cafayate and then headed back to the city of Salta down the glorious Ruta 68. It’s hauntingly beautiful but harsh desert terrain offered some great climbing and a fitting end to a momentous week on the bike. Next up I leave the north of Argentina and head towards the even higher Andean plains of Chile and the Atacama Desert. Untill then, Hasta Luego.
Kasabian – Doberman