Volcanoes, deserts, high altitude and high prices

By Johan Radcliffe (Dirty Boots) -

Johan visits Argentina

Our next update - month 2 - enjoy!

We continued north through the Mendoza Province of Argentina with the high snowcovered Andes mountain range flanking our left. We decided to bypass Mendoza city altogether and spent 3 nights at the Cacheuta Hot Springs (Termas), 30km from the city. The baths were great and the kids had oodles of fun. Emma-Joy eventually had the courage to put her head under the water and Ash sat like a little old man between all the bathers in the hot tubs.


Leaving the Termas feeling all relaxed and ready for more exciting adventures, we took the route 40 up the Uspallata pass to the highest mountain in the America´s, Aconcagua. The drive was jaw dropping, following the Rio Mendoza (river) up to the high altitude Los Penitentes ski resort. It was very cloudy and cold and we watched how snowflakes were starting to fall onto our windshield of the car. Unfortunately we could not see this towering giant at 22825ft above sea level, only a glipse here and there. All the more reason to come back one day and climb this mountain. Our descent was fast and we then carried onto a desolate road through the Uspallata valley where “7 years in Tibet” was filmed - imagine Brad Pitt in this God forsaken place? We arrived at the El Leoncita National Park famous for a few obseratories and star gazing where we intended to camp but the wind was gale force and we continued onto the oasis town of Barreal - in the middle of this unforgiving desert. We stayed a few nights before heading north through the same route as what General San Martin took, liberating South America from the Spaniards in the 1500´s. A harrowing drive with some 1800 hairpin bends to Villa Union in the San Juan province and also famous for surrounding dinasaur fossils etc.


It started to get colder with a cold front approaching as we continued north driving the same route as the Dakar race of 2010 to another hot prings resort in Fiambala. Very naturally situated in the mountains with water cascading down into rockpools starting at 50 degrees celcius down to 35 degrees celcius. Again it was relaxing and the water warm, but the weather turned for the worse. We continued through Llondres , the first established town in Argentina (nothing spectacular) and Belen, arriving in Hualfin in the snow in the far northern part of the Catamarca Province. We noticed that all these small villages are real one horse town but they are all neat and the central plazas in the towns are where people get together and socialise. Normally the plaza will be surrounded by important buildings like the bank, municipality, church (Catholic) and a shop.


The route 40 now took us through more desert to Cafayate, a welcoming oasis and the capital of the Torrontes cultivar (a fruity, dry white wine). We found a gem - Estancia Chimpa, 10km´s from town and owned by a Penelope Cruz lookalike, Teresita Nanni. A working farm with cattle, horses, mules, geese, ducks, pigs, sheep, chickens, llamas and grapes. The homestead dates back to 1890 and typical spanish style. Emma-Joy made friends with Teresita and spent many hours feeding the llamas and driving around the farm. Here we also went dune running and Johan and the kids had sand in every crack. We visited a few of the bodegas (wineries) and we are specialists on the making of Torrontes wine.


Sadly we had to leave and head for Salta, traveling through towering gorge´s and sand scultured mountains with huge cacti resembling the ones from Mexico. We bypassed Salta city and headed north to San Lorenzo, about 10km from Salta where we found a delightful cottage amongst flowering jasmine bushes and lowquart (spelling?) trees. This town is surrounded by tropical forests and is some 890m higher than Salts, so a bit cooler. We explored the forests and mountains by foot searcing for the elusive toucan, but were restricted to move deeper into the forests by police due to the murder of two female french tourists in July (not only in South Africa).


We spent a day in Salta and tasted some of the local cuisine of the northern part of Argentina. One of our favourites was Locro which is a stew with stampmielies, potatoes, corn, meat and was simply delicious. Another favourite was humitas - a creamy corn filling in a pocket of corn husks. Finger licking good.


We left route 40 and headed for Jujuy (Hoo-hoeee) and we found ourselves in Tilcara (2840m above sea level). We had little energy due to the high altitude but found our bodies slowly adapting. Our cabana in Juelle, a short drive out of Tilcara was compfy and we explored the towering mountains each day searcing for lost inca ruins, elusive pumas and secret river valleys. The colours and rock formations were truly breathtaking and a new scene awaited around every corner.


We found we were ready to head higher and over the Paso de Jama to Chile. With a few coca leaves stuck between gum and tooth our ascent was slow but beautiful and literally breathtaking with guanaco and viscuña at high altitude, slowly browsing along the brim of high altitude salt pans. The border crossing between Argentina and Chile was brief and trouble free and 4320m above sea level.


Chile is amazing and the scenery mind blowing. Picture this: towering snow capped volcanoes surrounded by sulpher brimmed salt lakes, frozen rivers and the Atacama Desert. This desert is said to be one of the driest deserts in the world with some areasnot ever to have recorded rainfall. Well, it was deserted, high and dry until we readed the town of San PÇedro te Atacama, an oasis and overpriced tourist town. Accommodation were plenty but expensive (in USD) and restaurant touts try and get you into the many restaurants with attractive meal deals. It was not all that bad and with all the copper and minerals in the area, there was a very posited vibe and energy. We spent a day driving through the valley of the moon, through salt pans, had two tyre punctures in 2 days, visited the world´s heighest geyser fields at 4300m above sea lever and swam in hot springs at 3500m above sea leverl (highter than South Africa´s highest mountain range).


We said adios to this tourist town and heading further into the Atacama desert towards the coast. Our journey took us past the world´s biggest and highest producer of copper just outside Calama town. A dust cloud rises above it and is visible for many kilometres.


The road to the coast was boaring and the scenery dotted with old nitrate officinas now ghost towns which sprung up during the nitrate era early 1900´s before petroleum based fertilisers were discovered. The roadside is also scattered with rubbal and unfortunately not very pretty. We ended up in Talta, a small fishing village on the coast and our first glimpse of the pacific ocean. A welcome oasis after a thirsty desert experience. We found many guano covered rocks with gannets, pelicans, cormorants and penguins - spectacular coastal scenery.


We found Chile a lot more expensive than Argentina and they are completely different, although close neighbours - here dulce de leche is called manjor. We might not stay too long in Chile and definitely camping from now on. Adios for now…

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