Tuesday, 22 April 2014

San Pedro de Atacama

By Sanne

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town of some 5000 people in the middle of the Atacama desert. It's also one of Chile's main tourist draws which is clear by the amount of tourists hanging around town. We got slightly lost riding into town and ended up in the desert on the other side of town, but we ended up finding our way to a campground that wasn't too expensive at $5,000 pesos per head. Not too expensive for San Pedro anyway as it is known for being a very expensive place.

We were absolutely knackered by the time we got to the campground. It had been a long day for us after doing the Paso de Jama and all I had on my mind was to get some food in my belly and a bed to sleep in (well, a mattress in a tent). We cooked a quick risotto and headed straight to bed. Because it had been so hot when we had arrived, we had put up the summer tent, not realizing that as it is a desert the temperature drops significantly when the sun goes down. By the early hours of the morning I was so cold, but even then we were too lazy to change tents so I endured two more nights like this, albeit wearing slightly more layers.

The next day was a lazy day. We just walked around town, updated our blog, Mark had to make a phone call to his bank in Australia as he apparently had been a victim of fraud on his credit card. But in the afternoon we jumped on the bikes and headed out to a place called Valle de la Luna. The Valley of the Moon is named after its lunar-like landforms eroded by years of flood and wind. It is truly a beautiful place with its surreal lunar landscape that often looks like it is covered with snow when really it is salt, and the ring of volcanoes in the distance. We rode around a bit and climbed up some sand dunes to get a great overview of the valley. It is 'the thing' to come here and watch the sunset, so together with a number of other people we watched the sun go down from the top of a mountain ridge, which was pretty spectacular. We had come prepared with a cheap cask wine in hand. We seemed to be the only ones who had had this idea which made us feel a little bit like alcos...oh well. As the sun set over the valley, the sky turned purple and the rock an intense gold.

On the way back into town we encountered one of the worst nightmares known to man - Chilean dogs. As we turned a corner and were riding down a small street, a pack of dogs saw red when they saw us. They ran after us like they were possessed, teeth bared, barking like the rabid mongrels they were and biting at our ankles. This scenario is pretty much a daily occurrence in Chile so we weren't exactly shocked, that was until the most aggressive of the dogs launched itself at Mark's leg and bit him! We got back to the campground and had a look at the damage; it was minimal but I still convinced Mark to wash it and then come with me to the medical clinic. As Chile is a country with rabies I didn't want to take any chances. Mark followed reluctantly but we made it to the clinic where the nurse had a quick look at his leg and said that it was nothing to worry about as it hadn't drawn blood. That was a relief but served as a nail in the coffin for my hatred of Chilean dogs. Now, I consider myself an animal lover, but when it comes to these f@#$ mutts, I'd be glad to line them all up and shoot them with a shot gun. With a smile on my face.

The following day we rode about 60 kms south of San Pedro to Laguna Chaxa which sits on the edge of the Salar de Atacama. It is an oasis of birdlife in the middle of this dry place with not one, but three species of flamingo plus various other birds. There wasn't a whole lot of flamingoes there at the time but it was still pretty cool to see them standing in the shallow water on their stick-like legs fishing for shrimp.

After here we rode to Laguna Cejar which has such a large salt content that you can float just like in the Dead Sea. On the dirt road there we stopped to help a couple of cyclists with a puncture - they had a puncture repair kit, they just didn't know how to use it! When we arrived at Cejar we were told that the water was only 19 degrees so I opted out gracefully, but Mark got changed and jumped in...well it took him a good ten minutes to actually get in the water as it was so cold and when he jumped in, he had his mouth and eyes open the fool so he came up spluttering and wiping his eyes. It was pretty funny to watch him float in the water in ways you could never do in "normal' water. When he got out he was completely covered in salt and his dreads were almost white with the stuff.

The following day as we packed up our stuff to leave, an Alaskan couple on a KLR rode in to the campground and we had a good chat with them. The guy was unbelievably heading south to Ushuaia now, which made us look at him as if he was crazy (nb. it is going into winter down there now) but as he said, he was from Alaska so he was used to the cold. I bloody hope he is - we were there at the height of summer and it was snowing! Walter whom we met in Salta also came by to see us, we had seen his campervan parked in town the previous day and left a note on his windscreen telling him to come see us as we still had his giant screwdriver that he had lent us in Salta. We said our goodbyes to these guys and headed out on the road, headed for Calama.

Valle de la Luna

Some amazing scenery here

"Walking like an Egyptian"

Walking on the ridge, trying to find a good spot to drink our wine

 Sunset over Volcano Licancabur

Watching flamingos at Laguna Chaxa

Found a little lizard that was shedding its skin

Entering Laguna Cejar, hesitantly

That's one way to dive in I suppose

It's amazing!


View of Volcano Licancabur, sitting proudly at 5916m

Warpaint (and looking super smart)

The town of San Pedro de Atacama

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Salta, JuJuy and Paso de Jama

By Sanne

We stayed in Cafayate all of one night. It is a pretty little town but extremely touristy. We almost didn't get let in to the campground by the local police as apparently there was going to be some rally coming through there later, but the owner intervened and let us stay there anyway. The rally turned out to be hundreds of 4wds driven by mostly women - all French - on some kind of rally of the Andes. They stayed there the night before rallying off south, luckily the opposite direction to where we were going!

The next day we set off for Salta, about 200 kms north. This ride would take us through the Quebrada de Las Conchas, which is a very well-known route because of the unique landscape. It was a lovely, windy ride taking us through a beautiful mountain range with red rocks and lots of cactus. It made us reflect on how huge and diverse Argentina is, we had seen almost everything coming from Ushuaia close to the Antarctic circle and now we were almost 5000 kms north, almost at the border to Bolivia.

The closer we got to Salta the darker the sky turned. The rain drops started falling but thankfully only in short spurts so we never got really wet. Riding into Salta it was like riding into a different country. The streets here were buzzing with life and the traffic very chaotic. It probably didn't help that we had arrived at the same time as people were going home for siesta. They were driving like lunatics, tail gating and pushing past us with only inches to spare. Yes, there was some swearing going on in my helmet!

The municipal campground in town was shut because of the employees striking (for what exactly I don't know, but hey, it's Argentina!) so we rode 5 kms out of town to another campsite in the little village of San Lorenzo. Here we met an American man in a motorhome, which made us mistake him at first for being some king of Heisenberg character, interestingly enough his name was Walter! He used to be some kind of movie director in Hollywood in the 80s and 90s. We enjoyed a couple of bottles of wines together while discussing Mickey Rourke's love of the ladies and another interesting subject - menopausal women.

We didn't do a whole lot while in Salta. We did spend the time there servicing the bikes and purchasing a bicycle odometer for Mark's bike as both of ours have now stopped. We also finally bought ourselves some mate cups which are so typical to Argentina. Then came the fun part - to send them home to Australia. I think it took about an hour from the time we walked into the post office till we were done. It seems that in Argentina they can't just have one counter for everything. They prefer the assembly line set up where each person has one task and one task only. The whole thing played out something like this:

Step 1: Go to Counter, say you want to send something, they then tell you you have to go to the next counter to buy a box.
Step 2: Go stand in line at the next counter, say you want to buy a box.
Step 3: Wait 10 mins for lady to come back with your change, after which you go back to the first counter.
Step 4: First counter person tells you to go to the customs office next door to get it declared.
Step 5: Customs officer tells you you need to purchase some brown paper to wrap the box with (this apparently makes it cheaper). Tells you to get the paper in the next office.
Step 6: Go next door and ask for brown paper, told they don't have paper, that you have to go across the street to a stationery store and purchase it from there. *SIGH!*
Step 7: Buy brown paper, return to post office, enter customs office again
Step 8: Customs officer thankfully serves us straight away, think he can see our dispair!
Step 9: Package all wrapped up, we return to the first counter, for the third time...
Step 10: Get package weighed, have a small coronary when we are told the price to send it, but reluctantly pay. After going through all this, there is no way I'm going to quit now!

What a royal pain in the arse! Postal Service of Argentina - surely you can do better than that! One thing is for sure, I will appreciate Australia Post so much more when we return home.

From Salta we went to Jujuy and camped on the outskirts of the town in a pretty little campsite. We were contemplating where to put up the tent as we were weighing up whether it was going to rain or not. The sky looked pretty clear so we set up the tent (at my insistence I better add) in a little channel under some trees. Clearly this wouldn't be an optimal spot IF it was to rain but I was willing to take my chances...Aaaand I shouldn't have. At around two or three in the morning we are awoken by the sound of heavy rain, and then there was this odd trickling sound, sounded a bit like the trickling of a creek (and we're not that close to the creek). As we unzip the tent we saw what the trickle was. A river of water was flowing right towards and under our tent! Permission to say cock. The only thing we could do was to get out and move the tent in the rain. Thank god there was a picnic shelter nearby, so we carried/dragged the tent and our belongings the 30 metres or so to the shelter, set things up as good as we could and crawled into the tent again, shivering and wet.

The next day it was still cloudy but we got no more rain. We stayed camped under the shelter however, just in case. After here we rode to the small village of Purmamarca. It has one of the most stunning back drops to any town I have ever seen with the Cerro de Siete Colores (The Hill of Seven Colours). The unique colours of the hill is the result of marine sediments, lake and river movements and the movements of tectonic plates. We hiked up a big hill across from the village and the view from here was stunning. The north west of Argentina is one of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen. Apart from the town being beautiful, it is also very touristy. Here we found women sitting in the streets with baby llamas. If you didn't know this, baby llamas are the cutest things! On top of cute, they are dressed up in colourful clothes and decorations in their ears. Now, if you want to take a photo of them - you pay. Well, I couldn't help myself, I was happy to pay the 5 pesos, besides we had to spend our pesos anyway, as we were crossing the border the following day to Chile.

Apart from beautiful scenery and cute overload, Purmamarca was also to be one of the coldest nights we have had since leaving Ushuaia. As soon as the sun went down, the warmth of the day went with it. I guess it is a combination of being slightly up in the mountains at 2,400 m and the dry desert environment. We tossed down a cheap cask of wine in the hope that it would warm our souls and crawled into our tent. We set the alarm for 6.30am - extremely early for us - as we had a big ride (over 400 kms) the next day over the Paso de Jama to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

After a cold night we got up while everyone else were sleeping in their tents. We brewed some green tea to warm us up and had a quick breakfast before packing up and pushing our bikes out into the sun and started them up. They were a bit cold the babies but with the choke out they started up faithfully and we were on our way. We started climbing almost straight away. Not far from Purmamarca was the Cuesta de Lipan, a stretch of switchbacks leading up the mountain with barely any traffic on it - perfect! After that we were already at around 3,500 m but the sun was shining from a clear blue sky which made it not so cold. Not long after we could see a wide expanse of white in the distance - the Salinas Grandes. It was the biggest salt plane we have seen so far and very impressive. We stopped for some silly photos and we did taste the salt and I took some with me (which is still sitting in my Camelbak). They "harvest" the salt from here so there were workers going about their business on parts of the salt plane but apart from that it was all quiet and had a sense of real remoteness.

We made it to the border crossing at Paso de Jama at about lunch time (we really hadn't needed to set out that early after all), we had a bite to eat before going inside. We were now about 4000m and we could both feel the effect of altitude - we were both feeling slightly short of breath, nothing serious but just a tangible feeling that the air here was definitely thinner. The immigration and customs procedure went smooth and after a customs officer checked our luggage for fruit (which I have become very clever at hiding by now) and found nothing we were officially let out of Argentina for the very last time. It was with a little sadness that we left as we reflected on the last 4 months that we have spent in this lovely country. Argentina has been good to us and it has been an intriguing insight into Latin American culture. Nature-wise it has been without a doubt one of the most stunning countries we have ridden through. Because it is such a vast country, you will find every kind of landscape here. The Argentine people are mostly really friendly and open and it has been a real pleasure to spend our time here. BUT...if I never have to see another "Las Islas Malvinas son Argentinas" sign....I'll be quite happy.

After the Paso de Jama at 4300 m you would think that you would start the descent. Well, you would be wrong to think that. Instead we seemed to ASCEND instead. Up on to the infamous Altiplano. Now, we don't have a GPS so we can't be sure of the altitude but surely we were up around 4800 m. My bike went ahead faithfully as always with occasional flat spots upon gear changes but really no problems at all. The landscape was so amazing, with several places looking like Mongolia (or at least what I imagine Mongolia looking like). It was really dry (obviously) and I can't imagine anything living up here, the only animals we had seen all day was llamas, guanacos and donkeys (although this was more at around 3500 m than at 4500 m - nothing lives up this high!)

All of a sudden we came over a hill and the Altiplano siphoned out onto a flat plane where San Pedro de Atacama was. After the Agua Negra Pass, the Paso de Jama is one of the most stunning passes I have been on.

South of Cafayate

Lots of these fellas around now

Quebrada de las Conchas that leads from Cafayate to Salta

Big pointy thing

We finally bought ourselves some mate cups - aren't they pretty???

The main cathedral in Salta

And as always in Argentina, we ran into yet another demonstration, 
our Spanish wasn't good enough to decipher what this one was for though

Salta beer - the label is better than the taste

On the scenic ride on the very windy road from Salta to Jujuy

On the state border between Salta and Jujuy

Pretty Purmamarca

We can fit one of those on the back of the bike, right???

So preeeetty

Cerro de Siete Colores

The redness of the rock is quite unbelievable


 Cuesta de Lipan

Salinas Grandes

Altiplano lake

Oops! Took that corner a bit too fast did we???

Up high on the altiplano

Llamas and Volcano Licancabur