Argentina and Chile

Hey all, and welcome to my second blog post, which covers the last five and a half weeks that we´ve spent in Argentina (plus a bit of northern Chile). It’s another lengthy one I’m afraid, owing to the fact that we spent quite a lot more time here than we’d anticipated.

I’m writing this post on our replacement laptop; the first one having been lost in Salta (as you will read if you make it that far). One of the consequences of that loss is that unfortunately we only have limited photos from our first week in Argentina. But I’ve now discovered the wonders of cloud backup so hopefully that won’t happen again!

Route overview
Part 1: Missiones province and the North East
Part 2: Salta and route planning
Part 3: The Ruta 9 and Iruya
Part 4: Abra Pampa to Susques: heading off road
Part 5: The Ruta 40: To Cafayate via Argentina’s highest road
Part 6: Back to Salta (and Purmamarca and Susques)
Part 7: To Chile

Route overview

First, an overview of our route: we headed south west away from the border with Brazil at the Iguazu falls, following the border with Paraguay to the city of Corrientes; took a bus ride to the foothills of the Andes in Salta; did a big loop of Northwestern Argentina; and finally cycled across the Chilean border to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. In 41 days (28 spent on the bike) we covered over 2,000km on the bikes, ascending around 18km in the process – a little more than we did in Brazil (and on considerably worse roads).

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The route from Iguazu to San Pedro – more than 3,000km (although some of it was by bus)

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Starting to make a dent in South America – though we haven’t actually headed north of Rio yet!

Part 1: Missiones provice and the North East

My previous (Brazil) post concluded with us crossing the Brazil-Argentina border at the Iguazu river, a proverbial stone´s throw from the world famous Iguazu falls. So that´s where I´ll begin. We entered Argentina via the most relaxed border crossing I´ve ever seen: having carefully navigated a couple of questions about football with some passionate looking Boca fans, after around 30 seconds we were safely on our way to our first hostel in the border town of Puerto Iguazu. We checked in, dumped our stuff and immediately set off for the Argentine side of the falls – a short bus ride away – via an ATM and a shop for something to eat.

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Crossing the border into Argentina

And we were in for a bit of a shock! First, we discovered that you have to pay the Argentine ATM network £5 every time you want to withdraw cash, up to a maximum of only £120. That is, if you’re lucky to find one with money in – most of the ones we tried in town were empty, having been drained of cash by locals trying to keep up with Argentina’s double-digit inflation. And second, on that theme, we discovered that Argentina is very expensive – our food and bus tickets costing around three or four times what we would have expected to pay in Brazil. That evening we saw one of the impacts of the hefty price of food, when our bustling hostel kitchen turned out to be far busier than any of the restaurants in town.

Anyway, we sucked it up and got on the bus, armed with a slice of cake to share for breakfast, and headed to the falls. And they were bloody spectacular, moreso even than on the Brazilian side. In all seriousness, nothing I could write could articulate how breathtaking the Iguazu falls are – so I won’t try. But here are some photos to give you an idea!

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Iguazu falls – photo courtesy of Charlie’s phone!

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View of the rainbow constantly hovering above the falls

The rest of our time in Puerto Iguazu was a rather relaxed affair, writing our Brazil blog posts, and watching some of Euro 2016 whilst sheltering from the rain which had returned in earnest. We also learned one important lesson here: complementary breakfasts at most Argentine hotels are awful! This hostel actually had one of the better ones we found, with small slices of stale bread served with butter, marmalade and dulce de leche, along with some stale cake, a few slices of satsuma, and a hot, bittersweet liquid masquerading as coffee. Lovely. Finally, on our fourth day in Argentina, we prised ourselves away and began our journey along the Ruta 12, which would take us around 650km along the Paraguay border to the crossroads city of Corrientes.

Our first major landmark was Posadas, capital of Misiones provice. With Google Maps cycling directions not working in Argentina, I had relied on one of those maps with color-coded altitude profiles that I found online, deciding that as there was more green (high altitude) around Iguazu and more purple (low altitude) around Posadas, this was going to be a nice gentle descent. Wrong! After climbing (and descending) well over 1km on a road that was the very definition of undulating, we arrived on our first evening in the town of Eldorado soaking wet and utterly exhausted. That evening we had the bright idea of turning to Strava for route planning, which turned out to work much better and which revealed that the next two days would be equally tough, with a further 1.7km of ascent before we reached the famous flatlands of the remote Chaco region. Indeed they were, and we found ourselves on our bikes from dawn til dusk riding past a seemingly neverending series of farms and small villages. (Our mood was further dampened on the second day by the result of the EU referendum, though I don’t think this is the place to say much more about that!)

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Hills hills hills

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Passing one of the many farming villages on the Iguazu-Posadas road

Tribulations aside, it was actually quite an interesting route, interspersed with a number of indigenous Guarani villages and several old ruined Jesuit commune-missions that give this province its name. We did manage to visit one of the largest of these in the eponymous town of San Ignacio, but despite its historical interest – given the important role it and other missions played in the Spanish colonialisation of South America – more mundane issues were at hand: with a puncture to fix and daylight running out, it was only a fleeting stop.

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The ruins of the Jesuit mission at San Ignacio. Unfortunately, we only managed a short visit

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One unexpected highlight on our second day was finding a beautiful campsite outside the dirty town of Jardin America, complete with a lodge that proved an excellent place to drink wine by the fire! Unfortunately our mood was rather killed later that night when we found out the result of the EU referendum

We eventually reached Posadas and decided to take rest day in this city which turned out to be something of an oasis in north-eastern Argetnina, with a long promenade lining the riverside; a number of pretty tree-and café-lined plazas; and most importantly, a huge ice cream shop that opened until 1am!

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View of the promenade in Posadas at night – courtesy of the internet

The rest of the journey to Corrientes was long. Very long. But it was also as flat as a pancake, and we made the 350km journey in just two and a half days – including one day where we covered 170km, certainly the longest I’ve ever done on a bike. Headwinds and incessent rain, combined with there being almost nothing of interest along the way made this quite a miserable journey (especially for Charlie!) Our two overnight stops were in the muddy fishing town of Ita-Ibate and the equally muddy fishing town of Itati. These two towns looked as identical as their names would suggest, with the one notable exception being the enormous 1950s basilica in the latter.

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The road was long, flat and very quiet!

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Eating lunch in Ituzaingo, one of the few fishing towns en route – for some reason they all began with the letter ‘I’, making it very confusing to tell them apart!

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The muddy streets of Ita-Ibate

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The huge basilica of Our Lady of Itati – this domnated the skyline of the small town

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On the second day, just as the torential rain was getting too much, we stumbled upon this couple who ran a lovely roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere! A rare moment of joy on this otherwise monotonous road

By the time we reached Corrientes, we were both pretty sick of the flat, dull landscape of Corrientes province, and Charlie wasn’t much enjoying the weather – exacerbated by her having melted her one pair of waterproof socks in an ill-conceived attempt to warm them up in a frying pan! In front of us now was the dreaded Ruta 16: a 500 mile, dead straight, completely flat road through the desolate Chaco province and a large national park ominously named ´El Impenetrable´. Whilst I’m not one for taking buses when the bike is a viable option, I knew Charlie wanted to skip this section and on brief reflection of the past three days, I acquiesced and agreed to take the bus to Salta leaving later that afternoon.

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Roadkill on the road near Corrientes – yes, this is a Crocodile! Just one of the reasons we didn’t want to cycle through ‘El Impenetrable’

However, we had read that getting bikes on buses in Argentina would be far from straightforward – and so it proved to be. Only one company would even countenance taking them, though they told us it was up to the luggage conductor and the ticket would be non-refundable if they declined. Having removed our front racks and wheels in an attempt to make our bikes appear smaller, we managed to negotiate a $20 ´tip´ with the conductor with just minutes to spare. All of a sudden, we were on the bus, ready for the overnight journey ahead and the promised land of Salta by morning!

Part 2: Salta and route planning

We arrived bleary-eyed in Salta at around 7am, and set about re-building our bikes and re-packing our bags so that we could roll into town. All was going well until I asked Charlie the dreaded question: “did you pick up the laptop”? The next few hours is a bit of a blur as we realised that our laptop was, along with our hard drive with all of our photos and videos, still on the bus, which had by now left the bus station. With the bus company informing us that they have no lost property department and essentially operate a finders-keepers system, later that day we found ourselves in the police station reporting them as lost and probably now stolen.

After consoling ourselves, we headed out into town. Salta turned out to be a beautiful colonial city situated against a stunning backdrop of high Andean peaks, and centered around a leafy colonial plaza with a number of enticing restaurants, museums and, of course, ice cream shops. After doing the obligatory sightseeing as well as some bike maintenance and shopping in preparation for the weeks ahead, we set about enjoying Charlie’s birthday, which fell on the day after we arrived.

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On Charlie’s (31st!) birthday, I booked us a room in one of the nicer hotels in town as a little surprise. Needless to say she was impressed with the awesome rooftop pool!

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Not a typical image for a cycle touring blog post

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We did manage to prise ourselves away from the poolside eventually. This is me overlooking Salta from the top of Mount San Bernardo, on the edge of the city

In choosing our northern-Argentinan cycle route, we had prepared ourselves to have to make some difficult choices, as there are a many different roads and things to see in the region, and not all in a sensible geographic order. But as it turned out, our decision was made much easier by the fate of a package of warm clothes Charlie was trying to get delivered to Cafayate, a town we knew we wanted to visit to the south of Salta. The continual incremental delays in getting customs clearance for this package, which at the time of writing is still sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Buenos Aires due to Argentina’s mysterious ban on importing used clothing, meant we ended up doing a much more extensive route than planned. The three week journey described below was devised following a lot of research of other people’s trips and route notes (including the excellent andesbybike website), and an equally large amount of time spent on Google Earth, trying to find the most remote roads we could to test the limits of our touring bikes. It turned out to be some of the best riding we’ve ever done!

Part 3: The Ruta 9 and Iruya

We began by heading north out of Salta on the (paved) Ruta 9 following the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a huge gorge and Unesco world heritage site which leads most of the way to the Bolivian border. The road began by undulating through the lush hills to the north of Salta, where we stayed in our first municipal campsite outside the town of El Carmen. These campsites, which we found in a number of towns across the region, were a revelation, being very cheap, usually having hot showers, and always hosting a number of locals due to their abundance of free stone barbecues!

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We followed this dry riverbed out of Salta. Presumably in the wet season this would be a rather different photo!

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The surroundings got more lush as we climbed the hills towards Humahuaca gorge

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Our first night of camping in northern Argentina, in the midst of dozens of stone barbecues. Shame neither of us knows how to make a wood fire!

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I really did enjoy those municipal campsites

The next day the gorge began, and the road rose steadily upwards for our next week of cycling. We stopped at some of the indigenous villages along the way such as Purmamarca (to where we would later return), Tilcara and Humahuaca, which now seem to cater almost exclusively for day-tripping backpackers and Argentine tourists. The scenery along the way was spectacular, and we found ourselves doing some shorter days on the bikes to spend more time hiking the surrounding hills.

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Enjoying a rare morning off the bikes in the beautiful hills around Purmamarca…

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…Where we were obliged to take yet another selfie

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Climbing to the ‘Garganta del Diablo’ (Devil’s throat) outside Tilcara – not to be confused with the waterfall in Iguazu with the same name

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The view from the top of the Garganta del Diablo

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Charlie navigating a water crossing after we descended to the valley below

After leaving Humahuaca, the last of the tourist towns on the Ruta 9, we turned off the paved road towards the (very) remote mountain village of Iruya. This ‘road’ was my first experience of washboarding – a phenomenon where the tyres of heavy cars and 4x4s cause dirt roads to turn into a mass of corrugations that would be the envy of any good cardboard factory. Feeling like we were riding on bike-sized speed bumps almost the whole way, the going was slow but the ride was absolutely spectacular. After ascending almost 1.5km to reach (almost) 4,000m in altitude for the first time on the trip, we enjoyed some wonderful views of the surrounding mountains before a bone-shaking, bottle cage-breaking 2km decent down the other side. This would prove to be our favourite ride of the trip so far.

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On the road out of Humahuaca, with the gorge in the background

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We would soon leave the paved road behind

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In favour of the more beautiful, but more challenging dirt road!

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Parking up for lunch in the playground at Iturbe, the only village on the road to Iruya

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It was a long way up, but a feast for the eyes

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We finally made it to the top of the pass, and (almost) 4,000 metres above sea level on the bikes for the first time!

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Surveying the long descent to Iruya that lay ahead

Having taken a day off the bikes to go hiking around Iruya, we managed to get a spot for us and our bikes on the 6am bus back over the pass the next morning. Later that afternoon, back on the Ruta 9 for the final time we reached Abra Pampa, the northernmost point of our route so far at around 50km from Bolivia. At over 3,500m in altitude, the mountains were snow-capped here, and we witnessed our first mini snowstorm – the last precipitation we would see for a long time. Abra Pampa, known as the ‘Siberia’ of Argentina for its remoteness, turned out to be a pleasant place, and later that evening, which was on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Argentinian independence, we sat in the local chicken shop watching the new Argentine president addressing a huge crowd in Humahuaca, the tiny and seemingly deserted town we had left just two days before!

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Hiking in the magnificent valley outside Iruya

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Yet another river crossing – she’s getting good at these!

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We followed an old train line towards Abra Pampa. Needless to say, with sections like this, they are no longer in use.

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Passing our first frozen waterfall!

Part 4: Abra Pampa to Susques: heading off road

After Abra Pampa we turned south to begin the most adventurous part of our trip yet – a 180km stretch mostly following the unpaved, deserted Ruta 11 towards the town of Susques near the Chilean border. We left early, anticipating a poor quality road following our experience cycling to Iruya – and we were right. However we could usually find a narrow margin between the juddering washboard in the middle of the road and the deep sand at the edge that was ok to ride on, and we managed to make good progress. Following a spectacular route flanked by mountains on both sides and with a lot more llamas than cars or people, we passed by Casabindo, the only village of note on our journey, in mid-afternoon, before setting up camp just before sunset on a magical spot overlooking a huge salt plain in the distance to the west.

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Navigating washboard on the beautiful Ruta 11

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We stopped for some lunch at Casabindo, the only proper village on the road, set against a stunning mountain backdrop

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Llamas at the side of the road. We saw many more of these than humans that day

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Setting up camp for the night. If you squint a bit, you might be able to make out the large salt plain in the distance.

The next day was even more special as we descended to, and briefly rode on, the salt plain, before making the last few km to the paved highway leading to Susques on something that better resembled a sandpit than a road. Having anticipated a quick finish to this leg of the journey, we were in for an unwelcome surprise as some extreme headwinds reduced our speed on this flat, paved road to around 6km per hour. Charlie took to trying to flag pickups down, hoping to hitch a ride, but the best luck we had was one kind couple stopping to give us a much-needed carton of juice and pack of crackers. These two, who we would meet again later, told us they ran a hotel just outside of Susques called Pastos Chicos where we would be welcome to stay, though it would be “impossible” for us to reach there that day given to the wind. However, pushing very hard we made the impossible happen, and somehow arrived at the scruffy town of Susques very late in the evening, glad to find a hotel room with a heater, given the extremely cold nights that this region gets.

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We were overjoyed to find the road went right through the salt plain

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Which proved to have the best riding surface of the whole road!

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Back on the sand, we passed this remote llama farm

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We will miss the beautiful Ruta 12!

Part 5: The Ruta 40: To Cafayate via Argentina’s highest road

Susques turned out to be a complete hole of a town, and the next day, though pretty tired, we pressed on, now following the iconic unpaved Ruta 40 (which stretches some 5,000km down to southern Patagonia) towards Cafayate, Argentina’s second wine city. With the road in poor quality, we made it only 70km to the small pueblo of Sey on the first day, spectacularly perched underneath a volcano. After climbinga hill to the east of town, we were a short stroll down the one road in town, we were stopped by a man outside the local school, who told us there was some theatre going on inside. Having witnessed little in the way of culture or civilisation for the past week we decided to venture in, and were stunned to find the whole town in the assembly hall, watching a bizarre stage show led by a large group of twentysomething-year-olds who definitely weren’t locals. We later found out that they were missionaries who travelled to the village from Cordoba and other cities for three days every year to help this rural community with everything from healthcare and dentistry to home economics. And we had stumbled upon the closing ceremony! They kindly treated us to chocolate milk, cake and fresh fruit, and we ended up staying into the evening practicing our Spanish with our newfound friends Machi, Andrea and co.

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The small pueblo of Sey (in the distance)

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We climbed this hill to get a better view

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Finally we made some friends!

We next crossed the beautiful Abra de Sey mountain pass at 4,400 metres, before descending through a gorgeous valley, via the La Polvorilla viaduct at the end of the Tren a las Nubes (a tourist train route that once extended to Chile’s pacific coast), to relative civilisation in the town of San Antonio de los Cobres. Here we rested, as the next day we planned to undertake the hardest part of our route to date, the 1.2km solid climb to Argentina’s highest road pass at the Abra del Acay.

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Climbing to the Abra de Sey – it was pretty cold up there!

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But the view from the top was pretty special

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We descended through a pretty valley…

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When suddenly we were cycling right under the surreal La Polvorilla viaduct, terminus of the Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds)

Having read as many blogs about the climb to the Abra del Acay that we could find, we were reasonably confident we could do it, although we gathered it would be brutally tough. And it was! This was physically one of the hardest days of my whole life, and at times on the neverending switchbacks it seemed there was no chance we would reach the top. The road was again pretty awful, the wind often against us, and towards the top the altitude and unrelenting climbs left us needing to stop every few hundred metres just to catch our breath.

Somehow (I realy don’t know how) we made it to the top, more tired than words can describe, and where I was genuinely reduced to tears by the realisation that the climb was done! At the top, where we were assaulted by gale-force winds, we met a group of four French tourists who kindly gave us water and a pack of biscuits that we promptly devoured! The descent that followed was much more challenging than we had expected, with very strong winds, a narrow and rocky road that often had sheer vertical drops on one side to the valley below, and with four rivers that we literally had to wade across. But after a long 40km, we arrived, exhausted once again, at the town of La Poma and a very welcoming hospedaje on the town square.

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Somehow, we’d made it to the top! My sunglasses mask some tearry eyes

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I nearly got blown away taking this photo from the top

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View of the descent. This was one of the safer sections

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Abra del Acay in the background. Here we are finally approaching civilisation at La Poma

For the rest of the journey south we passed by yet more spectacular scenery, first tracing a beautiful valley to the colonial oasis of Cachi, where we stayed (at the municipal campsite) for a couple of nights, and then past some surreal, lunar rock formations as we aproached Cafayate.

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The stunning calchaqui valley between La Poma and Cachi

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Gauchos blocking the road. Don’t they know we’ve got somewhere to be?

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Some of the crazy rock formations on the road to Cafayate

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Finally, the road became paved just before the town of San Carlos. Charlie couldn’t have been happier!

Off the bikes, in Cachi we had our first encounter with Pena, a type of folk music show that seems to be the Argentine equivalent of a Butlins Red-coats performance. The ritual begins with the singer-guitarist asking each group in the restaurant where they are from, and getting everyone else to applaud. All the Argentines were joining in with this bizarre ritual, as well as loudly and drunkenly singing along with all the songs, making conversation impossible and rather offending our more refined British sensibilities! And on a lighter note, we also enjoyed two days of pure indulgance in Cafayate, sampling the wares of several of the vineyards around town, as well as a number of the ice cream shops, all topped off with having one of the best steaks of my life in another Pena restaurant, where we were sat next to the very entertaining (names), a couple from Misiones province who were there on holiday.

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Enjoying the Pena music with some new friends!

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We couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a ‘wine hotel’ in Cafayate

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Or try out one of the many ice cream shops on the plaza!

Part 6: Back to Salta (and Purmamarca and Susques)

Reluctantly we prised ourselves away from Cafayate to complete the final leg of our loop, on the Ruta 16 back to Salta. The road, which took us through another picturesque valley, was noticeably more touristy, filled with jeeps whisking backpackers to and from Cafayate and Salta. Being mostly downhill and paved (something of a novelty for us now), we did more than 100km for the first time in three weeks, reaching the town of La Vina in the late afternon. At the petrol station we met the lovely French group again (we had also bumped into them in the Pena restaurant in Cachi), whose names we had finally learned: Anne, Paula, Jean Jacques and Jean. It was reassuring to know that for the past 8 days, we had managed to go at the same pace as a group travelling in 4x4s! Back in Salta, and with every hotel in town seemingly booked out at the height of Argentinian winter holiday season, we decided to stay in one more municipal campsite, which had what must have been the largest swimming pool in the entire world. Unfortunately, like almost every other pool we saw in Argentina, it was empty!

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The road from Cafayate to Salta was pretty special

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We found ourselves stopping quite a lot to take photos!

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Gone were the days of bad weather in Brazil and north east Argentina

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Anne, Paula, Jean Jacques and Jean. We bumped into this group of intrepid travellers on four separate occasions!

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Back in Salta, setting up camp. Yes, that is a giant swimming pool in the background

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Don’t do it!

It was now finally time to plot our escape to Chile. We had chosen to take the easiest of the possible crossings, from Susques to San Pedro de Atacama via the Paso de Jama. But ‘easy’ is a relative term, and having read a lot of blogs about the route, we concluded that it could take up to 5 days passing just one village en route. So we stocked up on a lot of food in Salta before heading back to Susques to start the crossing. This was to prove more difficult than we’d hoped as no buses went between the two places. So we first headed back to Purmamarca, situated on the the same road as Susques but some 150km away, to try to get a bus from there. It turned out that the only buses for the next two days left at 9pm and 11pm that evening, which would mean arriving in the middle of the night in a town where it regularly reaches -5 degrees. To top it off, the 9pm bus was over an hour late and only had standing room left! With little choice but to accept, we ended up arriving back in Susques at around 1am, without any idea of where to sleep. But, as luck would have it, the hotel we had stayed in on our previous visit had its lights on, and we managed to get ourselves a warm room for the night!

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Trying (unsuccessfully) to hitch to Susques. In the end, we had to settle for a 10pm bus

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A view of Susques. Somehow this photo paints this ugly, soulless town in a positive light

Part 7: To Chile

After spending the next day re-acclimatising and visiting the couple who ran the Pastos Chicos hotel to say thanks (they had helped us on the road to Susques the previous time we visited this godforsaken place), we were ready to leave on our biggest adventure yet. The day began badly, when the hotel common room failed to open for “breakfast” (we were reduced to breaking in to the kitchen and stealing the bread and crackers that they usually served), but miraculously, once on the road, all of the horror stories about 50mph headwinds and storms failed to materialise, and we made the 280km to San Pedro de Atacama in the scarcely believable time of 2.5 days, a whole day quicker than the guys at andesbybike did it in the opposite direction – which is supposed to be easier! The route was stunning, passing salt plains, lagunas and some huge volcanoes, and was topped off with one of those experiences one never forgets, a 40km steep, straight downhill to San Pedro at the end of the route, where I reached the dizzying speed of 60kmph!

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Stopping for a quick bite en route to the Chilean border

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Will she make it?

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Yes she will!

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And so did I! Welcome to Chile

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Where the landscape was as beautiful as ever

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Looking back towards Argentina

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We set up camp in a ‘scenic rest area’ – the wall here providing much-needed shelter from the howling wind

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Approaching the final pass before San Pedro. There was a lot of snow up here, even though we’d seen no precipitation for weeks

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Bolivia in the background. We’ll be there soon!

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We descended to San Pedro so fast and so quickly, that our water bottles had visibly compressed

Arriving in Chile, we stayed in the gringo-invaded town of San Pedro for one night, where we learned that prices in Argentina aren’t so high after all, before taking a bus to the nearby city of Calama, an hour to the west, where we replenished our energy and our electronics (as well as losing the laptop, Charlie had contrived to break both her phone and camera on the way). Back in San Pedro now, we are making final preparations for Bolivia, where we head tomorrow. If it’s half as good as Argentina, we are in for a spectacular ride.

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