The rain started to fall just after we went to bed. There had been a noticeable change as it became much more humid and the wind had dropped…the typical lull before the storm.
At about 11pm it really started to rain quite hard and by midnight I had decided to heed the words of others, that if this happened to be a major soaking then flash floods were likely and I didn’t like where we were positioned. It took sometime to convince The Blonde who had been in a very deep sleep that maybe it was in our best interests and to be safe rather than sorry, to move up to higher ground. With thick dark clouds billowing overhead it was pitch black outside…so different from the two previous nights of beautiful starlit skies…and of course that plus the now clear sound of running water adds to the uncertainty. With The Blonde in the back of Tojo I drove back the two hundred meters up the gravel track to the main road. Already in the headlights I could see rivulets of water running down the side of the track and then onto the main road small streams of water running down either side of the road from the two steep inclines to the north and the south…this did not look good. We drove over three further “crests” in the road in between the “flechas” on either side, but in each case there was nowhere safe to pull off and to get to higher ground…after about 10 minutes I decided this was just a little crazy and we would be better off going back to our original camp position but parking up just by the side of the road away from the marked wash outs so at least if the rain continued we could get easily on to the road in the morning. At first light I was awake…well I had been awake most of the night to be honest...the rain had stopped….in fact it had eased off almost immediately after we had re-camped after our little midnight expedition. There was a large wash out on the road full of water but other than that there was no damage to the track. We saw several cars come through from the north so it seemed at least that way was open ok.
We set off south to start with as we still wanted to return to the main pass at “The Flechas” to take some more photos of these extraordinary rocky outcrops. It was dry but cloudy and there were indeed a number of large puddles on the road at the bottom of hills where the water had streamed down the sides of the road…but there was a good firm gravel base underneath so no problems crossing them.
We took our photos and headed north again, passed our camp and on to Molinos the next village some 20 kms north. The road was ok, quite wet and a couple of small wash outs, but no worries for any 4WD vehicle. We did get stopped a couple of times by cars coming in the other direction who wanted to know how the road condition was through to Cafayate…all we could tell them was that it seemed ok from where we had come from. Molinos was a small adobe town with some quite nice colonial whitewash buildings and a large twin tower church….we mooched around took some photos and then headed north again towards the “city” of Cachi.
The RN40 to Cachi
As we continued up the Valles Calchaiques the surrounding countryside became greener and lusher and we drove through a number of vineyards in the valley bottom some of them over two hundred years old and had originally been set up by Spanish families with their distinctive hacienda style buildings and immaculately maintained farms and irrigation systems. There were interspersed a number of small villages with very rudimentary style adobe buildings but having a great local feature of three or four romanesque almost styled columns at the front to create a porch and sitting out area. The road continued to twist and turn through the valley and it was early afternoon by the time we pulled into the plaza in the centre of Cachi….a little tired and very hungry. We managed to park in the plaza itself and The Blonde found us a great parilla restaurant off the side of the plaza. We sat ourselves down to chicken and goat straight off the bbq with patates fritas (chips) and salad….magical…and the meat just kept coming….seventh heaven for me!
The Blonde in Cachi Square
Back on the road….and now we climbed up to TinTin Pass. Inside Parques Nacional Los Cardons (the name taken from the cardon or candelabra cactus that dominates the landscape here), the RP33 goes across the plain and follows what is determined to be one of the longest and straightest roads created by the Incas… With amazing planning and forethought, the Incas actually developed over 30,000 kms of trade routes throughout, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The "Qapacha Nan" network of trails gave the Incas a means to transport not only goods with their load bearing Llamas but also their troops to maintain control of the areas they managed. At the end of the TinTin straight however..all that changes, as from over 3,000 meters, you then drop down an amazing series of hairpin bends for over 2,000 meters to the main road into Salta. It took us over two hours to do the descent….there were a number of places where the road was single track and the passing places few and far between….I was quite glad we were coming down as it meant the cars coming up had to give way…not all of them did but it was not too bad. Because it took us so long though we realised there was no chance we could be in Salta before nightfall, so again iOverlander came to our rescue and we found a nice wild camp by the river at the bottom of this amazing valley to camp at for the night.
It rained a little during the night and there was certainly more water coming down the river by the side of our wild camp, but not threatening as before. Our plan today was to find our way into Salta, the provincial capital, and locate a camp that we could use as a base to explore the “culture” of the area and in particular to visit two museums that specialised in ethnic art we were interested in. It was still cloudy but dry as we continued down the valley. We crossed a single track bridge, where three mini buses full of tourists had stopped to take photos up the valley (their photos would show a great deal of cloud and mist), before starting their long twisty windy ascent up the valley to the TinTin Pass. The road narrowed again to almost a single file track around the mountain pass as we continued to descend and then we were diverted down in to the river valley bottom on a newly constructed ripio/gravel track whilst roadworks were in process to improve the pass road…much needed. We stopped in a small town about 30kms south of Salta and fuelled up and went into the YPF Full cafe and managed to get some reasonable internet….I am still having problems sending our updates. With photo attachments due to the slow internet speeds and constant cut outs, they often freeze. We met a young Argentinian couple from Buenos Aires who were just starting out on their journey going from Ushuaia to Alaska on the Pan American Highway…in a Renault van, not 4WD, stock suspension and tyres…best of luck. After a couple of hours in the cafe, we continued our drive into Salta….we had been given a tip by Carlos at Los Olivos that there was free camping at a casino in the centre of town…we never found it….we ended up at a very damp municipal campground on the southern side of the city about 3kms from the centre. It was pretty dire….but this apparently, unless you fancy camping out on a side street, is the best there is. The main attraction for this campground is this enormous kidney shaped swimming pool. It is only filled with water for the two high season months of January and February, but then becomes a "major draw card". The camping area itself was very muddy after the recent rain. Not so bad for us in the camper, but we felt sorry for the two families either side of us in tents…and it became even worse an hour after we arrived when the rain really started to fall again…now they were digging trenches around their tents! At least we had power, so we could get all our batteries and machines charged….it would also mean we would not have to face water on the floor again in the morning from a defrosted fridge overnight. The Blonde decided to ”stretch her legs”…in the rain…I did not! Less than an hour later she was back admitting it may have not been one of her best decisions. She was wet cold and a little discouraged about what she had seen on the outskirts of the city. The center after all is where the old colonial buildings are…the outskirts, well, it is just another higgledy piggledy mish mash of poor housing interspersed with industrial warehousing and potholed roads. And so to bed…rain rattling on the roof and the young guy in the tent next door digging his third trench to try and stop the water running underneath their tent.
Next morning, I really could not get out of the cold, wet and muddy campground we were in fast enough. The toilets were disgusting and the showers not worth entering. True, it was a cheap fix for power, but honestly what a shit hole. We drove into El Centro and to the site of the museum we had decided we would start out our “day of culture” in Salta. The first museum did not open until 10am…so we went in search of a nice cafe/restaurant to have some coffee and wait out the next 30 minutes. Only two streets away in a very nice little plaza we found a great “Italian Style" modern cafe…now this was promising. A cafe double and toasted ham and cheese sandwich and a good wifi connection put me in the right mood for the museum. Pacha Museo de Arte Etnico Americano… big mouthful... is a private museum and as Lonely Planet says… “a must see if you’re interested in indigenous art and culture. Juxtaposing archaeological finds with contemporary and recent artisanal work from all over Latin America in a series of sumptuously realized displays, the museum takes an encouragingly broad view of both Andean culture and beyond. It’s an exquisite dose of color and beauty that is run with great enthusiasm by the English speaking management.” We were greeted at the door by Diego… a historian and the “English speaking management”….and a complete eccentric. He loved his job and the ladies…more of that later. He was over effusive and obviously had a great passion for his work and the “protection” of the unique quality of the pieces on display from various tribes and various regions in South America, which were a credit to the decades of study and collection by the lady anthropologist founder. In each room of the two floors we were given Diego’s introduction to the…”amazing exhibits”…all…”very, very nice”. He had fallen in love with The Blonde, and continued to address her and introduce various artefacts etc as if I wasn’t there…he had forgotten my name and occasionally referred to me as “my friend”…this was fine by me, as The Blonde was well into the whole scene here and I was able to wander aimlessly and just pick out the things that interested me and take photos. We started as the only couple in the museum and for almost an hour had Diego’s undivided attention…well The Blonde did….then another young lady arrived, English girl from Manchester as it turned out, but now living in Buenos Aires…Diego singled her out also for “special attention”. It was a hoot! But after two hours of his quite sycophantic style of presentation, I was probably over the experience and needed to move on. The Blonde could have spent all day here but we also detected that as two further "guests” had arrived, now Diego was starting to stress at being able to handle five people all at once and we were being everso nicely ushered towards the exit. I have to admit though the museum was a treasure and full of beautifully presented artefacts, masks, clothing and other pieces from Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile and Argentina all of ethnic origin and both ancient and some of modern day.
Now to get back to the main square….we decided to leave Tojo parked where he was and walk the kilometre or so in. At the square we managed to get some photos of the buildings surrounding the area. The day is still cloudy but at least it is dry. The main church we had come to photograph and Salta’s most famous edifice, we are disappointed to find that the principal tower is currently swathed in plastic and tarpaulins over some rudimentary scaffolding…peak tourist season and they decide to do some touch up work…beggars belief!! We return to the square and are enticed into a very touristy restaurant by the fact The Blonde needs the toilet and there is an English speaking waiter. The service is poor, the food eventually arrives and is merely ok, but this is what we should expect at such a location.The Blonde is very keen to visit the second museum nearby…I feel that the main feature which is a section of mummified children’s remains from a sacrifice site in the mountains nearby, is really not my cup of tea, plus I had read that a majority of the exhibits were only given detailed information on in Spanish…I felt I had had the best deal at our first visit with Diego. The Blonde spent an hour in the MAAM Museum (Museum Of High Altitude Archaeology) whilst I sat outside with another cafe double on the square and caught up with a few emails on the slow internet offer at the cafe. We wander back to Tojo, taking some photos of various colonial style buildings on the way. There are some great courtyards hidden behind the facades of these old buildings, most looking a little unloved from the outside. Through high arched entrances usually with enormous wooden doors and then large metal awnings over them you find behind are beautiful little gardens. By 4pm we are back on the road again heading north on the RN9 towards Jujuy. The road out is very narrow as we climb up the side of another extinct volcano to the appropriately named area, La Caldera, just 20 kms north. In the caldera itself a dique/dam has been built to create a reservoir and here on the northern edge we find an ideal camp spot…a few fishermen, a couple of tent camper couples, a herd of horses, a few cattle, some birdlife and us….magic…and as if to say all is now well with the world again….the sun breaks through the clouds, just before sunset. As I sit and reflect on the day with my gin and orange (still haven’t been able to find any tonic water), I keep coming back to the fact that we just don’t work well in towns and cities…it is I am afraid mainly my fault…I just don’t enjoy the hustle and bustle….I even less appreciated the unwillingness of the staff at the restaurant we had at lunch time to move on the hawkers, child beggars and shoeshine boys that constantly interrupted our meal….you would think after all our time in Indonesia and the poorer Asian countries in general we would be more tolerant of this…maybe it is an age thing…I really just don’t need or appreciate the hassle.
We woke to a beautiful sunny blue sky day. The stars during the night had been fantastic and again we thanked our good fortune for being out of the city in such a picturesque spot. We were in no particular rush, so we whiled away the morning doing stuff and reading. About 11.30 we thought we had better make a start on the day, so packed up and headed north again on the RN9….this next section of road turned out to be the most twisty windy yet. For nearly 30 kms we wove in and out and around the valleys, featuring beautiful flora… a sub-tropical rainforest area in such stark contrast to the barren volcanic areas we had been travelling through for the previous 10/14 days. As we dropped down again into the final valley we crossed the provincial border from Salta into Jujuy. The usual police checkpoint…produce passports, ownership ticket of vehicle and then we were on our way again. We stopped at a very pretty and very clean and tidy town Le Carmen. The Blonde managed to get some more info on the areas we would be travelling in for the next few days and I picked up some bread and some info from the shop owner that there was a festival starting in Humahuaca tomorrow. This duly shaped our decision to bypass Jujuy…just another Argentine provincial capital city….and push on a further 150 kms, so we could be in the now more famous town of Humahuaca for carnaval. Quebrada de Humahuaca snakes its way upward on the RN9 towards Bolivia. It’s harsh mountainous sides are in direct contrast to the vivid greens of the river valley bottom, where all manner of crops are grown.The river scoured canyon is overlooked by mountainsides whose sedimentary strata have been eroded into spectacular scalloped formations that reveal waves of colours. The palette of this Unesco World Heritage listed valley changes constantly, between shades of creamy white and rich, deep reds; the rock formations in places look like teeth, while in others they look like the backbone of some amazing beast. Dotting the valley are dusty, picturesque, indigenous towns offering food and accommodation, plus historic adobe churches, and restaurants serving locro (a stew of maize, beans, pumpkin, and meat, usually llama) and llama steaks. Humahuaca in particular is now experiencing a small tourism boom and has become a bit of a hippy capital….there are dreadlocks and tattoos on display on every street corner. The entrance to Humahuaca is a little disappointing. Again there appears to be no management or control of building works and as the town expands then very basic adobe style shacks are appearing everywhere…it is also extremely dusty. But once you have worked your way through the outskirts and passed the bus station you arrive in the old quarter, with quaint cobbled streets and buildings dating back to the 16th century. We managed to find quite a nice camp…eventually after two false starts….a little further out of town than we would have liked and up a quite steep hill. It is in fact only a kilometre and a half back into the main square but we are back up to 10,000ft again and the altitude kicks in. All set….we walked back into town and started to survey the surroundings. A very basic but interesting fruit and veggie market…reminded us very much of Indonesia….and then a clothes market…all strung out along the now abandoned railway tracks and station. In to the town square and there are a number of very pretty colonial buildings, well maintained and real stand outs amongst what I now refer to as the “shabby chic” adobe style/built town houses, with their large wooden doors, more often than not painted green and the wooden shuttered windows all with iron grills covering them….the grills were designed for style not for security necessarily. The walls are also adorned with various forms of graffiti, from the political stencils to the shameful “tagging” and then the layer upon layer of posters that have built up over time and been weathered or attempts have been made to remove, which has added to the “ambience". From a photographic viewpoint it does add some colour and interesting subject matter. Back at camp we settled down to a late meal and then to plan our attack for the next couple of days…and then it was bedtime…another day gone so quickly.