Chile and Argentina part 5

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April 30th 2018
Published: April 30th 2018
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April 2 and it is time to move on. Our next destination is Purmamarca, a small town about 380 km north of Cafayate. Getting back to Salta was easy enough - there was a bit of a slowdown when we had to wait for a bus vs car accident to be cleared. One of the very friendly cops on site suggested that we take a photo of the accident scene!

Kelly has an app on his phone and iPad ( that has allowed us to plot our routes and then allow us to use real time navigation. Using this app to get from Salta to Purmamarca, it mapped out our route right through the city and onto national highway 9. As soon as we got onto the highway though, big question marks started popping out of our heads. It was such a twisty, barely 2 lane road. In fact many corners were one way. There is no way this could be the main highway to Chile with buses and trucks using it. Three hours later when the road finally straightened out, we realized we had just driven the old highway - also known as the rain forest road. It was
incredibly scenic with huge leafy trees and vines, occasional herds of horses, cows and donkeys as well as the occasional Caracara foraging on the shoulders.

The main highway to Chile runs right by the little village of Purmamarca which is accessed by a dusty, bumpy road. It is the first settlement in the Quebrada de Humahuaca and is known for its Cerro De Los Siete Colores or hill of seven colours. I am not sure about the 7 colours but definitely many shades of red, yellow and green on the hills surrounding. I am guessing that tourism is the main industry with many restaurants and gift shops (many with high quality items) as well as a daily market in the main square selling Andean products (we are getting pretty close to Bolivia now). This market was quite timely as it had turned very cold and I was able to buy a cheap scarf for some added warmth. Our hotel (El Refugio de Coquena) was fabulous and only a short walk from the dusty streets which were lined with adobe buildings that formed the village. Restaurants opened at 8pm so we were pretty hungry by the time we ate - pizza and a tamal. The late dinner hour turned out to be very common in this area.

All the literature suggested that morning is the best time to see the colours in Purmamarca so we were up for sunrise, but that was a bit of a non event. We discovered that we had got better photos the afternoon before - the morning sun seemed to wash the colours out. Thank goodness for digital cameras though - the scenery was unbelievable.

As our next destination of Humahuaca was only one hour away, we decided to take a bit of a detour to the salt flats of Salinas Grandes - 60 km west along national highway 52. What we did not know was that this route (the main highway to Chile) climbed 2000 m to an elevation of 4,170m up an incredibly switch backed road before descending into the plains that contained the salt flats. Such a flat and white expanse. Apparently a few years ago it was possible to just drive onto the flats and explore but there were a lot of problems with garbage and vehicles going where they shouldn’t so now access is restricted to tours. We were one car in a caravan of five vehicles (it cost 200 ARS per car) that went onto the salt road with a guide. Fortunately for us there was a woman from Buenos Aires who spoke great English in our group as she was able to act as translator for the Spanish only explanations. We were told of the various ways the salt was mined and spent some time at the rectangular pools which were cut to allow salt crystals to be left behind after evaporation. Then it was onto another area where the salt crust was very fragile and time for some “perspective” photos. Definitely a worthwhile excursion.

The drive back to Purmamarca was relatively quick as it was mostly downhill. A late lunch of empanadas and pastel de choclo and then back on the road heading north. There was a beautiful coloured hill side (known as the Painters Pallet) in Maimara and then we arrived in Humahuaca- and that was a bit of a shock to say the least. Good old directed us to the side of the small town and then along a very bumpy dirt road with some very nondescript buildings - where the heck are we? But there was our hotel - a lovely adobe styled building Munay Humahuaca. Once again, zero English was spoken and while my Spanish is getting a wee bit better I am only understanding about 1/10 of what is said. We got directions to the center of town and were very relieved after a 15 minute walk to discover that there was a very attractive village for us to explore. Cobbled streets laid out in a grid with simple adobe buildings. We were somewhat surprised to notice that we were both a bit out of breath climbing the stairs at the end of the town square and belatedly we decided to check the elevation - 3012 m!

April 4 and we finally managed to arrange to get some badly needed laundry done. When you are travelling light (my backpack was less than 7kg) you wear the same things a lot. The main square was very quiet and very few stalls were open (maybe tourist season is over) and there not a lot of food options. Fortunately, in our somewhat grotty end of town, the local market was happening and we managed to buy some delicious deep fried empanadas for lunch.

The highlight of Humahuaca was the Serrania de Hornacal or Hill of 14 colours which was located 25km away on a supposedly well graded gravel road. Most of the long switchback climb was OK but there were some sections which were more suited to a 4x4 but our little rental car did just fine. I would not like to be here in the rainy season as it looks like the whole area would wash down on you. We finally reached the top and the view was just stunning - in fact it put all the other coloured rock areas to shame. I still look at the photos I took and marvel that they are real!! It took a lot of googling to find out why the rocks are the colours they are and most believable explanation was the following: as the Andes have been uplifted and rivers have cut down, rocks of different types and ages have been exposed. The older metamorphic rocks are the dark greens and greys while the white and light grey are limestone that formed in shallow marine environments (the Quebrada de Conchas south of Salta was so named because of the conch shells that were found there). Finally, the reds, oranges, purples and yellow are sedimentary rocks. The other feature of this area that makes the hills look so spectacular are the “flat irons” - so named because the shape of the eroded face of the ridges looks like the bottom of an iron.

While I was busy admiring the view and contemplating walking down to another viewpoint, Kelly went off to find the toilet and came back complaining of slight lightheadness - we were now at 4350 m which is pretty darn high and there were signs around warning of the dangers of high altitude. Needless to say, we did not do any extra exertion other than drive a little further along for another vantage point.

April 5. While we ate breakfast we discussed whether it would have been a better idea to have stayed in Purmamarca and done a day trip (a long day of driving) to the Hornacal. The question was answered as we headed south later in the morning. As the highway runs north south, the hills and valleys on the east side of the road look better with the afternoon sun on them while those on the west side, come to life in the morning light. Those westerly hills were now a spectacular sight of pink and yellow, whereas they they had looked like nothing when we had driven north in the afternoon a couple of days ago. Similarly, the hills at Maimara were very drab in the morning as they were on the east side of the valley. So.... in order to fully appreciate this area, a minimum couple of days is needed so that you can use the light to your advantage and really appreciate the colours.

Our return drive to Salta was on the new highway which was mostly straight! Just before we reached the turnoff to Purmamarca, there was a bit of a delay as a whole bunch of taxis were parked in the middle of an intersection - obviously some sort of protest. The police finally got them out of the way (or maybe they moved of their own accord) and we were off again. As we approached the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, we realized that the gas gauge had not moved for a while and we had done a lot more kms than the last
time we had put gas in. So we took a random exit and found ourselves in a shopping street of a real town (no adobe buildings here). After asking “gasolina?”, we were told to go straight and then right. And sure enough, there was the gas station. Whew!!! As it turned out, the gas gauge was correct - we are getting great mileage in this little car.

The car rental office in Salta opened at 4pm so we checked into Casa La Teresita first and then dropped the car off. It was nice being back in a city we were familiar with. As this was our last night in Argentina we planned on having a Parrilla (grilled meat) for dinner but as we had to wait til 8pm for that, we decided to have a coffee and a picada for a snack. The picada was HUGE - cheeses, pickles, meats, bread - enough for four people so needless to say, that was dinner.

We still had some Argentinian pesos left and as we could not get rid of them in Canada, we were very relieved to discover a street of money changers - so we were able to exchange them for USD.

Next stop:Chile


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