Bolivia - Chile - Argentina

A Journey to the Colours of the Atacama Desert and of the Andes

A journey offered by Condor Tours
1st October - 29th October 2004

A travel journal by    Translated from German by

review 1st - 9th day 10th - 19th day 20th - 29th day route equipment print version homepage

Sunday, Day 10.
Desert at Calama
Church in
San Pedro
At 6:15 am, it is time to get up, and this on a Sunday. To cap it all, the night was one hour shorter. Today is the day for changing to summer time. That also has its advantages, though. Thanks to the hour we have gained, the colours are better for photography. Due to the heat, you can effectively only take good photographs in the early morning or in the early evening.
We are therefore in San Pedro de Atacama very early and want to visit the archaeological museum. However, they are struggling with the time change there too, and the museum is not yet open. Heidi uses this to show us the village post box at the post office next door. This is necessary, as we would not have recognised it as such otherwise. The museum lives up to its superb reputation and illustrates clearly the history in Atacama. We are particularly impressed by Miss Chile xx years before our time, a female mummy still remaining in best condition.
Miss Chile
before our time
Roadside café in San
Pedro, consisting of
2 chairs
Afterwards we can stroll through the city, which is full of tourist shops. The items on sale though are more or less identical so that it suffices to visit only a few of them. The church San Pedro with its white adobe tiles is more interesting, from where today, on Sunday, wonderful choral music can be heard far beyond the public space in front of the church. Sadly, we discover upon entering the church that the music just comes from a hifi system. Then we are forced by our hunger pangs back to the camp site where we have to put up the tents before lunch. The camp site is a grass site, the sanitary installations are ok, and this is to remain the case; we are the only guests. Most of us spend the early afternoon writing post cards. Everyone wants to put their cards in the village letter box because we are told there will be no further chance to do so before Santiago. So it's down to the letter box which we had seen earlier. There I meet Hans and Gerda who have just thrown their post into the box. Just as I am about to do the same, a local explains to me that this letter box belongs to an administrative authority and that the post office has moved. All attempts at retrieving the postcards fail, and our hope that somebody will throw the cards into the proper letter box on Monday are not exactly high - with a bureaucratic authority and bureaucratic staff, that just cannot work. None of the cards will ever reach Germany.
Midday break
in San Pedro
In the Death Valley
When did it
last rain here?
Valle de la Luna
(Moon Valley)
Wandering on a
shifting sand dune
At 4pm, we drive to the nearby Death Valley, with its bizarre red rock formations. The further one walks into the valley, the more numerous and beautiful the sand dunes become. However, we are a little bit too early, due also to the time change. The sun is still too high to let the colours glow properly. We still want to see the sunset in Valle de la Luna (Moon valley). Several stops on the drive there each grant fantastic views onto ever changing landscapes. We then experience the sunset with several hundred tourists, who all want to take the same famous photo. Most of them shift position and make it up one of the sand dunes - that is perhaps where the expression "shifting sand dunes" comes from - and then sit at the top in rows like pigeons roosting. Unfortunately, today's sunset does not offer quite what most postcards show. We keep our distance and empty 2 bottles of Pisco Sour as a sun downer drink - this makes our descent much more amusing.
Volcano Licancabur
in the last light
Back at the camp site, we go straight into the town to have our evening meal which here too is very good. At 9:30pm, we crawl into our tents for a short night, as our wake-up call is set for 3:15am. At this god-forsaken hour, we are to go the geysers at El Tatio. However, the night is even shorter than we thought. When we had left the restaurant we had already noticed that there was a great deal of activity. Four consecutive public holidays are scheduled to commemorate the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Then, at 10pm, a disco starts next to the camp site. None of us sleeps a wink before 2am, and after that, the Chileans party on in their own homes into the early morning. Of course, we are not around to see that, as we have to rise at 3:15am.
Monday, Day 11.
Dressing takes more time today, not because of the early hour, but because clothes need to be put on in layers today. Everyone puts on several on top of the other. Today, we are told, there will be everything, from freezing cold to heat. At 4am, using a small bus belonging to a local travel operator, we take on the 100km to the geyser field El Tatio, which lies at an altitude of 4150m. The drive is in complete darkness, on a gravel track. Whenever it becomes too bumpy, we just rush ahead off-piste. Inside the bus, it grows colder and colder, and by the time we arrive, 2 ½ hours later, the outside temperature is -10°C. All around us, the combined hissing, steam and the smell literally take our breath away.
While our guide boils eggs in the geyser and defrosts the frozen milk, we try to make the first photographs in the dark. Most of our cameras start to go crazy, however. I just continue shooting even though the display no longer shows anything.
Geysir field
in El Tatio
The first rays of the sun
Boiling eggs in a highly
unusual fashion
Breakfast at -10°C
Geysir in El Tatio
The water is pleasantly
You just do not know what to shoot first, the high columns of steam, the bubbling holes, or our freezing group members who all run over to have breakfast because there they can at least warm their hands a bit with the boiled eggs. When the sun rises, the colours become even more spectacular, but the steam columns start to fade away in the sun's rays, thereby following the laws of physics. At rapidly rising temperatures - 0°C is now quite warm for us already - we wander over to a bathing pool. The ensuing scene should certainly not be considered typical; only the women from our group get into the water, not a single man!
The return journey afterwards becomes a real pleasure trip. With plenty of time for numerous photo stops, the journey takes us over a splendid plateau with a surprisingly rich and varied animal world, given the barren nature of the landscape. We see 2 rheas, vicuñas, flamingos, Andes geese and, at the town Machuca with its pretty church and adobe tiles, some very beautifully decorated llamas. With the volcanoes providing the backdrop, the lakes in the foreground and cacti whichever way you look, this all generates the impression for me that one could easily spend two weeks in San Pedro.
Always impressive:
the endless desert
Male llama
Church in Machuca
Flamingos in the
foreground of Licancabur
Cactus in the foreground
of Licancabur
At around 1pm - it is hot by now - we arrive back at our camp site. Now it is time for a shower. Whoever wants warm water will have to wait until 5pm, but a cold shower is really pleasant in this heat. We have nothing else planned for the rest of the day. This evening it is a DIY meal. There is hake with rice and sesame in coconut milk sauce. After the previous short night, everyone goes into their tent with a certain amount of scepticism with regards to a peaceful night, taking the second public holiday into consideration.
Tuesday, Day 12.
Salar de Tatar
Flamingos in
Salar de Tatar
The Chileans fail to keep up the standard which we could have expected after the first night. Four consecutive public holidays, but they let their side down after only the first day. We therefore have a peaceful night until our wake-up call at 5:30am. The tents are folded away under a fantastic starry sky. We have our breakfast while it is still dark and hit the road straight afterwards. Today we are to cross the border to Argentina. The border is quite an issue. It is on the Sico pass at an altitude of 4079 metres. Since it is difficult to live up there, the Chileans have simply placed the border formalities at the end of the town San Pedro de Atacama, 210 km before the border.
Lagoon de Tuyajito
Landscape in front
of the Sico Pass
Thanks to our early hour of departure, we are the first and pass through quickly. Then we are off. With the enormous area Salar de Atacama always on our right-hand side and flanked on our left by snow-covered volcanoes almost 6000m high, the sheer expanse of the landscape is wonderful. Somebody asks for a general purpose break (a pee break used instead for photography) every few minutes. As we have 370 km to go today, with 270 km on gravel paths, Ralph would otherwise not have stopped so often. Then we come to Salar de Talar. This is the first salar containing salt water. It lies in a beautiful setting amidst the mountains and is inhabited by pink flamingos. One more lagoon, the Laguna de Tuyajito with its silvery sheen, and then the road snakes its way up to the Sico Pass.
Border on the Sico Pass
The border is marked by an iron frame. Other than that, there is nothing to see. The Argentinean border station lies another 15km ahead and thus quite a bit further down. We have our midday break right on the border. However, we have to prepare our food inside the bus. Outside, a storm is blowing which is only useful for drying the tents, which we could not dry this morning. Since it is very cramped in the bus, Urli, Manfred and I abstain from helping in the kitchen and cross into Argentina on foot. However, we are collected by our bus before the border station. At the border station, there are 12 men sitting here with a television, but we are all surprised to have all formalities completed quite quickly. There has been no vehicle passing through here for three days (the main traffic goes via the Paso Juma to the north), and everything is finished after half an hour.
What is going on here?
The meal has to be
prepared inside the
bus because of the storm
Now in Argentina, we drive for several more hours - at times at walking speed - on dusty tracks to San Antonio des los Cobres, where we check into a small hotel. Here it is now time for a major dusting down. Nobody wants to go into the town; at 3770m altitude, it is by now bitterly cold, and besides, the wind is still blowing at a gale strength. With all the dust blowing, you can hardly see anything; instead, everyone is looking forward to our first evening meal in Argentina. It tastes very good, and the portions are massive. Here is just a list of the dessert: cheese with jam, maize with jam (like polenta), caramel pudding and pancakes. Whoever wants to have their meal with beer - which is very good, by the way - beware: the bottle size in Argentina is 1 litre.
Wednesday, Day 13.
Today we do not have to get up until 7am, but there is some morning exercise due before breakfast. The gravel road yesterday was too much for our spare wheel suspension. It has broken, so we have to heave the wheel, which weighs 110kg, onto the luggage compartment.
A family of 5 lives here
Salar Grande
We drive over the raised plateau in the direction of Salar Grande. Our first stop is at a farmer family known to Ralph and Heidi. Here we are made acutely aware of how hard the living conditions are for the people living here. It is scores of kilometres to the neighbours, but they cannot afford a car, and they need two days for a visit to the doctor. Schooling is compulsory in Argentina, but I ask myself whether the people know that here.
Straight afterwards, the lorry/bus drives onto the enormous area of the salt lake (double the size of Lake Constance) Unfortunately, the attribute "whiter than Persil soap powder" promised us is not really the case. Due to the previous storm, the various salt formations look as if they had been sprinkled with cinnamon. The salt is 7 metres thick and therefore has sufficient strength even to carry our heavy vehicle. Since there is hardly any other work in this region, the salt is collected from specially dug pools. We have our midday break right there on the lake. The workers have made tables and benches from the salt. They use our break to earn themselves some extra money by selling salt figures.
Collecting salt is
a hard job
The salt crust can
even carry the lorry
Road to Purmamarca
Afterwards, we drive through changing scenery. It becomes mountainous, with cacti growing on the slopes. To our tour guides' surprise, the road has an asphalt cover. We reach Purmamarca via a pass 4170 metres high. We have already noticed on our descent from the pass that almost every mountain slope has a different colour, but Purmamarca tops everything. While Heidi replenishes our food stores, the rest of the group trek - or better, stroll - to the mountain of seven-colours. A photo here can only begin to illustrate the real effect there. There is still time to visit the little Indio market, and it is even possible to stop off at a café. All this is thanks to the newly asphalted road today.
Enormous tree-
like cacti
Mountain of
seven colours
Newly fortified, we manage the remaining distance to the campsite in Tilcara. It lies at "only" 2570 metres, but by now, the altitude does not matter to us at all any more. We decide to give showers a miss this evening, as it is very, very cold despite the low altitude. Food is spaghetti with tomato sauce, something simple today after yesterday. Then I retire to my tent. However, sleep is impossible for the time being. Is today actually a German public holiday? The rest of the group has found a spot sheltered from the wind, and is having a wine-tasting session - quite loud, with singing included. Who was it again complaining about the Chileans in San Pedro? The party only ends when the light goes out.
Thursday, Day 14.
When we rise at 7am, the tents are covered with a thick layer of frost and ice. It is so cold that the campsite owner saves on our shower water this morning as well. Now we can also discover why the light went out last night. A horse grazing by itself on the campsite seems to have had an itch. In the attempt to have a scratch on the electricity mast provider, it seems to have knocked it over.
Trichocereus pasacana
Walking in the
Gorge of the Devil
Today, we take a hike to a school 600 metres higher in altitude. The school is in the mountain valley Alfarcito. The path there is flanked by great treelike cacti in bloom, which become increasingly numerous and larger the higher we go. Beside us, there is a deep valley, the Quebrada de Diablo (Devil's Gorge), into which part of the group descends, reaching a waterfall, where there is no means of going any further. By the time we reach the mountain school, it is almost noon. 18 children from the far dispersed holdings of this region are taught and supervised at the school. They receive a warm meal at lunchtime. In order to achieve this, the teacher travels 40 km!!! every day with her bicycle, and then has a one-hour ascent in front of her.
We also take our midday break here. Thanks to this break, we have not noticed how hot it has become by now. We only really become aware of it now on our descent. There is no shade anywhere, and the drinks which we have brought with us rapidly decrease. Every one tries individually to reach the campsite again as fast as possible. I am one of the last, as I do not want to miss the opportunity to take several photos of the cacti in glorious bloom. Apart from close-ups, it is not possible to take good pictures in this heat. These temperature differences! If one considers, we had minus temperatures this morning, but now it is 35°C in the shade.
Big cacti cover the
Beautiful cactus flowers
On the campsite, everyone is looking forward to coffee and cake. The campsite operator's wife has baked a pineapple cake for us. Having missed out on showers yesterday evening and this morning, a fire has been lit beneath the water container, but now everyone takes a cold shower in this heat. The rest of the afternoon is spent by most in writing their travel journal or for making a telephone call home. In Argentina, you can make very convenient, cheap telephone calls. Most shops have telephone cabins. For today's evening meal, there is an enormous pot full of potato soup. The soup would prove to have significant effects. The group's beer consumption is not quite as high any more as previously; the giant bottles from two days ago are still affecting us. Today, everyone retires to their tent early. There will be no frost tonight. Instead though, all the village's dogs have arranged for a concert at around 2am.
Friday, Day 15.
Our wake-up call is at 6:30am. There is no question of taking down the tents; they are far too wet. We therefore decide simply to leave them standing here, as we will pass Tilcara again anyway on the way back from Humahuaca, where we are headed today. We will take down the tents then and take this opportunity to have lunch on the campsite before we continue to Salta.
residence in
You see,
Tourists come
to Humahuaca
For now though, we depart for Humahuaca. The drive there goes through the Quebrada of the same name. The valley is very fertile; we can see small hold farmers tending their fields everywhere. Humahuaca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can immediately see why. The small town's population is overwhelmingly Indio in origin, the town's appearance having retained its flair from Spanish colonial times. The town has paved streets and pavements - which means that there is less dust - and has very beautiful colonial houses. The town's landmark is the "monumenta a la independencia" from 1924, which towers over the town and is meant to represent the Indio contribution to the war of independence against Spain. We have plenty of time to look around everything. Afterwards, we also stop in Uquia at the church "San Francisco de Paula," with its gold-plated altar and saint images from the Cusco school.
A child in Uquia
Back on the campsite, the tents are taken down and the rest of the excellent potato soup is eaten. Then we drive to San Salvador de Jujuy, from where a road leads to Salta which is almost a motorway by Argentinean standards. However, we turn onto an asphalt road which is almost only single-track and which will lead us to Salta in wonderful curves and bends. The landscape has changed already by the time we approach San Salvador. The colourful mountain slopes and cacti have made way now for a forest. Yes, this is the first time on this journey that we see extensive green tropical jungle, and even with trees blooming in many colours. The entire colour range is covered, from red wide-leaf erythrina (erythrina americana) to blue jacarandas. Driving past, we even see beautiful orchids on the ground. Then somebody suggests walking along the road for a bit. This suggestion comes just in time, because as we stop, I am just able to make it behind the nearest bush - the potato soup was just too much.
Red wide-leaf (Erythrina)
After the peace of the desert, the sounds of the forest now really ring in our ears. The loudest sounds come from the parrots flying over our heads.
As we arrive in Salta we make a stop at an art market. However, nobody is very keen on this any more; everyone wants to go the hotel because tonight it is time for an evening out. It is a visit to an Argentinian Peña, the counterpart to Tango in Buenos Aires. I will not be going, as it is not my sort of thing. Instead, I will do some washing and take the rest of the time out for myself. The others will probably not come back before 2 in the morning.
Saturday, Day 16.
Cathedral in Salta
In Salta Cathedral
Today we do not start out until 9:45, with consideration for the Peña-goers. We stroll through the town to the San Martin park, from where we take a ride up the San Bernardo hill by ropeway. Using a ropeway anywhere other than a high mountain range always strikes me as somewhat surreal, but 350 metres in height difference is almost an hour's march on foot. From up there, one has a very good view of the town, which has 100.000 inhabitants. San Bernardo is designed as a park area with a lot of running water and many plants which are exotic for us, but which are at home here. We walk back down the hill via a thousand-odd steps to the town. Unfortunately there has been a fire here recently so that it seems as if it is winter, as all the plants are bare of any green foliage.
Balcony dating from
the Spanish era
The Church
San Francisco
in Salta
Back in the town, we visit the church San Francisco. The cathedral is already in its midday rest period, and so we too decide to go to an Italian restaurant. The afternoon is free, and I use it to go to an internet café and afterwards to have a siesta. It is not until 5pm that the town comes back to life. I want to photograph the churches in the evening light and take a few early photos for safety. This decision turns out to be the right one; suddenly, clouds draw up and the sun is not seen again. After a walk through Salta's pedestrian zone - here the hustle and bustle is like at home two days before Christmas - we can observe the goings-on very well from a café on the square commemorating the 9th July.
In the evening, we go to an Italian restaurant again. The late hour for dinner is typical for Argentina. Not a lot happens in the restaurants before 10pm. Then you can hardly sleep with the big portions which they always serve here.
Sunday, Day 17.
The Gorge of
the Devil in
Valle de Lerma
Today it is Mother's Day in Argentina. Departure is not until 9:30am as we cannot collect our bus from the secured parking area until 9am. After the large breakfast - we could be finished in two minutes if the waiters did not need 20 minutes for the preparation - Karin, Agnes and I stroll once more through the deserted streets.
Then we start off in the direction of Cafayate. The morning does not offer anything out of the ordinary. We drive through an area where there is mainly agriculture. We have lunch in a goats' cheese dairy. The starter dish consisting of goats' cheese, each type made with a different strong herb, belongs to the best cheese I have ever eaten. After lunch, we reach the town Alemania. After 13 000 km, we have apparently arrived in Germany again.
Quebrada de
las Conchas
Camping amidst breath-
taking scenery
What a place to end
the day
After that, the landscape changes. The mountains draw closer and grow higher. We are in Quebrada de las Conchas. Now there is a stop every couple of minutes. The devil's valley lies behind a small corner at the side of the road, as if it had been sawn out of the road. Together with Urli, I try to reach the upper edge of the vertical wall via a slanting slab. However, we cautiously turn back when the prospect of landing right at the bottom again within a few seconds becomes increasingly likely. The next stop is in the amphitheatre, a round hollow where the ground's formations take on gigantic proportions. Here, Manfred gives a rendition of La Montanara because of the good acoustics. Thank goodness, he can sing. The next stop is forced on us by swarms of parrots who have picked out their homes in the rock wall. However, they do not let themselves be photographed. This valley's amazing colour diversity makes a superb profit for Agfa, Kodak, etc.
Rock formations
at the campsite
The Castillero in the
final rays of light
After the rock formation Castillero - it really looks like a fortress - we leave the road and look for a place for the night in the middle of the wilderness. It will be without any water or sanitary facilities, but instead, tucked up between red rock formations, it will be the most picturesque campsite of the journey. The tents are set up under stormy conditions and food is prepared. It is chopped beef with noodles in a sour sauce, excellent quality. As we still have time before the sun goes down, firewood from dead cacti is collected for a camp fire. I walk entirely alone through the solitude of the brilliant rock formations. It is wonderful here. The deeper the sun sinks, the more beautiful the colours become. We sit outside for a long time this evening, enjoying the atmosphere. Our rubbish is stored in the car until tomorrow morning in order to prevent it being caught by foxes, whose eyes we can see shining in the dark.
Monday, Day 18.
After a surprisingly warm night, our wake-up call is at 6:30am, as there is a wine-tasting session scheduled for this morning! Yes, you have read this correctly. At 9am in the morning. I have never done that before. The wind has calmed down. The tents are taken down, and breakfast is consumed without a sand sprinkling machine in action. Nobody really wants to leave this lovely place. Instead of the wine-tasting session, everyone would prefer to walk here for two to three more hours. However, we have to stick to the programme, as the visit to the wine cellar is a fixed appointment. It is a shame, but walking is not such a high priority for this tour operator.
Wine-tasting at 9 in
the morning!!!
It is only 17 km to Cafayate, where we drive straight to the wine cellar. With 300 sunny days in the year, it is a very good area to grow wine. Water for irrigation is taken from the hills nearby. Otherwise, this vineyard is not much different from those back home. It is predominantly red wines which are grown on an area of 300 hectares and which are also exported to Europe. In consideration of the early hour, our consumption of wine is limited at the wine-tasting, no comparison to the campsite in Tilcara.
Ruins at Quilmes
After a one-hour stop in Cafayate, we drive without a stop to the Quilmes ruins. This is not a dilapidated brewery belonging to the well-known Argentinean beer of the same name, but a ruin site of an Indian clan. The Quilmes Indians were able to defy the Spanish for a century in this site, built into a mountain slope. It is extremely dusty as we walk through the site, and we can already see a sandstorm approaching in the valley. So nearly everyone runs into the little museum which belongs to the site - an alibi, in truth they just want to go again to a café, and there is one of those inside as well. Meanwhile, I still want to take a picture of the site, but a slightly unreal-looking rock is disturbing the picture. On closer inspection, I discover it is Manfred. He is, as usual, always in the picture. If you are looking for a good photo motive, all you have to do is look where Manfred is; he is sure to appear in front of your lens. I arrive last at the café, just in time to see a llama which has lost its way, being chased out of the café by the chef with a wooden spoon.
A red-flowering cactus
We drive on, stopping briefly to visit the museum of Hector Cruz, who is also known at home. On we go then to a mountain pass which represents a meteorological boundary. And yes, all of a sudden, the pleasant weather disappears; with clouds and fog, we think we are in the Alps in bad weather. We therefore go straight to the hotel in Tafi de Vale, which we only leave once more for our evening meal. We land in a really small restaurant. The one normally used is closed today. Owner, chef, waitress and bar-keeper are combined in one person. Hoping to take a post-prandial drink to aid digestion, I point to a bottle of Cognac. I am then passed a large water glass full, much to the others' merriment. The owner means well, but it becomes apparent when it comes to paying that she does not know what to charge me for it. When we ask her, she says she has never poured a cognac for anyone before. She does not know what it is, nor even that you can drink it. She says she has only ever used it for cooking.
Tuesday, Day 19.
Today, 460 km driving distance to Rioja lie ahead of us. That is why departure is as early as 7:30am. Before that though, there is, to my mind, the best breakfast buffet of the journey, including even three different types of home-made cake. I permit myself to eat half a strawberry cake on my own.
The journey goes into the province Tucuman, continuously downhill through a pleasant mountain jungle, which would be even better if there had not been a large forest fire here a few years ago, as a result of which the jungle is now only regenerating itself. However, it is amazing how fast nature heals these wounds. Without further stops, we pass through the lowlands. We have our midday stop on a better type of rubbish area. Standing underneath a mulberry tree, we notice too late what effects this has on the ridges of the soles on our shoes. The fruits our feet have squashed have the consistency of silicone; it is a huge mess.
A red-flowering
Wild fuchsia
in Rioja
After that, we drive to Rioja without further breaks, arriving at about 4pm. The town has 110 000 inhabitants and lies in a very hot region, but does not have much to offer other than a central square. So everyone migrates very fast again to a café in order to fill the time until dinner. This is taken in a restaurant where the speciality is fried blood and liver sausages, which really taste very good.

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