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 Kurt.Merkert@web.de    Translated from German by Zoe.Cross@gmx.net



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

Wednesday, Day 20.
Valle de la Luna
Our wake-up call is at 5:45 am, as we want to set off early and we have a good hour's drive in front of us until the Val de la Luna, the Moon Valley, the third on our journey. Every country has its moon valley. This one lies in the Ischigualasto National Park. The park is particularly known world-wide for dinosaur findings, although these areas are not accessible to the public. Ever since the park was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is only permitted to drive through the park with a guide.
This is why we are at the entrance very early and can be part of the first car convoy. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have the best guide. He seems to see his task just as a job and not exactly as a passion. He rushes through the park so fast that we actually lose him. However, this means we can determine our own speed for the rest of the time.
Sphinx
Bowling lane
Mushroom
In Valle de la Luna
Maras (pampas hares)
The stone formations are indeed impressive. Apart from the layers of earth which lie in front of us like an open book, the stone figures are the main interest. You can recognise everything very well, from a sphinx, a bowling course, to a toadstool and even E.T. While all other vehicles have long since left the park, we even discover maras (desert cavies - dolichotis patagonum) which even let themselves be photographed. Back again at the information centre, we have our lunch break and visit an exhibition where a student gives a illustrative explanation about the dinosaur excavations.
Now it is not far any more to the camp site at Talampaya Canyon. This is a really windy place. The tents are erected in the storm, and secured with stones. Everyone makes doubly sure that the tents are sealed. Talampaya is notorious for its spiders as big as the palm of your hand.
All set for the sunset
Sunset in Talampaya
National Park
Our evening meal is bound to seem very well seasoned today; at any rate, there will be a lot of sand involved in digesting it. It is ratatouille with mashed potato and chopped beef from the hind quarters. We are the only ones on the camp site, as indeed, it appears that nobody else seems to be camping at all. Except for one occasion, we are always the only ones camping during our entire trip. When we return to our tents, sand has gone everywhere even inside our tents. This red dust just knows no boundaries.
Today at last, we have the wonderful sunset we have been anticipating for days. As it grows dark, the night is lit up by the eyes of many different four-legged creatures hoping to benefit from some edible scraps.
 
Thursday, Day 21.
Will there be any break-
fast left for me?
The first of us are awake around 6am. The spiders have not made an appearance with anyone. This must belong to one of the typical exaggerations made by tour guides or other travel journals which you find on the Internet. Today's breakfast is watched by a fox, again hoping that he will gain something from us. Today, we have a bit more time, as there are no showers due to a lack of facilities, and because we are waiting for the rangers who have to accompany us through the park here too.
 
Walk in
Eduard Canyon
The rock formations
are amazing
How small we
humans are!
Sand dunes in the
Talampaya Canyon
Something other than
cacti flowers for a change
A ranger then appears at 8am. He has switched the programme around somewhat and wants to take us on a walk to the Eduard Canyon this morning. We will not go to Talampaya, our main interest, until this afternoon. Apparently, the light is better for taking photographs then. In contrast to the one from yesterday, we are lucky to have this ranger. You can tell immediately that his heart is in this work. We walk through a landscape whose massive red rock faces remind me strongly of the formations in the west of the USA. However, flora and fauna here are very different. We see mating condors, pampas hares, and - unfortunately, only the tracks of ostriches.
The chimney
 
How does nature
manage such shapes?
Bottle and monk
 
The enormous cathedral:
150m high and 400m wide
Around noon, our trek finishes at the camp site. We eat and then have time until 4pm, when we are collected by a small van to make the drive to the Talampaya Canyon. Now we head for the well-known sights such as the chimney, a 200m tall chimney stack worked into the rock by nature. The edges are so sharp and straight that it is impossible to imagine how nature managed that. Further inside the canyon, you can see the bottle and the monk - the older ones among us might tend to think more of Viagra. The most impressive of nature's statues however is the huge red wall of the cathedral, 150m high and 400m wide. A bit further on, we also stop at petroglyphics (stone etchings) from pre-historic times.
The end of a beautiful day
And as if this had not consumed enough film material, we have another wonderful sunset again this evening. With the onset of darkness and using our torches and lamps attached to our foreheads, we suddenly see them: spiders, not exactly the size of my hand, but very impressive, as they do not exist like that in Europe. These animals are unbelievably fast, buried as they are in the sand during the day and only appearing in the coolness of the night.
 
 
Friday, Day 22.
In the lost city
Life wins
The first are awake around 4am. By 5am, they have managed to wake up everyone else, and by 5:30, more or less everyone is up. This means taking down the tents in the dark and making sure that none of the spiders appear and are packed with the tents by mistake. A bite would be very unpleasant and painful. Today, there is no water in the men's showers, but that does not matter. Hans ventures bravely into the women's area, which leads to a dispute with Petra. So we have quite an atmosphere going by early morning already.
 
We have discovered
the lizzard in spite of its
perfect camouflage
Walk in the lost city
Another part of the Talampuya national park is now on our programme. After a short drive, we exchange our lorry/bus for two open jeeps and charge through the desert on them for a good hour. Since it is still quite cold in the early morning, we are all frozen by the time we arrive and glad that we can now go to the "Ciudad perdita", the lost city, on foot. This is a gorge of several square kilometres, where the wind has chiselled a variety of rock formations. The difference between now and the past days however is that here, the stone is more brown than ochre.
 
A view to the
lost city
We now walk for three hours through this landscape. As we have already seen shapes of a similar kind in the past two days, we can focus our attention on the details and on photography.
Around noon, we are brought back to the entrance, where Heidi has prepared lunch in the meantime. Now it is two hours' drive to San Augustin de Valle Fértil, with a building site on the road there almost 50km long! We are on a camp site again - the last one of the trip - but with not quite so much dust. However, by now, you do not really know any more what is clean and what is dirty anyway. After a shower, I go to make a telephone call and find an Internet café, but, for the first time, the connections here are very bad.
 
 
 
Saturday, Day 23.
I have had a difficult night. Manfred had been exiled and had to sleep far away from the other tents because of his snoring. Hans had also slept separately after his wife had said that he also snored strongly. The rest camped quite close together. In the midst was Karin. Until now, she had not been noticed because of the other two. However, last night she showed that women too can snore - and no mistake.
Today we were meant to walk to the settlement La Majatida seven kilometres away, but since some have foot complaints or are fighting other ailments, we decide to drive their with a collective taxi and merely to take on the way back on foot. The choice of footwear poses a big problem, as there are said to be several river crossings. When we drive off and come to the first ford - completely dry - we gain a first inkling of what the river crossings will be like.
Maté in the village
store in Majadita
Horses still take the
place of cars here
Beautiful flower
Lagoon Dique
San Augustin
In La Majadita, we visit the only village shop and all enjoy a round of maté. The village gives you the impression that tourists come here only very rarely. There are no cars here, either. Horses and donkeys still represent the mode of transport here. The way back is more or less a sand track for cars. However, it is possible to take several good photos of plants in bloom. It gets increasingly warmer, so that we are glad to arrive back at the camp site by noon. It is absolutely impossible to do anything until 4pm, that is how hot it is.
Drinks consumption
of 12 people

After that, we take a trip around the lagoon Dique San Augustin near the camp site, located in a beautiful setting.
 
As this is our last night of camping, we mark this process in a suitable manner. Our drinks provisions sink rapidly. It is the first time on this trip that I participate, and as a consequence, I am not really on form for the entire next day. One of these wine glasses must have been bad.
 
 
Sunday, Day 24.
The tents are stashed away for the last time. Today, we have to cover a driving distance of 460km to Mendoza. I am to doze through most of this. To cap everything, the road is almost completely straight for the first two hours, but the surface is very, very undulating. You feel as if you are far out at sea with a strong swell, and that is after yesterday's party.
Today, our only stop is Difunta Correa. Difunta Correa! What is that? In a travel guide, it says that this is the most ludicrous pilgrimage destination in the world. This is surely an understatement. You just have to have seen this. In 1841, a woman called Deolinda Correa was on her way with her infant to see her husband, who was in prison somewhere. On the way there, she died of thirst underneath a tree, or rather, underneath a cactus; there are no trees in the desert. When they found the deceased woman, the child was still alive and sucking on her breast. The site of this "miracle" has become the largest pilgrimage destination in South America. Every Argentinean has to come here once. Today, on Sunday, it seems that there is a particularly large number of visitors here to pray that their wishes may come true. When they have come true, they come again to donate gifts of gratitude, and this is exactly what is so appealing to us. Well, a woman who has asked for a husband may not actually deposit him here, but at least the wedding dress should join the others in the hall of wedding dresses. And so, depending on the wish, there are model houses, vehicles - as models and as originals - a house with pictures of horses and trophies, all imaginable kinds of kitsch, and countless figures of Correa. She is available in all sizes, even as a large wall painting. Moreover, so much jewellery has been donated by now that a hotel has been built from the proceeds of 80kg of gold. With food available too, the atmosphere is like being at a popular festival here.
Difunta Correa
 
Unbelievable!
 
Even food is catered for
 
Somebody has drawn
a painting out of gratitude
The hall of
wedding dresses
After our lunch break - in order, the location is right after the rubbish tip on day 19 - we drive straight on without a stop to Mendoza, a metropolis of several million. This city has as many trees as it has inhabitants and is therefore the first really green city of our trip. However, everything has to be irrigated artificially. We check into a hotel, use the afternoon heat break once more for washing, and then venture out at 5pm for a walk around the city as it starts to come to life.
As we gather for our evening meal, it turns out that nobody has taken any photos. The cities here just do not have much to offer. They lack the buildings from previous centuries which, for us Europeans, simply belong to a good city picture.
 
Monday, Day 25.
In Mendoza
This morning, our departure is at 8am, to the large park St Martin, Mendoza's picnic and leisure area in the middle of the city. This is a wonderful large park area. There is even a rowing section and a lake which is not all that small, but everything is irrigated artificially. Countless attendants are sweeping and collecting rubbish everywhere. They try to keep the park tidy, but this is not at all easy, considering the Argentineans' careless way of treating litter. We drive to Cerre de Gloria with an enormous statue of St Martin. Unfortunately, we have to miss out the good view which we expected up there over the area, due to thick cloud in the mountains.
Back in the city centre, we have two hours' time to take a closer look at it. However, since we had already ticked this off yesterday, most spend the time in a café again. Around noon, we drive to an old wine cellar at the city's edge. This is more of a museum than a flourishing business. Nevertheless, it still provides evidence of the amazing riches which were shared here once between a few families.
Echinopsis tubiflora
Not a cactus flower,
for a change
Giant-Lobivie,
sobrensia formosa
Giant-Lobivie,
sobrensia formosa
After our lunch, we leave Mendoza and approach the Andes via the extensive low-lying plateau at low level. This stretch is to be the most abundant in cacti of the entire trip. Thus, various stops are inevitable. However, the further and the higher we come, the more difficult these stops become. We crawl up the Andes on a gravel path with countless curves and which has only one track in many parts. Beside us, steep mountain sides, relieved of the burden posed by any guard rails, lead breathtakingly to the depths below. Many vehicle wrecks which we can see lying below, bear testimony to the peril of this route. A Citroen has even been compressed like a veritable accordion. We reach the mountain pass Cruz de Paramillo at 3035m altitude. Here again, we experience wind at storm's strength. Used to this by now though, it does not matter to us. What is worse is that the high mountains of the Andes are in the cloud. So, unfortunately, we have to miss a panorama 120km wide. On the other side of the pass, the route goes down to Uspallata through wonderful mountain sides. We regret having spent so much time in Mendoza this morning. We should have taken a 2-3 hour hike here instead.
Cruz de Paramillo
3.035 m
Village map
of Uspallata
Uspallata! This is a town like in the Wild West. It consists of a crossing, no more. However, so as to avoid people losing their way, a massive street map stands here. We are accommodated in one of the two hotels here. It is called Grand Hotel, well, we will see.
I want to explore the area a bit further, but the storm drives me back to the hotel after 5 minutes. At around 8pm though, we do have to venture out as we need dinner. The search for the restaurant, where we reserved our dinner by telephone, turns out to be extremely difficult. How is this possible, as there is only this one crossing? The restaurant burned down, and the number was given to another. So we go to this one. It turns out that we are the first ever travellers' group here. The service and the food are to be the best of the entire journey. On our march back, part of the group makes a stop in the Café Tibet. The film "Seven years in Tibet" was made here. Not a single take came from the Himalayas.
 
Tuesday, Day 26.
Cementerio de los
Andinistas
We want to start out early as we do not know how easily we will manage the traffic in Santiago on the way to the hotel this evening. However, 6:30am is far too early for the hotel staff for taking breakfast. After our start at 7am, we only manage 100 metres before being stopped by the police. Yesterday's storm came down as snow in the Aconcagua region, so the pass route to Chile is closed for the moment. Thanks to Ralph's powers of persuasion that we only want to go walking, we are allowed to drive on and do not have to wait in the valley for the pass to clear again.
The hotel at
Punta del Inca
View from a hotel room
 
There was even running
water in the rooms
We then make our first proper stop at the "Cementerio de los Andinistas," a cemetery for mountaineers who suffered fatal accidents in the Aconcagua region. Here already, there is fresh snow everywhere. There is a further stop at the "Punta del Inca," a natural bridge across the valley. As there are hot springs here, a crazy man tried to build a hotel here about 80 years ago. However, the water came inside faster than the guests, whereupon he took his life. Since then, nature has created an interesting ruin.
There is even a snack
bar here
At the foot of Aconcagua
We drive on to the foot of Aconcagua, which is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas at 6962m. Only the hardened ones among the group walk to the look-out point in an hour; for the rest, it is too cold and stormy. With the fresh snow, the almost 4km high south-facing wall looks even more impressive. Now for a blue sky! But it is very beautiful here even like this.
 
Back at our vehicle, we have lunch, destroying whatever remains of fresh fruit, meat, cheese or sausage.
 
Aconcagua 6.982 m
Endless serpentine
roads on our descent
It is forbidden to import this to Chile. Meanwhile, with the pass route open, we drive on to the border nearby. We need 1 ½ hours for the border controls here. It is unbelievable what chaos reigns here. It is much worse than formerly on the border to Eastern Germany. Once we are allowed to pass through at last, Ralph displays Michael Schumacher-style how fast you can drive to Santiago in a lorry / bus. We actually manage to arrive in the hotel before the traffic jams build up on a nightly basis. In the evening, the Chileans are bent on showing us that their food portions are by no means smaller than those of the Argentineans.
 
Wednesday, Day 27.
In Santiago
The smog does not
permit us to say
goodbye to the Andes
At 8:30am, we depart for our tour of the city. The horse race track gives us an impression of the flair existing at the time of the change from the 19th into the 20th century. The poverty of the population stands in contrast here to the legendary wealth of a few. Back in the city centre, Manfred is lost at the historic hill "Santa Lucia". He is bound to be standing in front of somebody's lens again. We take lunch in the old market halls. After the usual sights such as the Plaza de Armas, the church San Francisco and the presidential palace, we make our way back to the hotel. We take the public bus for this. You have to have experienced this. The drivers are paid by the number of rounds they make. Accordingly, we race through the city. Merchants selling ice-cream sellers, cigarettes and all sorts of other things, and even music groups enter the bus at the stops, all with the objective to have done business by the next stop.
In the evening, we take our evening meal in the same restaurant as on the day before. Wiser now from yesterday's portions, we order less today.
 
Thursday / Friday, Day 28/29.
Late in the morning, we drive to the artists' district "Pueblo Artesanal Los Dominicos," an old cloister where the last souvenirs have to be bought. The market really is worth seeing, though. Most of the goods on sale really are artists' items and are not tourist kitsch.
Then we struggle again through the city to the airport, where the flight home takes off punctually at 7:30pm with LAN-Chile and proceeds without any incidents. In Madrid, we have the stop-over which we know from the journey out. However, this time, we are entering the EU here. Everything is inspected again. A single person is in charge of the entire large airbus. If they worked like this in Frankfurt, it would be the equivalent of a strike, and the entire flight traffic would collapse. Late in the afternoon on Friday, we land in Frankfurt, and I embark on my final stretch home by metro train.
 
Conclusion: This was a very good journey through three wonderful countries, although I think there was a bit too much driving. If there were more possibilities for walking, the journey would be much more impressive still. If they cut the visits to wine cellars and shortened the time spent in the cities, there would be enough time.
This may just be my subjective impression of the trip, but one thing is certain for all of us: South America will see us all again.


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