P R I N T - V E R S I O N
Bolivia - Chile - Argentina
Friday, Day 1.
At 4pm, a colleague drives me straight from the office to Frankfurt airport, where I am to meet seven further fellow travellers at the LAN Chile check-in counter. Four more are to join us in Madrid. There are no problems on the journey to Madrid. The choice of dinner is made for us: there is only chicken. At 21:30 we are told in Madrid airport's transit area that there will be an hour's stop-over. We use this time to look for the other travel members. This is where I meet the only other person travelling alone apart from me. She comes from Hamburg and will share a seat with me on the coach for the next four weeks.
Saturday, Day 2.
After what in the end becomes a two-hour stop-over, we take the same airbus and start a 13-hour direct flight to Santiago, one of the longest that there are. The plane is fully booked on this leg of the flight. We land in Santiago at 8am. The Chileans take care of our passport and customs formalities very quickly - this will however change in the course of our journey - but one of our members, a woman from Munich finds that her luggage is missing. As we will be continuing our journey straight afterwards, she will only be able to be re-united with it in four days at the earliest. The journey continues punctually at 10am with another flight to Arica. Just after take-off, there is a snack - we had had breakfast just before our landing in Santiago. After a short flight we make a landing in Copiapo. Nobody boards here, but after take-off there is yet more food. Those who accept this have to hurry, because in Iquique there is yet another touchdown and the same ritual. At 2pm, we finally arrive in Arica. In Germany, it is now 8pm, and I have been awake by now for 33 hours. We are taken to a hotel, but our anticipated rest is made impossible by a loud poolside entertainer. So still no chance of sleep for us. Instead, we go to the beach or into town, so that we really fall exhausted into bed that evening.
Sunday, Day 3.
At 8am there is a breakfast buffet. This improves from minute to minute because Chilean hotels are not accustomed to guests at this hour on Sundays. At 10am, we are picked up and taken to the airport. This is the fastest check-in that I have ever experienced at a commercial airport. That is because this is the only flight this morning. The flight is fantastic and leads us in 45 minutes past snow-covered volcanoes over the Andes under a clear sky to La Paz in Bolivia.
Here we meet our travel guides Heidi and Ralph in front of the airport with their specially converted Mercedes lorry / coach. Initially one does not really notice the altitude of this airport, at 4100 metres the highest civilian airport in the world, but at the very latest when it comes to packing the luggage into the coach our hearts and respiratory systems make themselves felt, as they are now under considerably stressful conditions. After a short welcoming breakfast and an introduction to the workings of our mobile home for the next 4 weeks, we set off for the valley basin of La Paz. We want to lose considerable altitude quickly in order to make our acclimatisation easier, but "quickly" is easier said than done. We take an hour to drive through the city centre. There are crowds of people there, and today is Sunday! We land up in a hotel belonging to a Swiss man, at 3400m.H
In the afternoon, we make a 1-hour walking expedition to the Val de Luna (moon valley) with its bizarre rock formations which remind one a little of South-Tyrol earth pyramids. Although we walk slowly, we grow out of breath at every slight incline. Dinner is scheduled for 7pm. By then, as scheduled, some of us have developed headaches. The time to grow used to this altitude is simply too short. For me it is so bad that I cannot eat any of the excellent Swiss cuisine - in Bolivia - apart from some soup. My night is bad, spent with a headache and stomach ache.
Monday, Day 4.
I go to breakfast, but after that I give into my body's demands - it is quite clearly imploring me to leave out the city tour, although I am the only one who will not be going. I obtain drugs against the altitude sickness from Heidi and sleep solidly until 2pm. I then take quite a long walk in the area near the hotel almost free of symptoms. The others tell me during the evening meal that I made the right decision to spend my day that way. The noise and smog of the city was difficult enough for them, and everyone is glad that we will be leaving this huge filth-pit of a city tomorrow, although La Paz as the city with the highest percentage of Indio population in South America is very interesting. This evening, things are the other way around; I am enjoying the food, whereas some of the rest of the group have headaches.
Tuesday, Day 5.
Today we are to travel a distance of 390 km, and we are told there is a lot to see. That is why the schedule is wake-up call at 5:15, breakfast at 6, and departure at 6:45. Thanks to our early departure, we make it through the centre of La Paz easily and up to the Puna plateau (this is called Altiplano in Peru)
After a first stop at ancient burial towers, we approach Bolivia's highest mountain, Nevado Sajama, 6542 metres high in the national park of the same name. To our disappointment, the mountain is not free of clouds. We have caught one of the few days in the year when there is no blue sky here. Our mood sinks when even the volcanoes of the Lauca National Park come into view, because here too there are many clouds.
However, since we still have to cross the border to Chile and this is sure to mean a longer stop, we are hopeful that the weather will improve. First of all, we have lunch at our mobile transporter. Whatever remains of our food stores will have to be destroyed because it is not permitted to import food into Chile. We give up the remaining food at a small military base. The soldiers are overjoyed; their food is far from good.
Crossing the border goes extremely fast. Our hand luggage is x-rayed, but the coach is given only a peremptory search. Perhaps it is too unpleasant for the border officers, because now it has not only become even more overcast but also started to snow.
On the Chilean side, we are now in the Lauca National Park. Our cameras are put to full use at various stops. Despite the inhospitable weather, vicuñas (a wild breed of the llamas), viscachas (they look like hares but with long tails), flamingos, Andes geese and, again and again, the scenery with its imposing volcanoes Parinacota (6342 m) and Pomarape (6250 m) all make for superb photographic motives. We reach Lago Chungara, at 4570 m the highest point of the entire journey. Thanks to the drugs from Heidi, our travel guide, I feel as if I have been doped. The others do not feel so well.
Wednesday, Day 6.
We realise from the morning schedule (6:45 wake-up call, 7:30 breakfast, and 8:15 departure) that today's distance cannot be that long. As the youngest in the group (apart from two others, all the others are pensioners), I take more of an active role in packing the luggage into the coach and hurt myself by pulling something in my chest. This results in considerable difficulty to breathe during the next hours - at this height. For this reason, I miss out on the first three stops today. However, as soon as the first cacti can be photographed, I cannot sit back any longer. We slowly descend and reach Valle de Lluta, a valley which, like an oasis in the middle of pure desert scenery, will now lead to Arica. The further we go, the warmer it becomes.
We make a brief check-in at our hotel in Arica which we know already from our stop-over during our outward journey. Agnes is happy to find that her luggage has arrived by now. We then go straight off again; we want to visit the archaeological museum in Arica. On the way there, we stop for a meal at the roadside. Heidi has ordered Empanadas (filled pastry cases). The quality is superb, but we are covered in dust due to our position on the street.
After visiting the museum - it is very small, but illustrates beautifully life on the coast from the beginnings until today - we drive up to the historic "morro" with a wonderful view onto the city. Everyone is free to discover the city on foot until dinnertime. I use the opportunity to buy postcards. Funnily enough, you can buy them right at the post office. I also want to write them straight away, as Heidi says that, during the course of this journey, postcards can only be sent from Arica and from San Pedro de Atacama.
Before leaving for the evening meal, I use the Internet which is provided free of charge by most hotels in Chile. Then we go to the Cyclo Pup. This is meant to be a very good restaurant, but initially at least, we fail to be convinced. The food takes ages and ages so that we coin a new phrase; instead of brunch, it is "Dinnbreak" because we really fear that dinner and breakfast will be made into one meal. Then one of the male travellers is even passed a note that a woman called Paola feels attracted to him and leaves her telephone number, and we guess it must be the cook - given all this waiting.
Thursday, Day 7.
When I look down at the pool in front of my room at 6:15 am that morning, I see an interesting spectacle. The pool is surrounded by four vultures, while the swimming exercises of a cormorant are watched critically by five night herons. In the absence of trees as a nocturnal resting place in this desert region, the hotel complex must serve as a substitute.
Today we are to travel south on the completely tarmacked Pan Americana road through the Atacama desert. Dust, sand and stones are our constant companions through the seemingly endless desert, interrupted only a couple of times by green valleys crossing through from the Andes. We have our midday break at the first geoglyphics (pictures several hundred years old made of stones), at the side of our coach / lorry. We do not need to salt our food, as this is already done by the wind, which is reaching almost Patagonian strength.
Our journey is resumed after increasing the weight of our transportation vehicle by saltpetre stones which we have collected. Anyway, is our vehicle a bus or a lorry? This question should be answered soon. On the road which is almost empty of traffic, we are stopped by the police who appear from nowhere. We have been driving too fast. However, now the lorry is passed off to the police as a coach because coaches are permitted to drive at 100 rather than 70 km/hour. Now we know the answer.
The next stop is at two deserted ghost towns from the heyday of mining saltpetre, Humberstone and Santa Laura.
We wander through the site installations which are left to decay in the wind but which nevertheless allow a clear impression of how bad the working and living conditions must have been here before the cities were deserted at the end of the fifties last century, even though there was a swimming pool and a theatre here.
On we go now to the first camp site of the journey, in the "Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal," a reservation used to replenish the forests of tamarugal trees which were previously almost completely felled and used as fuel for the ovens in producing saltpetre. When we arrive at the camp site, we discover it is closed for repair work.
We have no alternative but to cut through the wire fencing with pliers and to break into the camp site. We have very good sites for the tents, although no showers or toilets, but we have the privilege of being alone. We are only alone until dinner time, though. The devil only knows how all the dogs of the area found out that there might be some loot here for them. Our driver and tour guide Ralph grills piles and piles of beef steaks and sausages. It tastes so good that you eat far more than is really good for you. This will become the only real problem for me during the trip. It is not cold here, so we can fully enjoy the clear air and the unique starry sky before we crawl into our tents for the first time.
Friday, Day 8.
At 6 am almost all of us are awake, as it was the first night in our tents and one is awoken by the brightness. Today is to be a long day of driving. But right at the outset there is a stop. We drive into Salar de Pintados, a massive saltpetre valley surrounded at the edges by mountainsides covered all over with geoglyphs. We have time to discover them during a short walk. I do not want to go back the same way and decide to make a short cut through the saltpetre desert. It is almost frightening to discover what noises the saltpetre plates make underfoot. The heat and dryness in this absolutely inhospitable and life-defying region have baked the plates brittle.
A bit further on, we make a stop at the last surviving person from a saltpetre site. He is 82 years old and has had somebody write underneath the place sign "1 inhabitant". He lives from whatever the few tourists who pass by here buy off him. Not 500 metres further on, there is a cemetery which one has to have seen. We feel as if we are part of a Western film, waiting for John Wayne to pass by at any moment.
After that, we continue without a stop until the midday break. We take our break at the Rio Los, the only river in Atacama which always holds water. However, it is more a stream than a river. Then a final stop at a truck stop - those who do not need to use the interesting toilet facilities can count themselves lucky - and then we drive almost to the edge of the world's largest copper mine, Chuquicamata. Unfortunately, it is not permitted to drive any closer, and by now, we have also learned that a tour of the mine planned for the next day must be cancelled. The mining company no longer organises any tours at the weekends. Since this was the case last year already, this item should be removed from the tour programme.
We therefore drive straight into the hotel in Calama. We have free time until 7:45 pm. Then we are to go to dinner. Before that though, there is more unpleasant news; our coach has been broken into, but luckily, Ralph came to the scene so early that nothing could be stolen. But this means half a day's stop-over here for the next day, because a spare window pane needs to be delivered from Antofagasta to replace the broken one. In spite of things, we do not let this spoil our evening meal in the restaurant "Bavaria". The food and beer are excellent, I think better even than in the real Bavaria. I go for a so-called miner's meal and get an impression of how hard the miners must work in the mines - that is how massive the portions are.
Saturday, Day 9.
Today we have free time until noon, until the lorry/coach has been repaired. After breakfast, I go into the town, but Calama only starts to wake up around 10am when the first shops open. The town does not have much to offer. Once you have seen three streets, you know all the other fifty. It is a purely industrial town. So I spend the time on the only open public area with some green until 1pm, when we venture into the surrounding region.
We drive to Lasana and visit the large ruins of Pacara from the Atacama culture period. The site lies at the edge of a large gorge, where fields are still cultivated by horse and plough as in ages past. Given that, the toilet facilities at the ruins deserve 5 stars.
A further stop is for the village Chiu Chiu. It has a very pretty Adobe church with a roof of cactus wood and is still fairly untouched, above all, there are hardly any tourists. The village does not yet have the same reputation as San Pedro de Atacama which will be our destination the next day. As a special treat, there is then a detour to a lake, and what a lake it is. In the middle of the desert, where nobody expects anything like this, there is a large hole with best quality fresh water. Research has found that the depth is at least 700m.
Unfortunately, there is such a storm blowing that we can only walk around briefly, with everyone trying desperately to keep their cameras free of the sand which is blowing around.
In the evening, we visit the "Bavaria" restaurant which we know by now, again providing enormous portions. We take whatever we cannot eat with us for the countless stray dogs. Today there is a competition between different music and dancing groups in the public space in front of the church. Both the musicians and dancers are tireless. They move almost in ecstasy, to the same recurring rhythms. We cannot stay until the end, as we are tired and want to go back to the hotel. We just do not have this physical condition.
Sunday, Day 10.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, Day 20.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.