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22 hours and 4 Adam Sandler movies later, we arrived in Salta after catching a bus at Buenos Aires’s rather seedy Retiro Bus Station. I say seedy because we were warned about the giant informal settlement next door to the station by our landlord. It reportedly houses over 100 000 people, a few of which can be seen sleeping off hangovers on the sidewalks around the station. The scenery for roughly 1250km of the way to Salta is flat. Although, I did sleep for about 5 hours of the trip and it was the middle of the night, but I did confirm with others and it is indeed true. Flat as a pancake. We arrived in Salta slightly dishevelled and were kindly collected by the owner of our next guesthouse, Tomer. An Israeli expat married to an Argentinian, Letitia. Salta is about the size of Bloemfontein and on a clear day you can see the high Andes about 25 km away.
The north is significant in Argentina’s fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule and the surrounding mountains and villages have some interesting stories about how General Belgrano won and lost numerous battles here and ultimately sent a powerful Spanish army, 4 times the size of his own, back to Europe. One of the great stories is that as the Spanish were descending onto the town of Jujuy (pronounced Hoo-Hooy), Belgrano convinced the townspeople to leave with only a few belongings and raze the town to the ground as well as spoil the drinking water. When the thirsty Spanish army arrived there was no food and no water weakening them further. Another great story is that he ordered his army to dress all the Cardon Cacti on ridges and hills in army clothing given the illusion that his force was much larger than it really was.
We didn’t get to do too many tours around Salta, but the one tour we did do was to the Humahuaca Valley, north of Salta. This area of Argentina is very scantily covered by the guide books but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth visiting nor that isn’t picturesque. To the east of the valley the land drops down into cloud forest and eventually into the jungles of Paraguay and to the west it rises steeply into the high Andes and Altiplano.
The Humahuaca Valley sits at between 2000m and 3000m and is characterized by it’s colourful mountains and tiny Andean villages. Our first stop off was at the village of Purmamarca on the road to Chile. The village is set in front of the Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colours) a spectacular hill, the sides of which are layered in different pastel colours. The little adobe village bustles with tourist traffic but quietens down once the busses depart.
Further on up the valley we passed the town of Tilcara and the reconstructed ruins of a pre-Incan city, the Pucara de Tilcara. The pucara is one of 50 outposts along the valley used by the pre-Incan peoples as a defence against invaders. It was kind of weird to think that some of the Cardon Cacti in these parts were probably around when these peoples thrived in this valley. Each cactus grows roughly 2cm per year and many were well over 4 metres tall making them nearly 200 years old.
The tour ended at the village of Humahuaca, which is about 3000m above sea level. The town is home to a gigantic monument to the heroes of the war of independence but also is more famous in recent history as the 1986 Argentinian football team visited it for high altitude training. Many of the villagers believe that this led to the team’s ultimate success. Legend has it that the players, including Diego Maradona, prayed to the virgin at Iglesia de la Candalaria y San Antonio and promised that should she help them win the World Cup they would bring it back to her. They did go on to win the cup that year but they failed to return to Humahuaca with the trophy and for this reason many of the people in the area believe that Argentina will never win the tournament ever again.
It’s a pity we didn’t get to spend more time exploring the areas around Salta. The hills and valleys are filled with pockets of Andean culture and the people are really very friendly and welcoming. Salta itself is a charming, bustling Argentinian city. The food is decent and cheaper than Buenos Aires and our accommodation was excellent and good value. After spending a few days here we decided to cross the Andes on an epic bus trip into Chile and San Pedro de Atacama.
Our double-decker bus left Salta at 7am and we managed to snag the top front seats with a full view of the road in front of us. Our trip would take 12 hours and started rather serenely as it wound through the Humahuaca Valley passed Purmamarca. Soon we were zigzagging and steadily climbing until we reached an altitude of 4300m where the road straightened out. The landscape had changed dramatically. There were no more trees and no more rivers, just rocks, sand and the Salinas Grandes, the largest salt flats in Argentina. This was my first hint of the treasures of the Altiplano. The highest planes in the world outside of Tibet. As we approached the salt flats we could start to make out the distant snowcapped volcanos of Chile. This harsh uninhabited landscape is definitely something worth seeing and the scenery got more and more dramatic as we ate up the miles. After crossing the border at (4000m) we started climbing even further. Some of the people on the bus started to exhibit the symptoms of altitude sickness (soroche as it is known in these parts), particularly one girl whose lips had turned blue and complained of a blinding headache.
Our bus eventually topped out at a heady 4800m in the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos, we were passing chunks of ice as tall as a man alongside the road. There were no plants and no animals. Just red sand and looming mountains with the odd saline lake thrown in for good measure. It is one of the most inhospitable and amazing places I have ever been, all viewed from an ordinary long distance bus trip. The drive ended as we descended into the Atacama desert alongside Volcano Licancabur (5920m) and into the dusty little oasis of San Pedro de Atacama.
More photos of the area: