This is going to be a long post, so it may be a good idea to get a cup of coffee and settle in for a bit….. also remember to CLICK on each image to see a bigger version of it!
We were picked up at 07:00 in the morning by Pablo, our tour guide for the day. He was a friendly Argentinean guy and gratefully was able to speak English. We got into the car and were greeted by two other travelers from Austria, two ladies by the name of Renate and Irmgard. We set off, and about 15 minutes later, Pablo pulled off to offer us the opportunity to buy any coldrinks or snacks before we hit the road. We never bought anything, but Pablo went in and returned a few minutes later with a bag of leaves. They were Coca leaves, the leaves used to make Cocaine, yes the drug.
He said that chewing Coca leaves was an ancient Inca remedy for the sickness you feel at High altitudes. How high would we be going today we asked, over 4100 meters he replied. And when you feel ill, you simply chew on the leaves to alleviate the nausea or headache…alrighty then.
On the road again and pretty soon we were out of Salta and onto some dirt road and rumbling past small adobe or mud huts in the valley below us. Pablo was then telling us about the Tren a las Nubes or Train to/of the clouds. This was a tourist train, that travels to some extreme altitudes with some breathtaking views of the scenery. The tracks started being built in 1921 and took 27 years to complete. The route was originally built for cargo trains going to and from Chile, but in later years the Tren a las Nubes was set up as a tourist train. It all starts very normally at a normal altitude but the highest point is well over 4000m above sea level, Pablo estimated it to be at about 4300m above sea level. The effects of altitude sickness at this height are very real and there is a doctor on board the train to treat passengers who are feeling particularly ill. We then drove into the valley and actually saw the train (a cargo train) come trundling over a bridge that spanned the Rio Toro (River of the Bull) The Tren a las Nubes doesn’t run between November and February because of the high rainfall in the area which could make it unsafe to travel. The cargo trains it seems are not too worried about this.
As we came through the valley we exited into a magnificent low mountain pass with the most amazingly techni coloured hills and mountains. The colours that could be distinctly seen were green, red, yellow and white along with the usual browns and greys, it was quite a spectacle. The various colours told us what type of minerals were in the mountain, Green was copper, red was iron, yellow was Sulphur and white was Calcium. To be honest, the photos cannot do the area justice, literally around every corner there was a new mountainous outcrop that seemed to outdo the previous one. The scenery was almost overwhelming, it was stark and beautiful and not like anything we had ever seen before.
After this stretch, we stopped at a Tastil village, high in the mountains. By this stage we were at approximately 3100m above sea level. As we got out of the car, I could feel that I was a little light headed and not all together right…time for some Coca leaves…not yet. A little aside about Coca Leaves…according to Pablo, it takes 12kgs of Coca leaves plus all the chemicals and boiling of the leaves etc to make 1 gram of Cocaine, so there was really no fear of getting high on the leaves. The leaves however are chewed by most of the people living at the high altitudes and we saw many of them with a large lump in their cheek of Coca leaves. What seems to happen is you take a fair amount of the leaves, about 10 – 15 leaves, and then shove it deep into a cheek, at this point you look like a hamster. The leaves are left there to get soft and slowly you begin to chew on them and suck out the juice from them…more on this later, back to the village.
The village dated back to between 600 and 1220 AD until the Tastils (A pre Inca tribe) were conquered by the Incas. The village we visited was currently home to 12 families and was pretty reminiscent of any South African rural village. The Tastils were pretty handy craftsmen and builders and their handiwork could be seen in the Museum in the village, a small 3 room exhibition. Also, it seems that the Tastils were really small people, I had to duck pretty low to get into their doors, in fact, their doors were only slightly higher than my shoulder height. One of the interesting exhibits they had was a mummified human, dating back 600 years ago, a little grisly, but interesting.
We kept moving and soon after this visit, we reached one of the highest points of the day at 4080m above sea level. We all got out of the car to get a photo of us at the sign which gave the altitude. Just before this however, we drove one of the highest peaks in the area, a mountain of 6000m high. We are already at just over 3500m so we were looking at 2500m of rock. The scale is impossible to explain, to be so high up and then to see this gigantic piece of rock jutting out into the sky was incredibly impressive. Again, the photos cannot give you the true feeling of standing there in from of this huge mountain, but it was really breathtaking.
We then began our descent to San Antonio de las Cobres. A small town that really is a mining town. It sits just on the border of Salinas Grandes which is a huge Salt Pan and the people of San Antonia de las Cobres also mine the nearby mountains for Copper, Iron and other minerals. We stopped there for lunch and were told the speciality was Llama. Well, we had to have some. It was very similar to beef, but a little tougher, it was tasty and we all enjoyed it. Llamas are a domestic animal and are farmed much like cattle are farmed and then used for their meat. There were plenty of them along the roadside, and the farmers use different coloured ribbons tied in the Llama’s wooly coat to identify which ones are his, so they look pretty colourful. The Llama also has a very shaggy coat, much like sheep do and this coat is used to make woolen items of clothing which are really warm and also very pretty.
Once lunch was finished we pushed on to Salinas Grandes. These are the Salt pans in Northern Argentina and are enormous. The Salinas Grandes measures 60km by 40km and are amazingly white. They can be seen from a distance as the pan seems to radiate white…an amazing spectacle in a semi desert terrain. The Salinas Grandes are surrounded by mountains, some of which are snow capped, so the scenery is spectacular. We had to drive through a good few kilometers of dirt road to get there and as we came to one corner we saw that the dirt road was completely flooded. Not sure how this happened, but we could not pass through it in our vehicle. We were asked by Pablo if we could walk alongside the road while him and a few of the other tour guides tried to navigate their way through the sludgy mess. We did this and Pablo met us on the other side, and off we went to the Salinas, with our mud bedecked car.
When we arrived at the Salinas, nothing could prepare you for what you were seeing. It was like a recent snowfall and yet it was extremely hot. In fact, the guys who work on the salt pan, mining the salt, are covered from head to toe, hats, balaclava, long sleeve shirts and long pants in sweltering heat. The reason is that the reflection of the white salty surface will sunburn you to a crisp in less than half a day. Pablo told us that we must wear a hat, sunglasses and suncream if we want to walk out onto the pan. We had everything except the suncream, but went on anyway. It was a strange sensation, it sounded like snow, but felt a bit like a hard gravel road. It crunched under your feet and at one point I had to bend down and taste it and it was of course perfectly salty, in fact intensely salty. We walked about 1 km into the pan and saw the pools where they dig out large chunks of the salt and use it to make salt and extract certain sulphurs from it. There were also some guys out on the pan who were selling salt carvings and statues made from salt. The house that stands on the side of the road is completely made from salt bricks, cut form that very pan. The salt brick is remarkably hard and its corners sharp, quite an interesting experience.
From there we then moved on to the highest point in our journey, 4107m above sea level, we got out at this high point to take photos and I decided that it was time for some Coca leaves. I wasn’t feeling too bad at that altitude; I had a slight ache at the base of my skull and felt a little lightheaded, but otherwise was fine. The air is really thin up there, I could feel my heart rate had picked up and any exertion caused me to be a little shorter of breath than normal, but that is normal at that height. So, we took the photos at the sign and I went over and asked Pablo for some leaves. He showed me how many to take and told me to push them into my cheek and suck on them and chew them slowly, when they are soft, I can swallow the chewed ones etc. My first thought was that the leaves tasted very much like tea, the mixture was almost the taste of black tea with no milk. Soon after I had begun sucking on the leaves, my headache had lifted and I certainly felt quite relaxed. What was interesting was that once I had sucked and chewed through the wad of leaves, my cheek was a little numb, similar to the feeling you get after you have had an injection at the dentist and it is beginning to wear off. It was unusual, and of course Francis had some too. She reacted a lot quicker to it than I did and even joked that her nose had gone numb and her eye had begun to droop. Well her eye looked fine to me, but her nose was certainly numb according to her. This was all fine because we were about to go down one of the steepest and most treacherous mountain passes I had ever seen. The name, translated, is roughly “the devils throat” and that it was. The road was very winding and full of switchbacks and hairpin turns. It was pretty hair raising to say the least. The ascent from that height was fast, we dropped 2000m over 35km, you could feel the change physically. It was a spectacular road though and we were only able to stop at the top of the pass to take some photos, any further down would have been too dangerous to stop.
From there, our last stop was Purmamarca. Purmamarca is famous for its seven coloured rock hills right behind the town. These are really beautiful and the town is really quaint, but incredibly touristy. We walked around to the town for about half an hour and then left on our way back to Salta. We were all pretty finished after a long day on the road (we covered 540kms on that day) and when we got back to Salta, Francis and I and Renate and Irmgard decided to sit down at square in Salta and have a drink. Before we knew it, it was well after 11pm and we decided it was time to turn in, we were leaving the next day for Mendoza.
So far, this day trip was one of the highlights of our journey so far, but I am sure there will be plenty more to come.