From here our route gets a little wonky for a number of reasons. Please, bear with me while I try and explain it as succinctly as possible. Also, check out our Our Route So Far page for a handy visual aid.
The first reason was that our 90 day Chilean visa was coming to end. This is remedied by crossing into Argentina, easy-peasy. So before actually seeing San Pedro we passed through, over the pass into Argentina, thinking we would be back after exploring NW Argentina for a week or so. But the Andes of Northern Chile/Argentina and Southern Bolivia were hit by a major snow storm, closing off access across the high altitude borders. Our plan was not going to happen, but no one really knew know long before it could. We were stuck. So Alex suggested a brilliant idea-to head north into Bolivia direct from Argentina.
We figured that we could loop back down to San Pedro and the Laguna Circuit eventually. After seeing a good chunk of Bolivia (Potosi, Sucre, Uyuni and the Salar) we headed back to Chile by way of Ollague almost three weeks later. We’d heard that the Laguna Circuit was still closed, but that it wouldn’t be long. By this time we had also realized that it was time to replace our rear shocks and Chile was be the best place to do this. After a couple days in in Antofagasta we drove back to San Pedro. All that said, things are going to be a little out of order here on the blog, but I think it’s a lot simpler than all of this. I swear.
We were in San Pedro on May 18th and again from June 23 to June 30. We were in NW Argentina from May 23rd until May 30th.
We really got the chance to enjoy San Pedro on our second visit, and very glad that we got back. Next to Torres Del Paine, San Pedro de Atacama is Chile’s 2nd most visited tourist destination, and very deserving of this title. San Pedro sits in a closed drainage at about 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) above sea level. All sides of the basin are dotted with volcanoes and at it’s center is Chile’s largest salt flat with Flamingos! Surprisingly, there is some water in this very dry region. The water has made living here very attractive to people for thousands of years. Culturally things are very different from the Chile that we’ve gotten to know down south. The Aymara, the indigenous people of the area and Bolivia, have a big influence on things. We had a blast exploring the area.
The first place we headed was up to the Tatio Geysers at 4,300 meters (14,000 feet). We didn’t quite appreciate the effect the altitude was going to have. We had been driving along nice highways through the desert of Chile, all of a sudden we were thousands of feet higher! The area was very cold and covered in snow. The mist, the mountains and the bubbling geysers were impressive, we even had a dip later.
After the geysers we headed to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a barren, geologically and visually impressive valley.
Next we headed a bit south to see the famed flamingos. The Flamingos are amazing. At this park you are able to get very close to the flamingos and see them. Other places we’ve been they’ve been too far or when we get close they get scared away. The video below shows how they stamp their feet to stir up the mud and bring the brine shrimp out. They then suck the water through their beaks, retaining dinner and filtering out water. It was great watching this.
Alex has decided that the Flamingo is her spirit animal and can’t get enough of them. This video is of her dancing like the flamingos. Enjoy!
From the flamingos we headed to visit some small villages near by. We saw our first terraces of the trip and some impressive irrigation channels, more on this as we get farther north. San Pedro has a lot to offer. There is a ton of diversity in the activities and sights.
From San Pedro we crossed through the mountains at the very high Paso Jama and descended down to Salta. Salta was one of our favorite big cities that we’ve visited. Set high enough that the temperature is just right (at least when we were there). The city has a great feel, is full of great colonial architecture, and great to just wander in.
From Salta we climbed into the mountains. On our way we passed through Parque National Los Cordones which is full of the massive Cordones Cacti. From the park we descended a bit into a valley which is known for its production of spicy red pepper that are left to dry on large tarps along the roads. The deep red of the peppers are a beautiful contrast to the dry landscape behind. By chance we happened on to the village of Payogasta and shared in their celebration of Argentina’s Independence Day. Everyone was dressed in traditional clothing and the kids were performing dances and plays in the town square. Having the chance and time to stop when we come across things like this are one of our favorite things about this trip. It’s amazing meeting real people and being welcomed to join in their celebrations.
From Payogasta we headed south on Ruta 40. Our regular readers will remember that we spent a lot of time driving this road in Southern Argentina. Much of this section was also not paved, but well maintained. Only a little washboarded! We traveled down a large, remote river valley through small villages.
One day we stopped at town square for lunch and a kid, maybe 11 years old, just walked up to us and started talking. Eventually he asked us for some money. Alex quickly said no, but offered to share some of our cookies with him. He was happy with the cookies and seemed like he was having a good time asking us questions. I guess he figured that if he asked enough tourists for money eventually one would say yes. One thing that we remember fondly was that he commented on how much hair I have on my arms. He thought it was crazy that there was so much. Most of the village was of indigenous decent and I was the first big hairy gringo that he’d met. We eventually reach the beautiful colonial town of Cafayate with it’s extremely pleasant town square and good food.
From here we head north to Bolivia, but you’ll have to wait until our next post.