Thursday, June 3, 2010

Above the Clouds in Northern Argentina

It`s hard to find anything wrong with scenery out the bus window that includes towering mountains, giant cacti, isolated farmhouses that look like life there hasn't changed in 100 years, and postcard-pretty colonial villages.  Throw in a crazily twisting mountain road that takes you up, up, up -- till you're looking down on those fluffy white clouds -- and it's pretty much perfect.

Up, up, up to 3,348 metres, to be precise.  That's how high you get on the trip from Salta to Cachi, a little town in the Calchaqui valley; the clouds were at about 2,000 metres.  It's only about a 150-kilometre trip, but most of it's through the mountains so takes a little longer than the same distance might, say, speeding down the 401.

The only sour note to the day was the fact that the temperature was actually below zero when I left at 7:30 in the morning, before the sun rose.  Fortunately it warmed up nicely by the afternoon so I didn't entirely freeze; I don't have the wardrobe for winter temperatures!  (I may have to break down and buy a jacket one day soon -- the fleece alone isn't quite cutting it.  I was going to rent in Cuzco for the hike to Machu Picchu, but I'm not sure I'll last that long.)

I realized part way through the day that this is my last full day in Argentina for this trip -- I'll be back at some point, but no idea when that might be.  I'm off to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile tomorrow, and from there will head north into Peru after a few days checking out the area; I think I'm giving up on the idea of the Bolivia salt flats as it's going to be just too complicated and time-consuming to get into Peru after that (since I refuse to go to La Paz).  Another trip ...

It's kind of sad, actually, to be leaving.  I really like Argentina, and the time I've spent here has only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer -- from rainforests and jungle, to windswept pampas, to vibrant urban life, to the long and lonely Ruta 40 that runs the length of the country, to fjords and beaches and raging rivers, to glaciers and mountains that nearly reach the sky, to prehistoric cave art and pre-Inca ruins and remnants of Spanish colonial life.  It's an interesting mix and I could easily spend the rest of the year here, getting to know all of its corners and byways.

But I'm thinking of this year more as an overview -- although I've travelled a lot, there's still so much of the world left to explore that I'll be spending the rest of my days doing just that!  (When work allows, anyway -- at some point I'm going to have to start earning a living again.)  I plan to be 75 and still travelling with a backpack; any other crotchety old women in the year 2044 are welcome to join me! 

It's impossible to see everything this year, as I keep trying to remind myself, but I can get a taste of some new places.  And for the ones I like -- such as Argentina -- I'll just have to figure out how and when to come back.

Anyway, I had a good last day in Argentina.  I was very sad to leave Cafayate, but I think I found what I needed from that little indulgence and am ready to go again.  Martha -- the owner of Hotel Killa, a.k.a. heaven on earth -- is charming and was very enthusiastic about helping me plan my next destination, and was convinced that I should go stay at a lovely hotel/spa in San Lorenzo near Salta.  I checked out the website, and it did look lovely -- but I will quickly go broke if I keep travelling that way!  So I chose a slightly different option for my final stint in Argentina, with a hostel in Salta for a couple of nights and a day trip to Cachi today.

Cachi is an adorably pretty little colonial town, with one main square and a handful of streets radiating from it.  The drive there is the real attraction, though -- you wind your way up through the mountains from Salta, and over to the valley where Cachi is nestled.  At one point on the trip, the gravel road ascends more than 1300 metres in less than 20 kilometres, doubling back on itself at least 200 times in a crazy circuitous route around the peaks.  There's not much of a guardrail, usually, and the bus driver didn't always slow down, much ... so it makes for an interesting ride when the road looks like this:

The crazy curve of the Cuesta del Obispo
Then you get to the top of the Cuesta del Obispo (the "Bishop's Way"), as the sinuous route is called, and the road changes:  straight as an arrow across the plateau, along the old Inca road for about 11 kilometres.  From there, it winds gently down into the valley and passes through even smaller towns than Cachi on the way.  Life looks very basic in these towns (aside from the giant satellite dishes on some tumbledown shacks), and it's probably not an easy place to live; but does that matter as much if you get to wake up to views of the Andes in your backyard?  It's gotta help, anyway.

Ah, well ...must head off to bed soon, as my bus leaves at the ungodly hour of 6:45 a.m. tomorrow.  I'm more of a morning person now than I was at work, but that's pushing it.  *SIGH*

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