What a fantastic journey. The road beyond San Pedro de Atacama climbed across the desert and up into the Andes, past various salt lakes around which we could see small packs of vicuna, donkeys, and flamingos, and with great views of colourful mountains and volcanoes. At this altitude, nothing much grows so the scenery is very muted but nonetheless dramatic and interesting. Within 2-3 hours we seemed to have reached the highest point in the road but as we descended, we were still some way from the Chile/Argentine border at the Jama Pass which sits at 4400 metres (14,500 ft). At the border everyone was again off the bus into the cool and thin air - so a few deep breaths were needed as we headed for the solitary immigration officer who, were pleased to see, kept the Argentineans in their place and wouldn't tolerate their queue jumping. We were given a good going over when a border guard and his sniffer dog checked the hold and the whole interior of the bus, including up in the luggage racks, for drugs. None were found and it looked as if the sniffer dog was just a big soft pet fawning over his handler. Formalities over quickly and efficiently we were on our way. The longest part of the journey was in Argentina where the terrain became more rugged and the road more twisty and turny. The scenery changed slightly with evidence of more vegetation and some puffy clouds in the sky, the first we'd seen for days. At one point we followed the course of blue sparkling river much of which was still iced over. This landscape was home to larger groups of vicuna, flamingo and other birds, and for the first time we saw herders with their flocks of llamas. We passed more extensive salt pans before seeing one solitary large candleabra cactus, a sentinel for many more to come.
Stagecoach and National Express eat your heart out! We'll need to have a word with Brian Soutar when we get back because the service we're getting from Chilean and Argentinean buses far exceeds similar services back in the UK. Bearing in mind that we weren't on a tourist bus, but a standard service between two towns, included in our tickets were not only the refreshments already provided on board but a snack lunch and cuppa tea at a restaurant on the outskirts of the small isolated Andean village of Susques. Once again there was DVD on board to entertain us (when we weren't taking in the magnificent landscape) and when the conductor came to change the DVD a passenger thrust one into his hands. We were then 'treated' to several hours of Bolivian music and dance - which in fact wasn't that bad but we were grateful when she asked for it back and we moved on to a Spanish language version of The Green Mile.
At this point and at this altitude the road can only go down, and down, and down........ a drop of nearly 7,000 feet through a seemingly never ending series of the hairiest hairpin bends we've ever come across. Slow moving, mini-road-train lorries creaking their way downhill were overtaken on the oh so short straight bits. The landscape now became even more rugged with jagged rock formations and striations in a variety of colours ranging from greys, pinks, greens, deep red, purples. Finally, we eventually reached the valley floor and the road straightened out, just in time before darkness started to descend. About an hour and a half later we pulled into the bus station in Salta. We were grateful for Megan's command of Spanish and her help in confirming our return journey. We said our goodbyes to Naomi and Megan with a promise to meet up the following night for a meal. We soon found our hostel and to be honest while it's never great arriving somewhere new in the dark, on this occasion the hostel and our room were a bit drab and run down. Although it was quite late we managed to find the main square and, lifestyle here being typically Spanish, the bars and restaurants were still open and lively. We had one of Naomi's recommended beers - Quilmes, which was excellent and we've since quaffed a few more - and some very nice Argentinean food at a place on the beautiful floodlit square, Plaza 9 de Julio.
Salta has certainly lived up to the expectations of our first night, the guidebooks, and publicity the city has recently been getting. We spent our time here - foregoing trips to the vineyards and small mountain towns because we wanted to savour the sights and senses of Salta. (We were after all on a trip over the Andes and the main purpose was to visit the city) The city has a number of good museums where learned about the history of the area and, in Museo de Arqueologica de Alta Montana, saw mummies of Inca children who'd been sacrificed to their gods and which had been excavated recently at the summit (6739 metres) of Llullaillaco volcano. We enjoyed all 4 museums and the only thing being much more information in English would have enhanced our enjoyment and understanding. On the main square - Plaza 9 de Julio - sits Salta Cathedral, a 'wedding cake' of a building that looks wonderful day and night. San Francisco Church near the centre also dominates the city and became our neighbour when we moved out of the drab Backpackers Soul Hostal to the much brighter, cleaner and friendly El Centro Hostal which was also much cheaper. A wonderful way to see the city is from the top Cerro San Bernadino reached by a cable car from the city. When we went up in the afternoon it was a little hazy but still very enjoyable. Salta is very relaxed and having an excellent food and drink culture had many cafes/restaurants where we enjoyed excellent Quilmes and Salta beer, Argentinean wines, and food, which without exception was very good. The enjoyment of sitting at street side cafes and eating out benefitted from M's Spanish which was improving by the day. When in Argentina don't bother ordering starters because every drink is accompanied by nibbles and every meal is preceded by a basket of bread and bread sticks along with various salsas and little bowls of beans, lentils, etc. We found Salta to be great value and this is likely to be a reflection of the country's economy - we noticed that it seemed poorer than Chile with lots of old bangers pumping out fumes and a much less well-maintained infrastructure. Unfortunately Megan was unable to join Naomi and us for a meal as she had been sent away to work in another part of the state. But we had a really good and interesting evening with Naomi nonetheless.
Our last night saw us at the ballet - Ballet de la Provincia de Salta. We'd bought tickets on the first day and the theatre was packed.The first performance (Suite Scarlatti) was enjoyable although we felt it a little stilted and some the dancers were occasionally a bit out of step. The next (Grand Pas de Don Quijote) was much better but not flawless.However, this did not prepare us for the main performance (Bolero) which was absolutely wonderful and possibly the best dance we've ever seen. The whole performance - choreography, orchestra, costumes, dancers, etc - came together in a magnificent spellbinding spectacle during which not one - of about 40 dancers - put a foot wrong. The Salta audience wasn't like a reserved British audience - they whooped and cheered, clapped and bravoed all the way through. What an excellent night and a resounding success all for less than £8 for the two of us in the best seats in the house. But earlier in the day, Salta put on a splendid display for us. We have no idea what it was all about but the main square, Palazo de 9 Julio, was alive with people and Argentinean pageantry - with marching and flag bearing gauchos and men on horseback. Very enjoyable and impressive indeed. We also enjoyed another wander around the city this time to the foot of Cerro San Bernardo along wide streets and past some very expensive and fine looking houses.The statue to General Guemes (to whom the early parade may have been devoted) looks longingly over the city towards the towering Andes, which were today a little clearer than before. Behind the statue was Salta's Museum of Archaeology which although a little dusty (well it would be wouldn't it?) had some interesting pre Inca artefacts. With the very early bus journey back to San Pedro de Atacama the following morning, we decided to have a late lunch of the local paradilla (mixed grill of meats and sausages). This one had some different ingredients - stuffed intestines, liver as well as beef, pork, chicken, chorizo and black pudding. Enough we felt to see us up and over the Andes once more.
Lots of love - as always
E & M xxx