Having satisfied our thirst for jungle fever, we strolled to the bus station and took a deep breath before we embarked on our 24 hour bus journey to Salta. I had discovered a blog in England by a young couple who described our next route as a 'hellish journey' and this idea had been reinforced throughout our trip by people's warning signals in reaction to our planned route. To George and I 24 hours on a bus seemed like heaven. We quickly snuggled into our usual comfortable positions with pillows, blankets and snacks complimenting our goofy grins. We were ready for an entire day's worth of English movies, complimentary food and beautiful scenery. English movies tick, beautiful scenery tick tick but the food was nowhere to be seen. By 11.30pm our bus had stopped practically every hour, usually in an abandoned dirt track and for no apparent reason whatsoever. By 11.30pm I was beginning to get angry. I like to think of myself as quite a positive, jovial individual that doesn't let the struggles of life affect me. However there is one exception, and that exception makes me into a enraged beast; that exception is hunger. Now I promised I wouldn't mention food again but a blog is supposed to include life-changing events and emotions you never thought you were capable of experiencing. This was therefore a perfect example for the blog. I won't go into detail but things became desperate and my mind began playing tricks on me. I licked my lips, a voluptuous woman sat diagonally in front of us began morphing into a roasted chicken, I swear I could see the grease oozing from her bingo wings. Petrified of what I was capable of doing in such a disturbed state I forced my eyes shut and begged sleep would take me away. Only in South America would the next part to this journey occur. In England our regard for others well being and over politeness would have resulted in a thousand apologies for the missed meal and most likely a free voucher to Odeon cinemas or pizza express. Only in South America will the meal be served at 1.30am, lights blinding the sleeping passengers and regaeton blasting through the speakers. I can safely say awaking from a deep sleep my senses were extremely sensitive and when I was handed my roast chicken and mash potato the smell was undesirably overwhelming. I quickly slid the plate to George whose face lit up in a flash as he combined the two portions. If I didn't know better I would have bet money on him formulating this cunning plan; damage the bus's mechanisms and double your meal winnings.
The following morning after a mediocre nights sleep we eagerly anticipated our arrival into Salta. However, we were soon aware our schedule was to be delayed by 11 hours due to a popped tyre, of which had worryingly been sluggishly dragging us along throughout the night. We sat nonplussed and content as the intro credits to The Hunger Games rolled down our screens. Unfortunately, not everyone on the bus was as relaxed and ironically for their nation, refused to accept they wouldn't be arriving at their destination on time. Voices were raised and the Italo influence of the Italo-Argentine became extremely prominent, with flapping hands expressing their disgust. To make matters worse, the poor male bus host had scarpered off the bus to retrieve free lunches in an attempt to distract people's frustration. Lunch was certainly not a peace offering accepted by the Argentinians; for us it was as good as the unified hand shake between two nations.
We finally left both the bus and our leg muscle coordination at Salta bus terminal and were instantly faced with... 'The dreaded altitude'. Salta lies within the Lerma valley and is positioned at 3780 feet above sea level, the highest point we had been throughout our trip so far. The air was thin and we struggled to regulate our breathing for optimal intake. Arriving at our large hostel we were pleased to be welcomed by friendly faces and a nice looking colonial courtyard directly in the middle. Even better, our six bed dorm had shutters to segment the room and offer additional privacy to guests, quite the bargain for £8 per night. We refused to let the predicted 'hellish journey' consume anymore of our precious exploring hours and avoiding the showers headed outside. The streets of Salta were swarming with people equipped with shopping bags and snaking queues for cash points. The air was chilly and seasonal music filled the breeze as buskers played their hearts out for a boliviano or two. It was 8pm, the scene was reminiscent of a typical evening for Christmas shopping however in Bolivia after a satisfactory siesta the city was becoming alive again.
The cobbled streets and hustle and bustle led us to a beautiful plaza filled with processions and protests in celebration of the police units within the city. Shops were enriched with brightly coloured clothes, bags and musical instruments. The features of the faces that surrounded us had transformed into their Inca ancestors, with the dark skin, thick protruding chin and hamster round cheeks. We weren't there yet but we were experiencing our first taste of the real South America that was just around the corner once we had left Argentina. We were very, very excited. After our long exhausting journey we felt sorry for ourselves and justifying the cost for approximately 0.5 seconds we treated ourselves to a hearty Argentinian steak. After a sip of the finest house red followed by a few glasses of the finest house white our heads began to slowly spin. George's first class degree which explored the topic of altitude had failed to remind us of the dangers of combing it with the consumption of alcohol. We didn't feel great, we certainly didn't look great so we quickly headed in as straight a line as possible back to our hostel. On the plus side, being so high above sea level definitely makes for a cheap night out. I can't write too much about the following day, apart from like two stinking bears we festered in our pits. We blamed our condition on the altitude and refused to accept the ever familiar feeling of a wine head. We utilised our iPads and followed the expeditions of the Top Gear trio across South America, just to ensure we didn't feel quite as guilty at spending the day in bed. The highlight of the day was my Knight Warren in shining armour delivering a tepid McChicken sandwich meal to the palm of my hands. You can travel the world but you'll never beat the taste of a take away Maccies to make you feel right back at home.
Luckily a lovely couple from Herefordshire, Adam and Lizzie, moved into our dorm and turning on the light shook us from our sorry state. After exchanging stories for a few hours George and I decided in the best interests of our new companions that showering should be top of our agenda. We had collectively been advised that whilst in Salta you should hire a car and explore the various routes offering exceptional scenery. Thankfully we were all extremely keen and proceeded to book a car first thing the following morning. We were introduced to our Chevrolet Classic which would turn out to be our most trustworthy friend after conquering the most challenging of 'roads'. After inspecting every spec of bodywork on the car for damage we were satisfied and jumped in. With the conditions we were about to face, I now understand why the owner was so eager for us to hire it; how we brought it back unscathed is an achievement within itself.
The first day's itinerary was to explore the sculptured mountain valley landscapes of the UNESCO Quebrada de Humahuaca route, 245 km in total. We first took on the mighty winding mountain path, sheer drops taunted us around each and every bend. We saw in the distance water plummeting into the air, cascading into a rainbow of colours. Pulling over we grabbed our cameras and headed for our first spectacle of our road trip. The stink of rotten eggs and faeces nearly knocked us over, how could nature's beauty smell so rancid? Thankfully four brain cells are better than one and it soon dawned on us we were standing in awe, watching the effects of a broken sewage pipe. We swiftly drove off but to our amusement watched as car after car pulled over and having witnessed us taking photographs and began posing in front of the newly discovered 8th modern wonder of the world.
Our day was filled with mesmerising views of mountain ranges complete with colour rippling through each formation. Cactuses towered into the clouds stood guard on their cliff perch. We explored indigenous villages where we paused for breath and looked out across the Río Grande valley. We entered our final village, Humahuaca and followed the signs for the tourist information centre which turned out to be built in the form of two men stood on a dusty road corner popping their heads into passing cars. Instructed to drive roughly 25 km in order to reach the main attraction we accepted the seemingly easy challenge and optimistically put our foot down. Optimism is a fantastic trait within an individual's personality especially when factors outside of their control start to dim the light at the end of the tunnel. I can only describe the 25km as petrifying, painful and both character and car testing. We weren't told that the path ahead would consist of boulders and gravel scraping against the car's suspension and unfortunately our behinds. We were not warned of the ever progressing altitude incline and the increasing afternoon blazing sun. But eventually we fought our battle and reached what felt like the rooftop to the world, 4350 metres above sea level and home to the spectacular 14 coloured mountains. These incredible formations were a combination of rocks from different time periods. The colours were a variation of accumulated sediments from when the area was underwater nearly 600 million years ago. The view literally took our breath away and with the clock ticking before sunset it was time to regrettably make our way back down to Earth and then on to Salta.
Darkness imposed itself once again as the sun withdrew to its mountainous retreat. The air sharpened as cold gusts clawed their way through every opening, very quickly we found ourselves in Baltic conditions. Having seen Adam sweat through the mountain pass I offered my services just as the road transformed back to smooth Tarmac, an easy drive from here no doubt...
It would seem that Argentine roads could fairly be diagnosed with a case of split personality disorder. By day the drive is serene, smooth, fun and rather relaxing. However as the sun begins its steady descent, a team of what could only be described as 'night-shift drivers' come out to wreak havoc on the asphalt. Unlit cars performed impossible manoeuvres, overtaking 6 cars in a row on a single, unlit carriageway. Trucks and lorries trundled along at 1/4 of the speed limit causing motorists behind to plunge themselves in to danger in an attempt to hasten their journey. 186km from Salta and already amidst the impenetrable darkness, I buckled in and got ready for the mortally perilous journey ahead. My co-pilot, Tamara made a few futile attempts to sleep throughout the journey, however seeing the state of the roads she realised a bit of shut eye now could be her last. With nervous whimpers reverberating throughout the car we sped on home. If we didn't stand out as gringos before we certainly did now, each of us could have been cast as the next Milky Bar kid. Our skin was pale and clammy, hands shaking violently but we persevered and arrived in Salta a little wiser and a lot more grateful for our safe, comfy beds.
Our second day of touring the North-West provinces of Argentina would lead us to the sleepy town of Cafayate. This 400+km trip penetrated through the heart of the 'Quebrada del Rio de la Conchas' - 'Ravine of the Shell River'. The landscape offered toffee to our ravenous eyes. Crimson sedimentary rock, that had once dwelled beneath the sea 600 million years ago, now soared 3000m above sea level with rock features akin to demons and gargoyles. Amongst these stone giants was another ode to the Devils, seemingly infamous, throat. This metaphorical structure was not as enigmatic as its Iguazu counterpart, however it still boasted a marine trench that had been hollowed out eons before. It currently resided at a 45 degree angle to the Earth's surface producing a dizzying effect when viewed from inside. A confusing description, I know - please see attached picture for further detail. Further rock formations held a likeness to many other forms and figures, the more novel amongst these included a castle, windows, an obelisk and a frog. We felt nature drawing us in and we dutifully answered its callas we each took in turns to have some of the most spectacular wees a traveller could ask for.
As we ruminated on our return to nature we hurried on through the ravine. Around one of the sinuous bends lay a humble brick hut, a table of travellers conversed and laughed as a man of Inca descent serenaded their senses with a ukulele and the traditional panpipes. We pulled in with the intention of refilling our emptying water supply. Advertised on a smudged chalkboard was the following: agua, comida, coca y bica. With the altitude providing a sufficient excuse we pulled in and secured our first batch of coca leaves. Now, many may feel shocked or ill at the revelation that we had acquired an item that maintains its illegal status in the UK. However, to bring a Papal quote into play 'a cup of coca tea is not cocaine.' With the none other than the Catholic Church justifying our actions we proceeded to wedge our mouths ajar with bundles of dry, rather inconspicuous looking leaves. As we were novices in the ancient art of masticating coca leaves we were unsure of a few vital parameters of the process - How many? How long for? Is it meant to taste this bad? The process continued for 15 or 20 minutes, the bitter earthy taste thick in our mouths. We soon cracked and threw the leaves to the dirt, how did we feel? Overwhelmingly normal.
Arriving in Cafayate we quickly found the nearest restaurant, anything would do to get that awful taste from our mouths. We sat down and ordered ourselves steak, we were still in Argentina and it seemed fitting that our last restaurant meal represented the tradition of the country. It seems in Salta, however, that their cows are imported from neighbouring country, Bolivia. We were presented with a streak of meat and soggy, undercooked chips - a sign of what was to come.
Our final farewell to Salta took place atop the foothills that surround the bustling city. We drove up the steep hillside in total silence, our path littered with flickering streetlights and wayward pedestrians. Arriving at the top we could have been in an American movie set, the grid structure of the city was accentuated by rows of twinkling streetlights that stretched far into the land beyond. A great send off to a brilliant country.
Argentina, the truth is we never left you...