Epic, Wild and Very Looong Road Trip to Salta (and back)

Note to readers: this is the last part of Argentina we got to see, before we had to leave prematurely due to Covid-19 emergency. The post is finalized, while we await border reopening in Prague, Czech Republic.

When we mentioned to any local in Mendoza that we were planing a driving trip to Salta and back in 10 days, they looked at us strangely and said, “It is a long way, you know!”

“Yes, about 3,000 km (1,900 miles) round trip. But we are used to long distances and we like to drive!”

“It is the best road trip my husband and I have ever done!” claimed my Kiwi travel pen pal Michelle. “You will love it!”

The first inkling of the grandeur of different landscapes awaiting us on this drive was already at a day’s drive distance from Mendoza at the Valle de la Luna and Ischigualasto park.

It is only possible to reach this remote, desolate, moon like landscape in an organized convoy from the gate of the park and we were lucky to get to the booth just as the convoy was leaving. Actually they already left and we had to push after them with the ramp slamming down behind us. We were worried about our car being able to handle the dirt desert roads and then we caught up and saw much smaller cars happily bouncing along.

As usual good, reliable information is at a premium and a traveler has to learn to read between the lines and see who is writing and what is their slant. When someone warns you need a 4 wheel drive to get somewhere and then offers his services, you can take the information with a salt of grain.

It was not the selfie-famous Sphynx, Submarine or Mushroom rock formations that attracted us to the area. It was something that loomed large in our mind, but ended being a lot smaller than we anticipated. It was this pile of (very old) bones

left in their place of discovery. In case you have a hard time imagining what the heck it is, here is a nice model for kids of this Triassic herbivore dinosaur.

How the heck do you find it in a vast, inaccessible landscape like this? Truth be told, despite a beautiful museum building and informative display it was a bit of a let down, but we figured we will have grown much in the eyes of our dinosaur obsessed grandson when we sent him the photos and a cute dino T shirt to boot.

Driving further north we welcomed the greening of the landscape, even if only with the saguaros (cardones), whose first white buds had just started popping up here and there.

A welcome respite from the long drive was the town of Santa Maria, where we got a little introduction to the local inhabitants at their colorful craft center.

They are still practicing indigenous arts and crafts like loom weaving

and basket making

We could imagine these same skills thriving nearby more than a thousand years back at the Quilmes settlement, the largest pre Columbian settlement in Argentina. This indigenous Diaguitan tribe fiercely resisted first Inka invaders then Spaniards. In order to offer protection in time of war they built a strong stone citadel that could take in 5,000 people. I found it fascinating that we encountered in the walls the same quartz pieces – sparkling, sacred, white stones as in the old mountain village walls of Georgia in the Caucasus. Mirek insisted we have to smuggle in a can of Quilmes beer.

At the highest point we very ceremoniously sprinkled the ground with a small libation and then drank the rather warm beer. I kid you not, a fierce wind picked up

and we had to carefully descend, lest we were blown off the mountain. Mirek joked the old gods were mad that we did not offer the whole can, but I did worry we have callously offended Pachamama (Mother Earth), the mother of Inti (Sun) and Mama Killa (the Moon).

The moon was shining bright when we finally arrived in Cafayate for the night. Tired or not, we dragged ourselves to the beautiful, traditional Spanish looking Bodega El Esteco, the preeminent winery with a restaurant and hotel. It is always funny (when not infuriating) to see the reaction of staff at fancy places when we tumble out of the car with our Keen hiking sandals and fanny packs.

“Good evening, do you have a reservation?”

“Um, no, we just drove 300 km and um, I see only two other guests sitting in your 50 seat restaurant. Do you think you could possibly squeeze us in?”

The good thing about these places is that we can afford the best tasting menu and the best wines. What with the strong $ and favorable exchange rate and the fact that this place is in the middle of nowhere in South America. We don’t do it often, but when we do, it is nice. The wines of Cafayate, we were told, grown at 1,800 m – almost 6,000′ above the sea level elevation, are now becoming serious competition to Mendoza wines. While Mendoza Malbec will stay my favorite, I am intrigued by the new discovery of a Torrontés, a white wine with fresh, distinctive light fruity taste and aroma.

The next day’s drive brings the most challenging stretch of the Ruta 40. The drive to Cachi is only 170 km and that distance should be covered in about 4 hours says Google maps, while Maps.me can’t locate the route at all. It takes us the whole day. Of course we do make frequent stops for pictures and special encounters. We cross chocolate rivers,

peek into colorful graveyards,

climb up colorless viewpoints,

stop for horses and mules

and again for a long leisurely lunch in the 18th century governor’s house, now Hacienda de Molino.

We arrive in Cachi just with enough light left to find our way a bit out of town to a most impressive hotel La Merced de Alto. Someone with a great taste and a great art collection built it in a perfect spot, surrounded by fabulous gardens and crowned with spectacular views. It starts to rain shortly and we stay in for dinner, grateful for a warm place to rest.

We go to sleep with pitter patter of the rain on the large windows and the romantic impression of misty mountains in the distance,

only to wake up in the morning to

sunny blue skies with fresh snow sprinkled mountain tops. I mean wow, wow, wow! You just want to sing and shout! And stay there forever.

A chance encounter at breakfast with a couple of American bird watchers changes our travel plans.

“You simply gotta press towards Bolivian border and make it to this lagoon that nobody really knows about. There are thousands of pink flamingos and herds of lamas everywhere!”

Flamingos might not have been enough of an incentive, but lamas are. Our new travel friends show us the little blue splotch on the map and off we go. And stop immediately around the corner to greet a herd of horses,that literally rush over and line up to be petted.

The whole drive onwards we look backwards to the striking snow capped mountains rising above the plain. We can’t believe our luck. So maybe Pachamama did like our beer tribute after all!

We find Pachamama at the Parque de los Cardones, established to protect thousands of saguaros. There we read the native legend of the creation of this tall elegant cactus. To protect them from the wrath of a vindictive father Pachamama transformed two star crossed lovers into a saguaro cactus.

As if we didn’t have enough dirt roads we decided to take a shortcut over Bishop’s pass. Fortunately, the road is much better than expected and so are the deep green canyon views.

Wisely we decide to skirt the busy city of Salta and push onwards towards Purmamarca. It is a very well known landmark and for the first time we have to contend with tourist crowds, tour buses and parking issues. The locals charge entrance fees for any viewpoint. The colors of rocks are indeed extraordinary (and impossible to catch with an iPhone), but we are so unaccustomed to having to share with others, that we get out of there pretty fast.

We figure we can swap out the sightseeing time with a side trip to another interesting natural phenomenon. As we drive over the very high pass – for American readers exactly 13,681 feet altitude(!) and I am disappointed to note that my altitude sickness propensity has not diminished with age. Even a few steps out of the car make me dizzy and shaky. Luckily our goal is much lower at 3,450 m. Salinas Grandes are the less famous step sister of the Bolivian Salt Pans, but they are impressive nonetheless. We don’t get the typical dazzling white earth and blue sky shots, but we quite like the dramatic before the storm photos.

We are certainly happier here with just a few fellow travelers.

The next day we head out to the secret lagoon. It is indeed secret enough that nobody at our hotel in Tilcara can give us any information. We drive north towards Bolivian border past Humahuaca, joining some other admirers of crazy geology.

We manage to find Laguna de Posuelos Park headquarters in a small town of Abra Pampa, where we finally get clear directions on which dirt road to take to the park entrance. After registration, the lonely ranger points us towards a rutted trail. Luckily the rain from the Salt Pans did not reach to here. Still, it is a 7 hair raising kilometers with split second decisions on which part is worse, the left, the right, or the middle. Only Mirek’s steel nerves and driving skills get us to the parking area.

In the distance we can see the shimmering water and birds flying above it. We head out on foot and it is slow going. We walk and walk and the water is still far away. When we finally get a bit closer, the ground becomes soft and smelly, slippery muck prevents us from going further. We can see the myriad of pink flamingos, but still too far away. If that is a bit of a disappointment, the flat cracked plain we stand on, and the sky above covered with infinite white fluffy clouds is so extraordinary that we turn around and around in awe.

If pink flamingos were not close enough, the lamas make up for it. All the way on our drive back to the main road we encounter the variations of these camelids. They all seem very cute to us, though I read that the lamas are much bigger and very aggressive, while alpacas are smaller and sweet. Then there are also the lighter colored and more slender guanacos and vicunas. Anyway, we can never get enough of any of them.

In any shape and form..

The pleasant shopping and eating evening back in Tilcara is interrupted with a loud procession of local marching bands going to the church to attend the community meeting on Covid-19 protection.

We think the tiny little tots joining the big guys

are so cute. We don’t have the slightest inkling what harbingers of trouble they are.

The next day we finally make it to Salta. The one thing that we really wanted to see there are the three mummies of Inka children sacrificed in high mountains, but the museum is closed. Instead we listen to some Bolivian Indian music in front of it. We walk around and get some coffee. We pop into the cathedral.

If we only knew that this will not be only the turning point for our return trip to Mendoza, but the beginning of the end of our Argentine adventure, we would have dropped on our knees and prayed for a safe and easy return.

For how our escape from South America and the virus restrictions unfolded, you can go back to the I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You post in case you missed it before.

15 thoughts on “Epic, Wild and Very Looong Road Trip to Salta (and back)

  1. Gorgeous landscapes that remind me of Arizona as well Parts of Wadi Rum in Jordan.
    Kudos to you jumping and taking the times photo shot.


  2. Thanks for your comment. It is good to hear from you as we are, at least geographically, in similar situation. On Wednesday we visited southern Moravia (dutifully wearing face masks) very close to Austrian border and thinking of you after seeing traffic signs showing barely two-digit distance to Vienna. So close and still so far. Already five weeks Iiving surrounded by closed border crossings makes it difficult for many and hoping the Schengen past won’t be replaced by armchair reading. Keep my fingers crossed.


  3. I’m so glad that you had these last few adventures (and what adventures!!) in Argentina without the knowledge of the world soon turning upside down…
    Please publish a book of all your blogs — unedited! I so enjoy reading them, and having them as a collection, just the way they are, would be delightful.


  4. What a great adventure we got to go along with you. I always thought of Argentina as being greener and not have as much desert. The pictures are great and the mountains gorgeous.


  5. As Always, a magical tour. So glad you two are having an adventurous time together in the most unique places. I can only travel through your blogs and am restricted to walks around my neighborhood. Will await how you escape from Argentina.


  6. What an epic journey! You were lucky to get it in before tge harrowing return trip to Europe.
    Love the wild landscapes and sparse population.


  7. I continue to enjoy all your entries even though my comments have been few and far between. How cool you had these extra entries “in the bank” to keep your readers happy while we ALL shelter in place!
    Stay healthy!


  8. Lots of varied landscapes in Argentina that you’ve shared…some of your pics in this post could almost be taken for Phx (which I’ve come to love bc of the mtns)!😃 Glad you both were able to see parts of Argentina before you had to “escape”! As far as the 13G+ altitude area you shared here, I can’t imagine!


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