Argentina/Chile: Conquering the north

Written by Martin on June 10th, 2012. Posted in Allgemein

Martin: After a bit more than 3 months I´m finally about to see my better half again! 🙂 The only tricky thing is that she´s arriving the next day… in 1100km far Santiago. So after we pick up the bikes I quickly head up north, Sebas acompanying me until he takes the exit to Argentina. My first stop is Temuco, where our friend Gerardo invited me to stay over at his place. The drive is not really enjoyable, I’m pretty hungover and tired from last evening’s binge and think I’m dreaming, as about 50 kilometers before Temuco Gerardo overtakes me with his Africa Twin. The crazy guy waited for me an hour at a gas station to pick me up and ride together to his place 🙂 We spend a great evening together and I’m very happy I could meet him again.

So today´s the day! Before I head off Gerardo takes me to a flower store where I buy a rose I want to give her in retrospect to San Jordi, a Catalonian tradition similar to Valentine´s Day… an issue of regular dispute, as I forget it almost every year 🙂 Xime and Maria Paz, friends from Eva’s work, helped me a lot setting this up as a surprise visit and arranged a double room without her noticing it. The situation couldn’t be better, as I show up at the hotel at 9, she’s already in her room and visibly can’t believe her eyes as she opens the door… and sees the rose of course 🙂 It’s great to see her again and even though she doesn’t have much time because of work, I enjoy every second I can share with her…

After 3 very nice days with her and her colleagues in Santiago and Vina del Mar it’s time to say goodbye and hit the road direction Mendoza to meet up with Sebas. On our trip so far we have hardly met any bikers, the more I´m surprised as at a stop at a gas station I meet up with two in the course of half an hour, who, by coincidence, independently chose to stop there as well. After a nice chat about our travels, I continue to the border where I cross to Argentina on the paso de la libertad. On the Chilean side over 30 elbow curves wind up to more than 3000 meters altitude and take you up to a mountain plateau with spectacular sceneries on the Argentinian side, which remind me a lot on the north of India. As its already getting dark I unfortunately don’t take pics and continue my trip to Mendoza, where I arrive at night at the hostel to meet my buddy again… who already made friends talking with some girls while tasting some Mate.

We talk over the past couple of days while enjoying a great steak and wine, for which Mendoza is world famous for. No idea how, but even though we put extra thick tubes in Puerto Montt, he managed to get yet another flat tire collecting a 10cm nail from a dirt road in the middle of nowhere shortly after he crossed the border of Argentina. Luckily, once again, he met nice people helping him fix it, but slowly I’m thinking he’s trying to put up a flat tire world record…In any way, the both of us made it to Mendoza and it’s great seeing him again. Yes, when you travel together for so much time you get kinda married 🙂 Mendoza itself is nothing special, it’s more a starting point for visiting one of the excellent wineries or making trips to the beautiful nature outside of town. After two days we decide to leave and hit the Ruta 40 to head up north.

On our way to Cafayate I slowly get the idea why the 40 is called the “magic”. The landscape changes every 100km taking us through dry valleys with impressive stone formations on both sides of the road until suddenly, as if we reached an oasis, the plain, sandy colored mountains around us turn green, covered by trees, and the dusty gravel road changes to a deep reddish colored earth road as we know it from rainforests. We pass by the ruins of a settlement of the Quilmes people, dating back to 850 AD, a tribe which resisted the attacks of the Incas and also for more than 130 years the ones of the Spanyards. As we are not in the mood for walking around at some ruins, we continue our way until we reach Cafayate, a laid back town, famous for it’s wineries.

Our next stop is Cachi, a charming little town with colonial style buildings, where we meet a very nice Argentinian travel group. Even though their bus broke down and they were waiting for a replacement, they are in a great mood and I’m impressed of their “do the best out of the situation” attitude. Guess the test-sitting on our bikes helped 🙂 We also get to know Jose, a French guy fulfilling his dream of exploring South America on motorbike. With him we go to one of the bars and Sebas and I don’t believe our ears as the barkeeper suddenly plays Falco’s “Jeanny” song, an Austrian all-time classic. No idea how this song made it to the sparsely populated semi desert 🙂 We get along very well and decide to continue our trip northwards together. We leave quite early as we want to reach the mining city San Antonio de Los Cobres the same day, the Ruta 40 taking us over Argentina’s highest mountain pass, the 4.900m Abra el Acay. The landscape is once again impressive, with beautiful views on the mountainous region and lamas and alpacas are grazing around in liberty. Only the road up to the pass becomes for me one of the hardest driving challenges so far, as it’s quite narrow and parts are pretty muddy and covered in ice. Sebas seems to feel that I shit bricks and stops after tricky sections to see if I make it through. I do, and as usual when you master a challenge, I feel great when we reach the top of the pass. From there it goes downhill and a bit later we reach the 3.500m San Antonio.

San Antonio de los Cobres is a mining town famous for being the final destination of the so called tren de las nubes (train of the clouds), the third highest railway of the world, which departs from Salta and passes through pictureque landscapes. Shortly after we head off to Salta, the gravel road turns into superb tarmac, taking us on a 200 km curve-paradise through valleys full of huge cactus and, guess because of different minerals, beautifully colored mountains. After a very good lunch in Salta we decide not to stay there but, even though a beautiful city, continue up north on a country road that recommends us a guy we meet in the streets, which turns out to be yet another curve-paradise, to the town of Volcano, where we stay overnight.

At the place where we have breakfast there´s a huge map of Argentina on the wall and looking at it, Sebas sees that there is a road from nearby Purmamarca to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The Atacama desert we had on our itinerary but decided to skip it due to lack of time. Now looking at the map it looks like a short detour, instead of going straight up to Bolivia, we could cross to Chile first and hit Bolivia from there. It doesn’t take much that the both of us agree that this is what we’re gonna do 🙂 Jose likes the idea as well and so we head off to Purmamarca, a UNESCO Heritage for it’s 7 colored mountains, and from there continue over a beautiful mountain road to the Salinas Grandes, a salt desert surrounded by mountains. This place used to be a sea a ‘couple’ of years ago and as it dried out, what was left was the salt, that nowadays covers the ground. Here we stop and enjoy driving around on the salt, impressed by the white beauty surrounding us. The road takes us again through untouched nature, passing by herds of lamas, until we reach Susques, the last town before the Chilean border. The next day we pass by smaller salt deserts and, for the first time since Chile, I see Volcanos in the far distance. We reach the Argentinian border and once again, the formalities are done very fast, the border patrol wishing us a safe ride. When we ask where the Chilean border is, they tell us it’s some 160 km, that the countries are separated by the so called Paso de Jama, a mountain plateau in no man’s land, that we have to cross to get to Chile.

From the border the road takes us up until we reach a plain that seems to stretch for hundreds of kilometers wherever you look with occasional huge rock formations standing around, and the both of us are wondering where they came from. We decide to go offroad to have a closer look, the ground is somewhat soft, a mixture of sand and stone, nevertheless it’s fun driving on it and Sebas can’t withstand to climb up to enjoy the view from the top of one of the rocks.

Even though it seemed the landscape will continue to stay plain, it changes after a couple of kilometers, now there’s huge sandy looking mountains on both sides of the road, the mountains incorporating all shades of brown, from the distance they seem like soft bundt cakes. They both of us are speechless and Sebas decides to drive a bit up on one of the mountains. Watching him, it seems as if he’s surfing over the ground, it looks so easy and fun, that I decide to tag along. And in truth, the ground is just perfect to ride on, it’s soft but the tires have a lot of grip, the only thing to watch out are the football sized stones standing around. Not only once I think I destroyed the bike driving frontally in one of them and am hell of surprised, as Eva 2 mercifully puts away all my driving mistakes. We drive up half of the mountain and because its slowly getting dark, decide to head back to the road, afraid the border might close before we get there 🙂 Nevertheless we continue driving on this mix of lava, sand and stones next to the road for some time, the both of us happy as little kids and I literally have to dash away tears of joy and gratitude, thankful, that I am allowed to see and experience all this.

It seems there’s no end of beautiful impressions, as shortly after we pass by one volcano after the other, some visibly already blown up, the area around us covered with huge stones that the volcanoes must have spit out centuries ago, the ground full of dried lava and other minerals. I feel like driving through a land before our times. Then, suddenly, the road takes us straight down to the Chilean border, where the border guard turns out to be an enthusiastic KTM biker, and instead checking our luggage, gives us tips on nice roads in the surrounding area 🙂

Finally, we made it to the Atacama desert, regards to the Dakar race! 🙂 San Pedro is right after the border, a nice, charming little town with most of the houses made of adobe. Here we stay a couple of days, enjoy beautiful starry skies at night and relax from the last days’ driving. The surrounding area has lots to offer, but we end up not visiting anything, as Sebas doesn’t get rid of his cold and wants to chill out. We leave San Pedro and decide to take a back road via the Geisers del Tatio to Bolivia. The gravel road is pretty good at most parts, only sections are dangerously covered with deep sand. That it can get really dangerous we realize when we reach Tatio, actually just a building close to the Geisers, where a BMW is waiting for it’s German owner, who had a terrible accident just a day before and had to be brought to hospital. Here we find out that we can’t go the way we wanted as the road is closed and have to do a detour via Calama, a big mining town. Seeing the bike without owner we decide to better not to take any risks and go for the detour.

After a night night in Calama we head off to the border, the landscape continues being spectacular, once again we are confronted with an overflow of, at least for me, undescribeable, impressions including volcanoes, out of which yellow smoke is escaping and salt lakes full of flamingos. Still speechless of what we have seen, we reach the Chilean border and a short time later we are standing in front of Bolivia, curious what’s gonna come next… but that’s another story. Stay tuned 🙂