Saturday, November 20, 2010

Road Trip Part Tres - The Northern Circuit (aka the Nikon Death March)

I.  Salta to Tilcara (the Quebrada de Humahuaca)

Reluctant to leave the cushiness of the Sheraton, we took one last shower (without wearing sandals! the luxury!) before hitting the road to the north.  It was a very flat, straight, well-paved road, and Dave decided to find out just what the Gol could do.

Turns out the Gol starts to shake around 90 km/hr (55 mph)
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that follows the Camino Inca (the Inca Trail) all the way up to Bolivia.  It has been in use as a trade route for over 10,000 years - by prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribes, by the Incas in the 1400 and 1500s, by Argentines in their fight for independence from the Spanish, and by us in the early twenty-first century.

Our first stop was Purmamarca, a small traditional village known for 1) sitting at the foot of the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colors), 2) a bustling mercado of regional textiles and 3) dozens of giant tour buses dropping off swarms of camera-toting and manpri-wearing tourists.  When they charged us $5 pesos ($1.25 USD) to park, Purmamarca was forever tarnished in Dave's mind.  "The entire town is parking lot!  I hate this horrible town!  etc. etc"

Here's kind of an ugly picture of the dusty streets of Purmamarca.
 All Dave could see was free parking spots.
Of course, we arrived during siesta so the whole textile market was put away.  We then attempted to make sandwiches out of the leftovers from our El Viejo Jack meal the night before.  Our plan was immediately frustrated when we realized we had a giant steak, a half chicken, a loaf of bread, and nothing else.  Without a knife (or any utensils), or any napkins we fashioned ourselves on the caveman diet and simply tore hunks of meat and chicken with our bare hands and stuffed them into bread, all while gusts of wind blew dust all over us and our food.  It wasn't our finest hour (but the sandwiches were very good).  We tried to salvage our time at Purmamarca by hiking up to the recommended mirador (scenic outlook point).  Here's our photo of the Cerro de los Siete Colores with Purmamarca nestled in at the base.

Not shown:  a scary dog angrily barking at us while we were snapping this photo.  We fled.
Happily, things started looking up once we got back on the road, mostly because our first stop was at a museum full of oldey-time artifacts and weapons! The Posta de Hornillos was an old Spanish army post, built in the 18th century and later used by the Argentine rebels in their fight for independence.

It's in a very picturesque location for a rebel camp.

Oldey-time carriage, oldey-time solemn photo expression
(but very modern, high-tech, high-performance long-sleeve tee)
Freedom fighter.
Not shown here:  the skeleton of an Indian literally dumped in the corner of a display case.  Too creepy to document.
OK, this car wasn't in the museum, but it might as well have been.
We also spent a long time watching billy goats attempt to eat leaves and, in the process, fall off the stone wall.  While we watched the goats, the guy running the museum watched us, wondering what we could possibly find so interesting.

In one second he will fall off that stone wall.  I still chuckle thinking about it.

 Back on the road, it wasn't long before we passed into the Tropic of Capricorn.  The Tropic of Capricorn is important, obviously, because it is the most southerly latitude where the sun appears directly overhead at noon. This, of course, occurs at the December solstice, when the southern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun to its maximum extent.  We were there neither at noon nor at the December solstice.

Tropic of Capricorn monument

Tropic of Capricorn sun dial.  As you can clearly tell, we were there at 3:27 PM.
Finally we reached our northernmost destination, Humahuaca, an important trading route during the Incan Empire and today a blend of indigenous and Spanish cultures.  The town's center is dominated by a monument to the indigenous people, which Lonely Planet deemed "grotesque" and "condescending."

It looked OK to us.
We perused the local textiles and chatted up some of the local peoples.  We didn't buy anything, which I continue to regret.

I'm not sure what naturally occurring dye is used to color the hot pink blanket in the lower left.
We made meaningful connections with the local peoples.
"Hello.  Where you from?  You got a coin for me?"

After we'd had our fill of Humahuaca, we drove south to Tilcara.  We arrived without a hotel reservation and spent some time navigating the narrow one-way streets in search of a place to stay.  We ended up at AguaCanto with another spectacular view.

Jesse sat here.

While Dave took 10,000 pictures of these flowers.
II.  The Salinas Grandes, San Antonio de los Cobres, and Tren de las Nubes

Sadly, this was the beginning of Fatty D's (our Nikon D-90) inevitable decline, and we ended up losing all of the photos we took with him this day.  At the time of writing, Fatty D is convalescing in the Nikon repair shop in Buenos Aires, at great emotional and monetary expense to us. 

We woke up early and headed back south, past Purmamarca (hissing as we drove by) and up another winding mountain pass.

We were really high! (altitude, people, in altitude)
Eventually the salinas (salt plains) stretched out in front of us.

Brian's & Lucy's favorite food, as far as the eye could see.

We pulled over by a salt-mining operation, where we tried to lift salt bricks, posed with shovels in huge mountains of salt and perused the salt llamas carved by local artisans.  We tasted the salt.  It was salty.

The photos were really great.

 We spent a good hour having fun with perspective.  Here are the few shots we took with Clemmie (Fatty D's orange, pocket-sized little sister):

Fatty D.  He looks so healthy there. 
Lord only knows what was going on in his insides....
By this time, we were starving (tiny Dave having eaten all the Rex crackers) so we drove to San Antonio de los Cobres, an old mining town situated at over 12,000 feet above sea level.  It was a horrible rutted road.  As is our custom/curse, we arrived when everything was closed for siesta.  Luckily we found an old woman standing on a street corner with a charcoal brazier.  We asked her if she had empanadas and she nodded and hurried off down the street to get them from her house, returning with a pot of oil that she heated over the charcoal.  While we waited for our lunch to fry, we chatted with the lone other tourists in the town, a couple from Buenos Aires and a couple from Spain, and bought some knit hats and fittens from a local lady.  It may have been our extreme hunger, but the empanadas were delicious!

We had some great photos.  They are gone.

Our original plan had been to overnight in San Antonio de los Cobres but let's just say there wasn't much going on to keep us there.  So we decided to push through the rest of the drive back to Salta.  We were following the path taken by the famous Tren de los Nubes (Train of the Clouds).  This tourist excursion touts itself as "the greatest train in the world."  The round-trip journey takes 15 hours (departing at 7am and returning at midnight) and costs $120 USD.  To put that in perspective, it took us 3 hours to drive it one way.

First we visited the famous Viaduct, a massive engineering accomplishment that marks the end (or the mid-point, since it's a round trip) of the Tren de los Nubes.  Click here for some photos.  The drive was spectacular, although to be honest we had been seeing a lot of similar scenery and felt a little jaded.  Or maybe I just tell myself that since we lost all of our photos.

Towards the end of the drive, the road was closed for construction and we were diverted into a dry river bed.  If you don't believe me, check out our GPS!

Driving in the (mostly) dry riverbed.

Who knew the Gol was a car-boat!?!
III.  San Lorenzo

We spent the night in Salta, and then since we still had another day left of our car rental, drove out to the lush, green suburb of San Lorenzo.  Why did none of the guidebooks tell us about this place?  We drove past adorable B&Bs, impressive mansions, flowering trees (Salta is a very dry, dusty city) and shady hiking trails.  We even each had our dream meals there!

For Dave, a proper steak and eggs:  a 16 oz sirloin with one fried egg, onions, red peppers and thinly sliced fried potatoes

For J, a big make-your-own salad with chicken, hearts of palm, avocado, tomatoes, olives and more!
Yes I am leaning in to kiss it.  We hadn't had fresh veggies in a few days.

All in all,  a fabulous road trip that we highly recommend!  LAN is opening up a new flight route from Lima to Salta, so the trip from New York just got a whole lot easier.


  1. what actually happened to Fatty D? The suspense is killing me! I shall pray for his speedy (and affordable) recovery.

  2. i want to hug that billy goat. i like your perspective pics, they made me laugh!

  3. Sam -- Fatty D is at the Nikon repair shop in BA... hopefully he'll be fully healed next week and for only $200. Of course it turns out that our Nikon warranty does not cover us in South America, grrr.

    Zo -- the goats were soooo cute. I took about 75 photos of them.

  4. How 'bout them steak and eggs... looks AMAZING... best pic by far!!! Keep the food pics coming! Watch out for those riverbeds.. they are sneaky sneaky. My thought go out to Fatty D... Ranch

  5. Car boat!? So it DOES exist....

  6. We love reading your blogs. They make us lol.

  7. How do those perspective shots work? I'm so confused and intrigued. Was Rick Moranis involved?


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