Road tripping through Tren de las Nubes, Salinas Grandes and Quebreda de Humahuaca
02.04.2011 - 06.04.2011 25 °C
Tren a las Nubes
We hit the road in our hire car from a cold, rainy Salta straight after breakfast. We made our way along a route that climbed through lush green forest soaked in clouds and then ascended through the spectacular coloured quebrada. The 'tren de los nubes,' or 'train of the clouds' is a special tourist train that travels from Salta through the moutains and up to a viaduct, which is a 16 hour return trip. We caught up to the train within two hours of leaving Salta and drove along the road parallel to the tracks. At this point we became trainspotters as we would drive ahead of the train,get out of the car and set up some photos of the train chugging through the quebrada scenary. At some roadside ruins we stopped to peruse the small market, and visited a quaint museum complete with mummified remains of an Inca man.
It felt really good to be off the bus and in the car and to have the freedom to stop and detour if we pleased. Our plan was to take it easy on the drive, acclimatise slowly to the rise in altitude and have an overnight stop in the small town of San Antonio. At the highest point of the ascent, we peaked at an elevation of 4,080m. This definitely felt like the highest altitude we had been at, as taking a few steps had us gasping for air.
We reached San Antonio, described in our book as a 'dusty, mining town', and we quickly realised there was really not much more than dust and desserted streets lined with crumbling buildings. The place felt like a prison camp more than an inhabitable town. So, armed with a very vague road map, plus some very vague (Spanish) directions from the hostel-owner, a compass (app on Trav's phone) we found ourselves driving on through the middle of the desert along a rocky, bumpy and in places thick and sandy in our 1.6L VW Gol (Polo). About 20km into the desert landscape we noticed an engine warning light on, and after consulting the Spanish Manual we decided to risk the remaining 80km of desert.
Our next stop was at the Salines Grandes, a 525 squared km expanse of crusted salt lake. Here we experimented with taking 'perspective' photographs using our trusty vegemite tube, which we figured will come in handy at our next salt flats stop in Bolivia. The salt flats were a blinding whitish/grey and despite being after 5pm the sun burned strongly down. This was counteracted by a chilled mountain wind, lending an eerie feel to the stillness.
Happy to be back on paved road, we drove the remaining couple of hours to the tiny town of Purmamarca. On the way we peaked over another mountain pass which was 4,300m, surpassing our record set only hours before. Along the way we stopped to marvel at sunset views of the quebrada's pillars of flaked chocolate, musk and cherry.
In Purmamarca we ate a dissappointing dish of llama steaks and stew for dinner, after discovering it was a public holiday (on a Saturday) and all of the recommended restaurants were closed.
A 3km walk the next morning through the 'Cerros de Colores' (hills of 7 colours) overlooking Purmamarca left us breathless, from the stunning scenary as well as the high altitude. The landscape succeeded again in impressing us with its scalloped rock formations highlighted by the morning sun.
While wandering through the artesan crafts market we ran into the french couple, Hugo and Emilie, who had also hired a car and were town-hopping through the quebrada. We planned to meet up later that day in Humahuaca.
Purmarmarca to Humahuaca
We drove on, watching the mountain terrain change from minty greens to violet-crumble rock shards. The miniature road-side towns we stopped at were desserted and not so welcoming. Along the way we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and stopped for a quick photo shoot.
So we continued on to Humahuaca and arrived in time for a late lunch. Humahuacais the largest town of the quebrada, with a sense of activity that was definitely missing from other towns. To describe the lifestyle of these towns as laid-back is an understatement, the indigenous people here are extremely quiet, with a good sense of humour, the children appear happy, and on nearly every road you meet an old lady in traditional dress herding her goats.From our hostel we watched the sunset turn the sky dramatically from dusk to night.
That evening we shared an apertif of red wine and olives with the french couple before heading out to a restaurant together to eat a more satisfying dish of llama, with the regional speciality of quinoa and goat's cheese salad.
The 4th of the 4th had arrived, and to mark our two years of married life we had booked a night of luxury in the town of Tilcara. We drove our hire car to its return point some two hours south, then jumped straight on a bus northbound again to Tilcara, which is a very pretty town, sitting off the main highway, and framed by mountains. After checking into our spacious suite, with flat-screen TV, couch, woodfired stove and king size bed, we walked to the town's restored ruins. The ruins had been re-built, so really they did not feel very authentic. The ruins were surrounded by a fortress of cacti, which was probably the most appealing feature of the ruins.
Later that evening we relaxed in our suite with wine and cheese, and then found a boutique restaurant to enjoy a romantic three course dinner with a fine bottle of red. The highlight of this was the dessert, a 'volcan de chocolate', or chocolate fondant, which oozed hot chocolate lava, easily winning as the best fondant ever experienced.
The following day we reluctantly checked out of our hotel, and into a more budget-fitting hostel, which turned out to be really awesome. We hiked an uphill 4km along a track to a waterfall through the canyon behind Tilcarra, only to find the "waterfall" was a man-modified trickle of water and the Lonely Liar (the travellers name for the Lonely Planet) promised pool for swimming a total myth. Nevertheless, the walk was much-needed exercise and training for hiking at altitude and we were more than ready for our lunch of llama hamburgers.
The hostel's peaceful, shady garden with an incredible mountain view provided the perfect spot to laze away the afternoon, particularly if lying in a hammock. We headed out to a local bar in town with a Californian couple, where a football game was playing on TV. This did not go exactly as planned however as minutes prior to the game starting, the whole town's power supply went out. No one could tell us how long the power would be out, and after sitting in the dark for a while finishing our beers we left the bar in search of dinner. Unsurprisingly, none of the town's restaurant's could function wthout power, so we walked by the light of the stars back to our hostel, where to our huge relief there was an assado cooking on the charcoal grill. That night we feasted on juicy marinated chicked with roasted vegetables, bread, and of course, vino tinto.