After a slow week in the Atacama Desert we drove over one last pass and finally descended from the altiplano into the verdant hills and valleys of northern Argentina. In Salta Tim braved a dentist, we got our first taste of the Argentinian lifestyle, and thoroughly enjoyed the company and fantastic cooking of some great overlanders. As we headed south we passed through incredible landscapes of painted hills and green river valleys before arriving in the charming town of Cafayate, where we spent Christmas drinking good cheap wine and practicing our grilling skills. Before heading back over the mountains to Chile we spent a few days in Mendoza, where we went wine tasting like good tourists, and then got hit with one of the worst hailstorms we’ve ever seen.
We finally made it to Chile and Argentina – putting the south in South America. These were two of the most anticipated countries on our journey and they have exceeded even our high expectations. Last, but certainly not least.
From the stunning vistas of the Bolivian Laguna Circuit we rolled down the long, blissfully smooth pavement of the Chilean highway into the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama. We were happy to find that three of our overlanding friends that we had met at various locations further north were already parked at the hostel on the edge of town. Being greeted by friends is even better than being greeted by hot showers after a long, incredibly dusty drive.
We meant to only stay in San Pedro for two days to brush the dust off of ourselves, our clothes, and the van, and stock up on supplies before making our way over to Argentina, but at the last minute we agreed to stay what we thought would be one extra day to wait for a package to arrive for some fellow overlanders that were stuck broken down in Salta. Three days later we were still waiting. We know very well what it’s like to be stuck waiting for parts, so we really wanted to help, but the outlook was grim for a timely arrival of the package and we were pushing our window on valid dog papers, so we gave up and decided to leave the next morning. But it wasn’t meant to be…that night Tim paid the price for eating a bad hamburger and called in a sick day. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as that one extra day was all DLH and ChilExpress needed to get their act together and get us the package. Auto parts in hand (well, actually hidden safely away in a dark corner) we made a run for the border.
Soon after we crossed the pass and began the long descent into the fertile valleys of Argentina we noticed two familiar bright green vested cyclists on the side of the road and pulled over for a happy reunion with Ragna and Stephan. We thought driving through the Laguna Circuit was intense, but those two bad-asses cycled the whole thing, plus the salar, and a large part of the high altiplano on the other side. They were exhausted and very happy to pile their bikes on top of the van and climb in for the ride to Salta.
We arrived at the massive Salta Municipal campground on a very busy Saturday afternoon and had no trouble spotting the huge rooftop tent of an awesome Land Rover from South Africa, which we knew happened to be lacking a functional fuel pump. We were enthusiastically greeted by Graeme, Luisa, Keelan, and Jessica with huge hugs and even bigger smiles. After handing over the new fuel pump we escaped from the chaos of the busy campground, but promised to return to be thanked for our delivery efforts by a braai (barbecue, South African style). When we returned the following evening we were treated like royalty as the family wined, dined, and entertained us two nights in a row.
We got our first taste of the Argentinian schedule when we attempted to get laundry done and find a dentist to replace a filling. We assumed that most places would close in the early afternoon for siesta time, as in the rest of Latin America, so we headed into central Salta mid-morning. What we didn’t realize is that here siesta time lasts from about 11am to 5pm. We finally managed to find one dentist that had an opening that day and made an appointment for 5:30pm, then we dropped off our laundry and we were told to return at 8pm. This is the Argentinian way of life. Here it’s normal to start eating dinner at 10:00pm and not finish until the wee hours of the morning. This seemed strange to us at first, but it makes some sense in the summer in this time zone, where the sun doesn’t set until 9:30pm.
Leaving Salta we drove through one spectacular landscape after another. The hills were dry and mostly bare, but painted in a spectacular array of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns, which were offset by blue skies, puffy white clouds, and tree-lined rivers. We were frequently reminded of Utah or western Colorado.
We saw our first lush green vineyards just before we reached the lovely little town of Cafayate. Although all of the tasting rooms were closed for the holidays, we had a great time biking down the dusty roads through the vineyards and soaking up the views. Here the big dinners and church ceremonies are held on Christmas Eve, starting at about 11:00pm, so we joined the locals with a huge midnight dinner and abundant delicious local wine.
Making our way south through an endless expanses of arid foothills we finally arrived in the much-anticipated wine mecca of Mendoza. Unfortunately, most of the bodega tasting rooms were still closed for the holidays, but we manage to visit a few and enjoyed learning all the details about the wine making process, and of course tasting a great selection of excellent wines.
On our second evening in Mendoza the sunny skies were suddenly obscured by dark clouds as a thunderstorm rolled over. As big heavy raindrops began to fall we retreated to the shelter of the van. Before long the rain turned to hail, and then heavier hail, and then monster mutant hail. The van was pelted with hailstones the size of golf balls for a good fifteen minutes, which were so thick that the world outside turned white. We grimaced and kept our fingers crossed that the hailstones wouldn’t get any bigger and smash our windshield. When the storm passed we crept out to find that everything seemed ok…that is until we got a good look at our solar panels. Both panels were dotted with dents and cracks. It wasn’t until the next day when the sun came out that we could assess the real damage. We discovered that one panel was almost dead and the other severely damaged, only outputting about half of the original wattage. Bummer. It turns out that they still have enough power to charge the battery in full sun and we can charge while we drive, but we have to be much more careful now.
Our last stop before heading back to Chile was at a small climbing area where we got in a few fun routes and spent New Year’s Even camped right next to the wall in a great little nook along a creek.
As we headed east towards the mountains and the Chilean border we stopped to check out one of the many shrines lined with water bottles that we saw so often along the side of the road. These are offerings to Difunta Correa. The story goes that a woman walked into the desert with her baby in search of her sick husband and was overcome by the heat. As she lay down to die she put her baby to her breast and miraculously it survived to be rescued by some gauchos. So now dotting every roadway there are shrines with images of the woman and her baby and offerings of full water bottles. Once you hear the story it’s easier to get over the idea of the water bottles as giant heaps of litter and makes the shrines interesting roadside attractions.
Despite the damage done by the freak hailstorm, we had a great time in northern Argentina. We quickly settled into the lifestyle of drinking great wine, enjoying the company of wonderful people (fellow overlanders and locals alike), eating an abundance of grilled meat (Tim and Hobie) and vegetables (Tim and Emily), and drinking yerba mate. As we crossed back into Chile we eagerly anticipated the many amazing places waiting for us even further south.