April 02, 2006 GMT
23rd Mar 2006 - San Pedro de Atacama

A return to Argentina, the worst road of the trip, the first spill, and meeting old friends

0 kms

Well for the author this was a distinct no day, Bev was able to operate uninterrupted fortunately and look after me !

I was still under the spell of my fine Peruvian guest stomach bug and distinctly under the weather (which was glorious from daybreak onwards as ever in San Ped).

A quick word on our fellow habitees in the hostel. Last time we were here it was full of really nice people and that makes a big difference to your stay. A great French family who we still remember as one of the best families we've ever met while traveling and a charming Swiss couple. It was like being with long term friends and ever evening was a joy. This time...indeed.

We had a lovely pair of English girls on a round the world tickets who were great company for Bev as it's not often she's had pure female company - and with me being dead to the world in the room she had a great girls time of it, and then.

A mute English couple, or we thought they were as any greeting was met with stares of disbelief and no communication - but then we discovered they talked to each other and were just ignorant bleeper’s (they could sit next to us at a table and still not respond).

Next up we had a group of German Hitler Dwarfs move in.....I can say this knowing of so many fine and upstanding Germans we have met on this trip (and of course previously). One of the monkeys has just swung into the hammock right besides me, without uttering a word or answering any welcoming smile.....so these are the German's the worlds afraid of. How can people not answer a welcome greeting or a smile, not even a grunt, it beats us that's for sure.

Maybe the problem is we are so sociable, and therefore assume other people enjoying the adventurers of travel would be too.

What the hell is the world coming to ? Have we entered a time warp ? We've decided it's not a great idea to return to somewhere were you have good memories as they are often then shattered. We were looking forward to returning here but something strange has happened.

It's the just the way you perceive places I guess, and this time is different to last.

One other thing is of course the route through Northern Chile, the bit we repeated. I don't think there is money enough in the world to make us do that ride from here to Arica again. It is so unremittingly tedious to make a fatal injection a preferred option ! Our advice, get the weather right and go through Bolivia - it is undoubtedly the way to go, and everyone says so. But we had the wrong timing on way up, and wrong route on way back.

So basically today was a right off, but at least the chemical action of that dear friend Cipro has put me back on course, and Bev is just raring to go. Chile has had it's time of us. The people, as witness the kindness we have experienced, cannot be doubted, but the scenery in the north is so far and few between it doesn't warrant return.

The worry about saying the above is we will soon return to our favorite country, Argentina, what will we meet ? Returning to Sandra and Javier in BA is a different matter altogether of course as it will be like returning to family, and something we are grateful for at that final departure point.

Friday 24th March 2006

San Pedro de Atacama

0 kms

What a difference a day makes.....health wise at least ! To say I have improved is an understatement. We are back on track.

We found our long lost package at the PO from Autocom, it looks like it was delayed by being opened somewhere else in Chile by the correo. Sadly the leads weren't a quick fix, and we were unable to get the intercom back to life. It will have to wait for the UK for investigation, it was great while it lasted, just a shame it hadn't lasted a little longer.

Trying to arrange one of the possible returning shipping options lead to a bit of a blank too when we weren't able to make phone contact. We can either ship the bike in the crate via a boat, which is the cheapest option, and fly it via Lufthansa, possibly without a crate which might not prove too hideously expensive. But we need the full prices and details to make a decision.

We were however able to contact Sandra and Javier, and then at least discovered that Friday was a holiday and so we were doomed to failure anyway. As always it was great talking to Javier though and just reinforced the fact it'll be great to meet them again......and they were mid asada too which made it even worse !

Discovered a wiring brake on the bike and had to carry out some interesting alternative surgery to a BM wiring block to recover the service.

In an interesting turn of fate, the two charming English girls left here saying to the owner that they'd be back tonight, whilst actually they are off to Bolivia ! And they managed to get a cheap deal on their room too. What's going on, has the world gone mad ?

No photos accompany this section as I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in the coming and goings of anything in the last two days !

Saturday 25th March 2006

San Pedro de Atacama - San Antonio de los Cobres, Argentina

350 kms

We rose early (for us) and were on the road by 9am, filled petrol (just as well, none on route - a wise decision as it turns out) and completed customs formalities easily on the edge of town before heading out. What we should have done was change the near £70 of Chilean pesos too, but that's another story.

The first 90kms odd paved, and we'd been down most of it on our previous visit so nothing new, there after all repio, and not good either.

The Seco Pass was rough but passed some attractive Salars and nice coloured hills (not to match Agua Negra though) but the route is used principally by heavy traffic and the surface was heavily corrugated which is amongst the worst for us two up and loaded, the bumps knock the stuffing out of the bike and us. At about 70kph you start to float over the worst, but the speed is not always possible.


Salar Agua Caliente on Paso Seco (Chile side)

There were at least two cars by side of road that were just empty carcasses, but obviously new. Could see what had happened. Many car transporters come through loaded from Argentina, and a combination of the load and the road had obviously lead to a couple being shed on the way. They were stripped down to nothing, but odd seeing the remains of an obviously brand new car aside the road.


Just the car chassis left after vehicle fallen off wagon on Paso Seco

The road climbs very slowly, so you hardly notice you are gaining height excepting the bike running poorer after a while, more coughing and spluttering. Obviously round the 4000m mark for a lot of the route. Not a problem for us as having been at 3500 or 4000m for a few weeks we don't notice the height at all, and fortunately neither of us encountered any difficulties really anyway....now would be the time for an assault on a big mountain !


A further Salar few kms on

The only habitation before the frontier was a Chilean police check point where they checked details but were really more interested to be seeing someone than anything else and we spent a few minutes chatting before continuing through quite a bit of 'no man's land'. Reaching the Argentinean border we were the first (and only ?) vehicle that day. The Paso Seco is not a popular route compared to the Jama pass (much better route, more later), The HGVs might use it, but the section we'd covered had no vehicles, perhaps because Sunday ? We arrived at the Argentinean side about 3pm and discovered we had gained an hour, great !

The formalities were easy and pleasant and I took the time to ensure I got the right paperwork as this will be our last 'in' before shipping and problem paperwork would be difficult to resolve as we leave the country. As ever Bev stayed out with the bike and they never needed to see her just stamped the passport as if she was there with me...it's a man's world in Latin America I guess. The border post had nowhere to change money, no gas, and no eateries, in fact naff all.

Now we had complained that the road to the border was bad, and it certainly wasn't easy on the bike or us, but what was to come made it seem M1 Standard, we were now in for the worst ride of the entire trip...thank you Argentina....so that's the price for our return

The guard said about two, two and a half hours to San Antonio de Cobres so that sounded fine. As soon as we got past the barrier it was obvious that this was not the case for a bike, maybe a 4x4, but anything else, not the case.

It was a return to full on deep loose repio. The SA Handbook had promised a good portion of tarmac....there was none ! The bike was on more road orientated tyres and was struggling to find a way to cut through the loose stuff and was hence swimming all over the place.

It takes time to adapt back to off road riding (the previous 'bad' sections now seeming like a good surface of course) and for the first 10kms or so we weren't relaxed into it and so fighting the bike and crawling along at a ridiculous max of 30kph. Once your confidence gets back you can eek up to 50 or 70 on the better sections, but clearly we were going to be struggling to make this leg in daylight. Then it got worse again !

A return to our favorite surface of all time....sand ! at first pockets, which you could see in advance due to the colouration. It's a frightening thing hitting a pocket of sand from gravel, even though only maybe 30kph the bike immediately loses control from the front and that's bad ! The trick is to slow in advance and then accelerate gently through leaving enough in reserve to be able to really rev if the bike still isn't going straight.


Our favourite road surface..NOT!..sand, sand, sand

So another 10kms and we are relaxed back to this method of riding and them we come across proper sand stretches rather than just pockets. There were whole stretches of 20 or 30m at a time of full width fine sand with ridges through were trucks had already driven. Now this was starting to get very difficult and testing. Due to time restrictions we couldn't even afford to let Bev walk sections unless I really thought I couldn't get through two up. There were only two sections that Bev had to walk. Then it got worse ! There were dunes across the road that had been dozed through, but what remained was like bull dust, fine and deep and churned up.

And so to our first 'crash' of the holiday.

We have so far (over 5 months) not come off the bike while ridding - how ever bad the conditions have become. We have fallen off the bike about 3 or 4 times - literally at stationary. The simple weight of the bike and the size on awkward ground, and dodgy footing, and we've tipped off the bike, but without injury or damage of course. But never when moving, until now !


The bike playing in the sand pit on Paso Seco

One of the stretches of sand got the better of us and at all of 20kph at the max the bike was ploughing left, then right, then left again, and my sudden dabs of feet weren’t' enough to keep near 500kgs upright and the bike went over tipping me onto the sand, and Bev on top of me ! Obviously the sand was a very soft landing, lovely imprints in it, and as we weren't trapped by the bike we were unharmed. Switch off the ignition & petrol and a quick piccie before trying to decide how to right it.

The trick is to remove material around the wheels and use leverage to ease the bike up without crippling yourself. Often folk take as much luggage off to make the task easier too. I just grabbed the bars, Bev dived under the pannier, and we hauled it back upright.

Bloody hell, this ride was becoming very trying indeed, and frankly with no rewards for all the hard effort. Really wished we'd taken the Jama Pass as it is a nice ride (the half we did), the Seco is not worth the effort, all the scenery can be matched elsewhere. We were getting concerned about the timing now too, if things didn't improve we would most certainly be well in the dark for half the ride, looked like the tent might even have to come out, we had water, but only biscuits so were encouraged to get to accommodation unless absolutely impossible.

So our first spill, but bloody frustrating so late in holiday, and so near end. Still, we have come off lightly compared to most, and 2 up is definitely twice as hard.

In fact we started getting to grips (wrong term) with the sand patches and as always, when coming across loose gravel following the sand it was so much easier to ride !

We were still riding high and gaining altitude so the bike was actually running as if the coil was packing up, so few sparks ignited the fuel and so much popping and banging.

We descended into a valley and the road joined another that was even more heavily used by HGV's. In the distance we could see a flume of what looked like white smoke, we soon discovered it wasn't as it came closer and then we realised it was a full on artic barreling down the lose repio towards us. It was clear we needed to get right over to the side and wait for it, and its following dust cloud to pass.....and hope there wasn't another one trying to overtake it !

We were lucky as there was a pull in at that point and we were able to get right off the road. The repio road the truck was piling down wasn't even straight at this point, it had a set of curves in it. In all the time we've ridden the repio roads we've never seen a truck going as fast as this one. It literally flew past at about 110kph snaking wildly. It was being driven like a rally car, and a tanker at that ! A few minutes later another the same, not at all what you want on a route as challenging as this was for us.

You should be imagining a large number of F words entering my vocabulary since quite early in the day, and this was all getting a bit mad really.

The road continued - I use that term as loosely as the previous gravel - and so did we. It was now often corrugated to a ridiculous extent, some sections we hit at 50kph and the handlebars wrestled around so wildly I was sure a couple of time we would be so out of control we would crash...heavily. You hold on tight as possible, brake gently and as the speed decreases the whole bike is pogoing on the corrugations until you get slow enough to be able to stop. Deeply scary stuff, and knocking the absolute hell out of the bike. No fun for us, but we at least have flexible frames, I was worried something would fail catastrophically on the frame. Luckily the bike is very well made and although things like the screen etc were rattling fit to destroy themselves, they never did. On a more modern plasticky bike like the 1200 you would just loose ancillaries all over the place.

The surface was a choice between these corrugations, and hard stone surface that had a similar effect, bone jarringly uncomfortable. Don't get the impression there was a choice either - it was one or the other, whichever was served up.

I've found in the past when things get this bad it's actually a much better ride to go for the loose surface at the side of the road or between the wheel tracks (when available). Though much less stable, the bike isn't being tortured to death. We even tried ridding up on the verge, or off the road, but it was too soft.

We were once again climbing and although bypassing a small mine had seen nothing for miles, and luckily no more trucks. We wound upwards once more and eventually hit the high point of 4560m as the sun was definitely on the way out. For any 'Great Railway journey' buffs this is were the Tren del la Nubes crosses so spectacularly.

The views were great of distant hills with snow caps, but the sun was going down fast, and we needed to too. Going downhill for the remainder or the journey might sound ideal, but I can make faster progress uphill thank you.

There were occasional adobe mud houses around so we knew we must be getting nearer humanity, but still had 15 of so kms to go with the sun having finally gone. It was freezing cold and there was the odd two tailored truck to contend with too, as in UK, they often travel at night for the empty roads - a scary thought. I was riding without my lights on for as much as possible for two reasons. One we were not going fast enough to put a really healthy charge in battery, and two, I could see more in dark by eye without lights that I could with them. As time went on this obviously changed and we had to use the lights. We were nearly down, and I was just thinking "wouldn't want any sand now" when, yes, you've guessed haven’t you. Sand...in the dark...what the hell else could happen. The corrugations were shaking the headlight so much that I was convinced the hot filaments would fracture, but we did eventually come out the other side of hell !

We saw the lights of the village and found the hotel listed in the book which was very welcome after 10 hrs of actual riding time. The 120kms from the border had taken over 4 hrs, crazy !

The hotel was not so cheap, but then £25 for a room after all the preceding was not a problem. The manager was very helpful and I managed to persuade him the bike could go in the lobby and we went straight for dinner. He knew the English like their beer, so wasn't surprised we ordered beer and wine at same time as food. The food was excellent too, a return to Argentina meant a return to the best beef in the world. We slept well.

Sunday 26th March 2006

San Antonio de los Cobres - Salta

160 kms

After a somewhat leisurely start that we had earned we had to sort out room payment. We had tried the ATM the night before without success, and still had about £70 of Chilean pesos we couldn't change as a Sunday and nowhere open. Tried finding someone local who might change it, truckers etc, without luck.

First time we have had to turn to our emergency stashes of dollars. The hotel let us overpay and we got Argentinean pesos in change....otherwise we'd have had no fuel either. The previous route of 350kms and no garage meant we needed some to ensure we could continue to Salta, with every likelihood (confirmed) of no fuel until then either after Cobres.

Having got ourselves out of that predicament (worth noting exchange rates from www for all your currencies so you know when caught out) we stuck some fuel in and left.

This area of Northern Argentina still has a strong cultural identity with the native peoples and is quite Bolivian in aspect, except without the poverty and rubbish.

The scenery was fairly barren of the high altitude type (still 3500m) until we dropped a little and the landscape suddenly became more arid and hundreds of candelabra cacti took over the landscape.


Cacti everywhere (big tall ones too) Cobres to Salta

The valley we followed was quite picturesque and there were many wild coloured strata doted around the views, quite beautiful - but if you want to see it (there is better available locally) come for a day trip from Salta, rather than from Chile !

We were stopped briefly by a older policeman (checking cargo) just so he could have a chat and we had a nice little conversation before continuing.

The hill tops were clouded and misty and it looked like rain. The area had obviously had some harsh weather very recently and there was lots of evidence of landslides, wash outs and high rivers even though we were in an arid area and it was warm and dry.


The ´closed´ road, stream crossing with Cacti on way to Salta

As we continued down the valley it looked greyer, and more threatening and the signs of damage, along with the quality of the road, deteriorated. We were riding once again on bloody repio and had to keep crossing small streams and rivers were the track was washed out. The scenery was changed markedly as it was now far more vegetated and trees had made a comeback and the hills were forested.

The road turned to mud, and snaked about the river in the valley floor and was taking on all the characteristics of the 'road of death' in Bolivia. It had got narrow, slimy, drop off edge, stream crossings and then also some double tailored HGVs that we met at a tight spot on a corner. We had to pull as near the drop off as dare and let them ease past.

After an age we rejoined tarmac - very bad quality though - and arrived in a small town that was very colonial looking and quite a sudden change from where we'd started the day. The area was so lush and a big surprise, I thought Salta sat in an arid area, in fact it's much more like the missiones area in the NE. All sorts of flowers and vegetables growing.


Back to lush vegetation before Salta (Tren de las Nubes bridge)

We missed Salta (how ?) and when returning back down the road met three Argentinean bikers who stopped us for a chat one actually owned a hostel in town and so took us there. Seemed good enough (sadly turned out was on the main route into town so got poor sleep) and we set out for town to see if we could change the bloody Chilean Pesos and get an ATM that worked.

The ATM was easy, but Sunday no money changers open. We were just in a shop when Bev felt a hand on her shoulder as I did on mine. I turned, saw just a chest, looked skyward and saw the huge beaming smile of Richard the Venezuelan we had last seen on the Careterre Austral months ago. Wow!

He had been sat in a cafe with Stephen the American on the KLR650 when we had passed. What a lucky meeting. We sat for hours and discussed our different trips. They had seen us and thought 'We're not doing to bad still being in Argentina now, so are Fritz and Bev', then they discovered we were on our way back! Easy to see how you can end up in Argentina for so long, the people are great, the prices are right, and it has virtually all the scenery in one country that you could wish for. They have been enjoying it so much, they haven’t left! We expected them to be miles miles north, or home!

As we chatted it turned out Stephen had met Oscar from Bolivia and ridden with him and his friend Gonzalez whilst in Bolivia. And also had been taken down the 'Donkey path of death' by Jeff and was startled to hear we also had on our much larger bike.

The other interesting detail was they were considering going to Cobres, but had been told they couldn't as the road was washed out ! The one we had just come down...maybe it isn't like that all the time then !

We had a great evening together, especially after such a chance meeting., unfortunately we didn't have the camera, so still no pictures of them. Stephen had a local girl in tow, and Richard had an Asada to go to, so we didn't cramp their style all night and instead took their restaurant recommendation and had some great empanadas and a huge rump steak between us.....boy is it good to be in Argentina again!

To foil that I should point out the only negative aspect...the town driving! Argies are suicidal once they get anywhere near a town and will do anything to over (or under) take to get that 3m ahead. The driving has been dubious in several places, but the speeds in the poorer places are generally slower. In Salta it was like a deadly game of roulette. Old wrecks would sail past within inches of the panniers or fly past at stupid speeds. Think it’s that Latino macho thing going on. It's not a problem when traveling on our own as I just generally travel quicker, but the ride into town following the other bike earlier today was easily the most dangerous ride we've had for ages (including our drink drivers !)

Monday 27th March 2006

Salta - Cafayate

197 kms

After an interminable nights lack of sleep we were ready for the off. I had wandered into town after waking early to try the money exchange. Straightforward I thought. The women took the money, checked it, and put it in two piles. Christ I thought, don't say they're all forgeries. No, the ones that weren't perfect they wouldn't take, or not without an additional fee. I was not impressed, the bloody notes would end up being used at face value whatever, so just said no thanks and took the money back. With hindsight of course I should have changed what I could, but just so bloody annoyed as at the border there would have been no issue, and you know damn fine those notes will all end up back with someone who will be able to spend them at face value in Chile. Another reason never to cross using the Seco route!

The road out of Salta continued through that surprising lush vegetation with fields of crops including tobacco and we crossed numerous flood fords that were still heavy with silt and the obvious signs that a storm had passed through very recently....looks like once again we have narrowly missed some serious weather. Happened on ruta 40, and the Careterra austral, and of course in Northern Chile and Bolivia. Very Happy about that though.

As you move further south you drop into more arid conditions and the Valle de Lerma displays is true beauty and what it’s famed for, strange and fantastic rocks formations and colours of the rainbow. Having had such a poor nights rest we were feeling a bit tired but still marveled at the display. It was a stop every few kms to photograph yet another amazing view, we'll let the pictures do the talking.


Start of Valle de Lerma


Arid rocks, not in Grand Canyon, Valle de Lerma

Cafayate is the town at the end of the valley and famed for its small wine producers and pleasant climate. It's hot, but not as hot as it gets, or got, and is a nice little place to stay. We’re here for two nights to recover a bit and get caught up on mails and getting details for shipping. The hostel (de Valle) is a lovely spot just out of the centre of town and very quiet. It's almost like staying in someone’s home, very friendly and lovely rooms, and all for a tenner a night. There are lots of places offering great value food and the opportunity to sample some of the local wines at prices that encourage you too!


Further strange erosions in Valle de Lerma

Posted by Simon McCarthy at April 02, 2006 10:29 PM GMT

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