We arrived in Salta slightly sad that we had completed our last long-distance bus journey of our trip, the 46th in fact (James loves a list). Fortunately, we’d been accosted by a herd of goats whilst we waited at the border between Chile and Argentina, so that made it a bit special.
We’d decided that our last week in Argentina and South America should be dedicated to steak and malbec and, after much needed showers to wash off the goat smell, we set off in search of both . We were staying close to Salta’s main square, Plaza 9 de Julio, and we had a leg stretch, enjoying what was a really beautiful evening, before finding a restaurant.
We hit the jackpot with our restaurant choice, El Solar del Convento. It was just off the main square and had all the appearance of a tourist trap, but most of the reviews had been good and we knew that the gave you a free glass of fizz at the beginning so we were happy to give it a shot. The steak was sensational. As was their chilling of James’s beer.
The next day we joined up with a small group of others to do a free walking tour and, once again, it was a great call. We were accompanied on our walk by one of the town’s stray dogs, Canelo; his name means cinnamon and he goes on the tour every single day. We’d taken a poke around the town square the previous evening but our guide, Homer, gave us more detail about the municipal buildings and beautiful churches.
One of the most interesting stops in the town was San Bernado Convent, which houses a particularly strict order of Carmelite nuns. Back in the middle of the 19th century, wealthy families would send one of their daughters, usually the second youngest (this may well be the source of middle child syndrome), to the convent where they would take a vow of chastity, silence, invisibility and pretty much anything else you can think of. Girls and women would enter the convent and never leave its walls again, never speaking to anyone, certainly never touching anyone, and later be buried within the convent walls. Young girls were essentially signed up to a living death sentence by their families in order to gain social status. You can imagine how well this went down with Caro; fortunately, she is doing the girls a solid by talking for every last one of them. Nowadays, entering the convent is voluntary the ladies are allowed to talk, so that’s one teeny tiny step for them and a ginormous backwards leap for womenkind. Rant over, the convent itself is pretty.
Our tour guide had recommended a place for empanadas and we made a beeline for the café once the tour was over. We ordered up what we thought was a small feast only to be extremely disappointed when these bite-sized empanadas appeared.
After lunch we visited the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology. The entire museum is dedicated to excavation of an Incan site at LLullaillaco, 7000m above sea level, where three almost perfectly persevered “sacrificed” children were discovered. We use the quotatin marks because the Incas believed that, through this ritual, the children would move to the afterlife so it was meant to be a great honour and wouldn’t have been considered a sacrifice in the traditional sense. The small museum is absolutely fascinating, by far the best run one that we visited in South America, not least because the translator of the signs seems to have at least some familiarity with the English language. The exhibits and explanation of high altitude archeology were very cool but we weren’t sure about the actual children being on display. There’s an argument that they should have been left where they were, although we can appreciate how important it was to exhume them for academic purposes. To put them in a glass box in a museum feels a bit gratuitous and disrespectful, there is so much information, so many pictures and so many other wonderful preserved objects from the grave sites, that the bodies seem a bit unnecessary. Second lecture over; overall we thought that it was an excellent place visit.
The next day we picked up our rental car, who, along with everything else in the Argentina, we christened Martin. We made our way south along route 33 before turning west and making for Cachi. The drive was a dramatic and steady one as we wound back and forth along and up the edge of a canyon.
It took us all of 15 minutes to walk around Cachi and another 10 to clamber up to the viewpoint above town. It was a nice spot to spend an afternoon.
Food that evening was a bit of a challenge in that it took hours to arrive, fortunately we had prepared for this and played our first game of canasta in months. James won, we have no idea what the running score is now. The other notable thing about Cachi was the truly bewildering and terrifying mural on our bedroom wall.
The next day we drove the challenging Ruta 40 to Cafayate. We’d been warned off driving this road by the rental company, who told us that any roadside assistance would take hours to arrive and be at our cost, we pushed on anyway. The road is more of a dirt track and is filled with enormous potholes and rocks. There’s no denying that the scenery was spectacular and Martin made it to Cafayate without incident.
We arrived in the early afternoon, found some lunch and immediately went out in search of wine.
Cafayate has the unique benefit that it has three wineries within about 5 minutes of each other right in the middle of town, so you can do an on-foot mini wine tour, which is something of a bonus. Very little English was spoken and Caro did her absolute best to translate but, really, we stood there nodding and waiting for the cue to drink the wine.
We weren’t really sold by any of the wines that we tasted, they reds were intensely dry, particularly the tannat grape, which was a new one on us and was like licking sandpaper. Cafayate vineyards also produce white wine, from torrontés grapes, and we didn’t like that either! Nonetheless the tastings are always fun and it was novel to have the whole lot wrapped up in about an hour. We thought that maybe we had had a little too much to drink when we encountered a couple of donkeys stood randomly in the middle of the street but they were real, and one really loved having his ears scratched.
The highlight of our trip to Cafayate (other than the donkey) was food rather than wine, at Bad Brother restaurant. You order your food tapas style but the portions are large so you have about 5 plates in total and are filled to bursting. The menu was varied and interesting and the food was so delicious.
Having ventured as far south of Salta as we had planned to go, we turned around and bolted back up north again, this time taking the paved and equally scenic RN68.
We by-passed Salta and drove to the northernmost point of our roadtrip, Humahuaca. We’d chosen to stay on the edge of town, as it was far cheaper. So, we drove through the lovely cobbled streets, then hit the dirt track, and then forged a river (Martin is most certainly not designed for this) and found ourselves in a rather dusty street with little else on it other than our guesthouse. The woman who ran it didn’t speak a word of English but gave us both huge hugs to say hello. It was also home to the cuddliest cat in the world, Mushy.
Whilst in Humahuaca, we learned that our flight from Buenos Aires to Gatwick had been cancelled due to strike action. Actually, we only found out that it was a strike later, after James had given Norwegian a totally undeserved earful. Norwegian actually come out of this whole saga pretty well, but more on that later. We would now be flying home a day earlier and therefore missing our last chance at a sensational Argentine steak. Fortunately, we had internet so we were able to cancel our hotel in Buenos Aires. We also had two full days to stress about our connecting flights; on our original schedule, we had a whole afternoon and night in BA with a very civilised flight the next day. All of a sudden, we had 4 hours between our flights, including changing airports and crossing Buenos Aires at rush hour. All of this pissed James off immensely at the time but, again, it paid off later. So, the last couple of days were a bit stressful, unnecessarily so for people who were so desperate to get home but, to be honest, it meant that we went out in style.
Humahuaca is surrounded by natural beauty and our time was largely spent driving between different sites. One of the most spectacular is the 14 coloured mountain, accessed by a winding 20km drive beyond the town. Don’t be fooled by the distance, it takes a good 45 minutes to get there.
It’s up at 4000m again and the wind was bastard chilly so we didn’t linger for long.
Perhaps the least impressive was Gaganta del Diablo, which you can hike up to from the village of Tilcara, but fortunately we chose to drive up, saving considerable time and doubtless much swearing. The view out over the town and the mountains as you ascend is admittedly pretty good.
The actual gorge and waterfall that you climb up to see are completely underwhelming and not worth the time or entrance fee. It was so disappointing that we didn’t even bother to take a picture. Having said that, we have been to some spectacularly crap tourist attractions on this trip and it is nice to have had one final one so close to the end of the trip.
The “Painter’s Palette” hill behind the town of Maimara can be seen from the main road, so it’s a quick and easy stop. You need to time it right though, we were there in the morning and the colours weren’t that obvious and even more difficult to pick up on camera.
Another gorgeous spot is Purmamarca with it’s 7 coloured hill, which you can actually walk / drive the whole way around. As with a lot of these sites, the walkers have to share the road with the cars and we had no desire to get covered in dust, so we drove around again. The colours were extraordinarily vivid.
It’s easy to get a bit blasé about these sites when you are seeing them one after the other, and it does get a little bit samey, even if you love desert scenery. It was absolutely stunning though, and looking back and the pictures now, we realise that more and more.
As we drove back into Salta it was a beautiful day so we took advantage of having the car for a couple more hours and drove up Cerro San Bernado to get views over the city.
Our last evening in South America was toasted with Chandon fizzy, canasta, gin and tonics, beer, steak and a bottle of Malbec.
Unsurprisingly, we felt a little ropey the next day as we started the long journey back to Diss train station. Caro chose the photos for this blog, so here’s James feeling sorry for himself at Salta airport:
Hangovers aside, the journey back to London was every bit as nightmarish as we had been dreading it would be. We’d pleaded with Norwegian to tag our bags as priority so they would come off the plane first when we arrived in Buenos Aires, which they did for us. Our bags came off last. 3 hours until our flight. We ran to the taxi desk and explained that we needed to get across to Ezezia airport pronto, our taxi driver strolled incredibly slowly to his car whilst we jogged on the spot behind him, exchanging worried looks. We crawled through Buenos Aires, the journey took an hour and 45 minutes and Caro was frantic by the end of it. 1 hour and 15 minutes until our flight. We bolted into the airport, our check in desk was several miles away. We screeched around the final corner to be confronted by an enormous queue at the Norwegian counter, maybe there was another flight after ours, we scurried around looking harrassed until it transpired that everyone in the queue was waiting for our flight too and things were simply progressing very very slowly. We spent the next half an hour watching more people sprinting around the corner, panicking at the queue, interrupting the team at the desk only to slip sheepishly to the back of the line. At check in, the man on the desk cheerfully informed us that boarding was supposed to have opened 10 minutes previously so we should probably go straight through security. We sighed massive sighs of relief and took the lift up to the departure floor. It wasn’t over yet, the impending strike the following day had completely screwed everyone over and there were at least double the number of passengers than Ezezia could feasibly cope with. There was a queue 500 metres long, snaking around from security and we were unhelpfully informed that there was no shortcut for people with imminent flights. 30 minutes until our flight. We joined the back of the queue, feeling that there was no way that this ended well. We’d recognised a few people in the queue from check in and, when Caro realised that they had disappeared, James went off to explore, discovering that they had simply pushed in at the front. This was a thoroughly un-British and unpalatable option but we dutifully did the same, apologising profusely to everyone that we passed. We made it through security with 20 minutes to go and joined the queue for immigration. A woman from Norwegian Airlines decided to take matters into her own hands and corralled all of her passengers to the front of the queue, stealing a desk to serve just Norwegian. We very much doubt that she had the authority to do this but she was a bit scary and no one was going to argue with her. We finally made it into departures 10 minutes before our flight was due to leave, knowing that there were a good number of people still standing in one of the many queues behind us. With this in mind, it is an absolute miracle that Norwegian got their plane off the groud just 1 hour after the original planned departure time. We heard that British Airways passengers who were due to fly on the same day as us were stuck in Buenos Aires for another 6 days, whereas Norwegian had done everything in their power to get us home earlier rather than later, for which we were immensely grateful. The 1 hour delay meant that we missed a connecting train back to Diss but this we coped with easily and everything felt like a breeze after the trauma in Buenos Aires. So, our last long distance flight was completed.
We wanted to share something with you, this is a picture from our very first flight to Australia.
And here we are, 19 months later, flying back from Buenos Aires.
We look completely buggered, we know that. But its truly incredible to think of everything that we have seen and done between these two photographs. It has truly been the trip of a lifetime and one that we aren’t quite ready to be finished yet.