Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On a desert road trip, the Salinas Grandes, and 'adventure travel'

OMGYOUGUYS. It's time for a travel tale. Do youguys remember last winter, when we went to Argentina to visit delightful friends (the ones who sent me that gorgeous diary yesterday) and cruised the countryside for a while? SURELY YOU MUST. Anyway, you may or may not also remember that there was a bit of a gap in content between Cafayate and our return to Buenos Aires. In that time we cruised Salta and Iguazu Falls and things got Super Real. Super Awesome, to be sure, but Real, nonetheless. This was no urban, hipster portion of our holiday, where we ate fancy food and watched dancers do the tango, or cruised vineyards and poolsides and ate our weight in empanadas. No, Salta was none of these things. It was cowboy country, close to the borders of Bolivia and Chile, a gorgeously wild, rocky countryside, full of llamas and gauchos and wool and stew and folk music and grit.

I don't know if you know this, but Wolf and I aren't super gritty.

Our day out of Salta began with a drive north to Purmamarca to see the Cierro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours). We intended from that point on to continue our drive north to Humahuaca to see More Colourful Hills and Rocks before turning around and trekking back south. It would be a long day on the road - about three hours each way - but THOSE VIEWS, right! That LANDSCAPE! IT MUST BE DONE IT IS WHY WE ARE IN SALTA.

It all started according to plan: we made it to Purmamarca by 10:30 in the morning - after a drive through rolling hills covered in fog, very Northern-California - and got to see this:

I'm pretty sure this is where unicorns are born.

Purmamarca was the sweetest little village nestled in the crook of a rainbow: it had a charming market square filled with dusty pottery and llama wool blankets and a whopping total of about five little shops packed with mate gourds, bombillas, and wooden carvings of animals. It was EXACTLY what you wanted it to be.

Taste the rainbow.

Our plan from this point was to make it to Humahuaca by lunch, take some more photos of pretty rocks, maybe take a walk, and then head back to Salta for dinnertime.

It was in the tiny Purmamarca tourism office - if you can call a single room containing nothing but a giant yellowed wall map a tourism office - that our path changed. 'You MUST go to Salinas Grandes,' the tourism-girl/map monitor assured us. 'It is MUCH nicer than Humahuaca. Also closer. Drive is very nice.' We consulted Wall Map, squinted at her one faded brochure from 1994 that showed giant salt plains and a bunch of fluorescent nerds jumping around, looked at Wall Map again, and saw that it was indeed a closer dot. And - unlike Humahuaca - we could loop back to Salta via a local highway so we wouldn't be backtracking and taking the same road up and down the country. All new territory! And halfway through this loop was a town that - going by the size of its dot - was pretty good-size, and the brochure said that tourism buses bound for the Salinas Grandes used this town as its halfway point for a break, and that it also had a train station because it was on the track of the Train to the Clouds or Heavens or whatever. So it must contain at least a charming square of some sort and possibly an empanada or two! Who needs Humahuaca and its dozens of cafes? We're sold. Caution to the wind - me feeling very proud that for once I wasn't following a carefully-planned itinerary, I am so spontaneous and exciting - we hit the road.

And the girl didn't lie: the approach to the Salt Plains was BEAUTIFUL. Mountains and switchbacks and views in every direction:

'Look at those rock formations!' we exclaimed, convinced these were at LEAST as nice as those of Humahuaca, if not BETTER.

'Have you ever SEEN such beauty??' we thrill. 

'Oh yeah. We made the right choice.'

It took us about an hour to get to the Salt Plains, and we are psyched. We got to drive through SO MUCH PRETTINESS and now we're going to see SALT PLAINS. We're thirsty, and starting to feel peckish - it's noon, after all, time for first lunch - so we decide we will pop in to the Salt Plains Visitor Centre and buy a bottle of water and an overpriced cookie or something to tide us over until we get to that Halfway Town.

Except we get there, and there is only this:

Salt Plains, as advertised.

That's okay! How naive of us to assume that all national parks would have visitor centres! This isn't the UK or America, after all. We've travelled the world, we should've known better! And we aren't sissies, we can wait until Halfway Town to eat or drink. We jump around like nerds because the brochure seemed to indicate that was the number one activity here, and then we continue on our Fun Times Road Trip.

We took the car back to a painted arrow we remembered seeing a few minutes before: 101km to San Antonio de los Cobres *that way*. Excellent! In about two hours we'll have a break and a bite. Sure, we hadn't eaten since 7 that morning and now we were looking at two in the afternoon, but a little hunger builds character. WE ARE NOT SISSIES. Onwards!

Things are still looking good as we head back to the arrow. And then: Where is the road?

Is it that dirt track?


We're momentarily alarmed before realising that it must only be dirt for a short time before becoming a normal road again, because Wall Map showed this road as a thick yellow line like all the other roads we had been on before and none of THEM were made out of sand. Let's not worry too much, we must get on with things, lunch awaits and it's this or return to Purmamarca.

We take the turn.

This is what it looks like when donkeys are laughing their *sses off.

We ignored the warning, the hilarity, in his eyes.

We start driving. And driving. This is all we see for the first half hour: 

Eff you, Salt Plain horizon.

And this is all we see for the NEXT THREE HOURS:

At this point, the road is so rough that Alan's struggling to keep our tiny tin-can rental car in our 'lane' (insert delirious laughter here. There are no lanes. There are no other cars). The constantly shifting sand, the buffeting wind, the rocks - everything conspires to push our vehicle into the path of nature. His knuckles are white on the wheel and every time we hear a pebble ping against the side of the car - which is every two seconds - we flinch and regret not taking out the insurance policy, because surely by the end of this, our car will be as pocked as the surface of the moon. We can't roll down the windows, because within seconds the wind pushes so much dirt into the car we are covered head-to-toe in a fine red dust.

Eventually, having driven for over two hours without seeing a single other vehicle, Alan relaxes his grip and gives up and drives down the middle of the road, where the car appears to be (more) content. Any approaching vehicle we'd see coming days in advance. So, you know, bright side?


This is where they bury the bodies of all the tourists who take this road.

And then - finally, finally, oh thank God we've made it - San Antonio de los Cobres! We made it! Civilisation! We made it! There will be water! Food! Gas! WATER WATER OMG WATER WE ARE DYING OF THIRST AND HUNGER WATER. It's now 3:30 in the afternoon, we are low on gas, and it's been over 8 hours since the last time we had anything to eat or drink. Our hanger has led us to bottomless depths of silence and all we can think of is putting ANYthing in our face, ANYthing AT ALL, and not running out of gas because we still have A BILLION MORE KILOMETERS to get to Salta. This was HALFWAY, YOUGUYS. HALFWAY THROUGH THE JOURNEY. But it's a town! Salvation is upon us.


Just let that sink in a minute.

Maybe that's the convenience store?

It is at this point we begin to despair. This was our goal, it's what kept us going through over three hours of driving through a deserted wasteland. We panic in a silent way, because we are too worn down to panic in our usual scream-to-the-gods way, my preferred method of supplication. Our focus narrows immediately. GAS. WE MUST GET GAS. Forget dreams of food and water, forget white-washed churches and leafy town squares, IF WE DON'T GET GAS WE ARE STRANDED HERE. And we are pretty sure the only place to sleep is that graveyard we passed an hour before. 

We drive down the road. We find a dirt track that leads to another gravel road. We drive down that road. There is still nothing. We internally panic some more as the car's tank trickles down. We stop and ask two men walking down the road who are so covered in that pervasive white dirt you can't see the brown skin beneath and their insides must be white and cracked as well, and when we asked them for directions, their Spanish was not my Spanish and we can only understand their gestures and confusion. 

We finally find it: a tank. A man. A hose. GAS. We are so incredibly thankful we don't care that there's no shop attached, still no sustenance. We pass a house with a table in front and there's evidence of a parrilla that smells torturously of roasted meat, but this semblance of a place that sells food is already shut, they shut at three. Our Spanish is not your Spanish, so we cannot feed you, we are shut, you see our gestures? 

We get back on the road. We're slightly less terrified than before - at least now we have a full tank so we can die farther down the road - but now we are hell-bent on getting back to Salta. 

The road is still rough, but it's smoother, it's cleaner, we are moving faster, scenery is rising again: 

What is beauty in the face of the end of times? 


And then youguys, it happened. THE ROAD BECAME PAVED.

THE ROAD BECAME PAVED! You would not believe our shrieks of joy, the way we bounced in our seats and attempted the radio again and then gave up and sang our own songs. It didn't matter that we still had two hours of driving ahead of us, that we are now going on ten hours with no food or water. IT WAS PAVED, YOUGUYS.

You wouldn't believe how quickly two hours can pass when you can drive at a million miles per hour without swerving off a dirt path. As soon as we got back to Salta, we squealed to a halt in front of the first street food vendor we saw, not caring what he was selling, how authentic or local or charming it was, whether it had been reviewed by Tripadvisor or Yelp or Travel & Leisure, and we ate the best cheeseburgers of our lives and drank cokes so fast we nearly choked. Propped up on his stools, shovelling it all in, crusty and wild-eyed, the guy must've thought that we were absolutely insane.

We were. INSANE FOR THIS BURGER. I'm pretty sure my hand was trembling in this photo.

Eventually we made it back to our tiny hotel and showered and went out to Real Dinner - because OBVIOUSLY I still had a plan and a list of places we had to eat and no Burger Starter was going to stop that - before we at long last stumbled back to our room. We slept for ten straight hours that night, as heavily as the dead buried in the middle of the God-forsaken Argentinian desert.

The next day: Iguazu Falls. AKA 'Water.' It had better be good.

Big hugs and lots of love,


  1. I love this. You never told me this happened to you!! I'm LOLing my bottom right now.

  2. This posting deserves the Best Blog Post of the Year! Even knowing how things turned out I was "oh my, oh my, oh my" all the way through.