Argentina: Road to the Clouds 2007

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Sure it looks like an ad for Land Rover. But see that plane? You couldn't stand up straight in it, and we were told the trip would take 3 hours, or less if we had a decent tail wind. I was in something the size of a soup can, hoping something would blow on it to make it go faster. The landing strip in Cafayate looked like a piece of Hot Wheels track some kid had flung down in the middle of nowhere. But the first glimpse of those mountains? That shut even me up. Those mountains were the view from my bedroom window the first night. This hotel is a 5-star spa resort (Patios de Cafayate), and I am eternally thankful to a non-English speaking lad named Gustav who gave me the massage of a lifetime. Come to think of it, there is a certain appeal to all non-English speaking lads when you're tired... Within an hour of the hotel, this is where we were on the first day. These terra cotta spikes defy description. The road was still pretty good, though I think we only saw two other vehicles within 4 hours. And a few donkeys. As you lose the road, the dust kicks up like crazy. You can't see the trucks ahead and you have to back off, or you'll end up rear-ending someone. That would be a no-no with Land Rover. The instructors (one in each car) treat the truck like it's their own. They take responsibility for any damage, and because they are directing us, they can't just say some wingnut journalist decided she was Indiana Jones. He. I meant he.
Every town or city we went to, regardless of size, was based on the Spanish design of a large town square. Everyone gravitates towards them, and you can just sit or have a coffee. The kids are beautiful, and this little girl happily posed for me when I pulled out my camera. Parents are never far away, and except for the crazy drivers (they don't use stop signs), the kids run around in relative safety. The school we stopped at in Pucara was wonderful. I've already written about it, but the photos I took there are my favourites. These little boys were bored out of their minds with the speeches going on for our benefit. When they realized I was taking their picture, they tried to behave. It lasted about 90 seconds. The first little girl brave enough to have her picture captured on my digital, after seeing it I suddenly had a gang of little kids all over me. The extreme close ups are a result of being unable to push them any further away then that to get the shot. The laughter was outrageous. By this point, I was ready to pull an Angelina and just stuff them all in the Land Rover and bring them home.
Doesn't this look like the place you stop for lunch every day? This is where the altitude started to get to me a little. I sat on a sandy rock ledge, asking if anyone else felt drunk. It's an odd feeling, not unpleasant, but a little disconcerting when you've only had a cup of tea and a few crackers. We were at about 2000 metres. I sat in the back for the next part. But the drunk went away, and I was good to carry on. ...and the fun begins in earnest. This scared the crap out of me. It took each truck about 15-20 minutes to be directed down this drop. The first serious obstacle, I began to seriously wonder what I'd gotten myself into. I got around a couple more rocky bends and found out. The photographer lies underneath these trucks to take photos. He's insane. I stood well back, after I'd come through. At the top of this turn, your front wheels are hanging in the air. You (and the truck) have to do all these little tiny movements to get it positioned properly, or you'll just roll down the side. And kill the photographer. These were my last minute instructions before heading up a monster cliff. The instructors are so calm, so reassuring, so confident. They are either spectacularly well trained, or they have all had lobotomies.
'Don't scratch the paint!' And I used to think parking in an underground garage was tough. Yeah, it was really me. You can't see the Land Rover woman in the back seat praying. You'd think driving in this stuff would be such a relief. In fact, this kind of sand just grabs at the wheels like crazy, and you have to be really, really careful. You can't let your eyes move for a second. There are rocks all over the place. There are runoff culverts cutting across all over, and water runs down from the mountains forming deep ruts. So, both hands on the wheel, eyes on the 'road', keep drinking lots of water as we climb, and keep an eye out for a good place to go pee. I slept here. In a tent. Unbelievable.
The beginning of the serious climb to the top. The road is as wide as the truck. Every turn is blind, though occasionally you would see a bendy arrow sign signifying a turn ahead. You'd kind of scratch your head and think 'now they tell me?'. There is no rhyme and little reason to traffic signs and laws. It's kind of first come, first served, and whoever has the biggest, er, horn, wins. And all the way up to nearly 5000 metres (16000 feet) like this. The animals (llamas, alpacas, some other odd furry things) ignore you. The air is thin, really thin. Nobody can run to leave the truck, you walk about three feet. The good doctor along with us had forbidden me to walk more than a few feet (well, technically, he'd also told me not to go along to the top. But I rarely listen to anyone - I didn't come half way around the world to not see this - because I had a headache.) At this point I told the head instructor that Land Rover should pump oxygen through the air conditioning system. He told me they'd get right on that. Class photo...note the sheep. Heading home. We ended up in Salta, a beautiful city (and province) in Argentina. The last night of the trip started at about 8pm and ended at about 4:30 in the morning. Totally restful way to hop on a charter plane to begin 30 hours of flying home and stalking around airports. Trip of a lifetime? Absolutely.
What kind of girl would come home from Argentina without a big hunk of silver? Now, that would just be silly. (photo courtesy of Johnny Lucas) I wanted to make sure I appropriately honoured the powers that sent me writing in the dust on the vehicle owned by the company that brought me here. Of course, the powers that brought me here had some ideas of their own...