Once over the border and back into Chile it was all downhill. Literally. From the heights of the High Altiplano we dropped down to a mere 2,400m, the altitude at which San Pedro de Atacama lives.
Having only spent time in cities when we were in Chile before I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect of San Pedro. Because crossing the border from Bolivia had taken so much time, we’d only have an afternoon to have a look around. Things were
looking good when we checked into our hostel for the night. A sunny garden, trees and hammocks welcomed us. A far cry from the narrow exhaust filled streets of Potosi, and the spartan salt hotel and hostel of the salt flats and the Altiplano. It was a tough choice whether to go out to explore the town or laze in the warm sun and read a book.
The town itself sits in the shadow of the Licancabur volcano, the same volcano we passed on the other side on our way to the border on our way from Bolivia. It’s a far cry from Santiago. In my recollection there are no buildings over two stories, and once you reach the historic centre of the town, the roads are composed of dust and dirt and lined with low rise rows of shops, restaurants and bars. An old church and small indoor tourist market complete the places of interest in the town.
It actually feels all pretty chilled and laid back, and as we wandered the streets as the afternoon drew on the sound of music (surely a good name for a movie…) started to drift out into the street from the open bars.
Whilst there’s not a great deal of San Pedro, we were a little disappointed that we only had a few hours to explore. It is a town with a really nice feel to it, quite pretty, warm and with a good choice of places to eat, drink and relax. There are a couple of other things you can do there. Sandboarding, which a few of the group wanted to try was out due to a lack of time and fatigue from having been up at 4:30 am. The other, star gazing, was equally challenging from a sleep perspective as it didn’t actually start until 10:45 pm and went on until 2 o’clock in t he morning! But as the southern skies were such a highlight and we’d pretty much forgotten all that Jim had told us all those months ago in Namibia we decided that staying up late and then sleeping on the 12 hour coach trip to Salta in Argentina the next day was worth the effort.
San Pedro is well known for its clear skies, and whilst not as high as other places we’d been to, the surrounding area with its lack of man made light pollution makes it a good place to view the heavens. So we found ourselves out in the countryside picking up blankets to combat the night time chill and sitting in a field listening to an amateur, but expert, astronomer explaining about the southern constellations, dust clouds, binary stars, clusters and a heap of other things.
After the explanations, we moved onto the practicals. A handful of telescopes were set up pointing at different parts of the sky. We were able to see the binaries and the clusters that we’d heard about. Things invisible to the naked eye. But that evening, both Saturn and Jupiter were visible so we got to see both of these gas giants including the rings of Saturn. If you are a fan of the night sky this is very exciting, if you’re not your probably thinking ‘geek, just get on with it’.
So I will. But as a parting comment, I just have to say that the best bit for me is seeing the vast number of stars that fill our skies, the handful of shooting stars that passed through my field of vision and the milky way ever present overhead.
I tried taking a few photos of the sky while we were there, and even with a modest camera and a modest zoom lens as you look at the results and zoom in on the resulting images distant stars, invisible at first, appear. It really brings it home to you just how full of stars our galaxy (and universe) is.
In fact Helen and I had a few ‘discussions’ about the statement Carl Sagan made back in the 80s, that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the beaches of the world. She could not possibly believe this is true and we couldn’t agree. But scientists have actually tried to estimate the numbers involved to try to verify the statement. The BBC have a sound clip summarising the assumptions made and the calculation, and for Helen, and anyone who loosely fits into the geek category you can listen to it here.
So bleary eyed the next morning we left the warm and welcoming hostel to walk to the bus station for the 12 hour trip across the Andes into Argentina, our eighteenth country.
It’s always an interesting discussion point. Is it better to make these long journeys at night to maximise what you can see during the day or to travel during the day so that you can see the landscape change as you journey between cities and countries over mountains and across plains. There is no answer really, but this trip was definitely one worth doing in the day. Just like driving through Bolivia, the mountains were spectacular, and the vistas vast.
It was dark when we arrived in Salta, and late, but we did have two nights there so a bit more time to enjoy our first taste of Argentina.
Taste is an appropriate word, the first thing I want to talk about is the meat as Argentina is renowned worldwide for its steak. My first taste of an Argentine steak was here in Salta. A small local restaurant opened its doors at 7:30 pm. As we (Helen, I and half a dozen more of our group) were waiting outside when the doors opened, we wandered in and had the pick of the tables. The waiter warned us that the barbeque wouldn’t be ready for another half an hour but that was OK, we weren’t in a hurry. Looking around, and yes, there in the corner was a giant charcoal grill, flames licking up through the bars. Something you rarely see in the UK inside a restaurant. As the menu was all in Spanish we just asked for their suggestions and to just bring us enough of it for eight.
A couple of glasses of wine later and up came two huge platters of meat and plates of french fries (across the rest of the world, chips are what we know as potato crisps). Different cuts of steak and ribs. There was enough meat to feed a family of four for a week! And it was delicious; lean, tender and very tasty.
Salta itself though is a quiet place. Not spectacular (the cloudy weather didn’t help), but with some history and historical buildings.
The main square, with its pink clad cathedral is filled with grand colonial buildings and an interesting museum exhibiting the story (and mummified bodies) of three Inca children known as the Children of Llullaillaco (a volcano near the Argentina/Chile border). Also known as the Mummies of Llullaillaco, the mummies discovered in 1999 near the summit of Llullaillaco (6,739 metres or 22,110 ft). The children were sacrifices in an Inca religious ritual that is believed to have taken place c.1500.
Chosen, because of their distinguished heritage and good looks as offerings to the gods, they walked tens of miles to the top of the volcano where they were drugged and allowed to freeze on top of the mountain, and then they were placed inside a small chamber 1.5 metres underground, where they were left to die with their belongings. Due to the altitude, cold, and dry air, they have been exquisitely preserved and archaeologists widely consider them to be among the best preserved mummies in the world.
Also in the square are money changers. One of the most common things we heard all over Argentina was the word ‘cambio’. Cambio cambio here. Cambio cambio there. And we did need to change money. Argentina, when we were there, was going through something of an economic crisis with inflation running at over 2% per month and the queues at the ATMs at the start of the month stretching to tens of people. All trying to get at their money to but basic goods before price rise again. ATMs also have limited amounts of cash, or so we had been led to believe. This was confirmed when some of our group tried to get cash but were turned away by ATM after ATM. Luckily we had US dollars, but even then things didn’t seem straightforward. Out guide asked us if we would be happy to deal with one of our loveable ‘cambio’ money dealers on the street. Not being keen to deal on the black market we said we’d rather go to a recognised money exchange. So we were led up a quiet staircase inside a small shopping centre off the main square to a man sitting alone behind a desk with a draw full of Argentinian Pesos. The rate we were offered seemed reasonable, and there was no slight of hand counting out the notes (you hear stories of money changers slipping notes into their pockets and short changing the unsuspecting tourists). But there was no receipt, no traceability and my conclusion was that this was still black market trading, but in a room rather than on the street. On the plus side, the notes we received seemed genuine and we had no problems spending them.
Back to the town though, and the most notable figure in Salta’s history is Martín Miguel de Güemes. Born in Salta in 1785, in 1815 he organized a resistance against royalists forces loyal to Spain employing local gauchos trained in guerrilla tactics. Later he was appointed as the Governor of Salta Province and was heavily involved in the long civil war in Argentina until his death (he was shot and died of his wounds) in 1822.
Salta is a comfortable place to spend a day or two. The vista from the top of the cable car is far reaching to the foot of the Andes and in the town some colonial history, craft beer and good steaks mean that a couple of days seem to fly by, and our flight onward to Buenos Aries came around quickly the next morning.
I can’t help thinking though that there is a great deal more in that area of Argentina that we just didn’t get the chance to see. Maybe a return visit one day would remedy that.