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March 21st, 2012 | Argentina

Up into the Andes…

I left Salta, knowing I had a long day ahead of me…

I chose the highway to San Salvador de Jujuy to get a quick start to my day... The more scenic route would have takem me through too many small villages...

I needed to cover about 600 km to get from there to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, and would need to make my first big climb up into the Andes to do it…!!

Salta lies at an elevation of 1150 m.a.s.l., and the Paso de Jama is at 4 170 m.a.s.l. … That just gets you up onto the Andean Plateau, or Altiplano as it is known…

From there, the road climbs up to almost 4 850 m.a.s.l., before sliding down into the fringes of the Atacama Desert…

Once past Jujuy, we crossed the Rio Reys and then headed due north for Leon, Vulcan and Tumbaya…

We were almost immediately into an area that I could see had been formed by some serious volcanic activity…

Different minerals and soil types had been thrust up through the earths surface, and made for some spectacular scenery…

Contrasting colours under a bright blue sky....

This range of mountains had been eroded by wind and water over the eons to look like organ pipes... I had to dodge through a busload of tourists who had stopped to take photographs...

Reds, greys, browns and even light green strata can be seen all along this part of Ruta 9...

The turn off to Paso de Jama and the start of our climb towards the Chilean border...

The road followed the Rio Grande for much of the way, and about 60 km north of Jujuy, we turned west onto Ruta 52…

This would take us all the way to the Chilean border, and up over a series of mountain passes that would have both the Big Fella and I gasping for air…!!

I had refueled half an hour out of Salta, and calculated that I should just make the border with a full tank… I planned to stop in Susques for a bite to eat and to check where the next fuel station was…

There was hardly any traffic on Ruta 52, but that was not surprising, as this was one of the most remote areas in Argentina, and linked it to just as remote an area in Chile…

Tourist traffic accounted for most the vehicles I encountered, with by far the majority coming into Argentina…

On the outskirts of Pumamarca, stands this church... It's white walls in start contrast with the ash-gray mountain behind it...

The road began climbing steeply, winding around a few huge dormant volcanoes that stood guarding the Paso de Jawa… Their wide bases forced the road ever upward and then into the pass itself…

For the next 30 kms, I felt as though we were been tossed about in a tumble-dryer…!! A staggering amount of sharp bends and switchbacks took us up from 2 200 m.a.s.l. to 3 800 m.a.s.l. …!!

Up the first section of the Paso DE Jama... It had been a steep climb, and there was more to come...!!

I stopped to take a few photos and then looked ahead and saw that I was only halfway up…!!

“There seems to be more where that last bit came from…!!” I told the Big Fella as I mounted up, kicked him into 1st gear and prepared to begin the next section…

The bike was sluggish over the first kilomteres, and things got worse the higher we climbed…!! Where I would normally be using 3rd and 4th gears, I was now using 2nd and 3rd to get around the sharp and very steep corners… When we did encounter a short straight bit, I opened the throttle and felt the bike shudder underneath me, taking a second or two to build up the revs…

After two grueling climbs, we were up onto the Altiplano, a high plateau that would take us to the Chilean border...

I was amazed to see how far we still were from the border... With the high revving and my hand heavy on the throttle, I began to wonder how far my fuel would take me...

The sound of the engine changed from his usual throaty roar to a more labored and higher tone… Sometimes the engine seems so quiet under me, and the sound only picks up when I get up to speeds in excess of 120 km/h….

Now, at the highest point we had ever ridden at, I was acutely aware of how noisy the bike was…!!

Perhaps the thinner air was the reason… Then again, perhaps not…!! I began to worry about my faithful friend, who had already done so much to get us this far…

In recent days, I had begun having difficulty in finding the neutral gear while I was either waiting at a traffic light or stopping to refuel…

I began to wonder if my clutch was giving up the ghost…!! That would NOT be a good thing for fifty reasons I could immediately think of…!!

The road seemed to level off, only rising and falling to get over smaller hills, until we came to the highest point on the Argentine side of the pass…

I had not seen a single soul on the way up here, and yet there were two young Indian woman sitting in rock shelters, carving animal motifs onto flat pieces of rock…!!

“Where the hell have they come from…??” I asked myself, as I dismounted and took a few photos to mark our arrival at the spot…

We made it to the highest point we had ever been together... Not without much wheezing and spluttering...!!

I figured that they must be dropped off every morning to sit here and carve stones, by some enterprising relative… The low scrub in the area could probably sustain sheep and goats, if the cold did not kill them…!! And although the sun was shining brightly, the girls were wrapped in heavy woolen blankets…

A short distance later, the road dropped down into a valley... The many colours of soil and rock were amazing...!!

“Doesn’t that sight make you want to tear down there, whipping through those corners, getting your foot-pegs tickled by the tar…??” I asked the Big Fella…

“Not really…!! Not today…!! I’ve had a hard time hauling your arse up this mountain…!! Give me a break…!!” came the grumbled reply…

So we took it at half pace, enjoying the scenery, the throttle mostly closed…

Ruta 52 goes right through the largest salt lake in Argentina

A short distance later we came across the Salar Grandes, a huge salt lake, where salt was being “mined”… The road ran down the centre of this enormous pan, and a number of tourists were out on the salt flats, taking photographs…

Well whoever "libertadded the buggers better get them un-libertadded right smartly...!!

I had wanted to ride the bike out onto the pan, but there must have been rain up here recently, because when I stopped to take a closer look, I could see a thin film of water on top of the salt… The people walking on the flats had salt brine up to their ankles… No way was I taking a chance to ride out onto that…!! I had seen what the salt had done to Roberto’s bike and wasn’t about to have my wiring and connections corroded by the  saltwater…

The temperature had dropped significantly, but was only really noticeable when we were moving… If I stopped anywhere to take a photo to just to gawk at the amazing luna-like landscape I was riding through, within minutes I could feel the warm sun on my shoulders…

Every so often, I would come across a long narrow mud-brick building, that indicated people actually live out here…!! However, I never saw a single soul wandering around any of these dwellings…

I saw a few Guanacos, the same species of camelid that we encountered in large numbers while riding through Patagonia…

Typical dwelling found on the Altiplano... The garden service had not called around to this one in some time...!!

I came across this small herd of donkeys, being chivvied along by a friendly Gaucho...

"These bloody animals have no road sense Senhor...!! I told them to stay on the right hand side of the road,...!!"

I stopped to chat to a gaucho who rode a large black donkey, part of a herd he was moving towards the salt flats… With sign language, he asked if I had anything to eat… I fished a muesli bar out of my tank bag, and handed it to him… I do not think he had seen one before, because he turned it over half a dozen times before he opened it and began munching…

He shouted something in Spanish to the donkeys in front of him, who had by now moved about 50 metres away… Whatever he said, had the desired effect, because the whole herd came to an immediate stop…!!

“Can you make them sit up and do tricks…??” I asked…

“No, son demasiado tercos para que…!!” he replied…

(“No, they are too stubborn for that…!!”)

I rode on, passing more domesticated animals, this time in the shape of Llamas… Small herds of them grazed along the roadside, and I noticed that just like the donkeys I had seen before, many of them had coloured tassles attached the their ears…

Herds of Llamas began cropping up on our radar... The beasts seem to know all about traffic, and clear off the road long before you get close to them...

I was later told that this sometimes indicated ownership, as each herd would have a specific design of tassles, dreamed up by it’s owner…

The larger males stood looking insolently at me when I stopped and hooted to see if they would scatter… And they didn’t stop chewing whatever it was they were eating, not even for a minute… Cocky creatures…!!

My first look at the town of Susques, where I had planned to stop for lunch was a little disheartening…

It consisted of rows of mud brick buildings, and was built on the edge of a wide and almost dry riverbed…

A sign at the turnoff to town indicated that there was fuel and a hotel a further 4 kms up the road, so I decided to ride there, rather than mess around in this one-goat town to look for something to eat…

The town of Susques.... Population: A little over 1000.... Not a place to spend your holidays...!!

We rode on through a narrow canyon, it’s walls coming down close to the tarred surface, casting deep shadows across the road… It was almost like riding from day into sudden night…!!

As for steak and chips, and that's all you're gonna get...!!

I found the hotel on the left hand side of the road, just where the sign said it would be… It was decked out like something out of the American West… A few log cabins stood off to one side, and the large bar and restaurant contained half a dozen American engineers, all furiously typing emails on their Blackberry’s…

The owner, a large robust woman, spoke English with a thick accent, and welcomed me to her establishment… I order a steak and chips, which arrived at my table in next to no time…

While I sat eating, I had my video camera battery charging, and borrowed her laptop to check my mail… It was hard to believe that there was a strong WiFi signal here…!!

Considering the friendly service and the fact that they also have fuel here, this is a place well worth stopping at…

My reserve indicator had not yet come on, which surprised me, because I thought I would have used a lot more fuel than normal, climbing up on this plateau…

Confirming that there was a service station at the border, 110 km away, I decided to chance my arm (again…!!) and refuel there…

We began passing snow-capped mountains, and ran through another large salt flat before arriving at the border…

The Argentine border is stuck out in the middle of nowhere... It is at the base of the mountain in the bottom left of this picture.... The scenery leading up to it is spectacular....!!

GB the pump jockey...!! Refueling at the border...

I met a Brazilian biker at the service station, who was being accompanied by his family and friends, in two other vehicles… They were on their way to Cusco and Machu Pichu in Peru…

We chatted for a while, and his companions crowded around taking pictures of us together, until I called a halt to the festivities, when a large tourist bus pulled in behind us… I did not want to stand in a long queue at the Argentine Immigration counter…!!

We quickly rode to the border post a few hundred metres away, and were speedily processed by the officials there. Barely ten minutes later, I waved goodbye to the Brazilian, and rode into Chile…

"Thanks for the welcome, but where's the border post....??"

I cruised slowly under the “Welcome to Chile” sign, looking for the border post… All the buildings I could see, were on the Argentine side… I remembered that in the south, the border posts are shared, both Immigration and Customs counters are in the same building…

I stopped and looked back, but saw no Chilean flag flapping in the breeze… I decided to ride on, as it is not uncommon to have the border posts a few kilometres apart…

I came across this car-carrier, that had rolled off the road and burnt out, together with it's load...

After 20 km, I began to get worried… Surely there must be a border post here somewhere…??

I was riding through one of the most desolate places you can imagine… The landscape bleak, the mountains in the distance, stark… Little or no vegetation grew up here… I never saw a bird, or even encountered an insect crashing into my windshield…

It was the kind of place that makes you realise how small and insignificant you are… Just a tiny spec on a massive landscape canvas, painted in many different colours…

This shallow lake was part of a series of other lakes in the centre of a large salt pan... Again the variety of contrasting colours held my attention...!!

I forgot all about the border post, believing that because there was absolutely nothing out here, it must be close the to the town was was heading for…

I stopped at 4.832 m.a.s.l. to take this picture... My hands were so cold, I did not want to take the photo while we were moving, in case I dropped the camera...!! A short while after I took this, we peaked at 4 847 m.a.s.l. ...!!

The road began climbing steadily, and it got very much colder… I was riding with only a T-shirt under my jacket, and before long I began shivering…

My hands in my fingerless gloves first began tingling with pins and needles, and then went a little numb… The heated grips helped, but not much…

I was loath to stop and put on more clothing, believing that sooner or later, the road would dip down to lower altitudes (San Pedro was at about 2 500 m.a.s.l.) and I would warm up…

We peaked at just under 4 850 m.a.s.l. (over 16 000 ft) and a cold wind blew steadily into my face… My nose went numb and my eyes watered; my lips began burning and my throat was dry… And I had forgotten to replenish my water at the border…!!

I kept my mind off the cold by marveling at my surroundings…

In the first 80 kms of the ride, only two vehicles passed me going the other way… I had the world to myself for a long time, and felt a freedom that was invigorating…

The road ran towards a chain of snow-clad mountains... I hoped it did not go up and over them...!!

Weird seeing snow in a desert landscape...!!

This and the area to the north of it is one of the most active volcanic places on earth... These two dormant volcanoes stood at the outer edge of the Altiplano...

"Oh good..!! I've been holding it in for ages...!!"

Just when I thought I could no longer hold out against the cold, the road mercifully began dipping down towards San Pedro de Atacama…

It was nowhere near as steep a descent as the climb up had been… Long sweeping bends took us down below 4 000 m and the temperature rose steadily…

Out in the distance, on a wide dry plain, I could see sunlight glinting off the roofs of houses and buildings…

A glance at GiGi confirmed that we were about to arrive at our destination…

A large sign instructing all vehicles to report to the “Adouna”, filled me with trepidation… I wondered if the Immigration office was in the same place… I did NOT want to ride back to look for a border post…!!

After an exciting, but strenuous ride, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama...

As luck would have it, when I arrived at the dusty border post, there were not one, but two tourist buses, filled with back-packers in front of me… By the time I got off the bike and hurried over to join the queue, most of them were already ahead of me…!!

I began to wonder why the heck I had ridden so far to see this place...!!

It took over an hour to be processed and I had to eat both bananas I was carrying before they let me through into the town…

No fruit or vegetables may be carried between the borders of Chile and Argentina…

My first impression of San Pedro was not a good one… As I turned the first bend after the border post, expecting to find a tar road leading down into the city centre, I instead saw a potholed dirt track…

I asked for directions to the town square, which is usually the best place to start your search for accommodation from… All fingers pointed further down the same track…!!

I found the town square, which had paving all around it… In the centre stood a dozen large trees, and under them, hordes of back-packers lounged…

One one side of the square,two restaurants with seating filled to capacity seemed to be doing a roaring trade… I had to ride inches away from them to encircle the square, looking for a sign that indicated a hotel was close by…

With secure parking and a good WiFi signal, I had struck lucky first time round...!!

The sight of the big bike brought many a meal to a temporary halt… Diners stared open mouthed as I passed by, and it was only later that I saw the sign that said no vehicles allowed on the square…!!

I rode down a narrow road, stooped on a dusty street corner and overheard a young couple asking a local for “habitacion”… I saw the direction the guy was indicating to them, and turned the same way…

I turned into the first decent looking one I saw, rode through a large gate into a graveled strewn courtyard, and gratefully hopped off the Big Fella…

The Hostal Camino del Inca is run by a no nonsense Chilean woman, who rarely smiles, and is a tough negotiator to boot…!!

Once we had settled on a price, she took me over to the room on the corner of the courtyard, unlocked the door, and pushed it open with a flourish…

I was happy with what I saw, and told her so, which finally brought a smile to her lips…!!

My room on the corner... I am writing this post from the table outside...!!

After taking the gear I needed into my room, I showered and then went off to forage… The picking were very basic in the immediate area of the hostal, but I found a place that served a quarter roast chicken with chips for just R30 ($4.00) and tucked right in…

While I ate, I mulled over what might be ailing the Big Fella… I decided that the first order of business the next day, was to work out what it was, and try to get it sorted as quickly as possible…

©GBWT 2012

 

2 comments to Up into the Andes…

  • Mark Behr

    What a ride – like a walk I once remember leading up to the Chain Ladder. Hope Big Fella is not too out of sorts and can be fixed by a few basic adjustments.

  • Steve Knight

    Ronnie: I sent a note elsewhere about Sherri Jo Wilkens who is riding in that neck of the woods right now. Your comments about elevation lead me to copy you on this post… http://www.andesmotoextreme.com/ Sherri set a world record riding to 5409 meters on one of those volcanoes you see.

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