Argentina: San Antonio de los Cobres to Belén – isolation in uncertainty

Getting back on ‘track’ involves a bus trip with our bikes as far back up into the mountains as possible – a perfect lift-hitch not being arrangeable.  As we buy our tickets – intentional and organised vehicular transport seems very strange – we’re told to deconstruct the bikes and box them.  This is almost too much to confront and a task too big.  We begin to contemplate a change in plan, but persevere, visit the bike shop again and strap the unloaded boxes onto the Big Dummy (yay!).  It promptly deluges in semi-tropical style as we race to the bus station.  Then after a boxing botch-job – the bus arrives.  There is absolutely not going to be enough space to fit the bikes in the limited hold.  Instead of dismissal and a forced revisitation of our diverted route, the driver ponders and directs us to strap our bikes upright inside the bus.  All is good and we are very, very thankful!

The next morning in San Antonio de los Cobres is bright and glorious.  Riding, rather than unnecessarily hitching back to the departure from the line is a satifying return.  The actual intersection is a cluster of abandoned adobe buildings and a dry, sheltered campsite inside one.  Cauchari – now just a name for a junction, rather than homes and lives as in the past.

Regularly rumbling past us, the natural gas haulers wave greetings. Apart from a pair of German campervans they are our only company south of Pocitos.

Our regained route south is, to us, the obvious line.  Staying high and wild just on the Argentinian side of the Andes.  Our self-proclaimed Puna-geeks (Neil anyway) provide stunningly detailed directions to this, as they have to other obviousnesses (to like minds, at least).  Arriving at the police-control point at the north end of the somewhat poetically named (we hope) Salar del Hombre Muerto (Dead Man’s Salar), we are advised to avoid the roads directly across it after the occupant points to a worryingly claggy bit of ground in front saying “como eso…”.   Thus begins a day or so of fantastically uninhabited, deserted dirt road riding.  It would all be fantastic if we knew that we were where we thought we were…

Avoiding a reportedly soggy salar is especially good as there is a prolonged, heavy electrical storm that night - and a conveniently sun-facing slope for tent drying the next morning.
Our peripheral track meets the more direct route from the north – but not the one we have directions for. No signs, and nobody to ask – time to follow the road that we hope heads in our planned direction.
A little while later we take a compass-assisted guess at another unmarked junction and look down to see the other choice head down to the Salar. The road our directions would have had us ascending, or some other?
A dazzling slash of green and water in the midst of monotone. Not knowing how far to more we load up.
The road continues reassuringly south – as the composite intelligence gleaned from our maps says we wish it to be. Further evidence crops up – a monument to a blow-out means this must be a road to somewhere...
Out-numbered many-to-two by Vicuñas who seem not to appreciate our company. Another passes by without offering any assistance.
With the appearance of this Difunta Correa shrine we’re back into the known.
So relax and take an early mark amongst rock-formations too tempting to one who’s been carrying rock-climbing shoes long neglected. Sarah’s cooking turn allows me to create non-cleated tracks in the sand (and a few less marked on the limitingly friable rock).
Enticing holds – for feet and hand, but too easily damaged to afford much vertical gain.
After Antofagasta de la Sierra and a road that skirts multiple areas of spewed volcanic outpouring, the afternoon headwinds combine with a soft surface. As will-power ebbs a pile of rocks offers tent-peg security and a halt.
Morning-onward is a different game (minus wind). The landscape feels like a tinted monochrome. Black and white only lacks the azure-sky colour.
Full-layers are rapidly discarded in response to the emerging sun
Residual patches of asphalt bounded by rock-gravel
Snow-dusted backdrop to a welcome return to surface-smoothness approaching El Peñon.
A silhouetted vicuña perched on the brink of a valley-sea of sand with our descent meandering in the background. Soon our passage through isolation will drop back towards human occupation.
Mountain-high sand dwarfs us and the (now) smooth road
And numbers humble. Only a few kms to go if we stick to the Ruta 40....


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