2nd – 6th April
Tupiza to Salta (489km)
Total distance – 2080km
To keep to schedule I planned to step on the gas from Tupiza to Salta – almost 500km to do in four days. I thought it was achievable though because it was all on tarmac and there would be some great downhill runs. Turpiza is at about 3000m altitude, Salta is at 1170m!
The route from Tupiza to Villazon on the border started with a beautiful downhill, gliding through the spectacular coloured, jagged canyons. After about 30km I came to the valley floor and crossed a broad river and its floodplain.
Then the climbing started, gently at first, but the gradient gradually cranked up to between five and eight percent over for a 600m+ ascent. It was Rolando’s birthday and we came across a random barbecue happening by the side of the road (goat and pig slowly roasting). This was Heaven for Rolando, a meat lover, and we stopped for an early lunch.
The rest of the gently undulating road to Villazon was completed at good pace and I thought we would be able to get across the border that day. Unfortunately there were a for road blocks. We ended up having to stay in Villazon/Bolivia for another night.
Contrary to what we had heard, we didn’t have all the papers necessary – I had bought RAT tests with me but at the border they said they need to be verified by a health professional. We managed to get PCR test results, international car insurance and other requirements organised on a Saturday night/Sunday morning and we were through – I started cycling at around 1.30pm the next day with a lot of time to make up.
The first section was over the high plains that were slightly uphill to begin with but then levelled out completely. I made good time to Abra Pampa and then on to Tres Cruces, arriving in the dark, 104km from Villazon. I was pleased to make up some of the lost time after a frustrating morning.
The team had gone ahead to Tres Cruces while I was still riding and found a little Pizzeria with a room for the night. Staying with Joseph and Anna was one of those “this is why we travel” experiences. The couple had moved from Buenos Aires just before the start of the pandemic and now have a young son. They were still renovating their home and they lived pretty frugally – their place was made from rendered mud bricks and it was a bit dusty with lots of character. It was more than a pizzeria as the couple proceeded to join us and pull out the cervezas. Our first night in Argentina was a lot of fun with great home made pizzas new friends.
Tres Cruces forms a part of the boundary for a UNESCO World Heritage listed region, Quebrada de Humahuaca, selected for its outstanding natural beauty and cultural heritage. Descending through the region was a luxury after so long in the high altitudes. The towns seem much more developed than in Bolivia – better roads, neat, tidy and well set up for tourists. The day had been going very well until a headwind that funnelled up the enormous valley spoiled the party.
On one hand I was enjoying the scenes – colourful jagged mountains, a more fertile valley with trees, crops and other greenery – on the other hand, I was being knocked around by the gusting headwinds. The highway wasn’t wide enough for the traffic and was without a hard shoulder. This made the second half of the day a real challenge. I had to try to push through it to have a chance of arriving in Salta the next day. Reaching Tumbaya after 137km gave me a fighting chance.
From Tumbaya I ascended for about 100m and then, a big downhill. I suddenly found myself cycling through the rainforest. I could hear the different bird calls, the roadside vegetation was completely green (rather than spiky acacias and cacti) and the temperature much warmer and steamier.
The highway suddenly expanded to two lanes and the traffic became very heavy. I had a hard shoulder but had to keep my wits about me crossing the slip roads. Through a lack of signage I was funnelled onto the wrong autopista – an extra 12km I didn’t need to do! Back on the RN 9, the road gradually quietened down as I crossed agricultural land. There were fields of maize and faber beans (I think), lots of cattle, sheep and horses. The route tracked around a reservoir and was an absolute highlight, gradually climbing back into the foothills of the Andes. There was nothing too severe, but the experience of the winding path through the rainforest with overhanging vines and twisted root systems was infinitely more pleasant than slogging it through the motorway traffic. I ascended about 400m from the low point for the day and then down into Salta – pleased to make it after 153km for the day.
The city is beautiful – very Spanish with well-preserved colonial buildings and churches. It has a population of around 700,000. Due to the out of control inflation in Argentina at the moment, money goes a bit further here and we ended up finding a lovely AirBNB accommodation for two days to reboot.
While designing this expedition last year, I read an article in The Explorers Club Journal about the discovery in 1999 of three Incan child mummies found near the 6739m summit of Llulliallaco volcano that lies of the Argentine/Chilean border. It is the highest archaeological site in the world, and the mountain is the world’s third highest active volcano. 500 years ago, near the end of the Inca’s reign, three young children, a 15 year old girl, a boy (aged 7) and another girl (aged 6) were sacrificed to the Gods in the hope of bringing prosperity to their communities during an Incan ritual called capacocha. I came to Salta to see the perfectly preserved 500 year old mummies, The Children of Llulliallaco, and learn more about them and the final two years of their short lives.
This will be for Blog 10, coming soon.