Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Long Road North Part IV: Salta & Jujuy

After seven months of travelling in, out of, and through Argentina, my final stop was its far north.

After Patagonia, visiting the high Andean desert of Argentina topped my wishlist for things I wanted to see in the country. To blame was Fernando and photos he had shown me many years earlier of stromatolites growing in shallow lakes waaay up in the Andes. My timing was off for being able to join Fer and crew on a trip up to his Stromatosite, but I was assured that there was plenty of other interesting stuff to see in the region, Fer’s former PhD advisor Ricardo even hooking me up with a detailed field guide for finding some fossil stromatolites.

So I kidnapped one of Fer’s grad students, Flavia, a friend who I had met two years prior when she was a student and I was helping teach the Geobiology course, and we set off to do some exploring.

I picked up Flavia in her temporary home of Tucumán, or rather I met her at the bus station after an overnight bus from Córdoba and we both jumped on a bus from there to the city of Salta. From there, we picked our way to the car rental agency for which I had what I hoped was a valid internet voucher for a three-day car rental—I was a bit nervous since the price I had found online was less than half what everyone else in the area charged, and I was hoping it wasn't a scam. Turned out it was only a half-scam. First, the car rental agency wasn't open when we arrived, but the hours on the door assured us that it would open later that evening. So we went to a restaurant around the corner and proceeded to order, in succession, everything on the menu only to be told that they didn't have that (You don’t even have empanadas? Or coffee? Or beer? Seriously??) until finally Flavia sarcastically asked what they did have and we both ended up with water and salads. Two hours later, we returned to the car rental agency, which was unaware of our booking but had a vehicle available and was willing to honor the price on my printout, with one exception: they wouldn't throw in the GPS unit and the extra driver that was supposed to be included in the price. I tried arguing for a discount, but to no avail. At least we had a car.

Our car (the silver one) picked up in Salta

It was my first time behind a wheel since I drove up to Portland from Los Angeles way back in August the year prior to drop my car off at my parents’ house before flying to Santiago for the start of this whole adventure. It felt good. Great. It felt great. God I love driving. Especially in places like Los Angeles and Argentina where driving laws are generally viewed as suggestions vs. rules, which turns getting from Point A to Point B is like a contest to see who has the biggest balls / can be the fastest, most cunning maniac. My favorite game. We tanked up on the way out of town (Argentina is like Oregon, where there are station attendants who fill your tank for you) and made a beeline south for Lago Embalse Cabra Corral, where Fernando’s Ricardo had said we could find road cuts with extensive lacustrine carbonate deposits, including stromatolites.

About an hour later, we found them. We had just turned a corner and exited a tunnel of trees when I saw a gleaming bank of a roadcut to my left. The color screamed carbonate, so I slowed, and sure enough I spotted resistant benches that called to me. Flavia protested that we weren't there yet, this couldn't be them, but I pulled over anyways to check it out. And it was a stromatolite goldmine. Several benches of big, beautiful, brainy stromatolites. Big concretions.  Little stromatoliltes. Stromatolites everywhere. We stayed and played for a while before deciding, since the sun was setting, to keep driving up the road and see if we could find any more.

Flavia inspecting the stratigraphy

The cool thing about this particular site is that the formation (Yacoraite) is tipped such that the road cuts across its many layers, which means that you get to drive back in time in a giant lake system (also argued to be shallow marine) as you follow the road. The stromatolites we started with were toward the top of the formation, representing the most recent deposits, formed around 68 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous (elsewhere in the formation, there are dinosaur bones and tracks, but who cares about dinosaurs when there are stromatolites?). As we took our magic drive back in time, we saw alternations between shale and carbonates, reminiscent of the Green River Formation in Wyoming where I did part of my PhD thesis work, saw some bright red paleosols, big deltaic deposits, and plenty of things that I didn't know the meaning of but was too busy driving to look in the field guide. We stopped a few more times and found more stromatolitic deposits, but the best ones were the first ones, so we eventually decided to turn around and go back. Since taking fossils and artifacts out of Argentina is highly illegal and I didn't want to risk getting arrested this time (I had to meet my aunt in Peru in a week, otherwise I might have tried it. Getting arrested in a foreign country is an item on my bucket list and getting arrested over a stromatolite would make a great story) I didn't take any samples, but my field assistant may have…

The sun went down and we set off in search of food, stopping at a cavernous but empty (bad sign? We were too hungry to care) restaurant in a tiny village on the side of the road. They had tamales. I loooooove tamales. They also had beer, although it only came in a giant 1.5L bottle and, since Flavia neither drinks nor drives, that left me with a lot of responsibility. I had a few swigs, intending to cap it and save the rest for once we had camped for the night, but was chased down on my way out of the restaurant. Apparently you can’t take an open container of alcohol from a restaurant in Argentina. This had never come up before, so I was unaware, but the waitress literally chasing us down the street made for a pretty memorable scene (it was really good beer!).
Dinner: tamales & beer

I wanted to camp off in the hills somewhere, but Flavia preferred a campground, deeming it safer. Not wanting to drag her out somewhere where she’d be too freaked out to sleep, I went along with the “find a campground” plan, although personally I always consider “no people” to be safer (and quieter and better for a good night’s rest) than “with people”. In the end we decided to head to the municipal campground back in Salta, which was mentioned in Lonely Planet as one of the best campgrounds in the country, spent an hour driving through what seemed like sketchy back-streets in Salta trying to find the damned place, and finally found an urban campground surrounded by the Salta ghetto behind tall barbed-wire fencing. Inside were strange toothless men and party music blaring and I wanted to sleep anywhere but there, but it was late, and we didn't really have other options, so... I drove—despite the campground manager’s wishes that we camp next to him (heeeeellll no, creeper)—to the far end of the campground which was darker (i.e., not directly under a spotlight) and semi-quiet despite the neighbors up until the wee hours of the morning drinking and chatting, set up my tent on the lawn, locked Flavia (with the car keys) into the car, shoved in my earplugs, took a sleeping pill, crawled into my sleeping bag, and tried to sleep. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than driving all night. We woke up with the sun next to what turned out to be an immense, dry swimming pool, which may have explained why the campground got such a glowing Lonely Planet report in other years or seasons. We got the hell out, stopping only for gas station pastries and coffee for breakfast on the way out of dodge.

The giant swimming pool at the urban campground in Salta

First, we went for a romantic drive through the jungle on a windy narrow mountain road. After months of Patagonia, jungle was pretty novel. So green! So lush! Then we passed the city of Jujuy and headed for the mountains—the real ones, the Andes. Our goal: lunch in Purmamarca, home of the Cerro de las Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colors).  We were there by one. Flavia desperately needed a restroom, so we booked it into the first café we found, but got a familiar line: the only thing they had available for eating were cheese sandwiches. Screw that, I said, so we offered to pay a dollar to use the restroom and went somewhere else to get our food. Good thing, because we found a great restaurant that served, get this, Llama steaks. They were delicious.

Llama for lunch
Colorful wares for sale in Purmamarca

After lunch, we put the 4WD capabilities of our non-4WD vehicle to the test and explored around the area trying to get a better view of this so-called seven-colored hill. It was really impressive. I wished I had a geologist with me to explain everything, but we had left the range of the field guide (which was also in Portugese, making it a rather difficult read), and pulling out my laptop to consult the papers on regional geology I had downloaded seemed like a good way to make my navigator puke and/or break my laptop.

Exploring around the Cerro de las Siete Colores

We continued on toward the heart of the Andes up a steep half-dirt-half-paved road that switched back and forth through the desert up into the mountains. We could both feel the altitude, the air tasted different, noticeably thinner. We crossed rows of mountains, spotting snow in the distance, until dropping onto the Antiplano, the massive high-altitude plateau (the largest outside Tibet, and the visual similarities are striking) that characterizes much of northern Argentina and Chile as well as most of Bolivia and southern Peru. We drove on toward the Chilean border where we reached our next objective of the day: Salinas Grandes, a huge salt flat (the third largest in the world) that is twice as big as Utah’s famous Bonneville Salt Flat. We parked the car and walked out onto the salt flat, Flavia quickly getting an altitude headache at the nearly 3500m elevation while I felt my body responding to the low oxygen levels (“Breathe faster! Faster!”). We poked around, hoping to see endoliths, but although we did see faint colors in some of the hypersaline pools, there was no life visible in any of the crusts we saw, although we didn't have rock hammers with us to break away fresh chunks. It was beautiful, salt flats always are.
Vicuña standing guard over the Andean Antiplano
Salinas Grandes

Salt sculptor working in Salinas Grandes

I wanted to camp there, in the mountains, so we drove off on a side road until I felt like we were far enough from where anyone could see us, then turned the car 90 degrees and drove straight out into the sand rim of the salt flats, avoiding deep sand as best I could (because wouldn't that be exciting: getting my rental car stuck in a sand drift in the middle of the Andes). The little 2WD rental handled like a champ on the uneven, soft terrain. I drove toward cross-country toward the salt flat until the car was no longer easily visible from the side road. I was hoping to get closer to the rim of the salt flat, but decided not to take any more getting-stuck risks. It was a nice spot, with 360 degree views of mountains and a nice view of the salt. We were just in time for sunset. I quickly set up my tent, unpacked our dinner and a bottle of wine I had bought myself, and we sat and watched the mountains turn pink, and then purple, and then dark as we ate and drank wine straight out of the bottle (even Flavia, who doesn't drink, had a few sips). Flavia retreated back to the car, but I laid with my head out of the tent for a long time.

Our campsite in the Antiplano

Our campsite, as reflected in the bottle of wine we shared that night

The stars were out.

Not just out. The altitude, the long distance from any towns and sources of light, the dryness of the air, and the temporary absence of the moon conspired to make probably the darkest night I had ever witnessed, and the stars were like a glittering ocean overhead. The milky way was bright, and other dull celestial clouds were visible. It was hard to sleep, I was so awestruck by the show over my head. Eventually the moon came up like a spotlight, and I had to bury my head inside my sleeping bag to sleep.

I was awake just before dawn, and sat in the sand and watched the sunrise paint the mountains and salt flats with a range of pastel colors. I felt peace again, something I had been missing in the previous month of nonstop activity and travel. It’s like John Muir’s quote (John Muir has all the best quotes):

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

Llama tracks in the desert at our campsite

The mountains have always been my cathedral, the place where I’m reminded of my soul and my place in the world. If I go too long without spending quiet time in them, I get antsy, agitated, nervous, stressed. I need them.

Eventually Flavia woke up and we ate breakfast, packed up camp (although I had intentionally parked it on top of a set of bushes, I was a bit worried that the car might have settled into the sand during the night and would be difficult to get out…it was fine), and made our way through a thick fog back down the Andes. We made a detour to stop for lunch in the scenic pueblo of Humahuaca before continuing back down to drop the car off in Salta.

The drive that morning looked like this.

Flavia demonstrating the fierceness innate in Northern Argentinians

The colorful, scalloped hills of the Quebrada de Humahuaca

We made it to Salta just in time for Flavia's bus back to Tucuman, and just in time for me to wait an hour and a half for the car rental people to bother to show up so that I could drop the keys off. I thought several times of just leaving the keys in the glove box and dropping the car there for them to deal with on their own watch, but after making a dozen phone calls was finally able to wake a napping person who promised someone would be “right there”, “right there” meaning 40 minutes later. I almost missed my bus back to Jujuy, but made it to the bus station with a whopping five minutes to spare. And, of course my travel luck being what it is, I happened to be walking through the main park en route to the bus station just as the weekly pan flute circle started up, so I got a free show in on my way.

Thanks Flavia for joining me on the adventure, and Fer and Ricardo for the tips on where to go! More photos from Salta & Jujuy up on the Google+ Album.

Next stop: a 49 hour bus journey across the Antiplano to Peru.

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