Posted by: gypsytales | January 1, 2010

Into the Clouds and Down the Devil’s Throat

We were about to embark on our first planned tourist activity since our arrival in Argentina.  We usually try to go solo when it comes to exploring but we are still struggling to understand spoken Spanish, never mind read Spanish; and we haven’t yet braved hiring a car since they drive on the right hand side of the road; being a pedestrian and trying to cross the road is dangerous enough.

Pablo, our tour guide, arrived to collect us at our hotel at 7h30.  We were joined by Irmgard and Renate from Austria, who both spoke perfect English…this was going to be “Catch up English Day”.

It reminded of the day just before Christmas, we were in Tafi del Valle and we’d walked down to the bus terminal to enquire about catching a bus to Salta.  We struck up a conversation with a law student from America who was in Argentina on a 5 month student exchange programme.  At that stage we hadn’t spoken much English since leaving Buenos Aires just over two weeks before and we hung onto him like two blood suckers and exhausted his vocal chords and ours in an attempt to fatten up on conversation.  By the time we left, he looked relieved and we were satisfied.

With only 4 tourists to one tour guide it was easy to communicate and learn more about this fascinating part of the country.  We had an excellent experience and it would be impossible to give you a detailed account of a day where poor Pablo drove 540km and which took 13 hours to complete.

So I’ve just covered the highlights by way of pictures and anecdotes below.  Hope you enjoy reading and seeing the pictures as much as we enjoyed living it.


shipped from England

 This train engine was shipped out from England.  The cargo train line between Argentina and Chile is 575km long, took 27 years to build and final completion was accomplished in 1948.  Tren a las Nubes (train into the clouds) is the tourist train that runs in the dry winter months.  We were very disappointed to find it was not running.  It is possibly one of the highest passenger trains in the world.  Tren a las Nubes will reach a height of 4,200 metres while the cargo train goes as high as 4.6km about sea level.


waiting for the cargo train

We stopped at the bridge to wait for the cargo train to pass.  This bridge is 35 metres high and 264 metres long.


look how tall these cacti are

I found the following fact absolutely fascinating.  Did you know that these particular cacti only grow 5 cm a year?  Think about this then, if a cactus is 4 metres high, it has taken 80 years to get there.  Just to put the height into perspective, have a look how small Barry looks in comparison.  In this particular valley the mountain sides were clogged with hundreds of cacti, a most magnificent sight.

Irmgard and Renate from Austria


building in Santa Rosa

made for short people

Today was going to be a day of high mountains and deep valleys.  At this point we had been driving for abut 2 ½ hours when we arrived at Santa Rosa de Tastil, a small mountain village sitting at an altitude of 3,100 metres above sea level.  Only 12 families reside here.  The environment was harsh and dry and I could already begin to feel the affects of elevation…or was it just my imagination?  We stopped here for about ½ hr giving us enough time to go to the bathroom, browse around the small market and pop into the archaeological museum.  The Tastiles inhabited this area between the years 600 and 1220AD before the Incas conquered in 1224AD.

mummified body 600 years old


San Antonio

Our trip took us even higher and I was now convinced that my body was strongly resisting the rise in altitude.  Small popping explosions in my Eustachian tubes were trying balance the air in my inner ear to the air pressure outside.  My lungs felt limited and tight, sparking off a childhood memory reminding me of a strap bottle opener we kept in the kitchen drawer.  In order to open the lid of a jar, one would place a strap around the stubborn lid and slide the loose end of the strap through a metal handle, pull tightly and twist.  At that moment it felt like the strap of the opener was squeezing precious remaining air out each tiny air sac and now and then a little dry cough would escape.  I was relieved to hear Irmgard had the same dry cough; but no one said anything.

he was trying his best to sell me something

We arrived at San Antonio de Los Cobres (3,800 metres) in time for lunch.  On the outside this mountain village looked barren and lifeless but with a population of just over 4,000 people it was bustling with activity in-between the sandy streets.  Other services here included internet connectivity, television, telephone, gas, power and water.

Llama and pune (mash)

As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” and Barry and I were quite keen to try the Llama on the menu.  They served it slightly rare with mash.  The texture was a little tough but the flavour was very similar to beef.


With appetites now appeased and “altitude sickness” miraculously non-existent we set off for the highlight of the trip.

Llama with coloured tags

Along the way we spotted plenty of llamas.  Farmers tie coloured tags to their stock to differentiate them from their neighbour’s llamas.

Can you see the snow-capped mountain?

I loved the contrast in this picture, in the low scrubby bush stood this llama, the weather was hot and dry and in the background, covered in snow, was the Nevde Akay (spelling?) mountain at 6,000 metres above sea level.

scouting out a better option

another tour guide's car

walking to meet them on the other side of the water

At one point the road was completely washed over by a large body of water, making it impossible to drive through.  We were very concerned that we would have to turn back after coming so far. There are a number of tours companies that operate on the same day so we were not alone.  Sooner or later we all met up at the “water hole”.  Pablo, along with a number of the other tour guides took a long, wide walk to source out an alternate route.  The outcome was that we all walked wide circles around the water while they drove the cars in an even wider circle around the water and met us a couple of hundred metres down the road.  Phew!!  Fortunately we didn’t have to resort to any pushing of cars.

truck crossing

Take a look at this trucker….he took a chance and went for it….coming to dead stop shortly after he began his crazy attempt…a couple of engine revs and he was off again.


endless views

getting browner by the second

so far from anywhere

This is what we had been been waiting for, Salinas Grande, 3,500km above sea level.  This vast salt pan measures 60km X 40km, we could not see the end or the beginning from where we were standing.  Water is necessary for the formation of the salt crystal.  They “mine” the salt by removing the first 10 centimetres, below that is just water.

spot the car

Having never walked onto a salt pan before two reactions immediately occurred; ice-white took on a whole new meaning.  By removing my sunglasses for just a couple of seconds it felt as if two blades instantly sliced at my retinas, the shear brightness was blinding; and the reflection of heat off the salt began melting my skin.  By this stage other tour groups had arrived and were quickly defeated by the elements and retreated back to their vehicles.  Barry and I were the only two who walked the 1 km across the salt pan to where they were “mining” the salt.  “Don’t forget, sunglasses and sunscreen” cautioned Pablo.  Sunglasses we had, but sunscreen…oh! oh!  But heck, we are from Africa right?!  How bad can it be?


mining salt water 10cm below

protection from the sun

packing salt

house made only from salt

The walk to the “middle” was like one of those dreams, where you never reach your destination.  While we could see the construction site, it just never arrived.  There were a couple of times I resisted the temptation to just turn around and go back to where we began.


Renate holding packet of coca leaves

At one point during the day, I was very concerned to see that Pablo’s left cheek was swollen and that he seemed to be speaking with a slight lisp.  I was convinced that he had a tooth abscess and was in a lot of pain and that was why he was chewing on the coca leaves had bought earlier on during the day.

I later discovered that this was not the case; instead he had been dipping into the packet of coca leaves, stashing them into the pocket of his cheek and allowing the leaves to slowly soften before chewing on them.

Renate was the first one to give the coca leaves a go.  She seemed to like the taste and the whole ritual that accompanies the experience.  Irmgard on the other hand couldn’t stand the taste and spat hers out at the first chance she had.

here we go

hamster cheeks

Barry was keen to give it a go and offered some to me too.  “Honey you try it first,” I coaxed.  Sometime had passed before I ventured to find out if it had had any effect on him at all.  To my surprise he said that he felt quite relaxed and that his cheek felt slightly numb.

I thought it was a bit of nonsense but gingerly gave it a go.  I placed a small bundle of green coca leaves into my cheek and following Barry’s instruction, I allowed them to soften before chewing them.

Indeed, the coca leaves had a similar effect to novocaine, leaving the whole right-hand-side of my face in various stages of numbness, this spread from my throat, up into my right nostril and I had a quick look in the mirror to see if my right eye looked normal as it felt very droopy on the outer corner.


highest point on trip

Altos del Morado was the highest point on our trip at 4,170 metres above sea level.


and down we go

i think i can fly after those coca leaves

 We were now about to descend 2,000 metres in 35km via the pass called The Devil’s Throat.  Together with Credence Clear Water Revival, Peter Tosh, Eddie Grant and Crosby Stills Nash and Young we sang our way down into the valley.


7 colour hills

imagine that mountain at the end of your road

 Purmamarca is a popular tourist destination.  With a population of 1,900, Purmamarca is well known for the 7 Colour Hills.  Here we found the most incredibly diverse coloured mountains of deep red, green, yellow and white, exposing their high mineral content of iron, copper, sulphur and calcium.

Around every corner the mountains changed shape and colour with phenomenal diversity, making me think more along the lines of mood scapes than landscapes.  The surface of the green mountains reminded me of the skin of someone who had been in the sun all their lives; flat, brown liver spots spread between parts that were pinched to look like moles and warts.


with Renate, Irmgard and Pablo at the end of the day

With a head buzzing with information, it was a peaceful 2 hour drive back to Salta from Purmamarca.

It had been a long day, just over 13 hours to be exact.  The night life was just beginning at the Plaza in Salta and Irmgard and Renate suggested we go for a drink.  So the 4 of us sat until midnight chatting and getting to know one another.

We left the next day for Mendoza – the wine capital of Argentina.



  1. Hi Barry and Francis,
    we really like your pictures and comments remembering a wonderful day. I am looking forward to download the pictures when we are home again. Is it possible???
    Good luck for you and your dreams!
    A big hug,

  2. Dear Francis and Barry,

    ….was really interesting to see and read about the time we spent together! And where are you now? We missed you in Mendoza at the Aconcagua today!!!!

    Muchos besos y felicidades

  3. Hola Francis and Barry!

    We also found our way to your site! Very nice pictures, now we can’t wait to go north! 🙂

    Mucho gusto meeting you on New Year’s Eve. Enjoy your trip down south, you will absolutely love the nature. And maybe see you later! Who knows?

    Eric and Hasse

  4. I know you aren’t bringing pressies back for anyone but some coca leaves might be nice :o) Hee! Hee!

  5. WOW! This makes my pics of the Drakensburg pale in comparison. What an adventure…

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