Part 17: Humahuaca to San Antonio de los Cobres


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The Trip

We spent the night in Humahuaca at an adequate place.  For dinner, we walked into town and chose a local eatery.  The food was abysmal; I had a llama burger, which should have been fine.  But, the meat was cooked beyond belief so what I got was a brake pad.  It was served with a quinoa slurry with some kind of goat cheese.  I ate what I could handle and we walked back to the hotel.  Kathleen had an idea that we could go to San Antonio de los Corbres the next day.  I agreed, but did not research what that actually meant; an act that I would later regret.  After breakfast, we headed south toward Purmamarca.

The Photos

The photos below are what we saw.

Before we hit the road, we decided to hike up the hill to the local monument to the local indian tribes.  The morning sun allowed a better view than the previous evening.

It was a huge bronze statue and nicely done.

From the hilltop that hosted the monument we had a good view of Humahauca.  The clouds from the previous night's rain never really cleared and remained at relatively low altitude.

At the top of the hill, we had a view of some cardones illuminated by the morning sunlight.  These are cruel cactus with dense long spines.

From Humahauca we headed south through the Quebrada de Humahuaca.  The red sandstone cliffs were nicely illuminated in the morning sun.

The faults of the quebrada exposed multi-colored strata.

We elected to stay in Humahuaca specifically so we would have the morning sun on the cliffs.  The views were magnificent.  Somewhere along this path, we crossed the tropic of Capricorn.

The cliff line went on for miles and miles.

The deep red cliffs were intermixed with tan and pink strata.

The lower strata exposed in the quebrada were mudstone which eroded into complex curtain-like shapes.  Note the village at the base of the cliffs, likely not a good place to be during a hard rainstorm.

On the opposite side of the canyon, the uplifting had created huge flatiron structures.

We came to a particularly complex area in the fault zone.  There were grey, red, pink and white layers exposed with at least 4 separate orientations to the bedding.

Our initial destination was Purmamarca.  We found a place to park and hit the streets to see what was there.  Purmamarca is a tourist town that owes it fame to being at the base of some particularly colorful cliffs in the quebrada.  The narrow cobblestone streets provided a method for the plentiful tourists to get around the area.

The surrounding strata was very colorful and provided the perfect backdrop to the quaint pueblo.

Kathleen decided to shop for an alpaca sweater.  I stood in the town plaza and spotted this bird in the trees looking for a hand-out.

Walking past the bus station we got a nice view of the layered cliffs.

Here is a man after my own heart.  He has this MB 1114 bus conversion and has targeted going from Argentina to Alaska.  Rather a long trip, but we have seen others with the same aspirations using the same equipment in Costa Rica.  He is camped along the main drag in Purmamarca as evidenced by the leveling blocks under the front wheels.

Kathleen decided, based on some information she had gotten online, that we should take the "highway" to San Antonio de las Cobres.  We headed out of Purmamarca and got some nice views of the distant cliffs of the quebrada.  Note the exposed red formations in the center of the photo above.

The road followed the large arroyo that passed by town.  In the distance we could see huge mud curtains in the cliffs.

We followed the highway into the mountains and passed brightly colored outcroppings of intermixed colors.

On the other side of the arroyo the mud cliffs became huge.

Further up the canyon we came upon huge landslides that had broken loose from the mountain.  The slides exposed the colorful strata below.

We passed a couple of very studly fellows on bikes.  The road leads to a 13,000+ foot pass and these guys were doing it on muscle power.

Close to the top of the pass we came upon a group of llama grazing at the side of the highway.  Notice the thick coats on these animals: it gets very cold high up in the Andes.  Also note the very sparse grass. 

From the top of El Morado pass we got a great view of distant snow-covered peaks.

El Morado pass peaks out at 4170 meters above sea level.  This is over 13,000 feet  at 13,681 feet.  The road was steep and narrow and I am sure that it is a nightmare during the winters.  The area around the pass is well above tree line so only scrub brush was to be found by the grazing llamas.

Another high peak visible from the pass.

Descending down the other side of the pass we got a view of the huge Salinas Grandes dry lake.  This lake is at about 11,000 feet in an area known as the "altiplano".  The highway is also visible in the photo above.

A view in the opposite direction allowed us to see other distant, snow-covered peaks.

A pull-out on the highway allowed us to see a huge "hogback" ridge of exposed strata.

Lower, near 11,000 feet elevation, we got a clearer view of the Salinas Grandes.  This is a big lake covering about 200 square miles depending on the recent rains.  The salt crust in 6 feet thick in some areas.

Our path to San Antonio de las Cobres is shown above.  Neither Kathleen nor I knew that this national highway would be dirt.  Undaunted, we continued on.  This leg of the road is a little over 100km of questionable dirt road.  Recall that we are not driving Thor, our 5 ton Mercedes 4x4 truck, but rather a little Chevy 2wd sedan on 13" street tires with minimal ground clearance.

Soon after leaving the asphalt we spotted these vicuas in the scrub brush.

There were feral donkeys in the brush as well.  These animals got loose from early miners and explorers and are hearty enough to survive the harsh Andean winters and sparse vegetation.

We followed the dirt road for about 35km before we came upon another traveler broken down at the side of the road.  I asked if he needed assistance and he said "no".  His car was similar to ours, so I inquired about the state of the road ahead.  He said that the road was the "same as or worse" than the part that we had already suffered.  I say suffered because the track was heavily wash-boarded and we had high-centered the car on sand/silt crossings on a number of places.  Our max speed was 40kph (25 mph and that was beating us to death) and we had 100km to go (and it was about 1400hrs).  We considered our objective carefully and in the end decided that "descretion is the better part of valor" and turned around and headed back over the 13,681 foot pass to Purmamarca.  On the way out, we we passed oncoming traffic of cars as small or smaller than our rental coming at us like a bat out of hell.  These were clearly locals that were familiar with the road conditions (or terminally stupid).  When we arrived in Purmamarca we found a nice hotel and Kathleen later read in the travel guide that our destination was a "dusty mining town of 3,600 people with only one hotel".  Further research showed that the other leg of our planned path was a 4wd-only trail which our little Chevy would never have survived.  We could have, of course, left San Antonio de los  Cobres by retracing our path over the wash-boarded dirt, but what what fun would that have been?

The summary here is to do your fact-checking before travel, not after.  We were lucky that in the 75km or so of dirt that we did, that the car did not suffer any failures.  I was driving carefully and avoiding obstacles to the amount possible, but the reality is that on any dirt road, your car/truck/motorcycle will get hammered.  And, if there was a failure (in addition to the rental car charges) it could have been a 100km walk out to the paved road.  I doubt that one could carry sufficient water to walk 100km at 11,000 feet.

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