Puna - Days 13 &14
Long, long day. Packed up and off early for our drive which will be 350k but will take at least 8 hours since there are no paved roads.
The first couple of hours were through enormously wide expanses and fields of basalt froth which were blown out of the multiple volcanoes that dot the landscape as far as the eye can see off in the distance. Our track passes along the edges of waves of this material whose height reaches about 2 or 3 metres and which appears to be a black rocky foam filled with air bubbles. It would be impossible to make a road over or through it so we skirt the edge of the basalt lava flow which is so hard that edges are still razor sharp after a million years.
We climb gradually to about 4800 metres and at noon reach the top of another mountain pass and spread out before and about 1000 metres below us is a wide valley filled almost to the edges and as far as the eye can see in either direction, with a salt flat across which we will drive to reach a small treed oasis on the farther side, for lunch. Arrived at the other side and the oasis turns out to be a cluster of tress and small houses, used only in summer since there would be no way to get supplies in winter when the passes are covered in snow, and inhabited largely by municipal workers, road workers, etc who service the area as well as shepherds who graze their sheep and llamas in the area. The settlement is no more than about 10 or 12 houses and buildings and we ate our lunch in the house of a local woman who provided plates, a table and a roof and we provided the food.
Surprisingly clean pit stop and off again. Afternoon was harder than the morning and later in the afternoon, after a bumpy drive but with outstanding views and vistas, we crossed into a new valley whose bottom was also filled with a salt/borax flat which is once again more than 100k long and 85k wide and which we must cross to get to our shelter for the night. At the near edge of the salt there is an anomaly, an almost perfect cone of reddish-black rock which rises out of the salt some hundreds of metres in height and marks the edge of the road that crosses the salt.
On the edge of the salt and just before we be began our drive across there is an abandoned onyx mine, the miners' houses all shuttered and locked. The little settlement is marked by 2 interesting landmarks; a number of piles of raw onyx each one graded by the colour of stones it contained and ready to be processed but now, going nowhere, and scattered everywhere bright shining shards of broken bottles. Not hard to imagine why, as all the hundreds of broken bottles were liquor bottles which in the midst of the windy, salty, hot landscape with no living creature for a hundred kilometres, was presumably the only solace available to the inhabitants.
The drive across the salt was a long, bumpy 2 hours and arrived at the other side we were about a 30 minute drive to our home for the night, a small government-owned hostelry with 8 0r 10 rooms in a tiny settlement. There was no staff at the hotel, she was sick that day, but Boobi managed to get us sorted and we found ourselves in company with a party of Swiss climbers who had also just arrived after climbing a 7,000 metre peak that day and were in a celebratory mood. The only restaurant in town, a room green from the light of a bad fluorescent tube, provided our dinner at 8:30, a very thin cutlet of llama labelled as bife and loud with the celebration of our Swiss room-mates. We brought a bottle of the wine that we had bought in Cafayete and quietly joined the party. Great fun.
Discovering from Boobi that our plan for the following day was an even longer drive of 400k across and around the salt flat to visit an abandoned railway station and then an equally long drive the following day to get to Salta for our 8:30pm flight back to Buenos Aires, we mutinied. A call to Hugh McDermott in Buenos Aires, fortunately there was a cell tower in the town our first cell phone coverage since Cafayete, and after a quick consult, Hugh with great grace and flexibility, in tandem with Boobi's tour agency in Salta, rejigged the itinerary and found a room for us in Cachi at La Merced. La Merced is one of the Leading Small Hotels and a very welcome spot to spend our last night in the Puna.
Off early with another 8 or 9 hour drive ahead but our reward will be a very nice hotel at the end of it and an easy 3 hour run tomorrow on the way to the airport in Salta. Again a day of fabulous landscapes and mountain passes the last before we leave the Puna the highest one yet, at 5200 metres. Stopped many times for shots and arrived at Cachi late in the day. A very pretty little town clustered around the main plaza but V was green from the drive, the last 11k was on the first paved roads for the last 4 days and because of a very strong wind the car was rolling rhythmically in a very nauseous way, so we sped on to our hotel.
Showered, dressed, with a very good pisco sour under my belt, we drifted into the dining room for good dinner and so to bed. Boobi not picking us up until 3 for our run to the airport so a good chance to relax before our last couple of days in BA.