The Train to the Clouds
It is bright by 6:00 a.m., a bit overcast as we shower and get ready for our long day of touring Salta and Jujuy provinces. The bus arrives right on time, we meet our guide, Yako, pick up a few more, and we are off for 13 hours of enforced togetherness. We are a motley crew: Greg and I, two Brits with their 23 month old daughter, 2 young French women, a young Dutch couple, and the last 2 people we pick up, an American couple who proclaim their innocence almost as soon as we start chatting – ‘we didn’t vote for him!’ referring to the recent Bush win in the election. When they find out we’re Canadian, they start laughing and asked if we saw that hilarious red and blue map of North America, and we bond instantly.
4th Highest Railroad in the World
Our first stop is at the start of the Tren a las Nubes, the Train to the Clouds, the line that goes over the Andes to Chile. Completed in 1949 and an engineering miracle, it reaches an altitude of over 4,500 meters making it the 4th highest railroad in the world. But almost from the time of completion it was outdated, and today it is used only for tourist trains, and not during the summer, the rainy season in this part of the Andes, because there are so many earth slides that there is real danger for the train, and its passengers. We continue on, stopping in a small village for coffee and handicrafts. From there, we climb up the mountain to an archaeological site that predates the Incan invasion of the area. We continue on, and stop for lunch in San Antonio de los Cobres, feeling straight out of the wild west. One of the tours we were offered stopped for the night here. We are quite glad that we decided against that option. After lunch we head cross the border into Jujuy province, and head for the giant salt flats of Salinas Grandes. Along the way, we see many vicuña, the wild animals (and endangered species), relatives of the llama and the camel, whose coats are the source of a luxurious wool. Salinas Grandes turns out to be a huge salt lake, although the water is actually under the salt flats. The locals mine the salt by carving holes in the surface, which fill with the lake water and then evaporate, leaving the salt behind.
We start our long trek home. To do this, we go over the highest pass of the day, just over 4,100 meters The drive down is dramatic, through the spectacularly beautiful Lipan valley, and into the town of Purmamarca. Unfortunately for me, and a number of others, I have a bad case of altitude sickness by the time we get down the hill, and between the headache, the vertigo and the nausea, I can think of a million other things I would rather be doing. Greg and Michel, one of the Americans, convince me and Milt, Michel’s husband, who is similarly afflicted, that ginger ale will help, and despite my nausea I force down a bottle. Finally, the bus starts the 2 hour final leg of the trip back to Salta. Soon it starts to rain, and it continues to rain for the rest of the trip. By the time we get back I am feeling fine, but we are so glad to get off the bus we bid the briefest of farewells to Michel and Milt, and are gone.
We go straight to bed, not bothering with supper, totally exhausted by the day. It is after 9:30 after all.