Monday, 10 March 2014

South American Adventure - Day Nineteen, Monday 10th March 2014

We are leaving the Explora in San Pedro de Atacama this morning – far too early.  Three nights is not enough – we could have done with one more.  At breakfast we say goodbye again to new found friends – some flying today at various times and some staying for an extra night.  Christian from Guest Relations has arranged a lunch box for us, as we are taking the bus from the San Pedro de Atacama Bus Station to Salta.  We have a transfer at 9.00am for the five minute journey to the bus station!  Overkill.  The bus station is so called because it is where buses call in and collect passengers – the similarity there ends.  There is a board with a whole list of departures for the day in chalk – a small room with chairs and a little shop where you can buy drinks and snacks.  The transfer drops us off, and we are in loads of time for the departure.  Buses come and go, but none so far to Salta.  9.30am comes and goes – apart from no-one speaking English – and we haven’t a clue what is going on.  There are a lot of back packers here, so I am sure they are waiting for the same bus as us!  A couple more come in – none with Salta on the front, and none saying Pullman which is the company we have booked with.  The bus station is right next to a football pitch with a small seating area.  Completely in sand, with no markings.  If you can play on this, grass must be a doddle!

At 10.00am a Pullman bus pulls in with Salta on the front.  Yippee!  At least we aren’t stranded.  Everyone in the bus station gets up – it must be a full bus.  Paul was not keen on this option to start with, and I can tell by his face he isn’t impressed so far!  Out luggage is loaded, and it seems we have paid for first class – what else?  I am glad to see the odd child that was getting on was not in our section.  Eventually everyone is loaded, and we set off – an hour late.  Manyana!  We get a few yards down the road and stop.  For about fifteen minutes.  No idea why, and as no-one speaks English no chance of finding out.  The bus started its journey in Calama about an hour earlier, so must have been held up there before even getting to us.  Doesn’t seem as if they are keen to make up for lost time!

We start off again, and a chap comes out with a couple of packets of biscuits.  Then he comes round with a Fanta.  I didn’t think we got anything on the bus – perhaps this is the first class treatment!  We leave San Pedro de Atacama the opposite way to which we came in.  The volcanoes and rolling mountains are on our left, and we continue on this road until we come to some more salt flats and lagoons on both sides of the road.  The border to Bolivia is only five kilometres away at one point, so we must be skirting that.  It is about two and a bit hours before we get to the border with Argentina.

This seems, as first glance, to be a much more efficient border control that the one we came from Argentina to Chile when we left El Calafate to get to Torres del Paine.  It seems there is only one office, which both countries share.  We all get off the bus, and get in the queue to leave Chile.  Once we have had our documents stamped, and I got a wink from the official (or he has a tick) we then have to get in the next queue to get in to Argentina.  This happens to be the man sitting next to the one that just checked us out of Chile.  Once we have then been checked into Argentina, we have to go back outside where all of our luggage has been taken out of the bus, and pull it into the same office and put it through a x-ray machine.  Then we have to drag it back out and load it back on the bus.  We left our lunch box on the bus, and wondered if it would have been confiscated by the time we got back on!  The luggage now has to be segregated, as there are two stops.  Jujoy and SaltaSalta goes on first, because that is the last stop.  Once all the luggage as been reloaded, we had to hang around as one lady had an Australian passport and they seemed to want some visa money from her.  Her husband then seemed to lose her completely, so we had half an hour or so extra for this.  Not sure if it got sorted out or we left them behind! 

We then started to make our way through the mountains.  I could not believe how the scenery changed from one minute to the next.  The mountains were sand, then they were black volcanic rock, then they were covered in the yellow grass clumps, then they were copper red, then they were sand coloured again.  At points, they were like sand dunes, then they were gravel, then they were hard rock.  Amazing.  I took pictures all along as Paul had gone to sleep – at least he can see the replay!  The snow capped tips of some of the mountains were always in the distance.  There were dust storms over the ground near to the further mountains, that was pushing the dust up into twisters.

We then started the hard climb up through Andes.  The roads twisted and turned, and the scenery just got more and more amazing.  There were birds flying along the side of the bus, and llamas and donkeys on the sides of the mountains.  Then came the cacti.  I have never seen anything like it!  There were a few to start with, and I had to look twice.  They were growing on the sides of the mountains, and were about ten feet high.  Some higher than that.  A few to start with, and then the mountains were covered with them.  Some must have been higher than twenty feet.  Paul even stayed awake at this point.  We then went past more salt flats.  These were completely different to the ones we had walked in between. It looked as if the ground was completely covered with snow – really thick.  There were a couple of diggers scooping it up into huge piles – will have to look on the packet where my salt comes from next time I buy some!

Once we had gone through this region we started on the downward slope.  We passed a sign saying that we were at 4170 metres – not sure if that was the highest point or not.  Not long after this, going down the other side of the mountains, we could see the cloud below us.  What a weird sight.  It was like cotton wool stuffed between the rocks.  Not as nice when we actually drove into it though.  It was like going through thick fog – and with the roads very narrow and several hairpins in a row I was glad I was not driving.

We got our of the bottom of the clouds, and the mountains had changed completely again.  They were now covered with green vegetation, and there were trees appearing.  Don’t seem to have seen any trees for weeks!  There were waterfalls coming down the mountains, and it all seemed to be a different land.  Once we had travelled about two thirds of the way down, we stopped at a village called Jujoy, which is meant to be one of the prettiest villages in the Andes.  It certainly seems that way, although we are still covered in cloud.  I think the mountains must stop the clouds moving from this way, and maybe always have a cloud covering.

Once we had got to the bottom of the mountain range, and six o’clock was on its way we thought we were nearly there.  6.00pm was the scheduled arrival time at Salta, although we had had several delays.  6 o’clock came and went, as did 7 o’clock.  Paul predicted 7.30pm – one hour late and half an hour extra at the border.  7.30pm came and went as did 8.00pm.  It was now pitch black.  Every time we saw some lights, like a town, we got all excited only to sail past.  We were sitting on the driver side, with the drivers compartment similar to an airline cockpit.  The only window we could see out of was to our left, which had none of the signs on.  If we could have seen how far it was to go, we would have had a better idea.

8.30pm came and went.  Now we were getting fed up.  It has been a fantastic bus journey – whatever Paul says when we get back – and it was now taking too long.  At last we saw a huge amount of lights ahead – that must be Salta.  It was.  We arrived in the bus station (and it was a proper bus station – it was huge) at just gone 9.00pm.  Then it was a bun fight for the cases.  Two poor chaps were trying to unload them, and everyone was crowding round to get theirs.  We eventually got them, and walked out to the front where there were taxis waiting.  I had booked the Sheraton for just one night – but the taxi driver didn’t speak English.  I would have thought Sheraton was the same in any language.  I got the reservation email out to show him the address.  He still didn’t understand.  I don’t think he could read.  Paul showed him the Sheraton logo – the penny then dropped.  I knew I brought Paul for a reason!  It took ten minutes or so to get the hotel, and about 20 pesos - £3 or so.  Bargain!  A quick drink in the bar and drop – it is really exhausting sitting on your bum all day!

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