The road leaving San Pedro de Atacama heading towards Argentina appears to climb almost straight up the end of the depression instead of traversing the steep incline up to the Andes. We started up the road and I turned to Anil, wondering why we were going to slowly. He was surprised I didn’t realize how steep the incline was. It seemed we could walk faster. The route was taking us just to the right of the massive volcano, Licancabur. If we passed to the left, we would be heading into Bolivia.
The scenery, other that the volcano itself, was barren so I decided to take out my ipod and listen to some blues. We climbed and climbed and climbed. I could feel my ears popping and I began to feel a little lightheaded. Much like I felt when we went to the Altiplano Lagunas. It finally dawned on me that we were at 4540 m (15,000 ft) again. I thought the Jama Pass was further along the route. Suddenly, my ipod started acting up. Instead of humming along with the music, it began to bump and grind and the music cut out. It was like the instrument that reads the disc couldn’t make contact. I tried turning it off, advancing to another song, or going up to the menu to select a different setting but nothing would work. The ipod itself began to feel warm.
There was nothing to be done but let the battery run down. It was fully charged so I knew it would take a long time. The ipod began to get hotter and hotter until I felt it would melt. I put it up to the cold glass of the window to cool it and finally the battery failed and the screen went blank. The grinding noise stopped. I guess I’m not the only thing to get altitude sickness. I waited about an hour and then tried turning the ipod on again. The screen flashed a message indicating I should contact the service centre. I was sure my ipod was toast. Rats!
I settled in to watch the scenery and was surprised that I could get some pretty good photos of the terrain and the occasional animals we passed along the route. We were going pretty slowly so there was little blurring of the foreground. The scenery was stunning and I loved watching for vicunas and guanacos. I finally dozed off, as did most of the other passengers on the bus. This is another effect of the high altitude; it makes you sleepy. Sometime later, Anil nudged me and I awoke to see the flag of Argentina waving in the stiff wind.
The border crossing required us all to get off the bus and present our documents. I felt a little shaky and when I saw a group of motorcyclists arrive I wondered how they cope with the altitude and the weakness and sleepiness that results from climbing so high so quickly. When the riders took off their helmets I was surprised that they were couples, the women were riding pillion on the bikes. They had to form a separate line to pass through customs as they had to present papers for their vehicles as well as their passports.
Back on the bus, we continued into a new country. The route would take us over two more mountain ranges, with high plateaus in between. When we looked at a map, we realized that we would make a huge swing to the south, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and then loop back north again and back across the imaginary line again. This would be our fourth crossing, the first being when we flew south to Chile. The second time was when I was sleeping as we travelled towards Antofagasta on the Pan American Highway.
The sky above us had been clear and brilliantly blue but we began to see thick clouds gathering in the east and we drove towards them and then began our descent into the huge gorge (Quebrada). The road was one of the most dramatic we have even been on. We dropped about 1500 m (5,000 ft) in the shortest distance ever. The mist in the region provides more moisture for plant life and we entered an incredible candelabra cactus forest reaching up either side of the highway. These cacti called cardones flower for the first time once they reach twenty years of age and the ‘arms’ develop slowly so those with many huge arms are truly abuelos (granddaddies).
At last we reached the valley floor and arrived at the tiny village of Purmamarca. We followed that suggestion of a dear friend, Cecile LaTour, and asked the bus to let us off in Purmamarca instead of continuing on towards Salta, two hours further south. There are so many amazing sights to see in the Quebrada and this would mean we wouldn’t have to take a guided tour from Salta and spend an extra two hours travelling each way in order to see them. We were the only ones getting off and I am sure the young travellers on the bus were wondering what we were doing. We had booked a hotel via email so we made the short walk into the village, along its unpaved roads, aware that this was this was our first foray into a country that had long been on our ‘must-see’ list.