I just got back from 25 incredible days of vacation– three and a half mostly disconnected weeks in northern Argentina and Chile. A few months ago I saw a glimpse of free time coming up in February so I decided to clear my schedule of projects (even turning down new work) so I could take some time to travel alone and explore this wonderful country I’ve called home for the last several months. It was an amazing adventure, and I can’t wait to share it with you.
Here’s a few details about the trip (with a map!):
- Longest bus ride: 23 hours (Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina)
- Highest point visited: 4,200 meters (13,779 feet in the Atacama desert)
- Number of marriage proposals received: 1
- Number of empanadas and beers consumed: too many to admit/remember
I’m going to tell this tale backwards, starting with my trip to Chile– which my wonderful friend Charlie joined me for!! (Charlie lives in my house in Buenos Aires; he’s a wonderful spirit who shares my appreciation for dark humor and coffee and is one of my favorite people ever.) I had written him a couple weeks into my travels to see how he was doing and he shared the sad news that he had booked his return flight to the United States for March 14. I realized this was probably our last opportunity to have an adventure together, so I begged him to come along with me to the Chilean desert– and he accepted!
In less than 24 hours after I wrote him, Charlie put together the travel arrangements to meet me in San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina. We planned to take a bus the next day to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, a town located high up in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama.
Our trip got off to a rough start. First we sat on the bus for two hours before we found out that the mountain road to Chile was closed because of snow (in the middle of a South American summer!). The bus company told us to come back to the station at 3am to see whether the road would be passable. That gave us… oh, a mere 15 hours to blow in Jujuy. (I should probably give you a little information about Jujuy so you can understand what a disappointment that was. Jujuy doesn’t have much to offer besides the bus station– it’s a gritty urban city that has little in terms of culture or entertainment; it’s basically a city full of cement and hardworking bodies.) Worse yet, we had arrived during a four-day holiday weekend, so almost nothing was open. We found the only two restaurants serving food in all of Jujuy, but after eating lunch, we somehow stumbled upon the tourist office, which miraculously was open and receiving tourists.
Inside the tourist office we saw some pictures of thermal springs–termas— which looked beautiful and appealing and the perfect way to spend a few hours in a nothing-to-do town. We hopped on a colectivo and took a pretty 45 minute bus ride through the lush outskirts of Jujuy, which led us upwards into the mountains next to a river.
We jumped off the colectivo and eagerly walked to the termas. But instead of the hot natural springs nestled in rocks that we had envisioned, we found a small public pool crammed with bodies and filled with dirty gray water. Charlie and I traded pissy tourist looks and promptly asked the attendant if there were any “prettier” termas around with “rocks.” She gave us a knowing “oh you silly entitled tourists” look, pointed up the hill, and kindly told us there was a luxury hotel with termas. We thanked her and climbed up up up, anticipating a nice hot soak even though the air was humid and heavy.
We finally arrived at the hotel, a little breathless from the high altitude, and inquired about the termas. Quick elevator ride down and we were told the cost was 70 pesos for one hour of soaking for two persons. Something funny went off in both of our brains but we were eager to experience something redeeming in Jujuy, so we paid. We were then told to wait 10 minutes… so the termas could be cleaned. Hmm. What? A little weird to think of them scrubbing down the rocks, but we sat and waited.
After 10 minutes the attendant led us down a hallway and we noticed that there was a series of numbered rooms. As I passed each room I realized where we were and my heart started to sink. We were then shown our “terma”– which turned out to be a private bathroom with a tub and a window. Charlie and I had basically just paid 70 pesos for the pleasure of taking a bath together. We of course laughed our asses off and then tried to remedy the situation by inquiring if there was any beer. Unfortunately there wasn’t, but we still managed to enjoy the experience nonetheless. :)
After the termas, Charlie and I grabbed a delicious cheap dinner in the hotel restaurant then walked down the hill in the dark to catch the colectivo back to Jujuy. It was around 10pm– we had 5 hours of fun time in the bus station in Jujuy to look forward to. Thankfully Charlie was with me for this experience; if I had to endure another night in that bus station alone, I would’ve gone nuts (I had spent 36 hours in that bus station two weeks earlier; another story for later!). Fortunately he kept me laughing the entire night, so I was a very lucky gal.
At 3am the bus finally pulled in… and great news, the border crossing was open! We hopped on and the bus slipped along in the night for a few hours.
Until we hit the next snag.
A considerable snag.
A chunk of the road was missing. Completely wiped out, washed away in a flash flood. Another reminder that Mother Nature is not to be fucked with, especially in its wildest parts.
Everyone in the bus disembarked and stood looking at the mini Grand Canyon in disbelief– pretty amazing to see the road so cleanly washed out like that. We were informed that the plan was to go around the missing chunk, but we had to wait a few hours for a bulldozer to clear a path for us.
So, with no other options, everyone on the bus got off and started walking into the desert. There were a couple monks on the bus, so it was weird and quite hilarious to see a large herd of people wandering in the desert– a 21st century pilgrimage. But the desert scenery was absolutely gorgeous; the Andes were right in front of us, welcoming us to come if only the roads would allow it. After a couple of hours of waiting in the crisp air our bus finally weaved around the road and everyone hopped back on the bus– we had to hurry to the border crossing, which was due to close in only 45 minutes.
We made it to San Pedro de Atacama later that night– a day late, but finally in this place I had been looking forward to for weeks. So much happened in our two days there… more to come in Part 2!