We left Jujuy, Argentina, and headed into the thick of the lush green Amazonian highlands to get to the region's largest city, Salta. And by a pure wonderful accident, we took a road that is now one of my favorites of all time: Route 9. They had signs at the beginning warning us that this was going to be “sinuoso", which meant it had lots of curves, but I think that's an understatement. It was narrow, perfectly-paved, and a twisting roller-coaster ride that wound along the fertile mountainsides like we were gliding through Jurassic Park. The scenery reminded me of the wild and overgrown Death Road in Bolivia, but on speed since it was paved and fast. There were so many vines hanging over the way, we even got hit by them. As the road danced through the rich farmlands and cut into the steamy rainforest, it was hot, it was thrilling, and it was not for those who get car-sick! Despite being sweaty and sweltering in our jackets, Tim and I were all smiles throughout.
From there, we headed towards what we'd heard was a beautiful mountain pass into Chile, a border crossing called Agua Negra, but of course we took the scenic way to get there. Route 68 from Salta to Cafayate was another of Argentina's pristinely-paved roads, but this time it brought us through a red canyon of colorful spires and cliffs that was not too unlike what you'd find in Arizona, or Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Wiley Coyote or James Earp would have been right at home in this cactus-filled desert of reds, pinks, and oranges. We even camped in the middle of it along the tiny river that created these awe-inspiring stone-scapes over thousands of years. It was just us, the parrots, a fox, and the sparse spiky plants out there in the wilds of Argentina.
At last we arrived at the pass over the Andes mountains that would take us into Chile, and we were excited for some cool breezes and possibly some snow. I would have gladly jumped into snow at that moment, and considering I hate the cold, that's a huge statement.
This is also where our bike problems started.
Then as we were winding our way up the pass's switchbacks which were dirt and a little corrugated, the bike started overheating. It's done this a lot ever since Peru, and we've changed the coolant, but this time the coolant was literally boiling inside the engine. You could hear the bubbles raging and coolant was spewing out the overflow hose like it was throwing up. And it wasn't even that hot out, certainly nothing like what we had just been through in the lower regions of Argentina. Again, disconcerting, especially since we wanted to head out into the wilderness of Patagonia next where if something went wrong, we'd really be stranded.
So we arrived in Chile, the sun was setting, and we were without anything for dinner. After a hard day of riding, this was not how we wanted to end up.
Everything in Chile is expensive, and you usually get very little for your money (I promised Tim I would not complain again about the sandwich I bought yesterday, but here goes: plain white bread and boiled gristly chicken with mayo globbed on top which cost $8!). But this boutique hotel turned out to be an oasis (Hotel Aldea del Elqui). Breakfast (included) was a huge buffet of croissants, fruits, cheeses, breads, and scrambled eggs. There was a pool, jacuzzi, gardens with fountains, and the place wasn't breaking the bank. So we decided to rest there for a day to recuperate and make a plan of how to get to Santiago.
That night the skies were twinkling and magical. I learned three ways to find polar south using the Southern Cross, how the ancients used the stars as a calendar, and I can now point out Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Cancer, the False Cross, Subaru a.k.a. Pleiades (yes, the Japanese car company, and their logo is the constellation), two other galaxies outside of the Milky Way, and we got to look through the big telescope at nebulas and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius A. It was an experience of a lifetime. If you like the night sky, and even if you've never really seen a constellation in your life, if you come to Chile, this is a must do. There are tons of observatories in the Elqui region, but even just a night of staring at the stars without a guide is impressive enough to make you feel breathtakingly insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe.
Now we're in the sparkling metropolitan city of Santiago, full of glass high rises, LA-like criss-crossing highways, and even some snowy mountain peaks in the distance. The bike is at KTM, and I'm feeling very confident that our starting and overheating problems will be resolved quickly (knock on wood), especially considering Tim showed the guys a bolt he'd found and didn't know where it came from, and the mechanic knew right away from where it had fallen. He passed the test!
Once the bike is as good as new (ok, that may not happen, but good enough to get us through Patagonia), we'll go into the real southern reaches of Chile, and take the Austral highway down into the land of glaciers, mountains, and ice.
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