Saturday, 16 Jan 2021

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America

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Who heads into the Andes in winter? Vivian and Hanlie Gericke, that’s who! Join them in their Land Rover as they traverse the longest mountain range on earth, through northwestern Argentina and the Atacama Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

Trip to Andes. We flew from South Africa to Argentina and traveled to El Boson, a small town in central Argentina, up against the Andes. It was mid-May and snow was already falling. Stretching for more than 7000 km and spanning seven countries, the Andes is the longest mountain range in the world. It also has some of the highest peaks in the world and is home to volcanoes and the ruins of ancient civilizations. Our plan was to travel north all along the mountain range, staying as close and as high as possible. But we’d stick to the Argentinian side – the passes between Argentina and Chile are often closed by overnight snowstorms in winter.

Andes in winter

Bariloche is one of Argentina’s prime skiing destinations, but it was too early in the season to hit the slopes. North of Bariloche is the beautiful Route of the Seven Lakes. We’d traveled in this area before but never this close to winter. It was very cold and there were none of the busloads of tourists we’d encountered the previous time. The autumn colors were spectacular. We stopped often, braving the cold wind to take photos as we worked our way north to San Martín de Los Andes, another ski destination and probably Argentina’s most expensive town – it reminded us of Stellenbosch back home. Trip to Andes.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 1

Andes. Vivian and Hanlie made slow progress in Lanin National Park because

the landscapes caused them to stop every five minutes to take photos.


Trip to Andes. Lanin National Park

From there, we headed further north to Lanin National Park. We were all on our own – there were no other people crazy enough to sleep in a tent at this time of the year! It was so cold that on most nights we went to bed without eating dinner. The moment the sun set, we had no option but to put on all our warm clothes, including three puff jackets, three Buffs and two beanies, and go straight to bed. In the mornings, all our water would be frozen. If we wanted coffee, we had to remember to put a bottle of water in the camping fridge the night before.

In a campsite in the small town of Chos Malal, we had a very unnerving night. Just after dark, a couple from Buenos Aires in an old VW Kombi suddenly packed up their belongings and told us it was unsafe to camp there. They left in a hurry. We didn’t know the area and we had nowhere else to go, so we stayed. We lay awake all night, imagining noises and planning what to do in case of a robbery. We were so relieved when morning came, and all was well. Trip to Andes.

Malbec and Mountains. Trip to Andes

We trundled into the city of Mendoza, where we had booked to have the Landy serviced. Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’swine region and famous for its malbecred wine and torrontés white wine. This area is a semi-desert, with sandy soil,cold nights and pure water from the melting snow of the Andes – all factors that make the wines so special. Some of the wine estates we visited were small scale and somewhat run-down; others were more appealing.We realized that although the Argentinian malbecis world renowned, their wine cellars cannot match South Africa’s spectacular wine estates. Trip to Andes.

From Mendoza, we headed north-west, closer to the Andes once again, to the small town of Uspallata. In October 1972, a small aircraft flying between Mendoza and Santiago in Chile, carrying a rugby team from Uruguay, crash-landed in deep snow in the mountains near here. By sheer determination – and by eating the flesh of their dead mates – 16 people survived the ordeal and emerged from the Andes after 10 weeks of hell. You might remember the movie Alive based on the book of the same name by Piers Paul Read.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 2

Andes. A 4×4 track led the adventurers to these surreal,

windswept plains on top of the pass near the village of Las Papas.


Trip to Andes. North of Mendoza

Trip to Andes. North of Mendoza, the landscape changed. It became very dry, almost desert-like. This part of South America is home to some of the oldest known dinosaur fossils in the world. In Ischigualasto Provincial Park we visited a fascinating modern museum dedicated to the geological history of the earth and the dinosaurs that lived in this area long ago. The presentations were excellent, as was the guided tour – we saw full-size replicas of a variety of dinosaurs that are scarily true to life.

Further north, in another small town called Fiambalá, we met up with our friends Johan and Marianne Ver Loren van Themaat. They’d driven from Uruguay in their Land Cruiser camper to meet us here, and over the next three weeks we’d travel north together to La Pazin Bolivia. We spent a few days exploring the area around Fiambalá.We drove up and down the nearby San Francisco Pass (4748m) that connects Argentina with Chile, and we visited the Termas de Fiambalá, a hot springs resort in the hills. Trip to Andes.

One local man couldn’t stop admiring Johan’s Land Cruiser.We chatted to him and he told us about a 4×4 trackfrom Fiambalá through the mountains, that eventually joins up with National Route 40, popularly known as Ruta 40, a highway that stretches along the Andes from south to north.

Trip to Andes. We couldn’t resist the temptation. So, instead of taking the easier R60 to Ruta 40, we spent two days on this 4×4 track,zigzagging across a riverbed about 40 times with high cliffs on either side.We ended up in the forlorn village of Las Papas, which seemed to be home to only one dejected-looking family. They didn’t show any emotion when I asked permission to take a photo. One couldn’t help but wonder if they’d ever seen anyone from outside their world.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 3

Andes. Camping wild in a pristine environment just outside Los Cardones National Park.


Andes north on Ruta

Trip to Andes the road then became very narrow and started winding up a steep pass to the top of a mountain at 4 300m – a moonscape of white, eroded rock and spectacular views. This was probably the most remote we’d been on our travels in South America.

On our way to Andes north on Ruta 40 to the town of Salta, we passed through some beautiful small villages, and the ruins of Quilmes, a settlement that was conquered by the Spanish in 1666. The ruins of the settlement date back to about 1000 AD. We also stopped in the town Amaicha del Valle, where we visited an interesting museum.

A feature of all smaller Argentinian towns is the ubiquitous town square. Important offices, shops and restaurants are located around the square, and it’s also the social hub of the town, where friends meet, children play and bands perform until late. Street food and traditional handcrafts are sold, and there’s usually free but slow Wi-Fi available. We often stopped at these squares to catch up on WhatsApp and to exchange a few broken Spanish words with the locals. In rural Argentina, hardly anyone speaks English. Trip to Andes.

We camped for a few days at a municipal campsite in Salta, next to an enormous swimming pool. It was 300 x 100m – an area the size of 24 Olympic swimming pools – and filled with water diverted from a nearby river. Apparently, it’s packed out during the summer months. To the west of the town we popped into Los Cardones National Park, a semi-desert with beautiful views and interesting cacti.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 4

Andes. The remote village of Iruya deep in the mountains at the end of a long and winding road.

San Antonio de los Cobres

Then it was time to carry on north. Again, we stayed as close to the mountains as possible, which proved to be a big mistake… Although it was only 150 km along Ruta 40 to the next town of San Antonio de los Cobres, we had to traverse a pass at an altitude of 5000 m. We thought Ruta 40 was a well-travelled route, but it was clear that no one had been along this road for days, maybe even weeks, most likely because of the recent snow. We didn’t have snow chains for the tyres and we only just made it through. Lesson learnt: Ask before you go! Trip to Andes.

It was bitterly cold in San Antonio de los Cobres. There was nowhere to camp so we stayed in a pension. Late in the afternoon, a band started playing and it seemed as if all the inhabitants of the town came into the streets to celebrate. Many towns in Argentina are named after a saint, and there’s usually a celebration day to honor said saint. These festivities were in honor of Saint Antonio and they carried on until well after midnight. We could only endure 30 minutes outside – it was absolutely freezing!

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 5

Andes. Hanlie in Purmamarca, at a colorful display of beautiful woven products.

Woven fabrics are a trademark of northern Argentina.


Trip to Andes. Purmamarca

Trip to Andes. Next on the small-town list was Purmamarca, at the foot of the socalled Hill of Seven Colors – a spectacularly jagged rock formation. The surrounding landscape was harsh but vivid, with colorful geological formations best appreciated in the early morning or evening light. Purmamarca was also an excellent place to shop for locally made woven goods and we bought more than what we could sensibly take back home.

North of Purmamarca, about 100 km south of the Bolivian border, we detoured east to visit the faraway village of Iruya, high in the mountains. A fellow traveler told us not to miss this town, one of only a few such towns where the traditional and indigenous cultures of centuries ago have been preserved. To get there, we drove a gravel road that snaked over two high passes. The village is squeezed up against the mountain slopes and vehicles from outside are not permitted in. So we had to explore on foot. The residents seemed a bit distant. Fair enough – the village is incredibly remote and very few tourists visit each year.

From Iruya we continued to the border with Bolivia at La Quiaca, or Villazón on the Bolivian side. Read about our Bolivian adventures in go! Trip to Andes.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 6


Just Chile, man! Trip to Andes

After four weeks in Bolivia, we crossed the border into Chile – now we were on the other side of the Andes to Argentina. We proceeded to the touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama, which provides easy access to a remote corner of the Atacama Desert if you want to avoid the big mining towns. The dusty roads come alive every day with hundreds of travelers dodging agents trying to entice you to join them on a hiking, canoeing or cycling excursion.

Trip to Andes. From San Pedro we explored some of the western side of the Andes. We visited Valle de Luna, named after its moon like land forms eroded by water and wind over millennia, and we saw the high-altitude lakes Miscanti and Miñiques, as well as the spectacular Piedras Rojas viewpoint. As the condor flies, we were now less than 200 km from San Antonio de los Cobres on the other side of the mountains, where we’d watched the town celebration a few weeks earlier.


The Atacama. Along the coast of Chile and Peru

We had both always dreamt of seeing the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on earth. All deserts are dry, but the Atacama is so dry that there are some parts where rainfall has never been recorded. The Atacama is mostly an expanse of stone, stretching for about 1000 km in a north-south direction along the coast of Chile and Peru. From east to west, between the Andes and the sea, however, it’s only 200 km or so, and it took us less than a day to reach the Pacific along reasonable gravel roads. It was special to finally experience the desert, but we were disappointed to see the extent of the environmental damage done by the large-scale mining of copper, lithium, gold and silver in many places. Trip to Andes.

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Andes.  The spectacular red rocks of Piedras Rojas. The Gerickes eventually reached

the Pacific Ocean where they spent the night camping south of Iquique.

Trip to Andes. Once we reached the Pacific, we traveled south for a while and then turned north again through the big mining towns of Antofagasta, Iquique and Arica – the latter on the border with Peru. These were sprawling places with no appeal and we didn’t linger.

On our travels in South America, we have seldom come across other South Africans, but in Iquique we met up with De Bruyn Joubert, who is from Bloemfontein. We had a braai together like good South Africans do. De Bruyn was on a mission to cycle around the world – at the time he’d cycled across all the continents except Antarctica and Africa. We had met him by chance eight months previously, in the town of El Calafate in Patagonia. In the interim, he’d pedalled all the way to Iquique. Trip to Andes.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 8

 Andes. Nighttime in the Atacama Desert.

Trip to Andes. Our time in the high mountains had come to an end. It was risky to attempt parts of the route in winter, but the scenery was unforgettable – endless views of snow-capped peaks, beautiful geological formations and magnificent landscapes.

 Travel through Southern Brazil. Trip to Andes

Approximate daily budget? Travelling with your own vehicle in South America is no more expensive than travelling in southern Africa. Our average travelling expenses are about R1 300 to R1 500 per day, which includes food, accommodation for two, diesel and car services. We often camp wild to save costs, and we only stay in formal accommodation when we have no other option.

Trip to Andes. Getting around? You don’t need your own vehicle to explore Chile or Argentina – or South America for that matter. Bus transport on the continent is very efficient and there are many options to choose from. The other alternative is to buy an over-landing vehicle – this is quite popular in Chile.

High and dry in the Andes, trip to South America - photo 9

Andes. In the town of Amaicha del Valle, Hanlie and Vivian visited Museo Pachamama,

an interesting art museum that depicts the Incan and pre-Incan periods,

as well as the geological evolution of the earth in northern Argentina.

Trip to Andes. Travelling with your own foreign-registered vehicle in Argentina and Chile, as we did, requires careful planning since it’s illegal to leave your vehicle in either of those countries.  In their previous lives, Hanlie was a biology teacher and Vivian was a consulting engineer. Over the years they traveled with their three children through southern Africa. When they retired in 2016, they looked for new adventures and decided on South America. In October 2016 they shipped their Land Rover Defender to Montevideo in Uruguay and went over landing through Patagonia .

Since then, they’ve been back four times. They traveled through the central Andes to Cusco in Peru, and from Cusco back to Uruguay across the lowlands of Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. In 2019, they explored the Pantanal in Brazil, the Amazon rain forest and lesser-visited countries like French Guiana and Suriname.

Each trip lasts about three to four months. They’ve driven more than 55 000 km in total and they’ve crossed international borders 38 times. Join us as we travel with them in the next few issues. See go!

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