Begin: Salta, Argentina @ 11AM
End: Salinas Grandes, Ruta 40, Jujuy, Argentina @ 6PM
Distance: 238km (149 miles) in 7 hours (34kmh / 21mph average speed)
After so much time away from the open road, I had mixed feelings about leaving this morning. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to leave, more than I just couldn’t quite find the usual excitement about what the day would bring. I got lost in town for awhile before finally finding my way out; I had decided to head off to the west to reconnect with Ruta 40 instead of heading north on the very busy Ruta 9.
At the outskirts of Salta I stopped at a YPF for gas only to find that, so typical for this area, they had no fuel available. I grabbed some water and soda and hit the road anyway, figuring I had just over a full tank and fuel enough for a solid couple hundred kilometers.
For most of the morning I couldn’t quite connect with the road. There was no passion, no feeling of coming together with my moto, the road, the earth, the weather… The connection eluded me and instead I just drove on top of the road, somewhat bored, wondering if my break had perhaps ruined my mindset completely.
A bit out of Salta, the road began to climb in long slow hills, mostly up a fairly boring dusty river valley. The day progressed and I began to despair, both at the slow frustration of these climbs and the endless monotony of this closed in river valley with almost no character along its walls. It wasn’t until I crested the first major pass of the day when the wonder came bubbling up from a hidden cave inside.
I was descending from the pass at 4200 meters (~13,800ft) with the Argentine altiplano spread out before me – a massive open “high plain” stretching for miles in every direction. The horizon in every direction was filled with small snow capped peaks poking their way into the sky, but to my left was something different. Something epic.
Here I was, driving the high plain at just over 4000 meters in elevation, and next to me a massive mountain towered over the horizon. Hidden behind thick and fluffy clouds, its peak had to be well over 7000 meters (23,000ft). To think that I could be so high and then be so dwarfed was astonishing.
Trying to get a clue as to what it might be, as it had to be one of the taller mountains in the Americas, I pulled out my map in hopes it might say. The mountain wasn’t labeled, but something incredibly frightening was: a small dirt road that appeared to go over it. A little label with a Site of Interest marker on this small dirt road read “Abra del Acay – 6734m.” This mountain has a road that goes through a pass at over 22,000 feet!
That’s higher than Everest Base Camp. In fact, that’s higher than I’ve ever been on the world, with my record being somewhere around 18,000 feet. For a long time I sat there considering… should I go? How amazing would it be to drive that high? I desperately wanted to and began to make plans in my head when reality set in.
At 4000m, Red barely had enough power to get up to any sort of speed. The lack of air probably had reduced me to around 4-5hp instead of my usual 9hp, and I was already resorting to first and second gear to climb hills. It was also winter and just by looking I could tell I was barely a thousand meters under the snow line. It just didn’t seem like a safe decision – so instead, I continued on.
As I write this, I truly regret this decision. Right now, I would have at least tried it. I let that opportunity go by because I wasn’t connected, I wasn’t feeling the passion, and I made a clinical, logical decision that erred way too far on the side of caution. Ah, regret.
Soon after, the road began to deteriorate harshly and massive vibration started to shake Red apart. One of the welds on the upper frame shattered and I stopped to tape it back together in order to slow any further damage. As I started back up again I noticed my front tire was completely flat!
Thankfully I have that awesome little jack that I bought in Mendoza, so I didn’t have to search for rocks or tip Red over – just throw in the jack and get it up. The front wheel is by far the easiest to change, especially now with nothing connected up, so I was expecting a quick operation.
I popped off the tire and pulled out the tube to check for damage and found a very small hole. In the past, I haven’t really done a good job of looking for the cause of the punctures and have learned from my mistakes – I carefully felt around inside the tire itself and found two small thorns that had punctured all the way through, both needing to be pushed out with pliers. Then I pulled out my spare tube (which had been patched three times already) and reassembled the wheel.
Using my handy dandy powered air compressor (decadence) I inflated the tube only to find that it wasn’t actually inflating. A quick check confirmed that the replacement tube apparently had a leak as well – that’s the second time this has happened and I’m now convinced its my fault for throwing a bare tube into my tool bag. Something must’ve poked it during one of the many times I rummaged around in there, a lesson learned: no more spare tubes in the tool bag.
Lucky for me, I had picked up three very nice quality brand new tubes in Salta expecting I may need them in Bolivia. Instead of field patching one of the tubes on the side of a dirt road, I pulled out a brand new tube and carefully put everything back together – perfect, no problems!
The entire time I was working here it was bright and sunny and fairly warm, enough that I actually removed most of my layers while I worked. As I packed all of my stuff away, however, it began to snow. A light snow, but snow nonetheless… it was time to go.
I could see a break in the clouds ahead and figured if I pushed on I would cut through the snow and sure enough within about fifteen minutes I was back in the sunlight and relative warmth as I descended into San Antonio de los Cobres. This would be the last town I’d see for awhile and if they didn’t have gas I might be in trouble.
Now I was starting to get excited, the horrible dirt road, the flat tire, the lack of power, the snow – the makings of a good adventure. In town I found a gas station with some horribly expensive gas and realized I only had a hundred pesos on me! They were out of super so I topped off my tank and filled my spare about halfway full with normal before confirming that this town was big enough to have one ATM!
After getting cash I debated heading back to get a bit more gas, but I figured I had enough to make it to Abra Pampa (forgetting that I consume gas at a much higher rate at altitude) and decided not to. Then I thought about getting some more liquids, but I had around 6L which should be plenty – Abra Pampa looked to be only two hundred or so km away, so I’d be there tomorrow morning, no problem.
Wait, did I say no problem? Yes problem: Ruta 40 north from San Antonio de los Cobres turned into one of the worst roads I’ve ever driven. Possibly even Top 5 – it was this nice, flat, wide dirt road across the altiplano that didn’t climb very much, didn’t really turn much, and had a fairly nice quality dirt and rock surface without being too sandy or too rocky most of the time. Unfortunately, it also had the one thing all motorcyclists dread: washboarding. Extreme washboarding – kilometer after kilometer of little teeny waves of dirt and rock just big enough for your wheel to partially fall into before crashing into the next wave.
Over the next few hours Red slowly fell apart. The upper frame shattered and shattered. I went through roll after roll of crappy duct tape and strip after strip of rubber trying to reduce vibrations and mitigate damage, but the vibration was so bad it would actually tear the duct tape apart. It was loud, horrid misery – I rode on in fear of something even more catastrophic, but thankfully that seemed to be the worst of it.
As always when the sun begins to set, I began to look for a place to stop for the night. Much of the altiplano around me seemed to be very deep sand and I was a bit nervous about pulling off into it. I continued on, looking everywhere, when the road finally began to curve and thread through some small hills. On the other side I notice something shiny and white on the horizon – could it be?
Yes, it was – a massive salt flat, stretching for many kilometers ahead of me. My map indicated this was the southern tip of the Salinas Grandes, one of the larger salt flats in Argentina. I found a small track leading through the sand and onto the edge of the salt flat and immediately stopped for the night without bothering to get too much further away from the road.
In this area on the border of the salt flat it was only a small coating of salt on top of crusty dirt, but my top frame had fallen to pieces and needed some attention. In the distance a nasty looking series of storm clouds were staring at me and I wasn’t sure which direction they were going, but I was fairly certain if I got caught out on the deep salt flats in a thunderstorm I would be flooded – I wanted to stop somewhere with dirt to absorb the rain.
Finally, a fairly intense wind had come up and this section seemed to be slightly protected by a nearby hill, so I carefully positioned Red to block the wind and set my tent up as the light faded. When I opened my dry bag up I was frustrated to find that my bottle of rum had somehow leaked, completely drenching my sleeping bag and one of my stuffsacks of clothes with rum! Thankfully the bottle had been almost empty, but I was definitely going to have a nose full of rum tonight…
From here everything ended as normal: some pasta cooked inside the tent, some teevee to unwind, and a surprisingly warm evening where the temperature didn’t even drop below freezing. There was a bright moon out reflecting on the white salt, providing an eerie ambience to the night and only one thing spoiled it: two of my 2L bottles of water had cracked and drained out during the afternoon, leaving me with only 2L of liquid left. Not very healthy at high altitude in the desert…
Begin: Salinas Grandes, Ruta 40, Jujuy, Argentina @ 10AM
End: Abra Pampa, Jujuy, Argentina @ 7:30PM
Distance: 260km (162 miles) in 9.5 hours (27kmh / 17mph average speed)
I couldn’t be bothered to wake up this morning. It wasn’t even really very cold, I had gone to bed around 11PM, and aside from waking up a few times in the night I’d slept fairly well. After the pre-dawn light woke me around 7:30AM I just dozed endlessly, diving into bizarre dreams before surfacing every twenty minutes or so as my body reminded me that I’d slept enough.
I love that feeling - the incredible wasteful laziness of going back to sleep when you’ve already slept more than enough. It’s one of my favorite parts of the weekend at home, but it feels somewhat bizarre to do this while holed up in a tent on a salt flat in the middle of the Andes mountains.
Eventually I forced myself awake and packed up for the morning. I decided to tear off the top bar that was hanging by a thread and duct tape the remaining bits together, then started my engine and made to leave. There was a problem, however: Red didn’t really want to drive anywhere.
There had been a teeny bit of rain in the night and the ground was now a little soft, so Red was digging in a bit. It was also a bit chilly out and the engine hadn’t fully warmed up, so power was down even more. No matter what I tried we would just stall in first gear… ut oh.
I ended up pulling him a few hundred meters onto firmer ground, a task that sounds much easier than it was. There was a ton of rolling resistance and I was heaving and ho-ing at nearly 12,000 feet so life was difficult. Thankfully on firmer ground I was able to get things rolling with some heavy clutch slipping and before long we were back on Ruta 40.
I had woken up to some fairly vicious wind (putting away the tent is always fun in such), but I didn’t expect what happened next: sand storm!
I could see the sand being pushed around in the distance and had no choice but to drive into it. It wasn’t the worst sand storm I’ve been through, but it was pretty vicious nonetheless. I was all buttoned up but could still feel the sand smashing into me and the wind was pushing me all over the road. I stopped for a photo as things calmed down a little bit and ended up capturing a pretty cool shot of me and Red with sand flying everywhere.
A little bit further down the road I suffered another frame shear, leaving barely half of the main supports still intact. As I stopped to tape it up I finally encountered some cars for the first time in ages, a caravan of SUV’s, all of whom stopped to make sure I was okay.
By this point I was out of duct tape and had switched to electrical tape and had killed a roll of that as well, so I wasn’t sure what to do about this latest break. I dug around in my tool bag and found the almost finished roll of medical tape I thought was lost and finished that off – I need to find some more of that somewhere, I’m amazed at how good it is, way better than duct tape.
With the sun and sand it had begun to warm up a bit and all of the physical exertion from pulling Red around and taping things up had gotten my thirst up. I was trying hard to ration the liter and a half or so of water that I had but before long I was down to less than a liter. I was making such slow progress on this horrible road that I had no idea when I’d next see somewhere to get water.
With no choice but to continue onward and be careful with my consumption, I made it into a clear area without much sand being tossed around – and with a beautiful white lake to my left. The salt flat I had camped on last night had widened and grown until it took up a sizeable portion of the horizon. Every once in awhile I’d pass a set of tracks through the sand heading towards it and considered going out onto it to take some photos, but the reality of my water situation prevented it. From here on out, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in sand or doing anything that increased my thirst until I could figure out where I could get more water.
In the distance in front of me I noticed something that seemed odd – a pickup truck speeding along perpendicular to me without kicking up dust. Could this mean there was a paved road around here somewhere? A few moments later I got closer and sure enough, a paved road in the middle of nowhere! I finally pulled out my map and discovered that I had finally connected with Ruta 52, a large east/west road.
Decision time. Around 70km to the east there were towns and I’d be able to buy water, but it would take me a fair bit out of my way and take me off Ruta 40. If I stayed on Ruta 40 I wouldn’t encounter anything for another 140km or so according to my map, and most of that would be the same horrible road that I was averaging less than 20kmh on.
This time it wasn’t about refusing to try something, it was about taking care of my health. I was already dehydrated and while I know I could have lasted the day and night on my remaining half liter of water, it would’ve been miserable and unsafe in the event of an emergency – so instead, I would head east on the paved road in order to get some liquids in me as quickly as possible.
Then again, it looks like Ruta 52 also cuts west straight through the Salinas Grande… it’s not the Salar de Uyuni, but it’s a photo op, right? And I’d be getting water soon enough… heck yeah.
I was surprised at how thin the crust was on the section I drove out on – it was punctured in a number of places and a couple of times my wheel went through as I braked or turned. On the other hand it was pretty cool to see the weird liquid mess underneath the crust… It’s absolutely amazing the way you feel when you’re on a salt flat and I was really glad I had come over to explore. I can’t wait to get to the Salar de Uyuni with proper supplies and have a ton of fun out there.
Photos taken, I jumped back onto Ruta 52 and headed east. I expected to tear up that 70km in no time but there was something I didn’t realize: I would be leaving the altiplano. It started with a quick ascent up to 4200 meters that took ages – the ascent was so steep with such a heavy wind that I almost couldn’t make it up in first gear! I was actually kicking my feet off the ground to help push my way up the hill and almost jumped off to run next to Red a few times.
Somehow we made it up to the top but that was just the beginning… what followed was an absolutely insane descent from 4200 meters to 2100 meters in just under twenty kilometers. As I passed people traveling upwards I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew what was in store for them, because that descent was insane!
Somewhere around four in the afternoon I finally made it down and into a town where I found a gas station and precious, precious liquid. Unfortunately it was only liquid for me – they also had no fuel. At this point I was starting to think that part of the performance problems I was having with Red may have been the result of that crappy gas I bought in San Antonio, but I still had enough to get me to Abra Pampa so I decided to head on.
The rest of the day was a slow, gentle unwinding from the morning. Ruta 9 was constantly ascending along a large river valley, enough that I couldn’t really gather much speed, but not so much that it required much curving back and forth. The only interesting thing to interrupt my road zen was a police checkpoint that didn’t go so well for me at first.
Most of the checkpoints in Argentina are Gendarmeria Nacional, which is sort of a national police force that was created because the local police were universally corrupt (as I understand the story). Lots of places have local police checkpoints as well, however, and overall I’ve probably been stopped around thirty or more times in my travels through Argentina. In all of those times, I’d only been asked for proof of insurance once (and immediately let off without a hitch when I said I lost it) and been asked to put my helmet on maybe five times.
When I stopped this time, the first thing the officer told me was that I was in violation for not wearing a helmet. As he asked for my documentation, I noticed they were local police and got that little twitch I’d always get when stopped in Peru (the feeling you’re being stopped so they can ask you for a bribe). He went through my documentation, complaining about everything – just like corrupt cops in Peru.
He didn’t like that I was driving a Peruvian vehicle, tried to tell me it was illegal until I showed him the customs forms. Then he complained about my international driver’s license photo not looking like me (hahaha, yeah, I haven’t shaved for four months dude…). Finally he asked for my insurance and his eyes lit up when I told him I didn’t have the papers. He then explained that he was going to write me up for not wearing a helmet and for not having insurance.
Now, the thing is, he’s right. By law, I should be wearing a helmet and I should have insurance. I wasn’t, and I don’t, so I’m violating the law and I understand that. The thing is, no one really cares down here. I’m watching motorcycles get waved through the checkpoint being driven by guys without helmets as he’s lecturing me, that’s the way things are. I’m getting in trouble not because they’re trying to enforce the law, but because I’m a target to take advantage of.
So when he tells me he’s going to write me up and give me some kind of infraction, I’m a little annoyed but I can see where it’s going. I ask him what I am supposed to do with an infraction and he tells me there will be a fine I have to pay. I ask him if I can pay it in the next town at the police station because I don’t have any money on me (corrupt police tip #7) and he suddenly stops and looks confused.
Ah hah. Gotcha sucker.
He tells me to wait one minute, he is going to talk to his chief and find out how I can pay the fine, then wanders off to talk with another officer. The two of them come back over and before they can say anything I start to explain to the chief how I’m very confused about all of this because I have been traveling in Argentina for months and talked to many police officers and this is the very first time anyone has been angry with me. We talk a bit more, about my trip and where I’ve been in Argentina, and he finally tells me not to worry – it was some confusion with the junior police officer. I am free to go, there’s no infraction, safe journey!
The rest of the day was uneventful, seemingly endless road unraveling in front of me as Red struggled along with almost no power.
By sunset I had climbed back over 4100 meters again before descending to 3600 meters and the town of Abra Pampa. In the dark it had gotten very cold and I hadn’t had much luck finding somewhere to stop, so I pulled into a hotel for the night.
As I was unloading I found out the hotel had two other guests – a New Zealander and an Australian who are riding bicycles from Arequipa (Peru) to Salta. I had lots of fun chatting with them, but I kept thinking in the back of my mind how funny it was that the first time I randomly encounter other English speakers is merely days after traveling six plus thousand miles just to hang out with some friends and speak English. If I had run into these guys two weeks ago I would’ve gone crazy at the opportunity!
Tomorrow I hope to cross the border into Bolivia, assuming I can find an ATM that dispenses US cash for the visa. Life’s about to get truly interesting…