Back on the backpacker trail: Catamarca calling

It’s a measure of how time has started to stretch after 5 months travelling that 3 weeks with my mum went very quickly. Time for her to return to the cold, and for me to plan my next move. It was great having her here, if slightly odd to see someone so close to me in this far-flung part of the world! A great time, both to revisit some of the places I had loved and also to share this with my mum, who I think enjoyed most of it.

So then, what was the next move? Well, my Argentine friend Tamara whom I’d met on my last visit had a free couple of weeks, so we decided to meet up in Catamarca, right in the west of Argentina near the Chilean border. Slightly frustratingly, this was only a few hundred kilometres from Salta, where I had been the day before, but a very long way from Buenos Aires. Over 1000 miles. So, having dropped mum off at Ezeiza Airport, checked her in and become pretty confident that the arrangements from there on in couldn’t go wrong, I hopped back onto the airport bus into town and hot-footed it to Retiro coach station for my bus to the hills, leaving at lunchtime.

Retiro coach station is probably pretty similar to, say, Victoria station in London. Somewhat of a cradle of civilisation. Bonkers. Watch your bags, seriously… Plenty of decent people and families on their travels but also a fair few hustlers.

It was important for me to “get back on the horse” in terms of low-budget travel, getting accustomed to nice hotels and flying everywhere is very easy but a big drain on my remaining funds. So, 21 hours on a bus it was. Actually, when you see South American buses you realise it’s not such a big deal. The bus was somewhat old but had big comfy reclining seats and also, crucially, it went direct to this tiny outpost. 

I also had incredible luck in that the seat next to me was about the only free one left, so I had basically a double bed to myself. Ideal.

My destination was Londres. The one in Catamarca is wildly dissimilar to the English capital city, a sleepy town with little to its name other than Inca ruins and pleasant countryside.

Nuts!!

Las Canas hostal, and one of its canine residents

Pelucha, the ridiculously photogenic hostel dog

Home for the next few days was Las Canas hostel, a pleasant hippy-ish place in one of the village squares, with a great garden and plenty of resident friendly wildlife including dogs and chickens. The kind of place where everyone chats to everyone else, nobody needs to lock anything and where you could quite happily lose yourself for a couple of weeks. Not to mention cheap huge glasses of wine!

We walked up to a local river and then to the local Inca ruins, reputed to be the capital of the Incas in Argentina and a key part of their network after Macchu Picchu. This place has undergone a significant revival this year, with a plush new visitor centre and guided tours.

 

Milling stones

 

“Escaleras a cielo”

I’d become somewhat blasé about sun protection again after a few hazy days but quickly learnt about the strength of the Catamarcan sun having ended up somewhat lobstery in the evening. Factor 30 going back on!

After a couple of days hanging out in South American London, we headed for the nearest big town Belen, in order to catch a bus back past Londres (Out in the country the routes and their stopping policies don’t always make sense) heading for Fiambala, a small village in the hills with some reputedly excellent hot springs.

Naturally, there wasn’t a direct bus. Travel is (arguably) more fun when you have to work at it. Luckily Tamara had got chatting to a holidaying Argentine couple who wanted to go to the same place, so we joined forces. As good as my survival Spanish now is to achieve transactions and the like, it certainly can’t cope with random conversations. Hey, I’m not the best at it in English.

So, stuck at a local bus station with the next bus to your destination not for 4 hours or more, what do you do? Well, you ask around. The guy running the shop there happened to have a car and was willing to take us for a reasonable fee when he closed up in an hour. Ideal! He also turned out to be a geography teacher during the week with an excellent understanding of local geology, turning a cheap lift into a tour!

Geology lesson en route

The village of Fiambala is pretty well stocked with shops and facilities, but the hot springs are a further 17km into the hills. Our excellent luck continued with our driver more than happy to take us up there, to save a hot afternoon of hitching. Once on the road to the termas the scenery went from ‘interesting’ to ‘outstanding’.

Fiambala’s church and main plaza

The road upwards

We arrived at the termas in the early evening, whereupon we found out that the Dakar Rally was in town! It’s a measure of how rugged and remote it is around here… The local stage was due to start in a couple of days, and a few of the support vehicles and crews were using the termas for a bit of R+R.

Fiambala hot springs are a bit of a task to get to, but absolutely worth it. Luckily their remote nature means that they aren’t stuffed full of people, over-commercialised or indeed over-stretched. A number of the places I’ve visited in the past have over extended themselves with so many pools that the geothermal energy cannot keep up and so they end not being very…hot.

These certainly are. The top pool is over 40 degrees, and they gradually get (slightly) cooler as they descend the hillside.

The top pool and spring

Looking down over the pools and cafe to the wide plains beyond

 

I have to thank Tamara’s intensive research and phone calls, which deduced that there are rooms at the hot springs, which means that you don’t have to pay separately to enter and, more significantly, get 24/7 free access to the pools themselves… Absolutely ideal. At the time of writing, beds in a dorm/private room (depending on availability) run at 250ARS pppn, and a deluxe cabana sleeping 5 runs to 800ARS a night- A real bargain. (About £12/£40)

The only slight fly in the ointment is getting to and from the village for supplies and getting in/out, unless you have a car or are lucky hitching a lift it’s a slightly pricey cab ride.

Looking over the plains from the springs

The springs at night

In addition, a local company was running a mobile “Dakar Spa” offering cut-price massages at the termas. A price at which it would have been rude to resist. Apart from the howling wind threatening to shred the massage tent, a very relaxing experience, combined with the sheer joy of sinking into hot spring water afterwards.

Fiambala is close to the Chilean border, and its rugged mountain pass leading to Copaipo on the Chilean coast, the Paso de San Francisco. The scenery in the area is fascinating, with an enormous array of rock formations and wildlife on the high sierras, with numerous nearby peaks including the magnificent 6638m Incahuasi. The Argentine border is 200km away from Fiambala, and due to the border being very irregularly used, you have to have your own transport to get up there. 

So, along with the couple from the bus, we arranged a driver for the day…

The open road awaits

Further and higher into the hills, the warning signs start

Hotel at the end of the world

Climbing ever higher towards the 4700m pass, the scenery changed, from desolate rocky outcrops and spectacular Quebradas to high passes with rivers, salt flats and a surprising amount of wildlife. Apparently small trout also live in the high river.

Moonscape

Oh deer

Refuges on the road. It’s an inhospitable place!

Climbing further, it was obvious how much the air was thinning, with the howling wind reminding us that it was no place to linger without backup. No mobile signal for at least 190km and the only hope of survival in your own resources and the mountain refuges strategically placed along the road with radio links to emergency services. Throughout our whole day I saw no more than 7 other cars on the 200km stretch, so if you break down, you’re in for a long wait.

The great peaks in the area soon came into view, and then we reached the Argentine border post. I was struggling slightly with the altitude, not quite as much as the poor girl vomiting in the passport line, but enough to have a stinking headache and to be walking like I’d drunk 10 pints. It’s both hot and dry up there, and you need to drink gallons of water!

Customs outpost

After arriving at the customs/border post (This is actually 20-odd KM before the true border, presumably for reasons of survival when it’s snowing up top!) we were forced to hang around for an hour in the scorching high altitude sun, as it seemed that the staff were all having lunch. Border closed, then. However, the generator soon sprang into life and we all trooped into the hut to show our identity documents. Except our driver, who had neglected to bring his National ID document. A glaring error.

So then, end of the line for us all. Very disappointing. I crossed the border just to the huts/shelters up the road in order to use the bathroom, and was starting to walk back when I had a flash of inspiration. The car park had at least 5 trucks in it. Had to be worth a shot, surely?

I turned back and in pidgin Spanish asked an outdoorsy-looking guy if there was anyone who might fancy giving us a lift. Sure enough, his friend was resting after climbing one of the mountains, was in possession of a shiny truck and was more than happy to take us up to the pass for a look, waving away my suggestions of payment. Ideal!

I sprinted back to the post to get the others through border control. For about 10m before running out of breath, wobbling and then returning to a brisk pissed walk. Onwards…

Border sign, and shelters in the distance. Copaipo is on the Chilean coast.

Argentine/Chilean border. The road changes instantly to rubble on the Chilean side, and it gets frequently snowed in, hence why it’s not a well used border crossing.

Have truck, will travel.

Snow on the peaks

Our driver was a member of a local mountaineering club, and clearly knew his stuff, regaling us with tales of his recent ascents of the nearby mountains and driving us not only up the road to the border, but off-road towards some interesting rocks and one of the lower peaks. I was really pleased that the power of positive thought and having a go had paid off so handsomely. We thanked him immensely and climbed back into the car over the border for the return trip to Fiambala.

Another herd of deer on the way down…

Back in Fiambala, it was time to make some travel plans in order to make our Wednesday lunchtime bus from Belen to Antofagasta. Arriving at the bus station the next afternoon, it was somewhat of a pain to discover that the bus we’d thought was due to leave Tinogasta, the next town, at 6am, didn’t go on Wednesdays. Bugger, plan B then. And so, we found ourselves leaving the bus station at Fiambala towards a dusty Police post on the highway where we were assured that 3 buses to Belen would be passing. OK then…

Fiambala. I love a good rural bus station.

Abandoned railway station between Fiambala and Tinogasta

Alphasinche police post, our home for the evening

Our dusty new home beside the highway was hot. Ridiculously hot, even at 8.30pm. With a hot wind. Hot, hot hot. We set up camp, said hello to the cute local stray puppy, and settled in for a wait. The buses weren’t due to arrive until 9-10pm but in the meantime we tried hitching anyway, since it was only a couple of hours to Belen and we were on the right road. 

This proved to be wholly unsuccessful. Most of the cars were full, and of the rest many were going where we had come from. The only ones that stopped were when I was hitching, and I reckon they thought I was a cop because they then looked confused at my sign and pulled off again.

However, as luck would have it, the quoted bus did turn up and despite initial reticence to stop by the Police post (I reckon his papers were dodgy!) he stopped up the road and gratefully climbed on.

Back to Las Canas in Londres as a good accommodation option, and hopefully some sleep before the morning bus (A ridiculously civilised 15 minute journey) to Belen and beyond…

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