“I’m rubbish at hitchhiking” and other tales from the Argentine roadside

No, honestly, I really am. Or rather we are, namely Ben the Englishman, Daniel the German and I. 

Our previous day’s escape attempt from Antofagasta had been spectacularly unsuccessful and now, sitting at the entirely deserted crossroads at El Eje, it looked like today’s attempt would also end in ignominious failure. The day had started successfully enough, catching one of the twice-weekly buses down from Antofagasta, and getting off before the local “main” town of Belen in order to hitch northwards towards Santa Maria, and eventually Cafayate.

The scenery back had been similarly spectacular to the journey up. You don’t often get to see lava fields from your bus window!

Passing back through the same Comedor that we had stopped at coming here, we met possibly one of the strangest animals I’ve ever seen. Immediately christened ‘Pig Dog’ by all present, this poor beast had an undistinguished lineage borne of, no doubt, a shallow local canine gene pool. Or possibly was the result of an unholy inter-species union. Who knows, however it did like ham. #cannipig

Behold pig dog!

El Eje is a junction onto the main Ruta 40, basically one of the main thoroughfares of the area. We arrived mid-afternoon, scoped out our surroundings including a sturdy concrete bus shelter if we ended up staying there, and a cafe across the road with beer signs on it. Perfect. Then the cafe shut. 

And then we realised just how little traffic there was on the road. Surely not? So, with the sun beating down and no cars to worry about, we entered usual bloke practice of playing stupid games with rocks. And taking pictures of each other, obvs. #capturethemoment.

No, I wouldn’t stop for me either.

At least the roadside scenery didn’t suck.

The few cars and pickups that did pass were either full (Frequent thumbs-up from the 2 occupants of the front passenger seat in well stacked cars!) or just screamed past. A lovely old guy did stop in a pickup with a hedge trimmer in the back, but he was only going a kilometre up the road, which seemed pointless, since it looked like Death Valley with less entertainment options.

After a while the gods of hitching smiled upon us and a car pulled up. He was only going to Hualfin, the next town up, but this was perfect because we were pretty confident in being able to stay there in something other than a bus shelter, so took him up on the offer.

My Spanish definitely has improved a lot in the last month or so. I don’t think it has in every day use, but actually I managed to hold a full conversation with this guy, a Sergeant in the local Police off to start his 6-day on call stint away from home. We chatted Policing and Politics in the short ride, which he ended by wishing us good luck, and calling me ‘Brother’, which was really nice.

Our next spot, at the junction to the town of Hualfin, also turned out to be completely unsuccessful. Well, in the lift sense, but definitely not in making random new friends. A pretty chica from Buenos Aires, riding by, who had clearly taken a shine to Ben but was otherwise slightly boring, asking leading questions such as whether he preferred blondes to brunettes, which admirably he deliberately answered in the contrary, before she too became bored and rode off.

And indeed this guy, who passed by twice, with a pull up and stop chat on both occasions. We left him to Daniel, the best Spanish speaker out of the three of us. And because we did have a vague fear that he might murder us. Slightly random, but a nice chap, who said that he was “just driving around” and also informed us of his plans for a three day trip to Brazil, taking his Mujeerrrrrrrrr (“woman”). In the end he pottered off just as he’d arrived. Sorry Daniel, but we would have sacrificed you.

Night fell, and with our hitchhiking luck having faded to nil, we debated when we’d throw in the towel and walk to town for the night. The only spark on the horizon was a daily bus that passed this way. I was certain I’d seen its departure times when in Belen, and certain that it would pass, but only tentatively so… I convinced the others, and crossed my fingers.

It was probably a good sign when the local cops pulled up and asked us if the bus had come yet. At least there was one, somewhere…

Some time after 9pm, a shining beacon in the form of a suspiciously new bus arrived. Salvation! We climbed on, and the bus turned off towards Hualfin. Shortly afterwards, we were stopped by the same cops who’d spoken to us… Who promptly arrested the bus driver’s mate! Fun times.

Home for the night, then, was Santa Maria, a pleasant enough one-horse town, virtually identical to every other one-horse South American town I’ve seen in the past few weeks. A room for three in a decent enough Hostal and then a return to the bus station, for an onwards trip north to Cafayate.

It’s been said before, but I do love a good rural bus station. This one had an ace coffee bar where we filled up on croissants and espresso for a relative pittance. Glacially slow service, obviously, but waiting for it is half the fun of coffee! It also possessed some of the most retro graffiti I think I’ve seen since, er, secondary school. Anyone else old and sad enough to remember this?

Onwards, then, to Cafayate. The third time now I’ve visited, but the first time I had approached from the south, and for the first time I appreciated the incredible scale of wine production around here. Vast vineyards on both sides of the road, for as far as you can see, and some beautiful bodegas that looked ripe for a good barbecue lunch.

Rolling into Cafayate, I was surprised to see how busy it had become. Actually slightly unpleasant- Absolutely packed to the rafters with tourists and completely losing the small-town vibe which makes it so nice to visit. A real disappointment, and a massive change in a fortnight!

These, however, were not. The Casa de Empanadas in the centre of the village is mentioned in Lonely Planet but I hadn’t visited before. As a farewell meal for Daniel it seemed ideal. All sorts of flavours, all delicious, and all baked fresh in the oven- The only way to cook them! 2 dozen disappeared very quickly, as did 2 litres of the amazing Salta Black beer.

Frequently here, plan A changes to Plan B, occasionally necessitating elements of Plan C. This is precisely what happened at 6pm. Waving goodbye to Daniel, Ben and I decided to while away a couple of hours on the exit road from town trying to hitch a lift prior to the 6.50pm bus to San Carlos. A suitable spot secured, this again proved completely unsuccessful, but did provide a few ‘characters’ to chat with including the woman selling grapes, her friend and another chap who instantly detected that I was English and started ranting about the Islas Malvinas, Chileans and American satellites. I didn’t fully understand the rant, however managed to admirably deflect this (in Spanish) onto Politicians and the past. We shook hands and I backed away slooooooowly.

At 6pm we decided to walk back into town to ensure we got a seat on the San Carlos bus. Problem. “That only runs in school time”. Ah, brilliant. So then, options all exhausted, a night in Cafayate it was.

Funky house in Cafayate

I rarely tend to travel in ‘peak’ times, so the utter dearth of available accommodation was a blow. The lowest I could find was £22.50 for a twin room in a nice cabaña place, however Ben was adamant he was going to save the £2.50 and would ‘Walk around the village all night’ to do so. At this point I slightly lost the will to live, due to lugging my pack round for several hours in the baking sun. However, luck would have it that the next place quoted £22.50 again but, seeing my near-suicidal pleading face, knocked this down to £20. Acceptable budget choice. Job done! Naturally, it was also a hot, noisy mosquito-infested dive, but hey…

Up into the mountains again…

So, the next morning, we jumped on the 11am bus to Angastaco. A familiarly dusty scene, up an incredible dirt road. Angastaco provided us with a decent stopover for lunch, and a chance to find a driver for the next section, past Molinos, further up Route 40 on an ever-climbing road towards Cachi. It was a pleasant small town, and surprisingly lush in its municipal park, given the apparent lack of water.

Luckily finding transport proved to be easy, 4 other people wanted a lift to Cachi so we were good to go. 120 pesos each (About £6), pretty reasonable for a long trip in a 4×4 on an interesting road… The other 4 seemed surprised when we so readily volunteered to go in the back. Damn right! One of my most scenic and interesting journeys so far, with a local guy also joining us and pointing out some highlights. Well, the ones I managed to translate from his near-impenetrable local drawl, further obfuscated by a big wad of coca leaves in his mouth. Mmmff..cerro..mmmphd!

Where the River Calchaqui passes, the ground is surprisingly lush… 

Quick stop for water and a leg stretch

The road pans out ahead…

Some of the higher peaks in the area- Over 6000m! 

Approaching Cachi

The descent into town

A little wind-buffeted, definitely rather over-exposed to the sun and in general a bit grit blasted, but grinning from ear to ear, we pulled into the main town square of Cachi about 4hrs after leaving Angastaco. Definitely one of my trip highlights and, it would seem, the only way to travel in the countryside, hanging out of the back of a pickup like a farmer’s dog!

You’d never guess it was a bit windy…

We were dropped off near the main Plaza in Cachi with, it would seem, the rest of Argentina. A music festival was starting there in 2 days so the place was packed in anticipation, severely limiting accommodation options. Luckily though, our bargain basement first thought did have a couple of beds for the night.

Set above the town in what appears to be an old nunnery or similar, the Auberge Municipal offers simple dorms for a bargainous 70 pesos (£3.50 currently) a night. Ideal, if a bit ‘institutional’ looking. 

Courtyard of the Auberge

Naturally, being a municipal enterprise in Argentina, there was a complicated system to the whole affair. Walk to the tourist office in town, speak to the man (Of three members of staff, only he was permitted access to the hallowed carbon book) to book the people and nights required, take the slip and then walk back half a mile up the hill to check in with the lady, whom you then pay, and present her with the hallowed slip.

The next morning allowed us to find the flaw in the system, namely that extending one’s stay required a further trip into town, another slip and another return to pay the lady.

By this point I was gripped by a somewhat intense stomach upset, miraculously my first after nearly 6 months of travelling and eating weird stuff… I think probably the water in the smaller villages wasn’t quite as safe as I’d assumed. Thankfully Ben managed to find a couple of beds in another hostel in town. I did miss out, however, on the apparently amazing walks from Cachi to the surrounding countryside. Something for next time.

Cachi’s church on the main square

Cachi life

Really disappointingly, this was the first place I’d been in Argentina where I’ve seen a tourist tax being imposed… Ben needed a new towel and popped into a shop where the woman quoted 200 Pesos- Not cheap, but borderline reasonable. As he was going to pay, we noticed a price sticker fall off it, marked at a much lower price which she claimed was a ‘stock number’ until I pointed out (in Spanish) the Peso sign. Nah. We left.

Slightly revived after 48hrs of consuming Gatorade and water alone, it was time to leave. I’d wanted to stay for the music festival but accommodation just wasn’t available. 3 buses a day leave Cachi for Salta along the amazing Cuesta del Obispo, a road that people willingly pay tour companies to see. The public bus does the job a damn sight cheaper, and you’ve still got the view…

Please, excuse the bus window-eye view photos but this is genuinely one of the most spectacular, switch-backed and vertiginous roads I’ve ever been on. Part of me would wish I had my car here to drive it properly but I think the combination of gravel/dirt surface, minimal barrier coverage and some feisty corners might backfire.

Quebradas leaving Cachi

The road flattened out, we joined the highway and, once more I found myself in Salta bus station. Bidding farewell to Ben I began the long, hot search for a place to stay.

Having hit the thinner end of my savings I’ve decided to start being a bit more careful about money, and I wanted to start that straight away here. I want to get overland to North America, New York if at all possible on my existing budget… It’s a goal anyway.

No longer will I ‘treat myself’ to hotel rooms, rejecting with surprising willpower a lovely-looking £30 a night place by the bus station and managing to find a fairly decent hostel a few blocks up for £7.50. Winning. Especially impressive as I was really starting to struggle with my pack in the 35 degree heat after nearly 3 days of no food and, er, disturbance.

So then, time for some more recuperation and then onwards. I’ve got a week to kill before I need to be back in Buenos Aires so Tucuman and Córdoba are firmly on the list. And on the way back, so to speak.

Food? Check. Good night’s sleep? Definitely check. Córdoba me up landlord!

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