Travelling’s all about making choices. Some turn out for the good, some for the bad. It’s rarely a matter of life and death. I really need to remember this when the Rain Man side of my brain is desperately over-analysing whether I made the right seat choice on the last bus I booked. Or food. Or flight. It’s bloody exhausting, honest.
My choice to leave Merlo via Mendoza was a good one, on the face of it. I’d spend the night there then get the early morning bus to Santiago, Chile. I was particularly excited about this segment because I’d treated myself to a Cama Suite ticket, the poshest of South American bus classes, with a business-class style flat bed and compartment. It was only 50 Pesos (£2.50) more than the other tickets, so definitely a no brainer.
Also a complete no-brainer was my flight from Santiago to Calama at lunchtime the next day, which would have cut out a vast swathe of the country (21hrs on a bus, 3 on a plane) and also, due to the insanely cheap fares of Sky Airline, was the same price or less than the bus. £27.
Sadly none of this was to be. Pulling into Mendoza and locating the hostel, I chatted with the guy on reception. My Spanish really has come on a lot, but I didn’t understand every word, except for two very clear ones: Paso Cerrado.
BALLS. The road from Mendoza to Santiago is not long, but it is high, passing over the Andes at Paso Christo Redentor, approximately 3700m ASL at its highest point. It snows a lot there, in 2014 it seems I got very lucky since it had been closed the previous day. This time, though, it was staying closed: Blizzards and landslides.
Booking a series of tickets in such a pack of cards day-day-day formation was doomed to failure, and was a bad choice.
Nonetheless, I resisted the urge to stay in the extremely comfy bed next morning, and hauled my ass to the bus station since sod’s lore would have ordinarily dictated a last-minute pass opening and missed bus. Nope. The crowd of sleeping Chileans by the office confirmed my suspicions. I wasn’t getting to Santiago today.
After talking to the bus company guys and getting the strong hint that re-opening of the pass was a poco possibilidad (Basically, Bob Hope/No hope in English), and that even if it was open by tomorrow morning I’d still miss my flight, just. I had a little internal cry, and then pulled myself together, looking around the various bus company windows at their timetabled departures.
From here, I formulated a plan. Not an appealing one, but a plan nonetheless. 22hrs on a bus to Jujuy in Northern Argentina and then hopefully another to San Pedro De Atacama. The second part looked set to be testing- This bus company did not have a departure to San Pedro until Thursday, but the lady thought other companies in Jujuy might have. The risk? Staying in Jujuy. It’s not much of a city. What the hell… A bus was leaving in 2hrs.
So, onto the bus. When I bought the ticket, there was only one seat on the entire bus which qualified for a big discount. Possibly coincidence, but it turned out to be right next to a very fat, grumpy Bolivian lady who ignored me for the duration. Luckily the bus never filled up so I was able to swap and bag a double seat to myself, which helped to win a bit of sleep over the 22hr journey.
1 hour into the journey our bus ju-ju-ju-juddered to a halt. We were going nowhere. Adopting the Argentine style to such problems, I simply went to sleep, and was woken up 90 mins later to the arrival of an identical bus to take us onwards. Good work, El Rapido. I earned a place in several grandmothers’ affections by helping to shift bags (And more importantly, the tea cups) between buses. Including several of those bizarre, tough nylon woven duffel bags that only really seem to exist in places like this or Africa and invariably have mysterious but heavy contents. And maybe dried fish. My playful enquiry about it being pesado (heavy) went unheeded, so I’d imagine some form of contraband was making its way towards Bolivia. It’s normally the other way (Sniff!)
Back on the road again, and we had a lunch stop at what seemed to be an Argentine tourist Mecca. I followed the bus drivers into the restaurant (TOP travel tip. Firstly, they know where’s good, they’re all big buggers, and secondly- You don’t need to worry about the bus leaving until they do!).
Afterwards, I had a wander, and found a somewhat bizarre shrine beside the road. I knew the story already, the Difunta Correa, which appears on numerous bus stickers. An undoubtedly true but macabre story about a baby surviving in the desert from his mother’s miraculous teat. I snapped a surreptitious picture, however the bus driver caught me and then insisted on taking a picture of me by it. I’d put it up here, but he managed to hit the video button so all I got was a slightly awkward 20 sec video of me posing. This, Vallecito, was the place where the Difunta Correa happened. A good free stop!
Back on the road, and mile after mile after mile of scrubland passed. A succession of small bus stations, and a steady stream of passengers on and off. Loads of Bolivians too, I’d almost forgotten how different and more European-looking everyone is in Argentina.
Arriving in Jujuy, I set to work looking around the various bus companies and consulting Google Maps as to which would be the least ridiculous route. Pullman Bus had a departure to San Pedro De Atacama leaving in 2hrs, but that would have been too easy. Full. Buses are NEVER bloody full here! Bad times.
I also started to put into practice my new policy of not worrying about speaking perfect Spanish, just chatting to people. Over a much-needed coffee at the bus station bar, I spoke to a guy from Jujuy who was on his way to Córdoba to buy parts for his car. He procured me a map, and gave lots of useful info about how to get places, and what to see. An enjoyable chat, and useful in that I crossed off some of the more optimistic route plans such as “Bus to the border” which he assured me would result in me being stuck there.
Resigned to 2 days hanging around, I bought my ticket to San Pedro and found another bus to Purmamarca, a small town 100km or so from Jujuy. I’ve been there before, and could think of worse places to hang around. The town is surrounded by amazing rock formations, somewhere I’ve been before but definitely wasn’t sad about going back to.
Feeling very adventure traveller and determined not to stay in a hostel, I went to the first restaurant I saw an “Hay lugar” sign at and found a great en suite double room in an Adobe hut behind the gaff. Ideal, and a tenner a night. Sleep, then exploration…
Another great win attributable to my new policy of talking more to the locals was finding Entre Amigos, the music bar on the Main Street which the guy from my lunch stop had recommended. It’s very Jujuy… A cast of thousands of hippy staff/band members/hangers on. As I walked in and took up a free table one of the women I insisted I join their table for a mate (Herbal tea close to religion in Argentina) and then as I sat down the pissed woman behind me kept offering me some of her beer. It wasn’t until later when I saw her repeatedly topping up the band’s communal pint as they played on stage that I realised she ran the place!
Sadly no hippy joint is without the resident scrounger. One of the guys at the table had an empty beer glass, so when I bought my litre of Norte beer (Cheap as chips but with a comedy head every time) I was about to offer him some. He got in there first by asking for a little beer. Half a glass. In the spirit of hospitality I filled his glass.
Not long after, I noticed that his empty glass had found its way beside my bottle. Very strategically. I decided to humour him and filled it halfway. A few minutes after that, I hear another plaintive request for ‘a little beer’. Tolerance exhausted, I told him I hadn’t much left and he grumpily skulked off. In the sea with you!
The next day dawned, and I decided to try to get to Susques, near the border with Chile and apparently a bit of a one-horse town. I was mis-advised about its departure time, and it never arrived. Local cops later told me it normally came about 5 minutes after I’d spent 2hrs sitting on the road. Bad choice!
Abandoning hope, I found a nearby hippy hostel and bagged a bed for the night. Ringing the bus company in Jujuy revealed yet another bad choice I’d made. Having travelled over a thousand kilometres here, THIS pass was now closed, and my bus would not be going the next day. Arse, feck, grump. Luckily I’d met some great people in the hostel so staying overnight and seeing what the next day brought wasn’t a bad outcome. Amazing barbecued chicken, wine and chat with the hostel owner (and Inti the dog), then a trip back to the music bar.
The next morning, the Americans who were travelling on another coach line announced that they were going! It seems that Pullman Bus had been ridiculously premature about cancelling, and the pass looked set to open. Since I had my bag with me, I resolved that I may as well try hitching to the border, since if I made it to San Pedro I could also get a refund on the somewhat pricey Pullman Bus ticket… Ideal!
Having not had much luck with hitching in the past, I was amazed when the second car stopped. 2 very pretty girls in a hired pickup, but only going to the salt plains. No, said I. I want to go to San Pedro. Bad choice! I realised this even before they rounded the corner. Later in the day I ended up paying for a tour of the salt flats anyway as boredom set in. Not terribly edifying, but less than a tenner so no great loss.
I also managed a late afternoon visit to Maimara, a village just up the valley from Purmamarca, and home to the Paletta de Artista, an amazingly coloured rock formation in an area full of interesting rock formations…
The village itself is very, very local. I’d hoped to grab a bite to eat but it wasn’t to be, as the village’s only restaurant was closed. Sitting at the bus stop somewhat disconsolately, thinking how cold the hour’s wait for the next bus would be, my ears pricked up when a car pulled up and the guy waiting next to me got in. Fecking hell, a colectivo! Going to Purmarmarca too, with the same fare as the bus. What a Billy bargain. I’ll never grow tired of the shared taxi system.
So, back for a quick bite to eat and an early night. Am I leaving tomorrow?
True to form, the Ducks were in a row. The bus arrived the next day at the appointed time, which was a relief. Finally, escape from Ar-hen-tina! And indeed an amazing journey, past the salt flats and across the deserted altiplano. Almost making it worth the ridiculous Argentine fare!
So, good choices/bad choices? On the whole I’d say it turned out OK. Naturally the pass from Mendoza-Santiago reopened the very next day, but I knew that it would KILL my internal doubt head to have to sit on a bus for the exact journey I’d lost a flight on. Also, I suspected that the bus would have arrived in Santiago literally just before my flight, which would also have been mentally ruinous!
But, I spent a lot more money in the end. Them’s the breaks. Off to San Pedro de Atacama…