Start: October 29, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Finish: November November 5, Tilcara, Argentina
Countries To Date: 15
Pounds of Beef Grilled: 6
Hours Spent Waiting in Line at Chilean Border: 2.5
Rodeos Seen: 1
To say we were a bit giddy during this week would be an understatement. After a rough (but rewarding) three days in Bolivia's Southwest Circuit, we were ready for some first-world comforts. Paved roads, supermarkets, good food and campgrounds with a list of amenities that goes beyond toilets and showers that are hot four hours per day.
From Bolivia we crossed into Chile and drove to the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. We made the decision to skip the remainder of northern Chile, much to my exagerated disappointment. The Atacama Desert stretches for hundreds of miles along Chile's western coast and includes some of the driest and most desolate climates to be found on Earth.
Instead, we opted to cross immediately into Argentina and make our way slowly south towards Mendoza and wine country.
Immediately upon crossing into Chile from Bolivia we noticed a few profound differences. Street signs (lots of them!), nicely paved roads with at least four feet of shoulder and safety measures like guard rails and runaway truck ramps. Welcome back to the first-world! It's been a while...
San Pedro de Atacama was our destination, roughly 50 miles from the border. Upon entering the town we pass through immigration without much trouble, although they do take our sausages, but let us keep the hot dogs. Go figure.
San Pedro is a nice enough town, but it is an over-priced tourist town. Everything is expensive, even by US standards, and especially since we're used to Bolivian prices. Gas is close to $7/gallon and camping costs us $10/night per person.
At our campsite in San Pedro we meet up with some new overlanding friends. In the background is From A to B's truck The Beast. We've been stalking them online for quite some time and finally managed to catch up to them! We've been leapfrogging them down the road ever since.
The main attraction in San Pedro de Atacama is Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon), a few miles outside town. We head out around sunset to see the sights and snap a few photos. Unfortunately, a few busloads of Chilean tourists had the same idea. As we tried to check out this narrow slot canyon and cave system we ran into a traffic jam. Jessica puts on her best "I'm trying really hard not to reach out and strangle you" face. Fed up with the crowds we turn around and look for someplace quiet to catch the sunset.
Along the way we stop at some weird rock formations called "Las Tres Marias", the three Maries. This one looks more like Pac Man to us.
After driving through the small park we found a place devoid of tour buses, and a trail leading up to the top of a ridge that we hoped would give us a view of the valley we've heard so much about but have yet to catch a glimpse of.
At the top of the ridge it's a bit windy, as Jessica's troll doll hair illustrates.
Click the above for a full-sized (6000+ pixel wide) panorama of the view. It does look a bit moon-like, all of the rocks are dusted in salt and some of the formations off to the right certainly look other-worldly.
After three nights in San Pedro de Atacama we pack up and head towards the Argentinian border. First we had to clear customs in San Pedro, which proved to be the longest border crossing ordeal we've ever faced. It was some sort of weekend holiday in Chile and everyone was heading the same direction as us. After 2.5 hours, a chaotic bit of line-cutting and two gigantic empanadas later, we were on our way.
Back up in the Altiplano we come across a herd of llamas crossing the road around a blind corner. Luckily we managed to avoid them without resorting to evasive manuvers. A car full of vacationing Chileans was not so lucky, they swerved off the road and got stuck in the sand. When we pulled up there were three other cars on hand, and a whole lot of people milling about.
How many Chileans does it take to get a car out of the sand? 15. One to stear the car and 14 to stand around holding their pants up. Blue to the rescue!
Our first stop in Argentina, after a very long day of border crossings and driving, is Purmamarca. There are two things we're most looking forward to in Argentina: abundant meat and abundant campgrounds. Thus far, we have not been disappointed in the least. Our first 7 days in Argentina saw us camping every night, and grilling all but one.
Purmamarca is the first of a handful of small tourist towns we plan to visit in Argentina's northwestern regions. Lots of craft stalls, cafes and art stores. A pleasant place to walk around in a very unique and scenic part of Argentina.
The area to the north, Quebrada Humahuaca has been designated a Unesco site. Small adobe villages and multi-colored hills line the road that leads north to the Bolivian border. We head 30 or 40 miles up the road to check it out, in search of our second Argentinian campground.
En route we cross the Tropic of Capricorn. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer near Cabo San Lucas in Mexico 11 months ago.
In the town of Tilcara, just north of Purmamarca, we find a good campground. Grassy spots for the tents, grilling areas, tables, and shade trees. We hope this becomes the norm for camping in Argentina. It certainly does seem easy to find campgrounds, rarely do we have one option, and even the smallest towns seem to have municiple campgrounds.
At around 2pm the entire town of Tilcara shut down to attend a rodeo that was setup on the edge of our campground. Gauchos took turns attempting to rope bulls and bring them into submission. It looked like good fun, we certainly heard more laughing than cheering from the crowds.
Before the rodeo closed the town down Kobus walked into town to pick up something to grill. After asking the butcher what he would prefer to grill tonight, he returned with this three-pound strip of beef ribs cut across the bone into a 1.5" strip. In Argentina they call this asado (which translates to "roasted" or "barbequed" in English). In any other country we've been to "carne asado" is a thin-cut mystery steak, cooked until it's dead. Not very tasty by our standards.
In Argentina, ribs are the grilling cut of choice, as evidenced by the fact every single campground we've seen in Argentina is littered with discarded rib bones. At first I was very skeptical. Back home this is stew meat, or something you put in a smoker for four or five hours. If you tried to grill it like a steak you'd be gnawing on tough meaty bits all night. Not the case at all with this prime Argentinian beef. 10 minutes on each side and this turned out to be one of the most tender and flavorful cuts of beef I have ever had.
It is now my goal in this country to find a cut that is bad, or at least not good for grilling. I've tried, and failed, and I hope I keep failing because this meat is unbelievable. The best part? I haven't seen anything priced over $5 per pound, even ribeye or sirloin. Time to call the cardiologist.
Up Next: To the big city of Salta and further south into wine country.