Finally the time has come. After postponing the loop through the Tolar Grande twice due to car problems, we can finally set off. We are not off-road fanatics and our car is equipped for easy, but not extreme off-roading. The app iOverlander, where you can find all kinds of information about campsites, places of interest, mechanics and routes, is accessible to everyone and therefore assessments about routes should always be taken with a grain of salt. Evaluations of the same route can differ by miles. Experience has taught us that the median is usually about the same as ours. Therefore, we expect a lot of rippled sections, but these are manageable without 4x4 drive. What we are most concerned about is the remoteness, after all we have no satellite communication.
Water, fuel and food supplies are stocked up and we leave Salta knowing that we will return once more. After a first night on the road, we reach San Antonio de los Cobres at noon the next day, a small dusty town that has a glorious past. The surrounding area has large copper deposits and the town was located on a strategically important trade route, which is why a train line runs through the town. Nowadays, this line only serves tourist purposes. With the "Tren de los nubes", the cloud train, you can ride up to the majestic viaduct "La Polvorilla". We don't miss this sight either, although we are moderately impressed. Maybe we are a bit too spoiled by the beautiful viaducts in Switzerland... By the way, we have already climbed quite a few metres to this point, the village is at 3775m above sea level.
For once, we voluntarily deflate, because the many kilometres of ripple road are a bit more pleasant to drive with less inflated tyres. Hours follow through sparse, dusty landscapes, where every now and then we meet trucks transporting raw materials from the mines. This fact reassures us, because we know that if the car lets us down, another truck will surely come along at some point to help us out. Fortunately, we never have to rely on that. The barren landscape with a lot of sunshine also offers space for modern energy production such as photovoltaic systems. However, these are not in Argentinean hands, but rather Chinese companies are obviously behind them. This is not the first time we have seen Chinese companies investing here.
We spend the night in Salar de Pocitos, a few houses in the barren landscape. On request, we pitch our roof tent in the courtyard of a church, protected from the strong, cool winds that sweep across the plain in the evening. When we visit such isolated places, we often try to imagine what life is like here. We need a lot of imagination to envision everyday life here, as our world looks very different. Well rested, we crawl out of the tent in the morning and first stand in the sun. The nights are cool at this altitude.
Two highlights await us on the morning of today's journey. The "Desierto del Diabolo", its name probably inspired by the red colour of the rocks, and a little later the "Ojos del Mar". These turquoise water holes in the middle of the desert are impressive, especially from a drone perspective, and are home to so-called stromaliths. If you want to know more about them, ask Wikipedia...
The day goes on, we cover the kilometres sometimes faster sometimes slower. Again and again we have to make a photo stop, the area is unbelievably beautiful. Between the hills there are always so-called salars, salty, mostly dried-out areas. We spend the night at one of these salars, where the "Cono de Arita" is located. Various myths revolve around the origin of this cone in the middle of the "Salar de Arizaro". Why exactly the hill was formed there in this shape is still not exactly clear, as far as we know. As almost always in these areas, a brisk wind sweeps across the plain and we are grateful for our campsite colleague who is travelling with a Pinzgauer. So Friedel puts his truck into the wind and we can pitch our tent in its lee. Good thing, because we really want to admire the Cono in the morning light.
The last day through the nothingness is once again a lot of driving and this time the route requires some driving skills, but Ben knows the car very well by now and masters the routes without any problems. We cross the highest point of our journey so far at 4600m, a souvenir photo is not to be missed and we are proud that Javier still has plenty of power even at this altitude.
A last detour awaits us before we have asphalt roads under our wheels again. "Campo de Piedra Pómez" is the name of the place where strange rock formations in white colour can be found. The road there is very sandy and Javier (and Ben) can once again demonstrate their skills. We get through the sandy passages without digging, a success. These formations were also worth the detour.
Towards evening, we reach the asphalted road, a pleasant feeling to reel off kilometres without being rattled. A pleasant surprise awaits us in the evening. We find a small thermal bath, which costs just Fr. 2.- for a bath. Perfect for us, a wash does us good and we are allowed to spend the night there.
Now we are back on the route we have already travelled once, only this time we take the time to explore the area. The closer we get to Cafayate, the more often wineries appear at the side of the road. Next to Mendoza, this is the second largest wine region in the country, which we personally like much more than the area around Mendoza. The hilly landscape is dotted with vines, with impressive, stylish estates in between, and Cafayate itself is a modest size. Cafayate becomes a true gourmet highlight for us. We spend one day tasting wine and the other tasting cheese. The fact that we are slowly getting older is shown by the pleasure that we now enjoy a cheese plate with good wine several times. The typical wine in this region is Torrontés, a white wine, in contrast to the red Malbec, which is the pride of the Mendoza region. So much for all those interested in wine.
On the way to Salta, we have to stop again and again, because the landscape is worth seeing. Red rock formations line the road for kilometres and on the small walks we let the landscape of the "Quebrada las Conchas" take its effect on us. We spend one last night before Salta in Germany, at least almost. The village of Alemanía is on the way and out of curiosity we stop by. A tiny little village with a beautifully restored railway station, a sign of times gone by. Unfortunately, the museum is closed, so we have to look up the history on Wikipedia. The train line was supposed to be built from Salta to Cafayate, but it was never completed and since the early 1970s, rail traffic has been completely stopped. Since then, the population has declined drastically, leaving only a handful of people living in the village. Once again, we imagine what the village must have looked like in its heyday, but when we spend the night we are glad that there is no train running any more, because we spend the night directly under the drawbridge around the riverbank.
And then we reach Salta, the city in the northwest, for the third time. This time we have found an AirBnB a little outside the city, where we stay for a whole week. This allows us to take care of organisational necessities like looking for a job, setting up the car sale or planning the Bolivia route. And also just to get some rest, phone home and see nothing new. After that, we have only one goal, to reach the border to Bolivia as soon as possible, which we manage to do in two days of driving.
Adios Argentina, we enjoyed it, especially the north of the country and the petrol prices. We ate enough meat, discovered Lionel Messi in all sorts of places/posters/products, enjoyed wild camping without any problems and with a lot of goodwill from the locals, and once again came into contact with the friendly, well-meaning and helpful population, even if the accent took some getting used to at first.