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On the Run: San Pedro de Atacama to Iguazú Falls

Sometimes I feel like we are on the run from the law. Like we’re fugitives. We move locations every couple of days making us hard to track down. A stash of U.S currency is hidden in the bowels of our truck, and every few weeks we find little bits of some other country’s currency in pockets, wallets, or behind seat cushions. No one in their right mind would hang out in some of the towns we sleep in so they are perfect cover. Endless police checkpoints make us sit up, expecting trouble. Occasionally we post up in paradise beach locales or nice hotels, but we are not on vacation. I have an uneasy feeling in those places. Like we don’t belong there. An irrational urge always bubbles up in me to eavesdrop on someone paying their bill, listen for their room number and last name, and charge an extravagant meal to their room. Just to see if I can get away with it. Maybe I am a grifter at heart after all.

Oh, the random places we have slept...

After the harsh days in the Bolivian altiplano, we hang around the town of San Pedro de Atacama doing not very much. The town is appealing, reminiscent of Santa Fe, NM, with red dirt streets and low adobe walled buildings fronted by brightly painted old wood doors. Packs of big dogs loiter on the street corners and sleep in the middle of the road. Shops, restaurants and tour operators occupy most of the buildings around the square while the line between foreigner and tourist seems to blur as many a traveler seems to have put down roots. The attraction here is the desert - deep red canyons, green rivers, and flamingo inhabited salt lakes, all at the base of snow peaked mountains. Much of this scenery we have already seen coming through the Lagunas Route, and we don’t feel like venturing out beyond town. So we take it easy, spending our days roaming the streets, cleaning the camper top to bottom, and eating $3 empanadas the size of our head.

Wild, wild, west John

Lunch AND dinner

Atacama John

We do make it out on our mountain bikes one day, for a spectacular ride through the desert. By chance, a local man steers us into a slot canyon and we traverse the sandy canyon floor squeezing through the narrow red walls, out into the sunshine, and back under rock tunnels. Unfortunately, there are no blog-worthy photos because neither of us have a camera on the ride. Not because we forget to bring it, but we because we are arguing so voraciously before we leave neither one of us thinks we'll want to remember any part of this day. We are wrong. As I write this, I don’t really remember what the argument was about but it was a doozy. The times when our 24/7 “togetherness” comes to boiling point, I know we are just getting on each others nerves. I blame some of it on the cold. We are cooped up inside the camper too much right now, unable to spread out. It makes me way more nuts than John. The trick is to get over it quick, since there really is no where to go.

Anyway, trust me it was a nice ride.

It's still very cold at night and since we are parked in the shade, days are cold as well. With serious construction going on next to the hostel where we're camped, we decide to move on after about a week. Our departure is delayed a few more days because the mountain pass we need to cross, the Paso de Jama (at 13,800 ft), is closed due to snow. We are heading east, to Argentina, to look for warmer temperatures. Our goal is to see the Iguazu Falls, a "must-see" we didn’t see on a trip to Brazil years ago. The Iguazu Falls straddle the border of Brazil and Argentina so we have to make a run across the entire country, from the Chilean border all the way to the Brazilian border. It’s far. I worry a little that making such a long run for some water falls might not be worth it.

We reluctantly say goodbye to our overland friends, Janice and Gregor who are on their way to Santiago. The other Ducklings (Ben & Lorenzo, and Tanya and Philip) are following behind in our general direction in a few days. Saying goodbye to overland friends is an interesting dynamic. You are all headed south, but you never really know if you’ll see each other again. When you do, when the stars align, its a happy reunion for a short time until its time to say good bye. Once again, you may never see each other down the road - but you might!

When your perfect camp spot ain't perfect no more.

Selfie with our Bolivian Van Ducklings

Our 1,700 mile run across Argentina

When we finally hit the road, we drive back up toward the majestic peaks of the Cordillera de los Andes, close to the Bolivian border where we entered Chile. We crawl over the snow covered roads toward the border. The border crossing is a little confusing and we get there right behind two bus loads of people. It's freezing!! It takes about two hours, but a less than thorough search of the camper means we don’t have to surrender our fruits and veggies.

After 21 months on the road we are in Argentina. Finally!

The first big city in this province is Salta and it takes us two days to get there. In Salta we need provisions, a new phone chip (this will be our 15th phone number!) propane, and be on our way. The drive there takes us from the puna (Andean highlands) to the cloud forests in the east. We drive through beautiful windy mountain passes made up of sandstone rock formations colored green, red and yellow. We see trees for the first time in a month. Our overnight spot is the town of Punamarca, at the base of the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors). The town is very touristy and after a few failed attempts to find a good breakfast place, we buy a couple of gas station empanadas and hit the road. We make our way through the Jujuy mountain range. At this point we chose to take the scenic road, Route 9, which heads due south toward Salta. The road is ridiculously narrow, really only wide enough for one car and that car is not LoJo. We seriously feel like we are driving on a bike path. For an hour and half! But it's a beautiful drive that snakes over a pass through a literal jungle.

RN9 - a major road the width of a bike path. Seriously?

Salta is a big city, and we are camped south of town at a huge municipal swim park (with disgusting bathrooms). Supposedly it takes 10 days to fill the swimming pool. In winter it’s kind of a weird place. Maybe summer too, who knows. It is not in the best of neighbourhoods but it's cheap, attracting a small group of overlanders. We head to farthest corner and pop up.

In Salta we run face first into the Argentinian way of life. It takes a little getting used to. Here's why:

In the morning, (admittedly with a late start) we head to town to start on our errands. The first task is propane. We are burning propane like crazy now in the cold with the heater. We get to the propane gas store only to find out we need an adapter (they don't fill U.S. tanks down here). By the time we find an adapter it is 12:30 pm, and the propane gas place is now closed UNTIL 5:00 pm. Every single store closes between 12:30 and 5. Some don't open again until 6. The stores stay open until 8 but who wants to get propane at night?? Then there is the money issue. Gas is expensive (and we need a lot!) but most gas stations don’t take credit cards, yet the ATMs are often out of money. The ones that do have money only give out a few pesos at a time, so we go to multiple ATMs, all with long line of people. Every phone store we find is closed until 6 pm but we finally figure out we can get and activate the chips in tiny little convenience stores. No insurance was sold at the border but it is required. We go to four different insurance companies in town but none would sell to us, yet each one said the next one would so we walk all over the city only to get the same answer at each. All the while we are driving our big rig around Salta, a city where 99% of the intersections have no stop signs and no traffic lights. It's all a big game of chicken. There is no yielding, and drivers do not deviate from their path, usually driving down the middle of the road. Pedestrians Iook terrified. Its a damn good thing we're big because he who doesn't budge wins. Oh, and the Spanish here is totally different. Its a whole new ball game. Italian words stuffed into Spanish words like a big sausage, all mushed around with a bunch of jjjjussshhhhing. Whew!

We finally get back to the campground after 6:00 pm, but we have had no lunch and of course dinner doesn’t start until 8:30 - our bedtime. We roam the streets but can't find anything even remotely acceptable to eat. By morning we have also have a flat tire. The Ducklings have shown up and camp with us, but we are moving on. We are giving up on Salta as soon as we get the tire fixed. We tell them we’ll meet them in Cafayate, a wine region farther south. Adios, Salta!

At least this was easy. We found a BF Goodrich repair shop the next morning to patch our punctured tire.

How in the world did this get lodged in our tire??

Back on the road we get into a better groove. Tiny gas station cappuccinos and media lunas (half moon pastries) help put us in a happy place on the road to Cafayate, which is one of the more beautiful drives we have done on this trip. It winds through the Quebrada de Cafayate, a wild landscape with green rivers, high dunes and rust-colorfed hillsides - an impressive twisting of tectonic shifting. Mud and rock adobe dwellings dot the sides of the road. We take our time, getting out, snapping photos, and checking out the scenery.

The camping in Cafayate is decent, with hot showers and walking distance to the quaint town. Ben arrives shortly after we do, and Tanya and Philip come the next day. Nights temps are still below freezing and a cold chill hangs in the air during the day, which dissuades us from hitting the wineries. We have a great dinner with Ben the first night, and then can’t seem to stay up late enough to make it to another restaurant dinner. Ben is having trouble getting money and so are we, so much of our time is spent walking back and forth to town; trying to hit the sweet spot of an operating ATM that also has money. We all take advantage of the cheap prices on the local wine, the Torrontés varietal, and one night overindulge during a BBQ that started far too late and ended up in our tiny camper. The next day is completely lost and completely painful, resulting in my worst hang over of the trip. We all suffer horribly. I am now officially NOT a fan of the Torrontés wines.

Camping in Cafayate

Ben breaks out the guitar and keeps us entertained while we brave the freezing dinner temps.

Five person party in the camper? Nope, didn't see that coming.

Damn you, Ducklings!

From there we push to the southeast, toward Tafí del Valle in the Tucumán region. Again, the drive is beautiful, through a narrow river gorge with semi tropical forest opening up to a misty valley below.

You hear about the Argentinian beef all the time...but it's still surprising to see these guys on the side of the highway.

We pass these all over along the roads. They are shrines to Argentina’s Gaucho Saint, Antonio Gil. Legend has it that Gaucho Gil was a good-hearted outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Little is known about Antonio Gil, except that the cowboy was an outlaw who was probably executed by authorities. But where history leaves off, religious devotion has taken over. People build shrines, leave offerings, tie ribbons to their cars, all seeking miracles.

Our overnight spot is on a working cattle ranch. This area is beautiful and a gorgeous drive out of the valley takes us through to the no-man’s land of the Chaco region. With no other option, we overnight in a Shell gas station, with surprisedly better bathrooms than any campground we’ve seen in Argentina so far. I said I wouldn't camp in a gas station on this trip. That wasn't going to happen. Well, never say never. It is getting dark, we need gas, and there is no town for hours. The idling trucks and barking dogs keep us awake for some of the night, but all in all, its not as bad as I thought it would be. We are always snug as a bug in the camper no matter where we're parked.

Tucked away in Hotel Shell in the Chaco region. Now I really feel like we are on the lam.

The next day is long as well, and we camp just past the little town of Ituzaingó on the Rio Paraná at El Mirdor campground. Slightly north of where we are camped this river is the border between Argentina and Paraguay. It’s a nice campground, and after 3 straight days in the truck we have to take a break so we spend the day relaxing, with nice sunsets and warm temps.

Camping on the Paraná River, running through Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina for some 4,880 kilometres

John telling fish tales with the fishermen campers next to us. Who knows what was really said...

A stop to visit the Jesuit missions in San Ignacio breaks up the last 240 miles to Iguauzu Falls. These missions were an interesting experiment in civil society. For over a century and half they flourished in the jungles of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. Set up by Jesuit priests from Europe, they established large communities of the indigenous Guarani, whom they evangelized and educated, while at the same time protected them from slavery and the evils of colonization. At their peak over 30 missions were populated by over 100,000 Guarani. It all came to an abrupt end in 1767 when the ruling crowns banned them from their dominions for various reasons but envy and battles over slaves seems most likely. A whole way of life, a good life, for hundreds of years just...abolished. We visited two separate sites, the Loreto and the San Ignacio Mini. The jungle has taken back most of the ruins in Loreto, but San Ignacio is more intact. We have a leisurely lunch in the shade, roam around the park-like setting, and get back in the rig to make the last push to the Falls.

The Iguazu Falls. We've driven over 1,700 miles but we are finally here. The weather is a little more humid and warm. We can see the tops of the falls as we drive into the park. We end up taking three days to explore the falls and they are truly spectacular. We stay on the Argentinian side, not wanting to deal with crossing yet another border and we are not disappointed. The trails, actually more like catwalks, on this side are built over the water and many are directly over some of the larger falls. We can hear the rush of the water, feel the precipice of the edge, and smell the clean air just above the water's surface. We walk over them, we take a boat under them, and we go back to some a second time. They are the largest waterfalls system in the world, with 275 individual drops. The vast amount of water is staggering.

The biggest set of falls is called Devil’s Throat, and visiting requires a short train ride out to a trail that leads to the viewing platform. Early on our second morning we rush out to beat the crowds. Walking up to such a majestic force of nature with virtually no one around is breathtaking. We stake out our claim at the railing where we just watch and listen.

It’s difficult to describe such a powerful force of nature. So I'm not going to try. Here is a quick video of what it looked, sounded, and felt like:

Within an hour we are surrounded by hoards of loud tourists, shoving up to the rail to snap a selfie while barely looking at the splendour. We slowly walk away, happily satiated and sufficiently awestruck.

My worries that making a run across all of northern Argentina might not be worth the effort were a waste. On one of the catwalks, I see a plaque that captures the right sentiment.

Let your soul be sated

with the odd beauty of this landscape

that although the world scrolling through on your travels

you can never find anything like this.

Good and bad dynamic changing

find here your name

takes in your humble heart of man

truthful and consistent message

meditate and feel the deep emotion

with the vibrant paroxysm

Eternal mists that is circled

and do not try to describe it with your voice

just leans his forehead against the abyss

which is the mirror of the word of God.

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