Salta: Hemmed between the Andes and the Pacific, Chile is a slender country – less than 200 kilometres wide, on average. But it makes up for its girth deficiencies in height. At 4300 kilometres from Peru to the Strait of Magellan, it has one of the longest coastlines, and we’ve travelled almost its entire length, already journeying more than half the South American continent.
Now it’s time for us to move on. We leave an incredibly diverse country and some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen; a nation populated with friendly and interesting people, where we’ve made some lovely new friends. But the rest of Latin America beckons.
We take a bus from San Pedro to Salta in Argentina. It’s a distance of around 300 kilometres but it will take us nearly 11 hours because of we must cross the world’s longest mountain range, over a pass above 4000 metres.
The day before we leave, I visit the police station to check that the pass is open – earlier in the week it was closed for four days because snowfall made the road impassable. A smart teenage officer tells me it’s open and assures me that it won’t snow for the next couple of days. I decide to believe him and he turns out to be right because our bus leaves on schedule.
Our bus climbs through the eerie desert to the high altiplano where vicuña shiver in the sun against a volcanic backdrop. We climb ear-poppingly high to an altitude where our fizzy water fountains out of the bottle and crisp (potato-chip) packets explode loudly in the bus. Still higher, until we reach a fork in the road: Bolivia to the left, Argentina to the right.
Salt pans stretch across the plains and, in what must surely be one of the highest altitude industries, we see workmen mining the pans for their lithium content – a metal in high demand for batteries, computer hardware and, I suppose, psychiatric medication. After the salt comes its opposite: water – lakes of it shimmering in the thin air under a strong sun.
And then we descend. The road meanders like European rivers used to, and rivers here still do. Clouds hover like sheepdogs around the mountains’ knees, and we pass through their chilly fog as we zig zag lower.
Cactus forests grow, seemingly, from the bare rock. The mountains end abruptly in cliffs, or crumple spectacularly into corrugations and jagged crevasses.
Then we enter the most incredible valley of rocks in a painter’s palette of colours. The bus pauses while the drivers swap, and I snatch some photos through the window of mountains in rainbow colours as if from some rare dream. The sun is setting like an hallucinogen. The village name, I see is Purmamarca.
Later, I find out that the astonishing sight is called Seven Colour Hill, part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca range, coloured with minerals of phyllites, purple quartzite and others. The whole range was once at the bottom of the sea.
We move on, the sun dies and the colours fade to grey. The magical ride turns into just another long bus journey, our eyes blinking with tiredness against the passing headlights. It’s late when we finally pull into Salta.