Up & Down Thru Breathtaking Mountains – Literally!

Paso de Jama between Chile and Argentina

Argentinean border on Paso de Jama

Argentinean border on Paso de Jama

This wasn’t our first time from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Jujuy province in Argentina over the Paso de Jama, but this time we took our time and really enjoyed the journey. It is a long way and most of it at altitudes of more than 3000m, so the temptation is to get it done as quickly as possible, to get back down to the lower altitudes where breathing is easier and headaches disappear. After spending some time in San Pedro with annoying symptoms connected to altitude, we had stocked up on coca tea and made a thermos full to take up the mountains.

When you leave San Pedro at 2400m, you climb 2000m in only 40Km and reach the turnoff to the border of Bolivia, which is just a few kilometres away. It took us less than an hour and Berta is not the fastest on uphill grades. On this part we got to see some of those beautiful volcanoes really close up.

reflections on Laguna Aguas Calientes in Chile - shortly before the border with Argentina

reflections on Laguna Aguas Calientes in Chile – shortly before the border with Argentina (10 minutes later wind came up rippling the water surface)

The next part of the journey, which took us almost 3 hours (due to numerous photo stops), crosses a plateau at around 4500-4800m, reaching the Paso de Jama and the Argentinian border. There is some amazing scenery: mountain tops of different shapes and colours, both with and without snow; salt lakes populated by flamingos; natural stone formations (called locally Moaís de Tara) that reminded us somewhat of Stonehenge; vicuñas roaming free; and the almost mirror-like surface of Salar de Aguas Calientes. And all of these splendid sights were topped with stunning cloud displays in a very blue sky. No wonder it took us so long to cross these 120 Km!

From the pass it is only a few kilometres downhill to the border post of Jama at 4200m. We were held up there by bureaucratic bungling for about an hour! The next section is a second plateau that remains at around 4200m and the scenery is little changed from above – there are still mountains, salt lakes and beautiful clouds. The main difference from the first plateau is that there is a bit more vegetation. It’s also shorter, and before long we are going downhill again to the town of Susques. This time we made a significant drop and the landscape changed to really colourful mountains, with lots of cactus and an increase in other vegetation. It was a serpentine road, carved through rocky mountains.

This brought us to the third and final plateau at around 3300m, which also crosses the Salinas Grandes. As its name suggests, this is an enormous salt lake, and salt is mined here. It was getting late in the day when we had finished at the salar but we were keen to continue in order to sleep at a lower altitude. Unfortunately, we had forgotten that there was one more mountain range to cross before that was possible. It actually rises again to 4200m before it descends on a very steep serpentine road. The scenery was beautiful – very brightly coloured mountains – but we were getting nervous about finding somewhere to sleep and it was getting darker.

Finally, at around 3070m, Juergen found a track off the road and we parked in a not very level riverbed just as complete darkness fell. We had been on the road for just over 10 hours. What a long day – lots of beautiful scenery but also lots of high altitude driving. We slept reasonably well, probably because we were exhausted.

Purmamarca’s Colourful Mountains

The next day we drove into Purmamarca, which was around 20Km away, and were simply stunned by the beautiful and famous Cerro de los 7 Colores (hill of 7 colours) which is a backdrop to this small town. We wandered around the town, and up through the cemetery, to get closer to the hill. It is somewhat difficult to take a photo that really does this scene justice. We drove on to San Salvador de Jujuy to visit friends and, once again, to look for work.

Postscript: after 2 weeks in San Salvador de Jujuy, we returned to Purmamarca and also drove a little further north to Tilcara, to meet up with a young Dutch couple . I was very impressed with the 7 Coloured Mountains in Uspallata earlier this year – they were stunning – but I’m having difficulty finding the right superlative adjective for the mountains in this area!

The house in the foreground shows the scale of the Seven Coloured Mountains

The house and car in the foreground show the scale of the Seven Coloured Mountains


dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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20 Responses

  1. Absolutely breathtaking, the desert is desolate but so beautiful.

    • Yasha says:

      I’m sorry for not approving your comment sooner – we have very sporadic internet access here in Argentina and unfortunately your comment first found it’s way into our spam – I’m not sure why. Thanks for commenting and you are so right about the desert, especially here in The Andes.

  2. Fantastic article; so interesting and your photos are so beautiful!! What an adventure!!

  3. You do seem to thrive in the wide open spaces. I agree that the Cerro de los 7 Colores (hill of 7 colours) in Purmamarca are very beautiful, but I’ve never heard of them before.

    • Yasha says:

      It’s interesting because we have been in a few places where they like to call their mountains ‘7-colours’. And some of them really do display all the colours of the rainbow! And they are so much better in person – although the photos do a reasonably good job of showing their splendour.
      And, yes, we do love to follow the ‘roads-less-travelled’!

  4. Rachel says:

    Gorgeous photos! I especially like the one of the steep descent as it was getting dark. It captures the remoteness of the place really well.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Rachel – it was also a bit worrying because it is always harder to find a place to get off the road in the dark! One of the ‘joys’ of independent travel in your own vehicle…

  5. Donna Janke says:

    The scenery is beautiful, especially the colours of the Purmamarca mountains. I have never been at that high an altitude and don’t know how it would affect me. Is driving also different at that altitude?

    • Yasha says:

      The effects of altitude are unpredictable – it doesn’t seem to affect the old more than the young, the unfit more than the unfit and so on… And just because it doesn’t affect you one time doesn’t mean it won’t another time. So the only way to know is to go. But the best way to avoid it is to ascend slowly – flying in to high altitudes will certainly have some effect. Driving can be a bit slower because with less oxygen, the engines complain a bit.

  6. Those skies – the clouds -the desert scenery! Absolutely magnificent and I can see why you had to stop to take advantage of the photo opportunities. I love all your pictures but your last photo is my favorite since the house really puts those mountains into perspective.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks – we’re glad you enjoy our photos. We never get tired of these brilliantly colored mountains that we keep discovering.

  7. Susan Moore says:

    I am enjoying following along on your adventures! I will be roadtripping around the USA and Canada soon, your photos are getting me more excited about driving around the country. Driving is not my favorite mode of transport, but I will get to see so much more of the scenery. The mountains in your photos look spectacular! I lived in Calgary for my first 30 years and took for granted the sight of the Rocky Mountains. Now I miss them so much! I do feel more at home in higher altitudes. I must visit South America again to do some hiking! So many mountains to see :)

    • Yasha says:

      Coming from a country whose highest mountain is just over 2000m, I absolutely love The Andes. They are ever changing and provide stunning vistas. The altitude can be a bit troublesome for the body, but the experience is always worth it.

  8. What spectacular scenery! It looks so desolate. Did you run into people along the many miles along the way?

    • Yasha says:

      This is one of the commonly used passes through The Andes between Chile and Argentina. While you can drive some distance and feel alone, there is always another vehicle somewhere – and quite a lot of heavy truck traffic. But there are not so many people living up this high.

  9. Nancie says:

    Every time I see photos of this area of the world I realize just how unique and beautiful it is. I love all of your photos, and the last one is my favorite. Looks like a gorgeous paint-by-number!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks so much – we are glad you enjoy our photos. And that last photo – well, it does look just like that.

  10. The subtle beauty of the desert is so compelling in your photos. I wonder who the lucky person is who gets to step out his back door and look at the 7 colors of the hills behind him? Wow.

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