Up & Down Thru Breathtaking Mountains – Literally!
Paso de Jama between Chile and Argentina
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.
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!