From Dakar Dunes to Engineering Excellence

Sand Dunes of Fiambalá

Medanitos: the sand dunes famous from the DAKAR rally

Medanitos: the sand dunes famous from the DAKAR rally

After the amazing drive up towards Paso San Francisco , we were sitting in the camper, having lunch, parked at the plaza in Fiambalá when we were approached by a fellow traveller. We went outside and discovered a green Mercedes ‘Kurzhauber’ parked right behind us. Juergen immediately recognised the vehicle as ‘Nessie’ , and the couple introduced themselves as Philippe and Chunny , recently from French Guyane – he is French and she is from Suriname. After exchanging a few stories and prospective plans, we decided to drive out to the sand dunes together.

These dunes can be seen from many points around this area. They are only about 25Km from Fiambalá, near the village of Medanitos. Guide books don’t seem to mention them and the local tourist office seems to be most interested in sand-boarding and other adventure sports. I did find some interesting information in the Sandboard Magazine , while searching on-line, which sites them as amongst the tallest sand dunes in the world. One of them, reaching 1230m, is supposedly the highest .

Since Dakar came to South America in 2009, the sand dunes have been a part of the route . We just wanted to see these exceptionally high sand dunes, and Philippe wanted to climb to the top of one of them.

The road to Medanitos is paved from Fiambalá, but then our GPS decided to take a bit of a complicated route through the village, which has mostly sandy, unpaved roads. It was interesting though, to have a look at how the people live. Then we crossed a river and drove some distance on a reasonably good sand and rock track along the base of the dunes. We stopped when we found a level space big enough for both Berta and Nessie, where we could spend the night. The dunes are awesome; we spotted a fox that sat down long enough to scratch himself and gave us time to get out our cameras; the sunset was quite spectacular with more of those rainbow edged clouds; Philippe gathered dry wood and built us a great fire so that we could sit outside and take a really good look at all the stars. It was definitely worth the drive out there and I’m just surprised that the guide books don’t make more of the beauty and quiet of this place.

Blessed overnight spot at Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Andacolla

Blessed overnight spot at Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Andacolla south of Fiambalá

Leaving the dunes, we retraced our steps through Fiambalá and Tinogasta, spending a night at the beautiful adobe church – Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Andacolla – between the two. We then took a provincial road south to once again join up with Ruta 40, and on to Chilecito.

Museums and Gardens in Chilecito

Chilecito has historical importance in the mining industry of Argentina. In fact, the name of the city comes from the large number of Chilean miners who came to work here. We found several interesting places to visit in this small city:

Museo del Cable Carril in Chilecito. This structure was used to bring ore down from a mine and load it onto trains.

Museo del Cable Carril in Chilecito. This structure was used to bring ore down from a mine and load it onto trains.

Museo del Cable Carril: this museum is located at a former railway station where the ore from the Mexican Mine on Cerro Famatina (at 4600m) was transferred from cable car to railway cars. The mine and Chilecito were separated by a distance 34Km and an altitude of 3500m. The Cableway was considered an engineering masterpiece of the early 20th Century. More information [in Spanish].

Chilecito: the Jardin Botanico Chirau Mita, a cactus garden

Chilecito: the Jardin Botanico Chirau Mita, a cactus garden (unfortunately closed when we passed by).

Jardin Botanico Chirau Mita: this is quite a beautiful cactus garden in front of a very interesting house, and it’s all constructed on the side of a rather steep hill. More about this garden [in English].

Chilecito: yard at Museo Samay Huasi

Chilecito: yard at Museo Samay Huasi

Museo Samay Huasi: it was not as interesting as the guide book made it sound, but we spent some time checking it out, including a museum with some vaguely interesting antiquities, unlabelled mineral rocks, stuffed birds and a stuffed puma! If you want to learn more please read this interesting page [in English].

Expensive World Heritage Sites & Ruta Escénica 150

We left Chilecito to the south again on the way to two World Heritage Sites, which are side by side but in different provinces: Parque Nacional Talampaya in La Rioja and Parque Provincial Ischigualasto in San Juan.

Immediately beyond Chilecito we travelled for many kilometres between orchards of olive trees, only broken by processing plants and some vineyards. In lots of places in Argentina and Chile they seem to have monoculture down to a fine art! When the agriculture finished we began to see mountains of a strong red colour in the distance and as we got closer they became more spectacular. The road we were driving, Ruta 74, is basically due east of the Talampaya park. These mountains are connected to, and give a hint of, the possible sights in that park.

RN74 south of Chilecito, near intersection with RN150: the first view of the red sandstone cliffs, eastern part of the Talampaya National Park.

RN74 south of Chilecito, near intersection with RN150: the first view of the red sandstone cliffs, eastern part of the Talampaya National Park.

It was difficult to make a decision about visiting the parks: we were very short of Argentinian Pesos, neither of them accepted credit card and we had had no success with the local ATMs along the way. They both sounded appealing but we couldn’t afford to visit them both. By good fortune we met up with Philippe and Chunny again at Los Baldecitos. They had already visited Ischigualasto, also known as Valle de la Luna, and told us it was amazing. We decided to stay in the village and go to the park the next day. Meanwhile, they drove off to visit Talampaya. Later that evening they arrived back to sleep at the same spot and told us about the visit. Their advice was to choose Valle de la Luna if we were only going to visit one. So the next day we went there. It was truly amazing – see the photos in our dedicated gallery post .

RN150 Ruta Escénica east of Ischigualasto Park: deep canyons reminiscent of the Grand Canyon

RN150 Ruta Escénica east of Ischigualasto Park: deep canyons reminiscent of the Grand Canyon

Our friends had also told us about a new road to San Jose de Jachal which wasn’t on any of our maps. The road was opened in October 2014 and is part of the Corredor Interocéanico Pampeano (pampa oceanic corridor), a route from the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil to the port of Coquimbo, Chile. The completion of this route relies on a planned tunnel under Paso Agua Negra to make the crossing into Chile more weather independent. This new part is called Ruta Escénica and is a 35Km long engineering feat, with 6 tunnels and 5 bridges, descending through an impressive canyon. When we left the Valle de la Luna we followed this road. It is impressively engineered and quite spectacular – in our opinion, somewhat reminiscent of parts of the Grand Canyon in the USA. Unfortunately it was the wrong time of day to photograph it due to the position of the sun.

When we arrived in San Jose de Jachal we had almost completed a circuit. We were on the Argentinian side of Paso Agua Negra, which we had wanted to cross almost 3 months ago . It is not open in the winter so there was no opportunity to complete the circuit.


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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8 Responses

  1. How wonderful that you met Philippe and Chuny! We stayed with them a couple of times when they still lived in French Guiana.

    • Yasha says:

      Hi Karin – we had such a lovely time with them, as you can probably tell, and they are really enjoying being ‘on the road’.

  2. Josie says:

    Hi Yasha and Juergen,
    Your South American journey is indeed a wonderful one and I like your style of going — in this case, staying overnight in the dunes. It’s so true that the guide books simply don’t mention those special spots that can be joyful by simply “being.” (so glad that sweet fox had an itch so you could snap a pic)
    I have also had the chance to read the fascinating story of Berta, your trusty home on wheels. She is simply amazing! I’ve never heard of anyone doing this — either making one themselves, or using a big rig to strap the thing onto. And then I see the photo of another family with what looks like another home-made deal. Brilliant!
    Berta looks a very comfortable home! Wishing safe and happy travels.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for your wishes, Josie. There are actually a surprising number of people who build their own ‘expedition vehicles’ – when building ours in Germany we met quite a few who were doing it, or were in the planning stages. And we have also met a lot on our travels – the last trip through the Americas in 2006-09, and also the current one.
      She has her little foibles – always something that needs modifying or solving – but Berta is really our home. At the moment we have no other. We don’t spend nights in hostels or hotels; we rarely eat out; and we only occasionally stay in a campground.

  3. You’ve captured the grandeur of these wide open spaces so well in your photos. I love the way you just take it all as it comes. Thank you!

    • Yasha says:

      Thank you for coming and appreciating what we share. It means a lot that people do that and make encouraging comments.

  4. noel says:

    Timing of being at a location especially for photography is always tough and not always easy, late afternoons always works best for me especially when most of the crowds have left. These views are quite stunning indeed.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Noel. We don’t often have the problem of competing with crowds where we go. The road-less-travelled is the one we follow most often. But you are right about the timing, and especially the light at different times of the day…

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