More Mountains, Museums, and a City full of Orange Trees
More mountain roads
After our visit to the Quilmes Ruins , we left the Ruta 40 and were off to the mountains again. Somehow we always seem to be crossing mountains, and most of the crossings produce fantastic scenery. This crossing, which was something of a detour to take us to San Miguel de Tucumán, was no exception.
Initially, as we climbed, the landscape was rugged but quite colourless, compared to what we had been seeing recently. We reached just over 3000m and then descended towards a fertile valley below. The road was the normal serpentine we find when crossing mountains, but not too perilous. We started to see a lot of houses in the distance. Juergen had read in our Footprint guidebook that this area around Tafí del Valle is a favourite place for the wealthy residents of Tucumán to spend the summer – at 2000m, compared with 450m in the city, it would provide welcome relief from the very hot summers below. The houses were very different, compared to those we normally see in the Argentinian countryside. They were mostly contemporary (and probably expensive), and had the appearance of being closed-up for the winter.
Leaving Tafí del Valle, the road wound further down through the mountains, with vertigo-inducing drops at times; parts suspended over the drop with concrete bridge structures. It was either cloud forest or rain forest, and absolutely beautiful. At first I thought it was very green, probably because we had come from the relatively barren landscape on the other side of the mountains. In actual fact there were many deciduous trees in the forest which were already bare for winter, although lots of bromeliads and air plants made it appear to be very lush.
Detour to San Miguel de Tucuman
Once we arrived at the bottom, we met the highway into Tucumán, which is lined by sugar cane fields and citrus orchards. These crops are the economic foundation of this fairly affluent region of Argentina, and probably pay for some of those houses we had seen in Tafí del Valle! Our trip to Tucumán was made to take care of some shopping needs, and also to get some work done on Berta. Cities are not our favourite places, although this one was reasonably easy to navigate, and it does have some nice buildings in the centre (and the streets are lined with orange trees!), as well as a 400Ha park on the east of the centre – Parque de Julio. We achieved our goals within 2 days, and spent one night at the Municipal Campground which is in the park. It is conveniently within walking distance of the centre, but was very noisy overnight.
There is no different route back to complete this detour. Before retracing our steps up over the mountains we spent a night on the edge of a sugar cane field. Compared to the night before in the city it was very peaceful, and also gave us a lovely sunset and sunrise view.
Neither of us minded retracing our steps through the cloud forest, this time driving up. Once we reached the other side of the mountains again, we made a stop in Amaicho del Valle to visit the Pachamama Museum. What an amazing complex. The museum is a bit underwhelming, but the buildings and grounds are a completely overwhelming conglomeration of rock structures, steel and rock art, and cactus… It certainly reflects the surrounding environment and I suppose it is a larger than usual altar to Mother Earth (Pachamama)! From there we re-joined Ruta 40 in the small town of Santa Maria, just 77Km south of Cafayate, but we had driven close to 500Km in just under a week to get there!
Shincal Inca Ruins
Our plan was to continue south on Ruta 40 and to our next destination of interest: the Inca ruins near the small town of Londres – Ruinas Shincal. Initially the road from Santa Marta was very straight with mountains in the distance on both sides. I took the opportunity to drive Berta for the second time! Luckily I handed the controls back to the expert just in time, as we approached road works that had a number of deviations onto dirt side roads around new bridge construction.
We stopped in a small town called Hualfin to have lunch and fill our water tank at a service station. Some friendly Argentinians came to chat and when we told them we were driving south they insisted that we must take the road up towards Paso San Francisco because the scenery is just wonderful. This would be another detour from Ruta 40 for us, but we kept their advice in mind.
The road works finished just after Hualfin and the mountains were once again closer. We had a wonderful view of red mountains. Soon after, we were driving through a gorgeous gorge which brought us to Belen, a town that is squeezed into the narrow gorge and hence was not inviting to drive around in Berta! Londres is only 10Km or so further on where we stopped for the night next to the cemetery, before going to the ruin site the next morning.
We were surprised to learn that the Incas had been this far south in Argentina. El Shincal was interesting, well-organised and quite a walk… but that’s probably good for both of us. It took about an hour and a half to walk around the site. There is a museum which wasn’t really open yet, but we got a look when we went to pay the entry fee. A lot of work is still being done at the site. The labelling of various building ruins, and also of different plants along the way, was helpful and interesting.
Detour toward Paso San Francisco
Leaving Londres and still on Ruta 40, we had 70Km to decide if we would detour once again to check out what sights the Ruta 60 towards Paso San Francisco had to offer. Of course, we decided to go because we have time and might only pass this way once. So we crossed the Rio Salado and turned right onto Ruta 60 towards first Tinogasta and then Fiambalá. This part of Ruta 60 is named Ruta del Adobe. We were particularly impressed by the Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Andacolla which is situated between these 2 towns.
Tinogasta was a useful town for us. The YPF service station provided fuel and Wi-Fi, and there was also a reasonably good supermarket. The tourist info was less useful – they didn’t even have a decent map of the area and they told us that the Paso San Francisco was open to go to Chile. We really doubted this information due to the time of year, and also the floods in Chile in late March devastated the area leading up to that pass even more so than Valle de Elqui! But it did make us wonder for a short time if we would like to go back to Chile via this route. We decided that we weren’t ready to leave Argentina yet, and we later discovered that the pass isn’t open, as we thought.
The next day we drove through Fiambalá and then up into the mountains again, toward Paso San Francisco .