Thursday, November 29, 2012

2012, 19th – 27th November: Cafayate & Córdoba, Argentina

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address for the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

2012, 19th – 22nd November: Cafayate, Argentina

Quebrada de las Conchas

After the lush and forested areas of the Yungas in the Calilegua National Park, I returned to the dry but very colourful terrain seen across much of North West Argentina with a visit to Cafayate. The area is famed for its wine production, particularly the Torrontés grape, but the highlight for me was Quebrada de las Conchas. This stunning valley runs north of Cafayate, with the national highway Ruta 68 following its course.

´Garganta del Diablo´

Rio Las Conchas in Quebrada de las Conchas

A fantastic way to see Quebrada de las Conchas is to hire a bicycle from Cafayate, load it into the luggage compartment of a bus early in the morning, then get off at ´Garganta del Diablo´ (´Devil´s Throat´), from where one can cycle the 47km back to Cafayate along Ruta 68. By travelling this way I could stop when and where I wanted and take the time to walk to some of the areas near the road where there a countless stunning photo opportunities.

Earth in Reds & Greens

´Garganta del Diablo´ and ´El Anfiteatro´ (´The Amphitheatre´), both near the start of my cycle tour, are large cavern-like features in the rock. After that, the day was all about the stunning valley vistas and incredible spreads of rock colours and craggy shapes in the earth in so many places close to the road. One juxtaposition that really inspired me was the smooth sweeping man-made form of the road cutting through the jagged and irregular natural landscape – this made for the chance to create some eye-catching compositions, (look for the series of photos in the Flickr set titled ´Nice Curves´).

A Stunning Juxtaposition

A Contrast of Smooth & Jagged Forms

In one location, the mixes of reds and creams in the rocks and cliffs some way from the road tempted me to walk and scramble across the rough ground, to be rewarded by the yet more wonderful photographic opportunities.

Layers of Creams & Reds

Variations on Red

The Bodegas

As there are many bodegas (wineries) close to Cafayate, one afternoon I took advantage of my hired bicycle and visited one to hear about their wine production techniques and enjoy some free samples.

A Vineyard Near Cafayate

2012, 23rd – 27th November: Córdoba, Argentina

After visiting many places over the last six weeks with no access to internet, or with poor internet speed, I spent a long time in Córdoba catching up with this blogging and uploading of photos, so not too much visiting of the museums and galleries of the city.

Córdoba was the first place I have been to in a long time that has a European feel. There are parts of the city that appear a little like Madrid. As I near the end of my 15 month tour of South America and feel the need at times for a ´little normality´, cities like Córdoba and Buenos Aires feel much more the European life I am used to; with decent architecture and being places where things are generally organised and generally work - a refreshing change.

Window in Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes
Dr. Genaro Pérez in Córdoba

Monday, November 26, 2012

2012, 16th - 18th November: Calilegua National Park, Argentina

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address for the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

After the many dry and rocky places I visited in the preceding six weeks or so, the Calilegua National Park was very different. The Yungas (a name in this part of South America for hot tropical valleys) are humid and sub-tropical. The altitude of the national park varies from 350 to 3,600 metres (1,148 to 11,811 feet) and as a result it has a number of different zones. Using the local town of Libertador as a base, I explored two; the jungle around 400 metres altitude and the cloud forest at 1,500 metres height.

The jungle zone is, as one would expect, hot and humid. The most enjoyable way to explore it was to walk and traverse the small rivers around the bottom of the national park – Arroyo (stream) Aguas Negras, Arroyo Negrito and Rio San Lorenzo. In the mud around the river beds I sometimes encountered animal tracks.

Aguas Negras Stream in the Jungle Zone

Jungle in Valley of Negrito Stream in the Jungle Zone

Animal Footprints Next to Negrito Stream in the Jungle Zone

The cloud forest zone around the village of San Francisco is more bearable as it is a little cooler and less humid at an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,921 feet). The dirt road climbs up through the jungle and into the cloud forest along the steep sides of beautiful valleys, making for a memorable journey in a rickety old bus. Many of the trees are more than 30 metres (98 feet) tall, but are still able to establish strong enough root systems to cling to the sides of the valleys which are at times very steep.

View from San Francisco

Cloud Forest Near San Francisco

San Francisco is located in a spectacular setting on a prominent piece of land, with panoramas in many directions. I took a walk beneath the trees along the side of one of the local hills, with great vistas along other forested valleys. The views during the return bus journey were just as impressive during the early evening light.

The Lush Cloud Forested Valleys Near to San Francisco

Journeying Through the Beautiful Landscape
in a Rickety Old Bus

2012, 13th - 15th November: Purmamarca, Argentina

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address for the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

In my recent blog on my time in Tupiza in Bolivia, I mentioned that the south of Bolivia and the north of Argentina is ´cowboy country´; well my photos accompanying this blog and my later one on Cafayate demonstrate that to be true.

The coach journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Purmamarca in Argentina was dramatic, with sweeping desert-like plains like those found in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve in Bolivia giving way to wide open scrub lands and salars (salt flats) – the largest of which being Salinas Grandes which the road traversed, with a brief coach stop affording photos. Further into Argentina, the road passed through canyons before making numerous sweeping bends up and down beautiful rocky valleys.

Salinas Grandes

The pleasant village of Purmamarca is famed for being right next to (literally) ´Los Cerros de los Siete Colores´ (´The Hills of Seven Colours´); a natural feature with rocks of varying geological history being layered dramatically in stunning contrasting hues. To appreciate these hills, I climbed Cerro Morado (Purple Hill) on the other side of the valley, picking my way along its rocky ridge.

Purmamarca & Cerros de los Siete Colores

I found more great views by walking and scrambling up the hills behind Cerro de los Siete Colores and the Los Colorados track. Like the hills around Tupiza, while dramatic from a distance, close-up they are a chaotic hotchpotch of crumbling soft sedimentary rock (more like earth really) interspersed with stones – very unpleasant to be scrambling on as it gave way so easily.

Canyons Behind Cerros de los Siete Colores

´Cowboy Country´ Near to Purmamarca

Mother Nature Experimenting with Colours

Similar colourful hills are present in at points in the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Humahuaca Ravine, though it is a valley), which runs to the north of Purmamarca. I did not stop for long in the towns along this valley as they are not as pleasant at Purmamarca.

For the geology geeks amongst you, here is a guide to the rock colours present in the hills around Purmamarca:

~ Grey, dark green, violet: Maritime sedimentary rock, 600 million years old.
~ Purple, dark pink, whitish: Quartzite and quartzite sandstones, 540 million years old.
~ Light grey to yellowish: Clayish sandstones and shales, 505 million years old.
~ Red: Gravel and sandstones, 65 to 144 million years old.
~ Reddish to light pink: Recent clay and sandstones, a mere 21 to 65 million years old.

Rocks of Varying Colours Found Within
a Few Metres of Each Other

2012, 9th - 12th November: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address for the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

Parts of the Atacama Desert are the driest places on earth, fortunately, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama receives its water from irrigation channels fed by aquifers from nearby mountains. The area is a large salt flat (like Salar de Uyuni), however, the surface is covered with earth and volcanic ash. Furthermore, it is not a perfect plain so one can forget that you are on a salt flat. In many places just below the dust is halite (sedimentary salt) which is very hard. This area (as well as the Salar de Uyuni area) used to be under the sea. When the Andes were pushed up by the slow collision of tectonic plates, in some places the sea water was trapped in a depression between mountain cordilleras. Slowly, the trapped sea water was evaporated by the sun – leaving behind salt flats and sedimentary salt.

Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)

Stripes of Sedimentary Rock
in Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley)

On crossing the border from Bolivia to Chile, the difference between the two countries was stark – immediately things were more presentable and organised. San Pedro de Atacama is a pleasant little town with most of the buildings constructed from adobe. It is a good base from where to take some tours, in the cooler late afternoon and evening, to local sights such as Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), Laguna Sejar and Laguna Tebinquiche. The sunset at the latter lake was stunning, while the water in Laguna Sejar is so salty, one can float very easily – in fact the buoyancy is so high that one has to tread water to hold one´s legs underwater, and when you relax they immediately pop to the surface.

Floating on the Very Salty Laguna Sejar

Salt Flat Nest to Laguna Tebinquiche

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquiche

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquiche

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquiche

2012, 5th - 8th November: South Lípez, Eduardo Avaroa Reserve & Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following address to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The most famous sight in the desert-like lands of the south of Bolivia is Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat). However, the terrain to the south of Uyuni in the province of South Lípez is equally stunning and includes the beautiful plains and volcanoes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve close to the frontiers with Chile and Argentina.

South Lípez

By starting the (four day) jeep tour from Tupiza, the extra day driving westwards across gradually rising land towards the lakes and volcanoes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve provided a chance to see the province of South Lípez.  The increasingly arid terrain was best suited to vicuñas (imagine a cross between a llama and an antelope). Close to Tupiza the track passed by Sillar, an impressive valley filled with columns and ridges carved from the earth by rains. The start of our progress across the high plain (altiplano) was marked by Abra Pampa where yellow grasslands were set beautifully below a blue sky that was to grow in intensity the higher we climbed, becoming a personal highlight of the tour for me. It is surprising that one can be so captivated by a sky, but as I describe later in this blog, the skies above the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve are not ordinary.


Abra Pampa

Bolivia is certainly rich in mineral reserves and is scattered with mines – used and disused. We passed a derelict gold mine before the track continued to climb and one started to feel the rarefied air at altitudes in excess of 4,500 metres (14,764 feet), passing within sight of Volcán Uturuncu with snow on its uppermost southern faces.

Plains & Volcanoes

For me, the most remarkable landscapes were north of Laguna Verde and north of ´Arbol de Piedra´ (´Tree of Wood´) in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve. In these places, the desert-like foreground was ringed by barren mountains and volcanoes smeared with streaks of juxtaposing colours in lines that claw at the slopes and confuse the eye; leaving me to wonder – is this the planet I know? Oxides, reds, whites, blacks, browns and creams in luminescent shapes that pulled my eyes to the horizon where once again they were then drawn upwards into the deep, deep blue above  presenting me with more questions - do skies like this really exist here on this earth, a perfect entirely uninterrupted electric blue of such depth? Skies that seem to be little more than a thin, ephemeral screen between the air in one´s lungs and the infinite vastness of outer space. As if to emphasise this, the moon never appeared to leave the sky – even in the bright sunlight of the early afternoon, hovering above the lunar landscape on which I stood, as if the lunar landscape had once fallen to earth from the moon and was now alone in a foreign land, but always watched over from above by its long-lost homeland.

Area to the North of Laguna Verde

From the Arid Plain, to the Mountains to the
Deep Deep Blue of Outer Space

Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Rock)

The other-worldly views were mesmerising, and while the vistas were simple in their stark nature, I never bored of them. In this respect I was fortunate to have extra time there because another jeep had broken-down north of Arbol de Piedra with a UV joint that had fallen apart, and we stopped for over two hours while our driver helped the driver of the ill-fated jeep to reassemble it. This gave me the opportunity to walk for a while in the amazing landscape and really soak up its magic, to be in awe of it. A walk to some seemingly close-by rocks showed just how easily such an environment can trick one´s eye and one´s mind, with distances entirely misleading and mirages on some horizons.

Landscape Near to Arbol de Piedra

Landscape North of Arbol de Piedra

Earth or Another Planet?


While none of the high altitude lagunas (lakes) in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve are likely to tempt many people to swim, as they are rather putrid and incredibly salty, they are an environment loved by flamingos and these birds abound there.

Laguna Hedionda

Laguna Charcota

The name given to Laguna Verde (Green Lake) sitting below Volcán Licancapur says it all; however, Laguna Colorada is an entirely unexpected sight as it is completely red. This is caused by sediments and the pigmentation of some algae.  Looking southwards from its northern shore, the classic cone shape of Volcán Licancabur created a wonderful backdrop to the striped colour mix of the red waters of the lake ringed by its white borders of salt and borax.

Laguna Verde & Volcán Licancabur

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada with the Cone-Shaped
Volcán Licancabur in the Distance

Uyuni Salt Flat

We visited Salar de Uyuni on our last day, and the night before we stayed in accommodation near the edge of the salt flat. The building is constructed entirely from blocks of salt, and uses salt mortar as well as gravel-sized salt crystals for flooring. Even the tables, chairs and beds are built from blocks of salt (though thankfully the latter have mattresses on top of the salt). Unlike culinary salt, the blocks dug from the salar are very hard and easily strong enough to support a roof.

Walls, Floor, Tables & Chairs - All Made of Salt

On the majority of the surface of the salar, the salt has formed crystalline shapes in polygons, most commonly with four or five sides, affording great photographic opportunities. The rocky island of Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) in the middle of the salar is covered with cacti and was a great place from which to watch the sun rising above the horizon at daybreak.

Sunrise Above the Salar Viewed from Isla del Pescado

Shadow of Isla del Pescado Projected
Onto the Salar by the Early Morning Sun

Crystalline Forms

Cacti on Isla del Pescado

The Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) is vast. If the pull of one´s eyes towards the horizons in the desert-like landscapes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve were strong, in the salar one´s senses are launched into the ether. There is no horizon, just a visual draw to the infinite. In some directions there are no mountains in the distance and the uniformity of the entirely flat plain of salt provides no visual fix; one can only look to the horizon where distances are unintelligible – where is the horizon anyway? Indeed, this effect makes for some great trick photography, where someone simply has to walk a short distance away to appear tiny on camera. This allowed us to compose photos where, for example, someone appears to be standing in the palm of a hand.

´Walk to Infinity´
The Unintelligible Horizon

Crystalline Forms & Horizons

Photographic Trickery: A Little Man

Photographic Trickery: Little People on the Jeep

Journey by Jeep to Border with Chile

After our tour of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve and Salar de Uyuni, Vienna, Martin and I wanted to travel from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. One can do this jeep transfer, which takes a route back towards and through the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, stopping for the night there, before continuing to the frontier.  As well as being the most direct route to San Pedro de Atacama, albeit on dirt roads, it also provided another chance to see some of the amazing landscapes enjoyed during the last four days. Given such amazing scenery on the way to the border, maybe it was the most dramatic of my South American frontier crossings – certainly a high altitude one.

By Jeep to Border with Chile

Tight Border Security