The greatest bus ride in the world…probably

22 Jul

The bustling Northern city of Salta was our final stop before leaving Argentina for the last time. In three months we’d travelled up from the very Southern tip of Latin America dipping in and out of Argentina and Chile and we’d clocked up six border crossings and no less than thirteen entry and exit stamps in our passports. Our wheels out of the city would take us 735km in 9 hours across the border to Chile, climbing to a height of 4,400 metres and delivering some of the most breathtaking scenery we’ve ever seen from the window of a humble bus.

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We spent our time in Salta exploring the old, historical centre.

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There are well-preserved colonial buildings, a pretty plaza lined with orange trees and a very grand cathedral. As the weather was sunny and warm, we wandered around the city in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops and enjoyed stopping for coffee and pastries filled with an Argentinian classic ‘Dulce de Leche’ (an ultra sweet, toffee-caramel sauce).

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We also peered down on the City’s rooftops after taking the cable car to the top of San Bernado Hill. The city which is located in the Lerma Valley, has a population of around 600,000 people but retains a small town feeling with walkable sights and friendly locals.

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After an enjoyable few days in Salta, our bus departed at 6.30am for San Pedro de Atacama. It was on two levels and we took our pre-allocated seats on the top deck. We were impressed with the luxury of the bus (as we had been with many Argentinian buses) which had large, comfortable, reclining seats, a clean toilet, movies in English shown on tv screens and complimentary food and drink served throughout the day. Now, on any normal occasion those simple additions would go a long way to make for a very happy bus ride, however, this was no normal journey as to top it all off we had front row seats to enjoy some spell-binding landscapes.

About an hour out of Salta we started our ascent, the road gradually leading upwards passing small villages and moving closer to the Andes mountain range which stretched non-stop from Tierre del Fuego in the South where we’d started nearly three months earlier, right to Columbia in the very North of the Continent, where we would be headed.

The bus crossed bridges spanning river beds that were currently dry but which swell to bursting point when melting snow from the high mountains turns to ice water. Loose rocks and boulders which had tumbled down from multi-coloured canyon walls lined the road and we twisted our necks, pressing our faces right up against the bus windows to check that nothing was about to crumble onto us.

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Our straight road soon turned into a series of meandering bends climbing steeply and from the base of a deep valley we joined a series of switchbacks which stretched up the mountainside as far as the eye could see. The coach hummed and occasionally shuddered as the driver crunched his way through the gears to take sharp corners but still maintain enough momentum to propel us upwards. From our top floor viewing point on the bus it was sometimes difficult to see the road below the wheels and it felt as if we were balancing precariously close to the edge at several points. We hoped that it was just an optical illusion as we were so high up on the bus, but we weren’t convinced.

The road snaked upwards and we could see big trucks trundling along up ahead that the coach would no doubt try to over take at some point…we hoped not on a blind corner! After about 40 minutes of constantly climbing the hairpin bends our nerves were in tatters but we were rewarded with the most wonderful views to the valley which we were about to enter.

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We reached a plateau and we set off once again on long, straight roads. To our surprise, despite having climbed for nearly 2.5 hours straight and feeling like we must be on top of the world, in the distance we could see mountains towering above the road and this time they were covered in fresh, powder snow.

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We sensed that we were about to enter somewhere very special…but before we could get there we had to pass through Argentinian border control. The border control was little more than a couple of bureaucratic looking buildings in a desolate and wind whipped place. As we stepped off the warm bus the outside temperature with the wind chill must have been close to zero and we joked that the immigration officials posted here must have really annoyed their boss! The usual formalities were completed fairly efficiently and we received our last Argentinian exit stamp.

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The bus sped on and we gazed out of the windows at the saffron coloured sand and rock intermingled with tiny wildflowers. In contrast to this, in the distance we could see a dazzling sea of white which seemed to be sparkling in the sunlight. We wondered if this was simply a trick of the eye which would revert to a normal looking lagoon or a patch of foliage as we got closer but this didn’t happen and instead the expanse of white only got bigger. It suddenly registered with us that this was a high Altiplano salt flat which was actively being farmed.

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The paved road passed right through the middle of the salt flat and passengers grabbed their cameras to capture the moment. Unusual hexagonal-like shapes had formed as water trapped underground had evaporated.

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Cone shapes of salt had been piled in long lines to help dry the fine granules out and it looked like nothing we’d ever seen before.

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Where pools of water still laid on top of the salt surreal reflections of the surrounding landscape could be seen. On some sections of the road it was a wonder that the bus didn’t tip over as there were so many passengers crowded on one side gaping out of the window.

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Not long after leaving the salt flat behind we started another small ascent along a slow and winding road. We started to see snow not just layering the mountain tops but also stacked up by the side of the road.

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We’d heard that just a few days before our journey the road had been closed because of heavy snow and a group of tourists had waited impatiently in a mountain guest house for 2 days for the pass to open again whilst suffering from the cold and altitude sickness. We hoped that we wouldn’t need to turn the bus around if the conditions worsened.

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We passed a small sign post indicating that we’d reached the highest point of the pass at 4,400 metres.

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Many of the passengers, including us, had started to feel the effects of altitude sickness such as mild headaches, tight chests and some shortness of breath. We felt like we’d aged to pensioners in the space of a few hours.

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The journey continued and the snow around us became deeper, until the road itself was covered in a layer of snow and the bus had to drive with more caution.

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At one point the bus ground to a halt and we all feared the worst but when we jumped out of our seats to look out of the front windows we saw the bus driver and some of the male passengers from the lower level assisting a small car that had lost control, left the road and become wedged in a snow drift.

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By this point of the journey our faces were starting to hurt from smiling so much at the delightful scenery and we’d taken close to 50 photographs out of the window. On a bus ride this seemed unbelievable!

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But still the beautiful landscapes came. Either side of the road was dotted with glistening blue and green lakes. We let out a gasp as we saw the shiny feathers of flamingos as they waded in the chilly water with their long, pink legs.

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Families of Vicunas (a cross between a llama and a deer) roamed the plains, the young ones jumping around playfully whilst the more mature leaders of the herd kept a watchful eye. Usually graceful Andean geese slipped and slid on patches of frozen water and they looked like cartoon characters trying out roller skates for the first time.

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Llamas stood by the roadside batting their big long eyelashes and reminding us that we were truly in Latin America. No two llamas were the same – each had their own distinctive natural markings on their fur and some wore ribbons in their hair, put there by shepherds, so they could instantly tell which free-roaming animal was theirs. It really was a paradise for photographers.

Our final treat before a steep descent into San Pedro de Atacama was passing closely by Licancabur volcano which was just 40 metres shy of 6,000 metres.

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The enormous snow-covered cone towered above our bus and cast a huge dark shadow across the plateau. The volcano’s most recent eruption produced a huge lava flow stretching 6km down the northwest and southwest sides and the pyroclastic flow deposits reached as far as 12km from the summit. Dan and I both agreed that we wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity, in fact anywhere on the Continent, if this mega-beast decided to blow its top again.

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The bus circled around the base of the volcano and in front of us we saw for the first time the huge expanse of the Atacama desert. The tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama, with a permanent population of around 8,000 people, looked like a collection of mud huts as we peered down from our high vantage point. Within an hour the bus would have navigated the steep road down to the desert floor and another adventure would begin. As with any new place we felt a twinge of anxiousness for how we’d be received in the town and where we’d come to call home for the next few days but at the same time also huge excitement to start exploring a new place.

As with many cases in Latin America our bus ride had not simply been about getting us from one place to another, it had been comfortable, relaxing and a wonderfully scenic way to spend the day. We agreed that future bus journeys would have to go a long way to top this one so for now we have crowned this ride with the audacious title of ‘the greatest bus ride in the world…probably!’

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