Day 8 (Saturday February 4, 2012) Today we were planning to break our personal record of altitude on a motorcycle while riding from San Antonio de los Cobres to Cachi. At the Abra del Acay route 40 reaches 5,100 meters (16,700 feet) above see level. Our current record, established yesterday near Volcán Tuzgle, is 4,448 meters (14,593 feet). This was going to be our farewell to the Altiplano as we are moving south into the Valles Calchaquíes. Last night we had the last of the soroche pills—we will not need them anymore. Today we were up before dawn and were the first ones at breakfast. At a gas station we were told the road to Cachi was closed because of rain damage. But we would not believe it until we see it. And we did see it. At the intersection between route 51 and the road to the Abra del Acay (route 40) there was a sign that said “Cerrado por Nieve” (Closed for Snow). We were really disappointed. And we were not alone. Standing at the intersection was Dario Kusters with his bike. Dario had been sitting for two days in San Antonio de los Cobres waiting for the road conditions to improve. He had been told that the road was closed but no details were given to him. He was almost ready to take a chance and start pedaling towards the Abra del Acay when he met two foreign cyclists who told him that a large section of the road had been washed away by the rain. The foreigners had tried to come from Cachi to San Antonio but could not traverse the damaged section and had to turn around. We were just 30 kilometers away from breaking our altitude record but Ruta 40, once again, was making things difficult for us.
We were determined to get the Valles Calchaquíes today so we had to take long detour. We came down more than 2,000 meters on route 51 through the Quebrada del Toro (the Toro river valley) to the Valle de Lerma and then climbed back up more than 1,000 meters on twisty route 33 through the green Cuesta del Obispo.
On the way down we visited the ruins of Tastil, a large settlement built by the Atacameño people, a pre-Inca culture. There were more than 400 houses at Tastil and it is estimated than near 2,000 people lived there. The settlement sits on top of a hill overlooking fertile valleys below. The streets at Tastil were narrow—two people could barely walk side by side—and there was a large open area that was apparently a plaza. Pieces of broken pottery and broken animals bones (probably llama bones) can be found everywhere you look. A mummy discovered at the site is currently on display at a museum in the nearby village of Santa Rosa de Tastil.
The Atacameños were the people who inhabited the Puna de Atacama or Puna. The highlands that we crossed yesterday from Susques to San Antonio de los Cobres on Ruta 40 are part of the Puna—in Argentina a person who is suffering from altitude sickness is said to be “apunado”, that is, affected by the Puna. Today the Puna de Atacama extends over parts of three Argentine provinces: Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca (and also across the border into Chile). But on March 10, 1899, the Argentine government gave the Puna the Atacama the status of a province by creating the National Territory of Los Andes. The capital of Los Andes was initially the town of Navarro, but Navarro proved to be too remote and isolated (specially by snow during the winter months) to be an effective capital. So in 1902 San Antonio de los Cobres became the new capital of Los Andes. Despite the mineral richness of Los Andes, the territory remained sparsely populated for many years. In 1943 another decree of the Argentine government dissolved Los Andes and split the Puna de Atacama between Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca. Apparently people were fine with this decision except for Los Andes champion Catalino Tapia, who on January 16, 2003, symbolically took the city hall of San Antonio de los Cobres and proclaimed himself Governor of Los Andes.
The Quebrada del Toro is the route followed by the famous Train de las Nubes that goes from the city of Salta to San Antonio de los Cobres and the viaduct La Polvorilla. Because of the rains the Toro river was running very muddy and was coming down with a vengeance. The mountains surrounding the valley are quite dry at first but turn green as one gets closer to Salta in the Valle de Lerma. Both routes we rode today had significant portions of gravel and quite a bit of construction. The traffic was heavy. The climb on the winding route 33 through the Cuesta del Obispo was very slow. But the time we reached Payogasta, the first town in the Valles Calchaquies, we were ready for a hotel. So when I saw the big sign that said “Spa de Altura” (high altitude spa) I told Adrián we should take a look. The beautiful old house of a finca (farm) has been turned into the exquisitely furnished hotel Sala de Payogasta. We took advantage of the Jacuzzi in our room for a relaxing bath after a long day of riding. For dinner we had lamb with oven baked potatoes and sweet potatoes.