Day 17 (February 24, 2014) Fiambalá is a small town at the foothill of the Andes in the Province of Catamarca. In the last few years Fiambalá has been in the news because several editions of the Rally Dakar passed through the town. The huge dunes north of the town provide the perfect terrain to test the skills of the Dakar racers (motorcycles, cars quads, and trucks). Fiambalá is the last major settlement in the road to Chile (Copiapó) through the Paso de San Francisco (198 kilometers from Fiambalá).
The road from Catamarca to Fiambalá takes you through a varied assortment of landscapes. We rode south to Chumbicha and then took route 60 across the Cuesta de la Sébila and the Sierra de Mazán into the town of Aimogasta (La Rioja Province). From Aimogasta we moved north towards Tinogasta following the intermittent course of the Río Salado or Colorado. We crossed tens of road dips (badenes) many of them partially covered with sand which had been washed onto the road by the recent rains. We made a rest stop at the central square of the charming little town of Tinogasta where we met a group of high school exchange students from all over the world. We had a nice talk with two kids, one from California and another from Washington State. Before and after Tinogasta route 60 goes through a plethora of little villages (Copacabana, El Alto, La Puntilla, Santa Rosa, San Roque, El Puesto) and miles of vineyards and fruit orchards. Fifty kilometers north of Tinogasta we finally reached Fiambalá. We found a place to stay (modest Hotel Santa Rita), unloaded the bikes, and rode to the famous hot springs Termas de Fiambalá. The views from the road to the hot springs reminded me of Death Valley in California. The long sandy valley of Rio Fiambalá or Saujil is flanked by the massive Sierra de Fiambalá to the east and the foothills of the Andes to the west. The hotel complex at the springs offers cabins, a restaurant, and a series of connected pools with water at different temperatures. After visiting the springs we rode back to town and then north to the village of Saujil. There we took a sandy road into some vineyards—hoping to get access to some grapes—and had a great chat with two older men who were tending the vines. They told us that they inundate the vineyards once a month to water the plants. We talked about rain—rare in Fiambalá and Saujl but more frequent in Tinogasta—electric storms, the Dakar, motorcycles, grape varieties, and wine making. The younger of the two men seemed very educated despite his very simple attire and general demeanor. He let us try the deliciously sweet black grapes that according to him were Jerez. The grapes used to make the fortified wine of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain (jerez, sherry) are actually white grapes (e.g. Palomino or Moscatel) so it is hard to know what those black grapes were. That night we had dinner at a restaurant two blocks east of the central square—which, by the way, has free WiFi like many squares in Argentinian towns. We had meet, french fries, and Stella Artois Noire.