*you can watch the video with English subtitles
After almost 2 months, we left from Paraguay and got back to Argentina heading west to Salta and Jujuy. From there, we would enter Chile – only for a few days – and we would continue to Bolivia. The border of Argentina was very close to Asuncion and before we realized it, we had almost left the country. Passport control was not complicated at all, but the employee at the customs office had decided to catch some smugglers at last, so we had to go through a full investigation! We patiently got almost all our luggage off the Vespa to be searched for illegal goods and answered to some stupid and completely irrelevant questions. We never understood why we had to answer if we are married or if we have children (yes, we have two in the big black suitcase). After we were proved innocent, we were free to go.
In a few hours we were in Formosa searching in vain for a campsite we had seen on the GPS. We stopped at a grocery store to get some tomatoes and some information and we were told that the campsite we were looking for doesn’t exist. We were trying to find an alternative as it would soon get dark and Orlando, a man who had come to the grocery store, provided us with one. He offered to host us for the night. He and his three daughters were living in a farm not far from where we were, and we could pitch our tent in their yard. At first we hesitated, but Orlando suggested that we could all go to the permanent police control next to his farm and give our names and his home address, so that we would feel more secure. Orlando and his family proved to be great people! We followed him to the farm (which he called “El Porton Rojo”) and pitched our tent under the trees. He also insisted that we could take a shower in his house and generally, he wanted us to feel like home! The only thing that we did that night was stay in the tent and try to sleep, because the mosquitoes and the high temperature were unbearable. The next morning, after talking with Orlando’s three smiling daughters about their dreams and their favorite musical instruments, we were ready to go. Orlando’s father came and gave us a bag full of oranges from their farm and Orlando told us how happy he was for helping us. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to meet such a good man. We took some pictures together and left thinking that the world is a better place with people like Orlando.
The only interesting thing while moving on the RN81 was our encounter with a huge snake like those we usually see on the wildlife documentaries of National Geographic! The diameter of its body could easily make the vespa fall if it accidentally hit it and its length – if stretched – could cover the 2 lane road we were on. We were so flabbergasted when we saw it, that we forgot to do something important: take a picture of it! After that, we spent some time arguing on who’s fault was the fact that we left without a picture and before we realized it, we had got to the YPF gas station where we were planning to spend the night. While I was making stories combining some animals’ corpses we had seen on the road with the “killer-snake”, Stergios had pitched the tent and we were ready to spend one night at the gas station of Ibarreta. Camping next to gas stations (especially YPF gas stations) is very common in Argentina and the employees know it and they are very friendly and polite.
The next day was even more boring than the previous one…no snakes, no surprises. The only good thing that happened was our meeting with a couple from Israel traveling with their 3 dogs on a camper (van healing). We first met – where else? – at a YPF gas station and we spent some time talking and exchanging our travel experiences. I had started to like spending time in gas stations: 24h attention, toilets, showers (sometimes), wifi connection, hot coffee and croissants…exactly what we needed! So, the third time in a row that we spend the night next to a gas station I was happy! I even got happier when we met again with the Israeli couple by coincidence and had the opportunity to spend some more time talking! Doron and Galia (and their 3 dogs) are really nice and every time we meet, we have a good time together. That evening, the sky was dark and cloudy and the only thing that made us stop thinking about the rain that we thought it would come, were the two truck drivers who came towards us to meet us and talk to us about…Jesus Christ! They were members of some evangelical church and they would do anything to convert us! The discussion became a bit more “interesting” after their question: “In which continent is Greece?”…We also saw some other “interesting” facts that night: Unfortunately, some young girls from the nearby village came and started strolling at the parking lot where the trucks were. They were trying to earn some money from the truck drivers who would be spending the night there…
The plan now was to get to the Calilegua National Park, meet with Galia and Doron again there and spend some time in a more natural environment than that of a gas station! While we were going west, the climate changed again: it became more humid and the vegetation became tropical! We couldn’t see huge cacti anymore, only green plants with big leaves, trees and flowers. After 8km of driving in a muddy dirt road (the only thing I had been thinking while on this road was that we would soon swim in the mud), we got to Calilegua National Park. The place we camped, was in the forest. Clean, with relatively decent toilets and of course, barbeque amenities (Argentinians can’t survive without their barbeque!). The only problem was that the water there was not drinkable and when our supplies ended, we had to leave. Doron and Galia didn’t show up, so after two days alone in the forest we were ready to continue.
Our next day begun with a nice surprise from the owner of a bakery in San Martin, where we stopped to buy some “medialunas” (croissants). When he saw the vespa, he asked us about our journey and after some 10-20 minutes of talking, he went inside his bakery and came back holding 2 breads (one sweet – one savory) which he offered us as a present. Additionally to this, he didn’t accept the money for the croissants we had already chosen! Unfortunately, our good mood didn’t last long: after we met this nice person, we had to meet an example of human trash! I know that I used a harsh word, but I don’t know how else to describe the truck driver who forced us off the road just because he decided to overtake us while there was only one lane for each direction and many vehicles on both lanes…He just accelerated and overtook us without the slightest interest if we survived or fallen! Luckily, we were safe and sound and we got to Guemes, where Andres was waiting for us. Andres was a couchsurfer who had agreed to host us for 2 days. He lived with his mother Maria, a sweet lady who made us feel like family! We spent 2 days with Andres and his mother at Guemes, making interesting conversations about various topics and cooking Argentinian and Greek recipes! In order to thank them for their hospitality, we prepared for them a traditional Greek recipe: a soup, that my grandmother had taught me how to cook! They appreciated the gesture and the soup and my grandmother was really happy when I told her that her recipe had traveled to Argentina!
We said goodbye to Andres and his mother and we continued on our way to Salta. For the first time after a long time the weather was cold. Along with the climate, we observed differences in the outskirts of the city, making clear that the region of Salta was wealthier than other regions of Argentina. However, we preferred to stay in the municipal campsite of the city. There, we met again with Galia and Doron, and spent some more time drinking wine and talking (this time, we also had a delicious dinner cooked by Galia). The municipal campsite of Salta is a meeting point for overlanders and all types of travelers, so we had the opportunity to meet some people and exchange travel experiences: A couple from France (iletaitunefoisenamerique.blogspot.com) who were traveling on a motorcycle (after having traveled on a van which the sold and bought 2 bicycles which they also sold and continued on foot…) and gave us some advice about Peru and Bolivia. A couple from Germany who told us that they almost got robbed not only once, but three times in the same day in Cochabamba, Bolivia and many others that I can’t recall. Our “favorite” acquaintance was a semi-nomadic family who had turned their camping spot into a workshop, making noise all day long and additionally to this, they wanted to “hire” Stergios to do all the job instead of them(!): they rudely tried to force him to carry some truck and car axles and put them on their trailer! When Stergios denied, they seemed very surprised!
Our days in Salta were interesting though a bit chilly…a good opportunity to test our gear for the cold that would become harsher the next days on the mountains. It was a “good” test for our patience also (I didn’t pass it), because of a party organized just next to the place where the tents were, playing awful music until dawn…apparently, partying next to people who are trying to sleep, makes sense for many Argentinians. The next morning, almost everyone in the campsite were slightly irritated and severely sleepy! We stayed about 5 days in Salta and after a 1-day trip around the city with Galia, Doron and the three dogs, as well a visit to a mechanic so to fix a problem with the front brake, we left. Our next destination: Purmamarca, a village known for the beauty and the colors of the mountains that surround it. We chose not to take the national road to get there, but another one narrower and of more interesting scenery and we proved right! It was a beautiful route, next to rivers and inside small forests. When we started ascending to Purmamarca, the landscape completely changed for once more: dry, rocky, with huge cacti and colored mountains. The village of Purmamarca was indeed beautiful: a small, picturesque place surrounded by rocky, colorful mountains!
Of course, due to its beauty and to the fact that Purmamarca is an easily accessible place, the village has become a tourist attraction. At first we didn’t like it, but after we found a nice and relatively cheap campsite and we took some time walking in its narrow dusty streets, we started changing our minds. We took pictures, went to the main square where tourists can find different kinds of souvenirs…but, one also interesting thing for us was that we met 2 travelers on motorcycles. One Argentinian (Honda CX125) and one Brazilian (Tenere250) who was on his way home from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The Brazilian guy had some spare time, so we ended up drinking beer and telling stories from our trip. He gave us some Diamox pills for the altitude sickness, which he didn’t need anymore and some advice for the next part of our trip to Chile through Paso de Jama. He told us that we should avoid by all means to drive after 15:00′ because there is a strong and freezing wind coming from the Pacific Ocean and it could turn our trip into a nightmare. He almost froze when he decided to drive directly from Purmamarca to San Pedro de Atacama (400km+) and a truck driver saved him by letting him into his truck and offering him some hot coffee!
We took into consideration this guy’s advice and the next day we managed to get ready to go at around 10:00(!). We wanted to drive to Susques which is a village at 3,600m of altitude. The vespa had never been at that height before. The highest point that we had managed to get was 3,300m in Lesotho and it wasn’t easy at all. We were considered about it but soon, we proved wrong! The vespa easily made it to 4,170m! Stergios couldn’t hide his excitement and he was shouting “The vespa ‘s the strongest of all vehicles!”. I was just smiling and petting the seat whispering: “Thanks little vespa for not making me walk and push…”. When we got to Susques we were surprised by how much different it was from the rest of the places we’d been to in Argentina. Its people came from a different ethnicity and to our untrained eyes, they looked more like Bolivians. Despite being close to the border, it seemed that not many people spend time in the village. They probably prefer to spend the night in the hotels outside it and continue towards Chile. The children, as well as some adults couldn’t stop watching us full of curiosity. We tried to find a place to stay in the village but as it probably was “siesta time”, no one answered!
About 4km outside Susques, we spotted the only gas station in the area and after we filled our tank, we asked if it was possible to pitch our tent and spend the night there. As usual, the employee, kindly let us stay there and suggested that we should pitch the tent right next to the building, so that we’d be protected from the cold wind. When we started moving around pitching the tent and arranging our stuff we realized that the high altitude would make our life difficult – at least until we’d get used to it. After a while, we also had a terrible headache, so we decided to take half a Diamox pill each to see if things would get better. The night would be difficult but at that point, we didn’t know it yet!
The 2 factors that made our night difficult were the weather forecast, along with the Diamox pills. During the night, the temperature falls at -10 degrees and that’s why we had put on all our clothes and we had wrapped ourselves in our sheet and sleeping-bags. Combining this with the diuretic effect of the pills, it made our lives a nightmare! Now, when we are thinking about that night, we can’t stop laughing, but then, it wasn’t funny at all! We had to get out of the tent every 3-4 hours to pee and it was a torture leaving our sleeping-bags and exposing some of our most sensitive parts to that freezing cold! Just before dawn (the coldest time of the day), while I was trying to get into the tent and Stergios was already inside sound asleep, I fell and accidentally stepped and sat on him! That was it! I lost my temper and burst into tears!
The next morning, our headache wasn’t that strong and we dared to get out of the tent only when the sun had fully risen. We ran, took everything we needed from the vespa which was parked only 2m away and sealed the tent again! Unfortunately, we hadn’t predicted to store some of our food inside the tent to save it from the cold. We had lost some tomatoes and onions due to the deep freeze and we had to “defrost” some sausages and bread in order to enjoy our breakfast! At least, we had kept one of our two bottles inside, so we had drinkable water and ice cubes! We quickly got ready to hit the road again and head towards Jama, the small village on the border with Chile. We already knew that there was a hostel in Jama, just next to the gas station and we would spend the night there before we continue to Chile – which was 500m from that point! (I insisted after I had read the weather forecast: -15 is too low!)
A few kilometers before we reached Jama, we met Jonas, a Swiss guy who wanted to go from South America to Alaska on his bike! While we were waiting for our room in the hostel in Jama to be cleaned, Jonas appeared. The following story is written here only because we never understood some of its parts: Before Jonas came, we had made a reservation for a double room. The employee in charge of the rooms showed us one with a double and a single bed inside. When we asked if this is charged as a double, he reassured us that it is, despite having space for 3 persons. We were not surprised, because in several cases, depending on the circumstances, there are triple rooms charged as double. When Jonas came and asked for a room, he was told that there is only one triple left and he had to pay for the whole room despite being alone. So, we decided to tell him to share a room so that he wouldn’t be charged with a triple. Our room could be charged as a triple and everyone would be satisfied. And now, the tricky part: when we told the man in charge that we would like to share our room with Jonas, he replied that it is a double room…but, it has space for three! At first, we thought that he wouldn’t let us share this room and that he wanted us to go to the triple room which had the exact same amount of space, but it’s name was “triple”! No! That wasn’t the problem! The man in charge, explained to us that we could all sleep in the 3-bedded “double” room and pay for 2, even if we were 3. However, if we chose to move to the 3-bedded “triple” room, we had to pay for 3! The only difference was that the third person in the 3-bedded “double” room wouldn’t eat breakfast! So, we would sleep in a 3-bedded “double” room, we would pay as if we were only 2 but one of us wouldn’t have free breakfast! We stopped asking and just went to sleep!
The next morning, we woke up early and got ready to leave because we had heard that crossing the border to Chile can take too much time. The three of us shared the two breakfasts and soon, we were at the border control office. We were the second ones to arrive after a family who seemed pretty irritated with all their stuff outside their suitcases and lying on the ground! We had to fill in a dozen of forms for all the departments (immigration, customs etc) and to state to the health services department if we carry any forbidden goods. In Chile it is forbidden to import products of animal/vegetable origin and handcrafts. We weren’t 100% sure if we had something forbidden in our stuff, so after a few moments we were outside with all our luggage on the ground. We only lost our jar full of honey and about 1 hour of our time! (Only later, when we were in San Pedro de Atacama we found an “illegal” orange in our bag! It was the last of Orlando’s gift and the guys on the border control hadn’t seen it. The poor orange had survived the extreme cold, the extreme heat and it became a quick snack when we didn’t have anything else to eat!)
We were in Chile at last! From there we had to start the ascending to Paso de Jama…first gear only! The heroic vespa was trying and trying until it got to 4,725m of altitude. Then, it refused to go on. That was the end of the vespa being heroic and the beginning of my heroism…Pushing the vespa and walking on this altitude was a nightmare. After 3-4 quick steps I felt like I had participated to the marathon! Fortunately, the first truck we saw, stopped and took me. Pure luxury! I had never seen a truck this big from the inside. It’s Peruvian driver offered me some coca leaves which give energy and we started talking about ancient Greece, the Inca civilization and other interesting topics. He even explained me how to drive a truck! Such a nice man, he had nothing in common with the 2 evangelist-drivers we had met some days ago, who wanted to convert us and started preaching until we managed to “escape”!
For the last 30kms before San Pedro the road goes down and the trucks have to reduce their speed to a minimum so that they won’t have problems with their brakes. So, I returned to the vespa which had managed to climb only with Stergios on its back. We thanked the truck driver who made a little prayer before he got to his truck to continue on the steep descending. We wished him “good luck”, said goodbye and in a few minutes, we were in San Pedro de Atacama. Depending on what every traveler wants, San Pedro can be one of the best destinations or a place to avoid. For us it was the second! The whole village seemed like an artificial tourist scenery. Constructed and dedicated to tourism. It looked like there were not any locals with normal lives living there. On its beautiful narrow streets, there were only tourists walking and all the small businesses were either hostels, or travel agencies, restaurants and cafeterias/bars with “happy hour” offers! Maybe some day in the past, there was a nice picturesque village there, but not anymore…
We pitched our tent in the yard of a guesthouse with price being the only criteria and started walking in the village. We soon realized that all the locals had changed location: they were living in the outskirts of the village and not in the center, which was the tourist attraction. It didn’t take long to see what too much tourism can do to a place: everything was overpriced – and the quality of the services was not the best in many cases. However, we don’t want to be unfair. There were some businesses with professional standards and fair prices, but it was the first time after a long period when someone tried to cheat us by giving us less change or making a “mistake” and bringing us the wrong bill…In San Pedro we stayed for 3 days only because we had to organize the next part of the trip. We wanted to get to Bolivia from the nearby border and visit the National Park Eduardo Avaroa.
The volcanic lakes, the geysers, the flamingos…the breathtaking scenery that everyone who has visited finds it difficult to describe, was something that we wouldn’t miss. The only problem was that this area is at an altitude sometimes higher than 5,000m and the roads are almost nonexistent! After taking into consideration all the above, we took the correct decision: I would take an organized tour from a travel agency and have almost all our luggage with me, leaving Stergios only with the necessary. I would be in a 4×4 with 5 more persons and Stergios would be alone on the vespa following almost the same route. We would meet again after 3 days in Uyuni. I was a bit jealous, but this was the only way to do it…On the morning of June 28th, we left San Pedro and we continued to Bolivia separately, we had a date in Uyuny!