It was a good thing I had done a trial walk to the bus station from my hostel – the bus station was not in fact the dusty parking lot the bus had dropped us in arriving in San Pedro de Atacama. Noooo it was much much further away. Always a good thing to realise before toting a 17.5kg pack, a daypack and a full water bottle (What? Those things are heavy!).
The bus was meant to leave San Pedro de Atacama at 9:30am. As 10:30am neared, and factoring in a 10-11 hour bus ride, I was pretty sure I would be trying to navigate my way around Salta (sans the correct currency) about midnight…
The bus trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina has some incredible ever-changing and diverse scenery. Great for a long bus ride where all you can actually do is stare out the window.
After finally boarding (just getting the bags on was an effort and apparently they didn’t all fit under the bus so some lucky people had to bring – and sit with – their large packs in/near/on their seats) we drove back up the flanks of the Volcan Licancabur, shared with Bolivia. The bus crawled the whole way uphill until the road flattened out at the Andean altiplano about 4000m above sea level.
From here we ascended further to around 4600m and skirted around several altiplano lagoons. These lagoons are predominantly snow-fed and are very rich in minerals, so have an extraordinary stark beauty -especially when there is really nothing else around.
Heading through the 5000m Paso de Jama (Jama Pass) into Argentina I could feel the altitude change in my breathing – once again I was sucking in air like a vacuum cleaner to get enough oxygen. I was happy when I saw the road in front of us start to descend – not dramatically, but enough to give some relief.
About 3 hours in, we reached the Chile-Argentina border where we all disembarked, got stamped out of Chile and into Argentina, then had to get out packs, put them through a scanner, drag them back out to the kerb and wait for the bus to move 10m so we could try to stuff them back in the luggage hold. This took around 2 hours. We were all ready to go and waiting on the driver – who really didn’t want to repack luggage, or even drive.
Finally we were on our way again – through country of beautiful subtle colours
and literally across through a giant salt lake, the Salar Grande. A ha, I thought, I know salt flats!
Many many mountains, curves, climbs and descents we arrived at the La Cuesta de Lipan or the Lipan Slope, home to 72 switchbacks curves and considered an engineering wonder as it successfully connects Purmamarca (2,324m) with Salinas Grandes across mountains and with a highest point of 4,170m. This is where you might want Dramamine, or at least not to look out the window as the bus navigates down around curves. At one point we had to reverse to get around safely as the bus was too long for the trajectory of the switchback.
Zipping through the tobacco fields and fruit orchards of Purmamarca my breath caught again. Trees!! These were the first green trees I had seen in months. Finally, finally we reached the capital of the province, Jujuy and let people off before the 2 hour stint through a rapidly darkening twilight.
Only an hour and a half late, we pulled in to Salta, Argentina. It was an interesting bus trip – but it was looong. I would be quite happy never to see a bus again I think (ha, my luck).