The plan for today was a round trip to Sucre, the former capital and today the constitutional capital of Bolivia where the judiciary is still based.  In the meantime, La Paz has largely overtaken Sucre as the centre for government and the public service.   Sucre was founded when Potosi was at its peak as a weekend refuge for the families who became wealthy as a result of the silver mining boom.  Don’t know how they managed the 150 km trip each way in the 1800s down to the balmy climate of Sucre but maybe they just had very long weekends.

P1010712d P1010717d P1010716d Sucre is a UNESCO World Heritage site as is Potosi but its architecture from Colonial times is grander and has survived the ravages of re-development more successfully.  Wide streets, elegant European style administrative buildings and more greenery make its central area very attractive.

We were blessed with good weather for the 3 hours we spent looking around Sucre despite an ominous weather forecast but as we got closer to Potosi the sky became very black and we could see we were in for a spectacular storm.  And it was – thunder and lightning and then heavy rain which turned into serious hail as we climber higher.  Navy Car was a much more comfortable place to be than RIP – Dave and Laurel had a choice between driving quickly and being blasted by the hail coming through the gap above the windscreen and the Bermuda top or driving slowly and just getting drenched.  Our car was going fine until we stopped to refuel on our return to Potosi and refused to crank when the key was turned.  Fortunately we were on a hill so a rolling start was easy but when we got back to the hotel it was still misbehaving.  Something to try to sort out when we have some spare time in La Paz.



Potosi Bolivia

At 4000m above sea level, Potosi claims to be the highest city of its size anywhere in the world and it only exists for one reason – mining.  Founded by the  Spanish in the early 1500s, one story goes that centuries before, an Incan shepherd was searching for one of his llamas when he saw a glint of silver on the top of the mountain.  He heard thunder and a voice which told him the wealth was destined for other masters.  For the Spanish, this was a bonanza.  Incredibly rich silver deposits which they mined and used to mint coins for the entire Spanish empire right through until Bolivia gained its independence in 1825.  During this time it was the largest and wealthiest city in the Americas and its rich architecture still reflects this.   When silver mining became uneconomic, Potosi went into a long decline and became a ghost town until the mid 1900s when the miners came back for the deposits of tin, zinc, and other minerals.  Today there are 110 mines employing about 12,000 people.  The top of Cerro Rico or ‘Rich Mountain’ was originally about 5000m but the surface mining and subsidences have dropped its height by nearly 200m.  Pretty scary to think about all those independent mines burrowing away inside the mountain and whether there is a comprehensive plan to avoid a major collapse.


Today it is a major tourist destination especially for back-packers with hostels, cafes and tour guides everywhere.  An almost impossible city to photograph because the streets are so narrow and every landmark building has an ugly power pole right in front with masses of wires going in every direction.  An electricians nightmare also!  There are very few pedestrian zones and every narrow street is jammed with traffic right through the day.  Our drive in last evening was pretty exciting because only one car had a GPS with Bolivian maps and the one wrong turn took us into steep lanes where an exit looked unlikely.   Fortunately John and Ros recovered the situation nicely and found our way to the hotel where we successfully held up traffic for 10 minutes while the car park was opened and we could reverse to put our cars away.  Right now, I’m downloading a free App ‘Maps Are Me’ which has maps of Bolivia so fingers crossed we can manage for ourselves from now on.  Now let’s see, 5 minutes to download 5% ……


Huacalera to Potosi Bolivia

All good intentions for an early start today were slightly hampered by the usual problem of finding a working fuel station.  Our experience so far is that there is a 20% probability of finding the servo forecourt roped off while a tanker unloads fuel and there is a queue of a dozen or so cars waiting until this finishes.  Zzzzt….  A few kms up the road is another servo where the queues are a little shorter so we wait patiently.  While we are waiting, a contender for the most battered Ford F100 Ute parks nearby.  These Utes seem to be almost bulletproof and along with Peugeot 504s fill the motoring needs for many Argentinians.  Falcons are up there too and we liked this one.  Nice to see a man who takes so the trouble to make sure the tyres are nice and black..

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The border crossing went nicely to plan despite some of the scary predictions we had read.  Mike had taken a lot of trouble to weed out the rubbish on the internet and find a blog which made sense.  The first three steps were easy with guys who were patient with our poor Spanish.  The final one, Bolivian customs, was a bit of a laugh with a young lady who spent most of time chatting with her colleagues about anything other than work in between picking her nose.  Meanwhile the queue became longer and longer…  The other entertainment was watching the human ant-trail running across the adjacent high level bridge pushing barrows of everything from beer to bags of cement.  Pretty clear they were being paid by the barrow.

It took more than 2 hours to get everyone through the border so we headed off immediately for the 300 km drive to our overnight stop at Potosi.  An excellent highway winding its way through landscape similar to Northern Argentina and countless small communities with mud-brick houses and shops right on the road. It reminded us of parts of Africa where everyone lives on the street but fortunately the road sense of people and animals was much better.  Didn’t manage to capture any images of these but here are a couple from the drive to give an impression.

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Purmamarca to Huacalera

This was to be our last stop in Argentina and only 40 km up the road so we decided to take a side trip on Route 52 towards the Chile border to see the Salinas Grandes, literally Large Salt Flats.  220 sq km of salt flats high up on the Andean plateau which we felt we had already seen because they adorn hotel walls throughout northern Argentina and appear in so many tourist brochures .  A walk after breakfast sounded good, so before jumping into the cars we took the 3 km walk around the two hills behind the town to see the coloured mountain sides for which Purmamarca is famous.  Very spectacular and once we were around the first corner we could have been miles from anywhere just enjoying the scenery.  The walk took us back through town which was still mopping up from overnight rain and setting up for the last day of Carnival.  No spray cans of foam at this time of morning thankfully.

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By the time we got back to the hotel the mist was still hanging low over the hills but we guessed that somewhere over the top of the pass it would clear.  This was a serious hill, rising from 2200m to 4200m in around 30 km so it was 3rd gear most of the way and fortunately little traffic to get in our way.  Even though the MGs are rather underpowered by current standards, there are few cars here which can pass us on the hills – one of the benefits of old fashioned SU carburettors is their ability to self compensate for loss of air density at high altitude, unlike many other cars which run very rich and belch black smoke.  Sure enough we sailed over the top and the clouds cleared to give us a view right down the valley towards the salt flats.  And they were very impressive, just like the pictures.

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The drive back was just as entertaining and this time the drive up to Tilcara was much easier.  Carnival was winding down and everyone was heading out of town so we made our way through the narrow streets and remaining crowds to the fort strategically located at the top of a hill giving a clear view up and down the valley.  Similar in some ways to Quilme which we had visited some days ago, the original structures date back to around 1000 AD but in this case they were taken over and further developed during the Inca period.  Excavation and restoration has been going on since the early 1900s and there is controversy about over-restoration in many areas.  Even more controversial is the dominating structure built right on top of the hill as a memorial to the early archaelogists.  It is built in the shape of a truncated pyramid reminiscent of structures in Central America and not at all appropriate for this area.  Suppose they could always demolish it and start again…


Salta to Purmamarca

Carnival Weekend in Salta was amazingly quiet during the day but everything came to life as the sun went down. Young people and families with babies in the parks and plazas, cars cruising the streets honking horns and music playing everywhere.  Lorraine and I found a table in the town plaza to watch from – not quite as riotous as Carnival in Rio but colourful all the same.  The cathedral opened its doors for the evening service so we could see where all the wealth of the city was hidden and the crowd packed in and participated enthusiastically.  Easy to understand why the Catholic Church sees their future in South America.  We dropped in again after the service when most of the crowd had gone to take a few pics.

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In the morning we sadly left George and Cherie behind to sort out the brake and rear axle problems with Casper.  Hopefully it can be fixed quickly so they can rejoin us in a few days.

This was another day when we had a choice of routes.  RIP and Blue B decided to take the long way around while we went with the others taking the more direct Route 9 into the Humahuaca Gorge which leads to the Bolivian border.  The climb out of Salta took us on a very narrow winding road through tropical rain forest and on past the reservoir.   Luckily very little traffic, just a few cars crawling along in holiday mood who took a while to get past.  Then the scenery changed and we were in the Gorge with the amazing variety of colours for which the area is famous along the mountain sides.

We were too early to check into the hotel in Purmamarca so made an attempt to drive into the next town, Tilcara, to see the remains of a pre-Incan fort.  The traffic had been getting increasingly heavy but a few kms before Tilcara it just stopped.  The temp gauge started rising and there was no way we could continue in this traffic so we beat a hasty retreat and left Tilcara until tomorrow.  Driving back into Purmamarca was almost as busy – cars lining the road along with hundreds of people walking and hitchhiking the last 3 kms into town where Carnival was in full swing.   After checking in we left the cars and walked back into the town centre where the music was at full blast and everyone in a festive mood.  The major activity apart  from dancing and drinking was to spray unsuspecting visitors like us with foam or flour.  Little kids were the worst culprits, armed with a couple of spray cans they could wreak all sorts of carnage.  All good fun but it became a bit wearing after a while so it was back to the peace and quiet of the La Comarca Hotel.  Luckily the stone walls provided good sound insulation because it was built right on the road serving as the major highway through to Chile.  Trucks and car transporters drove right past and we hardly heard them.


Cachi to Salta

Another beautiful hotel in a vineyard setting, the Merced del Alto is owned by a business man from Salta who made a large fortune growing sugar cane in the northern part of Argentina.  Now he is busy turning it into a small fortune by running a tourist hotel and winery.  Very pretty and we were sorry we had to leave so early.

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For the run across to Salta, we will drive back on Route 33 giving an opportunity for those who missed out yesterday on the Valley of Coloured Rocks to drive in from the other end and miss all the rough bits.   This group didn’t get too far – as we were leaving the hotel we heard over the UHF that they were still in the town square checking out a serious problem with Casper.  We arrived a few minutes later to find Pete and Ross under the car trying to find out why the rear brake had locked on and more critically, why the complete drivetrain had locked up.  Lots of theories but we all decided it was a job which couldn’t be fixed in the middle of the town square.  A guardian angel arrived in the form of Juan, a local farmer who was showing off his products at the market in the square.  Juan was educated at an English school in Buenos Aires and subsequently run properties in Patagonia before settling in BA.  More recently he moved to Cachi for the better climate and now produces jams for the hotel industry.  He said he didn’t need to show his produce because everything was pre-sold but thought it would be rude to turn down the invitation.  Juan put George in touch with the local restaurant who also operates a flat bed tow truck so a deal was struck that as soon as lunch was over, the car could be trucked to Salta.  It turned out that his tow truck driver was also the waiter so obviously this took priority.


A subtle hint re politeness in South America – this cafe offered a 20% discount to customers taking the trouble to add “Good morning” and “Please” to their order.

With Dave staying behind to make sure Casper was loaded and George would ride in the tow truck to Salta and the other cars checking out the Valley of Coloured Rocks it was just Goldie and Navy Car making the run directly to Salta.  Our first stop was in the middle of the Recta del Tin Tin where there was a tourist stop to learn all about the indigenous cactus plants.  The other tourists were fascinated by our cars and quickly lost interest in the cactus so we had the place to ourselves.

Hmm..  MG Motos – maybe George should have brought his car over here..

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Back on Route 33 it was a long climb to 3500m and heavy mist as we started down the tight winding road into the amazing Cuesta del Obispo – a beautiful valley with a series of micro-climates taking us down to 1100m and the road leading into Salta.  Barren and windswept at the top, trees and more substantial vegetation from 2500m and then lush tropical vegetation at the bottom.  Very narrow and unsealed in places with washaways from the heavy rain, we didn’t envy George riding down there in the tow truck.

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Road wash-away – a bit scary                           Cute alpaca we met at lunch

By 6:30 pm everyone had turned up at the hotel in Salta so there were lots of stories to share at our regular briefing.  Then it was time to hit the music and food scene which Salta is famous for – the Pena precinct just a few blocks from our hotel.  We arrived about 8:30 pm to find the precinct almost deserted, but by 9:30 people started trickling in and when we left around midnight it was really jumping.  We felt like party poopers leaving our table when all locals with small children and babies were just getting into it but somebody has to work…

Cafayate to Cachi

Another day travelling along the old Route 40 and today it is all unpaved. The road runs along the eastern flank of the ranges and recent  heavy rain has washed away parts of the road in many places.  There is so little vegetation to hold the fine soil together so heavy rain just picks it up and carves a path down into the valley.  Must be very spectacular but we wouldn’t want to be stuck there.

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As we were leaving Cafayate this morning I could hear a scraping noise from the rear brakes which didn’t sound too serious.   At the morning tea stop I pulled the brake drum off to find one of the brake shoe retaining springs had broken – as usual Pete came to the rescue with just the right part so we were back on the road again pretty quickly.  While we were working on the car a group of German tourists came by and told us about this little chapel where they had just stayed.  We called in and found the chapel and museum but they were closed and we couldn’t convince the lady to open it.  It seems they were only opened for guests and not for visitors.  Another missed tourist opportunity but at least their pet llama kept us amused. – especially Ken who seems to have a special affinity for llamas.

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After lunch in Molinos, another sleepy little town with nothing much happening we decided to split into two groups – RIP and Navy Car took the long way around through the Valley of Coloured Rocks while the others headed directly to Cachi.  The first section of the track took us through the Camino de los Artisans or Artisan Route where we found a few settlements offering woven llama and sheep wool products.  Laurel and Lorraine bought a few pieces from an elderly lady who very proudly showed us a picture of the Pope wearing one of her shawls.  While this secret women’s business was taking place, Dave and I chatted to the boys who quickly gathered around wanting to know all about the cars.  We’re getting pretty good at talking about the MG marque,  how old the cars are, how big is the engine and of course, where have we come from.  As usual there was a 5 or 6 year old with a smart phone taking pictures from every angle.  These must be the most photographed cars in history!

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After this the road continued to deteriorate and we seriously considered turning back but then decided it would be just as long to turn back as continue and press our luck.  And lucky we were, suddenly we were in the Valley of Coloured Rocks and it was everything you could wish for.  Amazing colours and spectacles at every turn.  The bonus was that when we finally hit the bitumen at Route 33 we found an excellent road winding down through a series of tightening bends into a long, long straight, the Recta de Tin Tin.  Don’t know what the Tin Tin bit means but a Recta is a straight line.  And at the other end of the valley there were another series of bends taking us down from over 3500m to less than 2000m at Cachi.  Brilliant!

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Mendoza to La Rioja and Cafayate

A longish day to cover the 600 km to La Rioja.  The lush vineyards of Mendoza were left behind and replaced by huge flood plains covered with thick scrubby salt bush – another reminder that Argentina and Australia share the challenge of having such vast areas of non-arable land.  A trouble-free run for everyone with the towering rock formations of the Talampaya National Park being the only highlight.  A relaxing beer at the tables fronting the town plaza was a good way to end the day although there was a bit of competition from the local motorcyclists doing endless laps around the plaza.  All good fun.

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Leaving La Rioja the next morning our GPS took us on Route 75, a narrow winding road through the best part of town with beautiful houses and gardens behind big fences gradually replaced by lush green vegetation before we were out of the gorge and back in on the hot, dry plains.
A little further along there was a less successful Garmin moment leaving Santa Maria.  As usual there were no directions to the next towns and we worked out that the GPS wanted to take us on the old Route 40 to the west rather than the new high level road.  In the confusion of one-way streets and against the advice of helpful locals, Ross decided his back-up GPS loaded with an alternative set of maps had it all sorted and headed bravely into a wet and wide river crossing which quickly turned to thick mud.  Woops…  Pete wasn’t going to turn down a challenge and called for everyone to get their tow-ropes out to span the 30 metres back to dry land. With a bit of shoving and pushing and a minimum of burning clutch smells, Blue B was released from the quagmire.  Having come that far the collective decision was to continue on the old road which turned out to be far more interesting although a bit slower and rougher with many more water crossings.  The road wound through a series of run-down villages with mud brick houses right on the edge of the road.  Some probably dated back to the time when Route 40 was the main north south route through the western part of Argentina.

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Today’s highlight was the remains of Quilmes, a pre-Incan settlement dating back to 1000 AD.  Covering  around 30 Ha and nestled into the side of the mountain range it was restored in 2008 as an intricate series of dry-stone walls and steep paths leading to lookout posts above the settlement.  Its inhabitants survived contact with Incas from 1480 onward but couldn’t survive the Spanish who set siege to the community.  In 1667 the remaining 2000 people were deported to Buenos Aires.


Our stopover this evening is at a wine resort “Vinas de Cafayate” on at the base of San Isidro Hill on the edge of town and surrounded by vineyards.  Another tough evening..

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Mendoza and MGs

After the very enjoyable lunch yesterday at the winery there was some serious sightseeing to do today with recommendations from our new friends from the Mendoza Classic Car Club.


They suggested driving west on the highway linking Mendoza and Santiago Chile to catch views of South America’s tallest peak, Aconcagua. At 6960m it is not only South America’s tallest but also the tallest outside the Himalayas so we weren’t about to attempt a climb to the top!   A little further on and right on the border with Chile, there is a steep track off the highway to the statue of Christo Recentor de Los Andes or Christ the Redeemer of the Andes.  Not sure why the Andes needed redeeming but there you go.  The climb to the top at 3800m was fairly amazing especially when viewed from the bottom and seeing the tiny cars and buses crawling their way up around the dozens of hairpin bends.  It was 1st gear all way and fortunately ascending cars had right of way, because the gradient was too steep and the air too thin to attempt a restart without overheating the clutch. Amazingly all the MGs made it to the top!  Most of us noticed the effects of low oxygen levels too – good training for Bolivia.

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On the highway the pre-war cars were amazing, keeping up with traffic on all but the steepest hills and passing trucks at 110 km/h while bouncing all over the road on the rough bits.  The drivers looked totally exhausted after the 400 km round trip in their tiny cars and tomorrow they will do it all again on their drive back to BA.


On the return trip we stopped off at the Aconcagua National Park hoping to get a better view but it was now covered by cloud so the tiny glimpse we had in the morning was the best it was going to be.

What a terrific opportunity to develop such a strong friendship between enthusiasts of both countries!  We look forward to them visiting us in Australia and all of us would like to come back to Argentina!

Mendoza – MGs and Malbec

Arrived in Mendoza mid-afternoon on Sunday to find everyone was somewhere else or enjoying a siesta – a city of more than a million people with almost deserted streets.  We were expecting to meet up with the MG people who had driven up from Buenos Aires and also a few people from the local Classic car Club but it took a while to track them down.  Meanwhile we went for a stroll around this beautiful city with its tree-lined streets and plazas.   Well away from the Patagonian winds now so there are lots of cafes with outdoor tables to choose from.


Finally the MG Car Club people arrive with a rasp of pre-war exhausts right outside the Park Hyatt – Horace and Carlos in their red and blue 1934 J2s, Mario and Maria-Laura in their replica Q-type and Raul in an MGB.  Lots of car-talk breaking down the language barrier – Hector and Maria-Laura performing the interpreter roles when hand gestures failed.  A few drinks at the bar on the corner then off to a nearby restaurant along with Leo and Elle, Patricio and Willy from the Mendoza Classic Car Club.  A great evening with a nice presentation from the BA guys.

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In the morning we have a few hours to catch up on some car maintenance – in our case to find out why the cooling fan failed, again, and to fix a door latch which fell apart on some rough roads a few days ago.  All fixed by 12:30 when we are invited to drive in convoy to a nearby winery for lunch.  I could get used to a city like this with wineries only a few kms from the city centre.

Nieto Senetiner winery is one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza and dates back to 1888.  Very polished with beautiful gardens and vineyards right next to the outdoor dining area where we enjoyed our best meal since arriving in Argentina – a lunch lasting nearly 4 hours!  The plates of Argentinian beef just kept arriving.  We haven’t found the part of Argentina where these cows are raised, occasionally we see are a few goats but most days there is no stock to be seen at all.  Mendoza is the home of Malbec and the one from this vineyard was the best we have tasted.  They also offer a Cab Sauv and a grape we haven’t come across before, Bondara.  Tasting and looking very like a Barbera.  We were amazed at the generous irrigation, water flowing freely in open channels along each trellised row.  So different from Australia where every precious drop is precisely metered to the vines.

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At first blush Mendoza seems to have everything a winemaker needs; good soil, warm and dry summers with little risk of rain at the wrong time, plenty of sunshine and most importantly, abundant irrigation from the rivers flowing from the Andes.  The only real concern is that the snow fields are shrinking each summer and their reservoirs are drying up.   A problem for manana….