Salta to Susques

Sat Jan 31st 2014

Had an interesting experience last night.   I went to a restaurant bar on Plaza 9 De Julio, relatively early to have something to eat and a couple of beers, so I’d be in good shape to head north early tomorrow and take advantage of the day.   I was amongst a mixture of hoards of tourists (all south American) and some locals and the usual brigade of crooners singing and playing music in the street.   I had a table to myself, at which I ate, drank and read my latest book on my iPad.   About 2 hours into the evening, a young guy (early 20’s North American – unmistakable) approached me and politely asked me if I spoke English, with a kind of pre-assured attitude that the answer would certainly be yes.   I duly obliged, and he volunteered “It’s really not a good idea to use that (the iPad) here – we noticed various ‘types’ observing you over the past hour and you really shouldn’t do that in South America”.   I asked him “how long have you been here?”…. “three weeks“ he replied …. “but I have read lonely planet and South America is dangerous”.   “Where do you come from” I asked …. “Chicago”.    “Well, I think you will find all of South America safer than what you are accustomed to ….  and a good deal bigger!  So try to relax and enjoy the happy atmosphere, you’ll be fine.    They are mostly looking at the Ójos claros’ and we are even still somewhat of a novelty here … Its not necessarily a bad thing.   He’s still wondering.

Got off to a late start – decided to get on the road again, and it was a bad hair day – at the start at least.   I wanted to go north out of Salta to the junction of ruta 52 – then turn west into the (serious ) mountains towards Chile, over the Andes.   I had the GPS set to use “the fastest routes” as opposed to the shortest routes and it took me east of Juyuy because it sensed a bit of motorway.   When it came time to slot left for the Andes, I was having some traffic issues and missed the turn.   The GPS didn’t say anything because it was still happily heading for the bit of motorway it recognized …. Result? … I lost 100Kms and 2 hours.

Decision time - North, West or back?

Decision time – North, West or back?

So … back on course and up ruta 9 for the junction with ruta 52, where I would have to make a (late) decision on Bolivia or Chile.   When I got there – the weather was looking a bit dodgy and I had already used 80Kms of fuel with the now very erratic computer telling me I was good for 160 more.   So Susque on ruta 52 was 130 odd … that gave me a margin for error and the computer told me I’d be there by my self imposed curfue .. 4:00PM.   I didn’t really know the impact of having to climb to nearly 5,000 meters on the consumption or the time, but it was ‘go now or forget it and try again tomorrow’.  Decision made – ruta 52 for Chile it is.

Near Pumamarca on Ruta 52

Near Pumamarca on Ruta 52

When I turned onto ruta 52, I wasn’t ready for how high the first mountain was … I actually got frightened at the top I’m not proud to say.   I have been in the French, Italian and Swiss alps on bikes, but nothing prepared me for this.   At 4,200 Meters, it was freezing rain / low visibility and the terrain was more beautiful and hostile than anything I ever imagined – for all my internet research.   I was desperately calculating my “point of no return” and trying to manually figure out the point at which I would have to make the decision to turn back or carry on.   All sounds a bit hysterical, but when you are alone in terrain that drops 24 degrees and climbs to over 4,000 meters in 20 Kms … all sorts of “what-if” scenarios start to go through your mind.

25 Kms into Ruta 52 - and i'm not at the top yet

25 Kms into Ruta 52 – and i’m not at the top yet

At the end of the day, I took my father’s advice and relied on logic and mind over matter – and so ignored my fear.    For this I was later richly rewarded.   After I came down out of the mountains to the salt flats … I was treated to a vista the like of which I never imagined – ever.

On the way to Susques

On the way to Susques

I took video footage with a GoPro and I am hoping it will be good, but I’m guessing there will be a touch of the  ‘you had to be there’s’ about it.

I carried on through the Salinas and I could see more mountains on the horizon … I was sort of hoping that they would be behind Susque, but the weren’t  – so up into the Andes again to get to my destination …. Sleet and rain at the top this time, but now I knew I was going to make it comfortably so my spirits were high.    The Ducati, despite the computer problems was running well – and seems to have a significantly increased range lately … Bueno!

When I knew from the odometer when I was within 5 Kms of my destination and I still had no idea if it was going to be a one horse town, or a metropolis …. but I had no more fuel and we were now over 4,000 meters – I was staying there whatever it turned out to be.   Actually I felt like a guy in a gambling casino waiting for the spinning wheel to stop and I decided to turn on the GoPro video camera to at least record the moment of despair or elation – whichever it may be.   It was despair – initially.

A tad quiet - siesta hour apparently

A tad quiet – siesta hour apparently

A mining town cut into the mountains, which looked like it might even be a ghost town.   Thankfully, first impressions aren’t always great and it had a ‘tourist centre’ – complete with 18 year old Rossie …. who happily told me the village had one hotel with internet and fuel.   Sorted!     The threatening weather was now of little importance …. I was safe and sound and very happy.

Looking east from Hotel Susques

Looking east from Hotel Susques

All I had to do now was book in, download the video to the laptop and find some food.

Looking west from Hotel Susques

Looking west from Hotel Susques

With all that was happening, I completely forgot about the altitude sickness …. I’m over 4,000 meters now and nothing …. Almost feel a bit cheated … had a couple of beers as soon as I arrived at Susque having forgotten that you shouldn’t do that …. And still no problems … maybe later ?   Vamos a ver.

At the end of the day, I am pleased with myself.   We all have aspects (weaknesses) to our characters that we hide and don’t share with anyone.   In a situation like this, they come out …. And you will find yourself out very quickly …. Speaking of weaknesses, the Ducati has a wireless Keyless ignition and it decided today that it would not start anymore.   Thankfully, those clever little Italians anticipated this and there is an option to key in a pin number which allows you to bypass the keyless ignition.   Clever that eh?   Design a high tech keyless starting system that might fail, so also design in a high tech bypass system … Would a simple key have been better I wonder ??

I had llama for dinner – very nice.

The hotel

The hotel

Its very cold here at night ….. wearing a jumper for the first time in 4 years!   Will cross into Chile at Paso de Jama tomorrow descend out of the Andes to San Pedro De Atacama.   I think I’ll take a rest day there and decide how to get home.

Saludos a todo


About Garrett Kennedy

I'm an Irishman, living in Paraguay in South America. I have a 2011 Ducati Multistrada Pikes Peak model, a Suzuki Boulevard and a BMW R1200GS ... I have two sons, one living in Ireland and the other in England. I like all sorts of sports .... especially golf, cycling, aviation and motor sports. I am also a Radio Ham - ZP5BVK. When I'm not working (rare enough) I like to tour on my motorbike - the Ducati or the BM ... I started a blog a while ago to record some of my adventures ....
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