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This was not one of our most thoroughly planned trips but rather was thrown together to fill the dark, damp and holidayless void between Winifred’s visit and Christmas. Having found nothing better to do, we thought we’d have a look at what is alleged to be the highest road in the Americas – the Abra del Acay – up in the Northwest corner of Argentina near the borders with Chile and Bolivia.

here

Our route was a little shapeless. We were to ride from Salta to Iruya, and straight back along the same roads, before riding up to San Antonio, over the pass and round to Salta. We could have made more of a proper round trip of it by going up to the puna from Purmamarca and thence to San Antonio, but somewhere in the planning process we had had the idea that this was going to be a nice holiday, and given the choice of comfy hotel, and windy, waterless 4000m campsite, there wasn’t much of a battle. Likewise, the timing wasn’t quite ideal – it would be Spring there, and the start of the warm, but wet season, so we would be taking a little risk of cloud and rain, but at least it wouldn't be too cold.

As it happened, the weather the first day in Salta didn’t bode well for the holiday – a terrific, afternoon-long thunderstorm stripped leaves and branches from the trees, and, alas, much of the lovely jacaranda flowers. The next day, which turned out better, we rode to Jujuy along the hilly edge of the mountains. An extravagant dual carriageway led out of the city and suddenly became a pleasant narrow lane; we passed through spread-out countryside of expansive fields and a large reservoir, and climbed a pass to a corniche road through luxuriant cloud forest. Jujuy and its surroundings were functional, and the town busy, but it otherwise harmless enough; we had lunch and rode through. It seems to be a feature of the weather system here that days start fine but during the afternoon cloud builds up on the mountains, which it was certainly doing today, and threatening more rain, but I suppose the microclimate here does support trees, and trees are always nice to have around.

By the morning it was clear again, we continued northwards, with an insidiously upwards gradient that was beaten into insignificance by a barrelling headwind. We met a German couple – no, a family – for their baby was in the trailer – travelling in the opposite direction and enjoying it hugely.

As we climbed, the landscape evolved into the character of the Quebrada – a broad and sparse plain edged by red cliffs; beyond, and higher, mysterious and silent skylines, strangely sharp. The sky is a vast and infinitely empty blue, the sun absolute and inescapable. Everything is reduced to elemental primary colours: scorched red rock, white sun, blue sky and brilliant green oases, the colours all the more intense for coming in discrete separate blocks: rock-sky-sun-trees. Willows cluster along the river; cool, rippling, almost liquid leafy branches, like green waterfalls, enclosing a dark pool of shade. The mountains, stripped to bare rock, present a splendid show of multicoloured strata, a display of millefeuilles and gateaux to put the finest Parisian patisseries to shame.

There is almost nothing along the road except a few isolated villages: Purmamarca, Maimara, and then, Tilcara, a lovely place to stop.

The next morning surprised us with low grey cloud and we were cold crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. But a patch in the cloud wore through to blue, and by lunchtime, and Humahuaca, the grey had all dispersed. Humahuaca is a traditional village of low adobe buildings but is something of a tourist destination which I suppose has something to with the presence of a grand flight of steps leading to a monument featuring dramatic and flying things. There are inevitably artesaneria shops and pan-pipe renditions of barely recognisable gringo pop music; it is not really all that bad a place, but Tilcara was nicer.

We had thought of spending a further night here to acclimatise but found it boring and rode on instead. This next day's ride, to Iruya, could not help but be a surprise. Information from Turistel and Footprint guidebooks, which didn't amount to much, was irreconcilably contradictory. Turistel claimed the altitude of Iruya to be 3,900m and Footprint described a steep descent from the 4000m pass. Whoever was right, the ride wasn't going to be easy; it was a question of how hard it would be. Yesterday’s dodgy lettuce (one should stick solely to meat in Argentina) added another factor. We stuffed a large Pannetonne Christmas cake and several litres of water into the panniers and set off up the road, slowly.

If there had been nothing on the road in the last couple of days, there was even less now, and there was almost no traffic: we had this transcontinental highway entirely to ourselves. This is all very well until you are faced with an ambiguous road sign: an "Iruya 53km", pointing very vaguely at a junction where two very unconvincing tracks left the main road, at 90 degrees to one another. Colin inspected one and thought that possible a bus may have gone along it at some point in the recent past. We could see the track continue as a faint mark on the slope nearest us, but then no more trace. As for the other, perhaps the glint of something, much, much further away? About 10 minutes, a car passed ; we flagged it down with bravura overacting by me, and Colin hiding in embarrassment; the driver says the right junction is a kilometre further.

this is not the way to Iruya and it isn't 53km

And it is our very first stretch of ripio for the trip. We take an instant dislike to it. It is sandy, washboardy, and goes down as well as up. We cover the first 8km in an hour, taking us to Irtube, disorientingly almost exactly like a Moroccan village. The road climbed gently up a valley and over a ridge to an small hamlet in an even more open and empty expanse, and finding another river valley, followed that, and past a tiny rustic chapel, thatched adobe houses, and through a small gorge where a cordor circled overhead, and up out to the final stretch of the ridge. It was a vast, expansive landscape, and strange to us because the utter emptiness and the sharpness of the horizons strip it of a sense of scale. The mountain slopes on the skyline are gentle, the shape of worn hills, but unrealistically massive.

Not having good maps or information about the lie of the land made it rather thrilling. We were still baffled as to what the road was going to do on the way to Iruya: was there a further, much higher ridge? Was is going to go up and down steeply and annoyingly? The odds were in favour of Footprint, though that was only by luck, as guidebook writers are the true heirs of Pliny the Elder.

Now we were out of the valley, the crowning mountain of these parts was coming more into view - a long ridge of soft and handsome folds, the red summits shading gradually into the greens of the lower slopes. The pass wasn’t far, and it wasn't quite 4000m, but at last it solved the mystery of what was next : we faced a deep valley, a river far below, where it had cut sheer cliffs in the fragile rock, a mountain ridge much like the rest, and on the flatter slopes above the river trench, on the other side, a couple of patches of green fields, serene and idyllic, and small villages; the emptiness of all around imbued them tranquilility and their inaccessibility gave the the air of a glimpsed faraway paradise. And what was intriguing and mysterious about this side of the ridge is that the settlements are only connected by road via the Quebrada – there is no road in the main valley this side.

The Iruya road, of course, did descend now, in zigzags, at first on the steep slopes and then the flatter lower slopes, and then further down towards the level of the river. There were pockets of lush green, of drooping willows and tidy vegetable plots, under the grey, oddly eroded and threatening cliffs. But we were paying less attention to the scenery than it merited – it had taken a long time to get this far, and now Iruya was within single figure distance there felt even more urgency to finish the journey – not least because of the lettuce-bomb in my innards.

Iruya’s church, the sight of which was anticipated by a thousand postcards, was naturally a very welcome to see, a custard-yellow tower of friendly proportions, tucked just visible into the cleft of the valley, and more immediately welcome than the location of the longed-for Hosteria, which was at the top of a 100m climb. Iruya does not have an ATM; we would have stayed longer otherwise.

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