La Serena to Talampaya [an error occurred while processing this directive]
<< full screen


View from Tololo

La Serena has several tourist features. It is the area where the wine distillate Pisco is brewed, the Nobel price winning poet Gabriela Mistral was born, and above all the area that is full with astronomy observatories. This location must have been chosen because of the clear sky: free of dust, clouds, moisture, and light contamination. We are interested in physics and therefore we visit the famous Cerro Tololo Observatory. Because it is daytime we can't see any stars, but this is not that dramatic, because nearly every evening we look up at the sky and see more twinkling lights than we can handle. In the nights we gaze at the stars, look for satellites and are surprised by falling meteorites. The stars are extremely present and constantly draw our attention; it is impossible not to notice them. The first constellation one recognizes is usually Orion and after that the Southern Cross which helps to orientate to the south. Now it is becoming winter, the sky is even more beautiful because we look straight into the brilliant center of our galaxy: the Milky Way. Without any difficulties we can observe the Clouds of Magellan, the closest (16.000 light years) neighbor galaxy of ours.

Paso Agua Negra

What we were already afraid of has become reality, the pass over the Andes has been closed since the beginning of May due to snow. We wanted to use this spectacular Agua Negra pass (4765m) to cross to Argentina and continue cycling north to Salta. The next pass (San Francisco) is about 700km further north and will most likely also be closed as soon as we reach that place. Besides that, we would miss a very interesting part of Argentina if we would go north on this side of the Andes. Therefore, we must go back to the nearest pass to the south: Paso Cristo Redentor between Los Andes and Mendoza. That pass is nearly always open. Because we don't feel much for backpedaling along the same way we came, and because we also don't like to cycle along the Pan-American Highway, we are forced to take the bus and retreat to the last village we crossed by bicycle in Argentina: Uspallata. We wished it wasn't necessary to do this. So far it felt so good to cycle without the need of any other means of transportation. With only the stuff we require loaded on our bicycles we were able to keep on going and reach more or less every place we desired indepently . However, now we put our bikes and luggage on a smelly, noisy bus for which we had to wait one and a half hours and travel with high speed about 700km back to the province Mendoza.

Questa de ZapataQuebradas and questas

North of Mendoza is characterized by big broad flat valleys filled with sediments of the mountains in their surroundings. Although the valleys are flat in the sense that they form a kind of plane, that plane is not oriented horizontally but tends to have a nice slope. The valleys are separated from each other by sierras (mountain ranges). We hop from valley to valley by crossing the sierras by means of quebradas and cuestas. A quebrada is the easiest way to cross a mountain range, because the road follows a river that has split a passage through the mountain wall. The road is called a cuesta when it follows the (steep) natural slope of the mountain or hill.

Hopping around, we are regularly halted by policemen. They ask for passport and write down the data of everyone who comes by. Nobody has the slightest clue what will happen with all that data. We are happy that we have made some plastified copies of our passports, because it would be quite inconvenient to have to dig up the originals every time we bump into a checkpoint. We are not bothered by the large amount of checkpoints because they serve very well as water suppliers.

Mate dulce

At the top of one of the inclined flat valleys between Calingaste and Rodeo, we find one of the many rural police stations. After knocking on the door to beg for water, a sleepy officer staggers outside brutally awakened from his siesta. He is the carpenter of the group and at the moment his colleagues are busy outside feeding animals or something like that. He asks why we don't drink a matecito with him; of course we like to, we have enough time. He makes a mate dulce for us and himself. In Patagonia we always saw the people drink mate amargo (bitter), but further north most people add sugar to the yerba to obtain a sweet mate. It is nice to change habits now and then, but we feel more related to the Patagonian gauchos, and will generally stick to the amargo version of the Argentinean tea.

Because of our diverting tea break we reach just before dark, after a long descent, the village Iglesia, a name that translates to 'church'. At the time we arrive, a divine service is held in the white church. Its giant doors are wide open and surprisingly as many people are standing outside as there are people sitting inside. Big loudspeakers hang on both sides of the doors and broadcast the service into the dark night, lit by yellow little lights. In this way it can be followed by the people on the little square in front of the church. However, due to the enormous volume the holy speeches can be heard in the whole village and surroundings. It is a chaotic show in which people constantly walk in and out.

We follow a cuesta up to the village Rodeo. If we would have taken the Agua Negra pass, then we would have come descending out of the Andes at this specific place (only many days earlier of course). Meanwhile, we were already not so sad anymore that we had to go back to Uspallata, because it has been a beautiful ride. A little bit further north it becomes even more beautiful when we are treated to a real quebrada. We ride through a kind of gorge with grey stone walls towering high above our heads. Below a little river streams trying to make the gorge even deeper. The road ends in a little town called Jose de Jachal, not far from the national parks Talampaye and Valle de la Luna. Parks we eagerly want to visit.

A little road that leads to ...

To reach the two parks, we have to make quite a detour, but we see on the ACA map that there is also a small road that shortcuts to Valle de la Luna. On the map, a part of the road is drawn as a dashed line, which can mean many things. For example, the road might not exist because it is just a future project. To get some certainty, we must ask local people what they know about the road. 
"Nice road because there is not too much traffic. I used to take it in the past."
"Never been there."
"That is the campo, there is nothing..."
"Yes, you can take the southern variant. Oh no sorry, I cannot indicate that on the map for you." 
"Don't go there, it is very bad road. Take the beautiful asphalt road instead. In a couple of hours you are in the parks... Yes, by car of course."
Not that much wiser, we simply decide to try this adventurous alternative. We tap a lot of water, because one thing we do believe; we cannot expect to find anything in the fields.

The road starts as an ordinary gravel road. It crosses a mountain range of which the mountains are actually to small to be called mountains. It would be better to classify it as a series of hills, both high and sharp. As soon as we pass the first hill we enter a complete new landscape. Behind us it is more or less grey from the rocky sand in combination with the little dark green bushes. In front of us appears a African red scenery formed by red rocks in strange irregular shapes and a soft sandy road that crosses and follows dry watercourses. In another season a lot of little streams and rivers must run here, but in this time of the year it is completely dry. The road is often too soft to keep cycling and we have plenty of opportunities to practice our push qualities. It is really an extraordinary scenery, like we are on a different planet and we feel happy that we have chosen this road instead of the ordinary paved route. We also feel confident that we have taken the right path because between all the tracks of animals there is a fresh track of another cyclist. Looking at the feet steps we see that he or she has pushed the bike in the opposite direction. We remain cycling on Mars for a couple of hours and then suddenly land back on earth in the pampa of all places. 

In front of us we see flat land, followed by an impressive sierra we will have to cross to reach Valle de la Luna. It is afternoon and the sierra is partly invisible, because the sky is filled in that direction with red sand. Probably quite some wind is blowing over there. We descend and reach the point where the road splits, which is also indicated by the map. Unfortunately, the track of the bicycle that has accompanied us, takes the right branch, heading towards a small settlement Agua Negra (original name, isn't it). We, however, must take the left way and are encouraged to continue by the sign on the ground. Built out of stones are the words Francia, Suiza to be read and below them points an arrow to the left. Maybe a French and a Swiss cyclist wanted to indicate that they went towards the sierra, in case something might happen to them. Would they have come back along the same road, they would certainly have erased this message. On the other hand, that they didn't come back can mean two different things...

Walking to the camp siteNot far after the crossing the road is stopped by a watercourse of about 100 meter wide. It is mostly dry, but in the middle meanders a 10 meter wide river. The official road stops, but an alternative one has been created by 4WD cars that have driven here previously. We follow their tracks which lead through the dry watercourse over a floor of cracked clay, to a point where they disappear into the river. Unsure about how deep the water is, we unpack the bikes and carry everything to the other side. The water stays far below knee level and it gives a welcome cooling down on this hot day. As it is already late we don't load the luggage anymore but instead walk to the shore to set up a camping place for the night. Along the water line we notice that the sand has become white. The water must be salt. Because we are in an area where salt does not necessarily mean NaCl, but can also be a much less innocent variant, we decide for the moment not to drink this water and keep using only the supply we carry.


The official road appears again on the other side of the river and runs through the flat fields filled with little sand dunes and bushes. Every now and then the dunes cover the road which means pushing. The mountain range in the east slowly comes closer while small kangaroo like animals play hide and seek between the bushes. After 3 hours of pushing and cycling in the morning, we reach a point where the road splits again. One part which continues to go east appears like it has never been used. Little green plants have covered the sand. The other branch of the crossing turns right towards the south and the car tracks follow this way. The map doesn't show any kind of crossing. Instead it indicates that the road must keep going east, with some small curvatures, towards the sierra. Maybe the road that we see going right makes just a little detour like before and therefore we decide to follow it. We cycle a couple of kilometers. It is not an official road but it is formed by the various cars which have followed the same way. Instead of turning back to the east, the tracks keep going south, further and further. This doesn't look good. Maybe this trail is used by a farmer whose cows graze in the south part of the fields. But anyhow this looks too different from what is drawn on the map. Maybe we shouldn't have chosen the right branch at the crossing. Tore goes back without luggage to check this part. The road, which is covered with plants continues for about 500m but then stops for a descend of about 8 meters. It is again a river-bed that stops us, but this time so broad that the other side cannot be seen. Only a cow trail continues to go east, but no sign of any real road.

This is pretty bad. It doesn't make sense to continue to follow the car tracks because there is no indication that they will stop going south and on the other hand, following the cow trail is a little bit to wild. We don't have that much water that we can afford to do too many strange things. How would we be able to cross the mountains when there is no road? We have to go back. Another 3 hours pushing and cycling back the same way we came, this time through the sandstorm we had seen from a distance on the day before .


We have to take the regular road (ruta 40) to get to the parks. From San Jose de Jachal a paved road runs northeast to cross the sierra further north than we first tried to do. On this road we pass many badenes. A baden is a deepening in the road, usually made from concrete, with the function to lead a river over the road. It is a bit peculiar way of letting a river crossing a road. Most of the time no water is present, but if there is, it is so low that cars and bicycles can easily drive through it. It is not the first time we see them but now we cross an unusually high concentration. In our way up we find another one of those police posts and the officers in duty are so kind as to offer us a cup of coffee and some homemade bread. The checkpoints are not so bad.

Via the village Villa Union we do something we haven't done before; we cycle 70 km to the south. We do this in order to get to the park Talampaya. The other park, Valle de la Luna, we have skipped from our wish list, because it is even further south. On a detailed map of the park rangers, we see that the little sandy road we tried to use, does actually exist. Just follow the car tracks.



It is an extraordinary special park we have found. Ancient rivers have created deep gorges into a red landscape. Probably we have chosen the right way to explore the park. Together with a guide we walk for about five hours in weird places where no Jeep can go. We walk through alleys, created by water and watch with astonishment the beautifully shaped rock formations. Two nights we camp on the terrain and often we are accompanied by three foxes. They must have learned that where there are people there is also food. Besides them, also a few strange birds walk around our camping place. They have a peculiar habit, as soon as they find a nut, the run fast to the nearest stone. They take a few moments to position their head above it and then suddenly they throw their encapsulated treasure with high impulse onto the rock. 

Old cultures must also have liked this place because still a lot of evidence can be found that they lived here. Talampaya is worth a visit. 

Eroded water course

Home | Travel stories | Photos | Statistics | Off the map | Recipes | Preparations | Previous trips | Links | Notes | Search | Contact us

This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011