It’s only some 7 km from Maimara to Tilcara, but we used the day to make a side trip west. We zigzagged up the Cuesta de Lipan – more camera fodder with spectacular views.
My GPS for our first stop (S467) showed an altitude of 3,851 m (12,643 ft). Having found the lat/long coordinates on Google Earth, the elevation is shown as 3,843 m – close enough for me! We found Maihueniopsis boliviana and M. glomerata as well as more Pyrrhocactus umadeave, but only with flowers on M. boliviana. It could be argued that the spination of the other two species is more impressive than the flowers, but it would have been nice to have seen some flowers to make the judgement ourselves.
S468 was the road crossing the Salinas Grandes, a huge snow-white and desolate salt lake with no plants, but with small groups of llamas and guanacos seen on the greenish vegetation growing on the edge of the lakes. The animals had a knack to turn their backs to any camera that was pointed at them, so I have plenty of pictures of llama rump on the hoof.
Back on terra firma, we stopped at a narrow gorge (S469) with large numbers of Trichocereus pasacana, many in flower. It was noticeable how much more plentiful this Tricho was in Argentina than on the other side of the border in Chile. Did this eastern side of the Andes get more moisture than the Chilean side? Or had the tourist industry in San Pedro used up all the Trichos for the building of houses and churches as well as souvenirs? How long did it take these plants to become 5 m (15 ft) plus giants? Why were there no small (say 30 cm – 1 ft tall) seedlings – was there no regeneration?
The road that we were on was the main road to San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, via the Jama Pass. I had mixed feelings about this road, as in 2001, on the Chilean side, our 4×4 suffered a burned out clutch somewhere between the border and San Pedro and we were forced to make a descend from some 4,400 m (14,500 ft) to 2,350 m (7,715 ft) without the benefit of gears to use the engine to help us slow down and remain in control.
This time, the challenge was to keep the bus going – an automatic cut out on the engine to prevent it from overheating had been playing up on and off during the journey and Jorge and his co-driver had made daily (actually nightly) attempts to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it. It produced a number of ad-hoc stops, sometimes an opportunity for a welcome leg stretch and look around, sometimes a mild irritation as we wanted to get back to the hotels. It was a minor issue compared to having a clutch burn out!
We passed the old mining village of Susques, at 3,675 m (12,065 ft) and did not see much evidence of the town’s 18th century’s origin; it all looked very industrial and dusty. We drove on to Angosto del Taire and stopped at the summit of another minor pass – Altos del Morado (S470) where a sign proclaimed that we were at 4,170 m (13,691 ft) above sea level. Even in the best of health, it’s best to move slowly at this altitude as you soon run out of breath. With a bad cold and stuffed sinuses I could only muster up a short spell of enthusiasm to take a few pictures of tiny Lobivia einsteinii (syn. Rebutia einsteinii). I queued up with the others to take a couple of pictures of a group of four plants and managed to find another single plant, but was then exhausted with sinus pressures on my ears and eyes making it feel as if my head was about to explode. It was still 240 km to the Paso de Jama and the Chilean border and some 105 km back to Humahuaca and the lower altitudes of Tilcara. I believe I slept most of the journey back, woken up as the pressures on my sinuses reversed during the descent, despite the large quantities of Halls menthol-eucalyptus sweets that I was sucking. I was by no means the only one to suffer, but at the time, that was of little comfort to me..
I was glad to get to the hotel in Tilcara and was sufficiently recovered to enjoy the surprise of a typical altiplano band of Andean musicians giving us a private performance (we seemed to be the only guests in the hotel) of various tunes dominated by the characteristic pan flutes. I’m listening to their CD as I write this report.