The desert is beautiful in this part of the world. Every 15 or 20 miles as we drove through Quebrade de Cafayate, we came across spectacular rock formations and high mountain vistas.
The rocks showed dramatic erosion and contrasting colors that changed as the sun moved across the sky. The windy mountain/desert road was almost all gravel, so the going was slow. To keep everyone’s mind entertained as the scenery passed by our window, we listened to audible books of “The Wizard of OZ” and “Tom Sawyer” over the car speaker system. As we neared the town the we saw many wineries, and we had heard that this area is known for good wine. Unfortunately, 10 and 12-year-old kids aren’t too interested in wine tasting, so carried on into town. The first night we spent an uneventful night in the comfortable town of Cafayate, picked up some information from the small tourist information booth – then headed back out into the desert in the morning. [Now is the time to queue ominous music for the family blithely navigating their way down the rough gravel road.]
Arriving at the little desert town of Molinas we expected to check-in to a reasonably priced hostel. We found the hostel, but the person who answered the door was a 5-year-old boy who didn’t say anything. Suzanne looked for some responsible adult, no dice. A bit further into town (all gravel roads and mostly adobe houses) we found a very nice hotel across from the church.
Unfortunately it was $200/night – and was a bit out of our budget. So, since it was still a few more hours before dark, we decided to head to the next town of Seclantias, which was only about 80 KM down the gravel road. It would take about 2 hours, leaving an hour contingency before sundown. Everything was going well until we were about 10 KM out of town, and started down a steep set of switchbacks with deep washboard ruts and the occasional large sharp stones. After the first switchback the road seemed get really rough…. yep, flat tire.
No level place to pull over, so we thumped our way down the hill on the flat. By the time I pulled over at the bottom of the grade, the tire was trashed. At least I didn’t lose all the rubber before I stopped… As I assessed the situation, the sun started to dip below the hillside and I really didn’t want to work on the car in the dark.
The whole family piled out and asked how they could help. First, unload all the luggage from the trunk and pile it on the side of the road in the dust. Next, pull out the spare tire and the jack. Put the reflector triangle in the road.
I put my head under the car to find the place to engage the jack, and felt a sharp sting in my right arm. Glancing down I saw a dead bee hanging by his stinger from my forearm. Crud! I pulled the stinger out and focused on the tire as my arm began to swell. The family gathered around and Suzanne commented that this was kind of like the scene in “A Christmas Story” when the family had a flat tire and Ralphy (the 12-year-old boy) dropped the lug nuts in the snow while assisting his dad to change a tire. Then a local dog came over to check us out, sniff around, then peed on our spare tire. Crud!
I thought it would be a good opportunity to explain to Patrick how to change a flat, so he became my assistant. As I handed him the lug nuts, he dropped them into the dust. The look on this face was total anguish, then we all started laughing. Patrick couldn’t believe that we had just reproduced one of the classic scenes in the movie. Luckily, the lug nuts were easy to find and we soon had the new, slightly soggy, spare tire installed. As the sunlight faded a little-old-one-eyed man came limping down the road. He looked at us and asked something in Spanish that we didn’t understand. At first I thought he might be asking if we needed some help, then it appeared that he was asking us for money. Suzanne told him we couldn’t speak Spanish and eventually he limped off down the country road. The family loaded our dusty luggage back into the trunk and continued into Seclantias.
I let out a sigh of relief when Suzanne discovered that the only hotel in town had a couple of rooms available. The hotel had quite a bit of character, with a large patio area and a quaint common eating room. It looked like it might have been a couple of hundred-years-old with the 2 foot-thick adobe walls and twisty log beams holding up the roof.
One little flat tire didn’t slow us down! We set out to explore the little town. 5 minutes later we were done. The town has been around for a very long time, dating to before the Inca empire, and it has a different kind of feel to it. The commercial part of town was only about 100 yards of the main street. Later that night we bought dinner at a little restaurant run by a man who served traditional lamb and beef stews for me and Suzanne, more main-stream empanadas for the kids, traditional cheese and marmalade dessert, and finished with some home-brewed brandy from the crystal decanter in the corner.
Next morning we were up for the traditional breakfast of coffee, bread, and jam at our hotel, then off to the next town of Cachi where we wandered around and explored for a couple of hours. The local archaeological museum had some cool petroglyphs from thousands of years ago. Lunch at the main square, then back out into the desert. Along the road we stopped many times to enjoy the beautiful cacti, the picturesque Valles Colchaquies, the air got a little thin when we crossed the pass at 3457 meters!
That night we returned to Salta city and checked back into our hotel. We were tired and looking forward to an evening of R and R. We quickly unloaded the car and collapsed into our beds for a rest. Later we walked to the main square for dinner and when we returned we noticed that the street which had been busy and crowded during the day was dark and deserted at night. Later that evening I remembered that we had left some stuff in the trunk, rather than haul it all up into our room. Since the road looked a little scary, I decided to get the rest of our stuff and bring it inside.
I was too late – someone else had already cleaned it out for us! The trunk was sprung with a screw driver and the lock was destroyed. Crud! I couldn’t get into trunk to see the damage, but I was pretty sure the car was cleaned out. I told the hotel desk about the robbery and she had me move the car across the street to a locked garage, just an hour or so too late. Suzanne and I didn’t sleep too well that night. She was thinking about the logistics we would have to do to deal with, and I spent all night mentally kicking myself for being too lazy to do one more trip up the stairs. The next morning Suzanne and I started to deal with the new situation.
We have been very fortunate this year, this was our first robbery after 9+ months on the road. Of course we have been over-charged many times, usually on taxi rides from airports to our hotel. This time I got lax and didn’t take normal precautions.
The next morning we drove to the rental agency and told them the car is cursed. I explained about the flat tire, they asked if the flat tire is in the trunk. I shrugged and said “The trunk was jacked last night and we don’t know what is still in there”. They opened the trunk and the only thing remaining was the destroyed tire, everything else was gone. The mandatory insurance they made me buy didn’t cover any of the damage, so that set us back another couple hundred dollars. Now that we knew what was missing, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and a drink, then started to get organized. Those who know me from work won’t be surprised that I quickly had a “short interval work plan” down on paper.
The big issue is that my travel vest, where I kept all our passports, was left in a bag in the trunk with the rain jackets. So we lost our passports, a couple of reserve credit cards,our rain jackets, a bag of dirty clothes, a box of souvenirs we had been meaning to mail home for 3 weeks, some of Patrick’s school work, USB cables, and Suzanne, Patrick, and my boots. Suzanne checked with the embassy in Buenos Aires and the first thing we had to do was report the incident to the police and get a written police report. Suzanne did her best to explain the situation in Spanish. My Spanish explanation of the situation was done when I exclaimed with enthusiasm and pantomime: “Bandito! No bueno!”. After a couple of hours at the local station, the police gave Suzanne the written report and told her we needed to go see the tourist police in the main plaza. When we showed up later that day, the Tourist Police looked a little confused as to why we were talking to them and showing them the report, but they thanked us and sent us on our way.
Next we had to get ourselves back to BA to visit the US Embassy to get new passports. Suzanne, the master of logistics, sprung into action on the laptop and purchased/cancelled/changed tickets and reservations. I cancelled the lost credit cards and went to the ATM and withdrew a bunch of cash. We inventoried our lost clothes and figured what we would need to buy. None of us have a bunch of clothes in our backpacks, so even losing a pair of underwear is a real inconvenience, let alone a bag of clothes.
The story continues in the next post. Spoiler alert – everything turns out fine 8-).