Roadtrip from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta

By Emma. For the slideshow, click here.

Inescapable slasher films, wonderful pleather recliners, overflowing toilets and disturbingly damp aisles, fleece blanket tuck-ins, Argentinian Irish stew, desert breakdowns and mildly worrying careening, infinite highways and pocked dirt tracks – all part of the intrigue and vagaries of bus travel in South America. Honestly, and pretty inexplicably, I have really been enjoying the marathon trips, the ups and downs. These bus journeys seem, to me, to be the complete opposite of the sterile, identikit environments of airports. Traveling (relatively) slowly like this feels more like a process than just a result – it feels, somehow, more real.

Bus breakdown near Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Bus breakdown near Puerto Madryn, Argentina

It probably comes across as a bit bizarre to rhapsodize about a bus journey but here I go. The 10-hour journey from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, across the Andes to Salta, Argentina, winds through some truly incredible scenery and spins along some of the most dangerous roads in the world ( Setting out from San Pedro de Atacama we head east, the road flanking the spectacular and perfectly conical Volcan Licancabur.


We climb higher and higher to 4000m. Weather-sculpted red earth, snow capped volcanoes, aquamarine and navy lagoons flecked with pink flamingos and vast expanses of breathtaking nothingness streak by. “Wolverine” is playing as the in-bus entertainment but Damien and I have our noses firmly pressed against the glass of the window, determined not to miss a thing in this Martian landscape!


We cross the plateau and begin another climb. The bus struggles. We reach 4,500m and another plateau of beaded, salt-edged lagoons. The landscape slides slowly past in shades of red, pink, ochre, yellow and brown. Jagged spears of ice stand out against the scorched earth.

Ice shards

Ice shards

The tingling in our fingertips increases and it becomes a little difficult to catch our breath. We continue to climb. The bus struggles, struggles and cuts out. The lower level of oxygen is affecting the engine’s combustion. We stop for 20 minutes and then continue our slow climb. The engine cuts out again. We stare out of our window. Clouds drift across the road in front of us at approx 5,000m.

Cuesta del Lipán: drop from 4200 to 2200m

Cuesta del Lipán: drop from 4200 to 2200m

We clear the highest point at a snail’s pace and emerge from the clouds. The descent begins and the road twists and coils below us. It is impossible to cleave our attention away from the drama of the Cuesta del Lipán’s hairpin bends and sheer roadside drops.


Down and down we corkscrew past fields of reaching green cacti and rippling mountains. The landscape changes again as we reach the adobe village of Purmamarca at the foot of the La Cuesta de Lipan. The mountains tower above and around us in incredible colours of greens, reds and purples. This is the Quebrada de Purmamarca and the Cerro de los Siete Colores ( Hill of Seven Colors). It’s incredible!


As we continue onwards, the landscape becomes more and more green and it’s increasingly easier to breath. The difference with the stark and beautiful desolation of Atacama is at once striking and refreshing. Yet, as we pull into Salta, I know we’re both disappointed this amazing bus journey is over.


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