Crossing the Andes (via the Jama Pass)

So it was time to say goodbye to Chile!

But only temporarily – we would be back after a a few weeks in Argentina…our time in Chile was not quite at an end yet. Excitingly, this meant that we were going to cross the Andes! AGAIN! Yes – the last time we crossed the Andes, we went from Valparaíso, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina –  and this time we were crossing from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Purmamarca, Argentina.

Crossing the Andes pretty much involves an International border in this part of the world, as the boundary between Chile and Argentina is mostly defined as the top of the Andes. The geographically astute amongst you might be wondering how we can cross the Andes from Chile to Argentina in the same direction TWICE, without having crossed back in the other direction in between…. surely we would never cross the Andes and not tell you about it in the blog……

Well…. perhaps it’s a matter of semantics – we clearly had to get from the east side of the Andes to the west side in order to do this crossing , so what happened? I would say more accurately that we went through the Andes, as opposed to crossing them – the reason being that we got from one side of the Andes to the other by boat! The boat journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt starts on one side of the Andes, and finishes on the other. While it sounds weird that we crossed a mountain range by boat – it’s because at the very far south of the Andes, they get very low, and also start to get broken up by lakes and fjords – so you can get from one side to the other by boat….. yes you can check on a map if you don’t believe me….

Anyway, our journey today was over the Paso de Jama, and the bus departed at 8am and arrived in Purmamarca at around 3.30pm. The highest point of the journey would be at around 4800m, and the border crossing is at 4200m – so we would be at high altitude a lot of the time – fingers crossed for no altitude sickness! (They have a medical team at the border in case of an incident, so all good….)

We had bagged our favourite seats on the top deck of the bus – the one’s behind the stairs so nobody can recline their seat in your face! 🙂 YES!

The bus left only around 15 minutes late, and I have to say that this was my favourite border crossing to date! It was really, really scenic with great views of the altiplano area, we didn’t get altitude sickness, and there was also great scenery on the Argentinian side on the way down. The border crossing paperwork was straightforward – a few people looked a bit rough but nobody collapsed! So we didn’t have any delays at the top. 🙂

After leaving the Atacama desert, the terrain was mostly ‘puna‘ – a kind of high-altitude grassland, which is home to vicuñas – relatives of the guanaco that only live over 3200m above sea level. Once on the Argentinian side of the border, we passed Salinas Grandes, a series of large salt flats, which are quite a popular tourist attraction.

After this, the road descends very steeply and leaves the puna area to enter the Quebrada de Humahuaca, which contains our final destination Purmamarca. This area is very scenic with lots of cactuses and different coloured rock formations

All in all, it was a VERY enjoyable day! (Which is very unusual for a bus journey!) I also took lots of pictures out of the bus window (also unusual…!) and here they are…

Scenery of the ‘puna’ – the name of the high altitude terrain of the Andes at these latitudes.
Looking back down to the Atacama desert behind us.
Paso Jama and Argentina straight ahead… for Bolivia, turn left…
Now we are up at around 4500m above sea-level.
More high altitude scenery.
Still not much vegetation up here….
Volcano in the distance.
Our first vicuña sighting! 🙂
There is a lot of salt on the altiplano.
We’ve arrived at the border. Here is our bus. We have to take all of luggage of the bus and take it through customs….
Customs and immigration building.
The back of the building is not quite finished yet… but I can see snowy mountains! 🙂
This is an Andean Gull! They may look ordinary, but they are special – they live and breed in the high mountains.
Salinas Grandes – salt flats on the Argentinian side.
Hut on the salt flats.
The way down on the Argentinian side is fairly steep compared to the Chilean side.
Making our way downwards to Purmamarca.
CACTUSES! Once we dropped below 3000m on the Argentinian side, there were cactuses everywhere!

Purmamarca is at around 2300m above sea level, so we ended up just slightly lower than where we started – with an ascent of around 2400m, and a descent of around 2500m. The bus even arrived slightly early?!!? What more could anybody want from a trans-andean border crossing 🙂 🙂

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