Walking into the canyon at Talampaya
Chilecito is a small town in the foothills of several mountain ranges. Travelling south from Salta you need to go to La Rioja first, the biggest city in the province. From there, in a straight line distance, Chilecito is only about 45 miles over the mountain range to the west, but that mountian range forces the buses to travel south and around the mountains before heading north to Chilecito, turning that 45 mile distance into a four hour bus ride. Chilecito is nearby two national parks, Talampaya and Ischigualsto, famous for their cliffs and moon-like rock formations, respectively.
The sheer cliffs of Talampaya
I wanted to visit both national parks, but as it was off-season there was only me and one other tourist there and the two tour operators in town both required a minimum of two people for the tours. The other guy had already seen Ischigualsto so I had to settle for just seeing Talampaya.
We left early in the morning at about 7am, which in Argentina in the summer is still in the darkness because of their ridiculous daylight savings time where the sun rises at about 8am and doesn´t set until around 9pm, and this is in March. It was a pretty ride on some backroads through some canyons and small mountains. It took about three and a half hours to get to the park and from the park entrance we drove back with our guide to a parking area from which we opted to walk into the canyon.
The canyon recesses from across the way
The park is privately managed and to see the furthest area of the canyon, about a kilometer further than where we walked, they force you to pay to ride in a bus. For us, it was much nicer to walk into the canyon and it was very pretty. The park had been closed for the previous two days because of heavy rains that flooded the access path into the canyon. The canyon had vertical cliffs of reddish-orange rocks and there are some petroglyphys on some of the rocks and some amazing rock formations. There are also condors cruising overhead on thermal updrafts created by the hot sun, where they seemingly fly for ten minutes without flapping their massive wings. It was also nice to walk in the canyon almost alone, there were only two small tour buses of people and because we left early we were totally separated from them.
Looking up inside the canyon recess and listening to echos
There is one part of the canyon which consists of a semicircle, with a diameter of about 15 feet, worn into one of the tallest parts of the sheer canyon wall which you can walk inside of and look straight up to the pure blue sky. From inside this area, if you yell or clap, the sound reverbates of the other walls of the canyon and you actually hear the echo of the sound four distinct times, simply amazing. It would have been nice to walk a bit further into the canyon but our guide told us that we already saw the best part of the canyon. After lingering for a bit, we walked back to the car and headed back to Chilecito through the same great scenery, this time it was fully light outside so we could really see much more.
The other interesting thing that I was hoping to do in Chilecito was to try and do a hiking trip to an abandoned mine up in the mountains outside of town.
First cable car station in Chilecito
A mine was built in the early 1900s by a German company to extract silver and other metals from the mountains near town. In two years the company constructed an elaborate cable car system to bring down the bulk rocks from the mountains all the way to a foundry in the next town over. The cable car system runs for 90 kilometers up into the mountain with eight or nine cable car stations. The company and the mine shut down in the 1940s after political and economic disputes and what is left are the rusting and decaying remnants of the cable car stations and the foundry. In season the companies run hiking trip where they drive you into the mountains and you hike up to the highest cable car station at around 4600 meters. It would have been nice to do but due to recent rains the access road was impassable.
The remnants of the first cable car station
Unfortunately I had to settle for walking around town for an after while waiting for my night bus to Mendoza. The interesting part about Chilecito is that it is right in the heart of siesta country. At about 12:30pm everything closes and shuts down, I mean absolutely everything, and the town transforms into a living ghost town, until 6pm. I have no idea what most of the people do for five and half hours in the middle of the day but once 6pm hits the town lazily wakes up and comes back to life. Its a nice way to beat the mid-day heat but it is terribly disruptive if you are trying to get anything done.