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Up early, we took a cab to the train station. It was cold and we had no jumper or coat. There was an Italian film crew at work making a film about Chile and prisoners of war. There didn’t seem to be many Tren a las Nubes passengers but it’s the first this year so we assumed it was just quiet.

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Lights, camera, action! Italian film crew at Salta train station

We had 30 minutes to spare before the train left and got a taxi back to the hotel to get jumpers. Back at the station there was bad news. The train had been cancelled! It turned out that due to the recent heavy rain landslides had covered part of the track. The message at our hotel was to confirm that a replacement car excursion would pick us up at the hotel at 6.55 – why didn’t we learn Spanish before we came!

Dejected we went back to the hotel, rejected the car-based alternative and went back to bed for a couple of hours to consider our options. We decided to try and change our flights to leave tomorrow (sunday) rather than monday and have an extra day at Bariloche. One of the people at reception contacted the airlines and called us to say all was OK with the changed flights.

Stef didn’t fancy exploring Salta (we have a bad omen about this place) and we went to hire a car. Even this wasn’t easy as Hertz/Dollar rent for only a day. In the end we used a local company. The lady there, Angelica, was very friendly and spoke English! She told us the best route to take and what to stop and see along the way.

We took the road up to Humahuaca, stopping off at a few places along the way. First stop was Purmamarca, a small village off the main road. Behind the village is a dirt track road that takes you round the local sight, the hill of seven colours, different layers of rock in the mountain. The village itself was sleepy and like the villages you see in a western. We had some empanadas and walked round the main square. This seems designed for tourists, although there weren’t very many around. Local people selling woollens, ceramics, usual tourist stuff.

We carried on past the painters palette, more colourful mountains, up to Tilcara. Here there’s a fortress built on the top of the hill. You can barely see it from the road below. It’s very windy at the top but the buildings have been laid out to provide maximum shelter from the wind.

Past Tilcara we crossed the Tropic of Capricon and headed on to Humahuaca. Either we missed the point or we got there at the wrong time of day! We found a big monument to the Argentine Civil War but that was about it!

Conscious of the time we headed back. It started to get very cold and the clouds and rain drew in. Part of the road was no more than a dirt track and we were keen to get past this before the light failed. Our way home wasn’t helped by the Argentines road sign system – not lit up and placed at the junction with no prior warning!

Only Stef had been registered to drive the car and we did a 500km round trip in nine hours. Tired and very dusty we got back to the hotel.

We’d confirmed the change of flights and hotel at Bariloche in the morning although we weren’t entirely confident that all the changes would be ok. We hadn’t changed the car hire. We tried Avis’s web site – no luck. British Airways Executive Club Avis offer number – hung up after being on hold for 10 mins. Avis Preferred line – hung up after 20 minutes. Etc. etc.

At 11.15 we gave up and went to find food. We ended up at a confiteria around the corner from the hotel and had ham and cheese omelette, chips and salad washed down with Salta beer.

Back at the hotel we crashed knowing we had a 6am wake up call to get us to the airport for our flights.

Stef’s mastery of the Spanish language is progressing well. He’s using every opportunity to learn new words and phrases and is able to hold simple conversations. The only exception so far was this morning when we went for a snack before setting off in the car. Stef wanted a ham and cheese sandwich. With great gestures (of a sandwich, as this wasn’t on the menu) he ordered a fiambre y jamon y quesa. Then was a bit disappointed when chunks of cheese and ham arrived with crostini and crackers. It turns out that fiambre means “cold meat” so he had actually asked for “cheese and ham cold meat”! Not a crucial mistake but I had to chuckle! We now keep passing lots of places called “sandwicheria” so perhaps sandwich is an international term.

When we found out the train wasn’t running some of the Spanish people, who were kindly talking to us, nicked our taxi! We walked back a little and flagged down a cab. There were already two girls in it but the driver waved us in anyway. It turned out that he was drunk and had been cruising around with these girls for a while. He didn’t bother to use his hands and kept turning round to talk to us also. We were amazed we didn’t crash. Stef spied one of Salta’s sights (a church) and we used this as an excuse to jump out. It was a free ride but I don’t think we’d want to repeat it too soon!