Planning a trip to Salta and Jujuy? Click here for my guide to the region!
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Full disclosure: The other half of the “we” that went on this camping trip is the B-word that I had acquired at the beginning of this year (Boy-toy, Beard-in-residence and yes, if you must make me say it, Boyfriend). I’m not quite willing to hand in my Solo Traveller card yet, but you might find him lurking in the background of many of my stories in the future. He’s a good guy with impeccable taste in outdoor equipment and honourable intentions of lifelong travel – you’d approve.
In the ring our dauntless protagonist takes one last swing, his face beaten to a bloody pulp, his left eye swollen shut, sweat and blood dripping onto the blue canvas floor. His fist crunches into the opponent’s jaw whose head whips back with the impact, blood and spit everywhere, his eyes roll back into his skull and he’s on the ground!!
The crowd roars – the boy might have it in him after all. Sylvester Stallone looks proud.
The bus drives on through the flat monotone night.
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Argentina takes up a shamelessly large chunk of Latin America, dwarfed only by Brazil looming above it. I was going to spend my ten-day break camping in Salta and Jujuy in the north-western corner of the country, relishing the silence and the mountains and the wide-open spaces, but not before Creed resolved his daddy issues in the boxing ring, the Gods of Egypt single-handedly ruined the art of film-making, and Paul Rudd went on a road trip of self-discovery with that kid from Submarine and Selena Gomez. I slept some, at last, when the movies stopped, and woke up to Zach Whatshisface acting exclusively with his pectoral muscles in Bad Neighbours 2. The lady sitting across the aisle gave me a couple of oranges with a beaming smile before waving farewell and disembarking in Tucumán.
It was two in the afternoon by the time we reached Salta, and James Franco’s baby brother was doing card tricks as part of a very convoluted plot twist involving Harry Potter and Mark Zuckerberg. I had successfully killed 23 hours and roughly 14% of my brain cells.
We still had a way to go before reaching our destination, the Quebrada de Humahuaca. It is a narrow valley snaking towards Bolivia, carved out through the millennia by the Rio Grande which is little more than an ambitious stream in this stark rocky place. The Quebrada is famous for its colourful striped mountains fringed by cardón cacti and a rich cultural history as part of the Incan Trail. Being right next-door to Bolivia, it is the only area with a sizeable indigenous population in a country ethnically defined by European immigration.
Now one of the poorest and remotest regions of Argentina, the northwest was originally the first part of the country to be permanently colonized in the 16th century, due to its proximity to the silver mine of Potosí in what is now southern Bolivia. The cities in the area were economically completely dependent on the mine, supplying it with mules, sugar, cotton and wheat. As the silver flowed south down the Rio de la Plata to be shipped to Europe the port of Buenos Aires gained in importance as well.
By the time the borders were drawn, cutting the Argentinian northwest off from its market in Potosí, the port of Buenos Aires had enough trade to soften the blow, but the northwest never recovered.
Nowadays the natural beauty of the region is its main draw, attracting Argentinian and foreign visitors alike – from those staying in luxurious accommodation in Salta and exploring the area on day trips with a driver, to the many cyclists making their way up the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Bolivia, some continuing as far north as Canada.
Our first stop was Purmamarca. The small village, a hundred or so terracotta houses centred around a small square where women sell Andean souvenirs, has wholeheartedly answered the siren call of tourism. Every day the village is overwhelmed by busloads of day-trippers coming to gawk at Cierro de Siete Colores, a hulking mountain with candy stripes of various shades of pink, white, green and brown.
But go north-west, away from the lady charging tourists to take pictures with a dejected-looking llama, past the shops selling colourful ponchos and hats and mate cups, past the little hill that serves as 5-peso viewpoint. Follow the gravel road that bends around the craggy rock face and leave behind the last houses. The mountains are there, just ahead – do you see them?
They’re ancient and magnificent and certainly not trying to sell you anything. They’re not here for you – you’re here for them, and they know it.
The gravel road makes a loop outside of Purmamarca, an hour’s walk (or two, or three, there are many detours to explore, many cacti to photograph) through the barren wide landscape that’s in a different universe from the teeming streets of Buenos Aires, or even the chattering little marketplace in town.
(Later I read a geological report on the region in a pointless attempt at finding words with which to capture that which had mesmerised me so much in Quebrada de Humahuaca. The multicolored orthoquarzites and quarz-rich arenites are not done justice by their names, which say nothing of the primal beauty of such harsh landscapes. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but oh dear do some names take the fun out of it.)
By the afternoon of the following day the colourful desert got tired of being looked at and worked up a mighty wind that pummelled down the streets in violent gusts, lifting the fine dust off the ground, swirling it through the air, flinging it into my eyes.
It knocked on our tent and, without waiting for an answer, crawled under the tarp and through the mesh and arranged itself in miniature sand-dunes at our feet. There’s no use fighting the sand and the wind, and we slept zipped all the way up into our sleeping bags, the fine dust crunching between our teeth, the desert cackling outside.
(Before sleep we lay on the ground of the camping site, a courtyard with a cantankerous owner just north of the church and south of the graveyard, wearing all our clothes against the cold, and looked at the stars above. You forget how deep the sky is, living in a city. We drank some blueberry schnapps from home, sweet in our mouth and burning its way down to our stomachs, making us just a little bit warmer.)
The next day we got up at dawn to pack up our little house and catch a bus to Tilcara, a short ride up the road. The first sunrays were just cresting the hills as we left, and the valley slowly woke up as we drove through it – first the mountaintops, then the red and brown and yellow slopes and at last the sleepy cacti at the bottom.
Clambering up towards the gorge of Garganta de Diablo above Tilcara I am left breathless by the views and the altitude – hulking mountains on the far side of the valley, squat and ancient and wrinkly, on our right a wide dry riverbed plunging down to meet the Quebrada de Humahuaca. We are walking along a flat valley-bottom full of cacti flanked by hills on either side, above us the kind of deep blue sky that one could drown in if not careful, with only the bleary moon to hold on to.
Humahuaca is the valley’s commercial centre and its biggest city. Set against the backdrop of the colourful mountains and home to a sizeable indigenous population, its main tourist attraction is rather strangely a sculpture of San Francisco Solano. Every day at noon a large crowd of mostly Argentinian tourists eagerly risks sun-stroke to watch an pair of copper doors slowly creak open in the city hall bell-tower, revealing a life-sized wooden statue of the Spanish missionary. After glaring at the crowd for a while he slowly lifts the cross he is holding, giving a very unenthusiastic blessing, and retreats behind the door again.
His day’s work is done, and the guides are already herding their tourist groups into the nearest asado restaurant, where they will enjoy a traditional performance with their meal.
Every town in the area is centred around a squat Spanish Catholic church, but the Panchamama has her say here as well, even if she is not heeded as often as in Bolivia or Peru. Roughly translated as the Mother Earth, she is the highest divinity in Andean culture, relied on for protection and fertility of the land and people. In Salta she could occasionally be glimpsed in local art and crafts, but was mostly confined to souvenir shops. Further north, her presence is stronger – in the course of the Spanish conquest the missionaries merged the Panchamama with the Virgin Mary in an effort to make the faith more palatable to the indigenous people, leading to very syncretic religious practices that would leave most god-fearing Europeans pretty confused.
When the missionaries weren’t too busy meddling with other peoples’ belief systems they turned to wine-making. Our next stop was Cafayate, a couple of centimetres away on the map and a day’s drive south, where the Jesuit missionaries established Argentina’s first vineyard with cuttings from Chile.
Nowadays Cafayate is often overshadowed by Mendoza to the south, but the small town is still famous for its sweet white torrontes and a popular destination for wine lovers. While Argentina loves its bodegas almost as much as its asados, Cafayate’s true commitment to all things wine-related can be best summed up in three words: wine ice cream. Miranda, the lady who originally came up with this genius idea, still sells her concoctions on the main street where you can choose between cabernet or torrontes sorbet. Either will get you nicely tipsy on a hot day and an empty stomach.
(The drive from Salta to Cafayate is famous for its beauty, beating even the Quebrada de Humahuaca in superlatives – a winding road among red craggy mountains set alight by the evening sun, a ribbon of green following the riverbed. Any yet I almost wish I hadn’t seen it: rarely has the view from the bus been so beautiful and so frustrating at the same time, the beauty of the land hidden behind dirty hermetically-sealed windows.)
We arrived in the evening, and across the street from our camping site vineyards stretched all the way to the mountainous horizon.
We had no money left, and only a few days before I had to return to Buenos Aires and start cramming for midterms, so our days were spent doing a very pleasurable kind of nothing – strolling around town, sampling the cheaper wines and assembling extravagant picnics in our camp.
In the evenings one of the posher restaurants on the main square provided live music for its guests. We sat in the park across the street, listening to the melancholy melodies and sipping wine from empty cups of dulce de leche.
Between the treetops I could still make out the stars in the night sky, just about.
The sky tends to shrink in the cities.
P.S.: If you love rocky places and wide blue skies as much as I do, you might enjoy my photo-heavy missive from boulder-strewn Hampi, in India.