Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The wild, wild ... north ... of Argentina

Amaicha del Valle.
Although Amaicha del Valle  (in the Calchaquies Valley)is only a short bus ride from Tafi del Valle, it may as well be another world away. It's the first place (heading north) that starts to feel a little bit less Argentine, a little bit more rural, a little bit more indigenous and a little bit more like Bolivia! I love that! In my opinion, it is the most visually spectacular part of the country. In Amaicha resides the only indigenous community in northern Argentina that has still conserved its Diaguita culture; ancestral traditions and Mother Earth (Pacha Mama) rules here. It has a lovely, relaxed and safe vibe. You feel it as soon as you enter the small village.  Not many tourists either, which is part of the reason we chose it. We stayed in a place called Pacha Cuty; basic, clean and no locks on the door. Yes, no locks on any of the doors!  That's unheard of.  That's just the way it is there.  I was a bit wary because, as a traveller, you just don't do that. But we followed suit, and had no problems whatsoever.

Pachamama Museum.
We had a couple of very laid back days here.  I felt like I had been dropped off in the middle of wild, wild west ... well, north! Part of our deal at the hostel included dinner, and the hosts went out of their way to make me vegetarian and us wheat-free food.  All exceptionally tasty You are a great chef Juan. Apart from chilling we did manage to see the Pachamama (Mother Earth) Museum. This museum was designed by the painter and sculptor, Hector Cruz, who apart from displaying his wares wanted to describe and present the culture of the people that once lived here.


The Quilmes Ruins.

Hitching a ride with the locals.
We also visited the Quilmes Ruins, the ruins of a pre-Hispanic settlement, not too far out of Amaicha. With no real organised transport out there we got a taxi. Although the ruins have been considerably reconstructed, the views and walks around the area are phenomenal and the place rich in history. The natives who lived here were conquered as slaves, and were taken to the Quilmes district in a Buenos Aires suburb 1500 kilometres away. Very dry and dusty, we walked the five kilometres back to the main road, and with no buses or taxis in sight, managed to hitch the short ride home with some locals. In their beaten up truck we stopped at a few places along the way including the guy's father's house and the lady's grandma.  You can't pay for these experiences.

Waterfalls near Cafayate.
Next up was the spectacular Cafayate. The Quebrada de Cafayate, it is not only surrounded by some of Argentina's best vineyards, but also with some of its most spectacular scenery. The place has lots of wineries and other  amazing things to see.  A lot of it can be done on foot and although there are certainly lots of tourists it manages to keep a small-town feel and charm. We hit the jackpot withHostal Benjamin, a little place close to the city centre and with our own kitchen.  I always love a good kitchen! We bumped into Milton, an Argentine backpacker, that we had briefly met on our way back from the Quilmes Ruins, and hung out together for the next few days. The three of us did a guided walk through an area with a number of waterfalls.  Some bits were hard, and a little scary for me, but between the guide, Alex and Milton, I did it!

Riding through the Gorge of the Shells.
The highlight however, without a doubt, was the bicycle ride through the part of the Quebrada de Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells, so known as millions of years ago it was all underwater, and today fossils of shells are scattered throughout).  The three of us hired bicycles and caught a bus 50 kilometres away from Cafayate, to then cycle back towards it, through the Martian-like landscape.  This area is the backdrop to distinctive sandstone landforms such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), El Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre), El Sapo (toad) and los Castillos (Castles). Zipping along from one place to the next was mind-blowingly exhilarating! The last five kilometres, however, was also mind-blowingly tough on our butts!  After a full day, and having had a brilliant time, we got back to Cafayate totally spent!  We stopped at the first place we could find water and skulled it like people dying of thirst in the desert. We certainly got some weird looks from the locals.
Cafayate known as

Beautiful Cafayate.
We were finding it hard to leave Cafayate as it was so laid-back, relaxed and beautiful. We also managed another guided walk through an area with a local lady from the Diaguita community. She showed us some rock paintings, told us about her people and also explained how the local plants were used medicinally by her community.  She also talked about the 'evils' of modern-day food such as wheat and sugar and went on to tell us that her great grandmother had lived until the age of 111! Food for thought, so to speak! Although not wine-buffs, we did also try the local torrontes wine and visit the excellent wine museum.

Arrow Gorge.
We had heard about a little place called Cachi further up north. Apparently not so easy to get to Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrow Gorge). Part one OK, part 2????  We landed in tiny Angastaco, there were no tourists ... and there was one truck willing to take us solo to Cachi ... at a hefty price of course, as we had nobody to share with. What to do? We ended up hitching a ride in the back of a Hi-Lux. Before we even had the chance to actually hitch a ride, we saw two couples walking towards their car. We went over, introduced ourselves, had a chat, and before we knew it we were sitting in the back of the truck with all of their suitcases, shoes, newly acquired cacti ... and the wind (and dust!) blowing through our hair as we took the spectacular but fairly isolated dirt road to Cachi! Yeee haa!
It's rather difficult without your own transport, but well worth it if you can.  Of course we figured we'd give it a crack! We were told that we would be able to get a bus to Angastaco, only a couple of hours away, and that from there we could find smaller trucks that, when full, would take you the rest of the way.  The ride to Angastaco was windy, but yet again, spectacular!

On the way to Cachi.
What can I say?  What an experience! We got to see a few off the beaten track places that we would not have otherwise seen, especially the Artesans' route, where we actually got to see women weaving everything from scarves to ponchos. As buses do not come this way, there are far fewer tourists than elsewhere. We even got to meet the wife (husband now deceased) who had woven and presented the Argentine Pope with a poncho.

The Artisans' Route.
We finally made it to Cachi by dusk; totally covered in dust but very happy campers!  We thanked our new friends profusely for allowing us to come for the ride.  But it wasn't over yet ... we had to find a place to sleep.  Alex waited with the backpacks, and the Queen of Clean (moi!) was off ... I had a clean room and comfortable bed to find!  As I walked around and checked a few places out I admired the quaint little town with its gorgeous colonial architecture.  This would be a great place to chill for a day or so.  We ended up at the clean and comfortable Hotel Nevado de Cachi.  Luxurious it was not, but clean, safe, well-priced and with comfortable beds it was.  A shower had never felt so good! The dirt and dust ... it was everywhere!  Even after we were all polished up, we were exhausted. With no communal kitchen in this place, we decided to try Viracocha Restaurant across the road.  We were pleased with the quality of the food, but as usual (with touristy places!) we felt the portion sizes could have been a little more generous. Clean and fed, there was only one thing left at the end of this long and arduous day ... bed!

Cachi by day.

Cachi.
There's not a lot to do in this spectacularly beautiful town, but that's part of the charm really. We did stop in at the local archaeological museum as well as went for a walk to the cemetery on top of the hill. Other than that we wandered, relaxed, drank coffee and observed. That's the life, hey!

We were beginning to feel that we were never going to leave Argentina.  In the north it's spectacular views one day, even more brilliant ones the next!

Ombi

"You're only given a little spark of madness.  You mustn't lose it". –Robin Williams

Next: Wrapping up in Argentina; San Salvador de Jujuy and the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

The Quilmes Ruins.

The Quilmes Ruins.

Pachamama Museum.

Pachamama Museum.
The eternal backpackers ... Amaicha del Valle.
In Amaicha del Valle.
We were not the only ones enjoying the Quilmes Ruins.

In life ... you have to smile!

In Pacha Cuty Hostal, Amaicha del Valle.

Next destination?
The vineyards of Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Mural, Cafayate.
Spot the llama! Cafayate.
Mural, Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Home cooking, Cafayate.
The walk to the waterfalls, Cafayate.
We made it!  The waterfalls of Cafayate.
With Milton; waterfalls, Cafayate.
Out and about in Cafayate.
Cafayate.
Rock painting; with Gabriela of the Diaguita community.
Billy Goat Gruff in Cafayate.
The Devil's Throat, Gorge of the Shells.
What a ride!
Alex does his thing.
Cemetery at Cachi.
Cachi.
One spectacular view after another; with Milton.
Life is for living.
This is the way!
We did it ... 50 kilometre ride!
Cafayate town.
Riding on the back of the Hi Lux to Cachi.
Zapatista Ombi.
The Artisans' Route.
Thanks for the ride guys!
Alex enjoying a drink at Viracocha Restaurant.

Leaving Amaicha del Valle.