Saturday, December 27, 2014

The even wilder north of Argentina

On the bus, on the way to Jujuy.
We had to do one more 'city' to do in the north of Argentina, surely? Hmmmm, OK San Salvador de Jujuy, otherwise known as Jujuy.  Besides, I had not been here in 1999, and I was trying to throw in a little bit of new as well as revisiting with Alex many of the splendid places I had already visited. Juyuy is also renowned as the national capital of Pacha Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth. Apparently this is the place where you start to feel the real proximity to Bolivia. Apart from food that seems more Andean (like locro, humitas and sopa de mani) than Argentina's pizza, pasta and meat show, I cannot say that I really felt this.  I did like Jujuy though. It felt more like a big town than a city to me. I loved its markets and its buzzy atmosphere.  It was a nice place to relax for a couple of days, as we knew that we were well and truly on the way out of the country, but we still had a few places to go.

When in doubt, take all roads!
North of Jujuy the road snakes its way through the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a painter's palette of colour on  barren hillsides and small hamlets that communities ofQuechua speakers call home. This route is also part of the infamous Inca Trail, the route that the Incas both carved out and took from the north to the south of the continent (effectively from Colombia to Santiago de Chile) all those years ago.  There were three places that we were deciding on doing in the Quebrada; we could not decide, so needless to say, we did all three! Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca, in that order.

Having fun in Purmamarca.
Purmamarca is renowned for its Cerro de Siete Colores or the Hill of Seven Colours, which literally sits behind the tiny town.  As the bus rolled into town, I was blown away by the number of buses and cars I saw parked, quite literally, everywhere!  My, my how this tiny town had changed since 1999. The Quebrada de Humahuaca, incorporating Purmamarca, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. Such an act has clearly increased the interest of both national and international tourism to the area. There were people ... everywhere! The central town square was crawling with vendors and tourists.  Eek!  It just seemed like the Disneyland of the Quebrada to me. Having said that, nobody can take away from the beauty of its surrounds, and I tried to focus on that. Accommodation, and particularly budget accommodation, still has a long way to go.  We checked into a place called Mama Coca, but had to leave at 10pm as the chain smoking owners had us gasping for air. They were also both particularly rude when we politely approached them about feeling like we were being gassed!

With Naty and Marcelo of Alta Montana.
Tilcara followed Purmamarca. This area features even more dramatic mountainous landscapes that are very rich in aboriginal/ indigenous traditions. I love people and culture and it was just getting better the further north we went. We hung out here for a few days in the amazing Alta Montana Hostal. The owners, Marcelo and Naty made us feel at home, and in no time at all we were sitting on the porch together sipping mate. We 'shared' the hostel with a big group of kids in their final year of high school from Cordoba. The school was Colegio Maestro Diehl; a music/arts school.  They were on an end of year gig, which included playing instruments and singing with some of the local schools and communities.  They were awesome, awesome kids! Open-minded, friendly, polite, courteous and fun, Alex and I built an amazing rapport with them over the several days we were there.

Chewing coca leaves with Horacio Galan.
One of the highlights of our trip to Tilcara was our walk with amazing local guide, Horacio Galan (if you go to Tilcara, look him up via Alta Montana Hostal). He took us on a walk through the countryside, including some steep uphill climbs, amazing caves (Cuevas de Waira) and breathtaking views. As we had been slowly moving up north the elevation was also creeping up slowly; in Tilcara it was 2465 metres above sea level. Horacio bought us some coca leaves (widely used in northern Argentina and Bolivia) and explained how they helped combat altitude and altitude sickness.  After this walk I was sold and they would prove to be invaluable in the high altitudes of southern Bolivia later on!

Another Tilcara highlight was the walk culminating in the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's Throat. A geographical feature formed by the movement of teutonic plates, it is now a deep chasm or gorge, and a walk further along the track leads you to a gorgeous waterfall. There is much evidence of aquatic life here, as in fossils of trilobites. Like a lot of the surrounding area, this was once under water. No trip to Tilcara, however, would really be complete without visiting El Pucara, a pre-Inca fortification strategically located on a hill, just out of town. Of course, we decided to do this on the same day as the walk to the Devil's Throat!  When we got back to the hostal we were dead!

Trekking with Horacio.

Happy Birthday to Ombi!
We have been lucky in Argentina to find hostels and accommodation with kitchens, so we have been
able to do a lot of cooking.  The fruit and veggies from the markets have been excellent.  It has also been relatively easy to find grains and pulses such as lentils, chick peas and quinoa (although the latter is ridiculously expensive; more so than in Australia). Alta Montana had a particularly good kitchen. I also spent my birthday here; pretty laid back.  Naty made me a rice flour cake and surprised me by singing me Happy Birthday later that night. I was going to miss her and Marcelo; they had been truly awesome!

It was finally time to go, and Humahuaca would be our final destination in Argentina. The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl would also be going to Humahuaca ... hugs all around as they asked us to look them up when we got there. I liked Humahuaca as soon as we arrived.  It had the small-town feel and beautiful scenery of Purmamarca without the throngs of tourists. We found a gorgeous little place to stay called Waira; small, comfortable, homely and with excellent staff. With the northern Argentine landscape providing one spectacular backdrop better then the next, Humahuaca was no different. The Hill of Seven Colours move over ... here we have the Mountains of 14 colours!  Despite the fact that the last weeks had provided us with more layers of colour than we had ever seen before, how could we not do the hills with 14!?

The mountains of 14 colours, Humahuaca.
Of course we did it!  We went with a local elder in his truck who was super-knowledgeable and gave us a lot of history about the area.  The windy road up was almost as spectacular as the final destination (thank heavens for those coca leaves, it was pretty high!) The mountains of the14 colours are known as Hornocal. It was a beautiful spot to breathe in (quite literally!), sit down and just take it all in!  So often, here in the north, I have found myself taking in the spectacular beauty and being thankful that I am able to do this.  I am well aware that so many are not!

The town itself is small, but still a wander around is very revealing.  Very close to the Bolivian
The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, Humahuaca.
border, Humahuaca certainly has a different feel and vibe, from the people's faces to the food!  We caught up again with the kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, and hung out with them at their hostel. Seriously, lovely, lovely kids!  They would be leaving a day before us! Their ways, personalities and drive had so impressed Alex and I that we decided to give them a farewell speech at their dinner (before catching the bus back to Cordoba that night).  I spoke in English (many of them had excellent English) and Alex in Spanish.  Many of them cried, and each and every one of them hugged us both. They told us how great it had been meeting us and that we were an inspiration to them! One girl grabbed me before I left and told me that although she knew that she could 'do it', how important it was to hear it from us, that 'each and every one of them was able to achieve if they believed in and followed their dream.' Wow! As we walked away and waved goodbye, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. To make a difference in someone's life is one of the greatest gifts!  Since saying goodbye, many of these kids have contacted us personally to tell us how wonderful it was to meet us, and how inspirational we were to them.  Honoured, that is the only word to describe how I feel!

The end of the Argentine line! La Quiaca.
So, the time had come, Bolivia was around the corner!  Well, perhaps over the hill! La Quiaca is truly the end of the line; 5171kilometres north of Ushuaia, Argentina's most southern point, and a world apart. Our only mission here was to spend the last of our pesos and cross over into Bolivia.  We found this pretty flawless, actually. A bag full of goodies later, we were exiting Argentina and ... Bolivia here we come!


"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind". – Bernard M. Baruch

Next: The tranquility of Tupiza and the breathtaking Salt Flats of Uyuni.

On the way to San Juan de Jujuy.

San Juan city centre.

A bit of Dulce de Leche?

Hugging a llama!

A tiny town amidst spectacular hills; Purmamarca.
Alta Montanita Hostal, Humahuaca.
Soccer, Humahuaca.
The students of Maestro Diehl College, Cordoba.
Stream; Tilcara.
El Pucara, pre-Incan fortification, Tilcara.
Cactus, Tilcara.
Waira Cave, Tilcara.

Some meat in San Juan.

Waira Cave, inside.

Cacti, Tilcara.
Humahuaca street art.
The mountains of 14 colours.
Transport in La Quiaca.
The last pesos go on an ice-cream ... of course!
The adventure continues.
Goodbye Argentina!

Trekking, Tilcara.
Ombi's homemade lentil stew.
Chillin' at Alta Montana, Tilcara.
Humahuaca town centre.

May there be peace and love.

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.

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!


"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.
Mural, Cafayate.
Spot the llama! Cafayate.
Mural, 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.
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.
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.