North West Argentina

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of Argentina  , Northern Argentina,
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

After spending Christmas and new year back home, I was keen to get going again, and now had three months in South America ahead of me. I had read some great things about Buenos Aires, and this had been backed up by friends who had been, so BA was my first port of call, and where I ultimately planned to spend a few months studying Spanish.

My first impressions were not what I had expected. I spent the taxi ride to my hotel staring out of the window at derelict, graffiti covered buildings and sinister backstreets full of rubbish and homeless people. The dull orange streetlamps somehow added an extra air of menace, providing just enough light to illuminate things I'd rather not have seen. 

When I reached my hotel, I noticed that the windows in the street were all covered with iron bars and that each doorway had a heavy metal security gate locked tight outside. Despite being number 1 on TripAdvisor, I soon realised my hotel was located in one of the city’s poorer areas. Even during daylight hours, every shop in this district was permanently locked, and to enter, I had to ring a doorbell and be let in. It was as if the place was in lockdown mode for an impending zombie apocalypse.

On my first morning there, I took the antiquated subway into the city centre and hoped to gain a more favourable impression of BA.  I spent the whole day walking around the downtown area, surprised at just how run down the city was. Few buildings pre-date 1930, and very little has been done since the 70’s, so the majority of the buildings are decaying carbuncles, covered in graffiti, peeling paint and torn posters.  

I was beginning to have second thoughts about my plan to stay here to learn Spanish. Before then though, I had a three week trip around Patagonia lined up, and a week to kill before it started.  The thoughts of a whole week in Buenos Aires at this point did not appeal at all, so I went to a travel agent and booked a trip to Salta in the North West of the country for the next 5 days.

Salta seems like a different country to BA. It has a very Peruvian vibe about it, with a majority of indigenous Andean people and the odd pan pipe band here and there.  It is a very pretty city, with old churches and cathedrals, pavement cafes and tree lined streets.  I spent my first day there taking in the sights then booked a few day trips up to fill the rest of my time there.  

My first day trip was to the town of Cachi. I had to be up crazily early (6am!) to be collected, then much to my annoyance spent a whole hour on the bus as it drove round collecting people from other hotels. The other passengers were all Argentinian and spoke no English, so the days conversation was restricted to my my pigeon Spanish. This gave me a good excuse to sit with my ipod in staring out of the window at the spectacular high altitude scenery speeding by.

After a quick stop at the 'Parc Nacionale de los cardones'  - a surreal 'forest' of 7ft high cactus plants - we arrived at Cachi in time for lunch. I spent five minutes searching in vain for something edible on my plate of bone and gristle, then gave up and decided to explore the town.

Cachi reminded me of an old frontier town from a cowboy film - one storey, whitewashed stone buildings, dogs sleeping in the midday sun, colourfully painted doors and lanterns jutting from the walls. The main difference was the cars lining the streets here - which were exclusively from the 80s. I got quite nostalgic as I walked past the beat-up old Peugots, Renault 18's and Ford Cortinas - cars my parents had when I was a kid. 

There really wasnt much to see in Cachi - a museum full of pottery fragments, the obligatory church and a ramshackle graveyard perched on a hilltop overlooking the town.  It had been worth the trip for the scenery alone though, and the next day promised even better scenery as I had a trip to Salinas Grandes lined up - a salt flat 4000m up in the mountains.

The trip started with another infuriating hour long tour of Salta hotels, picking up the other tourists. This time, the other passengers were mostly Israelis, who didn’t speak to anyone else other than themselves for the entire day. At lunchtime I sat with them and a German woman who didn’t speak English, eating disgusting quinoa ravioli in a dilapidated restaurant, thinking ‘What in the name of Christ am I doing here?’.

Fortunately, the day improved dramatically after lunch.  After stopping at Pumamarca, a lively market town at the foot of some surreal, multicoloured stone hills, we  ascended up into the mountains, passing 4000m. Some of the other tourists became quite ill due to the altitude, and we were all given coca leaf to chew on to stave off altitude sickness. At the other side of the pass lay the ultimate destination, Salinas Grandes salt flats, a huge expanse of brilliant white salt covered with a shallow layer of water. 

The perfectly still water acted like a mirror, reflecting the clouds and snow covered mountains that surrounded the basin. We only had an hour here, so I rushed around like a madman under the glare of the baking sun, taking as many photos as I could of this spectacular place before being summoned back to the bus for the five hour drive back to Salta.

After spending 20 hours on buses over the last two days, and two 6am starts, I was ready for a lazy day, but had booked myself another trip, to the pre Inca town of Tilcara. I was cursing myself for arranging such a cramped schedule and my reserves of enthusiasm were by now fully depleted.

Another spectacular drive took us to Tilcara, where the only attraction was a reconstructed fort at the top of a hill. From the top there were amazing views down a valley of multicoloured rocks. We didnt stay long before heading to Huamamarca, a small town of churches and low rise buildings built on a grid formation. Looming over the town was a huge communist style statue, which looked as if it had been beamed here from Albania. Huamamarca seemed to exist solely for the benefit of tourists, with all the shops and market stalls selling handicrafts and trinkets. Despite relying on tourism, I found the people here to be remarkably unfriendly, staring intently as I walked past and not returning smiles or hellos.  I was glad to leave this strange place as we headed back to Salta, stopping at the ugly regional capital city, Jujuy on the way.

On my last day in Salta, I spent a few hours sitting in the sunshine in the main square with a large beer and listening to the pan-pipe bands and buskers. I really enjoyed the atmosphere in Salta, the town centre is bustling with activity, and the people seem really happy. I watched a newlywed couple doing what appeared to be a lap of honour in the main square, with the people clapping as they went by.

That afternoon, I took the cablecar to the top of the nearby mountain, which had amazing views of the city and all the way up the valley it occupies. After the sun set, I flew back to Buenos Aires, this time staying in a more centrally located hotel. I now had a few days there to try and explore the city and determine if I wanted to stay there after my Patagonia trip to learn Spanish. 
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