Indian Territory

Trip Start Oct 09, 2013
Trip End Nov 01, 2013

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Flag of Argentina  , Northern Argentina,
Monday, October 21, 2013

I signed up for a tour for today up into the mountains and the "altiplano" (the high plain) north of Salta.  The ultimate destination is the little town of Humahuaca, a town populated mostly by a Quechua speaking Indian population, but there are a number of stops on the way there.

There were about 25 people in a big tourist bus so it was a big group, and I think I was the only one in the group who wasn't Argentine.  I was in for a big surprise at our first stop which sounded pretty routine.  We stopped at a little convenience store so people could get any water, soda, snacks or other small comfort items for the trip.

It turned out that one of the options for small comfort items included coca leaves.  Yes I do mean the leaves of the plant from which cocaine is extracted.  I knew the Inca chewed coca leaves but I had no idea it was still a common (and apparently legal) practice here.  The attached picture is of the signs in front of the store on the sidewalk advertising the coca leaves.  A lot of people bought a package of coca leaves... and made active use of them.

No I did not buy... or use... the coca leaves..  I did, however, have the passing fantasy of trying to bring back some coca leaves with me to the US and trying to convince US customs they were just "souvenirs".  I'll bet there are some who actually try it.

Then we were on the road and heading for the altiplano.  Before we'd gotten too far, traffic came to a total stop.  It turned out that a local group decided to stop all traffic on the freeway in both directions by creating a line of people standing in the traffic lanes, burning tires and holding up a sign.

I asked the tour guide about it and apparently this is an "accepted" method of protest... at least it's accepted among the protest groups.  She rattled off a list of issues the local people protest using this method, both political and economic issues. 

As our tour bus driver tried to maneuver the bus out of our lane of traffic, into opposing lanes and off an on-ramp I watched three policemen ambling toward the demonstrators.  Their physical demeanor said, "here we go again" though, of course, I have no idea what they were thinking or, since we got off the freeway to take an alternate route through town (and the town dump) just how they handled the situation.

Whatever the police did, it seemed to clear up traffic because when we got off our detour and back on the freeway traffic seemed to be moving normally coming from the direction where the protest had been.

First stop was Purmamarca.  Purmamarca sits just below the Cerro de los Siete Colores, the Hill of the Seven Colors.  A wonderfully colorful geological formation located in the Quebrada de Humahuaca.  This Quebrada is sufficiently picturesque that it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   There are small villages sprinkled all the way up this canyon and all of them seem to have as their primary economy, selling handicrafts to tourists.

The little church, Iglesia Santa Rosa de Lima, dates back to 1778 or 1779.

From Purmamarca we went to the town of Humahuaca, after which the Quebrada is named,  Lots of tourist buses were parked in the town and before we entered the town a local guide came on the bus and took over from the guide who'd been with us.  I later asked the local guide what percentage of the population of the town earns their living from the tourist trade.  He estimated 70%.  Based on what I saw, I'd guess that's pretty accurate.

It's an Indian village and the population among themselves speak Quechua, but of course everybody is fluent in Spanish to sell to the tourists.  Tourist buses have some kind of connection or contract with a restaurant in town that sets up rows of tables for all the tourists and lunch is served with assembly line efficiency while some local musicians serenade you then pass the hat.

Our next stop was the little village of Uquia where we visited the little 17th century church, Templo de la Santa Cruz y de San Francisco de Paula de Uquia.  The most unusual feature of this church was the paintings of angels; if not the only, probably almost the only paintings of angels holding firearms.  In this case arquebuses.  They didn't allow pictures inside the church so I can only tell you about them.  I guess an angel (complete with wings) holding an arquebus was the "modern" version of an angel wielding a sword.

Pucará was our next (and last) stop and is the site of a reconstructed pre-Columbian fortified Indian site.  The reconstructed stone ruins date from the 11th to the 15th centuries.  It appeared to have been an extensive and impressive site, commanding a dominant position overlooking the valley. 


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Doc Sellars on

I am reading this blog late Sunday night, so I don't have any thoughtful comment. Sleep is just around the corner. Still, I love the pictures and the peoples you mention. I am aware that the hills of Peru have many Quechuas, and my friend there (who got a PhD in anthropology from UCLA) works as a scientist and Christian missionary to the Quechua Indians in Peru.

Stefan on

Very interesting part of the tour, enjoyed reading and looking at the pictures!

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