Quebrada de Humanhuaca

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
Trip End Nov 10, 2007

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Salta is a great base for visiting the northern desert scenery. Our friend, Gaelle recommended that we should visit Tilcara which she described as the most beautiful place in Argentina  (www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/gaellelc/sudam erica-2006/1144618080/tpod.html). This route takes us north up the road towards Bolivia into the Quebrade de Humahuaca, a vast valley surrounded by colourful rocks. Another friend, Petra  wrote just before we left the UK to tell us about the Tren a las Nubes route. This is described in Footprints Argentina as the most beautiful landscape in the country. Other routes to the south of Salta to Cachi and Cafayate also sound spectacular. After checking out some tours, we find it is the same price to hire a car for 72 hours spread over 4 days (588 Pesos). We decide to make a trip north and then around to the Tren a las Nubes route, passing through the Salinas Grandes (Great salt flats).

On our second day in Salta the temperature drops some 20C to a chilly 15C. As we drive through temperate forests and into the valley, it begins to get even colder and we are totally shrouded in gray clouds. There arenīt too many tourists around in spring and we begin to wonder whether it was such a good idea hiring a car after all.

Tilcara is a small town with around 3000 people which sits in an oasis in an otherwise dry and infertile region. The dusty mud streets and low adobe houses reminds me of San Pedro de Atacama, only in Tilcara it is still relatively undeveloped. 

We check into Hostal Malka where we meet friendly and laid back Juan. The hostel is set on a dusty hill which has good views over the town. Each cabaņa is uniquely decorated with traditional weaved mats, bamboo insulated ceilings and a wood burning stove. Itīs very cosy and a very good recommendation from Gaelle.

We only expect to stay one night in Tilcara, but we bump into an Aussie friend, Derek, and decide to spend the next day together and to trek to the a waterfall in the canyon (Gargantua del Diablo).  We enjoy chatting to Derek who we 1st met in Mercedes. Originally born in Liverpool, he made several overland treks in the 1950s to India and Australia. Now he lives near Bunbury, a small town in Western Australia where my brother in law is from. He shares with us some interesting stories about his life and his fight against cancer. It certainly makes you think more carefully about how precious life is.

During our trek, the clouds are first low but quickly rise and evapourate leaving the sun to highlight various teracotta, pink, and green striations in the rocks. Single, double and triple  cacti emerge growing vertically from the rocks making the landscape very picturesque. We catch up with a group of Argentinian psychology students doing the same trek as us. Most Argentinians appear very shy at first, but as soon as they start talking, become very warm and hospitable. Itīs hot at the falls, and itīs great fun watching the students cooling off under the falls, and the expressions on the girlīs faces as they are chucked into the icy cold water.

We spend some time chilling out. I visit the archealogical museum on the plaza which contains more of the preserved Inca mummies. The mummies are quite different from those displayed in Salta as these ones are preserved by dehydration rather than freezing. Itīs not as eerie as the Salta presentation as the bodies look skinny and unhuman. John feels obliged to watch the Rugby World Cup: Argentina Vs Scotland. He remarks that Scotland had many opportunities to win. As the only Scots in town, maybe itīs a good job they didnīt make it through to the semi final though.

Food in Tilcara is excellent. We visit the recommended El Patio 2 nights in a row. The waitress kindly shows us the raw ingredients: an array of red, green and yellow potatoes from the Andes, quinoa which is creatvily used to make a milanesa, steamed puddings of rice and lots of different variations of llama meat. The almendrado, ice cream wrapped in crushed almonds is also mouthwatering.

On our 3rd day we pass through the small town of Purmamarca (200 people) which is dominated by a rockface with 7 colours. We overtake several lorries heading for Chile as the road zig zags upwards from 3000m to 4200m. As we ascend, the landscape begins to change with the cactii becoming less frequent and the ground becoming bare and lifeless. On the plateau the air becomes thin. The altitude makes us feel tired and my mind starts to play tricks. In this desolate land, do I really see adobe mud huts, donkeys, cemetaries, a church, llamas and in the distance the shimmering white salt flat? It seems hard to believe that life can exist.

We turn off onto the mighty Route 40, which runs along most of the length of Argentina. We see some salt crystals in the soil and a number of men harvesting it. The Salar shimmers magically like a mirage in the distance. The scenery reminds me a lot of the landscapes around the Salar de Uyuni, Parque Nacionale Lauca, and San Pedro de Atacama, perhaps because they are only around 400km away but in other countries.

The deserted route 40 eventually reaches the town of San Antonio de los Cobres, a dusty and poor town situated along the Tren a las Nubes route. We havenīt seen anyone all day so we stop briefly to chat to some tourists who are waiting for their broken down minibus to be fixed. The people are incredibly friendly and we pick up a young guy hitching to Salta.

The road from San Antonio to Salta runs in parallel to the Tren de las Nubes route.  Jimmy chats to us about his life.  He works during the week in Salta as a builder of houses and earns a mere 600 Pesos per month (100 GBP and the same price as what we hired the car for!).  He seems highly bemused to think that tourists want to visit his remote hometown, a place that he is desperate to leave.

We pass back through the changing landscapes. The road descends through more zig zags on a combination of īripioī and asphalt surfaces. Around one corner the cactii appear, then the trees, and next grass. We travel back through the clouds and through a number of villages which appear to be no more than 2 houses. Traffic and shops start appearing and we realise that we have returned back to the city.

In the evening we stay on the outskirts of Salta in San Lorenzo at the Footprints "most highly recommended" Selva Montagne Hotel. Our room is very disappointing as it is plain and not too clean, however we  are too tired to find anywhere else.

Dinner becomes one of the highlights of the trip as we stumble across El Castillo, a castle originally built in the 1900s by an Italian and has been lovingly restored by American Johnny Johnston. The castle is surrounded by a wrought iron fence which was made from Remington Rifle Barrels. Large windows with hanging chandeliers welcome us into the restaurant and we chose one of the sparse dark wooden tables with high backed chairs. Upstairs the hotel is amazing with spacious rooms decorated with antique furnishings, and having balcony views of the nearby park. One night costs just 20 Ps more than Selva Montagne and we really wish that we could stay an evening. See for yourself on www.hotelelcastillo.com.ar
We eat a fantastic meal of another giant steak for John (less than 6 GBP) and some home made Sorrentini - fresh pasta pillows filled with Ricotta cheese. John remarks that this is the Argentina that he had always imagined.

Next morning we take a horse trek around the leafy suburbs of San Lorenzo. The park is a temperate forest at the base of the hill, we see an interesting array of Argentinian mansions complete with swimming pools, gardeners and grizzly guard-dogs.

Back in Salta itīs back on the bus for another overnight bus journey to Mendoza. This time we travel with Andes Mar. The 20 hours with reclining cama seats passes quickly watching the Godfather on Sony flat screen TVs, Spanish bingo and a hot meal with wine.
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gaellelc on

John, Rachel, I love to read you!
I'm reliving my own trip last year, and realize there are still so many things to visit in Argentina. I'm glad you enjoyed the same places...
A colleague of mine leaves Friday for a 3-weeks backpacking trip to Peru, and I felt like going too.

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