Leaving Argentina on a High
Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
187Trip End Ongoing
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Leaving Salta and Jujuy behind, we set out on the gradual climb to Purmamarca. Eager to see whether the hill overlooking this picturesque village was in fact comprised of seven colours (its claim to fame in all the guide books), we actually counted no less than twenty-five different hues during the course of the day we spent exploring the area. The natural tones of the surrounding hillsides were augmented in the village square, where dozens of local artisans displayed their colourful woollen scarves, gloves, ponchos and hats
Continuing north, we made an obligatory stop at the strikingly decorated Maimará Cemetery, beyond which the swirling hills definitely took on the appearance of an artist's palette. Even from our dry riverbed campsite at nearby Tilcara, we were able to watch the sun set over the spectacular mountains. In Tilcara, musicians performed for the locals and tourists alike who had gathered in the village plaza, while a group of Quechua artisans entertained all with their knitting, weaving and dancing. Unfortunately, the campsite manager had forgotten to let us know that Tilcara's disco was just a few hundred feet away, and yes.....it was another Saturday night!!
Humahuaca, another of the quebrada's quaint Quechua settlements was scheduled for our next overnight stop, but we found the campsite closed. Thus, after exploring the village for a couple of hours and visiting the impressive monument to the Heroes of Independence, we decided to press on to our last anticipated stay in Argentina - Iruya
About fifteen km into the trip we met several Argentineans - all wondering whether to cross the flowing river ahead, in order to continue on to Iruya. The car turned back, but Adrian on his motorcycle decided to take his chances and accompanied us over the mountain pass. We climbed steadily on a rough but passable road to an altitude of over 13,000 ft where everything looked rather bleak and the wind howled incessantly. As we started the final 21 km descent into Iruya, the road improved significantly - good thing too, as we had to keep our wits about us as we snaked down and around a series of sensational canyons with precipitous drops on either side.
We arrived in Iruya just as the setting sun cast its rays on the village church, beyond which the sunshine splashed on layer upon layer of coloured rock formations. It could easily have been the highlands of Ethiopia centuries ago - a truly ageless image. Originally an Inca village built on the mountain's edge, Iruya has maintained its remote aura, complete with narrow cobblestone streets on what appeared to be at least 45 degree angles. Knowing that we'd never find a level spot to park the van, we opted to join Adrian in a small hostel on the central plaza. As we enjoyed a savoury evening meal of roast veal, boiled potatoes and salad, we swapped travel stories and were enthralled by Adrian's descriptions of a previous motorcycle trip from Argentina to Alaska
Although long past our self-imposed deadline of reaching Bolivia, we were easily coerced into staying a second night - the landlady's description of a hike to neighbouring San Isidro sounded too intriguing to pass up. Only an estimated five to six hour hike, it sounded well within our capabilities, so off we set the next morning. The first half hour down to the river was a breeze, but then we started the climb of more than three thousand feet, up to an altitude of ten thousand feet. Only two things kept us going through the intense mid-day heat: the continuing dramatic views, and the thought of our good friends George and Suzanne who recently spent fifteen days hiking on the toughest trail in Europe - the GR20 in Corsica - with heavy packs on their backs. Well done guys!!
San Isidro - not to be confused with the upscale suburbs by the same name in both Buenos Aires and Lima - was even more unapproachable than Iruya. Set high above a canyon precipice, San Isidro is inaccessible except by foot or on horseback, although a truck does carry weekly supplies to within a half hour or so of the village
Returning to Iruya exhausted but exhilarated by late afternoon, we sat high above the clouds watching the sun set and reflected on how fortunate we are to have experienced almost five months in such a diverse and marvellous country. We are certainly leaving on a high, and tomorrow we head for Bolivia!