Leaving Argentina on a High

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Forget the Grand Canyon!! If you're planning a spectacular holiday amidst stunning land and rock formations, you might seriously consider the Quebrada de Humahuaca. We are particularly attracted to canyons, with the Copper Canyon in Mexico previously being one of our favourites, but the Quebrada de Humahuaca absolutely swept us off our feet!

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. Chatting to some of the vendors we discovered that most of their wares were in fact made in Peru! Noticing a dirt track leading up into the hills beyond the village, we thought we'd take the extra few minutes to drive this Paseo de Colorado. We emerged two hours later, completely mesmerised by the brilliant red, exquisitely moulded rock.

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. Being a somewhat remote mountainous village situated about 50 km off of the main road, we asked several people whether it was in fact a good idea to drive there. The suggestions received ranged from "absolutely self-destructive" to "it's a piece of cake - as long as it doesn't rain!". Always eager for some adventure, we opted to go for it, and what an idyllic adventure we had in store for us.

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. Some travellers have a habit of easily becoming friends, and before the evening was over, we had a warm invitation to visit Adrian in his hometown of Rafaela, Argentina, whenever we might next pass through.

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. The villagers know that they might be cut off from the rest of the world for lengthy periods when heavy rains make the trail impassable. However, lest you think the people of San Isidro are feeling sorry for themselves, you should know that they take great pride in their agricultural crops high on the mountainsides; in maintaining a tidy and clean village; in their local soccer and athletic team; and in providing some small services to the travellers who make it to this far off corner of the world. We noted with interest, the 21 inch colour TV powered by solar panels set in the small hospedaje where we sat to have a drink and chat with the owner. Wonder whose back that was carried up on - perhaps the same one as carried the generator?!

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!
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gonefishing on

Thinking of you
Finally caught up to you two on the night of the first big snowstorm of the year here. 20CM today and more overnight. We are celebrateing our Christmas Whatsit in our home, people are arriving downstair, so will leave off with, Wishing you both a warm and happy Christmas , with new friends or old.

Merry Christmas from Ray & Tina & the Munster crowd.

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