Last Week

 

When I said I’d take WiFi over hot water, I wasn’t kidding.

There is a lack of reliable internet access in Northwest Argentina. I’m going through my notes and pictures, doing my best to recount the stories of the past five days. Each day would have made a good short story on its own. Instead, I’ll tell all of it at once.

Starting on a sad note, I am down to my last day in Argentina. Tomorrow I depart for San Pedro de Atacama and the northern desert of Chile. I’m not sad to be going there; I am a little tired of dusty, hot days followed by frigid nights. Last night, the temperature dipped below freezing. I still went out for dinner. I’ve now eaten at two restaurants called La Tuna–one is in San Antonio, the other in Humahuaca. I’ll get to Humahuaca in a bit.

There is a street in Salta lined with tour operators. Each had a friendly staffer at the door, smiling, offering to take my money and drive me around in a four-wheel drive truck. Tempting, sure, but so is the thought of self-sufficiency and doing things my own way. So I left Salta on Wednesday by bus.

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The bus from Salta goes north into the Quebrada de Humahuaca. It’s a valley east of the Andes that starts off green near Salta, and grows progressively browner the further north it goes. The first part of the trip is a gradual ascent. So gradual, in fact, that I wondered why the road was so winding. We kept going up, and up, and eventually it dawned on me that a bus or truck travelling straight down this grade would be forced to lean heavily on its brakes.

Tilcara was the destination. It’s not big enough to be a city, but still larger than the places I was about to visit, so town seems an appropriate label. The bus stop is little more than a shack next to the highway. A dirt road leads into the heart of town. I decided this would make a fine place to spend the night.

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Two Americans–Sasha and Sophie–recommended a trek to Garganta del Diablo–a waterfall in the mountains. They had gone the day before. In fact, that was all they had done. Since there seemed to be little else to going on in Tilcara, I set off on the dusty trail. It took about two hours to reach the Devil’s Throat–little more than a dam, though the water dropped into a deep, narrow canyon. Still, I think Iguazu holds a better claim to the name. The waterfall itself was a further twenty minutes up the trail.

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I was not alone on the trail. A couple struggled their way up the rocky hill. I had a brief chat with a guy from Buenos Aires. At the waterfall was a big group, laughing, taking pictures of each other. I smelled perfume as a solo female hiker passed me. The wind sounded like a car engine behind me as I descended. Oh, wait, that is a car.

Speaking of cars, I met a German named Max who was joining a French couple for a drive to the village of Iruya. Just goes to show that travel brings the world together. Or something. Anyway, Iruya was already on my itinerary, but I wanted to visit for more than one day, so I bid Max farewell and good luck. And if our travels go well, we may meet again in Cusco.

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Thursday took me to Purmamarca, home of the Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors). I arrived via bus from Tilcara in the morning. Looming over the main plaza are shades of red, purple, green, blue–I didn’t bother to count if there were seven colors or not. I set off on the road from town that leads around the hill.

Which is where I met Judith, an artist from Buenos Aires. Also, an art teacher. And mother of two. I gathered all this from our lovely conversation in Spanish. One of us may have dabbled in Spanglish occasionally to get his or her point across. I consider this a major milestone in my language learning nonetheless–we were able to converse for hours. Having made this trip before, Judith showed me the best vantage points for scenic pictures.

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Everything in Purmamarca is colorful. The streets are lined with villagers selling brightly colored shawls, shoes, bags, and other crafts. Some of the buildings are painted red or green. Even the cemetery is more vivid than the usual gray.

Returning to Tilcara, Judith offered to show me the best place in town for empanadas. I accepted, having grown fond of the baked pastries stuffed with meat, cheese, and, rarely, vegetables. We went to the mercado, where a vendor fried–not baked–empanadas. And they were delicious. In a stunning upset, the quinoa empanada turned out to be my favorite. Being a former foothold of the Incas, quinoa is popular in the region.

Bidding adieu to Judith, I took another bus to Humahuaca. The largest town shares its name with the valley. Similar in appearance to Tilcara, Humahuaca does not offer as much in terms of excursions, but does have plenty of places to sleep. I chose a hostel across the river, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Not that there is either hustle or bustle in any of these places. It was the last place I expected to be recognized. But suddenly,

“Hey, Doug!”

Sasha and Sophie emerged from the house I had just passed. They had come to Humahuaca and arranged to stay with a local. Considering this was a good ten minute walk from the center, I think we were all surprised to see each other there.

My reason for moving to Humahuaca was convenience. Friday, a bus departed at 10:30 AM for Iruya. This was the part of the journey all the guidebooks recommended as a must. I was first drawn to this region by descriptions and images of the landscapes. The bus headed north on Ruta 9, before veering off onto a ripio road. Similar to the one I drove between Uspallata and Barreal. Only this one winds its way up to 4,000 meters.

I found it rather dull. It looked like a desert. Sure, there were some tall mountains around, of the brownish-green cactus-dotted kind. Not as impressive as the drive from Uspallata. Cattle grazed on the shrubbery. The most exciting moment was a bull standing in the road. I yawned as we crested the pass.

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Well then. That escalated quickly.

The road follows what’s left of the river. The bus wound its way around hairpin turns down into the gorge. I found myself wondering the last time the brakes on this bus had been checked.

Iurya is a village built into the side of the gorge of the same name. The population has grown to a staggering 1,070, and spread across the river. There is a pedestrian bridge linking the two sides for those who don’t want to get their feet wet.

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I only got to enjoy the views for a moment. Almost immediately, clouds began to envelop the village. By nightfall, the mist was so thick it looked like snow. Feeling the temperature drop, I wouldn’t have been shocked to see a White Walker.

Arriving on the same bus as me was Cristina. A tango dancing, kung fu fighting architect from Greece, with some Argentine heritage. Neither of us spoke particularly good Spanish, which made us natural travel companions for the next two days.

I was excited for the hike to San Isidro. Cristina was looking forward to going there by car. The only tour guide in town explained there weren’t enough to people to organize a 4×4 tour, and there weren’t any guided treks, either. Which I think was for the best–I didn’t particularly look forward to hiking alone for six hours, and, with nothing better to do, Cristina was inclined to join me.

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The clouds had not lifted when we set out Saturday morning. This dampened the mood somewhat. Without the sun shining, the colors were not as bright, and the chilly air felt even colder. The peaks above were obscured by the mist. There’s a Led Zeppelin song that comes to mind.

Not helping matters was that the trail crisscrossed the river several times. It wasn’t quite shallow enough to walk across without soaking my pants and socks. Cristina elected to remove her socks and shoes and cross barefoot; I, with my waterproof Gore-Tex hiking shoes, carefully looked for rocks that afforded solid footing to cross. Maybe I’m not as tough as I thought.

The sun chose the moment of our arrival to burn through.

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If Iruya is a remote hamlet, then I’ve run out of words that could describe San Isidro. Perched on a ledge, it overlooks the valley on one side, and buts up against high peaks on the other. We lunched on empanadas and tamales–ball-shaped relatives of the Mexican food of the same name. The chef was the cousin of the woman I stayed with in Iruya. Not surprising to find strong ties between the villages.

On the return trip, I let my imagination run wild. Much like how a child looks at a playground. An adult only sees swings, slides, and bars. But children take those static objects and transform them into ships, or trains, or houses. I’m an adult; I can’t even fathom what kids might come up with. But in that valley, I tried.

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Looking up at the gorge, I was struck by the deep grooves, clearly carved long ago by water and time. I imagined what the view must have been like; waterfalls that would have put Iguazu Falls to shame. Of course, no one standing where I was standing would have survived to tell anyone else about it.

Such was the surreal view, it reminded me of a painting. The thought struck me as backwards. Nature was here first; the original artist, sculpting and coloring these incredible images. Shouldn’t I say that the art resembles reality?

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My imagination continued to turn the valley into a scene from a movie. I pictured wild bandits on motorcycles flying down the hills like some post-apocalyptic Mad Max style world. Cristina thought of cavalry, rushing headlong up the valley to take on the Apaches. In some places, the walls of the gorge resembled castles, with vast, hanging gardens.

At the top of the village in Iruya sits the one modern hotel. The interior reminded me of a ski chalet. It also hosts the best restaurant in the village. Thus I experienced llama, grilled on the parrilla, with a side of mashed potatoes and pumpkin.

On Sunday I returned to Humahuaca with the intention of continuing to Salta. Having checked the bus schedules before going to Iruya, I was surprised to find no buses to Salta until late at night. Not wanting to arrive in a big city at 3:00 AM with no place to stay, I said goodbye to Cristina, who was continuing on to Tilcara, and opted for another night in Humahuaca.

There is nothing left for me to do here but arrange my travels to Atacama. And so I sit next to a dwindling fire and reflect on the amazing places I’ve been these past two months. When I started out in Santiago, I didn’t know what I was doing. The three weeks in Chile were sort of a hazard course; I don’t think Argentina would have gone so smoothly if I had not fumbled my way around Chile first. Thus, I appreciate every step of the journey, especially the challenging ones.

So begins the final leg. 27 days until I return home.

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