There is a term used often in South America, describing the route that most westerners take as ‘The Gringo Trail’. This is an apt name and not wholly used with derision, as the places visited are, in most cases, definitely worth setting foot in. However, due to following the advice of locals and hostel owners, over the past few weeks I have often felt that I am well and truly off the trail, for I have not seen another westerner and the only English spoken is none. This was not intentional on my behalf, yet my Spanish has improved markedly over the past few weeks and I have seen and experienced some truly majestic things.
Recently, I took a bus to the village of Cachi, located in the mountains of north-west Argentina. The words used to describe this place to me were ‘precioso’
, which are words that made me locate it on a map and make my way there. Having my bus ticket in my pocket, I knew the instant the bus pulled up that I was not taking a common journey, for the buses in Argentina are exceptional in comfort and quality. What rattled to a halt
before me dropped a few pieces of rust before it shook itself free of its functioning state. The people standing around me ranged between a smidge under five feet in height and a smidge over, tanned in complexion and totally unlike their compatriots in the other regions of Argentina.
My seat happened to be at the very front of the bus, which afforded me views of what was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most breathtakingly picturesque bus journey of all of my travels. The bus wound its way through verdant valleys, winding ever so slowly up the hills, through the rivers, past crumbling adobe dwellings, before eventually reaching a high plateau where all I could see were cactus plains and snow-capped peaks. This road is known as Cuesta del Obispo
and for the duration of the climb, the sections of land that weren’t carpeted with greenery, were exposing rock of the most vibrant and contrasting colours that it looked as if a mountain god had leant down from the clouds with a paint brush, dipped in four or five colours side by side and applied sweeping strokes of the brush to the landmass. It was as if
the mountains had been used as a canvas. I have never seen rocks and mountains coloured in the way that they are in the north-west of Argentina. It casts a spell over you. Considering I was hungover when I boarded the bus, the landscape turned out to be the best cure that I have ever experienced – even better than Vegemite on toast!
The other interesting aspect of this bus journey (apart from all the mountain folk staring at me) was that it also seems to be some form of delivery service. We would seemingly be in the middle of some uninhabited region of the mountains, when a person would be sighted on the dusty road, waving their arm. The door would open, a smile and words exchanged, as a parcel in either a bag or a cardboard box would be placed inside the door of the bus. Later, it could be ten minutes or two hours, another person would be standing in what looked like a place devoid of human life, whereupon the bus would grind to a halt, the door open and one of the parcels be handed over to this cheery person outside. It all worked
Cachi itself is a tiny village located at the convergence of two rivers. Either side of these rivers are mountain chains that I found arrested my vision at various times throughout my stay. The western mountains bear witness to a daily competition atop their summits between the wispy white clouds and the snow, with the two occasionally merging as one when the wind whips the snow loose. Sunrise is a time when I spied these mountains from the door of my room being illuminated in rosy shades before the sun fully cleared the opposing mountains, flicking on the switch to illuminate them like a glimmering fluorescent light of bright white.
There is nothing to do in Cachi, except for read a book, wander around the village taking in its single storey structures, church and returning to the plaza roughly 15 minutes after you set off. The village is so small that most of the shops don’t bother with a sign, as the locals know what lies behind every wooden door, from pharmacy to convenience store to bicycle repair shop. Some of the restaurants have their name on the white wall beside the door, but not all. In
fact, the best meal that I had was at one such unmarked restaurant, where I was served a steak that was the size of the plate, necessitating three extra plates for the rest of the food, one each for the salad, marinated legumes and bread. When the waiter spotted that my plate of legumes was empty, he took it away and promptly returned with a fully loaded plate. This entire meal cost me less than ten Australian dollars, which was an extravagant expenditure, but I thought I should eat something other than empanadas or street food for at least one meal. One particular street corner that I ate at a few times was quite interesting, as the locals obviously had a spoken agreement about who would set up a food stall there at what hour of the day, as the stall changed every few hours. By my final day in Cachi, the stall owners who use this corner would acknowledge me with a friendly smile and nod.
The only ‘excursion’ that I took in Cachi was a stroll to the local cemetery, which sits atop a small hill on the edge of town. The view was spectacular, so it’s kind of a pity that the residents don’t get to appreciate it from their grave. Some of the graves were marked by nothing more than two crudely attached pieces of wood, held together in the form of a cross by wire being tied around the area where they overlap. It seemed to fit the scene perfectly.
One thing that I noticed during my stay was that Cachi is actually a lively place each and every day, if only for the two hours of lunch. This is because mini-vans and mini-buses laden with tourists from Salta unload their cargo next to the plaza, who then walk to the first restaurant table that takes their fancy and order lunch and alcohol. Some people will venture to the handicraft stalls that are set up just for the occasion, but once the last tour group squeezes back into their van, the village returns to a state of absolute serenity. When I would take my walks, sometimes the only sounds I would hear would be a wooden door creaking on its hinges, or the wind rustling the leaves of a tree. And the stars – what a sight! I was there on clear moonless nights and the glittering going on above me was remarkable, due to the complete lack of ambient light obstructing the view. The words uttered to me about this place turned out to be true and when I was asked how I felt in Cachi, the words that came to me were, “Mi espíritu está en paz.”
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