Published: November 11th 2011November 1st 2011
From Iguazú in Argentina's far north-east we are making a long-distance leap to its far north-west corner, to what promises to be a different Argentina again from the ones we have seen already. The is the Argentina of the Andean foothills, the Argentina of Inca heritage, of dry heat and deserts, of llamas and condors, of salt flats, of reds and oranges and yellows and browns. At least this is what we are hoping for.
This Andean north-west is separated from Iguazú by the Chaco, a vast thorny desert nicknamed el impenetrable
. The hint is duly taken - this is indeed a difficult area to visit. There's only so much dry thorny scrubby desert we want to see...There are direct buses between Puerto Iguazú and Salta, our base for the next couple of weeks, but we're talking some 22 hours cooped up, which doesn't really appeal. Our clever solution is to split the journey in half, spending two consecutive nights aboard buses but with pretty much a full day in between to ward off deep vein thrombosis (and long-distance-bus-psychosis) in the city of Corrientes, which lies conveniently (more or less) half way. As children we both had to ensure long
summer car journeys cooped up next to siblings and the memories are still too raw to contemplate nearly 24 hours sitting side by side in a bus. Corrientes, on the shores of the mighty Paraná river, is a nice enough place to spend the day, if nothing more.
We therefore arrive in Salta two mornings after leaving Puerto Iguazú in remarkable good humour having not seen a proper bed for 36 or so hours. Approaching the city it's obvious things have changed - here, within view of the Andean foothills, the climate is - at the moment - hot and dry. A welcome change after Iguazú's swelter! Salta is a great launching pad for our explorations of the north-west: a physically attractive city (with particularly colourful churches in shades of pink, burgundy and yellow) it has excellent restaurants, museums and some very pretty squares on which to enjoy a sundowner of eponymous Salta beer. Our little hotel is an oasis of calm and cool (despite a rather large population of cucarachas
, the extermination of which invariably falls upon my head, Alex's legs turning to jelly at the mere sight of one of the scuttling beasties) in the heat of
the city. The highlight of our short sojourn in Salta is a visit to the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña
, a small museum with a wonderful collection of Inca artifacts. The highlight of the museum's collection, however, are the mummified remains of the Niños de Llullaillaco
, three Inca children whose bodies were found in 1999 at the summit of Mount Llullaillaco some 6,700 metres up. Preserved by the cold and the lack of oxygen at that astonishing altitude, the children's bodies - only one of which is on display at any time - are a deeply moving exhibit. Dressed in beautiful woven garments and led up to these altitudes before being drugged to sleep, these children were offered up by their supposedly willing parents as human sacrifices in a complex ceremony aimed at placating deities and cementing relationships between the four corners of the vast Inca Empire. A truly fascinating exhibition.
While in Salta exploring our options for visiting the surrounding proving of Salta and its immediate neighbour Jujuy, we decide to do what many visitors do and hire a car for a week and a half. Our experiences in Argentina so far suggest that while the standard
of driving falls some way short of what we're used to at home, the idea isn't completely
suicidal. And so we pick up a zippy little VW Gol (yes Gol - perhaps the saving made by not sticking on a shiny plastic 'F' is worth it in these rough economic times) from the centre of Salta and strike out into the surrounding countryside, which is nationally famous for its wine and scenic beauty. Sounds good to us.
After stocking up on supplies in what is quite possibly the largest supermarket I've ever seen in my life, and negotiating our way out of the city in the face of completely inexplicable road closures (Alex saves the day with her quick-thinking map reading), we head southwards towards the small town of Cafayate. The valleys south of Salta are known as the Valles Calchaquíes
, named after an indigenous population who put up a particularly stubborn struggle against Spain in the 16th century. The first hour or two out of Salta are decidedly underwhelming, leaving us wondering if we've missed a trick or taken the wrong road. And then, with little warning, we find ourselves entering the Quebrada de la Concha
, a stunning
canyon carved out of the rock by what seems, now, to be a very modest river. Every twist and turn in the road (and there are a lot
) brings new and wonderful sights and it takes all my concentration to keep the car on the road while wondering at the extraordinary variety of colours and shapes and textures of the landscape. Weird and wonderful formations abound, many of them given names either grandiose (La Garganta del Diablo
, the Devil's Gullet) or prosaic (El Sapo
, the Toad). From that point on, and for the next 12 days, we were treated to some of the most astonishing, gorgeous, spell-binding drives we've ever done. The going is sometimes slow, as many of the roads are unsurfaced and strewn with unfriendly, large, pointy rocks, or unbelievably sinuous - or, more often than not, both at the same time. Such roads, called ripio
which is politely translated as "consolidated", are unavoidable here - stick to the tarmac and you definitely miss out on the best views.
After crawling through the Quebrada de la Concha (so named for the fossils of marine creatures incongruously found there) gawking at the spectacular view and stopping every mile
or so to get out of the car and admire the view, we arrive in Cafayate. This small town is surrounded on all sides by sprawling vineyards and wineries, which comes as a definite surprise after driving for hours through dry, tortured, semi-desert...
It is in Cafayate that we decide to spend our first night sleeping under canvas. On this trip - unlike the last - we've packed a tent, sleeping bags, inflatable mats, cooking stove, the lot. Campsites in Argentina tend to have decent facilities - useable toilets (more or less), barbeques (of course) and hot showers (again, more or less) - and the one in Cafayate is quite satisfactory. Armed with eye masks against the dawn and earplugs again the joint menaces of early birds, incessantly barking dogs and nightclubs blaring music until 5am (even here), the first night is declared a success. We've no intention of doing this every night, but alternating camping and hostels means we can splash out a bit more without feeling too bad about it.
Cafayate is a place of simple pleasures, drinking being perhaps the simplest and most pleasurable. The following morning we visit one of the wineries, a rather
small place called Nanni
, which we chose since a rather nice bottle (half-bottle: we're both lightweights) of white wine we had to celebrate my birthday in Salta came from there. After a great little tour of the production area (the vines are out of town) during which we learn the specifics of malo-lactic fermentation (the biochemists in us never quite died) and the Spanish for "grape skins", we come to the interesting big - the tasting. Wonderful. We leave, remarkably, in a state of the most virtuous sobriety (me at least, since I'm driving today) with a bottle of wonderful late-harvest Torrontés white to enjoy at some point in the next couple of weeks. Nearly as wonderful is the wine sorbet (yes, that's wine sorbet) you can buy in Cafayate. It comes in two flavours, Torrontés and Malbec, and it's just yummy. And alcoholic. What more could you want?
The next couple of days see us driving slowly through the awe-inspiring scenery of these valleys, driving through places whose names act as reminders that not so very long ago this place was governed not by Spaniards but by Calchaquí Indians - Angastaco, Seclantás, Cachi. A highlight of our little
Birthday tipple, Salta
A few days later we'd be visiting the bodega where this delicious Torrontés was made!
tour of the Valles Calchaquíes was the night we spent in tiny little Angastaco, a village nestled among particularly spectacular section of the road. We rooted out a little comedor
(a sort of informal restaurant where you are served whatever the owners happen to be cooking) run by an elderly couple. Dish of the day was cazuela de cabrito
- goat stew - washed down with some Quilmes beer. The surprise came when the owner sat at our table with his guitar and belted out folk songs while we ate. After we'd finished he showed us his huge collection of postcards and foreign banknotes, sent to him by visitors from all over the road bowled over by the warm welcome, the delicious home cooking and the unexpected serenade! We even got a taste of his home-made wine, product of a few vines in his back garden. I promised to send him a five pound note as soon as we get home...
A couple of days and a few sleepy villages later sees us driving back in the direction of Salta through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. We'd noticed over the past few days the large numbers of giant cacti
Unwrapping a tamal
Meat stuffed inside maize dough, steamed in a piece of maize husk. Gorgeous!
growing all over the place. Easily reaching ten metres in height, these giants are Trichocereus atacamensis
, known locally as cardón
, and widespread in the high-altitude environment of the northern Andes in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The national park is home to aspectacularly high density of the cacti, crowded together like some huge army as far as the eye can see. There's little more to do in the park other than simply drive through it, but a lovely park guide - stationed in his pick-up on a long, lonely stretch o road - gave us a brilliant account of the cactus' biology and superb adaptations to this difficult environment. The cactus only grows a couple of centimetres a year, meaning that cacti which are taller than you are pretty much automatically older than you! The cactus lives symbiotically with a small, scrubby looking shrub, with which it exchanges water (thanks to its immensely long tap roots, which reach down several times the cactus' own height) for support, as the shrub has extensive horizontal roots which stabilise the soil and help prevent the cardón from toppling over. Even more bizarre is that the cardón's beautiful white flowers are pollinated not by an
insect or a bird, but a bat! Mind-boggling but a great way for a biology teacher to spend half an hour.
Getting back to the main north-south highway takes us over a high mountain pass complete with soaring condor. There we pick up our first hitch-hiker (very common in these parts where there is almost no public transport and missing a bus could otherwise mean a day's wait), a local craftsman called Walter who regales us for the next hour, as we wind our way down the mountain side on a ridiculously sinuous dirt road, with information about his life (children dotted pretty much all over the place), work and personal philosophy, declaring absolutely everything reloco
, Argentine slang for "totally crazy". Particularly intriguing, and no doubt related to Walter's linguistic idiosyncrasy, was the smell which followed him into our little car - it took me a minute to twig what it was...cannabis, and by the looks of our hitch-hiker, abundant and lavish quantities of it. By the time we dropped Walter off outside his "studio" (a tumbledown shack to the casual observer) we were both famished - is there such a thing as the passive munchies? Good thing we
weren't stopped by a policeman...
Our little loop through the Valles Calchaquíes to the south of Salta complete, we commence a longer, wider circuit of the area north of the city and into Jujuy Province. Here again, the road climbs up into the mountains, westwards towards the Andes, reaching impressive altitudes nudging 4,000 metres above sea level. As we rise and rise through more flabbergasting scenery, the hills give rise to a broad high-altitude plateau known locally as the puna
. Llamas graze in the distance, and with a bit of luck the occasional vicuña
- lesser-known South American camel-like creatures - can be spotted. Bizarrely, from where the road braches off the main highway - at perhaps 1,000 metres altitude - all the way to the puna - at well over 3,500 metres - we are followed by a railway line. In the early 20th century a crazy plan was hatched to build a line climbing up towards the Andes and the Chilean border. Technically difficult and hugely expensive (the line is littered with viaducts, tunnels through solid rock, switchbacks and loops to deal with the steep gradients) the line was built partly to service mines, apparently
producing borax - high up in the mountains. It took decades to complete and had a very short economically useful lifespan. The line still hosts one train a week, on a Saturday, taking visitors from Salta up to the dusty little mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres. The highlight of the trip is something we're keen to see in our little car: the viaduct at La Polvorilla, bridging a valley at an altitude of 4,300 metres. An extraordinary engineering achievement, it is hard to imagine how this was built in such a harsh and unforgiving environment where the heat and lack of oxygen make even a stroll more tiring for us than we're used to! Truly a spectacularly structure, all the more so for being so utterly isolated in what seems to be the middle of absolutely nowhere. From San Antonio we push through northwards across the puna, along a hundred kilometres of rough, rocky road (where every pointy rock needs to be scrupulously avoided - a puncture here would not be very good news), to Salinas Grandes, home to a large dry salt lake. The area is still exploited to produce salt (whether for consumption or industrial
use we didn't find out). Rectangular pits are dug out of the salt, which fills up naturally with water, from which pure salt crystallises before being collected. Driving out onto the smooth, compacted salt surface is quite a surreal experience. We're hoping to make it to the much larger and supposedly impressive salt flats at Uyuni in Bolivia later on the trip, but for the moment these ones are impressive enough. The road down from Salinas Grandes to our night stop at Purmamarca involves another unbelievably wiggly road which tumbles down the mountainside, losing a kilometre in altitude in seemingly very little time indeed. With nothing but fuel economy in mind, we manage to get to the bottom of the hill in neutral - a whole 35 kilometres letting gravity do the work. And yes, I know you're not supposed
to coast down hills but I mean, 35 kilometres!
The food in these parts is more varied and interesting than the harsh and barren landscape might lead one to think. Here we feast on local potatoes (these here parts are the home of the potato, which come in a bewildering variety of shapes and colours - green, black, pink
with yellow spots, literally - and are a world apart from what is available in Europe), grilled llama, a typical local stew of maize and meat known as locro
, goat's cheese, and an unusual pudding known as dulce de cayote
, made from spaghetti squash (a type of smallish pumpkin whose fibres closely resemble spaghetti - if you don't believe me you can get them at the supermarket at home) simmered with sugar and water and served with walnuts and honey. Delicious!
Our journey continues through the quebradas
north of Salta, most famous of which is the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a gorgeous technicolour canyon strung with lovely little adobe-built towns, up to high-altutide villages accessible only by roads so ridiculously steep and winding that even we decide to leave the car behind and go for the bus instead. Quiet places where there's little more to do other than enjoy the spectacular scenery with a beer and a lovely bowl of locro
With only two days of our car rental period left we decide to round off the expedition with a visit to Calilegua National Park, located less than 100km east of the arid, rocky quebradas but in terms of
climate and biology a complete world away. Calilegua is dominated by tropical cloud forest, and is part of a long strip of heat, humidity and tropical biodiversity called Las Yungas
and stretching, parallel to the Andes, all the way from Colombia down to northern Argentina. Our final little detour turns out to give us a little more than we've bargained for.
First of all, getting out of the Quebrada de Humahuaca is not helped by the fact that our tank is nearly empty and the petrol station in Humahuaca has no petrol. I will shortly be writing a short account of the amazing Argentine phenomenon of "no hay"
- "we're out of..." - but suffice to say at this time that's it's extremely common and extremely annoying. Here it is not at all uncommon to see open
ice cream shops with a No Hay Helado
sign hanging gaily in the window, or petrol stations with No Hay Nafta
being the local word for unleaded) scrawled on sheets of paper stuck to the pumps. Examples in modern-day Argentina abound, the very very
worst being the notorious no hay monedas
issue - which is definitely worth its own irate blog
entry! Anyway, a combination of freewheeling down hills and driving very
slowly eventually gets us to a station which - miracle of miracles - actually sells petrol!
Tank full, we drive south towards the city of Jujuy in order to move eastwards and back up into the Yungas. We manage to get hopelessly lost and are rescued by a kind man who guides us to the motorway we somehow managed to lose. By this time we're already a little tired and a soupçon
fractious. Anyway, we finally make it onto route 34 which should take us to the small town of Calilegua where we plan to stay the night, it being too late to set up a tent (or so we thought...). After searching for ages for the town's only hotel we find it full - it's dark, it's late, we're tired, hungry and by now really quite
fractious. The landlady fortunately detects this and kindly allows us to camp in her garden - setting up a tent in the dark and the sweltering heat - complete with mosquitos - after a nearly five hour drive is not a whole lotta fun. But we do, and we attempt to
sleep in what is essentially a small, humid greenhouse. By this time the level of fractiousness is way past critical. That we slept at all (for we did) and that we did not murder each other, tossing and turning in the tiny tent while sweating like pigs in a sauna, constitute a pair of miracles we shall remember for a long while.
We steal away in the early morning and make it to the park, where we re-pitch our tent and manage to get bitten all over by lots of very tiny and very nasty little flies which actually make you bleed when they bite you. Miraculously we manage a couple of beautiful walks in the park, appreciating the extraordinary contrast with the landscape of only yesterday, and some fantastic birdlife (including a hummingbird which, attracted to our bright red daypack, hovered around us, barely an arm's length away, for several minutes - absolutely amazing). Our night camping in the park was perhaps even more uncomfortable than the previous one (quite a feat). Since sleeping in the zipped up tent would have been completely intolerable, we instead sacrificed our skin for a few hours' sleep, waking up bitten all
over but, again miraculously, reasonably rested, to...a flat tyre. OK - we can deal with this, of course we can. Or we could
, if the car rental company hadn't given us a broken jack held together with sellotape. Things are getting silly now...
By an unbelievable stroke of luck, there is one
other tent in the campsite, and after a rather embarrassing request we get our hands on a lovely brand new (and operative) jack, and the wheel is changed in ten minutes flat. Phew.
There are a lot of no hays
in Argentina but fortunately this doesn't apply to tyre repair shops. Gomerías
, as they're called, are everywhere, and on the return drive to Salta a lovely man repairs the puncture in mere minutes.
It was worth it for the hummingbird. Seriously.
There are more photos below