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Published: August 25th 2007
Following the Rio Grande
We followed this river from Jujuy to Tres Cruces, about 180km north
We so liked the laid-back capital of Jujuy province that we stayed for several days. The formal name of the capital is the fantastical San Salvador de Velazco en el Valle de Jujuy, although it is generally referred to — thankfully — as San Salvador or Jujuy. The city has a strong Indian presence, and its colonial architecture gives it a colour and architecture that contrasts markedly with the urban areas of the south. We sauntered around town enjoying the atmosphere, replenished our supplies, enjoying our last Argentinean wine, and wandering up the hill behind town to visit a fascinating small archeological museum run by a team of expert enthusiasts and donations from visitors. Among them is the shy archeologist Jorge Kulemeyer, who took the time to illuminate the exhibits with his descriptions. Many of them contain artefacts from the local area, some of which he has excavated.
Still in a leisurely frame of mind, we rode out of Jujuy on ruta 9, which ends 300km north at La Quiaca, on Argentina's border with Bolivia. The highway took us through the green valleys around the provincial capital, along the Rio Grande through the Quebrada (gorge) de Humahuaca, and up onto
Are we there yet?
Pausing for a breather on a very hot day near the top of a 5km climb between Jujuy and Tumbaya
the eastern edge of the Puna (Altiplano) to the border.
It was great to be back on the bikes after the long bus trips from San Martin to Jujuy. The road is paved all the way to the border and, although the drivers of the long-distance double-decker buses were a hazard on the road, giving no quarter even when they could, the highway was thinly trafficked and we enjoyed riding through this province, exploring.
Most of the ride was uphill: in the first 190km of climbing, less than 10km dipped down. Jujuy sits 1,200 metres above sea level. Over the course of the week, we climbed to 3,780m over 186km, then dropped to between 3,330m and 3,670m (depending on the sign you read) at La Quiaca. Above 2,700m, even acclimatising as slowly as we did, we felt the effects of the altitude — headaches, nausea, insomnia, a loss of appetite. Even more calamitous: a loss of interest in alcohol! We appreciated the gentle gradient, as we had enough to contend with with the altitude and the sun, which is ferocious here. Slathered in sunscreen, drinking 4 or 5 litres of water a day, and with our heads and
arms covered, we still burned, and ended up with mild sunstroke on two days out of seven. (We noticed that the locals, even with their brown Indian skin, mostly wear hats and keep their arms and legs covered.)
However, the human stories and dramatic landscapes usually kept us distracted. Once ruta 9 climbs out of the green valley around Jujuy, it follows ancient routes, including an Inca road, along the Rio Grande, through an area known as Quebrada de Humahuaca (Gorge of Humahuaca). People have lived along this valley and traded goods and ideas beyond it for perhaps 12,000 years. The Inca empire pushed this far south in the 1400s, not long before the Spanish arrived. Throughout the area the wealth of human stories is visible, and this has resulted in much of the region being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. First, hunter-gatherer cultures lived along the valley. Later came the cultural group known as the Omaguacas, whose different bands give names to the towns along the route today: Maimará, Tilcara, Huacalera, Uquía, Yavi. As well as keeping animals, the Omaguacas (a variation on Humahuaca) also cultivated crops. The staples then, potatoes of numerous kinds, maize, and
quínoa, remain staples today, although European meat, fruit and vegetable staples have been incorporated. From their fortress, known as a pucara, at Tilcara, the Omaguacas managed to prevent the Spanish from settling in the valley for 50 years (until 1594), a pretty impressive feat given their inferior armaments. The Spanish adopted the age-old route as its link between the two viceroyalties (colonial administrative areas) of Perú (by then a diminished area covering much of north-western South America) and Río de la Plata (consisting, roughly, of present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay). Between 1810 and 1818, the Quebrada became the site of some decisive battles in the Argentine wars of independence from Spain. Archeological sites abound, and so strong are the traditions that some are part and parcel of everyday life here still, woven together with hispanic traditions: women tending flocks of llamas (and sometimes cattle and sheep), campesinos tending plots of maize and other crops along the river flats, cloth woven using traditional patterns and bright contemporary colours from synthetic dyes, reverence for an ancient earth goddess Pachamama sitting comfortably alongside contemporary Catholicism.
The landscape is as compelling as the human presence. Although the Rio Grande was a mere
Historic church, Tumbaya
Built in the 1600s, with an altar built in 1630, the church is still in everyday use
trickle zigzagging across its bed when we rode past in early April, it must be a huge river at the height of the short rainy season. There are levee banks along parts of it, and we came across numerous instances of washed out road and railway tracks with no soil left under them. The valley is wide, and the floodplains are used for agriculture. Between the quiet, comfortable little towns that people take an obvious pride in, farmers plots were strung along the floodplain. There is grazing on the higher land, on the coloured hills, where the vegetation is dominated by giant cactus and thorn scrub.
Our first night's accommodation out of Jujuy was in a Catholic mission at Tumbaya, population 200. When we arrived the town's young were gathered in the yard of the 17th century church, enthusiastically banging away on an eclectic range of somewhat musical instruments, making lots of noise. They were enjoying themselves, and continued without flagging for the next hour and a half. Some of them, under the watchful eye of a few adults, retired to one of the two places one could loosely describe as a restaurant, where we were already enjoying a
The Catholic mission where we stayed in Tumbaya
... and a fellow cyclist, with his walking stick
snack. The restaurant was a lean-to of corrugated iron, furnished with some wooden tables, benches and chairs. Out the back, two women were busy cooking, using only a small table, a large steel bowl for the mixing the ingredients, and a frying pan while, front of house, the man of the family played the entertaining host to whatever customers wandered in. An old man seated at the table next to Dave and me cheerfully mumbled at us through gulps of red wine, happily unaware that we understood not a word he said. When a coca-chewing mate joined him, he abruptly turned from us, and left us to enjoy our delicious empanadas and something that went by the name of coffee but was a mug of warm UHT milk flavoured with tablespoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of instant coffee. The musicians munched on empanadas (baked or fried pastries filled with flavoured minced meat, vegetables or cheese) and softdrinks. The small children focused on the food, while a couple of the teenaged boys looked sidelong at the teenage girls who sat discreetly at their own table. A couple of middle-aged men kept watch over everyone, perhaps glad to be here
rather than in the mission hall where a singalong was in progress.
The next day we took a 4km detour off ruta 9 to visit Purmamarca, a town grown plump on tourism centred on the multi-coloured hills behind it. The whitewashed and terracotta buildings of the town are set off picturesquely against the hills, which fold around them in greys, greens, rosy pinks, terracottas and purples. It was fun riding around Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours) with no luggage, the bikes skittering over the rocks in a fresh kind of way that they never do under load. The hills here are among the most stunning of the rock colours in the Quebrada, but by no means all of it. Along the whole river valley we continued to be surprised by the beautiful colours to be seen in the hills around us.
Back on the main drag, we stopped at Tilcara for lunch, and decided to spend the rest of the day there, exploring the fantastic archeological museum, supported in part by the University of Buenos Aires, which works archeological digs in the region. Like the museum in Jujuy it included textiles, ceramics and examples of
the high fashion among the wealthy of pre-hispanic times: sculls deformed at birth to form a head with no forehead and elongated at the back. These days the town is thriving, a popular tourist destination for Argentineans that offers many holiday services.
By the time we had reached Humahuaca, at 2,936m above sea level, Claire was at the highest altitude she had ever been. (Volcán Villarica, her previous record, is 2,847m above sea level. Mt Kosciuszko is 2,228m ASL, and Mt Barney 1,395m.) Our jovial host, who liked to sit and listen to us speaking in English, instructed us on the purchase of coca leaves, and the method of chewing them to alleviate the effects of altitude. From here we found it for sale everywhere in markets.
The next day was quite a big one: 88km, and a gain of 844m, to reach Abra Pampa. Twelve kilometres after we left Humahuaca, we climbed above the cactus line and out of the Quebrada onto the escarpment of the Puna, or Altiplano (high plain). We stopped for lunch at 3pm at Tres Cruces, which serves as a inspection post where Argentinean customs officials do their best to stem the flow
of cheap goods smuggled into the country from Bolivia. Mass was on, and we couldn't help but be part of it all, as boxed hymns were being broadcast over the town at such levels they were distorting. A kilometre past Tres Cruces, we reached the high point of the highway, 3,780m ASL, and were on the Puna proper.
The Puna is a cold, high desert plateau that covers part of northern Argentina and Chile, western Bolivia, and some of Peru. It is said to be the largest area of high plateau outside Tibet. Its height averages about 3,300m above sea level. For us, the landscape had changed dramatically from the Quebrada. The horizon dashed away from us, far away on the left formed by the the Andes, blue in the light, lines of muticoloured hills defining our right horizon. In front of us it was flat, so flat that we sometimes felt we might ride off the end of the world. The vegetation was replaced by a stubble of low, spiky bushes, and occasional spinifex-like grass, and the country looks even drier. The towns became poorer, and were spread further apart. We spent the night in Abra Pampa, where
a distinct lack of open restaurants meant that dinner was a cheese sandwich. We were too tired to care.
The rest of the towns we passed through on our way to our destination were similar, having faded quietly since losing their importance during colonial times. Even the mud brick buildings, weathered by the rain, seem to be slowing melting back into the land. The highlight of our stop in the border town of La Quiaca was a day trip to Yavi, a quaint, pretty town in an oasis 16km east. Unlike most Puna towns, this one had enough water to support a small amount of agriculture. The people here seem to have a strong sense of their own identity, and are proud of their tenacity in outliving the dreaded encomienda system imposed on them in colonial times by the Spanish. The church is unusual in the area because it is set in a garden. It was built by Indian labour in 1690, and it is said that they built into the walls behind the plaster facings images important to worshipping their ancestors. The informative museum contains paintings done in the Cuzco style, and featuring angels carrying guns.
we were ready to say adios to Argentina, and hola to Bolivia.
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