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Published: July 25th 2008
Seven Colour Hill
Purmamarca, Quebrada de Humahuaca
Having felt somewhat disconnected from the "gringo trail" recently, it was a shock to find myself surrounded by backpackers on the bus to Salta. The amount of crisp-eating was astounding, and I doubt even the most indigenous of villages would have sported such a collection of chullos. I noticed that the girl in front of me was learning some Spanish so, nosy by nature, I peered at the page she was currently reading. My eyes alit on a sentence, presumably intended for her boyfriend, that read "Yo quiero un festival de cock pronto" and I nearly laughed out loud - surely everyone knows you only use personal pronouns for emphasis?
Arrival in Salta was delayed by the bus running out of fuel. I would have thought that running out of fuel came a close second to leaving a passenger behind in the list of schoolboy errors that can be committed by a bus company, but I've had both now in less than a week.
Fortunately Salta proved to be worth the wait. I'm sure many people in the UK would swap the Salta winter for the English summer, and the droves of backpackers began to make more sense when
- in contrast to further south - I realised that now was actually the high season, with summers at these latitudes being wet but winters clear, sunny, and warm. The many orange trees around the city gave a pleasingly tropical air, and the numerous cafes offered inviting opportunities for watching the world go by.
Food in Salta was a highlight. My favourite Argentine dish by far is the empanada, and Salta is at the centre of the empanada universe. After having experienced excellent empanadas in Ushuaia, I'd been worried by the prevalence of mediocre ones ever since, but the quality had shot up again in Salta. I also tried other regional specialities such as locro (a thick soup containing chickpeas, pumpkin, veal, and some unidentifiable bits), humitas (creamed corn wrapped in a corn husk parcel), and llama stew.
I spent the 9th of July, Argentina's Independence Day, in Salta, but the celebrations were low-key, with a few more flags visible than usual and several cafes offering a special Independence Day locro. It also gave the city's youth a chance to spend yet more time sitting around smoking and snogging in the plazas, though I heard that two of
the local schools had raised their activity levels by having a large fight that had to be broken up by police.
Salta itself is a pleasant place to while away a few days, with some interesting architecture from colonial times and onward, but there are attractions in the surrounding countryside that demand to be explored. I took a tour up Humahuaca Gorge, which by some stroke of scheduling luck consisted of just the guide, me, and one other guy. The gorge begins north of the town of Jujuy (an even better test of your Spanish pronunciation than Humahuaca), about 100km from Salta, which gave the guide the chance to give us some evidence that he raced cars as a hobby.
The gorge has been used as a transit route between the Andes and the lowland plains for thousands of years, but its sightseeing value lies in the extraordinary colours of its rocks, with copper, iron, sulphur, and other minerals creating a spectrum best appreciated at Seven Colour Hill overlooking the settlement of Purmamarca, and the Painter's Palette behind the village of Maimara. As with all the places we visited during the day, there was a distinctly indigenous feel
to Purmamarca, not too surprising given that the border with Bolivia - South America's most indigenous country proportionally - is only 150km away.
We passed through the Tropic of Capricorn on the way north, a reminder that we were sharing a line of latitude with Alice Springs, and had a brief stop in Uquia, home to a church whose altar area dripped with gold and on whose walls were distinctive paintings of angels, some bearing arms.
Humahuaca itself is at the northern end of the gorge, a heavily-touristed town awash with tat. Lemminglike, we joined the throng in the main square at midday to see a statue of St Francis Solano emerge from behind a pair of metal doors, raise one arm in salute and the other (holding a cross) in benediction, and then disappear again, accompanied by some suitably jaunty music. Sadly, my pocket dictionary failed to equip me with the Spanish word for "cheesy".
The return journey to Salta saw us stopping at Maimara, where the afternoon light hit its rocks to their best advantage. A large cemetery provided an interesting foreground to the scene.
The guide was the second person to comment that
Plaza 9 de Julio
Argentina's shortage of small change is due to commodity prices currently being so high that it's more cost-effective to melt coins down and sell them as raw metal, but I'm reluctant to believe that.
I'd received and read so much differing information about how to get to Uyuni in Bolivia from Salta in one day that I decided to simply get the earliest bus possible to the border and take it from there. The only signs of life on the streets of Salta at 5AM were a couple of prostitutes. I could only assume that trade was light, if a foreigner carrying a backpack and heading in the direction of the bus station was worth soliciting.
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