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Published: September 30th 2014
North Western Argentina sits in the corner where Chile meets Bolivia. It is a small corner of a big country.
Heading South through Bolivia, we met many travelers who extolled the beauty of this part of the world, so we decided to add it to our itinerary as we were in the area.
We crossed the border into Argentina at La Quiaca and some differences from Bolivia were immediately apparent. Gone were the bowler hatted ladies with their wide skirts, shawls and bundles (or babies) on their backs. Argentine women dress stylishly, with hairstyles to match.
Generally the Argentines are fairer skinned than their Northern neighbours. This is due to the pattern of immigration that took place over the last two centuries. Much like the USA, Argentina was a new land waiting to be colonised, from the point of view of 19th century Europeans. Hoards of Italians, Irish and others found their way here, displacing the indigenous population. Argentina had much the same potential as the USA at that time, but their political model grew to be restrictive of interests rather than expansive of opportunity as in the US, which led to
Church & Plaza
rather different outcomes.
We had accumulated a pile of US dollars to exchange in Argentina as we were aware that there is a black market for hard currency. Many ATMs in Bolivian towns dispense USD, presumably for this very purpose.
A clerk in the La Quiaca bus station offered to exchange 12 Pesos per US dollar. Annoyingly, I was confused as the bank rate is 12 pesos per pound, so I turned him down.
Also at the bus station we were introduced to the tyranny of the bag boys. You might have a ticket, but without a tip your bag is not going to have a simple journey into the hold. Having a thick wad of dollars secreted in my luggage I thought it best not to risk their ire and made sure that I had a collection of small notes for each trip.
The first 100 km from La Quiaca passes fields of golden brown, populated by herds of llama. We even saw a lone rhea (the South American version of an Ostrich).
Then the mountainsides gather in to create a broad valley. The
valleys of this region are renowned for the varieties of coloured rock from which the mountains are composed. Long ago in geological time, sediments were laid at the ocean bottom. Sediments of different periods were of different colours, depending on the mineral contents of the volcanic ash being produced and the chlorophyll of the photosynthetic algae which dominated sea life at certain times.
Millions of years later these sediments are today's mountainsides, having been crushed, lifted and folded by the forces of the earth. It is striking to observe edifices of greens, whites, purples where normally you would expect to see only grey.
Lonely Planet say it with much more verbosity than I dare employ: 'It’s a harsh but vivid landscape, a dry yet river-scoured canyon overlooked by mountainsides whose sedimentary strata have been eroded into spectacular scalloped formations that reveal a spectrum of colors in undulating waves. The palette of this Unesco World Heritage–listed valley changes constantly, from shades of creamy white to rich, deep reds; the rock formations in places recall a necklace of sharks’ teeth, in others the knobbly backbone of some unspeakable beast.'
We arrived in the small town of Humahuaca and I left Linda while I ventured off to find accommodation. As we were to discover, Argentineans take their siesta very seriously and it was like wandering around a ghost town, having to disturb people from their rest to converse. At this point I had no money and, as no money changers were evident, I had to mentally convert prices using the bank rate I would get from the ATM. Thus everywhere seemed inordinately expensive and I could feel my blood pressure rising.
By the time I had settled on somewhere I had pretty much circumnavigated the town. However, we wandered the cobbled streets to find the ATM next to the quaint church on the plaza. From here steps lead up to a rather ghastly Independence monument that looks like something Mussolini might have commissioned.
We were dismayed to learn that none of the restaurants opened until 8pm. This does not suit us; we like to have our dinner well before then. Nonetheless, this was something we would have to get used to. We found ourselves queuing outside the chosen restaurant at 8pm
and eating at 9pm.
The whole siesta set up seems rather ungainly from our point of view. People have to be in work in the morning, close for the afternoon and then work again from 7 or 8 'till late. It is probably fine if you live and work in the same place, but not much good for city life and commuting. We were there in the winter and the weather was lovely. Perhaps I might feel differently had I experienced the full force of a hot summers day.
Tilcara is another small town a half hour further south. It seemed to have a bit more life than Humahuaca.
A short walk out of the town the pucará ruins are spread up an accessible hillside. The ruins date from the 11th to 15th centuries, commanding strategic views along the valley.
Unsurprisingly, it was the Spanish wot dun 'em in.
The site is festooned with what can only be described as a forest of giant cacti. The pasacana cactus (Trichocereus atacamensis
) is indigenous to these parts and can grow to heights of 33 feet. They are
supported by a woody endoskeleton, sections of which are used to make unusual trinkets for local shops.
We ascended through the ruins and reconstructed buildings to a small pyramid right at the top of the hill. This was built in 1935 as a monument to the archeologists who first worked on the site. Eh what? Built right on top of the most important section of archeological remains, this is the most wonderful example of hubris - the arrogance of the powerful.
I have only recently become acquainted with the meaning of hubris, a word I have heard but not understood. Now that I am familiar with it I find that examples abound. There is a whole chapter on the subject in Victor Niederhoffer's excellent book 'Practical Speculation'
That night we enjoyed our first llama stew in a restaurant on the plaza.
Nice as it is, we did not hang around in Tilcara as I wanted to get to a main town and find a blackmarketeer.
Salta is said to have the most remaining colonial architecture of any town in Argentina, but
Pyramid circa 1935
in reality it is only the main square and a couple of churches that have been preserved.
The spacious plaza is dominated by the imposing cathedral on one side and buildings housing some of the cities numerous museums along the others. Any available spaces are occupied by chic restaurants catering to the constant influx of tourists, mainly from Buenos Aires.
We found the money changers loitering on either side of the road adjacent to the cathedral. There was a clear distinction between the money changers - on one side of the road they offered good rates and on the other side of the road they offered poor rates. Having sussed this out I made 2 or 3 visits a day to the trusty guys to change a few hundred dollars at a time, with the aim of accumulating sufficient spending power to last a couple of weeks.
Unlike other places I have used the black market, there was no cloak-and-dagger here. I just told the gentleman how much I wanted to change, we agreed a rate and he counted out the money in the street as pedestrians milled around. I double
checked to make sure there were no folded notes or duds and then handed over my dollars.
Finally Argentina was affordable! At black market rates food and accommodation becomes comparable to Peru and Bolivia. Transport is more expensive because of new buses and limited competition. There were bargains to be had in toothpaste, soap and dental floss.
The black market exists because of the county's balance of payment problems. As occasionally happens when a country operates in one currency and borrows in another, things can go disastrously wrong. The power brokers of the World Financial System don't allow much opportunity for the weaker counties to borrow in their local currency, so the majority of lending is denominated in US Dollars and the currency risk is with the borrowers. The other side of the coin is that if the borrower defaults, as Argentina did in 2001, the lenders don't get paid and everybody gets upset.
The repercussions of all this continue into the present as the unpaid debts have been sold on to aggressive hedge funds at a whopping discount. The hedge funds then pursue the Government for full payment in a
similar vein to the big blokes with baseball bats who descend upon the hapless debtor for an unpaid car loan, long after the car itself has been repossessed.
The result of all this for the population at large is that the value of the peso has declined considerably, leading to a prolonged surge in inflation. The Government wants all the dollars, so it has banned the people from owning any. There is no point holding any pesos as the value is quickly eroded so people want to have dollars for their long term security (hopefully). Therefore, the black market.
Actually, since the national colours of Argentina are blue and white, here they call it the 'blue market' and it is so open that the going rate is published in the papers every day, alongside the bank rate for USD, to which people are not allowed access anyway.
Despite all the economic travails, including a further peso devaluation in January 2014, the Argentines are generally a cheerful and friendly bunch. I get the impression that they have decided to ignore the political shenanigans and hope for the best. Before the
Great Depression of the 1930s, Argentina was among the 10 richest economies in the world and an air of suave sophistication remains permeated into the culture.
The most interesting museum that we visited in Salta was the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña
. This houses the mummified bodies of 3 Inca children who were buried alive (but unconscious) on a regional mountaintop as a religious sacrifice. They were discovered during a mountaineering expedition in 1999. They were perfectly preserved, though a bit dried out, and a lot was learned from them and their grave goods. One of the three is on display at any one time. When we were there it was the 12 year old girl who had been struck by lightening.
Our plan was to do a modest circular tour from Salta.
First stop was Tucuman, Argentina's fifth biggest city. Hot and arid, Tucuman is only at an elevation of 400 metres. As this was the first time we had dropped below 2000 metres for over 7 months I was interested to see what effect this would have on
our constitutions. With an extra dense red blood cell count we should feel zingy and full of energy as all that surplus oxygen was transported throughout our tissues.
Tucuman has it's place in national history as the place where the Argentinean Declaration of Independence was signed in 1816. The inauspicious building on the site where this took place did not look interesting enough to pay to enter.
We had our one and only Argentinean pizza in this town. This version covered the base with a thick layer of cheese followed by an all encompassing blanket of ham topped off with whatever extras had been ordered. It was too much of a cholesterol fest for us to try twice.
The Argentines love their meat, even their Big Mac has three patties (I believe they call burgers patties in the United States. Is there a link between McDonalds patties and cow patties?). This discovery shook my faith in The Economist Big Mac Index
(tm) for comparing the buying power of international currencies, and in McDonalds own claim to be the same everywhere
you go (religious compromises excepted).
It would have been nice if Tucuman had held more appeal because we would have been happy to spend a bit more time in the pleasant hostel, situated in a renovated townhouse with high ceilings and paneled wood fittings.
Back among the mountains, we spent the night in Tafí del Valle, a small town where horses roam free. Here we tried our first locro, a regional dish of maize stew with lumps of meat in it. We found this one a bit bland, but subsequent servings elsewhere showed that this is a dish with potential.
Tafi was a nice enough small town, but we couldn't find a reason to stay there another night, particularly as I climbed the local hill before the bus left the next morning.
That bus took us to Cafayete, a town famous for its wineries. As we approached the town we passed acres of vineyards, all brown and dry as this was out of grape season.
Cafayete was like any other unremarkable town until the wine industry got going late in the 19th Century. Some families
became rich and provided the capital for the development of the town. Today it is a very pleasant community with the laid back atmosphere of a small seaside town (it seemed to us), although the nearest sea is a thousand or more miles away.
There is a whole host of vineyards that can be visited. We chose the Piatelli vineyard because it has a gourmet restaurant on site (I sense a theme developing here).
After a splendid half kilo of medium-rare salmon followed by an exquisite tiramisu, we took the tour of the wine making facility, which was all modern and stainless steel.
Having spent years of a prior life involved with food factories, I did slightly wonder why I was paying to look around this one.
Then came the tasting and I remembered.
There were only 4 wines to taste, although there were a lot more in the site shop. As you would expect we sniffed the wines and rolled them around in the glass before taking a discreet sip. The chief taster encouraged us to be descriptive, but eventually gave up and revealed
that in each case the wine was ' expressive but not aggressive'. Not plonk then.
We nodded in agreement before necking the rest.
The restaurant was that good that we walked an hour and a half each way for a second visit. This time we chose the pork chop, but were each served a Sunday joint. Followed by another tiramisu for good measure.
Cafayete is also in the region of the coloured rocks, so we joined a tour to see them and other interesting formations. In the natural Amphitheatre the setting sun was directly behind us, creating shadows of improbable length.
Most of the time we were lazing around in the town centre. One of the restaurants did an amazing goat stew. We would sit and watch the one armed chef working frenetically. He would not have passed the basic food hygiene certificate, but fortunately was not involved in the preparation of the stew.
Now that we were used to the siestas, when the town closed down we would retire to our room and catch up on our reading, to emerge around 8pm for a
ham and cheese sandwich and strawberry milkshake.
Eventually the peso pile was in decline and we had to return to Salta to change some more dollars.
When we got to Salta we were surprised to find that a religious festival was taking place and that thousands of pilgrims had come from miles around to join in with the celebration of The Virgin of the Miracle.
On September 13th
1692 the town was subject to a strong earthquake which caused a picture of the Virgin Mary to fall off the cathedral wall without breaking.
The aftershocks continued for 3 days until God spoke to the priest and told him to carry an image of Jesus through the streets if they wanted an end to the aftershocks.
The aftershocks ceased.
The fact that throughout history there have been tens of thousands of earthquakes and aftershocks and every single one of them has ended does not seem to have influenced their considerations. After all, why spoil a good miracle?
All of the buses out of town
were fully booked, so we spent a couple more days than expected in dear old Salta.
Around this time I had to part company with my Lidl hiking boots. I was somewhat disappointed that they had only lasted for 8 months, although the clue was in the price. Anyone else would have dumped them after 4 months, but I kept them going through a combination of glue and obstinacy.
Argentina is not a cheap shoe country. Shoe shops are filled with designer brands offered to the population on the never-never. Eventually I settled upon a pair of stylish 'leisure shoes', which I hope will see me home.
The small town of Cachi is another 5 hours into the mountains to the west of Salta. The colourful rock formations reach this far and the route passes through a cacti strewn national park.
As far as small towns in the middle of nowhere go, this was perfectly fine. The local cemetery on top of a nearby hill provides an impressive final resting place, overlooked by the distant snowcapped peaks.
One more night just passing through Salta, then
on to our final destination of Purmamarca on our way back to the border.
Purmamarca is a small market town relying on day trippers to buy the artisanal wares piled high and sold cheap around the plaza.
One the edge of town a 3km track encircles a hill with a views of coloured mountains and rocks along its route. I set off alone.
'Surely you've seen enough coloured mountains to last you a lifetime?' said Linda.
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