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Published: November 1st 2013
Best of FriendsSunday 16 June to Wednesday 19 June
Mum, son and their pet goat
Sunday was a day mainly for travel, getting the bus to Humahuaca, where I’d pit stop overnight. The following day I would carry on to Iruya, a small town in Northwest Argentina with a population of just over 1,000 of mainly indigenous people.
On the bus to Humahuaca I was joined by an elderly Argentine man chewing on coca leaves. This is commonplace in the northern reaches of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru - basically wherever you’re very high up. Properties in the coca leaves help to fight fatigue, suppress the appetite and combat altitude sickness.
The man and I attempted to chat, though he had no English and I was finding his accent difficult. From what I grasped he seemed to be commenting on how nice it was to see me awake and enjoying the views. In his experience most tourists fall asleep. After a while talking he kept spontaneously bursting into song, composing the lyrics himself from what we’d been discussing. The concept of this was basically how pretty the views were and how pretty the conversation with the lovely lady. To begin with it made me laugh, but
5km from Iruya and we get a flat
after the third rendition it became slightly embarrassing and a few sniggers started among our fellow passengers. He seemed oblivious to this, bless him! We eventually arrived at Humahuaca, much to my relief. At this point he got off the bus with me to request the driver take our picture together before we went our separate ways.
I bought my ticket to Iruya for the following day and staggered with my backpacks to the hostel. The short walk from the bus station felt anything but short, given the blazing heat and the 20kg weighing me down. I must learn to pack lighter!
It was pretty quiet at the hostel, but the owners were very welcoming and I happened upon one guest in the common area. He was from Argentina and on a very short holiday, having come to Juyjuy for work. We discovered we had a mutual love of rugby – though unlike me he’d actually played the game (for 20 years). Apparently it was a very unusual experience for him being able to talk about rugby with a woman.
The next day it was off to Iruya. I had to give my backpack over to be
put on the roof, which was worrying. I had visions of it flying off a mountain side. When most of your belongings for the next 6 months (basically your life) are inside you become a tad protective. But they successfully pulled it from my iron grasp and tied it on tight.
The journey took about 3 hours. Being a local bus there were about a million stops to drop people off – seemingly in the middle of nowhere – and pick others up. This included a mother and son, accompanied by a baby goat. Needless to say, like most baby mammals, it was exceedingly cute. It was also very well behaved and curled up quietly under a blanket on the mother’s knee.
For the final 19km to Iruya we left the asphalt and drove along winding gravel mountain roads. Not for the first time, my stomach was turning somersaults as we took switchbacks that made me close my eyes. The drive itself was to take us up to 4000m where there was a pass between the Juyjuy-Salta provincial borders. Unfortunately the seat I was in meant my view was straight through the windscreen. As we approached each turn,
Sign of the Cross
Cruz Mirador at Iruya
my only view was of no road and the abyss between mountain peaks.
As the bus emptied I was able to move to a window seat. I don’t know if this was better or worse, as I was able to fully appreciate the height of the drop. I did, however, develop a healthy respect for the bus drivers. You need some big cajones to drive these routes.
Iruya came into view around 5km out, nestled within a valley of jagged mountains – the dry river bed carved out a snaking path below. It was here we got a flat tyre. The driver, conductor and two passengers proceeded to try and change it. This included climbing on to and then jumping on the bolt wrench. I was desperately trying to think of a punch line to “How many men does it take to change a tyre?”, but couldn't. Any smart answers, please post a comment!
When it didn't look as if we were going to be mobile any time soon, some passengers chose to walk ahead. I chose to wait, as 5km with my backpack did not appeal and I felt solidarity with the guys trying their best
Iruya, as seen from Cruz Mirador
to save the day. As a result I was treated to the little boy and the goat playing chase at the side of the road - totally charming!
Persistence paid off and 40 minutes later we were back on the move, collecting those who’d walked ahead as we passed.
We were dropped off just down from the town. A short walk up the hill saw me arrive in a small square with views out over the valley and a few local people selling artisan crafts. There was a small yellow-and-blue church off to the left. Leading from the square were a number of steep cobbled streets, lined with adobe houses. I chose one that I thought was in the vague direction of the hostel, but with very little to go on I ended up asking some locals for directions. Shortly after, I was settled in and asking advice from the owner, Pablo, about where I could go for a walk.
First stop was the Cruz Mirador – roughly translated as look out point of the cross. It was only a short walk, but I was breathing pretty heavily thanks to the altitude (2,780m). The look out point
The moon sits atop a peak in Iruya
afforded me a great view back across the valley and the moon sitting just above the crest of one of the peaks.
After this I headed over the bridge, crossing Rio Iruya. From here I was to climb through a small village, which sat between Quebrada de Tanty and Quebrada de Malta. I’m not sure if I took a wrong turn, but I only seemed to be able to get so high. I’d expected to be able to reach the summit of the hill, but the path seemed to stop. After searching for alternatives and failing I gave up and headed back to the main town.
Here I visited a local shop to get dinner provisions - a bit of a challenge to say the least. Being so far out of the city, there was limited produce, both fresh and packaged. But I managed to rustle up that great British staple of egg and chips.
Walking the cobbled streets I ran into the usual street dogs and more unusually a couple of donkeys. Later, in my room, I heard one of these poor donkeys belting it down the street, being chased and terrorised by the aforementioned dogs.
Donkey taking it easy in the streets of Iruya
I’m not sure what it did to deserve that, but I felt very sorry for him.
On Tuesday I’d hoped to find a guided walk / trek in the area, so called into the Tourist Info Centre. Although open there was no staff, so after waiting round like a lemon for 10 minutes I headed across the road to an artisan craft shop to see if they could shed some light on things. They knew a guide who’d be going to Corral Viejito that day, but I’d need to phone him to book. I took the details back to Pablo for help, but he told me it wasn't really a very good walk and in terms of timing he wouldn't recommend it, as we’d be returning very late. He gave me further directions for another local walk I could do solo.
This walk took me around 2 hours. Leaving the hostel I took a right into the Plazoleta Santiago Rosa Guevera, where I turned off - heading downhill. At the bottom of this road I crossed Rio Milmahuasi, reaching the entrance to a small indigenous neighbourhood.
I passed through a gap in the mountainside and followed the
Everybody Needs Good Neighbours
House within the indigenous neighbourhood of Iruya
main road through the neighbourhood, heading deeper into the valley. Passing the locals I greeted them in Spanish, which most chose to respond to, if not initiate. It was a charming place, with small houses and stone walls lining each side of the street. There were people working in their gardens or on their houses. Neighbours chatted across the street and young children played or joined in with the banter. I chose not to take any photos, as it seemed an invasion of their privacy. It also runs counter to the beliefs of many of these people – each photo of them is believed to take a piece of their soul.
After a time the buildings began to thin out and the road descended down into the valley and towards the river. At times I was passed by locals, leading or riding horses – both men and women in traditional dress. I passed a goat herder rounding up his animals too.
Not having a guide, I wasn't sure how much further I could go and became a bit nervous. I was keen to see more of the valley, but also didn't want to intrude on private areas, unaccompanied
Landscape in Iruya
and uninvited. Based on the timings Pablo had given me I was probably nearing the furthest point anyway. It was at times like this I wished my Spanish was improving faster, so I could have totally understood all that Pablo told me (rather than just the general gist). There was a small part of me thinking that maybe I might be missing something further along.
I followed the same route back and bought empanadas for lunch, which I enjoyed in the sunshine on the hostel’s roof terrace. From here I got to see a couple of condors soaring among the spectacular mountainscapes. They were nothing short of majestic!
On my final morning in Iruya I met Dianne and Santiago at breakfast. Dianne was originally from Durham, but had been living in London for many years. In her childhood she’d also lived in South America so her Spanish was great. She was a brilliant personality – full of warmth, laughter and conversation. She’d been a school teacher for a good part of her career, but had become increasingly disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the education sector in recent times. She’d therefore chosen to give it up and travel for
Landscapes in the valley of Iruya
a couple of months – a well deserved break from the sounds of things! Having three children back home, she sadly wasn't able to be in South America for more than this, but her longer-term plan was to return via a Voluntary Service Organisation to work as a volunteer.
Diane had met Santiago earlier in her travels and they’d decided to join forces to get to Iruya. Diane was teasing him over breakfast about the previous night. They’d been to a local restaurant and got talking to two Argentine girls from Buenos Aires. Santiago was apparently very attracted to one of them, but they were much more interested in chatting with Diane, so he was pretty much ignored for most of the evening (much to his dismay).
I was invited to join them both in going up to meet with these girls. They were in a hotel further up the hill, so we went for coffee and cake. Here we were again treated to the sights of the soaring condors and I tried my best to get some good photos.
Sadly I had to leave them an hour or so later to get my bus back to
Where's the Condor?
One of many attempts to catch them in flight
Humahuaca and then La Quiaca (at the Argentina-Bolivia border). On arrival into Humahuaca I found a bus that was due to depart in an hour, so grabbed some snacks and settled down for the wait. It didn't turn up on time, so I continued waiting. After 45 minutes I went to ask what was going on to be told it was delayed by a road block. They didn't know how much longer it would be.
After another 30 minutes, the next bus from Iruya pulled up and I was reunited with Diane, Santiago and the Argentine girls. They went to ask the lady about my bus again and it turned out the road block was in fact a demonstration in Purmamarca, which had stopped the bus from departing. It didn't look like it would be sorted any time soon, so I chose to stay overnight and get a bus to La Quiaca the next day. This was a bonus, as I got to spend an evening with the others.
After enjoying a lovely hot chocolate, we went off in search of some llama wool for Diane, who was en route to Salar de Uyuni and needed something warm
Dinner time musical entertainment
for the sub-zero temperatures. The only shop we found open at that time was selling clothes that were both pricey and not the best quality. So Diane was forced to risk leaving it until her next destination. Having been told by the girls I met in Salta that temperatures reached -15 degrees there on a night, I didn't envy her the risk!
We later went to a local restaurant for dinner, choosing a very ethnic chicken and chips. I'm not sure why, but it just appealed! Part way through we were treated to a musical interlude by the owner's family. The traditional music, mixed with brilliant conversation created a very celebratory atmosphere. Diane, who'd taken pity on a dog taking refuge in the hostel entrance, collected all the leftover chicken for him. In scavenging from a neighbouring table she also got us talking to some Argentine ladies. They were a lovely group in the town for a visit and were very happy to hear about my plans for volunteer work. Not long after we all headed homeward to our beds. I had the good wishes of the ladies we'd met blessing me on my way.
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