I find myself travelling along a steep and winding road through lush forest with trees covered by bromeliads. I am on my way to the province of Jujuy, the most northerly province of Argentina bordering Bolivia.
A quick stop at the last YPF petrol station in the area, a very dusty and busy place full of cars and trucks waiting for their last refuel before going towards Bolivia or Chile through the desert.
Now the landscape changes massively, mountains all around towering above the arid landscape with cacti standing like soldiers of a bygone age.
Turning a corner, I see before me stunning rock formations with different coloured layers which reminds me of an artist’s. I am now at the village of Maimará – “falling star” in the Omaguacan language- famous for these amazing rocks and also its hillside cemetery. The custom in this area is to bury your loved ones closer to the Gods.
The north of Argentina is very poor and very isolated, an example of this is the railway. Constructed by the British, to bring jobs and much needed wealth to the area, it’s now completely fallen into disrepair and unusable because of lack of investment and the danger of annual floods. It’s only benefit to the local population are those fortunate enough to have made their homes in the stations, goods yards and carriages. There are rumours about the restoration of the railway as a tourist attraction like the ‘Tren de las Nubes’ in Salta. Even if these rumours are true, such a development will bring very few jobs and will have little or no impact on the everyday life of people of the area. Jujuy is also the province with more indigenous people in Argentina, they live a very simple life stuck in another century, still working the fields just with the help of tired animals. The total indifference of the government has led to desperate protests such as the communities having to block the roads in order to press their case for running water, electricity, sewage and other basic facilities.
The next town on my travels is the picturesque Tilcara, a town surrounded by the beautiful Quebrada de Humahuaca. The inhabitants of Tilcara are local indigenous people, hippies looking for peace and harmony and artists of every kind trying to capture the shades of these mountains and encase them on canvas. Dusty streets, dogs strolling around with their colourful collars and at the top of a hill the Pucará, the ruins of a pre- Inca fortification, which guards the town and reminds travellers of the original settlement of Tilcara. Because of its strategic position in the valley of Humahuaca, it became an important centre for the Inca Empire for 50 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
I am being hosted by Robert and Jane, an Anglo-French couple who caught by the spell of this place decided to buy a house here.
Here I am meeting many interesting people, one of them is Raquel, the pastor of the local Evangelical Church who dedicates all her life to help disadvantaged young people in the community. I enjoyed helping preparing and serving meals to the children. This is their only proper meal of the day.
During this week together we have been exploring many places around the Quebrada, “The Skirt”: a large rocky outcrop coloured in bright reds and yellows and the Tropic of Capricorn ( I cannot confirm whether the rumours that this has been incorrectly placed are true!). We also visited the lovely Uquía which has a little and unusual church with pictures of angels holding guns and the ceilings and confessionals made of cactus wood.
I think it’s pretty weird to arrive at a small town welcomed by an eagle made out of bits and pieces of old tin and iron. This is Humahuaca! I am getting strange vibes from seeing artisans next to tacky stalls selling cd’s and playing loud latin music and many people queueing with empty containers waiting for the calor gas tanker to replenish their stocks in order to cook lunch.
From this strange scene I move to a square just off the main plaza where a crowd is gathering. It’s nearly midday. All eyes in the crowd look up to the wall of the church where there is, what I can only describe as a black metal pod. Slowly the pod begins to open like a large cuckoo clock and an effigy of San Francis comes towards us, raising his arm. A very weird robot! The crowd gasps in amazement in some form of religious fervour. I am frankly staggered at the effect this clockwork monk has on these people! We all wander off with mixed emotions following this daily strange occurrence.
A short time later I find myself at 4350 metres eating cheese empanadas whilst looking at another amazing geological phenomena: El Hornocal. The colours here are spectacular and need to be seen to be believed!
On the way to dinner I come across a stall selling pieces of jewellery. The guy at the stall tells me he is from Ushuaia and also explains to me everything about the stones that he was using to make the jewels. The one that fascinates me most is the Rodocrosita, this is known as the Inca Rose and is found in the Salta province. He tells me is the national stone of Argentina and I think buying a ring will be the perfect momento of my visit!
I am spending my evening watching a peña with a local stew and a good glass of wine. A peña is a show of local folk customs which can be gaucho dancing, local songs and instruments common to an area. In this case the music is Andean using instruments such as Quena (flute), Siku (flute made with several pieces of bamboo), Charango ( a sort of mandolin) and the fairly unusual Erque ( a four meter long horn). I am captivated by the beauty of the songs and stories of the people of Tilcara. One especially interesting true story is about highly isolated communities, deep in the mountains, who have to travel for many days to get to Tilcara to sell their wares.
Today I am excited! We are going to the Salinas Grandes. We are climbing up the most sinuous and vertiginous road I have ever travelled. The Andes here look to me like the feet of a sleeping giant.
It’s funny how the desert, such a desolate and harsh environment with its overwhelming silence, can still hold beauty and life.
Wild vicuñas eating grass on the steep rocky hillsides and llamas sharing the small amount food available here. The origins of these strange creatures are aptly described in a book Robert has lent to me as “somewhere in ancient history a giraffe had fallen in love with a sheep and produced these fluffy, long-necked beasts.”
Suddenly the landscape is totally flat, as far as the eye can see. Here salt is taken from the lakes for consumptions by the people but I am able to walk on the flats and see the water underneath the salt crust. Close to the Salinas we cross the famous ‘Ruta 40’ that traverses the entire continent from the Tierra del Fuego to Alaska.
Like Robert and Jane, I have been absolutely caught by the magic of these places and I am determined I will return to Tilcara for its famous Carnival in February!