In this journal…
I celebrate a night in rural Argentina
I take a selfie with a donkey
I climb a mountain with 7 colors
By 6 o’clock, the gate finally opened, and I walked to the other side of the bridge on top of a river completely dried from the prolonged drought, and entered Argentina. I handed over my passport and reciprocity fee paper, and got a stamp, and the immigration process was all over before it could start, kind of like every love affair I thought I had.
welcome to La Quiaca, the northernmost town in Argentina, 5120km from the southernmost town, Ushuaia
I shared a taxi to the center of the little town with two other British blokes who were in the front of the line as well. I got to the bus terminal, purchased a ticket to Humahuaca town, and began my journey south. The entire Quebrada de Humahuaca region is very well connected by a modern highway from as far north as the border town La Quiaca to the southernmost metropolis Salta. Buses run up and down as frequently as one every 15 minutes, so it was a convenient corridor to travel in. I cozied myself up in the very front seat of this luxurious bus, and enjoyed the early morning view of the highlands.
typical colorful hills in the valley
The buses run so frequently it felt like a shuttle service that allowed me to get off in a small town, walk around, and then take the next bus. It was cheap and convenient, and I had never had such ease with bus travels in my previous travels. At every stop, venders would get in the bus selling their empanadas, sandwiches, fruit juice, little trinkets, etc. They are all delicious and cheap, making the journey even more delightful. I munched down some freshly fried empanadas while a herd of llamas passed by.
if you can get tired of llamas, then I have bad news for you
Within three hours, I was approaching the town of Humahuaca, the place where this entire region is named after. The small town of 10000 people enjoyed this namesake to the maximum, as it had become the prominent tourist town we all had come to love. The charming church held sermons in front of the little square full of people selling food and drinks, and its whitewashed walls were slightly dyed blue by the large dome as well as the sky. The famous clock tower stroke 12 just as I arrived, and a little figure of Saint Francisco Solano came out, along with a hymn broadcasted via multiple megaphones. Everyone dropped whatever he/she was doing, stood up, and sang with the song loudly.
I got myself a ticket to continue to Iruya, a town to the northwest of Humahuaca, but was said to be the absolute epitome of the Quebrada. The bus would leave in the afternoon, so I had to spend my noon in Humahuaca. Though famous, Humahuaca does not have too much to offer for the backpackers, and that is why I decided not to stay overnight. The back of the town has a towering hill, on top of which sits a monument dedicated to those heroes who fought in the war of independence.
monument for the independence heroes
It was lunch time, so I decided to pop into a local restaurant for lunch. The place was touristy enough to have an elevated price, and I could not believe I had to pay more than 5 dollars for a meal after so long in Bolivia. I got myself a delicious llama stew, and ate my hearts out while resisting the urge to eat it before I take this picture.
I finally boarded the bus to Iruya after 2. The route is exclusively run by the bus company Transporte Iruya, and the 3 hour ride into the town was dangerously beautiful. The dirt road winds up all the way past 4000m, and quickly descends into a steep river valley before a dramatic 18 hairpin corners bringing the passengers into Iruya. It was definitely one of the more dramatic rides in my life.
a tiny bus stop, sponsored by… Transporte Iruya!
On the bus, I got to know three international students studying in Buenos Aires. Two of them Americans, and the other French. They were travelling together in Argentina and having a blast in the Quebrada. The three girls were incredibly warm and offered me a lot of advice for my future trips south.
The afternoon was more of a lazy one, except the fact that sometimes the corners were so sharp that half of the front of the bus were sticking outside in midair, and sitting in the first row, I could directly see beneath the hundred-meter drop. The dirt raised after we pass through a corner would sometimes be blown onto the bus on the next corner, and I felt like I would get pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniosis any time now. (sorry have to show off the longest word I know)
Passing the highest point, we officially exited the Jujuy province and entered Salta province. The descend was even scarier and the three girls did not want to look outside. The sun was slowly setting as we approached the tiny town, and when the bus stopped on the only street wide enough for any vehicle, we all cheered as we arrived in one piece and were full of dirt we had been ingesting.
I decided to go with the three girls and look for a place to stay. We were approached by a local woman, who offered us a few rooms for rent. This place is so off the beaten track that there are no formal tourist establishments here in Iruya. The only option was to live in a local’s house. We gladly accepted the 80 peso price and settled in. We were famished by that time, and we decided to go for some food. There were some locals sitting beside the church, and we asked if there was any place that they would recommend. It felt so strange when I had been “carrying” fellow travelers who could not speak Spanish for almost two weeks and suddenly all three I was with now spoke fluent Spanish. We walked into the little “canteen” with no signs in front of it, and greeted the owner. We asked for a menu, and he said: “oh okay I will be there with the menu.”
this is the “menu”
I had never seen a restaurant with no menu and the owner had to handwrite one! The owner had to look at the fresh ingredient he had got, and came up with menu in his head every day! Now that is a local place I would visit every day!
We had a great time talking and eating, as the owner cooked an excellent variety of local dishes, full of flavors and absolutely fresh. By the time we got out of the restaurant, the entire valley had fallen asleep. There was no night clubs, no rush hour traffic (or cars as a matter of fact), and just serenity. The moon was casting mountain-shaped shadows on the steep hills, and only a few lights were on to illuminate the uneven cobble stone roads.
The next day, we woke up to take a walk to the top of the town, where you could get a full unobscured view of the place. On our way, we passed by a place full of kids playing with balls and riding bikes. They were ever-so-lovely, and I dare to say that not many people enjoy life as much as these kids in the middle of these deep mountains.
a playground for them, and for me as well
The viewpoint is on the back of the town, not too far from the northern suburbs, and we walked there quite easily in 20 minutes. The view extended all the way down the valley. The dark green, crimson red and earthy brown colors of the rocks on all sides merged into large bands of silky ribbons. The town and people’s daily lives were all under my eyes, while condors soared almost as high as sky.
After we got back to town, we felt a bit tired and hungry, so we elected to have lunch early. The food being offered in another restaurant close to the plaza was also spectacularly yummy and local. We had Andean potatoes, which came in all colors, shapes and sizes, as well as a great taste. The desserts consist of pancakes topped with quinoa, and flans made locally with Argentineans favorite dulce de leche (basically caramel with a twist). The quinoa pancake was absolutely phenomenal, and the fresh quinoa blew my mind. The crunchy yet slightly shewy taste was the best thing I have ever had ever since my decision to travel around the world.
quinoa topped pancake
As we passed by the town on our way back, we stumbled upon a rehearsal of an upcoming festival. The locals already told us about the festival, which would take place tonight, in celebration of the moon. This had been a tradition here for a long time, and I was so lucky that I could witness it in full. The performers dressed up in very different costumes, presumably representing different roles in the daily life.
rehearsing a festival ritual
The guy in the front, a middle-aged yet robust man, held a cast of a cow on the head; two young men were in the back dressed like horses. One elderly guy wore a gas mask (yeah really) and motorcycle helmets in both his front and back, and maybe he is the sharman? Many men and women bore masks and held ropes in their hands.
wow, just, uh, wow
The music was basically the bell from the church, coupled with a few people blowing extremely long and heavy copper trumpets. They had to be raised into the air for the best sound effect, and a young boy was having a very difficult time doing this job. Remember, this place is still almost 3000m/10000ft above sea level, so even breathing is more difficult here!
you go boy, you go!
The dance was just a simple movement forward and backward towards the church. The people all moved as if they were hopping around, and their pattern was to go forward, turn around, go back, and then go forward, all hopping according to the rhythm after many cycles, form a circle, and dance while kicking their boots. It was bizarre for sure, but entertaining nonetheless.
going back, going forward
forming a circle
The performance ended after a few rounds of practicing, and the crowd dispersed quickly. We went down the road and saw a football (when I mention it, it is always soccer unless I specifically emphasize American football.) match going on in the field across from the river. The river had dried up but still had a bridge across. It served as the lifeline connecting the other side of the town to the main road.
walking the bridge
The football match was quite interesting, actually, as there were quite a few spectators and the players took themselves very seriously. There was even a judge in judge uniform! Every team member also had their custom shirts! Don’t forget this is a tiny town in the middle of mountains in the furthest corner of the country. But hey, they say Argentinians get nuts when it comes to football, and the stereotype holds true even this far from the world.
While we were watching the match, one of the girls pulled out a mate (pronounced “Mah-teh”) jar. Yes, it is the same kind of tea I had in Bolivia, but this kind is crushed up coca leaves in a filter, in a jar. It is quite popular in this region. No, it is likely the most popular thing in this region, and the tradition is to share it among everyone in the group, since personal hygiene is as unheard of as unicorns here. I always do what the Romans do, so I downed the cocaine drink with a heartbeat.
it is mate, mate!
The girls had to go back to Humahuaca with the afternoon bus, and I decided to stay 2 more days because I knew this was gonna be the best part of Quebrada de Humahuaca. The people here were ever so friendly, and every aspect about this little town was more charming than I would expect. The delicious food, the valley casting shadows and light onto the other side, and the friendly locals who love to hang out in the tiny plaza for an afternoon chat…
festival at night
dances in front of the church
After dinner, the festival finally began: the dancers showed up in their traditional clothing, and performed the dance they rehearsed in the morning. The crowds completely surrounded the entire plaza, and the much fanfare attracted probably more than half of the town. After the dance, many statues of some kind of saint was paraded around and eventually into the church. Then a fire was set in the middle of the plaza, burning some potato stalks; finally some fireworks were lit up by the “shaman” character, and he danced around, waving his staff, as the fireworks climaxed to a brilliant finish.
shaman doing silly things to entertain the crowds, like hugging the firework
what a beautiful night!
After the sulfur slowly drifted away into the deeper parts of the valley, the church opened for the people to go in and worship the numerous statues. Dozens of vendors popped out of nowhere and started selling food, transforming the gathering into a marketplace. One of the ladies told me it was customary to eat tamales for the festival, so I went ahead and got myself one.
The tamales here are still made of corn powder and wrapped in corn leaf, but just shaped differently. There was suddenly an MC on the stage, and he started announcing performances that would ensue. The marketplace quickly transformed, again, into a show. Lots of kids rushed in, dressed in local attires, and performed a very classic form of folk dance. Each of the boy-girl pair clap their hands for 12 bars and then dance revolving each other, usually involving some intense music and even more intense spinning.
kids dancing folk style
By the time the night was over, the moon had already sunk beneath the other side of the mountains. I returned home and quickly dozed off to sleep. I woke up to another great day, and I decided to pay the nearby village of San Isidro a visit. It was about 10 km away, and I had to hike in the valley in order to reach it. The valley was incredibly beautiful on this sunny day, and I had to walk alongside a bigger river upstream.
up the valley I go!
Underneath the disguise of a barren valley was a sanctuary full of life. In the shallow river eddies, thousands of tadpoles were thriving. Far above the clouds in the skies, condors soared the highland airs in groups. It appeared to be quiet and lifeless, but if you paid close attention, life was all around you.
tadpoles in shallow ponds
The three hour walk was quite pleasant, but it was definitely not for the faint hearted. I had to cross the stream multiple times, and there was nothing between Iruya and San Isidro, so bringing food and water was important. The last stretch involved climbing all the way up to the town, which could be very exhausting on such a hot day. I walked into a tiny “restaurant” that was more of a family’s dining room, and asked if they were open on this lazy Sunday. I was the only visitor to this village that has fewer than 300 people, so I had come to expect nothing. The owner looked at the kitchen, and looked at her food stash, and nodded. Still remember my one night stand with those tamales from last night, I ordered some tamales along with a potato pancake.
lunch by the mountains
If Iruya is the epitome of Quebrada de Humahuaca, then San Isidro is the crème de la crème. This miniscule village has a tiny lovely church, and sits on top of a steep river valley full of red, blue, green, brown and yellow rocks. Tiny potato patches surround the houses, and quinoa plantations dot the windy hills. The entire place was quiet, really, really, quiet. I could hear the river running beneath me, and the wind blowing over the hills, making the rocks tremble a bit.
San Isidro church
I thanked the owner, and paid for my 90 peso/5 dollars lunch. I wandered around the tiny village a bit, and realized it was time to go back. I had to catch a bus back to civilization! I raced back down the hills, and down the valley, until I met a new friend Ralph. He was so calm and gentle that I had to take a selfie with him.
don’t be an ass, Ralph!
After saying bye to my new bestie Ralph, I continued my sprint down the rocky road. I eventually reached Iruya just in time for my bus, and I thanked my housemom for her hospitality before running down the uneven streets that had been trying to trip me over for the past 3 days. I was hoarded onto the bus and began my arduous journey back to Humahuaca.
tell Ralph I said hi~!
The way back was nothing but astonishing, the driver’s skills must be through the roof as some of the curves even looked impossible for driving through with a small car. I think this magnificent little town is worth a visit simply because of the road to the town itself!
climbing back up
I got into the Humahuaca bus terminal, and hopped onto a bus towards Tilcara, a town further south. The rule here in the Quebrada is that the more south you go, the more touristy it gets, since it is closer to the major cities of Jujuy and Salta. I watched the sunset in the bus, while this 30 minute ride took me down the the place I would rest for the night.
sunset in Quebrada, from my full recliner seat in the bus
I got to the small township of Tilcara just as the light started dimming out, and I decided to go to a new hostel nearby for some rest. The people managing the hostel was a group of hippies that got really tired of metropolis life in Buenos Aires, and offered me a warm welcome. I was settled into my bunk bed, and was invited to join them for dinner!
We went to a local-style restaurant that was blasting extremely loud folk music, and just as we settled down, a group of musicians dressed up as the Incas came up to the stage, and started performing a lot of local musics. I was seated right next to them and my ears promptly fell off, but nonetheless it was a great touristy experience with tasty local food.
I was quite exhausted from all the climbing and hiking, so I took an early evening and dozed off to sweet slumber. I woke up to a beautiful day in the beautiful mountains, and headed for the most important sight in Tilcara. It is called Pucara de Tilcara, a national monument which is a strategic fort that was used by pre-Inca Omaguaca tribe as a transit point for many traffic going up and down the Quebrada. The entire town could house more than 2000 residents during its heyday.
morning in Tilcara
The entire fort was built upon a large hill, and the houses were small and with extremely low clearance. All of those claustrophobic housings had no windows, and roofs were made of cacti wood, and so were the doors!
Pucara de Tilcara
I took a break from all the exploring after I finished with the Pucara, and got myself a ticket further south. Before I could venture south, I had to fill myself up with a fuel stop! I decided to try a local sandwich stall, which had some delicious options more suitable for my wallet. I had the ultimate sandwich from the stall, despite me having a bit of fear from the cota experience in South Africa. (actually, I eventually brought that cota to Shanghai and still did not finish it)
Argentinean mountain sandwich
watched some cat videos worked on some blogging while I waited for the bus to show up, and quickly I realized the bus was not coming. I argued with the salesman and he got me on another company’s bus one hour later. I could not have been more frustrated as I wasted two full hours just standing by the highway. Alas, I arrived in the town of Purmamarca nonetheless, despite it was a bit late.
The extremely crowded bus pulled into Purmamarca just as the clock stroke 8, and I almost fell onto the ground as I disembarked since the lack of windows made the hour-long ride a ride to hell. I could smell 20 different people’s body odor mixed with some dried fish smell, plus some shaking by the driver’s motion-packed maneuvering… I looked around, and the town was mostly dead by this time except for some tourist-oriented restaurants. I took a read at my lonely planet and knocked on the doors of one of the highest acclaimed hostels in town, right in front of the bus station.
“Jujuy’s local newspaper Pregon on sale here”
I knocked on the doors, and an elderly lady, the owner, answered the doors.
“Ah joven we are closed; we do not take guests tonight.” she said, puffing smoke from her pipesmoke.
“Why? Is your hostel full?” I asked somewhat desperately, “I had quite a long day and an especially long ride, if yours is full, can you direct me to another one?”
“No, it is just that we had a huge group yesterday and I haven’t cleaned any rooms today. I feel like to take a break.” She looked at me, puffed out another ring of smoke, and waved me in, “but joven you can stay over today, I will attend to you myself.”
I thanked her profusely, and entered the hostel. The front of the hostel was a restaurant, and in the back were a few rooms shrouded in darkness. Indeed, nobody was here at all! She put me into one of the double-bed private rooms, and only asked for a dorm rate. She could not had been nicer, and I felt my heart warmed up by her hospitality on this chilly night. Soon after I settled in, another traveler knocked on the door, and it was a German girl Sophia, who was also warmly welcomed by the lady. She settled into the other bed in the room, and the night was quietly spent in this empty hostel in this little town. Until now I can still hear that old lady’s smoke puffing sound, emitting circles after circles into the night sky, scattering the moonlight casting onto the barren ground…
Purmamarca with its famous Cerro de Siete Colores in back
The next day Sophia and I had an awesome breakfast, and we headed to the most famous sight of the town: Cerro de Siete Colores. It is a mountain with a road through the back of the town, and it reportedly has 7 colors in the rocks due to millions of years of glaciation, river deposits and plate tectonics. The eventual result was bands of colors on the tiny mountain all the way extending to the horizon. It was the most marvelous sight to behold by any softcore travelers in Quebrada.
Cerro de Siete Colores
Sophia and I climbed on top of one of the hills, and the view was simply stunning. The sun just started warming up the multicolored slopes, and no big tour groups had arrived with the buses yet. We met a group of future gym teachers under training in the valley, and decided to go alongside with them back to the town. They were a bunch of incredibly well-disciplined young men and women from Buenos Aires, and we gladly ran back to the town with them as exercise of the day.
downhill with the others
As we got back to the town, still panting heavily from the workout that I had opted out ever since my trip started with Australia 4 months ago. The entire place had gotten much more lively ever since we got out of town. The plaza now was filled with artesanía vendors hollering little trinkets, and a street performer quietly stroke his guitar in the corner. The group of young men and women immediately gathered around him, tossed him a lot of bills, and started demanding songs to be played. Within seconds, the plaza turned into a playground. They broke into singing, dancing, and partying with the song, and that attracted even more locals to join the circle to dance. Sophia and I stood amongst the raving crowds, perplexion full on our complexion.
Argentinean dance circle
I had never seen a group of people so spontaneous. Maybe it is a great tradition in Argentina that people are really happy genuinely, and breaking into a dance circle was such a commonplace thing that I just happened to stumble into one. They all seemed so relaxed and passionate, maybe that is where the South American magic at work…
We bid farewell to the group of future gym instructors, and I went to buy a bus ticket for the last time in Quebrada. Now I was very close to the capitals of Jujuy and Salta, and I finally had to leave this beautiful valley. This 3o0 km long stretch of beauty is called Quebrada because in the local languages of Quechua, it means “broken”. Indeed, the jagged territory and the mismatched bands of color do invoke a sense of directionlessness; I felt lost in the depths of both the hills as well as my heart. These seven days marked a long journey down from the top to the bottom, and the kindhearted people, the jaw dropping sceneries, as well as the strange traditions, all justified its title of UNESCO World Heritage held for more than a decade. It is so easy to fall in love with this place that I dare not to come here again without preparation. Quebrada, broken in lands, but not broken in heart.
broken lands, unbroken experience
I waved Sophia goodbye as my bus pulled out of the station. Within an hour, I arrived at the Jujuy bus terminal. This megapolis in the northwestern corner left me little time to explore, because I needed to venture further south. I continued down immediately on another bus heading to Salta, an attractive colonial city full of beautiful plazas, festive dancing sessions and gorgeous museums. I looked outside the window, and the sun had already started its journey to the other side of this tiny spinning Earth. My Argentina experience had just begun, but I had already been amazed many times over; I wondered: what could possibly lie ahead of me…