Quilmes to Humahuaca -- Salta and Jujuy Provinces, Northwest Argentina

April 19 - May 8, 2007



Quebrada de Humahuaca.






Salta is a relaxing place with lots of culture that now ranks as our favorite Argentine city. Founded in the 16th century, this city of 500,000 has four museums located around a leafy central plaza, a cultural center exhibiting current photography, frequent concerts (we saw live music! -- Ana Issa), and the symphony will be playing next week. Last Friday night, we were surprised to hear the clatter of horse hooves on the cobbled pavement, and joined a crowd of locals watching gauchos parading around the plaza. There are two 400 year old churches -- the Iglesia San Francisco claims to have the highest tower in Sud America. But our most amazing experience in Salta was visiting the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montaña. Just eight years ago on the lofty summit (22,110') of Llullanillaco Volcano at the Chile-Argentina border, the bodies of mummified Incan children were discovered. Throughout the Incan empire (which extended south from Peru through Northern Argentina to Santiago, Chile), the Incans sacrificed small children on the highest Andean peaks, where they would be as close as possible to their Gods. They sacrificed the most beautiful children from ruling families throughout the empire, who were adorned in jewels and fine clothes, then walked to the highest peaks, where they were drugged and then buried in rock tombs. The cold dry air perfectly preserved their bodies, as well as food and extra clothing (including extra pairs of sandals) for their upcoming journey to the Gods. The children were buried with incredibly beautiful miniature gold figurines, with feather headdresses and carefully woven clothes. The displays were respectful, fascinating, sobering, and gave us a new understanding of the Incan Empire we plan to explore further.






We rented another tiny Chevy Corsa for a couple weeks and drove 186 kms south from Salta to the wine growing region of Cafayate, famous for its torrentes grapes...and saw huge flocks of parrots flying over the orchards. Then we traveled up the much-too-long bumpy dirt road through the Calchagui Valley to Cachi, a sleepy adobe village, through groves of Cordon cactus, to the Cuesta de Obispo, and then spiraling down the incredibly twisty, steep highway, back up through Salta and Jujuy, through the World Heritage-listed Quebrada de Humahuaca, past Purmamarca's multi-colored cliffs, and finally to Humahuaca itself, a village of 6,000 just a hundred kms from the Bolivian border. As we travel farther and farther north, the character of Argentina has dramatically changed: the landscape is high and dry, and the people are Quechua, living traditional lives in hand-constructed adobe villages.








Quilmes is the site of a thousand year old settlement that was once home to 5000 people. After much conflict, first with the Incans and then the Spanish conquistadors, in 1667 the last 2000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated to the Buenos Aires province. Sadly, these people eventually perished, and Quilmes is now identified more with the Argentine beer of the same name...












Shrine alert!

While driving north, on the lookout for more Gauchito Gil shrines, we discovered another cult figure: San La Muerte, a powerful skeletal icon who brings hope in times of danger, revenge to one's enemies, and finds lost treasures. A sad woman wept as she prayed in front of one of the shrines, and at another, a father lit candles while his young son watched in awe. We peeked through iron bars and saw a collection of San La Muerte amulets. To increase their power, worshippers smuggle these tiny icons into seven Catholic churches on seven consecutive Fridays, holding them in their clenched fists as they are blessed by unsuspecting priests. San La Muerte has been worshipped since the Jesuits were expelled from Argentina in the 1760's.

At every mountain pass and next to the marker for the Tropic of Capricorn, north of Tilcara, we find apachetas -- simple rock shrines often covered with dried corn stalks, that pay tribute to Pachamama (Mother Earth). We returned to Salta and discovered we had just missed the 33rd annual Festival to Pachamama...we seem to have a knack for missing just about every festival during our travels!












Ruta 52 switchbacks out of the Quebrada de Humahuaca up 6500' to the edge of the puna at the 13,800 foot Altos del Morado pass. The central Andean puna (aka altiplano) is a high dry treeless plateau extending from northwest Argentina, across Bolivia into southern Peru. At an average elevation of 11,000 feet, the puna is the most extensive high altitude plateau outside of Tibet. In the Pleistocene, this whole area was covered by a vast inland lake. The spectacular salt pans that today fill many of the interior valleys are remnants of this ancient lake.

At the pass, we met Lucy, a 20-something solo bicyclist from Canada who was wolfing down dulce de leche (caramel spread) on bread, trying to recover from her mammoth climb. She had cycled all the way from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, taking the back roads and camping out in her tent between towns. Another amazing soul out on a life adventure! She was heading on to the Atacama in Chile, then north to Bolivia. We hope to run into her again out on the Salar de Uyuni, our next stop.

The puna is home to herds of the beautiful endangered wild vicuña.











Salina Olaraz.




Our Susques hotel owner had four pet llamas living in the shed out back -- these domesticated cousins of the vicuña are cute as a button!







The vast salt pan of the Salinas Grande is covered with oddly shaped tiles of salt that stretch unbroken to the horizon...









It was sobering to see the salt works out on the Salinas Grande. The sun is so intense reflecting off the salt at 12,000' that the workers cover up completely in long sleeve shirts, hats, and full face masks. The salt is harvested from crystallization ponds cut into the surface of the salt flat. These guys, using plastic bags for waders, shovel out the crystals, dry them in the sun, and haul truckloads of bagged salt to the nearby Quechua settlement of Tres Pozos

Later that evening, we ran into three young travelers who had been standing out on the highway at this remote spot for six hours trying without luck to hitch a ride across the pass to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. As night fell, they set up camp with no food, no water. We gave them a ride 10 kms to Tres Pozos, a barren adobe outpost out on this treeless plain. We passed a dimly lit open doorway where we could see young kids grinding and bagging salt. Finally, we located the local mercado, an unmarked adobe room with a single bulb on the ceiling. Of course we were the evening entertainment as our friends stocked up on pasta, cheese, peanuts, and bread. The kids were hovering around laughing and pointing. With dinner in hand, we bid hasta luego to the crowd, dropped our friends off at their camp and returned to our hotel back in Purmamarca. But we will never forget our small glimpse into the difficult life lived in this remote part of the Andean northwest...






San Juan (bus) ► Salta (car) ► Cafayate (car) ► Quilmes (car) ► Cafayate (car) ► Cachi (car) ► Jujuy (car) ► Humahuaca (car) ► Purmamarca (car) ►Susques (car) ►Salta