Northwest Argentina - the way Argentina was.

Updated: Jan 25



(Excerpt from my novel in progress). The bus has no toilet and five hours into our trip my back teeth are floating and I’m tense from holding my bladder. It seems that others are feeling the same – there’s a lot of chattering suddenly and the bus begins to slow down. We pull off the highway and people pile off the bus. I follow, practically running down the aisle. Stepping off the bus, I see nothing. There isn’t a spark of light, and I have no idea where the bathrooms are. The other passengers walk out into the darkness, men and women going in opposite directions. I follow the women and see one after the other picking a piece of road, lifting their heavy skirts and squatting. Oh lord. Resigned, I look for my own piece of road, close my eyes and pretend there’s no one else around, pee then get back on the bus. Within 5 minutes, we’re off again. No counting of passengers to my knowledge – certainly hope we didn’t leave anyone behind.


Finished I am with that crap, haha. I’m converted and I’m not going back. We’ve rented a lovely, wonderful peanut of a car in Salta, the capital of the Salta Province in the north of Argentina, and I love it! We drive WHEREVER WE WANT and stop WHEREVER and WHENEVER WE WANT. I’m done with shitty rooms. We’re in a great hotel room with a king size bed and a pool. And…I love it. I love the full body massage I treated myself to tonight. No more millimetre-thick pieces of pounded beef (milanesa). I want a thick steak with a bottle of wine. Often. A bit sad to say goodbye to that part of me that actually enjoyed the types of experiences I described above, but I’m thoroughly resigned to looking back fondly on those memories and embracing this very different way of travelling.


So, we are in the north of Argentina now. This region is the least developed and the poorest. It is Argentina as it was before the Spaniards came. Tucked into the region’s beautiful nooks and crannies are mud and brick huts, the homes of the small indigenous communities that make up much of the population in the north. In every yard, a huge round clay oven and a multitude of clothes hanging to dry. Some communities barely take up mountain space - maybe three families living together.


Gauchos ride along the dusty roads leading their horses with huge cowhide chaps extending out like wings from their horses to protect them from the thorny vegetation they ride through. Both indigenous and of Spanish heritage, these South American 'cowboys' are quite revered for their substantial role in Argentina’s battle for independence from Spain in the early 1800s.



Our travels this week take us first on a loop that goes south from Salta to Cafayate then north to Cachi and back to Salta. Within a few kilometres of Salta, we see a change from lush green, almost subtropical, to a dry, rocky and geologically stunning ecosystem.


Kilometres upon kilometres of wildly eroded rock formations making our jaws drop again and again. My camera is exhausted, I’m sure, by the time we roll into Cafayate, a bustling wine-flogging town full of tourists ready to party on the last weekend of Latin America’s most loved holiday – Carnaval. We only stop for empanadas and a little look-see for some wine and souvenirs in the market there before looping back north toward Angatasco where we’ve booked a room for three nights. We’re now on Ruta 40, the famous 5000+ kilometre ‘highway’ that goes from the north to the south of Argentina. Unpaved for the entire 80 kilometres we travel, our teeth shaking from the rough road, we go through the most desolate, stark landscapes I’ve ever seen. Our heads shake in disbelief as each corner produces yet more jaw dropping rock formations.


Though we don't know what to expect, Angastaco is a little gem of a town, tiny and dead quiet, with a beautiful creamy white church and, thanks be to god, a kickass hotel with pool.

Venturing outside its dirt roads, we are greeted by llamas who nastily and loudly spit projectiles at our faces...

and much friendlier goats and sheep.












People are curious and kind – a farmer stops sorting his 20-days-dried chile peppers to kindly answer our questions (none are imported; the entire harvest goes toward creating the great picante or spicy salsa that accompanies our local meals).


Others invite us into their gardens filled with pomegranate trees and grape vines, and show us their teeny wine operations – a barrel in a small dark building behind their home. We happily acquiesce and leave, of course, with two bottles of the stuff and the pomegranate and bunch of grapes the man gifts us with.


Three lazy days later we head further north to Cachi and then east toward Salta along a twisty highway that climbs 6000 metres and overlooks one of the prettiest, and the greenest valley I’ve ever seen. We wind down it for a few hours back to Salta. A fantastic circuit.





Back in Salta, we look over our regional map and make a plan for the next seven days based on all the circled places we’ve been told about - Jujuy (pronounced hoo-hoo-ee), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Humahuaca, Iruya, and Salinas Grandes. Once we get Jujuy over with (which was too busy and too sad with its ignored slums to enjoy), we hit funky village after funky village, each surrounded by hills and mountains stunning with their mineral layers, golden and red, purple, rust, blue and pink.


On the way to Tilcara, where we are booked into an Air B&B, is Purmamarca and its market of gorgeous and cheap woven products. Our stop here results in not one but two replacements for the alpaca sweater I’ve lived in for three years (yes mom, I can finally stop wearing that old thing). And if the colourful market isn’t enough of a draw, the town’s backdrop of hills and cliffs in even more colourful hues, makes it hard to leave the place.


But leave it we do and head up to pretty Tilcara with its small population served by at least 55 restaurants.

And if that’s not enough, it has cheaper than cheap street food - huge grilled tortillas filled with ham and cheese or with tomatoes, onions and basil. Dented pots on grills hold hot api, a local drink made of red corn (chicha), cinnamon, cloves and sugar. Delicious.





Carnaval was on its last night, and Aaron and I both got doused with flour, though, as obvious tourists, the dousing was done with the utmost politeness.


Grannies and grampas, moms and dads, many decked out in flashy, sequined costumes, filled up narrow cobblestone streets, dancing to loud folky music and sharing with anyone willing to drink from their cup (like me!), their purple chicha (local alcohol). Lots of drunken people. A crazy scene. And one we were told the local women don’t much like as the local men get aggressive when they drink so much.


Near Tilcara is a mirador 4200 metres above sea level that overlooks the incredibly beautiful Hornocal, ‘cerro de 14 colores,’ or mountain with 14 layers of coloured rock (see top of this post). We are told by an indigenous woman who hitches a ride to the mirador with us that the mountains are filled with tiny indigenous communities, one which is hers and which she has to walk three further hours to get to after she left us. Tough chick!


One of the prettiest, tiniest and most isolated of these villages is Iruya. We reach it after a three- hour journey up a gravel road, a journey that was magical with vistas of unimaginable magnificence. We climb high into the mountains where we can see the river far below us, tiny in the immense valley it flows through. It is like going into another world, and I can easily imagine the huge dinosaurs who might have grazed the deep valley bottom millions of years ago.

On the way, children from small adobe huts on the hillside run to our car as we drive through, asking us if we want some empanadas. Fresh? We hope so.









From the summit, we head down the mountain winding around 22 switchbacks to the valley bottom.









As we turn the last corner we see Iruya with its pretty cream-coloured church, perched on a rock, a rough cobblestone road leading up to it. What a peaceful world. Time treads slowly here and without regard for the influx of tourism.


Yes, there are lots of hostels and restaurants to feed the needs of us foreigners, but the elders still sit in the plaza, chatting with their neighbours and the children play hide and seek amongst the legs of tourists.

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