Thursday, January 24, 2008

A bag of chips and a bowl of humahuaca

No, Humahuaca is not an Argentine version of guacamole. It's a huge valley in northwestern Argentina. The valley itself is named the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Ravine of Humahuaca) and there's also a town named Humahuaca in the valley. It's a United Nations World Heritage Site because of its great natural beauty and its importance as an historic crossroads. For millenia, Humahuaca has been a route for transit between Peru and Argentina. The Incans used it for caravans of their far-flung empire, the Spanish connected their viceroyalties of Peru and Rio De La Plata, and the Argentinos found it a critical juncture for travel during their wars of independence.

Luciano and I journeyed around the environs of Salta Capital quite a bit on our own, utilizing colectivos (public buses). It's a cheap way to get around, costing just a peso or two to travel to nearby towns. To go further afield, we decided to take a couple of excursiones (group tours). Our first tour was to Humahuaca in neighboring Juyuy province.

Our driver and guide, Juanjo, picked us up in front of our hotel at 8 AM. We had a small group, just us and two tourists from Italy. Juanjo conducted the tour in Spanish, the only language we all understood in common, but he is multilingual, chatting privately with me in English, with our companions in Italian, and said he speaks Portuguese as well.

We set out through the lowlands of Salta toward Jujuy, slowly climbing in elevation as the terrain became higher and drier. As we entered Jujuy province, Juanjo pointed out fields of the main crop of Jujuy, tobacco. Soon, even the tobacco fields gave way to drier terrain, as we climbed to the high semi-desert plateau.

Our first major stop was Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors), a formation caused by strata of varying mineral contents. The contrast of earth-tone pigments against the blue skies, white clouds, and shadowed mountains was striking. Just a few kilometers further we came to the tiny pueblo of Purmamarca, which means Town of the Virgin Earth in the native Aymara language which is still spoken by about a million people in the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The small town square holds a handicrafts market for tourists, which are surely the largest source of income for this remote village.

Next we proceeded on to Tilcara, formerly a crucial spot on the route from Peru to Argentina. Built on hill, the pucará (fortified town) of ancient Tilcara has been reconstructed so that one can imagine what it must have been like during the time of the Incas. With its high vantage point, Tilcara was able to observe movements through the quebrada and pose a formidable obstacle to any unfriendly forces. Its stone buildings are low-roofed and small but remain quite cool inside despite the hot desert temperatures. In this region, we find llamas and alpacas grazing, more cacti than trees, and air dry enough to mummify corpses. Tilcara means Shooting Star in Quechua, another Andean language widely used in the Altiplano (Andean plateau region of South America).

As we continued heading north, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn before we reached Humahuaca. Technically we entered the tropics yet there wasn't a trace of lush Amazonian-type foliage. At 9642 feet above sea level, Humahuaca is arid and the air is noticeably thin. Its cobblestone streets, adobe structures, and colonial architecture give it definite charm. From the main plaza, we trekked up an incredibly long and broad staircase to an immense monument to Argentina's independence. The view from the monument is spectacular but the statue and staircase seem like anomalies, far too ornate and huge for a small pueblo like Humahuaca.

Juanjo turned us over to his local counterpart, who gave us a tour of the cathedral and spoke to us about the indigenous customs and history. We had a pleasant lunch in the town, entertained by native musicians in costume. Afterward, we wandered around the plaza, strolled the picturesque streets, and of course browsed the handicrafts markets.

We headed back to San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of Jujuy province. We stopped near the main plaza to look around a bit at some of Juyuy's colonial buildings and received an unexpected bonus. Dozens of children were singing and dancing in front of the cathedral, in native costumes, practicing for an upcoming event. We indulged in cortados (espresso with a dollop of steamed milk) and pastries before the return trip to Salta.

Juanjo selected an alternate route which took us through truly beautiful hills and valleys. The winding road had 130 curves according to our guide so it was fortunate none of us had problems with motion sickness. Each bend revealed another lovely sylvan view. The landscape was much like San Lorenzo which we had visited previously but more remote. Our last stop was beside the Rio Ubierna (Ubierna River), just before sunset.

It was a long day, about 12 hours, and we had covered a lot of territory, seen historic places, and visited regions with dramatically different climate and scenery. I definitely think we got our money's worth for the 100 pesos (US $32) that it cost.


J()§hØ said...

Definetely, a place I want to know some day.

Have you come to the south already?

Hugs from Santa Cruz.

Striezel said...

I'm sure you'll really enjoy it when you visit there. As to the south, the farthest I've gone so far is La Pampa which is only one province further south than Buenos Aires! It's a huge country and I think it will take years before I can see most of it but I definitely want to journey to your area in the future.

Chup-Chup said...

well, i know a lot of argentineans that moved to california but i didn't know the other way round...
i hope u are enjoying the country...i miss it sometimes :)

Anonymous said...

Kevin what's up - long time no see. I don't know how to use this site, and have created an account SPECIFICALLY so I could say "hello". I found you, and one other person from my "late 90's past" on here... blah. Well, try to communicate with me somehow. I dunno how to send ya a "private" message.

Striezel said...

Hiya,, it's been a LONG time! How did you ever stumble across my blog? I hope you check back and see this comment because it's all I have, Blogger doesn't actually forward your email addy to me or anything like that. I'll give you my addy in a way that robots shouldn't figure out: my Blogger ID (striezel) at to hear from you soon :)