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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Salta La Linda

Originally, Luciano and I planned to rent a car and drive the 900-something miles to Salta. I thought it would probably be cheaper than flying plus I would see a lot of the countryside in between. However, when we looked into it, we got a bad case of sticker shock. Rental cars here are exorbitantly priced, even the smallest economy car going for 60 dollars a day or more, so our original two week plan would have cost at least 1000 dollars just for car rental, gas, and related costs. We ended up flying to Salta for just a bit over 400 dollars for both of us.

We stayed in an apart-hotel a couple of blocks from the principal town square, Plaza 9 de Julio. The apartment had a good view over the city and the central location made it very convenient. At about 30 dollars per day, it was cheaper than a hotel plus we had an entire apartment and kitchen rather than just a room.

Salta is very picturesque with lots of preserved colonial era architecture. Salteños are proud of their city and it shows in the well-kept streets, parks, and plazas. It's not a big city, only about 500,000 inhabitants, but it is the capital of the province of the same name. The province of Salta is in northwest Argentina, sharing borders with Chile and Bolivia. Its fertile lowlands in the southeast change into chains of foothills as you go north or west, finally climbing up into the high peaks of the Andes mountains. This gives Salta a breadth of climates and terrains, from lush subtropical to dry high mountain deserts. Click here for a brief overview of Salta and be sure to click Zone Map to get your bearings for our travels through this area.

Salta is Luciano's hometown so I had an excellent guide. We started off by getting an aerial view of the city, riding the teleférico (sky tram) from San Martin park up to the top of nearby Cerro San Bernardo (cerro is hill in Spanish). On the hilltop is a beautifully landscaped park with a creek, waterfall, restaurant and stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains of Salta Capital, as the city is popularly known. We chose to walk back down the hill via a staircase trail so that we could enjoy the changing vistas during our leisurely descent. The trails terminates in Guemes park where there is a huge monument to General Guemes, one of the heroes of Argentina's revolution.

The heart of Salta Capital is Plaza 9 de Julio. This town square is framed by some of the city's most important buildings such as the cabildo (city hall) and the cathedral, both fine examples of colonial architecture. All of the buildings facing the plaza are illuminated from dusk to dawn, providing a visual treat throughout the night. Many locals as well as tourists enjoy a beverage or meal at one of the cafés lining the plaza, then take a stroll around the park to greet their friends. The city center is safe to enjoy even in the middle of the night, not only because of the lighting but because the city has monitoring cameras installed throughout the central zone. Salta is surprisingly more high tech than Buenos wi-fi internet access is provided by the city government.

A popular nocturnal destination is Balcarce Street, about 8 blocks north of the town square. Thursday through Sunday evenings the street is blocked to traffic and becomes a pedestrian zone for huge crowds which flock to its many restaurants, bars, and nightclubs until daylight. Salta has a number of pedestrian shopping streets as well and the relatively small size of the city's core makes it well suited for the tourist or resident who enjoys walking.

We visited Jekyll in Calle San Luis, Salta's only fulltime gay bar, on three occasions. It's neither big nor fancy but it's certainly popular, packed each time we were there. Clearly it pays to have a monopoly. During one of our excursions into the province, we met an Italian tourist, Alfonso, who happens to be gay. We had dinner together one evening and promised him we'd show him the local gay bar so we hopped in a cab to head for Jekyll. Just three blocks into the trip, the driver made a left turn and we were immediately creamed by a city bus. It all happened so fast we didn't even have time to shriek or pee our pants. Fortunately the angle of impact was such that the two vehicles bounced off each other more than smashed together so nobody was injured. In fact, none of us even broke a nail or mussed our hair, or else how could we ever have proceeded on to the gay bar and been seen like that in public?

As I mentioned previously, we were thinking of moving to Salta. Buenos Aires is huge, exciting, and packed with things to do. It's also noisy, dirty, and crowded. After nine months here, I'm thinking it would be nice to live somewhere more tranquil, a house with a yard instead of an apartment with a balcony, maybe get a dog or two. Therefore we spent quite a bit of time outside of Salta Capital, not only enjoying the scenery but scouting potential areas to live. One day we visited Quebrada San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Ravine), a nature preserve in the hills about 12 miles from the city. It's absolutely gorgeous, a winding creek with water pouring over boulders, lush vegetation climbing the banks up through the hillsides, a cool refreshing climate year round. Just outside the park is the community of San Lorenzo, spread over gently rolling hills abundant with trees and greenery. There are similar pueblos in the surrounding areas and if we ever decide to live in Salta, I suspect that we'll buy a home in that area. It's a slice of paradise.

We also spent a day in Vaqueros, a pueblo just outside the city limits of Salta, across the Rio Vaqueros (Vaqueros River). Luciano still has a house in Vaqueros and we wanted to look it over and consider it as a possible home. It's quite large and is in a very quiet area at the end of a street. The back yard officially extends all the way to the river, 200-300 feet away, so there's lots of open space.

After visiting his house, we walked along the river for a good mile or so. It's very pretty with long vistas to the nearby hills. In midsummer, the river is low but I could tell by erosion higher up the banks that it can swell dramatically with rain and glacial runoff. Luciano showed me the popular riverside areas for romantic encounters of both the gay and straight variety...although I think I could have figured it out for myself from the dozens and dozens of condom wrappers lying around.

Luciano's family still lives in Salta, not far from Vaqueros. We went to the family home for Christmas and it's very different from our traditions. Here people get together on Christmas eve for a big dinner that always begins at midnight (or later) with a toast of cider or champagne. Fireworks are legal and for 15 or 20 minutes after midnight on Christmas there was a constant barrage of explosions to celebrate the holiday. I saw something completely new to me, a globo, which is like a very small hot air balloon. Inside is a packet of combustible fuel and after it's ignited it heats the balloon causing the glowing orb to rise and float into the nighttime sky. Very pretty but I wonder how many of them eventually fall back down and set fire to something!

Christmas Day itself is anticlimactic with everyone sleeping in and no particular festivities going on. In fact, virtually the entire city shut down, even the restaurants and kioscos (tiny shops that sell cigarettes, sodas, and such). We had almost nothing to eat in the apartment so Luciano went out foraging and the only thing he could find open was a heladería (ice cream shop) so we had a decadent lunch of 3 flavors.

New Year's Eve is also very different. It's celebrated at home, again with a midnight dinner. Only a handful of restaurants were open and all the bars and nightclubs were shut tight. The streets were nearly deserted but once again the fireworks madness commenced at the stroke of 12. We were on Balcarce Street at the time and laughed at the antics of some kids with their dog. Unlike every dog I've ever met, this one loved fireworks. He'd run around them barking and nipping at them and even the exploding variety didn't bother him in the least, he just circled again and went back for more.

Our final evening in Salta was spent with friends both old and new. Our Italian tourist joined us with his newfound romance, a nice lad from Chicoana, a nearby pueblo. I could never remember its name nor the noun for its inhabitants (chicoano) so I kept referring to him as "the chimichanga" (it's like a burrito). Luciano thought that was funny so the boy was permanently christened with a new nickname, like it or not. My friend Ulises, who is also from Salta originally and was visiting his family, also dined with us as well as our mutual friend Gustavo who was living in BA in 2005 but later moved back to Salta. We had a delicious dinner and lively time at Doña Salta, a restaurant specializing in Salteño cuisine amidst authentic ambience and decor.

This slideshow is of scenes in and around Salta Capital. In my next posts, you'll read about our adventures further afield and there will be more slideshows. Click the lower left corner of the slideshow if you want to go to the photo album page to view the pics full size.

Monday, January 14, 2008

We're backss now, aren't we, my precioussssss?

Happy New Year to all! I could add Merry Christmas, Happy Hallowe'en, Happy Thanksgiving, and even a Kwanza greeting to that, I suppose. After all, I have been absent from my blog for two months. Mea culpa.

In October, Luciano and I began to think of Christmas plans and we decided we would visit his hometown, Salta, in the province of the same name. Located in northwestern Argentina, amidst the Andes mountains, the province is known as Salta La Linda (Salta the Lovely) for its tremendous natural beauty. I was very much looking forward to seeing this area famed as Argentina's most beautiful and varied terrain.

Also around that time, we came up with an idea for a joint business venture, which would probably entail moving out of Buenos Aires. We decided to consider Salta as a possible future home. I spent most of November and part of December researching numerous aspects of our business plans as well as investigating Salta and other places as potential spots to live and work.

In the midst of all of this, my blog fell by the wayside. I was too busy looking toward the future to write about the present.

Now you're probably wondering just what the heck is this new business I'm talking about. Well, all I can say for now is that when I finally tell you, it will rock your world. And I'm not exaggerating. It's about 80% certain at the moment but we still need to do a bit more fact-finding before we commit ourselves irrevocably. Hang on, it will be worth the wait!

I'm trying now to organize the almost 1000 photos we took during our recent travels. I won't bombard you with all of them but I will put a few slideshow/photo albums here soon. We ended up not only visiting Salta but also the neighboring province of Jujuy and then extended our vacation time to include Córdoba, situated halfway between Salta and Buenos Aires. All in all, it was pretty amazing with gorgeous scenery, interesting people, and some unusual experiences.

For now, I will leave you with this photo of my newest prized possession, a ceramic piece of indigenous art that I found in Cachi, a village sited at 7750 feet (2280 meters) up in the Andes. When I saw it, I simply had to have it. It was perhaps the oddest thing I've ever seen and there was no way I was leaving Cachi without it! Look for a series of new posts about our travel adventures beginning within the next couple of days.