NW Argentina: Quebradas, Cardones y Condores
Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
77Trip End Jul 21, 2009
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Where I stayed
Hostal Anda Luz, Salta, Argentina
Hostal Carlos Alvear, Jujuy, Argentina
Residencial Centro, Tupiza, Bolivia
Blending Colonial Charm with Indigenous Culture in Salta
I spent about a week exploring NW Argentina. The region is known for its agricultural and livestock products, tobacco growth and its verdant valleys that juxtapose fantastic red rock canyons and cacti. Salta is one of the largest cities in the area and was my base of exploration from Apr 16-20 before I broke north to Jujuy and, ultimately, to cross the border into Bolivia.
Salta is a city of approxiamately 500,000 people and sits in the heart of the Lerma Valley, which is where the agricultural products of the region are grown. 80% of the tobacco production in Argentina occurs in this area. Despite legistlation that bans smoking in public places, many of the lawmakers are also tobacco landowners and thus it is hard-pressed to find an internet cafe, restaurant or bar where there is not someone puffing plumes of smoke into your face
The city and region figure prominently in the history of Argentina under Spanish rule and in its most important War of Independence in 1810. Lermes, the namesake for the valley, was a conquistador who established the city on April 16, 1582 as a key military and trading outpost between the interior and the sea via caravan routes through Peru. Interestingly, April 16 is still celebrated as a day of great celebration and reverence (I was in Salta during these celebrations) despite the day marking the founding of the city by a Spanish conquistador. General Guemes, honored with a massive statue in town, and under the command of General San Martin (the liberator of Chile and Argentina, while Simon Bolivar was the main liberator of Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia), defended the city against Spanish onslaught and this was ultimately the first victory in the War of Independence. Unfortunately, the savage struggle against the Spanish completely bankrupted the city and its resurgence did not occur until, ironically, the waves of European immigration years later.
The heart of the city is absolutely beautiful. With people that are less European looking than those in BA and Mendoza, and a charming colonial center that is marked by cobblestone streets, uniform balconied two-level buildings, wide and verdant plazas with fountains, churches and a town hall (cabildo) that all speak of the height of colonial opulence while hiding the accompanying disgusting violence and imperialism, the center of the city is very reminiscent of Cuzco and, I would soon discover, Potosi. The heart of the old city is centered around the large Plaza 9 de Julio, which is surrounded by the massive Catedral, Cabildo and other colonial-era buildings
A short walk from the main plaza is Avenida Bacarce, which is THE spot for all things nightlife. I joined a French couple, Joel and Charlotte, that I met on one of my tours for dinner in this neighborhood. Massive grills full of meat fill the air with wonderful aromas from the parillas while accompanied by the sounds emanating from the folkloric music played at the penas. Side-by-side with these cultural establishments are the swankest bars and nightclubs Salta has to offer. The street is loaded with all of these joints on both sides for at least four blocks, giving the air of landing in a Spanish New Orleans. However, rather than seeing a bunch of youngsters scantily clad in clothing ready to down the next vodka and redbull, the young people flock to the penas dressed in their finest (and conservative) outfits and engage in endless sensual, but cultural dances to the folkloric music. It is awesome. Very little reggaeton is heard, which is quite unusual for the happening nightlife scene in a Latin American town!
Plaza 9 de Julio is also, what I dub, the "PDA Capital of the World". Argentines are a romantic people. They also like to make out in public. However, every single bench in the main plaza in Salta was occupied at all times with couples rolling on top of each other.
While the center of town retains its colonial charm and is greatly oriented towards tourism, the actual parts of this sprawling city are much more run down and fit the standard image of a Latin American city
While in Salta, I signed up with Le Posada (an excellent tour company with great deals) for two one-day tours. The first was a tour through the Quebrada de Cafayate and the second was through the yungas and mountains to Cachi. These two tours allowed me to witness the tremendously varied natural surroundings that make domestic and foreign visitors to the area fall in love.
Tour 1: Quebrada de Cafayate
As I previously mentioned, Salta sits in the Lerma Valley. Our tour began in this valley, which is quite fertile and surrounds the area immediately around Salta. Tobacco, fruits and sugarcane are the main agricultural crops in the area. Livestock is reared in the area, particularly dairy cattle and the world-famous polo horses. Most of the tobacco farms are smallish plots of land that are owned by relatively wealthy locals. It is extremely expensive for a farm laborer to own land, so the area operates very much as a feudal serfdom. The large tobacco companies have arrangements with all of the locally-owned farms to wholesale purchase tobacco leaves for cigarette production. The backbreaking and labor intensive work of producing tobacco requires handpicking and drying the leaves in Argentina and the tobacco is sold for a measly USD3/kg to the tobacco companies
Our tour quickly took us out of farm country, south bound for the town of Cafayate. We would pass through a portion of the Valle Calchaquies, a huge valley that runs from Cachi (west of Salta) south to Catamarca. The portion of the Valle Calchaquies we would pass through was the 86km long and 90-125mm year old Quebrada de Cafayate. A quebrada is like a very wide canyon, with mineral-rich sandstone hills (colored red because of oxidized iron) that are drastically shaped and colored by the rising nazca layers (seismic movement) of an old inland sea. There are several quebradas in northern Argentina and the best way to describe them is to picture the brilliant colored rock walls of Arizona and Utah with lush rivers and vegetation everywhere. It is the prototypical scenery I picture in a Western movie.
Other than many amazingly picturesque stops, we also had the opportunity to scramble on some rocks as we visited the Gargantua del Diablo (mouth of the Devil) and the Amfiteatro. The Amfiteatro is a natural concert hall of rock with phenomenal acoustics that projected the music from the three-man band playing unamplified acoustic instruments as though we were in Davies Symphony Hall in SF. It was an extraordinary auditory event.
In addition to the amazing natural landscape, we learned a lot about the indigenous population and culture of the areaThe Inca arrived in Argentina in 1415 and subdued the Aguitas people of the area. The Inca were not a virtuous conqueror, but provided the conquered peoples with knowledge of city development and the technology of tiered mountain irrigation and farming. In exchange for these gifts of civilization, the conquered peoples had to kill the families of fellow men who wouldn't go to work as slaves in Peru to construct the mammoth Inca cities that are now world famous. The language of the people, Cacan, eventually died out because of the spread of Quechua (language of the Inca) and Spanish.
Despite the spread of Spanish culture and religion, many customs and beliefs of the old indigenous ways continue to persist and have been hybridized with Catholic beliefs. One of these rituals is the apachata. Originally, apachatas were food and other supplies buried under the earth along caravan routes. Pachamama, or Mother Earth, is the most sacred spirit in the beliefs of the Andean peoples since they were agrarian-based cultures heavily reliant on water and the earth. Eventually, items were buried in apachatas as offerings for Pachamama. These items would include coca leaves, aborted llama foetuses and other such offerings
At the other end of the quebrada is the small town of Cafayate (the namesake for the quebrada). Cafayate is known for its 23 organic wineries that specialize in vino torrentino, a white wine that is quite distinct from the malbec and cabernet sauvignons produced in and around Mendoza. The bodegas of Cafayate have been producing wine since the days of the Spanish.
The town is small and charming, but really quite uninteresting and the bodegas are nothing special (especially after visiting wine country in Mendoza). However, April 17 was the Dia Internacional de la Lucha Campesina and there was a booth and a variety of activities happening in Cafayate. Campesinos are small farmers and they represent most citizens in northwest Argentina and in Bolivia (amongst other places)growth pole just like oil development) and while causing noxious pollution.
I support most of these causes, but the water problem is a controversial issue. Farmers use a disproportionately large amount of this scarce resource relative to other members of the population. However, farming is the livelihood of most of the region's inhabitants and water is the lifeblood of farming. Clearly, completely privatizing and charging for water would cause a massive revolt. Additionally, an argument could be made, just as with subsidized universal lifeline phone service in rural areas of the US, that free and fair access to water is a right of all citizens, including farmers. Perhaps there should be a maximum quota of free water above which farmers would have to pay a consumption charge? If my Spanish were better, I would have loved to discuss all of these issues with these guys for hours
Tour 2: Cardones, Condores y Cachi
My second tour would take me west (the first tour was south of Salta) over the mountains and through the Parque Nacional Los Cardones to the small town of Cachi. It was a gorgeous day that provided scenery that was quite distinct from what I saw in the quebrada.
The main reason for the distinct scenery was because we would travel through all four layers of the Yungas. The Yungas are forests that are unique to the eastern side of the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Colombia. The name of the forests comes from the people that originally inhabited these biodiverse region. The moisture from the Atlantic Ocean collides with the towering mountains and condenses to form a heavy mist that allows for vegetation to grow at much higher altitudes than other parts of the world (this process is very similar to what causes the monsoon on the southern side of the Himalayas in India).
The levels differ in terms of altitude, flora and fauna. The first level, or Fluvial Yunga, is the subtropical cloudforest 1,000m above sea level and contains trees that are typically 20-30m high, is verdant and green, and contains lots of jungle animals (such as pumas/jaguars, birds, and reptiles) and very little flowers (because little light reaches through the canopy to the floor)
We reached the second through fourth levels of the Yungas by passing through an area known as La Cuesta del Obispo (slope or path of the Bishop). A beautiful and sinous drive, the area gets its name from a story of a really fat 17th century Bishop who hiked over the hills with the aid of donkeys rather than just walking through the flats around the hills.
It was while riding up the Cuesta that we saw the majestic condors of the Andes. Reaching a staggering 3-3.5m (10+ft) wide, these gigantic scavenger birds weigh 18kg, live until 50 and have strong family values. A mom, pop and bady condor (Condorino) will always be flying together and the creature suffers from broken heart syndromejust like when the manta rays soared over my head.
As we descended down on the other side of the mountains, we arrived in Valle Calchaquies. A little bit similar to the southern portion, the Quebrada de Cafayate, we were gifted with tremendous views of sandstone formations. However, the valley was much wider in this part and there was another major difference. We had arrived in PN Los Cardones. The second largest national park in the country (after PN Iguazu), there were cardones as far as the eye could see. Thousands of them. What is a cardone?
Cardones are a gigantic member of the cacti family that can reach 9+m (30ft) in height, live 300 years (the oldest was 450 years) and only grow between 2,000-3,000m and in this part of the world. They are distinctly different than the standard cacti one finds in the desert or growing in a home. Those cacti grow only below 1,500m, are not made of wood, have large pleats and have roots that absorb water
We also saw tons of guanaco parading around the countryside. Guanaco are a member of the llama family. All cameloids, including the llama, originated in South America. I highly doubt it is true, but either way it is hysterical, as I was told that the name llama comes from when the Spanish arrived and were asking the Andean people (who didn't speak Spanish) what was the name of the animal: Como se llama? Much like Anyang on Arrested Development, the indigenous people confusedly replied llama. Guanacos are really cute animals that live in large herds. There is a dominant male, the relincho, who protects the herd and whose teeth can actually stave off a puma! There are apprentice relinchos who eventually go through a rite of passage by leaving the herd and training in pairs to eventually become the head relincho. Guanacos will never be seen alone except for in one circumstance
As we made our way closer to Cachi, rising in the background was the massive Nevado de Cachi, which is a snow-covered mountain made up of nine peaks. The tallest summit, Cumbre de General Libertador San Martin, reaches 6,400m! At the mirador of Nevado de Cachi, there were campesinos selling various spices, sundried tomatoes, nuts and peppers. These are some of the main agricultural products of the area. I was able to buy five bags of the amazing smelling and fresh spices for only ARS5 (less than USD2)! We made our way to a tiny chili pepper growing village for lunch and I walked amongs the ahi/tomato fields and dried pimentos. Speaking with some of these farmers and watching them toil over their small pieces of land, I once again thought of how ridiculous rich-world farm subsidies are. Many of the farmers, despite working so hard, spoke how much they love working off the land and loathe the big city life. Get rid of farm subsidies, let the farmers organize, and give them access to markets, so that people in the poor world can compete on a global stage and continue to farm and not have to urbanize and industrialize as is the old development model!
After lunch, we pulled into the tiny and charming town of Cachi
As we drove back to Salta, making a stop for a hike to a beautiful waterfall, I learned a lot from a quid pro quo with our excellent guide Monica about the people who live in these valleys and hills. Most of the people have no electricity, running water, mobile phone service or access to gas or energy. I observed some solar panels at some of the roadside cafes and on some of the homes, but these folks live a largely pre-industrial, de-centralized and disconnected life.
All of the land is public land, so there are no property rights or title to the various farm plots throughout the valleys, and no new people except for the existing descendants of former inhabitants may move into the area. There are no regulations with regards to crops grown or the clear-cutting of timber for fields, firewood or grazing land, but the people of the region have a vested interest in the sustainability of existence in this area
It is a very tranquil and sustainable life. What it lacks in terms of enriched and stimulating life it compensates for by a lack of stress and healthy living. There are no bills to pay. There is no hustle and bustle of life. There is no recession. There is no wondering how to afford to feed one's family. It is a self-sufficient livelihood. I wondered if such a system only works in a rural area with abundant land and food and a low population density. Additionally, this completely agrarian-based life is not exposed to drought or other failed crops risk as there is constant mist in the air and mineral-rich soil to till
Day of Reflection in Salta
After my tours, I spent a couple of days just relaxing in Salta, walking the streets, eating as many empanadas as possible at the Patio de Empanada, blogging and mulling over my life's direction. As I lay on a bench for hours in Plaza 9 de Julio contemplating my options, my love of education and excitement at entering the teaching profession, I came to the realization that I would likely not join the Peace Corps.
The Barrio of Jujuy
On Apr 21, I took a painless bus journey (I watched Clint Eastwood's latest wonderful flick Gran Torino) four hours north the capital city of Jujuy province, San Salvador (commonly called Jujuy). I was the only tourist on the bus and my bag, left unattended, arrived safe and sound. I officially concluded that most Argentines, regardless of their level of affluence, are incredibly nice and friendly folk.
Jujuy province is by far the poorest in the country. On the fringe of Bolivia, it was also the region that suffered the most from the dengue outbreak and is the furthest removed from the affluence and centralism of Buenos Aires province
Despite the poverty of the city, they have some amazing internet cafes. One contained 100 machines, while the other had 40. The connections were pretty decent, there were DVD players/games/scanners/etc., it was open until 3am and it was the cheapest internet I found in Argentina (ARS1.50/hour)!
As I sat in the cafe, a cacophony of noise came from the streets as I had fortuitously arrived for the Exodo Jujeno parade. During the War of Independence, General Belgrano orchestrated a mass evacuation of Jujuy in order to evade the loyalists to Spain as the revolutionaries were outnumbered, ill-equipped and dying from malaria. Any defectors were executed and the town was burned to the ground, so that the loyalists would have no resources to continue fighting the campaign. Jujenos routinely commemorate this mass exodus.
During my couple of days in Jujuy, I wandered streets away from the main plaza and discovered the massive Barrio de Jujuy. There was a huge community center, with a swimming pool and sports fields, named after Tupac Amaru. It was like a local YMCA in the US and there were Che and Tupac Amaru quotes painted on the walls that emphasized self-sufficiency, literacy and education and an empowered sense of identity
Just down the hill was the actually barrio, which was very poor with trash everywhere, open drains, partially completed brick and concrete dwellings and no heat. It was particularly striking, because only streets removed from shopping centers selling the latest white appliances/TVs and other middle class items was the barrio. The barrio people were definitely poorer and more indigenous looking than the relatively more affluent jujenos. I could tell that I was very close to Bolivia.
However, there was electricity and water tanks on all of the homes, no homeless and no hungry and everyone walking the streets had mobile phones. No one was sitting around as everyone was working in some way or returning from school. There was entrepreneurship everywhere as there were tiendas, little restos, fruit stands, and internet cafes (for the locals, not tourists). All of the kids had school uniforms. It is poor, but functional. The people I spoke with were proud of their community and what they had, not what they didn't have. There was bustling activity in the evening hours as everyone was happy, kids were playing outside and families were all hanging out together. I didn't get any dirty looks from anyone nor did I feel at all unsafe walking through the barrio
Another striking observation in the Northwest of the country was the amount of young children everywhere. Especially in the cities of Salta and Jujuy, I noticed tons of young kids and young mothers. There is a large incidence of teenage pregnancy in the area. Given it is a Catholic country, contraception and Planned Parenthood are not incredibly popular concepts. There is a phenomenen known as the Hijos de Carnival that are the children born basically nine months after the crazy celebrations of Carnival. Despite an obvious need for a massive public health initiative, I observed that most of these young children seemed to have parents around and most of the teenage mothers seemed to have male partners rearing the children as well. There was at least the appearance of two parent households, but this may not actually reflect reality.
My Companion in Tilcara
On Apr 23, I intended to take a bus to the small towns in the Quebrada de Humahuaca and spend the night before making my way across the border to Bolivia. My first visit was to the town of Tilcara, which is known for the Pucara (fortress) atop a hill just outside of town. Upon arrival in Tilcara, I left my luggage at the bus stand as I decided to check out the Pucara and then make my way straight to Bolivia
As soon as I left the bus stand, I was greeted by a German Sheperd who would be my guide through town. As though I was his master, my companion followed me around absolutely everywhere. If I got too far away from him or in another room in the Pucara, he would run frantically until he found me again. He responded to my commands. It was awesome.
The Pucara was incredibly beautiful with the rocks, cacti and the surrounding red hills of the quebrada. The Pucara was built both pre- and during Incan times, and the level of smoothness of the rock walls indicated when they were constructed. The fortress did not bear the standard levels of fortification because it was atop a hill in a wide valley that provided for sufficient notice of potential invadors.
Bienvendos a Bolivia
I sadly said goodbye to my companion and boarded a bus for the four hour ride to the Bolivian/Argentine border. I met an Irishman, Steve, on board and upon arriving at La Quiaca, Argentina at 7pm, we decided to make the push across the border and see if we could get to Tupiza, three hours north of the border
I took some snaps of the border, the sign that said "La Quiaca, 5,000km from Ushuaia", and painlessly crossed. Since Dec 2007, the Bolivian government of Evo Morales has instituted a 10-point plan and a USD135 reciprocal fee for US citizens wishing to enter the country. My first visit to the country, in Aug 2007, required no formalities to enter, but technically a US visitor now needed to show yellow fever immunization, hotel reservations, proof of financial solvency and other things to get through. I later heard horror stories at other border crossings of US citizens getting fleeced for USD150-200 and being forced to pay as the corrupt border officials threatened to tear the visa out of the passport! At the La Quiaca/Villazon border, payment, a little Spanish and a smile were all I needed to enter the country. However, in the back of my mind I was cursing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for their direct role in all of these ridiculous reciprocal visa fees (BRIC countries + Bolivia).
Steve and I walked the 200m to the Villazon bus stand and immediately we knew we were no longer in Argentina. I thought I was in India. The bus stand was packed like sardines with Bolivians all scrambling to get the few remaining bus tickets. There were cholas (indigenous Bolivian women wearing traditional colonial clothing and bowler hats) and their tons of luggage everywhere
I scrounged a couple of tickets on a bus leaving immediately for the town of Tupiza. Steve ran to the bathroom and all of a sudden the bus started to pull away. I knew the guy for a mere 20 minutes and I was about to inherit all of his belongings. I didn't even know his last name or his email address. I ran to the front and told them to wait for my friend and they calmly told me not to worry... as the bus continued to pull away. We parked about 200m away from the bus stand and I saw the frantic look on Steve's face as he came out, saw the bus was gone and eventually found us. He almost got Duffiled.
We were the only tourists on the massively crowded bus. Bags and people were strewn everywhere. The roads were paltry and bumpy dirt roads of a quality that I hadn't seen since probably motorbiking through Cambodia. There was absolutely no sign of civilization when we were in the backcountry on these roads. If we broke down, we would be camping for the night. This is the area that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid famously escaped to before meeting their demise. We nearly got heart attacks everytime the bus would come barreling around a blind curve in the night and honk its horn loudly.
After a few hours, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere in darkness and some people disembarked with their luggage and men and women piled out to relieve themselves on the side of the road