Even though I had prepped well for a 23hr bus ride from BA to Salta, I was meeting Eva (who I met in Ilha Grande) in Northern Argentina and travelling together for a week, and needed to catch her up. I happily paid for a flight – definitely worth it as it cost about the same!
Given the distance to BA (1,500km) and proximity to the Andes and Bolivia, the European influence is swapped for that of indigenous and rural cultures. There’s lots to see in the Salta and Jujuy provinces, and long distances to cover.
Up here it’s pitch black at 7:00am, when we clamber on the buses for our outings. Cold in the mornings (c.2C) and at night (6-7C), and hot during the day (20-22C), you’ll do entire wardrobe change from hiking jackets, gloves and beanies, through to caps, tee shirts, sunnies and suncream to survive the bright sun and stunning blue skies.
I had a dull headache in Salta and Cafayte, which I wasn’t sure if it was the remnants from the farewell night out with Jono, my broken sleep, dehydration or the altitude. Hoping not the latter as we hadn’t ascended that high as yet.
We explored the Cafayte Valley with a tour which has amazing rock formations, beautiful vistas and countryside: the road winds through like Mars-like valleys with red oche rock cliffs and white sandstone chimney formations. The region grows the Torrontés grape, producing a delicious sweet white wine and has many wineries and bodegas to visit – the wine is second in importance only to Mendoza. Sadly despite my recent Marie Kondo-ing of my backpack, I didn’t have any space for any 45 peso bottles (<£2!) but did enjoy a Malbec and Torrontes helados (ice cream) for lunch!
Happily on the second outing to Las Salinas Grandes and Purmamarca, the guide was bilingual so I could understand a lot more than Cafayte! I drifted in and out of listening to the Spanish version – I can understand small parts, but it can be hard to piece together what it means when you only catch glimpses of comprehension. I did understand him saying that ‘you have to take coca leaves to go on the tour.’ In English this became, we ‘recommend’ as it helps with the altitude: we will be ascending to c.4,200m.
You can buy a baggie of coca leaves for 25 pesos (c.£1), which is ~1g of cocaine – “impossible to get addicted!” Take 6-7 leaves, make into a wad and insert on the side of your mouth. Don’t chew as I was about to -thinking back to my beetlenut experience in Myanmar- just suck up the juices and leave the leaves to soak into your mouth and gums.
Coca leaves are legal in Argentina – you can carry up to 500gm; above this is considered trafficking. The guide preached its many medicinal purposes which for us are to maintain your balance and produce red blood cells to help with oxygen delivery. It’s also good for the prostate, cleaning the urinary tract, high blood pressure, and even capillary benefits for the follicly challenged as it stops loosing your hair!
As we climbed the winding roads and hairpin bends of Cuesta del Lipan, with some parts of the road washed away from floods and landslides, the landscape changed from semi desert to desert: poquito y poquito of scrub to then dirt and dusty slopes, and the cacti which spotted the hills only popped up less and less frequently to then become a surprise – like finding a 50 Brazialian Reais note hidden in your jacket (damn! C.£12 but practically worthless outside BR as exchange rate is terrible due to volatility of currency).
We started to see more ‘South American camel’, llamas (pronounced “zh-yamas” in Argentinian Spanish – their “ll”‘s are said as “zje”). They’re a precious resource with seven uses: meat, milk, wool, leather, transport (they can carry 40kg each), bones for utensils, arrows and knives, and the 7th -by the Spanish (conquerors) only – as “women”, confided our guide Martín 😅. I ate grilled llama steak for lunch one day – it tasted a little like veal… I wonder if I should feel bad eating ‘him’?!
Walking on las Salinas Grandes (big salt flats) felt like quartz, no crunch underneath as the salt was packed solid in 10cm+ layers. Mining it is considered one of the worst jobs as the UV reflection is worse than snow and without the correct protection can make you blind in 3yrs. They cut troughs in the salt and scrape out the salt from the bottom of the water, piling the salt in pyramids for collection
The further north we ventured, the greater the influence of Andean culture and Incan tribes. Lots of sites had a pyramid of stones and corn husks; when I asked our guide Edu about these he explained that traditionally people would take a stone or rock from their home town, and upon arriving at their destination or where they encountered trouble, they would leave the rock for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) for safe passage and blessings for the journey. (Slightly adulterated now by tourists..!).
We visited and stayed in Purmamarca, a small town famous for the Cerro de los Siete Colores (The Seven Colored Hill) – the surrounding mountain ranges entrance you with colours of reds, pinks, whites, yellow and even blues and greens.
The plaza has dozens of stalls selling colourful wares like (Bolivian) woven blankets, alpaca wool jumpers and scarves, cacti wood plates and bowls, and other knick-knacks: the Argentinians were shopping up a storm as it was cheap compared to Buenos Aires and the south, and I scouted a few things I wanted to buy in Bolivia where they should be cheaper.
We made a quick stop in Tilcara to visit pre-Incan settlement ruins and the lovely botanical garden, mostly filled with huge cacti. Interesting to see a recent monument to the students and people detained by the military dictatorship between 1976-83. Then onto Humahuaca, another small town surrounded by rolling coloured mountains, surprising rock formations and fields of cacti. There’s a huge monument dedicated to the Argentinian soldiers who fought in the wars of independence looking out over the plaza.
The plan had been to cross to San Pedro de Atacama, however the national police site was showing it was closed and temps were -16C. One of the guides told us that the route had been closed for a week due to landslides on the Chilean side which had iced over. Despite having bought bus tickets online, Eva and I had to change our plans – she was flying back to BA from Salta and couldn’t risk getting stuck at the border for days. It was great having another travel buddy for a few days.
And so, Eva headed back south, and me north to cross into Bolivia.