(First three pictures are from Tilcara, the ruins of Pulcara)
7 days ago I was in the city of Salta, in Salta province in the far northern part of Argentina, with my buddy Corey Hinden. It's about a 20 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires. I felt more prepared having spent 40+ hours on a train in China, with far less comfortable conditions. We stayed only one night there and went right to Jujuy, which is the northernmost province bordering Chile and Bolivia.
First, let me just add a tip for people travelling: go over land if you can. It might take longer, be less comfortable but you see the countryside, and understand the distance more. There are also people to meet. People are often the most intriguing aspect of travel. If it weren't for a person we met at the hostel we might never have gone to Jujuy, and just stayed around Salta province, hovering around the capital.
We get to San Salvador de Jujuy, the main city. "So, what is there to do?"
"I don't know this town sounds cool, lemme look online.. there's a national park in a place called Calilegua. Could be cool. Bus goes to San Martin, from there the national park is close"
Day one: The bus is slowing down and making turns so I open my eyes to see where we are. Nowhere. A tiny town. Probably just a stop or two before we get to the "city" of San Martin. The bus stops. I hear the bus driver yell "San Martin." I maintain my cool. Corey looks less than pleased. We get off and hop onto one of the many taxis that run between San Martin and Calilegua for 8 pesos. Calilegua is much smaller, with maybe two paved roads, the rest, just gravel or dirt. We ask for a hostel. People give us a couple weird looks until one guy shows us a place. The owners tell us that we are lucky and that there is only one place left. I find this kind of funny, because it's completely empty, and even if it was full couldn't house more than a handful of people. So we set our things down and have a look around.
Calilegua has one school, a dance hall, a couple convenient stores, and plenty of stray dogs. It's in the middle of a jungle essentially. I spent the relaxing afternoon writing in my journal watching the dozens of toucans outside my window play around, as the clouds gathered. Seriously, so many Toucans. Afterwards, we ate some amazing street food. I don't remember what it is called, but it was basically a brat with all sorts of different flavors added. When we finished, we decided to go see what San Martin was about. It was Carnaval celebration weekend and despite the rain, it seemed like the whole city had gone to the outdoor theater to dance in the mud to cumbia, salsa, bachata, and anything else the live band played. We arrived late, so we only saw the families, couples, and friends walking around drenched and covered in mud. I won't forget that it felt like everyone was laughing. We sit down and buy a round of drinks for some kids that look our age at a little hole-in-the-wall place, and they go crazy. "Whoa Americans! This girl LOVES Americans!"(poor girl, they didn't stop making inappropriate jokes about her)
It was here Cory and I were taught how to use the coca leaf. Don't worry it's totally legal, and everyone does it. However, I won't go as far as to say it's healthy.. You put a half a handful into the side of your mouth, chew maybe a little bit, and just suck the juices. They also add bicarbonate to increase the speed of the reaction of the leaf. Usually you put it into your cheek for about 1-1 1/2 hours. The affect is surprisingly subtle for a plant that can become cocaine. It's good for altitude, appetite, and energy. After some bad jokes, mistranslated words, and plenty of laughs we headed back to Calilegua to sleep so that we could spend the whole next day in Parque Nacional Calilegua. I'm glad to see the the worried and regretful face of Cory has disappeared. We aren't lost.
Day two: The rain had passed and the sky cleared up for a pristine day in the park. I think the pictures can tell the story a bit better than I can. It was like my eyeballs were being massaged after spending so much time in the city. Green everywhere. Birds, bugs, but sadly no more Toucans. We returned to Jujuy, to spend a few hours sleeping before taking a 6am bus to Purmamarca, which was also decided after a conversation like this:
"So, where do we go now?"
"Hmm, Purmamarca sounds cool. It's not too far, and has the 7 colored mountain."
"It's in like a desert area, we could probably camp there."
"Yeah, definitely. I wonder if it gets cold at night"
Day 3: The day started early. Five thirty to be exact.We hopped on the bus and drank our Mate as the landscape began to really transform from jungle to desert. The elevation also increased, but mate and coca leaves can cure anything. It's still dark when we get off at the dusty village. There's more of a tourism industry going on here, that is clear. We follow some camping signs until we get to a nice place about a kilometer outside the village and briefly set up camp before going right out onto the trail.
Now, I'm going to describe the rest as best I can, but words will always fail in describing Purmamarca's Cerro de los Siete Colores. It's not something that can be captured in photo or video. Being surrounded by so much beauty, I felt a heightened sense of existence.
We probably hiked for 14 hours through this place. The path itsself is only 4 km, we arrived at 7 in the morning and had to explore every crevice and invent our own paths to see the landscape. Early on we climbed through a path cut by a dried up stream and found an amazing view of all the seven colors layered in front of a breathtaking mountain view. We sat down to rest, and put on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon on Cory's portable speakers. We sat together in awe and silence as the morning's clouds parted above the seven colors. The album finished about the same time as the sun was finally revealed, and we continued our journey. On the trail we met all sorts of people, mostly Argentine tourists, but also some locals, families, and of course other backpackers. There was also a dog that followed us around for a while, hanging out and performing some amazing feats jumping from rock to rock on the cliffs.
The village of Purmamarca was also small, (only a couple streets) but more touristy, so we only went back to get water or food. The one part that was really cool was the cemetery. Most people who are buried are buried above ground, on the side of a hill on the outskirts of the village. There were all sorts of decorations, reflecting high and low status, putting a solid mark upon the earth where the remains of the village's most important people lie. Upon reflection, maybe it would have been a good idea to stop midday, evaluate the sun, high elevation, dust, and wind and said, "Maybe we should get sunscreen." Nope.
It only makes sense that a day of bliss is followed by a night of pain. In this case, our faces had burned so bad when I touched it skin came off and pus flowed out of the cracks. Another important thing when camping, no matter where you are, bring a sleepingbag. You might say, "Oh, it's the desert! It's hot all the time." There is no humidity to shield you from the hot air during the day, and no humidity to soak up the day's heat to warm you at night. It was a sleepless night.
Day four: We took the first bus back to Jujuy, found a cheap hotel slept, ate, and felt the real pain of forgetting sun screen. This was not a great day.
Tilcara was cool, the local dishes were superb, and the landscape was expansive. Another travel tip: if you are in a small town ask what the local dish is, or what the cook recommends. I was close to getting milanesa, but then I asked and they gave me a huge yellow stewy goodness that comforted every nerve in my belly. The hostel had some real chill people and during the evening I sampled some llama meat while listening to folk music from some mixed native/Argentine musicians. They had a really good sound, but didn't play late into the night. That was fine with us. Our faces were melting, and another day in the sun and dust of Tilcara did not help.
Day whatever: It was Friday and our bus left from Salta Saturday afternoon, so we decided to get back to Salta. We ate junk food and watched the new 300 movie, which served its purpose to distract us from our physical discomfort. Not much else interesting to note from here on out except if you go to Salta the owner of the Backpacker's Home Hostel is insanely beautiful. I think she loves me, too. Her name is Mariana, I think.
From there our next day was 20 hours of travel. Now I'm here, scratching at my face and watching the dead skin pile up on my clean white t shirt.With each new person, each new place, and each new experience there is something to be learned. I learned that sun screen is something I should use, not because my mom is telling me to, but because my face will burn off and children will cry when they see me. The skin continues to fall, and I can't help but think that I myself am crawling out of my old skin and starting a fresh.
So there you have it. Jujuy and a little bit of Salta. We stayed about a week and only scratched the surface of this crazy place. If I ever go back I'm coming for you Iruya and the salt flats. Thanks for sticking with me through this story, there are plenty of details that I didn't include (I could talk all day about the stars outside the city), but I hope it was fulfilling to read.