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30 Jan


An Untrodden Gem: The Argentinian Northwest

January 30, 2014 | By |

Northwestern Argentina has a priceless combination of spectacular landscapes and very few tourists. Crazy desert rock formations made us marvel at geologic history, while the cities, towns, and ruins are rich in regional and cultural history.

For us, the month of January has been full of family. Many people might feel terrified of a month of non-stop time with parents and in-laws, but it has actually proved an excellent experience for us. After touring Patagonia and Antarctica with Mitch’s parents, we met up with Jewels’s Mom (Karen) and her partner Rich to travel around northwestern Argentina.

After 2 days in the city of Salta, the four of us (Mitch, Jewels, Karen, and Rich) had an 8-day private tour of some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes we have seen, bringing us through northwestern Argentina and very close to the borders of Bolivia and Chile. From Salta we headed south through deserts and vineyards, then west through salt flats and ruins and north through historical outposts and a semi-arid safari, before circling southward to Salta.

Rich did a lot of research and found Nick Evans, the owner of Poncho Tours, to be our private guide and driver for the 8-day journey. I would say he’s worth his weight in gold, but after so much time in salt fields, it may be apropos to say he’s salt of the earth! Nick is a British expat who is a rare combination of being super laid-back, detail-oriented in his planning, knowledgeable, and very endearing. He married someone from Salta, and about 6 years ago they moved here from the UK and started a tour company (Poncho Tours) and B&B (Poncho Huasi) outside of Salta. Their tour company offers private and highly customized tours of the region. Their services in and of themselves are expensive for here, but we are so grateful for them.

During the tour, we slept in a different place each night and sometimes travelled 300 kilometers a day on unpaved roads, so the car became our home base. Nick’s services include the vehicle and guiding, so you pay for accommodations and food separately. He had a constant stream of snacks available, stopped whenever we wanted to appreciate a roadside vista, found excellent places for us to go for short (and long) walks or explore, and was full of information about the geology, wildlife, and history. But the real bonus of having a private guide was being able to go to places we never could have gone otherwise. Several days, we were in places with no towns or places to buy food so Nick planned picnic lunches. And one day, we spent 8 hours of driving time and only encountered one other car (no joke – literally one car all day).

To follow our route through this region, we’ve posted our daily experiences so you can travel it with us.  We packed those 10 days full of sights and sites, so apologies for the length.  As usual, a full collection of photos is at the end.

Sat Jan 18: Buenos Aires to Salta

We flew into Salta this morning from Buenos Aires on an uneventful flight (1 ½ hours late = “on time”). When we got in, Nick Evans from Poncho Tours, who will be our private guide for the next 8 days, picked us up from the airport, oriented us, and talked to us about Salta. Then Mitch took a nap (he was feeling under the weather) while Mom, Rich, and I went out to find a late lunch. We came back for hotel downtime, and at around 7pm all four of us set out.

We really like the salteño vibe. From the little snapshots we have experienced, Argentina and Chile have felt different from other places we have been in South and Central America, where the people and towns are infused with a rich indigenous culture. Urban areas in Argentina and Chile have felt more like first-world metropolises (and are wonderful for that), and you can tell that both countries have been influenced by large immigrant populations from Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Here, you can sense the Andean culture and history.

We wandered around for a while, checking out the central plaza as well as another plaza with a lot of artisan stalls, and the main cathedral. The cathedral is incredibly ornate and beautiful in a decadent Catholic sense. There was a service going on, and while the surrounding streets were empty, it was a full house inside. We wanted to take photos of the inside because it was opulently beautiful, but we didn’t want to disrespect anyone, so photos of the outside will do.

We stumbled into a local festival thing with a ton of costumed performers drumming and dancing with these enormous feathered headdresses and ornate (and sometimes terrifying) masks and costumes.

Then, Mitch decided to take the plunge on his first haircut while traveling. His hair has gotten much longer than he likes, but after seeing the in-fashion styles along our travels, he has been hesitant. The de-facto Argentinian male haircut is mullet-based. Some are more gentle and look 1980s classy, while others involve shoulder length locks in the back and a short buzzed cut in the front. Our hotel had directed us to one street with all the fancy-ish hairdressers, and we chose one where the guy at the desk had a decent haircut. After much explanation, remarkably, they did a totally decent job! (We still trimmed the back on our own after.)

After that, we wandered off in search of dinner to an area called the Balcarce, where a ton of restaurants and nightlife are located. Dinner was fantastic (typical Argentinian parrilla, or grill, style with heavy meat) with an excellent attentive waiter. When we sat down at 9pm to eat dinner, all the restaurants were totally empty. By the time we left at about midnight, the dinner places were packed, but the dancing places were still empty. I wonder how long it would take me to fully adapt to the schedule here.

Sun 19 Jan: The city of Salta

Our hotel in Salta is super lovely. The Hotel del Virrey is adorable and full of old-world charm, with little courtyards, a friendly staff, and a comfy (if not dated) motif.

After breakfast at our hotel, we went out for a walk around town. We passed back by the main cathedral then went to the San Francisco Church, which is quite pretty with a lovely bell tower, but currently under construction.

Then we went to a crazy museum of high altitude archeology (called MAAM), which has a lot of really fantastic information on the history of this area, including the pre-Incan culture as well as the Incan influences. Compared to Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, where there was a long and very vibrant Incan presence, here the Incan control was for a much more limited time before the Spanish arrived. The perspective here seems to focus more on the Incans as a conquering force that took over the area and laid down their influence, than of a predominantly Incan territory. (That perspective would continue throughout the rest of our time in the region.)

The museum is particularly known for housing and displaying a few mummified Incan children that were sacrificed on mountaintops. These children were of the highest noble Incan descent and were effectively drugged and left on mountaintops at 6,700 meters, where the incredible cold and dry conditions mummified them. It is truly fascinating to see some of the artifacts and learn how the Incan people got up to these absurd heights to leave offerings. We later researched, and according to Wikipedia, not even Andean Condors fly that high… which answered our question about how the children were mummified instead of scavenged.

One interesting thing about traveling with your parents is that you learn all sorts of new things about them. After 33 years, I only just now learned that my mummie is fascinated by mummies (I had to say it that way), and we actually saw 5 mummies on this trip because she was so excited by them. Who knew!

After lunch at another meat-heavy local place, we rode a gondola up to the top of a hill outside of town. There are terrific views of the city, a sweet waterfall, and it seems that the municipality has created a fairly defunct outdoor gym up there. We walked back down to town – along the walk, you pass by 12 murals of the crucifixion; apparently the walk up the hill is done en masse as an annual pilgrimage, finally arriving at the cross at the top.

Then, we chilled out for a bit, had dinner, and the plan is to get moving early tomorrow morning!

Mon 20 Jan: Salta to Molinos

We left Salta at 8:30 this morning and headed south toward tonight’s destination of Molinos. The landscapes along the way have been super beautiful – great desert environments with all sorts of interesting arid and semi-arid vegetation, gorgeous mountains, and crazy rock formations. There are sedimentary rocks with interesting and beautiful striations, and old slate sea beds were pushed to be vertical from the more recent movement of tectonic plates and the formation of the Andes. (The Andes only formed 12 – 14 million years ago according to Nick’s notes, so they are super young in geological time!)

Some of the places we stopped had epic 360-degree views, or incredible vistas from which the landscape and scenery is completely different depending on which way you look. What’s more, through tons of open space there is zero indication of human life – no power or phone cables, no pavement, barely any cars… even the dirt roads follow along the topography.

We did get a few human snapshots, stopping by a shrine to Gauchito Gil, who is kind of like a locally revered saint to whom people have set up roadside shrines and leave offerings (from coca leaves to destroyed car tires). We also stopped by a family who makes llama and sheep wool textiles – ponchos, scarves, and shawls – all 100% by hand from the yarn-making to the weaving. It was fascinating to see and exceptional craftsmanship.

While the Incans came to this area just a few generations before the Spanish arrived (it was one of the last regions they took over), they very quickly changed the language to Quechua and changed the religion. They also quickly put in classic Incan-style roads, and you can still see some stonework Incan-style wall ruins along the way.

Our hotel in Molinos, La Hacienda de Molinos, is really beautiful. It’s an old hacienda of maybe the last governor before independence or some such, and has really sweet, classy touches. After dinner, we saw some frogs, and, realizing that they were feasting on bugs, we decided to do a photo shoot. Mom was in heaven surrounded by big happy frogs. Then, we walked a little bit away from the hotel to see the stars – we could see the whole Milky Way streaming across the sky, and the Southern Cross bright on the horizon. The moon rose late so we got a beautifully clear view.

Tues 21 Jan: Molinos to Cafayate

This morning, I cracked my eyes open to see a flash of brilliant orange sunrise, but then fell right back asleep. The actual day began with a quick visit to the church in Molinos and a little history lesson on the Argentinian independence, which ranged from 1810 – 1825 and this region’s role in it.

Right near Molinos, we went to this “vicuña sanctuary” type thing. The camelid family includes two domestic species (alpacas and llamas) and two wild species (vicuñas and guanacos). It’s not actually permitted to keep vicuñas domestically, but, at some point their population had plummeted dramatically so anti-hunting laws were enacted and other actions were taken. From that basis, it seems, a sanctuary was set up that breeds them and keeps them domestically, while “funding their conservation program” by selling products made from their very fine wool. I don’t entirely understand it, but it sounds a little bit fishy. Regardless, it was a treat being able to see these amazingly elegant creatures up-close and personal – we could even hear their adorable grunting noises!

After the vicuña sanctuary, we continued southward through beautiful desert landscapes including the Quebrada de las Flechas (Gorge of the Arrows), which was absolutely stunning and a natural marvel at the level of Atacama’s Valle de la Luna. Mostly of sandstone, these giant plates had been pushed around and made vertical with the formation of the Andes.

We also stopped by 3 wineries for tastings. The first, Bodega el Cese / Familia Zamora Franzini, is very new; the tasting room is still in construction, but we were able to learn about the fermentation and barreling process. The second one, Nanni, had a great Torrontes – I’m not sure if it can beat out my affection for Portuguese whites, but it sure is tasty. They had a really neat tour and explanation of things. They are organic and have a small production that is all sold in Argentina and Brazil. And, they use an egg white to remove wine impurities! (I was so incredulous and afraid I misunderstood the Spanish that I had it repeated 3 times in Spanish and confirmed that Nick heard the same thing.) We actually went back there for dinner, which was quite delicious. We went to a third vineyard, that was a bit out-of-town but really pretty. I hadn’t realized that vineyards put rose bushes at the end of each row as a “canary in a coal mine” for grape ailments!

Tonight, we are staying at the Hotel Portal de Santos in Cafayate, which is super beautiful and a fantastic family-owned operation. The owner goes out of his way to be helpful, and the next morning at breakfast, he explained that his mom had made all the jams and that he made one of the little cakes (which was excellent).

Weds 22 Jan: Cafayate to Hualfín

This morning, we went first to an area of the Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Seashells, named for the fossils found there) which had big red rock formations. We loved walking around and exploring; the rocks were spectacular! There were a handful of tourists there, but the landscape was so large we felt dwarfed and isolated. There were a few sparse plants dotting the desert, but the sun radiated down on a fairly barren landscape.

From there, we had a fascinating (and personally tumultuous) stop at the Quilmes Ruins. Most people who come to Argentina are familiar with the name Quilmes as the major beer (every country in South America seems to have its own brand of beer); the name of the Quilmes beer comes from these people. The ruins are from a pre-Incan society that spoke Catán and numbered several thousand people at it height. It was taken over by the Incans in 1460 or 1470, at which point the language converted to Quechua and there were a number of other changes. Around 1530, the local people (the town name “Quilmes” means “between the hill and the mountain”) revolted and became self-governing again, while still maintaining the Quechua language aside from a few grandparents who remembered Catán.

But they couldn’t get a drop of luck, and around 1535 the Spaniards arrived and began a complete takeover process. This area represented a major holdout against the Spaniards, ending in a Masada-like mass-suicide on this site as well as a march of 2,000 surviving natives the 1,600 km to a place near Buenos Aires (the area which later produced Quilmes beer, hence the name), of which only about 200 survived. Some of the people who hid out closer to home and avoided the death-march dispersed and hid in the desert and mountains and later founded several (I think the guide said 14) communities – the descendants of whom are still around and speak a mixture of Castellano (Argentinian Spanish), Quechua, and Catán. They also guide tourists through the beginning of their exploration of Quilmes Ruins.

We intended to be at the ruins about an hour, but Mitch and Rich went off exploring together. They decided to climb up to the top of the mountain overlooking the city, and, instead of coming back down the path they took up, they decided to forge a new path on the back side of the mountain – resulting in them getting stuck/lost on a rock face on the other side of the mountain for a few hours with about a half liter of water in the sweltering desert afternoon.

Apparently after summating the mountain and making (the oh-so-unwise) decision to continue onward instead of coming back down the same path, they found themselves on an incredibly steeply graded incline. Mom & I had our camera, but Rich had his camera so there are a few photos of their adventure, although apparently the photos don’t do the climb down justice. Once they got down to the bottom, they knew that we would be getting worried and ran around the base of the mountain to get back to the front.

While they were testing their footing, Mom was getting increasingly worried. She asked Nick to go off in search of the boys (poor Nick climbed the mountain from two different angles to see if he could get a sight on them), and she was close to asking the local guides about sending out a search party. Three and a half hours later, they emerged victorious. A llama ran over to greet them when they came around the side of the mountain (sadly, no photos) and they arrived bearing apologetic gifts of pretty rocks and snail shells. We bought a few liters of cold beverages for rehydration and a bunch of empanadas at the little stands near the ruins. Needless to say, we missed our plan of going to another vineyard that afternoon.

After leaving the ruins of Quilmes, we saw the usual mix of donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, and horses grazing along the sides of the road. We went to the Pachamama Museum, and, while we didn’t have much time to explore the inside rooms (thanks to the boys’ adventure at the ruins), we really loved walking around the grounds. The museum was built by an artist and must have been an extraordinary undertaking – there are impressive giant sculptures, tile inlays, pools, and paintings that pay homage to Pachamama in a Native-American-meets-modern-art sort of way.

We continued to drive south along Highway 40, which runs all the way North-South in Argentina and has kilometer markers to Ushuaia (the very southern tip of South America) along the way. Despite this, it’s actually a minor road, alternately paved and unpaved. To note, for some reason, they may not have paved roads and some people may never have seen a cell phone, but through some development grant or government program, they are busy installing fiber optic cables here — so this incredibly remove part of Argentina may get it just a few months after we did in the heart of New York City!

We got to Hualfín, where our accommodations at the Hosteria Haulfín go in the “adequate” category, but sadly there is an army of big flies in the hotel and hotel restaurant.

Thurs 23 Jan: Hualfín to Antofagasta de la Sierra

It has been a busy day and we have covered a lot of ground! We started out with a quick stop at the church, which dates back a couple of hundred years, and a mirador in Hualfín, from which we could see the big mine that economically fuels the town.

Then we started to head North/Northwest, stopping along the way for various sights and vistas. In addition to Gauchito Gil, there is a local reverence for Difunta Correa, a woman during the war of independence (or some other war depending on who you ask), whose husband went off to fight while she was pregnant. She gave birth and set out in search of him to show him the infant, and died of thirst along the way. She was found with the living baby clinging to and suckling from her breast. So, with shrines that are reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, people leave offerings of bottles of water as well as the usual roadside shrine offerings of beat-up car parts.

We took a little walk up a sand dune – there are some tremendously huge and soft dunes here. At some point a tourism industry may pop up around sandboarding… who knows.

We also saw a TON of vicuñas and rheas along the way. Nick said that he has never seen so many rheas on one trip! They are such funny creatures and we enjoyed seeing them along the road – eating, running, crossing the road. (To note: “Why did the rhea cross the road?” never stops being funny.) The rheas, called suris locally with a Quechua word, fluff out their wing and tail feathers when running, which is both ridiculous-looking and adorable.

The landscapes along the way were outrageously beautiful. High-ish altitude deserts with crazy colors, rock formations, vegetation. The rocks had colors from browns to reds to even grays and blues. The plains stretched huge distances. The light was stellar, the clouds lovely, and we stopped along the way for beautiful photos in different settings. Also, check out a photo of this weird tar-like substance that we accidentally stepped in.

We went onward to a Pumice Stone Field, which was one of the fantastic geologic formations resulting from two nearby volcanos. The stones, of various sizes, shapes, and densities, scattered a vast dry plain, creating a Dali-like landscape. It was fabulous to wander around this completely surreal place.

On our way out (it was a lengthy and desolate off-road drive to get to the Pumice Stone Field), a stone punctured our tire so we changed it before continuing along.

We arrived at Antofagasta de la Sierra (not to be confused with the Chilean coastal city of Antofagasta) around 7:30pm and checked into the Hosteria Municipal. The town is in the middle of a grassy, lagoon-like oasis in an otherwise dry desert: seeing green fields with llamas and other livestock grazing, and ducks and flamingoes in the little lake, is completely disconcerting.

Then we wandered to a random little museum with some indigenous artifacts from different time periods, as well as two mummies – one of an infant and one of a woman, both dating back to pre-Incan times (1400s). As with Quilmes, this area had a thriving civilization before the Incans arrived in the late 1400s, and then were only under Incan rule for about 50 – 75 years before the Spanish started to arrive.

Fri 24 Jan: Antofagasta de la Sierra to Tolar Grande

Right outside of town is the La Alumbrera ruin from the Belén people, which is a pre-Incan town that is literally built into, with, and around lava rock. It was “discovered” in the 1920s (as with most ruins, the local people knew it well) and excavated only about 30 years ago, and there is not even a sign pointing to it from the road. But it is fascinating and somewhat eerie because of the very nature of its construction and lack of modern interest.

After the stop at the ruins, we began a long drive north over totally unkempt dirt roads. Much like Antofagasta de la Sierra, we passed by several little creeks and other green oases. Throughout the day, we saw plenty of vicuñas, which have to be one of my favorite animals. We saw one with a broken leg that was jutting out that looked horribly painful – it was so sad knowing that it was a death sentence for her. They are normally graceful and elegant running over broken ground, and it was very sad to see. We also saw a rhea that ran freaking fast and kept on running – it was amazing how much ground it covered keeping up a quick pace. (We were really hoping to see a glimpse of a puma with either the broken-legged vicuña or the marathon-racing rhea, but no such luck.) We saw a few colaradas, birds that are mainly flightless and look somewhat like tinamous.

The highlight of the day was the Salar Arizaro, which is the third largest salt flat in the world (after Uyuni in Bolivia and Atacama in Chile) and means “where the vultures circle” in one of the native languages. Apparently the old (pre and post Spanish arrival) trade routes cut through the salt flat and livestock would die en route, so vultures and condors would wait for them. The texture is totally different from the Salar de Uyuni – it is all broken and crevice-y, with sand and clay under a crust of salt. On the outskirts, there is actually a clay crust over the salt, so it looks brick-red with bits of white.

What’s even more interesting is the Cono de Arita, a 200-meter tall rock pyramid in the middle of the salar. “Cono” means “cone” in Spanish and “arita” means “sharp” or “point” in Aymara and was considered sacred by many native groups, and is apparently similar in size to the pyramids in Egypt. There are now hypotheses that it was created by aliens. Side note, OVNI is the Spanish word for UFO, or objeto volando nonidentificado.

It is the middle of the rainy season, and just about every evening has threatened some sort of storm. In Salta, there was heat lightning. Most nights of this journey, we have had thunder and lightning in the evenings and a bit of rain at night, but during the days we have always been conveniently out of the reach of the storm clouds. Today, as we were making our way out of the salar, we got into a rain cloud. The bonus prize from this minor inconvenience was a brilliant full-spectrum rainbow over the flat red-rock salar-desert, where we could see both sides of the rainbow touch down.

Oddly, the salar goes right up to the edge of a small town named Tolar Grande where we are staying in the Casa Andina Hosteria for the night, which has lovely rooms but is a bit odd besides.

To note, in 8 hours of driving time today we saw only one other car!

Sat 25 Jan: Tolar Grande to Susques

Wow! Today has been a day of serious driving – 300 km, almost entirely on unpaved roads. Overall, we drove through more puna landscapes, the high altitude semi-arid harsh regions we have been in the last few days, ultimately getting to our high altitude in this region of 4,700m (15K feet). Over the past 3 months, our highest elevation has been just shy of 5,000 meters above sea level, so today we were just short of that.

The area has interesting history. Tolar Grande, where we stayed last night, was only created in the 1940s because of the railroad that was built to go up over the Andes. As we went northward toward Susques, where we are staying tonight, we passed from dry puna to wet puna – pure high altitude desert to a more semi-arid and slightly moist version of the same, and we finally began to really experience the “rainy season” late this afternoon.

The morning began with a stop at the Ojos del Mar, super saline pools near Tolar Grande where there are lots of estromatolitos (in Spanish; I assume the English is stromatolites), a 3.5 billion year old life form that are a type of cyanobacteria and the originator of photosynthesis – and therefore the start of all life forms on earth. While we were at the pools, it was amazing how silent everything was. When we stopped moving, talking, walking, and snapping photos, the sound of our breath seemed so loud, as did the rustling of shirts in the wind, and a car miles away. It was as though we could hear the pure AUM of silence.

We went for a long drive as we passed through the Desierto del Diablo (the Devil’s Desert), where there were spectacular formations in red rocks and bone-dry desolate landscapes. Mom’s ability to see friendly shapes in rocks is amazing – from frogs to ladies smiling under burqas. We got to play on some of the rocks, and Mitch demo’ed his mountain-goat genome.

We went through a couple of salt flats – Salar Pocitos, Salar del Diablo, etc., which all had a different feel and a very different type of groundcover. Pocitos (translated as something like “little holes”) was extra interesting because it was almost like the salt crust covered a holey, hollow area.

During our picnic lunch, we smelled a dead donkey nearby when the winds shifted. The smell was too awful to get closer for a photo. On our drive, we saw a dead vicuña in the road that may have been hit by a car. We also saw plenty of live and awesome vicuñas, rheas, donkeys, goats (with serious beards!), llamas, sheep, etc. Plus, we saw three foxes! It was so interesting to see the colors of the landscapes, how the yellow of vegetation lent a hue to the whole of a mountainside in comparison to the more barren rock, dirt, and clay areas.

Over our last stretch into Susques, we passed through a ton of tiny desolate towns, which were originally formed as puestas (or postas?  I’m not sure) during the Spanish rule, or stopping points for horses and donkeys that are exactly every 25 km along the road. Some of the postas are old adobe-brick buildings with just a few homes, and others have developed into actual towns.

Some of the smaller ones are fascinating to drive through. You feel like you are witnessing a museum exhibition on Andean towns from hundreds of years ago. You see a handful of people outside of their homes in traditional clothing with aged faces battered by the altitude, sun, wind, cold, and heat. They are so unused to seeing cars that they stand dead-still, aside from the flapping of their clothing in the wind, and watch as your car passes.

Sun 26 Jan: Susques to Tilcara

After staying last night in Susques, this morning we stopped by the Susques church, which was built in 1599 and is the second oldest church in the country – the Spanish started arriving in the area in 1535 and had a long takeover process from the natives. Built out of adobe with cactus wood roofing and hand-painted biblical scenes on the walls, it was quite lovely. It was really interesting to watch the local people stopping in with their blessings, prayers, and offerings. The people in these little towns are much like Bolivian indigenous people in terms of looks, dress, and customs, and it is an interesting reminder that the last 2 days we have been skirting the borders with both Chile and Bolivia. This area seems to have changed hands and almost been a political no-man’s land between Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia through various periods in local history.

From Susques, we went to Salinas Grande, a lovely salt flat where they mine for salt, using a very different process than in Uyuni. Here, they are very mechanized and dig trenches that fill up with water. Pure crystalline salt forms along the edges of the trench and they harvest from there. We also had the treat of seeing a reflective area of salt flat with a thin covering of water. The clouds cooperated and it was magnificent to witness. It was much smaller than Uyuni, but still had a magical and surreal effect.

From there, we continued mainly northward, descending out of the puna and crossing one last 4,200m high pass before ending up under 2,500 meters altitude.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca, which is widely renowned as spectacular (it’s apparently a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is truly incredible. You think that you have seen every color of rock before going there, but you haven’t…. Here, every color of the ROYGBIV rainbow spectrum is represented, with beautiful striations, layering, clay, hills…. Even the rock pieces on the ground are stunning and varied in color. There are areas with such names as the Hill of Seven Colors and the Painter’s Palette: the colors truly surpass imagination.

We had lunch in Purmamarca, a touristic hippie town, then went for a hike on the back side of the Hill of Seven Colors, where we did a loop and then went up to this little peak for a great view of the surrounding area. After so much car time, it felt great to move our legs.

From there, we stopped by Posta Hornillo, an old Spanish fort / outpost that is now a museum and quite interesting to check out for the local history. Then we got to Tilcara, where we are staying the night at a fancy boutique hotel called Las Marias. After a dip in the hot tub at the hotel (amazing after a week in the desert), we went for dinner at El Patio, a delicious place in town where they make excellent llama meat dishes.

Mon 27 Jan: Tilcara to Salta

After we woke up and had a lovely breakfast at our hotel, we went for a 2-hour hike along the edge of a ravine called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) near Tilcara.

Then, we drove down to Purmamarca to catch the morning light and did a short hike for an exceptional view of the Hill of Seven Colors. It was really impressive to sit there for a little while. As the sun tucked and dipped between clouds, different areas on the mountains would be highlighted and the various color types would change in vibrancy. Here, the more vibrant colors are newer, but the whole rock area is super-old – roughly 600 million years old for the greens and 15 million years for the oranges, compared with just 12 – 14 million years for the formation of the Andes.

From there, we drove by the Painter’s Palette and stopped by a large roadside cemetery with a good view of the rock walls and an interesting perspective on local culture and customs.

Then we drove northward for a little bit, passing by the demarcation of the Tropic of Capricorn for a quick photo op.

We continued up to the town of Humahuaca, by which point we had seen the vast majority of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. As they say in Spanish, the colors are impressionante – a common word here that translates to English as leaving a strong impression in your memory.

Before we hightailed it back south toward Salta and out of that region, Nick pointed out a Tupac Amaru housing project, which is a government-funded private program that provides housing to poor populations. We also stopped by a Gauchito Gil shrine that is flanked on either side by a death shrine, which is bizarre but apparently not uncommon.

Then, after a quick stop by Nick’s Poncho Huasi B&B, we got to the airport in Salta and got on our flight back to Buenos Aires for our last 24 hours in South America.

Here’s the full collection of photos for your viewing pleasure:



  1. Ken Wasch

    What a great post…fabulous pictures….

  2. Mom & Rich

    Wonderful time, memories, images and such detailed text! Truly a terrific two weeks with you both. Love you!

  3. Mom & Rich

    Terrific time, memories, images and incredibly detailed descriptive text! We loved our two weeks together!

    Love Mom & Rich

  4. Horacio

    Terrific site ,
    It Was pleasure to read your travel experience.
    love Horacio






  6. Ellen and Allen Reedy

    Wow! What an adventure! I am definitely jealous!!
    Looks like you had so much fun!

  7. John Phelps

    So happy for you both. What a great adventure.
    Wishing you all the best. John