Argentina’s Indigenous North

A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit the elusive and charming northern region of Argentina, namely the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. These historic spots are flourishing with indigenous culture and neatly tucked away behind colossal, multi-colored mountain ranges. The drastic change in ambiance from bustling metropolis to serene countryside makes you marvel at the fact that you are still in Argentina, renowned as the most “European” South American country.

This post is long overdue, so I write these experiences down before they escape my memory as I sit here with a steaming gourd of mate to help process my thoughts. My hope is to shed some light on a strikingly magnificent territory of a country I have come to know and love, as well as provide some pointers to future travelers heading to this spot.

To give a little perspective, this is where Salta and Jujuy are located respective to the rest of Argentina:

After a drowsy 15 hour bus ride, we arrived at sunrise to the city of Salta, a smaller scale city with a European vibe to it. The main plaza was quite clean and rather quaint, which just enough tourism for something to do but thankfully lacking the “in-your-face” tourist traps and advertisements (*Cue traumatic flashbacks to Rome.*). It was quiet, but then again we were there during a weekend and Sundays are notoriously silent in this country. We stayed in a very small hostel called Posada Don Juan, a family-run establishment near the city’s center.

In the main plaza

Among important attractions include the archeology museum (MAAM), home to the most amazingly preserved human specimen in existence (in my humble opinion). I was most eager to catch a glimpse of this spectacle, a mummified 15-year old girl affectionately referred to as “La Doncella”, unearthed in 1999 at Mount Llullaillaco, a nearby mountain range. This girl was a child sacrifice from the Incan people and was discovered with coca leaves in her mouth and maize alcohol in her system to sedate her. She is believed to be approximately 500 years old.

La Doncella was indeed a sight to behold. A mere 3 feet away from me, behind a pane of glass, she sat curled up peacefully with her chin to her chest. She wore the same handcrafted clothes in which she was sacrificed and her hair was done in neat, tightly woven braids. She had to look her very best in order to please the gods they worshipped. The most striking feature of it all was simply how well she was preserved. With my mouth agape in awe, I scanned her hair, skin and clothing, all perfectly intact. It appeared as though she died just the day before.

Given that photography was strictly prohibited, I have no photos of my own, but I strongly encourage you to take a look for yourself with this brief video from National Geographic:

And to think I saw her in person!!

Another lovely site in Salta is the cathedral, located in the main plaza.

Despite my crippling fear of heights, I resolved to ride the teleférico to the top of the San Bernardo Hill (Cerro San Bernardo), in order to gaze at the city below.

It’s one of those “must-do” things in Salta, and the ride was quite fun as I looked down at the increasingly shrinking city below. The top of the mountain was what one would expect: gazing down at a smoggy city.

After a few minutes at the top we descended down hundreds of steps back to the bottom, which takes an astonishingly large toll on ones’ knees and quads. Mine were shaking by the end!

For lunch, I sampled my very first tamale, a savory mash of meat and corn flour neatly wrapped and tied in a steaming cornhusk pouch.

Of course, this came accompanied with some empanadas salteñas, which is a fancy way of saying “empanadas from Salta”.

We retreated to the hostel where we arranged plans for the evening, going to a peña for dinner and music. A peña is a restaurant featuring folkloric music and sometimes dancing, all typical and traditional for the region. For the one we went to, it was just singing, but the artist was very talented and set a lively tone for the asado-style meal we enjoyed.

One last tip for Salta is this: save your souvenir funds for Jujuy! You will find the same items markedly reduced in and of the Jujuy towns. So resist the urge to buy many items here and hold out for Jujuy—it’ll be worth it, I promise!

JUJUY

The majority of the trip was spent in the Jujuy region, not to be confused by the city of Jujuy. There were three towns we visited, specifically Tilcara, Humahuaca and Purmamarca, using Tilcara as our anchor point. Staying in Tilcara was a wise-decision as there was plenty to do and it was a nice center-spot for catching busses to other destinations on our day trips. We lodged in the Casa los Molles, a remarkably cozy and picturesque hostel with a breathtaking view over the countryside. I spent the mornings delighting in a red-orange sunrise and the sounds of rooster crowing in the farm next door, with a hot cup of coffee in hand.

Our view

The cute little dining room (the light fixture is a dead cactus!)

The only downfall was that this hostel was very, very cold because there was no heating system whatsoever. I went to bed with 2 blankets and 4 layers of clothing on and still found myself shivering. This makes sense, because we technically were in the middle of a desert, so to speak.

Within Tilcara, there is a small, prehispanic village called Pucará, a 20-25 minute stroll up a hill and over a bridge. Beginning the walk in the brisk morning air, I wore a tank, a sweater and a coat; soon I found myself carrying the latter two as the sun rose and warmed the area around me. Once in Pucará and after paying a modest $20 peso entrance fee ($2.00 USD), we explored the ruins and examined the range of cacti surrounding us.

Going into the houses

Many majestic cacti.

Memorial at the top

After an afternoon of light hiking throughout the ruins, we ventured back down to the Tilcara’s plaza where we did a little bit of souvenir shopping, something I would highly recommend to future travelers. Vendors arrive early in the morning with their stock of goods and set up for the day around the plaza’s perimeter, pricing their items to sell. I spent a little over an hour wandering around and selecting the very best gifts for friends and family back in the states while chatting with the locals managing the stands.

The following day was carved out for a Humahuaca trip at the crack of dawn and then returning to Tilcara for an afternoon of horseback riding. Humahuaca was a short, 45 minute bus ride from Tilcara’s station and we arrived with time to spare in searching for a ride up the mountain to see the Cerro de 14 Colores, the Mountain of 14 Colors. Granted, this description sounds sketchy in nature but bear with me…the way we arrived to this mountain was in a pick-up truck driven by a random guy. Hey, we’re alive, that’s all that matters. Once we arrived at the station, we asked around about ways to get to the top of the mountain and an older woman directed us to a younger guy who coordinated rides. He called up the driver and he was there at the station within 15 minutes. The ride up was rocky and scenic…and longer than expected, as we snaked up the windy, off-beaten trail for another 45 minutes.

At the top, an icy wind nipped our cheeks and lips, drawing out moisture and leaving us with windburn. The view was worth the momentary nuisance, as we gazed out into the distance to marvel at the spectacular striped mountains before us. To our backs, a grassy pasture swayed in cadence to the soothing zephyrs around us. A scarf, hat and gloves is highly suggested!

Me freezing my bum off

After taking in the view, we returned to the village below where we briefly observed the local cathedral before taking our bus back to Tilcara.

Many textile shops along the way!

We arrived at the horseback riding ranch and met our guide and our horses. This was my first time ever riding a horse and I was a little nervous at first. Fortunately, I had a very temperate horse which indeed calmed any existing anxieties. After a few minutes, I felt considerably more at ease. In fact, I grew to enjoy cabalgata more and more each minute!

With only a few death-defying drops into a cavernous abyss to surpass, we scaled the mountains on horseback as I encouraged my horse on along the way. I tried not to look down, cursing once again my vertigo.

There was something primeval about trotting up along those peaks at the threshold of sunset that caused my breathing to decelerate and my normally chaotic-mind to come to a standstill. Gazing over endless summits and gorges helped me to put the stresses of life far behind me for a moment and simply take in the splendors of nature, flora to fauna, heavens to earth. For those fleeting moments, I just was.

Rambling prose aside, this experience was well worth the time and money and I would ardently suggest that anyone visiting Jujuy consider partaking in such an outing. The specific trail we took was called the “Garganta del Diablo” (Devil’s Throat) trail and took about 4 hours altogether, including the optional 15-20 minute hike at the top down into the waterfall area. The little hike was a nice refresher from the hour and a half of sitting atop a swaying horse and only cost $10 pesos ($1.00 USD).

We had a quick ronda de mate before heading back down the mountains, which were growing chilly as the sun gradually disappeared behind the rocky zeniths. Another tip: bring along a coat, some gloves, a hat and scarf for the descent, particularly if you plan on going in the late afternoon.

In the evening, we went to another peña called La Chuspita, locally-owned and managed, featuring the owner himself simultaneously waiting tables and performing while his wife assisted. Their three sons performed onstage harmoniously, and a strong sense of collaboration was evident between them. They were very talented as well, drawing in the crowd with classic, folklore songs with which the audience clapped along. At one point in the night, an erke player maneuvered his way through the crowd, blasting this long-horned instrument to the beat and impressively avoiding spectator’s heads as he played. What is an erke, you ask?

That.

Let me see you try and play this in a tiny room full of people!

And what dinner in Jujuy would be complete without a little bit of llama meat? Oh yes, I did. Growing up on venison, llama wasn’t dissimilar to that type of texture. Llama meat is rather lean and reminded me of a mix between beef and venison. Very tasty!

The following day we took a 30 minute bus ride to the small village of Purmamarca, the sendoff point for las Salinas, the salt flats. After walking around for a short while and taking in the miraculous mountain ranges surrounding us on every side, while window shopping, we arranged for a shuttle bus to the flats. Pretty soon, we were off, up into the hills once again for a roughly 2-hour ride to the salt flats. In order to get the full experience, I chewed on some hoja de coca on the way up to alleviate altitude sickness. With each curve in the road, there was another unique sight to behold. I didn’t dare close my eyes for one second because each sight was so breathtaking. You would think that mountains would start to look the same after a while but I can assuredly declare firsthand that each peak and dip flaunts its own personality. There were rigged pikes, soft sand dunes, cavernous descents, rounded pastures and colors ranging from blue to green and yellow to orange, all highlighted by the rise and fall of the sun which deepened or lessened the intensity of each crease and shadow.

At last!

The altitude rose synchronously with my enthusiasm and elation until finally we reached the Salinas, their endless white vastness extending for miles. It was windy and cold, so I was relieved that I had worn my winter layers, along with a pretty fly pair of Ray Ban knockoffs. As the breeze brushed my face, I could literally taste the salt in the air.

We goofed around for 50-minute allotted time window before reporting back to the shuttle van back to Purmamarca. The ride down was as splendid as the ride up, if not more, given the enchanting sunset.

Saw these little guys on the way down.

Just as quickly as we had arrived, our trip had come to a close as we packed up our items from the hostel and awaited our long bus ride back toward Córdoba. I ended up returning with a backpack full of treasures because the prices for souvenirs here couldn’t be beat…and besides, I had planned on doing a big hunk of my gift buying here anyway. I bid farewell to the marvelous landscape and welcoming people who inhabit it as it became but a small speck in the distance once more.

As a closing thought, Salta and Jujuy are regions that are most definitely worth the stop if feasible, especially for nature lovers. Being a rather isolated area, it is admittedly not anywhere I’d live per se, but nonetheless an unforgettable experience which deservingly warrants a stop.

Follow me on Instagram for more photos and videos of my journeys! @eaustin192

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2 thoughts on “Argentina’s Indigenous North

  1. Erika,
    You did it again! I am SO IMPRESSED by your ability to transport your readers to far-away lands, entertaining us along the way with just the right amount of detail and poetry. From reading your lyrical descriptions of the landscape, one cannot help but to experience the love you obviously feel for Argentina. ¡Bravo! ¡Bravísimo!

    1. Thank you so much for your consistent positive feedback!!! I can’t even begin to describe how deeply it is appreciated and how much it pushes me forward to continue documenting my journeys! 🙂

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