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Page. 93 - 103
By: Rosana Acquasanta



It is always a pleasure to walk the streets of the Capital of Salta, to have a peek behind the still surviving historical adobe and admire the glory of its ancestry. This time we started at the Solar de la Plaza, the residence of the Patrón Costas family, now converted into a hotel. It has been completely refurbished and, at the back, a six storey building has been built, designed by the architect Mariano Beccar Varela and decorated by Delia Tedín in exquisite taste. As soon as we settled into what would be our "home" for a day and a half, we went directly to the Plaza 9 de Julio. Only a few feet away is Horacio Bertero's shop, with his display of silver works of art.

Horacio, originally from San Antonio de Areco, bestows on his work a singular baroque style, applied with superb technique. His interests go beyond his work, and he is an avid reader and traveller. As soon as he heard about our plans to head up to the Quebrada, he suggested we went further inland and higher up. Iruya. We were unable to resist, and arranged to meet him two days later in Tilcara. We left Salta in our rented car and brimming with enthusiasm. We allowed ourselves a small detour to San Lorenzo, the posh suburb only 17kms from the city centre. This neighbourhood began as a summer resort for the traditional families of Salta who, over time, have transformed it into a residential suburb.
This is certainly the case of Inés Ortiz de Cárdenas, owner of Arnaga, an estate built by a river, from where the stones used to build the house were hauled. We went there expecting to just drop in and say hello, but our hostess made us feel so much at home that we stayed for hours.

We took the old road to Jujuy, which is longer, but stunningly beautiful. Beyond Vaquero, we drove through verdant jungle with orchids and bromeliads growing from every tree. Once in Jujuy and having left Yala behind us, the scenery became rockier. On each side of the dusty road we could see green, red and yellow hills. At times everything turned yellow, the grass, the bare trees, the dry riverbed of Rio Grande, the hills, the air, the mist. When we reached a place called Huajira, the cliffs were covered with prickly cactus, displaying the erosion of the valley walls in vertical stripes. "The door to La Quebrada", declared Julie. We passed Volcán and were getting near Tumbaya when dusk began to settle in, casting its formidable shadows at over two thousand metres altitude.

We passed Maimará and, only a stone's throw further on, Tílcara appeared in sight. From the road, we could see the reconstructed ruins of the pucará (hill fort) overcast with cactus. We entered Tilcara and went straight to the Villar del Ala. Adrián García del Rio, lord and master of the establishment, welcomed us with his customary courtesy We were installed in rooms in the basement, the nicest in our opinion because the watts, floors and ceilings are made of stone.

Later we went to eat at the Bar del Centro once an old house now painted all in white. At the far end of the room we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw a grand piano, a Steinway no less! ! During the meal a group of youngsters appeared with their musical instruments and, conducted by Susana Moreau, the "hostess" of the bar, began to sing. They were wonderful. Heavenly voices to stir the emotions. We couldn't believe that this was happening there, of all places. It turned out that Susana, an Argentine with a degree in musicology from UCA and specialising in renaissance and baroque music, settled in Tilcara with her family 15 years ago. She began holding workshops with Música Esperanza and with the support of the Fundación Air France and UNESCO. She then developed integrated programmes with Latin American children who meet twice a year to play Andean music. Financial support is very hard to find but the restaurant business helps to cover the costs.

The following morning we made our preparations for the pony-trek. The plan was to head south-east by east to Casa Colorada, a beautiful spot high above and two and a half hours from Tilcara. Our small caravan with Adrián in charge, left Tilcara at 9am under a clear blue sky. Everything worked out perfectly. We were fascinated with the natural treasures revealed at every step. Incredible heights, steep mountain passes, cactus everywhere, the remains of the Indian terraces in Alfarcillo, all followed by a wonderful "asado" in Tilcara.

Horacio Bertero arrived in his 4x4 and the three of us departed for Iruya. We passed by La Posta de Hornillos, which was once a way station on the route to the Alto Perú. In the museum, which is currently being restored, lies the camp bed where General Belgrano slept.

We left Uquía and its church, which was closed behind us and did not stop again until we reached Humahuaca. However, when we reached the town, we did not even get out of the car, discouraged by the number of children asking for money. We sped away.

Our journey continued on tarmac until we reached the sign indicating "Iturbe 6km - Iruya 53km". There we left the main road and took the dirt road to the right. We crossed the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, and from then onwards, we were taken completely by the beauty of the north-east, with its mountains that seemed to have been hacked open with an axe. Immense and magnificent, ever changing, at times they appear to have the texture of green velvet and suddenly they look like petrified, scarlet masses. We climbed higher and higher, drinking our coca tea every now and then to avoid altitude sickness. At the Salta-Jujuy, border, a sign read 4,000m above sea level. Below us, the green mountain flanks, behind us the contrast of the misty peaks, and ahead, 21 kilometres more to huya. Red cliffs on either side and below us, and the wide empty riverbed towards which we were descending little by little. We were over two thousand metres high when we reached the riverbed. Suddenly Iruya appeared, a cluster of houses built against the rocks and the light blue dome of the church. That was it. We then started our steep climb to the provincial hostel. We were greeted by the delightful manager, Gloria Federico, who told us about her ancestors who used to spend their summers in Iruya after having been granted seven thousand hectares of land by the Spanish Crown around 1640. That evening, in the warmth of the hostel, Gloria expanded our knowledge of the place by serving us regional food.

To leave Iruya, you can either retrace your steps, or take a not very visible path called the "camino viejo" (old road), which reveals some fascinating places. We took the latter. Only 5 km from Iruya, we headed straight toward the riverbed, crossed it and, right in front of us, on the flank of the mountain saw a crevice through which water must pour out in springtime. This was the "camino viejo". We found the climb dazzling. The heights revealed enormous expanses of bare hills where, through their perseverance, the few inhabitants have somehow been able to construct stone corrals of perfect symmetry. In the undulating landscape we discovered Pueblo Viejo, Campo Carrera and Colanzulí. Tiny villages where the women herd their sheep using stones or pre-historic catapults and the men are either ploughing the soil from dawn to dusk or sleeping on the side of the road after having had too much wine. Villages where young girls, almost children themselves, are already mothers. Villages with humble churches and amazing dry stone walls that follow the curves of the land over endless distances. I will never, never forget those images.

We returned in pensive silence and in Tilcara bade our farewells to Horacio who returned to Salta, while we spent the night at Adrian's house before heading north again the following day.

In Uquía, we stopped to say hello to the Briones', who are still managing the provincial hostel. There are more rooms now, but everything else remains as it was. Silvia still successfully running the kitchen, while Raul takes the guests out on excursions.

After 430km of asphalt the road became a dirt track. Humahuaca was behind us, but as if to make up for the inconvenience, the scenery became more and more breathtaking, with different shades of colours zigzagging across the mountainside. Seven and a half-km later, the asphalt returned, although not in such good conditions as before.

Passing Chorrillos the valley became wide and misty. The first llamas appeared. We did another 55km on dirt until the poorly paved road was back. Hardly any signs of human life anywhere. We passed Puesto de Marqués. Again the dirt road. Donkeys, sheep, a village (La Intermedia) and a few trees.

Again nothing but llamas. Pumahuasi. So melancholy. As if after the closing of the railroad, the souls of these villages had departed with it. After almost 40km of dusty roads the asphalt returned yet again. Our spirits rose with the colours of the valley and the hills with their wave-like rounded crests. The entrance to La Quiaca was clogged up with some kind of demonstration. Long rows of trucks, burning tyres, people all around, loudspeakers playing rock music, a small band on the other side of the road trying to compete with it all. What at mess. Luckily Javier (the Briones' son) and Alejandro, a local guide, were waiting for us. Alejandro stayed in our car and we nudged our way through the crowd. Javier's car was a few metres away from the exit to Yavi, which also jammed with demonstrators. We were able to take a road that turned out to be beautifully smooth. Shortly afterwards we picked up a schoolteacher who had given up trying to get through with his truck, and was walking to the school, twelve hours away on foot! " Too bad I had to leave the truck behind with all the fruit I was going to take to the children". "Why are you carrying a gun?" I asked him. "Just in case I can kill a partridge on the way and eat it", he replied with a smile.

We reached Yavi. We visited what used to be the house of the Marquis of Yavi (in the early 1600's), but is now a public library, with a museum and an exhibition room. Right next door is the church which had been ordered by the Marquis and built by the local Indians under the guidance of the Jesuits.

Yavi changes completely in springtime. The arid winter landscape transforms into amazing parkland. The river that borders it provides it with enough water to -allow plants to grow even on the rooftops! Yavi is a garden surrounded by valuable relics of various prehistoric cultures. Wherever you look there are ancient stone carvings and rupestrian paintings.

The municipal hostel is of the same design as the ones in Uquía and Tumbaya, and is run by the very young Javier and Mara Briones, who have made Yavi their place in the world. We took an entire day to return through the Quebrada. We stopped at Maimará and bought excellent knitwear made of llama wool at the Cooperativa Punha centre. Later we made a detour to Purmamarca to stop for lunch, and had a wonderful meal at La Posta de Purmamarca while we gazed at the beautifully coloured hills overlooking the village, with its thousand year old carob tree spreading its shade by the church.

José Celestino Patagua Cruz, a native of the village, makes "charangos" (a five string small guitar) that his sister Teonila Lucía has on display and sells in a shop next to her kiosk. "When he was a boy," she tells us "we gave him a charango. One day he broke it, and as he was not able to buy another one, he took it apart to see how it was made, and ended up making himself another. That is how it all began." Siesta-time lethargy was settling in when a very unusual looking woman walked in. It was Bárbara Cruz, alias Barbi, a painter and local celebrity. She bought digestive salts and asked: "Hey, Teonila, did you get a chance to see the soap? I missed today's episode..." Purmamarca harbours some amazing characters.

After Punnamarca we didn't stop until we arrived to El Manantial, the estancia belonging to Alice Lemos, some 20km from Salta. She saw us in personally, displaying warm hospitality. After an excellent meal and a hot bath she kindly sent us off to bed. We were granted the honour of inaugurating one of the new bedrooms. The following day after a hearty breakfast, she showed us around the lovely estate. And as all good things sadly do, our travels to the northwest came to an end.


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