LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 46
Page. 40 - 45
Text and Pictures: Guido Chouela
We arrived at the Quebrada de Humahuaca on Route 9. Whoever called the mountains around Purmamarca "of the seven colours" is guilty of understatement, there are dozens of shades of green, red and grey. There are hundreds of kilometres of scenery with subtle chromatic shades created by geological movements, erosion and the passage of time.
If you arrive on Route 9 from the south, a few kilometres along the road you reach Purmamarca, one of the most beautiful little villages in the pass. It has a few peaceful squares and houses of terracotta adobe. As you would expect, around the enchanting central square there are colonial houses, an interesting 17th century church with its interior built of teasel wood, numerous local handicraft stalls and an algarrobo tree which has been a witness to the landscape of the pass for more than 500 years. A few metres away is a very pleasant "posada" and "La Posta de Purmamarca", where it is virtually essential that you try the northern specialities made in the kitchen of Lucy Vilte, the posada's celebrated cook. The "humitas en chala", the empanadas and the corn with cheese have a distinctive taste in each of the villages and towns in the pass.
Continuing on Route 9, you reach Maimará, a small town surrounded by the "Painters Palette", another name referring to the glorious variety of colours in the neighbouring range. On the side of the mountain lies the town cemetery, which can be clearly seen from the road.
Pucará de Tilcara
Further north we reached Tilcara, with its museums, markets and folklore music concerts. However, Tilcara's greatest attraction is the famous Pucará, which has been rebuilt, and is a wonderful sight.
A Pucará was an ancient indigenous military city which, for strategic reasons, was established on high ground with a dominant view over the surrounding countryside. The view of the Humahuaca pass from the Pucará is quite unforgettable. It is better seen on foot - if one is already acclimatised to the altitude - rather than by car, one should not forget to visit the curious botanical garden, home to innumerable species of thistles and cacti. The Archaeological Museum contains many notable exhibits of the different cultures that have inhabited the region. Around the central square, there is a handicraft market where one can buy beautiful local fabrics at good prices.
If you visit the city at Easter, or in the month of the Pachamama, you will experience the popular religious festivals that characterise the christianised Coya culture. During Easter week, thousands of believers from other villages arrive at Tilcara to take part in the procession, which climbs a steep hill to the Punta Corral pass, at more than 4,000 metres. The sikuri bands - small orchestras that repeat the same rhythm on their drums and sikus - create the monotonous, atmospheric sound of the ceremony. The city is garlanded with flowers to receive them. The festivities of the Puna, similar to other cultures of the region and the rest of Latin America, are one of the main trademarks of the northern provinces.
Natural and Archaeological eserve
At daybreak we headed north on route 9 with Ariel Mosca, who knows every inch of the Puna and everyone who lives in Tilcara. The first light of dawn was falling on the mountains, blending with the mist of the cold night. Beyond Humahuaca, the tarmac comes to an end, and a sinuous climb begins up to 4000 metres. This is the beginning of the Puna, or what Bolivians call the Altiplano. We headed to Abra Pampa - called by some the "Argentine Siberia" and "the capital of the Puna" by others - and from there we took the Provincial Route 7 to the Pozuelos Lake at 3700 metres. It covers 15000 hectares and is the natural habitat of more than 36 species of migratory birds. After driving 21ktn around the southern part of the lake, we arrived at Rinconada. This hamlet, currently inhabited by 200 souls, was founded in 1624 and was called Rinconada del Oro or Valle Rico de Rinconada because of its goldmines. Legends abound of gold nuggets found in the adobe walls of the houses or under stones.
Some of these stories were told to us while we walked through the village square where one can see an 18th Century church and the thick arches of the "Cabildo", perfectly preserved. Along the road from Rinconada to the Pan de Azúcar, the Puna appears as an extensive plain of incomparable beauty, interrupted by high plateaux where, in ancient times, the indigenous population once lived. The Pucará de Rinconada is one of these and, from there, you can see the basin of the lake and the high plain. One can also see the Antigal - visited almost exclusively by archaeologists-with its surprising number of jumbled buildings.
The Salt of the Earth
To the south of Tilcara, on the road that goes to Purmamarca, there is a steep road - to Abra de Potrerillos - that rises to 4,200 metres and gives out onto the Puna. We arrived at an absolutely white desert - Las Salinas Grandes.
From here one can take the recently opened pass to Jama in Chile, or take Route 40, which starts a few kilometres further up, close to the Pozuelos Lake - and head south to cross the border with Salta and arrive at the city of San Antonio de los Cobres. Located in the centre of the Puna, San Antonio, one of the stops for the "Tren de las Nubes", survives stoically in the face of the harsh climate. If you arrive here by car and travel on to the city of Salta, take the same route as the famous train.
It could however be a difficult journey without an adequate vehicle, especially in the rainy season - between April and November - because of the numerous crossings of the Toro river. But the road offers the chance to see some unforgettable sights like Santa Rosa de Tastil, where once existed a large indigenous city, now the Ruins of Tastil. To reach them you must ask for the keys in the museum at the entrance to the village.
One reaches Salta on Route 51, a tiring dirt road but also one of the most spectacular exits from the Puna. This road runs from the city of Salta through the Lerma Valley to the Calchaqui Valleys. Arriving at Cafayate - capital of the Calchaqui Valleys - one travels across a broad desert with strange geological rock formations such as "El Obelisco" (the obelisk), "La Garganta del Diablo" (the Devil's Throat) and "El anfiteatro" (the amphitheatre), a high semi-circular stone wall where guitarists play for the occasional visitor.
Cafayate, a tourist city, usually overcrowded during the winter vacations and Easter week, has the attractions of vineyards and important "bodegas" that cultivate the "torrontés" grape, the only variety unique to Argentina. Visitors to the Etchart and La Rosa bodegas are received with a glass of wine.