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Page. 34 - 59
By: Soledad Gil



There is a certain fragrance that identifies the northwest in February. It is the scent of the basil that is grown especially to decorate the men's hats and the ears of the women during the carnival. It was not in our original plans to attend the carnival but that fragrance could not easily be ignored remained with us throughout the foam, talcum powder, flour, water and "bailanta" (popular dancing). At first, it brought "pesto" to mind, but only at the beginning. They throw the leaf away and only the flower is used to exhume the spirit of Pusllay, in the same place as it was buried the year before. Chicha, beer and a bit of Torrontés wine. With the basil comes the merriment. By now they are in lent, moving away from the folly of the early days.

Julie and I saw it from a distance, because it only takes a fleeting smile to get yourself soaked, floured and covered in foam, which again was not in our plans. The idea was to cover the entire route from Buenos Aires, so we took refuge in a splendid blue 4x4. Soon after our departure we christened it "the bubble" because we realised that neither the speed or the wind, nor the foam and water could deter us from accomplishing our mission. With its four-wheel drive and the comfortable extras we found it to be our perfect partner during our adventure.
On our way we stopped at La Cumbre, the ideal stop to shorten distances. Julie had been there during the summer and took me to Lambaré. The following morning I was able to admire the gardens and swimming pool, and thought that it was worth staying on a few days, but alas it was not to be.
We continued on Route 38 up to Patquía and upon turning on to Route 150, we began the northern leg of our journey. The potholes on the 510 from Los Baldecitos to San Agustín del Valle Fértil only confirmed that the area is still a natural marvel with lots of room for camping. But as far as services are concerned, nothing at all. There is a project to build a hotel in La Torre, an equidistant stop from Talampaya and Valle de la LunaIschigualasto. In the meantime, tourists cavil between going 60km to the south and spending the night in San Agustín or ó0km to the north and sleeping in Villa Unión.
We decided on the first option, although the road was in poor conditions and the breakfast at the Hostería Villa Fértil, the only decent hotel, leaves a lot to be desired.

Nonetheless, Ischigualasto is a jewel, the only place where the Triassic period is complete, the cradle of the eoraptor Iunensis, the oldest raptor dinosaur, 230 million years old. Having been recently declared a UNESCO human heritage site has not changed the park in the least. You can still enter it in a mini caravan with the guide riding in one of the cars, a much more pleasant way of doing it than with the 100 vehicles that usually enter the site during the Easter weekend, where you have no way of hearing what the guide has to say at each rock formation. The Gusano (worm), the Cancha de Bochas (bowling green), the Hongo (mushroom) and the Submarino (submarine) are still an extraordinary natural caprice. Playthings that the erosion, the assault of the sea and the collapsing mountain ranges have assembled with stone and wind. There are fossils in every direction and lots to see. Talampaya, on the contrary, has suffered some changes. In addition to the UNESCO title, in 1997 it was granted the category of National Park. But they appointed only two park wardens to supervise the guides, tourists, poaching and the cattle amongst other things. Consequently it is not easy to keep everything under control. Those who have been taking vans there for years, resist any improvement, only recently have they agreed to put a canvas roof on the vehicles, which barely protects the tourists from the unforgiving summer sun. I wouldn't like to appear to be complaining, but neither the place nor the tourists deserve being mistreated and even less so when the solution is not that problematical. We arrived in our 4x4 and they told us we could not enter in our own vehicle. When a guide in the coffee shop offered to accompany us, the local authorities then went on to say that "actually we could go in our car, but it was probably too low, when the guides had said it could get through without any problems. We were infuriated with each "side" trying to win us over as clients. We decided to leave our car and take the tour, and of course regretted it. We didn't expect the vans to be air conditioned, as the heat is part of the scenery in these lands. The real downside was the lack of fourwheel drive, and we got stuck in the sand and were not able to make it to Los Cajones, where the Talampaya River begins. However, the red canyon, the 150 metre walls, the petroglyphs and the carob trees with their twisted trunks on those vertical walls made the trip worthwhile. We got to see El Monje (the Monk), and were very fortunate to spot a group of over 20 young condors on a hill less than 100 metres away from where we stopped. We reconciled ourselves with life and set out happily towards our next destination.

After leaving Route 76, the paved roads come to an end. We took Route 40, which we would then follow up to Cafayate, in Salta. The Cuesta de Miranda, at 35km from Chilecito, where we spent the night, was a glorious sight of red and green shades through the 800 curves in the incredible work of road engineering. If possible drive through it before the sun sets, when the light enhances the colours even more. The winds rustle the grass on the River Miranda and the cliffs appear less daunting.
In Chilecito we came across two guardian angels. Alejo Piehl, our guide and Mary Pérez, the owner of the inn where we spent a couple of nights.

"We have much more to offer than Talampaya", insists Alejo, who organises adventure tourism trips to Laguna Brava, Los Mogotes Colorados, and wonderful trekking trips to the cable car stations of the La Mexicana mines. It is a unique accomplishment, constructed by a German company and run by the British between 1904 and 1914, when they withdrew after the outbreak of World War I. No one knows how much gold was extracted in those ten years of constant to-ing and fro-ing of the wagons between Famatina at an altitude of 4,600m to the train station in the entrance to Chilecito. This tour of the station, now a museum, is extremely enlightening. There they still keep the original log books, the photos and the platformed boots to keep out the cold at these heights.
Unfortunately, it is possible nowadays to access the stations by car, which has facilitated vandalism and looting of signs, furniture, and other objects. Even the wooden floorboards were used as kindling wood by passers by. Nevertheless, the site is so overwhelming that the big engines, the wood burning ovens, the small wagons that carried the water, the steel cables and the lubrication bay are still intact, to the unfailing amazement of those who visit it.

The outskirts of Chilecito and the surrounding villages are also worth investigating. Charming chapels, such as Santa Clara de Asís in Los Sarmientos, the furious pink tones of the church in Malligasta are interweaved with walnut groves and vineyards, the stories told by the locals, the inns where empanadas are passed around during the winter processions on Wednesdays, and the snowy peaks of Famatina in the background. Siesta time is awash with tales of the Zonda winds, the problems of the local wine makers to convert their production of plonk to cabernet sauvignon, and on rainy days the main source of entertainment is to go to the bridge and watch the Sarmiento river swell. With Alejo we were able to see one of the prettiest roads in the region, that which leads to Mina de Oro, the other famous mine, and Cuanchín. The intense yellow of the Oro river and the different shades of green of the fields, a weeping willow here, the walnut trees everywhere ...February is somewhat of a bad month for the north because the rivers swell and most of the roads of the region have shallow gulleys across them instead of bridges. When the river swells it can carry big stones on to the paved roads, so it is a good idea for drivers to inquire about the conditions of the roads before undertaking a trip during this month.
We had left Guachín behind before I was aware we had reached it. Alejo told us that 500 people lived there. "Where?" I asked looking in every direction and seeing no sign of life anywhere.
Before leaving Chilecito, heading towards Belén in Catamaraca, Mary Pérez had recommended we take Route 11... thus we inaugurated the brand new asphalt. Even so, it is one of those roads where one can take a whole day to cover 20 km. It is worth stopping in Plaza Vieja. If you like figs and wish to relive your childhood days by eating the fruit straight off the tree, this is the place for you. In Famatina we had lunch for $5, beef stuffed with tomato and lettuce. We watched the news as the locals do, and I believe we even began to chat less amongst ourselves. Outside all was still, and only the tourist office was open. They very kindly gave us instructions to get to the merging of the two coloured rivers on the path to La Mexicana - and to the telephone kiosk.

Believe it or not, the modern world of telecommunications is beginning to destroy the institutionalised "siesta time". All over the northwest it is easier to send an e-mail at 3pm than it is to buy an aspirin. And every town now has a telephone kiosk. We made some calls to kill time and later went to visit the local artisan, Aniceto Vargas, a self-taught potter. His works reflect the Pachamama way of life and the cultural roots of primitive civilizations. His wife, Wanda Wise, is an Egyptian poet and painter whose many years in Famatina have had no effect on her strong accent. "All of these books are hers", says her husband, pointing to the many books there written in French, English and other languages. "I buy her a ream of paper and she writes and writes ...I don't know what she writes about, because I never read her work." After that curious visit, we got into the car and drove in silence to Alto Carrizal, Angulos and Campanas. The adobe was becoming commonplace, as well as the little square, the chapel and the lady selling jams. To enter the church we had to ask for the keys. In Pituil, Delicia Mercado had to leave her grocery shop to open up the museum for us and tell us the story behind each object with a passion that moved us deeply.
It was getting dark and we had a long way to go before reaching Belén. We stepped on the gas and arrived there at night.

The following day, we traced back our steps to Londres, because the night before we were not able to see anything. It was only 15km there, and absolutely worthwhile. At first we were amused by the name of this little town in Catamarca, where there never was or will be any fog or anything close to a Big Ben ...Its version of the Thames is the Quimivil, and the town was named Londres de la Nueva Inglaterra (London of the New England) by its founder in 1558, after the wife of Philip II, Mary of Tudor. We took it more seriously when we learnt that it was the second town to be founded in all of the Argentine territory after Santiago del Estero. And we were left speechless when we had a look at the El Shincal ruins. We had never heard a word about this mini Macchu Picchu, only 6km from the Hipolito Irigoyen square. It was an Inca settlement that consisted of some 100 structures covering an area of 23 hectares. They have reconstructed a stairway that leads to two hills, the Usnu, from where the chief ruled, and the Kallanka. There have been several expeditions and archaeological campaigns over the last hundred years, but the most serious undertaking was in 1992, by Rodolfo Raffino, the Director of the Musuem of Natural Science of La Plata, who also pushed ahead with the inauguration of the Archaeological Museum of Londres. And guess what? It was siesta time when we got there, and it was closed! The policeman next door told us where Jovita, the director, lived and off we went to wake her up. Still sleepy, but with a friendly smile on her face, she showed us the modest room of the museum, and then took us to visit the weavers of the town. Julie bought herself a lovely poncho and I bought more walnuts. We drove Jovita home and went on our way.

The road to Hualfíñ is beautiful, with many trees and filled with vineyards, after the winding arid slope that leads to the town of 700 inhabitants. The church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, built in 1770, is at the entrance to the town and is the most worthwhile sight here. You have to pick up the keys at the Town Hall. We opened the big wooden door ourselves, and almost cried at the sight of the innocence of the paintings on the altar, the lovely pastel colours, the spiral columns, and the figures of local animals instead of the usual angels.

Hualfín taught us a lesson. No matter how small the church, no matter how insignificant the town, the real finds do not have signs or publicity. You must stop and ask. Knock on doors that are unfailingly opened, and always hold a surprise behind them.

When driving on these roads one would wish for the sunset to last for hours. Nighttime brings an end to the wonderful experience of seeing, learning many things, the people, places, museums. When it gets dark, it's all over; you drive past places and have to wonder what they are like. We had dinner in Santa María and spent the night at Los Quilmes, the only trendy hotel in the region. The following morning we went to visit the untiring Héctor Cruz in Amaicha del Valle. There he was, finishing his work on his other hotel, this one with 80 rooms, right behind the splendid Museo de la Pachamama. It is a promising step forward in Cruz' career on his way to yet another project, the largest tapestry in the world, 150 metres long and a building made specially to hold it. "These are pharaonic undertakings", he says. And we cannot but believe him.

After daydreaming with Cruz and his projects, we headed towards Cafayate. One step in Salta and we were on the empanada diet. The good thing is that they never disappoint you, they are always so delicious. Speaking of which, the two classic visits to the Etchart and Michel Torino bodegas are a must. Not only because of their tradition and the national pride the Torrontés wines hold for us, but because they offer a piece of history in their beautiful buildings, which have now begun to take guests.

With the last ray of sunlight, we left for Salta by the paved Route 68, making a little detour to have a peep at the unusual landscape of Los Médanos -sand dunes-, some 8km from the city. The road that borders the Las Conchas river, one of the many names given to the Calchaquí River, can be covered in two hours or much longer with thousands of stops to see the rock formations of Los Castillos, El Obelisco (the obelisk), El Fraile (the friar), and the most difficult one to see, the Anfiteatro (amphitheatre), to the right.

It is always a pleasure to return to Salta and discover that it is still the same wonderful colonial city. To look out from the balconies of the Hotel Salta- with the best location in town, and admire the dome of the cathedral, the palm trees and the square.

To buy a small silver object, take in the luxurious greenery of San Lorenzo, to eat alfajores, to sample something of urban life and discover that, in its own traditional way, there is always something new. This time for example we discovered that the Tren a las Nubes and Movitrack signed an agreement last year under which you can now take the train on the outward journey and return in one of Frank and Franka's "trucks with a terrace". It seems to have been a great success and you must now book your place well in advance. The train will be running again in April and Frank already has the "movi" ready and some new excursions for one or more days on offer. We were there for only one night. Of course we went out for dinner with Horacio Bertero, the silversmith from San Antonio de Areco.

We wanted to try a new empanada place and he took us to La Vieja Estación. It confirmed the theory that in Salta they never fail. We went to sleep that night delighted in the knowledge that there is always plenty more to do there, but also that we had the long drive home ahead of us as well.

"The most direct route is to take the 34". So said a Salteño. Everyone agrees. A new road - not yet opened and still with earth tracks - but with less trucks than the Route 9. To take it we had to head in the direction of Metán. Some 11 kilometres later there is a diversion to Yatasto. I suggest you don't speed down the road, take your foot off the accelerator and, although you feel as if you have just started and want to make it home quickly, do spend an hour at the famous Posta. The house is very well maintained, the garden is a delight and the nursery looked after by the caretaker is very tempting. He told us that they sent saplings of the historic carob tree to all parts of the world. Also lapachos, jacarandas, palos borrachos, green peppers and basil for the carnival. Ah, the carnival. Its presence had faded until it disappeared in the green of the woods. The fact is that the carnival belongs to the puna and the canyon. In Rosario de la Frontera we took a detour from the exit to Baños and then did the 60 kilometres to Antilla on dirt roads. It seems slower but is more direct. From Pozo Hondo to Ceres is a long stretch with very few villages but sufficient filling station (but not so many that you can ignore the fuel consumption). In Julie's opinion, the hotel in Ceres was not that great, but I was so tired I didn't even notice. The next day we followed someone's advice and went up to Arrufo and from there to San Cristóbal, Elisa, Emilia, Maria Luisa and other feminine names until we reached the Santa F6 -Rosario highway and then the Panamericana.
Straight home. The car was loaded to the roof, and the poncho, the fruit, the alfajores, the wine and the aroma of the basil impregnated "the bubble" which was filled with memories and northern dust.


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