After a month in Patagonia, our vision of Argentina was formed by snowcapped mountains, large empty pampas, guanacos, glaciers and the cold. We knew that the north was different but we just couldn’t imagine that it could be this different. We even wondered if we have stepped into a new country. Our first introductions to the north were the cities of Cordoba and Salta, both rich in colonial architecture and colorful buildings. We spent our days roaming the cities, eating ice cream on the main squares where the locals come out to play and visiting cathedrals and churches.
Our next stop was Tilcara, our base for exploring the Quebrada de Humahuaca. We chose Tilcara because of its strategic position between other villages we wanted to visit and it’s dramatic mountain range. It certainly did not disappoint. Tilcara was not too big and not too small and had a nice mix of locals and visitors. There are also a couple of hikes that you can do straight from town. The first day we arrived was spent wandering around town, with its lively square and one of the most colorful cemeteries we have ever seen. No black and white here but full on color! Vases made of Coca Cola bottles, flowers and garlands on tombs and crosses. School was out when we were in town and as there was a neighborhood above the cemetery, school kids were zig-zagging around the tombs on their way home. Not the quiet sad atmosphere we are used to when we think of cemeteries.
Our home base Tilcara
Oh so colorful cemetery
The landscape is dry, harsh but beautiful. Trees are traded in for cacti, cows for llamas and the mountains are rugged, spiky and in various shades of red, pink, orange and brown. Around town, murals depict the changes in culture and environments. Murals of women with long pigtails and wide skirts, indigenous tribes and llamas adorn the colorful walls. We started whistling cowboy tunes while wandering the quiet dusty streets, amazed at the change of scenery and lifestyle.
We stayed at Hostel Albahaca, and enjoyed one of the advantages of northern Argentina versus Patagonia and that was the price. For the equivalent of 2 dorm beds we now had a private room with our first ensuite bathroom since we arrived in Argentina. The room was really colorful with nice handicraft touches and a great roof terrace where we had breakfast and enjoyed the surrounding views. Our hostel mama recommended some local restaurants where you can get huge meals for only 40 pesos ($ 2.85) including a main dish of milanesa, merluza fish or meat cotelettes, soup (strangely after your meal) and a small dessert for which we always chose the neon color gelatin.
The next day, we walked up to Pucará (50 pesos – $ 3.60), an Inca ruin right next to town. Tilcara is at 2500 m and as altitude got higher we noticed that sunscreen is vital as we got burnt right away. The ruins were nice to walk around, however, they have built a small monument on top which kind of shakens up the ancient feel. Surrounding the ruins were thousands of cacti, big stocky ones which gave the place a surreal feel.
Pucará and the sea of cacti
Back in town, we bought 2 tickets to Purmamarca, a small village 20 kms away (8 pesos one way – $ 0.57). As it was a local bus, we were treated to a drive through Maimará, a cute village next to Tilcara. At Purmamarca, our top 2 things we wanted to do was visit the colorful town square and to walk around the Hill of Seven Colors which surrounds the village. The walk is around 3 km and brings you though a valley with hills ranging from green to red to pink. We were joined on our walk by a herd of donkeys and only a couple of people. As it’s a round trip you can start at either side of the village.
Hill of Seven Colors hike
Humahuaca was our plan for the following day which is another easy bus ride away (13 pesos one way – $ 0.90, 45 minutes). We arrived just in time for the famous San Francisco Solano which emerges from the coo coo clock tower from the Iglesia de la Candelaria. It’s super kitsch but apparently something you got to see in the village. The next kitsch thing to see is the Independence monument, a quick walk up the hill which is mainly big and bold. Back down in the village, we did what these villages are best for and that’s getting lost through the cobbled stoned streets, which we did for around 2.5 hours, a good amount of time to get to know Humahuaca. Another easy bus ride back to Tilcara where we had our usual lunch. I don’t think a lot of non locals eat here as they started to remember us. For the afternoon, we chose to relax around town and soak in more Tilcara town life. Even being a small town, we bumped into a meat truck and was amazed at the beautiful cuts of meat Argentina had. This really is the country of steaks. However, you do notice that the food palate starts to change here in the north as for dinner we had our first llama meat.
Then it was time, after nearly 6 weeks to leave Argentina. The border crossing between Argentina and Bolivia we used was La Quaica to Villazon which we thought was quite straightforward. Even with the system being down for a while, we were through customs within 1.5 hours. Immigration was a bit confused as we had entered, left and re-entered Argentina several times with our hops over to Uruguay and Chile so we had to guide them through our passport with its various stamps. Both immigration offices are on the same bridge so you get stamped out of Argentina and stamped into Bolivia right after each other. We found Villazon not to be as dodgy as many people warned us, we just use our usual border/frontier city common sense.
If you have any Argentina pesos left, change it here as it has the best rate of Bolivia. Straight down the road from the border crossing is the bus station where we took a bus to Tupiza (20 Bolivianos – $ 2.90, 1.5 hours) our first stop in Bolivia.
(The Dollar amount is calculated according to our 14 pesos for $ 1 conversion rate which was the Blue Market rate September 2014)
Good company on our afternoon walk – Tilcara