far north feels distinctly different from the other areas we've visited
so far. There are new types of terrain, but we've had an
incredible variety all along. What's striking is a marked
change in the culture -- it feels much more "Peruvian" here.
("Bolivian" is probably more accurate -- we're very
close to Bolivia, while Peru is further northwest -- but Peru
is our only reference point.) People of indigenous descent now
outnumber Europeans, particularly in the rural areas, while it's been
the opposite everywhere else we've been in Argentina. The same souvenir
items we picked up during our Peru trip 1½ years ago are
widely available here, although Emily
it's equally likely we were seeing northern Argentine souvenirs when
we were in Peru and just didn't know it.
The north is certainly poorer than other parts of the country, but in
general Argentina is relatively well-off and modern by Latin American
For example, the hipermercados, which top a pecking order of grocery stores that include (in descending order) supermercados, minimercados, mercaditos, and kioscos,
are obscenely enormous even by North American standards. (For some
reason we're amused by their "foreign foods" aisles with Skippy peanut
butter and Paul Newman's salad dressing, although it makes perfect
sense.) Order a coffee anywhere and you're served a small glass
fizzy water on the side to stave off dehydration -- now that's high culture; Starbucks take note.
Here are some highlights from our time in the northern provinces:
- When we passed through
the area of Amaichá del Valle (technically still in Tucumán province), we became intrigued by a
prominent local artist, Héctor Cruz. We visited a quite unusual museum that he designed (photo 2; find the kids), and we admired his
tapestries and other artwork. In a truly uncharacteristic move for us,
we even purchased a small tapestry to bring home. (Characteristically,
and multiple rounds of family voting were required to select the one
- The pre-Incan Quilmes ruins, whose visitor center is another Héctor
design, are surprisingly extensive and interesting to explore. (Photo 3
shows only a portion.) We stayed overnight in the parking lot, with only four
llamas for company, which let us to explore the ruins by ourselves for quite a
while in the
- Just about every
Argentina (and elsewhere in Latin America), regardless of size or
wealth, has a large and attractive town square: shade trees, paths,
fountains, benches, sometimes playgrounds, and always lots of people
relaxing and enjoying themselves, especially in the evenings. We spent
one late afternoon puttering around the square in the pleasant town of Cafayate, enjoying the town's signature wine-flavored ice
cream (surprisingly delicious), complimenting bicycle forays to the nearby wineries.
popular Quebrada de Cafayate is a stunning canyon with a good
road right through, but
unfortunately it lacks hiking trails. Seeing the canyon amounts to
numerous jump-out-of-your-vehicle photo-opportunity pullouts (photo 4,
for example) with an occasional short walk. The oddest stop was an
astonishing amphitheater (photo 5; note the kids for scale) that's a
magnet for local hippies selling crafts and playing music.
Presumably they sense a mystic aura in the natural amphitheater, or
perhaps they just sense bus-loads of peso-bearing tourists.
- We spent a hot and yicky
day running errands in the major city of Salta, although we
did carve out a few minutes to visit its attractive colonial town
square. Here were our exciting activities in Salta:
1. A visit to the Mercedes service center. The brake warning light had been flickering on and off for a few
days. Communicating with the mechanics was typically difficult, with
multiple phone calls to the camper rental folks. In the end we were assured
that the brakes are fine and it's the warning light that's on the
2. Major reprovisioning of food and other supplies at the hipermercado (followed by coffee with sparkling water on the side).
3. Attempting to exchange our near-empty propane tank for a full one, precipitating our
biggest wild-goose-chase yet, and that's saying something. Each place
we tried apologized for not having propane that day ("no gas hoy") and
sent us on to another that would surely have it, sometimes clear
across the city of half-a-million people. After perhaps ten tries over
several hours, about to give up, we went to one last place, well out of
town in the direction we'd come from originally. Undeterred by the explicit "no gas hoy" sign on the fence, we inquired beseechingly and they managed to locate a tank.
a store selling remote-control model airplanes. Tim has decided, in his
usual very decisive fashion, that a plane would be the ideal
early Christmas present and perfect compliment to our other outdoor
toys (currently a badminton set and soccer ball). We did finally locate
a suitable store, and waited the three hours for it to reopen after the
midday siesta. Their airplanes turned out to be expensive and not up to
Tim's requirements. He's now researching hobby shops in Santiago,
continue to be
extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Any time we ask directions --
typically several times in a day -- we get enthusiastic, lengthy, and
detailed replies. Unfortunately, as often as not, we don't end up where
we're trying to go. It's hard to know if we're having
misunderstandings, or if our "helpers" are a little overconfident about
their local knowledge. When multiple people are involved there's often
debate among them before finally giving us directions, suggesting it's
not always just a matter of misunderstanding on our part.
- Fortunately, the
after Salta made up for it. We visited Parque Nacional
Calilegua and suddenly found ourselves in the subtropics (photos 6-7).
protects some of Argentina's only cloudforest (rainforest's
higher-elevation cousin). We spent the night at the ranger
allowing Alex to indulge in one of his favorite tropical activities: the
early morning bird-walk. Access into the park is via a long dirt
road heading far up into the mountains. We drove as far as the Hot
Chile Camper could reasonably navigate, then did something we've
been planning for a long time: Three of us rode our bikes down the
mountain, while Alex trailed in the vehicle. We rendez-vous'd
for some short hikes and a lunch break. All in all it was a lot of fun,
at least for the riders.
- We took a quick
foray into Quebrada de Humahuaca -- a very long canyon with
stunning high mountains on both sides, Quechua villages strung
along the river, and a significant pre-Columbian ruin, Pucará de Tilcara, popular with tour buses from Salta and a little too
restored for our taste.
As promised, Tim has begun a Geology Log, detailing mineralogical finds
and purchases. He intends to
extend the log as the trip continues.
Next: Up and over
the Paso Jama into Chile. The high point is a staggering
4800 meters in elevation (about 15,800 feet), the height of Mont Blanc. Let's hope those
camper brakes really
are in good shape.