Salta and Jujuy Provinces, November 23-28

Argentina's 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 clearly 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 insists 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 standards. 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 of 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, intense analysis and multiple rounds of family voting were required to select the one we wanted.)

  • The pre-Incan Quilmes ruins, whose visitor center is another Héctor Cruz 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 morning.

  • Just about every town in 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.

  • The 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 fritz.
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.
4. Finding 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, Chile.
  • Fortunately, the day after Salta made up for it. We visited Parque Nacional Calilegua and suddenly found ourselves in the subtropics (photos 6-7). The park protects some of Argentina's only cloudforest (rainforest's higher-elevation cousin). We spent the night at the ranger station, 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.
The Argentines 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 lively debate among them before finally giving us directions, suggesting it's not always just a matter of misunderstanding on our part.

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.

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