Let´s begin with a little geology. (Definitions provided by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary with Encyclopedia Britannica Company).
Valley: An elongate depression of Earth´s surface usually between ranges of hills or mountains;
An area drained by a river and its tributaries.
Canyon: A deep narrow valley with steep sides and often with a stream flowing through it.
Gorge: A narrow passage through land;
A narrow steep-walled canyon or part of a canyon.
Ravine: A small narrow steep-sided valley that is larger than a gully and smaller than a canyon and that is usually worn by running water.
Gulch: A deep or precipitous cleft: ravine.
Gully: A trench which was originally worn in the earth by running water and through which water often runs after rains;
A small valley or gulch.
Alright, back to my travels. I went on a whorl-wind tour from Tucumán to Cafayate to Salta to Purmamarca to Tilcara to Iruya and back to Salta. All accomplished in just over a week. Phew! I barely found enough time among the daily bus rides, constantly unpacking and packing, check-ins and check-outs, and trying to catch some shut eye while not out and exploring.
After leaving Córdoba, I arrived in Tucumán. There were two Germans in my Córdoba hostel who left on a similar bus and we all ended up at the Backpackers´ Tucumán Hostel together. They however went off paragliding, so I toured the city solo. I mostly just walked my grid pattern across the city center. I said the main Plaza Independencia. Then I stopped at the Casa Histórica de la Independencia, where 9 July 1816, the unitarist lawyers and clerics declared Argentina´s independence from Spain. It now also holds valuable objects from the colonial period, from the Independencia wars, and from the 19th century, as well as a library and photographic and journalist archives. I walked down to the Plaza Yrigoyen to see the Palacio de Tribunales, and then through the Parque 9 de Julio, stopping at the Museo de la Industria Azucarero: Casa Obispo Colombres, an 18th century museum dedicated to sugar industry.
The following day I left Tucumán for Cafayate, a small town in the Calchaqui Valley. I went on the day bus to catch the scenic landscape. The two Germans got off at an earlier town while I continued on with a French girl, Virginia, who also happened to be from my hostel. We went to the Hostel Ruta 40 and reserved bikes for the following day. The nest morning we headed 50 km up Route 68 towards Salta to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat). The plan was to ride back to Cafayate through the Quebradas (ravines) de las Conchas and Cafayate. Virginia´s bike, however, was broken and thus she immediately hitch-hiked back to town while I headed out alone. I actually had a great time. It has been awhile since I have been completely isolated from people. I, of course, spent much of that un-invaded time belting out songs while riding down the highway. I also stopped at all the recommended vistas: Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat), Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre), Tres Cruces (Three Crosses), El Sapo (The Frog), Casa de Loros (House of Parrots), Las Ventanas (The Windows), and Los Castillos (The Castles), as well as anything else I thought notable. Specifically, there were two points in the road where the river is actively cutting into the cliff face and thus undermining the road. If only I had gotten to go a few kilometers further up the road from Garganta del Diablo, I would have seen where a practically unused road runs straight into the ravine with it starting again 500 m later where the ravine edge has not been further eroded. I could not get a good picture from the bus but that was awesome. The 50 km were mostly downhill or level, with very few uphill sections. It had some great panoramic views into the valley. Closer to Cafayate, the ride ends with going through the vineyards.
I mentioned the Malbec dominated region near Mendoza. Well Cafayate and the Calchaqui Valley it resides in is the second dominant wine producing region in Argentina. Specifically, they produce Torrontes white wine which is unique to Argentina as no where else in the world has the right conditions to produce Torrontes grapes. After my morning bike ride, I went to the Museo de la Vid y el Vino. This was a fantastic museum explaining the whole process of growing with grape type to soil and climate conditions; the production through reception, squeezing, pumping, pressing, fermentation, decanting, and breeding; and ending with the differences in wine production techniques for determining unique colorings, textures, and flavors. Though I feel as if I have learned quite a bit about wine, I simply want to learn more now. One thing I know for certain, chemistry is tantalizing: C6H12O6 –> 2C2H5OH + 2CO2 (fermentation equation).
I also made my way to Helados Miranda, the creator of wine ice cream. They literally have ice cream made out of Malbec and Torrontes wines. I tried both. Very delectable, and the perfect treat on a sunny afternoon. The genial and entertaining man who served my double cone assured me that too much wine ice cream would result in intoxication.
The next morning I left for Salta. Again taking Route 68, but getting to see the last 200 km of the ravine. Stunning scenery all over the northwest Argentina. I met back up with Virginia and we decided to self tour a few small villages to the north. Always taking day buses, in part because buses are infrequent but also because you WANT to see the views, we quickly working our way through Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Iruya.
We left early in the morning for Purmamarca, of pre-Hispanic origins with a tiny urban layout centered around the St. Rosa Church, where a 700 year old Algarrobo Negro tree is located. The village lies against the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colors). Sedimentary rocks illustrating various geological eras. Colors: light orange-red clay, sand and mud; white-lime rock;brown, purple and violet-lead and calcium; red-clay and iron; green-copper oxide; brown-bed rock and manganese; and yellow-sulfur. We walked the 3 km trail, Paseo de los Colorados, around the hill to see the naturally sculpted red cliffs and breath taking views.
Then we caught a bus to Tilcara, our area base camp, staying there two nights. Tilcara is a quaint, little Andean village. It is simple and tranquil. Though, I should have brought two books as I started and finished one before getting back to my luggage stored in Salta. The next morning, Virginia and I went on a pleasant 6 km walk to Garganta de Diablo (yes, everything seems to have this name!), a geographic feature from tectonic plate movement origins. It was pretty clear in the ravine that some serious pressure occurred at one time with sporadic folding and noticeable scraping marks. Water from the Huasamaya River has come through and created the gorge, exposing what happens to be some of the earliest evidence of trilobites. I obviously looked around to see if I could find anything, but the rock is likely in the deepest parts of the incision, safely barred off from crazy people like me climbing down to my death. We also walked up the Quebrada de Alfarcito, criss-crossing the river numerous times, up to a natural waterfall.
On the way back to town, we continued over to the ruins of Pucará de Tilcara (Tilcara Fortress), a pre-Hispanic fortress–despite the lack of surrounding walls or ramparts–located on an inaccessible hill. It represents cultures of the Quebrada Humahuaca dating back to 10,000 BCE. Though the pucarás occurred during 1000-1480 CE. Really I just went for the astonishing views of the quebrada landscape: Perchel gorge to the north and Maimara to the South, as well as Huichairas ravine to the west and Huasmay ravine to the east. And, despite the many species of cactus overtaking the landscape, I escaped my cacti enclosure completely unscathed by any prickly disasters.
The following day we left for Iruya. Now I know I said the whole point of this trip was predominantly for the views from the bus, but this was a very long day in the bus. It was about four hours going into Iruya, we had less than two hours to see Iruya, then four hours back, followed by 4-5 hours back to Salta. Despite doing almost nothing but sit on my lazy butt, I was still quite worn out by the end of it. Anyways, Iruya is a tiny mountain village, literally at the end of the road as everything stops in front of the church. Truly a picturesque location perched in the enclosing mountains and cliffs. The only disappointing part is that we were not there long enough to actually go on any quick treks to the vista points surrounding the village. But it was worth the trip. Entering the Quebrada Humahuaca was like seeing a tiny crack on a smooth surface while slowly zooming in. First you see the ravine and surrounding mountains, then the landscape becomes undulated with hills, and finally you work your way into the myriad of crevices which once were a single incision. Breath-takingly stunning!
We parted after returning to Tilcara. I headed back to the south to Salta, while Virginia stayed to head north into Chile. Returning to Salta, I had meant to give the city more time for exploring, but instead I spent the time organizing myself. I was quite behind on my journeling and blogging, as well as needing to finish establishing my final travel routes and approximate time frames. After the non-stop moving since Mendoza, it was nice to have a day to myself. Also, I met some people from my hostel and finally went to my first Peña.
They are properly referred to as Peña Folklórica, or Folk Rock. This can be any music event involving several singers, poets, folk dancing, and orchestras, typically in confined spaces before audiences seated at candlelit tables, often enjoying a parrilla or empanadas. Hence, dinner and a show in a restaurant. I find they usually take place between 9 PM and 1 AM, the typical supper hours. Also, members of the audience are sometimes invited up for improvised dance (which of course had to happen to me…). It was actually really fun. The music is always really loud, but I suppose you are normally eating and thus do not need to have a conversation, maybe? Ha. We fortunately, or unfortunately, went on a Monday when everything is practically dead. We had a group of six: two brothers from Louisiana, a guy from D.C. area, two girls from Belgium, and myself. We started at one place with a 5-6 man band and several dancers and hopped across the street to a 3 man band with, it turns out, the same dancers who were simply running back and forth across the street. It is nice to see both sides of the full band to a small band mix. Also, the dancers wore traditional folk costumes of rich colors, feathers, sequins, capes, and head masks. And like I mentioned, I was called up at one point. I still am not sure what the steps are supposed to be… We ended the night at the only open bar, where the live music was slightly less loud and we could actually converse more. One of the brothers was a fellow geologist! and the other just finished his Peace Corp term in Paraguay. The other three were just travelers like me, though all of us of the long term sort. We had lots to chat about. It was quite an evening, and I think I am ready to try out a full-fledged Peña on a Saturday night when things are really hopping. 🙂