Give me an N, give me an O, give me an A: Noroeste Argentino!!!

Hello out there!
Here we go for another edition of my travel adventures. This one will deal with the Argentinian Northwest (or 'el Noroeste Argentino' , or the 'NOA') where I arrived over one month ago and which I left since about a week ... 
The Argentinian Northwest is the border region with Chile (in the west) and Bolivia (in the north). Seen the fact I was in Chile before, visiting a friend of mine, I arrived from the latter. So, the 1st of May I decided to go hitchhiking to Purmamarca, a town at the end of the road that goes from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to the main north-south directed road in the Argentinean Northwest. But things don't always go as you want them to, especially while travelling. I was told that the best way to get a ride was going to the customs office before 8 am. The customs office is a few hundreds of meters out of the town of San Pedro. Every day, a bunch of Argentinian, Chilean, Bolivian and even Paraguayan truck drivers wait in line for the office to open at 8 am. That way, they can arrange all due documents and continue their long voyage over the Jama Pass, a pass at a height of 4700 meters, the border between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
However, I realized it wouldn't be a cup of tea. Most of the truck drivers weren't disposed to take along hitchhikers. Some of them told me that the insurance company doesn't allow them to pick up people. More specifically, if an accident occurs, they aren't covered. I have heard this argument various times before. It seems truck drivers nowadays are explicitly told not to pick up hitchhikers, just as in Europe. Of course, there are opportunists all over the world. Seeing that noone was eager to pick me up, one truck driver informed me, in front of the others, that he could take me along ... but it would cost me 50 dollars. '50 dollars? That is exaggerated!' I replied to him. His response was actually quite original and funny: 'Today we're the 1st of May, it's the day of labour, so it's more expensive. If not, it would be 30 dollars.' Just as one gets paid more for working during an official holiday, someone searching for a ride would have to pay more. 'Thanks, anyway I am hitchhiking and I don't care if I can't go today. So I'll go another day. Good trip everybody.' I am sure some kind of upper being, whatever you might call it, punished the truck drivers for their not willing of picking up hitchhikers, because the weather started turning really bad, especially up the mountains, and a bit later the customs anounced that they were shutting off the pass for time unlimited. Consequence: I couldn't leave, but the truck drivers neither.
So, on Saturday and Sunday I did various things to keep me busy, as for instance sandboarding. Monday morning, the pass was open again so very early I left and ... got a ride immediately from a Chilean couple who were driving to Salta 'la linda', Salta, the beautiful (city). So, I explained them that I was getting off in Purmamarca, the village at the end of the 500km road and after arranging papers, off we went! During five hours we drove through arid mountains, passing turquoise lakes and snow-capped volcanoes. Sometimes we passed some small farms. We passed only one village on the way. Furthermore, we drove through salt flats. The altiplano views we got were once more stunning! The funny thing is that some people pay a lot of money to tour operators to go and see the altiplano. The altiplano is not easy accessible as the distances between the villages are very large, plus at night it gets freezing cold because of the height. So, tour operators benefit from this fact and ask high prices for their sometimes quite mediocre tours. However, it needs to be said: organising a tour to the altiplano is an almost guaranteed success as the views are always bloody incredible and highly amazing! So, the only things you need to be cautious about is the equipment and the fact that you have to find a bilingual and interesting guide ... But then, if you can get a hitchhike crossing the whole altiplano, why bother and pay tens or hundreds of dollars ... when you can go for free and get a much more genuine experience with locals! it all depends on the way of travelling ...
I fell in love with the Argentinian northwest as quickly as I put my large feet on its soil! The fact is, I had heard about a mountain in the region that has seven different colours, even seen some pictures of it. Also, I was also told that Purmamarca, the village I was going to, was a very nice, cosy place where indian people live. But what I didn't know was that this particular mountain with seven colours was actually in Purmamarca! In other words: I had the feeling hitting the jackpot immediately as I was about to visit two places I wanted to get to know IN ONE, at once! Purmamarca, as the majority of the villages in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, is a little village with small houses centered around a plaza with a church in adobe material and with lots of indigenous people selling beautiful handcrafts, mostly clothes made out of alpaca and llama wool, but there are so many other handcrafts as well, such as chess boards with pawns inspired of the local fauna. It is nice to see that, though we live in the age of mass production, there are still people who put their energy in making original products, hand made and inspired by their ancestors, passing on the traditions that have often been so violently suppressed during the last five hundred years. I often feel like buying a bunch of these products, but I am travelling and I always have to watch the weight of my backpack ... and sending them over by mail is relatively expensive. Moreover, when will I be going back to Belgium? Is it actually worth it? 
The quebrada de Humahuaca is a valley in the Argentinian Northwest that goes north-south for some two hundred kilometers. In precolumbian times traders used the valley as a connection between the north (Bolivia) and the south (Salta). There are a bunch of villages that get more and more touristic, although mass tourism has luckily not arrived yet. Let's hope it will never, that way keeping the positive relationship with the locals more or less intact. Though there is quite some tourism in the area, I was positively surprised by the openness and the kindness of the locals and by the spontaneousness and the authenticity of the encounters. Actually, these people have the same traditions as the indigenous people in Bolivia or in Peru, but the fact is that their world is much more accessible for a visitor. They are much more open to strangers and thus less reserved than their Bolivian or Peruvian counterparts. Why? because of education? It would be interesting to study this sociological phenomenon ...  
Apart from the interesting lifestyle of the locals, the quebrada de Humahuaca has some stunning views. I already mentioned the amazing mountain of seven colours (I refer to the pictures underneath). But there are actually many of these multicolour mountains over there, the colours ranging in between orange, green, brown and even violet! Just check the pictures section underneath ... This very special geological and cultural heritage, plus the existence of various inca and pre-inca ruins in the region have persuadad the UNESCO to declare the whole region as UNESCO World Heritage! The positive thing about this is that many efforts will be made to maintain this valley and its villages in its original state. Will the explosion of tourism generate any negative aspects? We will see. I think that the concept of 'sustainable tourism' is one that is more and more propagated in this part of the world. Somehow, many people realize that the way in which tourism is organised is of utmost importance! Who wants to repeat horrendous mass tourism projects that generate a lot of money in the hands of a few (foreigners), while the locals only see the housing prices rise? Having received the UNESCO label might generate a more intelligent development of tourism in the area. Let's all hope so ... Luckily, McDonalds seems very, very far away in the quebrada de Humahuaca, and I was more than once touched by the children of the villages playing football or shooting marbles in the streets in stead of playing violent video games until late at night. 
Somehow, it's always a difficult balance! To give an example: San Isidro. it's the name of a small, very isolated village in the province of Salta. To get there, you have to take some buses that zigzag along some unpaved suicide roads. After that, having arrived in the small town of Iruya (another very special place), you have to walk seven kilometers to get to the village. I went there with Esteban and Lisa, a Argentinian-Belgian couple I had met some time before and with whom I decided to team up again for a while, seen the fact they were in the same region as me. Up till december 2009 there was no electricity in San Isidro! Poor fellows! Poor fellows? Well, it depends how you look at it. Of course, I do not doubt that electricity has and is going to make life easier for the villagers. But with electricity also arrives television ... We went to eat something in a local restaurant and the people there seemed to have copied the typical Argentinian behaviour of installing themselves in front of the television and stay there for a couple of hours. So there they are choosing between three hundred channels whereas half a year ago they didn't even have a TV! The world changes very quickly indeed and, while it keeps on moving, the last few isolated villages in the Northwest are getting exposed to the virus of Argentinian TV. Forget about quality TV. When you travel around Argentina you realize very quickly that what most people watch is pure trash! Just think about the worst television you know: Argentinian TV is ten times a bad as that! I sometimes think that there is a hidden agenda behind it to make everybody afraid (a lot of violence in the news) so that the masses are easier to control and manipulate. At the same time, Argentinian TV is extremely consumption centered. Everything centers around some hip, classy, trendy urban idols who show people which clothes you have to wear, which cars you have to drive and how you have to uplift your tits ... The living room of these villagers is violently being invaded by strong images that function to keep them away from what is really important in life. It's kind of sad. I suppose that if I would come back in ten years the young kids will be wanting trendier clothes, a personal car, beautiful, unreachable women ... consume or die! I think the real problem is that these people are much more vulnerable to TV and its negative consequences than most people who've been used to it for a longer time, are: these people have often not enjoyed a lot of education and the shock from not having a TV to being exposed daily to an overdose of consumption driven information is very strong, it seems to me. Well, maybe I am exaggerating ...
I was very lucky to arrive in San Isidro while the yearly village feast was taking place. The feast has two characters. The first one is catholic, the second one is genuinely indigenous. As everyone knows, the Spaniards started obliging all indigenous to convert to christianity. This gave place to various syncretic belief systems, in which catholic worship exists along the older, precolumbian belief systems based in the adoration of Inti (the sun) and the Patchamama (mother earth). Up till this moment both belief systems keep on existing the one alongside the other. So, the feast started out with a catholic mass lead by the bishop of Salta. Of course, the good catholic boy I am, I went to check it out and kind of saw happening what I was expecting to see: a typical boring catholic mass as I was used to in my childhood: the pastor who leads his sheep, the bishop who very paternalistically tells the people how special Jesus was. Furthermore, the dull repeating of preset, impersonal prayers and the bishop explaining as a good, well meaning father that 'during the many centuries that christianity has developed people of all races and colours have accepted the word of God', (deliberately?) omitting the historical fact that - in the case of the indigenous peoples of the Americas - they were simply obliged to convert themselves ... other wise it was the sword cutting through indian flesh ... Now, that can count for historical misrepresentation, don't you think so? Anyway, lots of old beliefs keep on existing. I remember Ale, a hotel keeper in the village of Humahuaca, talking about dreams she used to have as a kid. She told me she often saw her ancestors in her dreams whereas she had never met them. This adoration of ancestors as well is a typical pre-christian belief that keeps on existing to this very day. Then, there are the typical superstitious beliefs: many stories about devils that reside in the mountains. One time, coming back from a mountain I wanted to walk to but that I never reached, a woman I met told me I should consider myself lucky I never reached the mountain, because 'the devil lives there. It appears as a couple, a man and a woman. They seem very nice at first, but they are dangerous!' Superstition ...  

Back to the feast! After the messes and processions and the delicious food that was provided to all the people present, I got to know the indigenous character of the feast. First there was some kind of eating game. We had the possibility to change Argentinian pesos to 'San Isidro pesos' and with those we could go and order food made by a group of indigenous women. The funny thing was that they had drawn a line in the sand to separate the people from the vendors (other wise things would get too chaotic). One couldn't cross the line, other wise some 'policeman' carrying a stick would come and arrest you. This happened to me once, as I was falsely denounced having crossed the line ('that's what they all say ...'). So, I was arrested and put in prison for a while, the clock tower of the church serving as an improvised prison. The game was in some extent a pretext to lock up everybody who was not from the village. Hilarious atmosphere, very funny! Some people went so far as to 'steal' food. Every time this happened you would see all the youngsters running after the thief and the crowd bursting out in laughter ... After this game, the people set for the streets of the village and the feast took on the whole night. The villagers actually started dancing in a circle around an old man armed with a typical flute and drums. He constantly kept on repeating the same melody and rhythm, bringing the dancers to some form of ecstacy. The large amounts of chicha (an alcoholic drink based on corn) and liquors helped a lot to get people dancing for hours, always repeating the same chant ... It seems quite unbelievable but they started at 8 pm and actually went on till 9 am the next morning! When I left the next day at noon, there were still people partying! Personally, I didn't make it till 9 am, but I talked, danced and drank till late at night anyway.
Apart from the quebrada de Humahuaca, of which I have told you quite some things now, the Northwest of Argentina has other things to offer! The most visited place in the region is certainly Salta, a city full of history that can boast with many colonial buildings and churches, interesting! I stayed there for a few days and learned how to make empanadas (salty pastries filles with meat, cheese ...) during a couchsurfing meeting, where I met three Belgian girls travelling around. With them I went out one evening ... It was actually very nice to meet these girls from my own country after not having met too many compatriotes during this trip (though lately I've been meeting quite some ...). Anyway, though Salta is definitely worth a visit, travelling in South America is often more rewarding when you go to villages and remote regions. A very stark contrast to the dry quebrada de Humahuaca are the yungas. It is a very special ecosystem that exists in the Northwest of Argentina and Bolivia along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The yungas is a very dense and lush rainforest. It's not the Amazon rainforest, but it's very dense anyway. And it's quite moisty. When I was there, it was always cloudy and sometimes I had to put on my rainjacket as a fine drizzle came falling down from time to time. So close to the dry quebrada I told you about, yet so different!
One of the most interesting places in the yungas must be the national park Calilegua. From the nearest town I had to walk 10 kilometers to get to the entrance, but as often is the case on isolated roads in these countries: the few people who drive by will stop and propose you to take you along. In this case, I was actually given a ride by some park rangers coming from the other direction. 'It makes me feel bad seeing you walk to the national park alone at sunset. So, we decided to take you there.' one of the park rangers told me. How simpatico, no? On the camping ground I met a photographer from Cordoba and together we went walking for the next two days. These walks were always very interesting. It's great walking in the lush, green woods, breathing in the fresh mountain air. Moreover, there are lots of things that draw your attention: some trees are invisible as they are totally covered by lianes, there are so many types of spiders with different kinds of webs, lots of birds as well. But the most interesting and adrenalin provoking experience was this: at a certain moment I was walking on a path relatively close to the road that goes through the park. I heard some noises coming from the left; the cracking of tree branches. So, I started looking through the trees and bushes and I could see something moving from one tree to another. However, I couldn't see it very well so I decided to get a bit closer. I was convinced I was about to see a monkey, but the moment I actually could distinguish the animal it turned out to be a puma! I got an immediate rush of adrenalin through my blood, can you believe it? But I could retain more or less my fear and drew out my camera to take a picture. However, the animal doesn't show in the picture I took as my camera is not very good and there was a lot of light, so the picture resulted very blurry (what an excuse, right? haha). What a pity! The animal also stood still for a moment. I think it was watching me, but I don't really know ... Then, I watched it moving, amazed how easily it jumped from one branch to another, climbing up to the top of a tree. Anyway, it was a young puma, it was not very big. But I must say it's kind of a strange feeling being alone in nature and being confronted with a potential dangerous animal ... it's quite different from watching animals in the zoo! Anyway, what a beautiful experience, dammit! I didn't stay there for too long though. It seemed more advisable to silently make room for the animal ... 
After having spent some nights on the free camping ground where I would always be harrassed in the morning by some aggressive birds that continually tried to steal my bread, I took the bus that goes all through the park to arrive in San Francisco, a small village in the yungas with splendid views of the surrounding mountains and even of the high, dry mountain tops that separate the yungas region from the earlier mentioned quebrada. There are thermal springs at two hours walking from the village: the most spectacular ones I've seen in my life! (see pictures). Those colours! Moreover, they are completely isolated. There is no tourist infrastructure, it's 100 percent nature, just me and the thermal springs ... beautiful. The only drawback was that the water was not really hot ... it was more tepid than warm. So after having spent about thirty minutes in the water I started having cold.
A bit more than a week ago I decided to leave the nortwest of Argentina, very worth a visit! I would recommend it to anyone going to Argentina. So, I decided to go hithhiking to the town of Formosa on the border with Paraguay. 1000 kilometers through forests, fields and sporadically passing iny, tiny villages. I thought it was going to be very boring, but it turned out to be a magical experience! It would take me three days to get to Formosa, but things were always interesting. I had very nice conversations with the people who took me along, many inhabitants of the villages where this crazy gringo was passing stopped for a talk and one night I even got invited for an asado, a barbecue! Such nice people! And one nice guy took me along for the last long stretch to Formosa, stopping every moment to invite me for coffee.
Yep, the last couple of weeks have been blessed once more with rewarding encounters and superb scenery! Sometimes it has been difficult to communicate with people I had met on the road and who I wanted to meet afterwards, but that's part of the trip. As frustrating it may be, it's so typical not being able to meet people. A girl I got to know was supposed to meet me and tried to call me but I was never there and in the end we never met again (very short explanation); of another person I was going to visit I plainly, stupidly lost the contact address ... And those things are pretty frustrating. Once we set our minds on something, it's hard to accept that reality turns out a different way. The same goes for regions where one is travelling in. I loved the Argentinian Northwest and almost didn't want to leave. Sometimes you have to force yourself to leave a certain place to go to the next one. Well, it only means that the travel trip is really worth it and you're having a good time, right? Anyway, the human being is a 'habits animal': we are constantly conditioned by our habits. We don't like insecurity, right? The same goes a bit for travelling in a region you love. It's hard to leave it. Anyway, I did leave and I am in Paraguay right now, ready for some new adventures, though I am starting to feel as if I want to spend some more time in one place. I've been travelling for quite some time now, and settling down for a couple of months could be a very good idea. I am thinking about looking for a job as an English teacher ... somewhere in Brazil? You'll read all about it in the next message ...
It would be nice to hear from you, guys! I greet you from Asuncion, Paraguay!


 A volcano on the way to Argentina.


 Purmamarca. Lots of handicrafts ...


Purmamarca. When cactuses die, their wood (inside) gets hard. After a few years it is ready to be used.


 A picture from the viewpont on the other side of the mountain of seven colours.


 The mountain of seven colours.


 Tilcara, another village in the quebrada de Humahuaca, has some old incaruins.


 Another picture in the surroundings of Tilcara.


 Incaruins at Tilcara.


the 'Garganta del Diablo', the throat of the Devil, close to Tilcara.



This is me with Kevin abd Laura from Germany. Even taking this picture was a whole hazardous enterprise! Better not to fall down ...


 Close to the Garganta del Diablo. These cactuses are ' cardones' that grow 1 cm per year.


 Laguna de Yala, a lagoon close to the village of Yala. this place is at an hour driving from Purmamarca, but what a difference!


 Lagunas de yala. Marcos and me. marcos is a guy who works at a restaurant at the lagoons. Some weeks later, I'd go visit him in San Salvador de Jujuy where he lives.  


 Lagunas de Yala. Walking back down towards the main road.


This bunch of crazy travellers took me along to Purmamarca from where I'd hitchhike further north to the town of Humahuaca.


The church of Humahuaca.


 The road that goes from Humahuaca to Iruya, a real suicide road! And splendid views of course ...


 The village of Iruya. What a beautiful setting ...


 Iruya seen from another point of view.


 Just outside the village of Iruya you can admire this waterfall ... and all the traffic passing above.


 Northwest Argentinians start drinking at an early age, hahaha!


 Getting away from Iruya. Besides, there are a lot of condors in the mountains over there.


 Walking from Iruya to San Isidro with Lisa and Esteban.


Arriving at San Isidro.


 Syncretism: old indigenous dances are practised for the messes and the processions that will take place the next day ...


 In San Isidro we asked the director of the local school if we could camp on the schoolground. No problem! It's funny waking up with a bunch of kids playing.


 San Isidro. The corn needs to be dried.


 the procession with some locals practising a dance. The idea is that the catholic church combats the devil (the one with the kukluxc=klan-like mask).


 After the catholic mass and the food starts all the fun: soccer!


 The locals performing an indigenous dance ... all night long.


 The next day I walked back to Iruya with Gonzalo from Buenos Aires and this stray dog that followed us till Iruya.


 And oh yes, because of the precipitations: snowcapped mountains!


 What a pity I don't have a better camera. Condors!


 This picture is taken when I arrived in Humahuaca with this group of Argentinians and Spaniards (correction: the girl is from Catalunya, haha.)


And five minutes later I found Esteban making this beautiful wall painting together with Edwige and Heol from France.


 The surroundings of Humahuaca.


 Surroundings of Humahuaca.


 Everywhere you find these small cactuses.


 A small river in the yungas near the city of Salta.


 Compare this vegetation to the one in the quebrada de Humahuaca: what a difference!


 When I left the place where the two pictures above were takne, a group of oldtimers arrived. They were driving around to celebrate the Bicentenary of Argentina. Some weeks ago Argentina existed two hundred years.  


Everywhere in the Northwest you can find coca leaves. This cart shows that the owners have coca leaves from La Quiaca. This means they come from Bolivia because La Quiaca is a the border. The people in the Northwest like to chew coca leaves all day long, just like in Bolivia and Peru.  


At the camping site in Salta that in the summer serves as a swimming pool. the warning says: 'Sir swimmer, enter the swimming pool with a swimming suit.' Haha.  




 One of the many beautiful churches in Salta.


Salta also has a convent for ladies.


Me with Magali and Han from Belgium, and with an Argentinian guy who bought roses for them! How romantic!


 In the surroundings of the district of San Salvador where my friend Marcos lives.


 These posters were everywhere during the feasts of the Bicentenary. 'For an Argentinian there shouldn't be anything better than another Argentinian.'  


Me in the house of Marcos with his sister and his mother, maybe the nicest and warmest evangelians I've met so far ... 


 The part of town Marcos lives in. It's a very new part where lots of new houses are being built. Quite chaotic. There is still no aspahlt (will there be one day?) and there in no sewing system so far ... No rules, it seems! 


 these birds are very beautiful, but they aren't ashamed to steal your bread when you turn your back ... Parque nacional Calilegua.


 Parque nacional Calilegua.


 Parque nacional Calilegua. Prints of a tapir close to the river.


Do you see the spider waiting for food? Parque Nacional Calilegua is so full of spider webs you have to watch out constantly not to walk in one.


 A spider in close up.


 Walking around with a guy form Cordoba.


 the lianes cover the whole tree!


 Parque Nacional Calilegua: another spider web!


 Parque Nacional Calilegua.


 Parque Nacional Calilegua.


 Spider close up.


 the village of San Francisco.


San Francisco. This sculpture in honour of the Patchamama (Mother Earth) has recently been erected. Is this a concretisation of the cultural revival of the precolumbian peoples in Latin America? 


 San Francisco: centre.




 In the surroundings of san Francisco.


On the left you can see the thermal springs.


 Me at the entrance to the thermal springs. ready to take a dive!


 the thermal springs.


 Another picture of the thermal springs.


 this picture was taken while crossing the river one has to cross to get to the thermal springs. Make sure the current doesn't take you along! 


 Surroundings San Francisco.


 Lucy and Fredy (written like that ...), the two nice elders in whose camping / hostel I stayed for two nights. Such nice people! 


 On the way to Formosa. Rodolfo (left), me and Fernando.


 Please, take me to the next village!


 One of the biggest villages while hitchhiking to Formosa: Ingeniero Juarez. Lots of villages have names of people. Under the 'Z' you can see locals drinking mate.


 These super friendly people invited me for a barbecue. I ended up sleeping in their house as well ... Thanks!


 The next morning: a picture of the cute daughter. 


Off we go!


23:18 Gepost door Peter in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (2) |  Facebook |