31.05.2010 - 06.06.2010
When I thought about travelling to Argentina what I had in mind was a European style capital city, beautiful wilderness, great wine and steaks, and tango. I certainly didn't come here to learn about South America's indigenous people, let along discover ancient ruins. Expecting to find all this in Bolivia, Peru and Equador, it came as a surpise to find that the people from North West Argentina have a predominantly native ancestory and there is still a preserved native culture existing in certain areas.
After two weeks in Buenos Aires, I decided it was time to hit the road again. I'd had a fabulous time there but had pretty much seen what I had wanted to see and could feel myself falling into a cycle of just partying with other backpackers, which although was fun for a while, was not all I came to South America to do. So after a spontaneous bender of a night and about two hours sleep, I caught an overnight bus 20hrs north to Salta (the biggest city Northwest of Argentina). It was one of those days when you're so tired (and hungover!) but you have to endure the day and stay focussed enough to do everything you have to do so you're ready to leave. By the time I sat down on the bus I felt so relieved that I had made it, and could just let go and vege out. Sleep was all I had on my mind and I wasted no time in getting ready for it. Just as I was about to drift off, the bus guard puts on a DVD of music clips which blasted through the speakers. I developed a distinct dislike to him after he refused to turn the volume down, especially since this was immediately after he asked us if the volume was alright. Worst of all was that each song played for only 10 bars then swapped to the next. It was music for people with ADHD. Luckily, I was tired enough that with cotton wool in my ears and a bit of time I eventually managed to drift off.
My first impression of Salta was not that great. I chose my hostel because of its high ratings on the internet, but was underwhelmed by it upon arrival. It had one tiny kitchen with a table and a TV and some chairs, and that was the only communal space it had. I also quickly realised that Salta was absolutely freezing at night (and I am talking below 0 degrees) and the hostel was very cold, with the doors left open at night and little internal heating to warm it up. I have since realised that most places in the region are the same and I have had more than one meal in a restaurant wearing everything that I own and still shivering as I eat. I think it is only cold here for three months a year so I guess everyone just puts up with it until its over (a bit like in Sydney!).
Despite these short falls, the one tiny communal room made the hostel very sociable, and I managed to meet some other travellers on my first day there and arrange with them to rent a car and head to Cafayate the next day. Cafayate, among other things like, is famous for the Quebradas de las Conchas, a mountain range stretching 50km north of the town. Driving along this route was incredible, with enormous red-tinged mountains (not unlike the colours of central Australia), of all different shapes and formations appearing on either side. Once again, I was blown away and had never seen anything like it in Argentina before.
We then drove south of Cafayate to see the Ruins of Quilmes, a native people who lived traditionally in the area up until the Inca and then Spanish conquests. They are the largest and most preserved ruins in Argentina and they were great to see. We wandered around the stone walls and climbed the mountains to get an areial view, and I could almost imagine what life would have been like at that time.
The next day I spent exploring Salta and this time I saw a more attractive side to the city. Like most Argentine towns it has a central plaza with trees, a fountain and a statue of a man on a horse (most likely of San Martin, Argentina's liberator). It is surrounded by cafes with outdoor seating and had quite a charming feel to it. Located off the plaza is the MAAM, Salta's archaeological museum, in which there are three children from the Inca period preserved there. The children had been mummified and buried high up in a Volcanic mountain, as a sacrifice to the gods. For some reason, the climicatic conditions of the mountain prevented their bodies from decaying and when discovered hundreds of years later they were completely intact. They had one of the three children on display, a little boy. It was eery but fascinating to see a real dead Inca child in a big glass tube.
The Incas arrived into Northwest Argentina 100 years before the Spanish did, expanding their empire down here. Before the Incas came, however, there were other native people living here. One group that I had the opportunity to learn a little about was the original native people from Cachi. Cachi is a small town about 150kms south of Salta. The route there is very scenic and winds through the mountain range known as Valles Calchaquíes. It takes four hours by bus one way from Salta, which gives you some idea of the rugged terrain it crosses. The bus departed Salta at 7am, so it was an unsually early morning for me.
I was determined to see the scenery though so I tried my best to stay awake the whole time. We got to see the sun rise, which was lovely, and from then on the scenery was stunning. Cold though, very very, cold, but I knew that after the sun was up, it could only get warmer so I just tried not to think about it. The bus wound through the countryside, stopping at tiny towns, and dropping off parcels to locals, sometimes just a newpaper. People boarded and disembarqued in what looked like the middle of nowhere. It was great watching all the locals interact, especially the school children who seemed to know everyone on the bus. There is only one bus per day that goes past, so it is the critical means of transportation for the locals.
On the way I befriended the only other Westerner on the bus, who I recognised from the hostel. It is not everyday that you get to meet an Afro-American, dread-locked, hippy-punk chick called ´Dragonfly of the light', who travels the world trying different types of marijuana and writing articles for Skunk magazine, when she is not modelling or trimming weed on her boyfriend's farm back in California. We hung out for the day wondering around Cachi and enjoyed a lazy lunch in the sunshine at one of the cute cafes. (Despite being very cold at night, Salta and it's surrounding region is blessed with warm sunny days every single day in winter, which provides a great opportunity to store some heat for the coming night ahead.) Dragonfly was great value and I loved hearing about her life story. I was in tears hearing her stories of accidentally carrying drugs, that she had forgotten she'd had on her, across international borders, and although getting checked on several occasions, she managed to get away with it everytime. She was hilarious and had a caring soul, and being my age exactly, I felt inspired by her free spirit. She didn't live by society's rules and expecations, she created her own way, and I love that. I had to giggle when a few days later, I bumped into the overlyfriendly monk, who we had met together on that day, and as I went to scribble my email on his piece of paper (as he requested of all tourists), I saw written there 'email@example.com'. Not speaking a word of English, I doubt he had any idea what it meant, which makes it all the more funnier.
Dragonfly headed off that afternoon but I was keen to hang around for a few more days. So after wandering up the mountain to see the cemetry, which was ordained in colourful fake flowers, making it appear strangely kitch but beautiful all the same, I eventually found a cheap hotel and booked in. Paying just as much as I would for a dormitory in a hostel, I was very excited about having a twin room and two whole days to myself. That night after enjoying a delicious pizza and doing some Spanish study, I headed back for an early night. One of my favourite sensations in the world is drifting off to sleep infront of the TV or a good book. At home, it would sometimes be my Friday night ritual, after some takeaway and a good DVD, I would just let the comfort of lying on the couch sweep me off to sleep. Like when you see a cat or a dog sleeping in the sunshine with an expression that seems to signify they are in a state of pure bliss. That is how I felt. I was playing Iron and White on my ipod, getting through the first chapter of Kerouacs's 'On the Road' and enjoying the warmth of the electric heater that I placed inches away on the bedside table facing me directly. I hovered in that delicious space between wake and sleep, until eventually I gave in and drifted off. It is something that I take for granted in daily life in Sydney, but which is such a treat here when even having a private moment to dress can be a challenge sometimes.
The next day I set off with a local guide to do some trekking in the mountains. After not having done any hiking for over a month, I was aching for it and enjoyed every moment. My guide, Santiago, was of native american origin and was very knowledgeable and proud of his native culture and history. The original people of the land were the Calchaqui people and their bliefs and customs were different to the Incas. They did not believe in lots of gods like the Incas, they only believed in Pachamama, or 'mother earth'. According to Santiago, they did not believe in a spiritual realm or afterlife, the believed only in nature and the earth. But they must have seen the earth as having some spiritual energy, as they do provide offerings to 'mother earth' and have shrines in her honour. The shinres are basically piles coned shaped piles of rocks. At first glance, I thought that people had littered rubbish around them, but then I realised that these were offerings. Soft drink, water, and alcohol are all poured on the rocks as offerings, and bottles are often left there too. It was fascinating to learn how the Pachamama rituals had overtime become intertwined with Catholic ones, as was evident by the candles that were burned alongside the offerings in some of the shrines. Apparently it is very commom for people to go to church in the morning and make offerings to Pachamama in the afternoon without causing the least bit of internal conflict. Also unlike the Incas, the Calchaqui people lived in a casteless society, in clans, with elders making the laws about how things were to be.
We climbed 400 metres above sea level on our hike and sat up on the highest point overlooking the valley. Santiago was a fabulous guide and made sure I was well looked after. He even took my blood pressure to make sure I didn't have altitude sickness. He spoke no English so I was proud that we had managed to communicate as well as we did in Spanish.
Santiago was a busy man. As well as working as a guide, he worked part time as a public health nurse and ran his own resturant with his wife and children. He invited me to come for dinner there that night so after a much needed nap (high altitude makes you really tired!), I headed over for a bite. Being just a simple whole in the wall type of place, I was delighted to find that the food was delicious, fresh and healthy, and cost absolutely nothing. I didn't hesistate to head back for lunch the next day, before heading back to Salta!
On the journey back I was feeling satiated and inspired. I'd had a week off drinking and was feeling healthy again. I loved discovering Cachi and its surroundings, and getting off the beaten track. I was on the road again, but whereas Kerouac's protagonists, who also loved adventure and travelling, seemed to be lost souls, escaping emptiness and living just for kicks, I was feeling content and complete. Not searching, just zen.