Another long bus-ride brought me from Mendoza to the North-West, and into a different Argentina, casting a bridge towards neighboring Bolivia and the Andean culture.
In my first stop in Tafi del Valle, in the province of Tucuman, sitting at a boliche (a local bar) in front of the evocative painting portraying the owner’s family, Dona Eloisa, I realized that I had just crossed a border line.
The rhythm in this part of Argentina is slower, the siestas longer, the accent is different. Folklore becomes even more heartfelt and articulated; traditional dresses bolder: loose baggy pants called bombacha, jacket, ornate large belts, wide-brimmed hat and boots, and woolly red and black ponchos. Andean dishes like the corn-based tamales and humitas make their appearance on the table, while the ubiquitous Argentinean empanadas gets tastier and more creative. The people are quieter and more introverted than in other parts of Argentina. The faces by now have almost all some Indigenous traits. Here Pachamama, the Mother Earth of the Andes, goddess of fertility and protection, is fervently revered and celebrated.
The song Animana’ sang by the divine Mercedes Sosa who was born in Tucuman, captures well the spirit of the place, which Argentinians had described to me as an almost mystical land, where indigenous and non-indigenous Argentina meet giving to the places and people a special vibe.
I found that the region partially succumbed to its hype and got a bit touristy, at least in January when is summer vacations’ time. Most places were packed with merry but loud teens from Buenos Aires, which sometimes spoilt a bit the experience. If you can, plan to go in another period, for instance from April to September when the climate is milder and the crowds far away.
Still, the North-West is breathtakingly beautiful and its charms are many. There are deserts dotted with tall cardones cacti and jagged high mountains displaying a phantasmagoria of colors, with places in the Quebrada de Humahuaca aptly named La Paleta del Pintor (Painter’s Palette) and the Cierro de Siete Colores (The Seven Colours Mountain).
Time seemed to stop while I crossed the Valle Calchiaqui (Calchiaqui Valley) and Quebrada de las Flechas (Arrows’ Gorge) on the road from the town of Cafayate to the small village of Cachi, sitting at 2,200 meters of altitude. The valley is sparsely inhabited, with the epic feeling of an Andean Far West and houses of adobe (mud and straw) with Doric columns looking even more striking in the middle of nowhere, as if Marlboro Man had been suddenly hit by a passion for architecture.
The whole region was inhabited by Indigenous who, well before the Spanish arrived, were conquered and assimilated to the Inca empire, as I learnt visiting the ruins of the archaeological site Las Pailas near Cachi guided by a descendant of the Indians Diaguita.
Then there is Salta la Linda, Salta the Beautiful, one of my favourite cities in Latin America. It is a place of languid plazas and intriguing historical buildings that I liked for being beautiful without overdoing it. I found it full of inspiration and of things to do, like taking the teleferico (cable car) up the Mountain Cerro san Bernardo overlooking the city or visiting the incredible Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which display the mummies of three Inca children, sacrificed half a millennium ago and found frozen at the peak of Mount Llullaillaco in 1999.
This was my last stop in Argentina and after over two months in the country, a bit of it rubbed off on me. I learnt some of the local ways of saying, like “che boludo”, “que quilombo”, “gracias por la gauchada” (thank you for the favour), just to mention some of the many they have.
I learnt that Mar del Plata, a sea-resort on the Atlantic coast, a mix between Rimini & Riccione in Italy with a touch of Ibiza, is where half of Buenos Aires goes in summer time, where the other half of Buenos Aires is in Punta del Este, in Uruguay. I started to recognize some of the folk music’s rhythms and its most popular songs like chamame’ and chacarera. And only at the end, I started to keep up with the Argentinean life-style: having dinner at 10 pm or later, and going out real late. But then discovered that Argentina is the only country that does this, so quickly went back to my old ways…But a piece of Argentina stayed with me to this very day.
Stay tuned! In the next post the footprints become dance steps as we leave behind the Andes and samba into tropical Brasil and Rio de Janeiro…