There exists an Argentina that has nothing to do with milonga and tango, pampas and gauchos or the folk culture of Río de la Plata and the Europeanizing influence of its capitals. The awe-inspiring landscapes of northeastern Argentina are steeped in the millennial culture of the Incas.
Among the possible origins of the name of Argentina’s northernmost province, the story I prefer says that it derives from the Quechua shout of joy “huhu-huy.” Jujuy has four well-defined ecosystems: the yungas (forests), the valleys, the Quebrada (canyon) —a Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site - and the puna (high plateau). Some 1056 miles from Buenos Aires, this land is steeped in the millennial culture of the central Andes. I feel closer to Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile than to the Argentina of milongas and tangos and pampas and gauchos, and I am far from the folk culture of Río de la Plata and the Europeanizing influence of its capitals.
I arrived in Jujuy at the end of February with my friend Marita and her twelve-year-old daughter. We stayed at a farm owned by Marita’s uncle and aunt, in a precarious apex between the valleys and the yungas. Our hosts are hospitality personified – they are around 80 and have chosen to live alone on the skirts of a lush mountain in Yala; “alone” only in a manner of speaking, since they are constantly visited by children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews, almost all of whom bring friends. They love having guests and the guests always leave feeling that degree of gratitude impossible to express in words.
We spend the first day going through Yala (3937 feet above sea level), a town of ancient summer estates occupied by the residents of the province’s capital. The estate spreads across a mountain overlooking the Yala River, which lulls us to sleep at night when the murmur is not drowned out by the sound of rain. The summer months —January and February— are wet, and this year it seems to have rained like never before, with rain even in the Quebrada, where it generally rains little. We ascend to the top of our mountain and enjoy an incredible view. Climbing up with our hosts is a lesson in itself: the lady of the house shows us species of plants and the gentleman clears the path with his machete. They both certainly belie their age.
The next day, we leave early for Purmamarca, some 31 miles further to the north. We ascend along Ruta 9, which hugs the border with Bolivia. We are now between the Eastern Range and the foothills near the Río Grande. Volcán is the gateway to Quebrada de Humahuaca, where the landscape changes: the mountains are bare, speckled with giant cactuses. Purmamarca has fewer than 400 inhabitants, but it also has the renowned Cerro de Siete Colores (Seven- Color Mountain), cobblestone alleys, adobe houses nearly as red as the surrounding mountains and a plaza with a simple, lovely church, and the town hall. Between the church (dating from 1648) and the diocese office stands a carob tree that is from 500 to 1000 years old. It is said that the last chief of the Purmamarcas greeted the first Spanish conqueror under its branches with a glass of chicha (fermented corn drink), and that Latin American liberators met under this tree.
When we arrive around ten in the morning, the streets are flooded from last night’s rain and artisans are still assembling the stalls around the plaza. Many of them are Kollas who come down from the mountain communities. Kolla (or Colla) has come to mean all the indigenous peoples of the provinces of Salta and Jujuy and all those of Quechua- Aymara descent, whose peoples conquered by the Inca empire before the Spaniards arrived.
Getting off the bus, we rent a car to take us to Salinas Grandes after an hour. We take a few turns around the town and depart for the salt marshes. We leave the Quebrada and enter the puna. Fortunately, the road is in excellent condition, because we will be ascending very quickly to 13,780 feet above sea level. This is the Lipán highway that crosses the salt marshes and the mountains until it reaches Chile, forming part of the Jama pass, an important inter-oceanic corridor. Then we descend to Salinas Grandes at 11,811 feet above sea level, dazzled by this infinite white sea cloven by the dark, straight line of the road. The driver drops us off in front of a neveropened restaurant built of blocks of salt.
I feel slightly dizzy, strangely light in the head. More than anything else, I feel like an ant in this immense landscape, framed by eternally snowcapped blue mountains. Here the salt dessert is covered with a thin layer of water that reflects the landscape in a mirror. I take off my shoes and walk; the rough ground massages the soles of my feet and I slip into the mirrors and see myself. The air is so clear that the light has an almost tangible quality; the sky is a palpable presence.
The trip lasts nearly four hours, and once back in Purmamarca, we take the Paseo de los Colorados. The color red is called ‘colorado’ in Argentina, and the tour is a circuit behind the Cerros Colorados on foot or horseback or by bicycle. Visitors can spend one or two hours at the foot of the mountains, depending on how long they stop to rest, enjoy the view or listen to the silence. We climb Porito, a small red mountain located near the town border, which boasts the best view of the Cerro de los Siete Colores. This is also the starting point of the Camino de los Colorados. The further we walk, the more it seems that a giant, God or Pacha Mama had a field day painting the mountains. The various colors are not produced by the vegetation, since there are only cactuses here. The colors come from minerals; they represent millions of years of geological time. My imaginary giant used its enormous fingers to color the mountains, mold them into whimsical shapes and trace huge furrows in different directions.
In the distance, we spy the Purmamarca agricultural valley, with its corn fields, cattle protected by stone fences and houses in mountain colors. We reach a gravel esplanade that looks green in the sunlight. Seen close up, it consists primarily of green stones: moss green, emerald green and grayish green, but there is also violet, blue, orange, pink, ochre, yellow, red and white. A handful of the stones sits next to my computer as I write, and if it were not for the photos, I would have trouble believing that each one represents the color of a mountain.
We circle back into town behind the cemetery, barely three blocks from the plaza and the church. It begins to rain once more and the afternoon grows chilly, so we take shelter with backpackers under the town hall arcade until the bus arrives.
We tour the rest of Quebrada the following day with a topnotch guide and driver: our hostess at the wheel of her decadeold Renault 9. The towns have much in common: the colonial plazas and churches with paintings in the purest Cuzco style, handicrafts —some local and others brought in from Bolivia and Peru— the narrow cobblestone streets and wrought-iron lampposts, the adobe and stone houses and the colorful mountain surroundings. But each has one still has its own flavor.
Tumbaya consists of no more than 16 blocks and at one in the afternoon, we stroll around without spotting another soul. It is charming - there are no tourists, no artisans, no bars or hotels, only silence and poplar leaves dancing in the slight breeze. Maimará stands on the riverbank in a fruit- and vegetable-growing valley fronting the mountain called La Paleta del Pintor (The Painter’s Palette). The name says it all; here, too, the mountains are tinted in all possible colors. Uquía looks like Tumbaya, albeit a little larger, with some handicrafts stalls and very few tourists.
We stop at the monolith marking the Tropic of Capricorn. This is where the longest night of the year is celebrated with the millennial Inti Raymi festival, which
brings together all the inhabitants of the Quebrada to present offerings to the Sun God, Inti.
Located above 9843 feet, Humahuaca has more than six thousand inhabitants, and is the largest town in the Quebrada. We enter it singing a children’s song: “Once upon a time there was a cow/ in Quebrada de Humahuaca./ It was old, so old/ it was deaf in one ear.” The ditty is by Argentinean writer and singer María Elena Walsh; this childhood song was probably our first introduction to the name of this town. We take the wrong road to the plaza and come out behind the giant monument that commemorates Independence. The site provides a marvelous view of the town, which is reached by walking down one hundred thirty steps almost as wide as the plaza. The steps and plaza are flanked by artisans and filled with tourists. A handicrafts store plays Andean music. Quenas (Andean flutes), pan pipes, zampoñas (double pan pipes) and other wind instruments transport us to the millennial culture of the Incas. Humahuaca has played an important role in history: in the 17th and 18th centuries, it prospered as the link between the high mountains of Peru and the northern provinces of Argentina. At the beginning of the 19th century it bore witness to many battles between patriots and royalists. Surrounded by mountains and blessed with such a natural, historical and cultural heritage, it has attracted tourism in the 20th century.
Tilcara is home to ancient Pucará, a fortified city said to have been built in the 10th century, and whose strategic hilltop location gives it a good view. Tourism has spurred exceptional growth in recent years. Tilcara has expanded tastefully and in a visually pleasing manner. Everything is made of stone and adobe; nothing clashes - quite the contrary. The site was planned for elegant, sustainable tourism. We happen upon the llamas belonging to Santos Manfredi, who fell in love with Tilcara and settled down here with his family many years ago. He currently breeds llamas and takes tourists on llama walks lasting one to several days along paths that would otherwise be inaccessible. We also spot cabins, hostels and discos in complete harmony with the surroundings. We do not leave Tilcara until after the sun has sunk behind the mountains.
The new day takes us back to the valleys. Our hostess offers to guide us around the capital of the province. Three branches of the Río Grande cross San Salvador de Jujuy from west to east. The city has expanded into residential neighborhoods that gently climb the surrounding mountains. We enter the cathedral in the main square. It was last modified in the middle of the 18th century, but it conserves elements of the original church from 1593. Its greatest treasure is the gold-laminated wood pulpit carved by the Omaguacas. The Casa de Gobierno (Government House) is in the neoclassical French style and the Cabildo or Town Hall, rebuilt some 150 years ago after an earthquake, still has a Colonial- style arcade with its Roman arches.
What I find most entertaining in Jujuy is the Mercado de Abasto (Central Market). There are no hothouse fruits or vegetables here; everything is seasonal. It is astonishing how many varieties and colors of corn exist. All sorts of things can be had for sale outside under the sunshades, and it is a good idea to keep a firm grip on one’s purse. After making purchases to take home, we pay a visit to the Paseo de Artesanías (Handicrafts Market) before returning to Yala.
After lunch, rain once again pours from the sky and we decide to go as far as Termas de Reyes. We pass through the western valleys and along mountain roads, and find ourselves in a deep gully of lush vegetation. Clouds hide the mountain summits. Flouting the continuing rain, a twelve-year-old girl is trying to take a dip in the nearly 122-degree thermal waters of the swimming pool. Climbing the mountain from the public pool, we reach a large, nicely renovated hotel dating from 1920. The spa treatment rooms have jacuzzis, loungers and large picture windows looking out over the green, misty landscape.
We leave Jujuy feeling sad. I would have liked a few more days to travel the lesser-known roads, to continue admiring the beauty of the landscapes and to learn more about Andean culture. For example, I could have done the llama caravan or gotten to know each town in depth, like we did in Purmamarca. We also leave feeling happy. I think I have changed - I am not the same person. Pacha Mama works in mysterious ways; things that we perceive with our senses somehow become part of our spirit.
“Long live Jujuy,” as this article is called, is the slogan of the province’s Secretariat of Tourism. It is also the beginning of the carnavalito (folk song) we used to sing as teenagers: “Long live Jujuy, long live the puna, long live
my love /long live the painted mountains of my Quebrada.”