Multicolored mountains and flashy feathers – Northern Argentina

We’re now counting 3 months and we’re about to finish our Argentinian adventure. It seems to be rather long to travel one country, but knowing that Argentina is practically the size of Europe, it is quite understandable. After this last loop in the North, we can truly say we’ve seen every corner of this stunning country…

The locals are getting smaller and the clothing is getting more colorful, we are clearly approaching South America’s more ethnic regions like Bolivia and Peru. Before arriving to Salta, where the first Inca museum is awaiting us, we make a small detour through the national park Los Cardones, famous for its cacti. A beautiful road winds us up the valley in between massive cacti. Suddenly Stefanie jumps up from her seat and Hannes slams the breaks. We see something on the road and we both shudder when we realise what it is… a tarantula leisurely crosses the street right in front of our noses. It’s the first one we come across and both of us aren’t very fond of spiders. Quite creepy if they are that big that we can easily spot them from the car… Once the hairy creature reaches the other side, we continue towards Salta. In the meantime we have noticed that the car leaks oil again and that we’ll need to find a mechanic, again. Fortunately Salta has an official Volkswagen branch so we hope they can help us. In the city it seems like a lot of places are closed, in particular all mechanics on our list. A local informs us it’s a public holiday today, damn… Today we’re apparently celebrating the foundation of Salta, so we’ll have to wait until tomorrow. There is a municipal pool in the city which doubles as a cheap campsite, so that’s our best bet for staying the night. The pool turns out to be humongous, we’ve never seen a bigger one, and that’s a good thing because we’ve found the place where the entire city has gathered today! We notice some Dutch and German plates in a corner of the terrain and decide to join the cosy European overlander corner. Here we meet Isabelle and Matthias from Twoauftour who are travelling South America in their customised Sprinter van.

The next morning we start our tour of the mechanics again. From the VW-express workshop we’re being sent to the large branch in town, where they do some minor maintenance – we’ve had enough dust to fill several air filters by now – but for the oil leak we need to make an appointment. Also, they charge €50 just for taking a look, so we’re more a fan of faster and cheaper solutions provided by one of the local mechanics. We drop by some more places but one is on holiday, the other says we shouldn’t worry about such a small leak… it seems like no one is in the mood to actually check under the hood. Our earliest appointment with VW would be after the weekend and in a few days the weather is predicted turn for the worst, so we decide to first make a loop through the North before returning to Salta to worry about the car later. We take a beautiful and funny road towards San Salvador de Jujuy: this tiny road is best described as an oversized bicycle path and winds through the lush Yungas forest between both cities. It’s a very fun drive but we’d rather not pass any oncoming traffic! From the green forest we drive past SS de Jujuy and into the red, dusty Quebrada de Humahuaca. A gorgeous road through this sub-Andean valley takes us all the way to the track leading to Iruya, a tiny hamlet hidden in the mountains on the border with Bolivia. It’s a cosy, little village that isn’t flooded by tourists yet – well, it does take a very bumpy bus ride to get there. Even though the road isn’t great, the views are! We pass over 4000m and feel absolutely small in between the ragged hills and colorful peaks around us. The setting sun makes us hurry a bit, but it also casts a magnificent hue over the landscape. When we finally see Iruya appearing in the valley, it’s all but dark. Only the sky and clouds are still lit up by the disappearing sunlight. We have a quiet night on the town square but we’re sweating it in the morning when we have to leave again. The village streets are so steep and tiny that we doubt our van can manage to drive back up. But hey, sometimes we underestimate it… – while Hannes is particularly good at overestimating it. On our way back we stop in the village of Humahuaca, where we visit the 14-color mountain – indeed, Peru, Argentina had 14 instead of 7! It’s an amazing sight and we spend a long time staring at how the colors intensify in the setting sun. When we walk back to the car we notice we’re above 4000m again: several times we have to stop and catch our breath even though the climb is barely 500m long. At night we stroll around town for a bit but go to bed early. Our alarm clock is set very early the next morning to drive to Purmamarca. This little village is set against another beautifully colored mountain, but this time the colors are most vivid in the morning light!

The sun is still hiding when we open our curtains and set course for Purmamarca where we have breakfast with a view. Before it gets too hot we drive further into the Andes to the Salar Grande de Jujuy. We’re not going to skip the Bolivian salt flats in Uyuni, but this salt flat – Argentina’s largest – is dry at the moment and there is a chance that the one in Uyuni will still be flooded by the time we get there. This way we can both see the dry, white plain as far the eye can see and the enormous mirror when there is a layer of water on the salt. This salar is a lot smaller than the Bolivian one, but still incredibly pretty. We’re happy to have our own van so we can find ourselves a quiet spot on the white instead of the crowded places where the tour buses stop. At one of the touristy spots we can’t resist to buy a souvenir, though. Everything is made out of salt and the little llamas are so cute that we really want one. Great, because our souvenir is immediately put to work in a photoshoot. The great white plain is perfect for fooling around with the perspective of your pictures and also we couldn’t resist trying this out. It takes some trial and error but in the end we succeed in taking some nice surreal snaps with our dear pet llama. We’ve seen some real-life versions on the road as well and they are truly adorable. While driving to the salar we also spotted our first vicuñas. These wild camelids are the more elegant and slightly smaller nephews of the guanaco and their golden wool used to be solely for Inca Emperors to wear and is actually worth more than gold now. In the afternoon we pass by Purmamarca again to check out the artisan market. The town is very touristy and we don’t feel like sleeping here so we continue to camp next to one of the lakes in the area. We’re practically alone here and can swim the dusty desert of our skin.

Monday morning we’re in Salta again and after a new round of mechanic hopping the last one tells us we better go to Paraguay to get it fixed, as they have more VW spare parts available. In Argentina this engine doesn’t exist, he says, so there are barely spare parts to be found. Our plan is to check out the wildlife in the Brazilian Pantanal after Argentina, so we could easily drive there through Paraguay. Then there’s only one more thing to do in Salta: el Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña. This is a museum about the Inca civilisation but in particular about the child sacrifices, with as fascinating highlight the naturally mummified bodies of 3 children found atop the Llullaillaco mountain. Of course, the museum is closed on Mondays so we’ll have to wait another day. We take it easy and head back to the campsite to have a barbecue. The next morning the museum is open and although only 1 of the 3 children is exhibited (they change every 6 months to be able conserve them better) we’re glad we waited as this was a must-see for us. It still hard to comprehend that it was considered an honour to leave your child “to sleep” on a mountain top, as the word sacrifice wasn’t even considered. (No pictures allowed in the museum so this one is a courtasy of the web…)

When heading towards the Paraguayan border we make a stop in the national park of the warm and dry Chaco province. We don’t expect too much: based on the comments of other Argentinians it’s not the most wealthy of provinces. And judging from the highway full of meter-wide potholes – at times driving in the dirt next to the road was easier – and the fact that there are more people on horses than in cars, they might be right. Against all expectations the park, however, is nicely maintained, the sanitary is amazing for Argentinian standards and the large campsite is fully equipped with barbecues and electricity, all for free! When Hannes goes for a walk he spots another tarantula crawl into its hole and also some interesting tracks in the mud. He thinks they might be a puma’s and later the ranger confirms this and tells us one has regularly been spotted in that area. By nightfall we go back to the start of the hike, hoping it’s our lucky day, but no. Later on the campsite though, Hannes suddenly speeds back to the car when he returns from the showers in the dark. He hears a strange, growling sound and sees eyes shining in the distance that remind him an awful lot of a cat’s. Full of excitement we sit behind the window staring in the dark and we see a rather large shadow moving in the black, but more than a pair of green, shiny eyes we don’t get to see… A bit later a little fox frolics around the car, it’s clear this campsite is rarely visited by people and animals are very at ease here. The next day we continue our journey and get ready for a big party: Carnaval! We celebrate Carnaval in Corrientes, Capital Nacional del Carnaval, and this is clearly a place where they adore this festival. Carnaval for us is a large parade in the streets, but that’s not the way it is done here. Friday night we put on our least wrinkled outfits and set ourselves on one of the tribunes of the Corsódromo, a place built especially for the Carnaval parades. At 10 the crowd around us gets on its feet, the music starts and we see the first peacock feathers sweeping by. For hours and hours we watch shiny and feathery folks dance by. Sometimes we wonder how heavy the massive costumes must be, but many more times we’re amazed that their minuscule dresses stay in place with all the samba dancing. As the night progresses we get tired of dancing and the groups seemingly keep coming: the last 3 parades were such climaxes, including all the local Carnaval classics that we each time assumed it to be the last, until we saw a new gang preparing at the start. When we check the time and it’s already 5 am, we decide we’ve had enough party for the night with 7 hours of relentless samba beats…

Not much later we’re awoken by the heat and the sun soon drives us out from the van. Highly aware again of what a hangover feels like, we take cover in the AC of the gas station where we have spent the night. When we’re cooled down and our eyes can take the light again we look for a spot to spend the rest of the day. On our way to Rio Pilcomayo national park a local police officer, eager to give us a fine, puts our acting skills to a test, but in the end his sour mood turns around for no reason and we can get on our way again, without fine. In the park we open a bottle of malbec – arm ourselves against the mosquitoes – and settle by the lake for a last Argentinian sunset. We couldn’t have chosen a more perfect ending for our time in Argentina, a country that we both started to fall in love with…


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