I missed the morning bus to Tilcara so ate lunch on the square in rainy, green Salta. Plaza 9 de julio is lined with charming old buildings fronted by covered walkways and sidewalk cafes. As I ate my pizza (South America's unofficial dish) and flan smothered in my new favorite flavor, dolce de leche, I turned away a few men and children who approached to sell me stuff. But I did give away half my pizza to a couple of hungry guys .
The police in Argentina remind me of Italian carabinieri in the style and fit of their dark uniforms - a very sexy look. If I have to be arrested...
I must talk about the dogs. There are loose dogs everywhere, which reminds me of Turkey. (Istanbul teems with cats, too.) They seem benign but I keep my distance as I can´t help but flash back to the dog pack that threatened Paul and me in Alacati. I think we only avoided needing rabies vaccines when a local came to our rescue by scaring them off.
The road from Salta to Tilcara starts in green farmland and passes through many nondescript towns. A lot of the homes are topped with exposed rebar like I saw in Peruvian construction and I wonder if it is also to avoid a completion tax -- my Peruvian guide told me homeowners claim the buildings are still under construction years after they´ve been occupied.
After four hours the bus arrived in Tilcara, a half hour late as the driver stopped at the bus repair shop to have the a door fixed and to do other stuff I couldn't see. It was almost dark when i arrived but my initial impression of Tilcara is very positive. The altitude, 2500m, will take a little adjustment.
It is midnight and I am tired and I am sitting outside in the dark where i have but a weak wifi so until tomorrow signing off.
I´m staying in Tilcara for four nights. Tilcara is a small (4,000) Andean hillside town overlooking a broad river-carved valley and surrounded by dry red-rock mountains. The morning sun on the rock reminds me of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. The buildings are adobe-like and roofed with bamboo and cement. While geared towards tourists, the narrow streets, shops, and cafes are very tasteful and the town bustles with locals shopping and eating. I think most of the tourists are Argentine though I met a Canadian from Tokyo staying in my hotel.
The Patio Alto hotel's architect took the local design cues - brick, cement, stone, bamboo - then reinterpreted them with spacious modern comforts, colorful tiles, metal, and visual surprises. Every space, every piece of furniture, every light fixture looks great. I´m reminded of the Kelebek Hotel in Goreme, Turkey, another beautiful hilltop work of art. My only complaint is the spotty internet.
I guess at this point you think I like Tilcara, and you´re right: a beautiful location, a cool breezy high-desert climate, and a charming town with plenty of cafes and restaurants, all surrounded by colorful hills with hiking trails. Everywhere I look I want to pull out my camera and take a picture.
After a breakfast (desayuno) of coffee, granola, and fruit, I pick up a picnic lunch from Pat, the helpful, English- speaking hotel manager, borrow a walking stick, then set out to hike to a nearby canyon and waterfall.
Garganta del Diablo (Devil's throat) is about 6km from Tilcara. My plan is to get there and back by midday so as to avoid the chilly afternoon winds that sweep down the mountain.
The trail is not particularly steep and junctions are well marked (in Spanish) but I can feel the altitude. As I hike up the mountain the plants change from grass and scrubby trees to flowering sage and cactus plus many yellow flowers.
The trail follows the Huasamayo river which is Tilcara's water source. At the slot canyon, the Devil's throat, much of the river water is routed into an open channel which is collected and then fed into Tilcara. Most of the town's buildings have rooftop water tanks for storage and pressure.
The trail is shared by tourists (Hola!) and locals driving burros laden with stuff. I feel like a rich gringo trespassing on their land, with fancy hiking clothes and a camera that costs more than they make in a year, two years, who knows. But later I read that the locals want tourists who bring money to their community so my discomfort is eased though only by a small amount.
The hike gives expansive views of the surrounding mountains which feature a lot of water-carved geological features and a beautiful band of red-rock, all of which continues to remind me of one of my favorite places, Death Valley. Mornings are especially beautiful as the sun gradually highlights the bands of white, brown, and red rock.
Once I reach the trail's highest point (about 3000 m altitude) I check in at a small station manned by a friendly local. I pay ten pesos then sign in. He then walks me around to explain (in spanish) the path from this point to the falls. I know this because he gives me a Spanish/English pamphlet so I can follow along.
I then climb down from this overlook to the riverbed. The falls are up the river. Unfortunately, the last short bit to the falls involves several river crossings and I'm not interested in getting wet, so I stop to eat lunch and take more pictures. I'm not actually disappointed; I've seen a lot of waterfalls. The beautiful mountains, the plants, and my friendly fellow hikers are enough for me.
The hike down is easier than the hike up, of course, and I arrive back at the hotel just as the cold winds start up. Oh and please excuse typos and grammar as the Internet is slow - satellite? - so I am writing off line then transferring to this blog. Ciao!
Tilcara was enveloped by fog when i woke this morning , but the fog soon blew away and was replaced by a clear blue cloudless sky.
A hike is a good way to start the day so I set out to climb a nearby hill that overlooks the city and the river valley. The last short section of rocky trail was steep and exposed but the climb is rewarded with spectacular views all around. I am glad to have a polarizer to filter out some of the glare but I kick myself for leaving the fisheye lens in the room. Damn!
Morning and evening are best for photography but it is so damn hard to drag myself up a mountain before I've had coffee. I remember an early morning photo walk in Prague when the light was just perfect but I had a coffee maker in the apt and the city streets didn't involve any heavy climbing. I was just around the corner from the Charles´ bridge, a very photogenic spot. I´m just not that serious a photographer.
Next I walk maybe a km to Pucara de Tilcara, the site of the original Tilcara settlement. This pre-Hispanic (I keep thinking prehistoric) town was occupied between the 11th and 15th centuries, so it was abandoned once the Europeans showed up. The Europeans sure did a lot of pushing others around, be it in South America or North America.
Pucara is now an archaeological site with ancient buildings, squares, and tombs. Some of the buildings have been rebuilt as they were when occupied. Aside from the stone walls, not that much has changed
The roof design, which looks a lot like current Tilcara construction, features bamboo - like reeds covered in dirt and suspended by what I think are logs but I cannot figure the source of the logs. There aren't any big trees here. Then I realize the logs are dried cardon cactus which resemble giant saguaro of the southwestern US.
The stone remnants of this city, well positioned on a cactus-covered hill overlooking a river valley, bring to mind Machu Picchu, though the Peruvian city is far more interesting in terms of size (MP is much larger), location (MP is on a spectacular mountain-top), and construction (MP's cut and fitted stonework, water system, and terraces are still impressive today). In other words, Pucara is well worth the visit if you are in the area but don't travel to Tilcara just to see the ruins. Machu Picchu alone makes Peru worth a visit.
Afterwards I walk back to town for a lunch of empanadas and ice cream. The dolche de leche ice cream is far far better at Freddos in Buenos Aires.
I stop in at the museum that shares a ticket with the archaeology site. What little that is in English tells the story of the early inhabitants: hunter-gatherers evolve to farmers evolve to city dwellers evolve to being overrun by westerners. I think I´ve heard this story before.
Tomorrow it is back on the bus to Salta (yes, I am backtracking a bit) then over the Andes to San Pedro de Atacama Chile, the driest place on earth. I am still trying to decide whether to be adventurous and take the overnight bus from San Pedro to Santiago or shortcut it with a flight from Calama. The problem is that one cannot buy a Chilean bus ticket without a Chilean credit card. The sleeper seat I want might be gone by the time I´m in that country and, if so, that will make the decision for me. Ciao.
The downside to staying in a small town in the Andes is the limited cuisine, and by limited I mean llama. I've had llama pate, llama stew (locoro), llama stuffed empanadas, and grilled llama (asado). I've yet to encounter llama pizza or dulce de llama but maybe I've not looked hard enough. Mind you, llama has a mild taste and can be tender but I'm ready for a break from llama.