Beautiful

Posted by on April 3, 2013

I am sitting tiredly at my computer after one of the most amazing weekends of my life. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and it could have gone any number of directions. But however cliche it sounds, what made this weekend beautiful was the journey rather than the destination. It was waking up each morning with hair tangled and body covered with dust but spirit ready for the next view. It was walking rather than driving three kilometers in order to better take in the scenery and commit it to memory (since both of us lost our cameras). It was making new friends at a happenstance camping hostel and then unexpectedly reuniting with them in the next pueblo.

Sasha and I spent five days in Salta, Purmamarca, and Tilcara, and I will do my best to share the highlights of our trip in journal-like fashion.

Salta

After a twelve-hour ride in a semi-cama ómnibus (half-bed bus), Sasha and I caught a glimpse of our first destination from above the city skyline. Salta doesn’t boast many tall buildings, and it isn’t nearly as expansive as Córdoba, but for just a day trip, we found plenty of sites to keep us occupied!

But first, to business. Our first two goals were to purchase boletos (tickets) to Purmamarca for the next day (check!) and find our hostel, Salta Por Siempre (not so much). After about an hour and four different sets of directions, we stumbled into one of the loveliest hostels we had ever seen. We were given a private room and made quick work of settling in and exploring the area. I wish that we had been able to stay for one more night, because the hostel boasted an open terrace with flowers on vines and plenty of tables and chairs, an open kitchen, and a bar and lounge area on the second floor.

At any rate, we decided to first find a market nearby to make lunch. Luckily, there was a kiosco-verdulería just half a block away that had everything we needed.

Food Checkpoint: Lunch

  • Pasta noodles
  • Tomato puré (for the sauce)
  • One cucumber, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Total cost: AR$14 (US$2.80)

We also bought sliced bread for about AR$6 (US$1.20) to use for breakfast and lunch in the upcoming days.

After lunch, the sweet woman who managed the hostel recommended that we climb the 1070 stairs at Cerro San Bernardo. A half-hour to hour walk through downtown Salta, which included three beautiful cathedrals and the Plaza 9 de Julio, we reached an impressive statue of General Güemes mounted on horseback and gazing intently at the mountains to his right.

A landmark for the city, located in a greenspace open to artisans and families enjoying an afternoon mate.

Further up the hill, behind the general, begin the stone stairs up the mountain. The stairs wind in a zigzag pattern up and across, and every few twists in the trail is a Station of the Cross, a small chapel-like structure with a painted image depicting one scene of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. At the beginning are paintings of the Last Supper and the betrayal; closer to the top are the empty tomb and the Ascension.

The ninth Station of the Cross: Jesus bearing his cross to Calvary.

The hike to the top couldn’t have taken more than an hour, but the view valió la pena (was worth the trouble). At the crest of the hill, we found a beautiful (albeit touristy) garden, with lots of green plants, artificial waterfalls, and a panorama view of the city. There was even a cable lift that we could have taken to reach the top instead of taking the hike (again, touristy). We paused for a moment to enjoy the view and a quick ice cream, strolled through the small artisans fair on the other side of the garden, and then reluctantly made our way back down the hill.

Gorgeous view of Salta from above.

It seems that we were right to be reluctant. I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that both of us lost our cameras. That was only slightly true. Sasha lost hers in Córdoba. Mine — my iPhone, actually — was forcefully taken in Salta.

On the walk back to our hostel, the sun had just begun to set, and I had my iPhone in my hand because we had taken a picture of a local church two blocks back. Without warning, I felt a pressure on my hand and found myself struggling with a boy about my age for possession of the phone. I can’t remember much about the incident, not even the boy’s face; it all happened so fast. After only ten seconds of screaming and pulling, he pushed me to the ground and ran away with the iPhone. We might have been able to catch him — the police even picked us up in their car — but he escaped on the back of a friend’s motorcycle and it quickly became too dark outside to see anything.

That moment is easily the most memorable part of the trip, although certainly not our favorite. The important part is that none of us was hurt. The boy was only after my phone; honestly, if my phone hadn’t been out, he might have gone for my whole backpack — we were already targets just for being foreigners. The sad part is that all of our pictures from the first part of the trip are inaccessible now. (Yes, every picture up to this point was stolen from a tourist website.)

But enough of the upsetting stuff. That night, Sasha and I decided to splurge a little for dinner. We took a taxi to a suggested peña, a restaurant that serves local cuisine and plays folklore music throughout the meal. The wait to be seated was about an hour, but again, definitely valió la pena. We stood with about ten other travelers, a few of whom we ran into over the next couple of days, and admired the strong and clear voice of a folklore performer named Rodrigo. The fun part about having nothing to entertain us but the music was observing the reactions of the audience. There were two older women at a table nearby who knew every song and accompanied Rodrigo with gusto, and nearly every guest paused their eating and talking to clap along with the rhythm of the chorus.

When we were finally seated near the back of the restaurant, away from the main action, we took advantage of the time to share easy conversation after a rough day and savor the local flavor. We each ordered two empanadas and split a liter of house wine; Sasha tried papas amplayas (dressed-up French fries), and I tried locro (a local soup with corn and steak). So delicious!

Locro. My meal came in the more traditional wooden bowl.

We arrived at the peña at 10:00 and sat down around 11:00. Near midnight, a group of performers set up a circle of chairs right in front of our table, and for the next half hour, we partook in what was essentially Salta’s version of a night out. Everyone shared drinks, sang along, beat rhythms on the tables — the bands in different rooms even competed for volume at times. I’m sad that we were too tired to stay, but I can safely say that we loved every minute of our time at the restaurant and would definitely go back for round two!

We slept well that night, enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and medialunas the next morning, and began our walk to the bus station for our next trip.

Purmamarca

A bus ride of just over three hours left us on the side of the road just three kilometers outside of Purmamarca. Of course, we were left astounded by the mountains looming on either side of us.

Paleta de la Pintura. (The Painter’s Pallet)

This picture is of only one specific region of the mountains, but every rock face around us hosted a vast array of colors: gray, purple, mint green, burgundy, gold. According to an informational sign that we found just a hundred meters from the main pueblo, the rocks are different colors because the area was once completely submerged in water, thus there are different kinds of sea rock and stages of erosion that took place.

We could have stared at the mountains for days. Actually, that’s essentially what we did, because every time we turned our heads, we had to just gaze up at them in awe and delight. (It was even worse when we got to Tilcara!)

Unfortunately, we were pressed for time once we reached the pueblo. We hadn’t made any hostel reservations for that night, and the last bus out of Purmamarca was leaving in just an hour. A bit frantically, we wound through the dusty streets asking for alojamiento (shelter) in any hostel, hotel, residencial that we could find. Everywhere, the answer was the same: “Está completo.” (“We’re full.”)

We had reached the end of another street, and I was starting to lose hope. But next, we wandered into a camp yard called La Reliquía and finally got a yes! It was with somewhat desperate relief that we agreed to the host’s offer: a shared room for eight, shared bathrooms outside, breakfast included for AR$80 (US$16). After that, we did some quick shopping for the night’s dinner and then struck out for the mountains!

This is the part that absolutely stuns me: we saw a large group of people standing on a hill just on the edge of town, taking photos of the town below. We decided that it might be nice to start there, since it was a short climb, before taking the more intense hike into the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Mountain/Hill of the Seven Colors). We found the entrance to the hill easily enough, but a security guard wanted to charge AR$10 for us to climb it. Disenchanted, we turned around and sought out a different hike that would be free. It only took about two minutes to find a steep dirt path that a few other travelers had taken. When we reached the top of the path, there was an incredible expanse of walking/driving trail and mountain ahead of us, AND we had a better view, from higher up, of the pueblo behind us!

Why, we wondered, would people willingly pay US$2 for a mediocre view when they had the whole range ahead of them, for FREE?

One view of Cerro de los Siete Colores. The colors are astonishing as one moves along the mountainside!

We easily spent about two hours on the trail admiring the colors and overall tranquility of our walk. The one exception to our uninterrupted hike occurred when we agreed to snap a picture of an Argentine couple on the trail and ended up chatting with them for 20-ish minutes about the United States. Honestly, though, there was no way to be annoyed or bothered by these kinds of encounters. We had no plan besides getting out of Córdoba to see another side of Argentina, and isn’t part of the journey the relationships that we share? It was fun to swap stories with a couple that didn’t mind our sometimes halted Spanish and receive suggestions and sympathy (when we shared our anecdote about the iPhone). We stayed outside until the wind brought a cold chill and we felt like showering and warming up inside.

After our shower, we felt like taking one last stroll through the city before dark, so we walked to the nearest plaza. It was surrounded by artisans and their crafts, mostly wool sweaters and jewelry. Though we didn’t buy any clothes, we did pick up some postcards to document the experience in place of pictures. I also garnered some ideas for gifts to bring my friends back home….

Unfortunately, with the chill and the altitude, I developed a migraine that didn’t abate until the following morning. BUT we did share a great home-cooked dinner before I headed to bed, and Sasha got to meet the three people that would be our companions for the next couple of days: Antonio, Alan, and Paulina.

Food Checkpoint: Dinner

  • 500 grams wild rice
  • One onion, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • One red pepper, diced
  • Four fried eggs
  • Total cost: AR$26 (US$5.20)

Yes, sauteed vegetables and fried egg over rice — delightful!

Over a breakfast of coffee and criollos (biscuits) with dulce de leche the next morning, we conversed with the three students living in Buenos Aires about our plans for the rest of the weekend. They were headed to Las Salinas, an area that looks like desert but is composed of salt instead of sand, before traveling to Tilcara the next day. We exchanged cell phone numbers with the hope that we might meet up on a hike in Tilcara.

Two hours later, it was on to the next colectivo.

Tilcara

Out of the three towns that we visited on our vacation, Tilcara was by far the least stressful. We found Hostel Waira without much ado and immediately fell in love with the setup and our hosts. All of the rooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and reception were situated in a half-circle around a patio area, with plenty of tables and chairs, foosball, and ping pong. On the incomplete side of the half-circle, a few tents were already set up for the camping option also offered at the hostel.

One view of Hostel Waira from the front of the terrace. Our room was on the top floor of the building photographed.

We spent a leisurely afternoon catching up on journaling and resting. Around mid-afternoon, I wandered outside to listen to the music and saw two couples dancing salsa and bachata in the tiled entryway. Not wanting to intrude but incredibly fascinated, I found a perch near their dance floor to sit and watch. My attempts at being subtle were for naught, however, because they caught me swaying to the music and one of the women took my hands and began teaching me to dance. (They also gave me tips for practicing my hip motion in front of the mirror…I was not born for the fluidity that they had!) Next thing I knew, I was spinning with relative grace and then joining them for ice cream and charla (conversation). It was a relaxing way to spend the early afternoon and a nice way to ease into the hostel atmosphere.

After our rest, Sasha and I opted for a walk to a local pond instead of the more strenuous hike we had planned to do earlier. The trail took us to some farm land outside of the city, with gardens, horses, and even more views of the mountains across the way. On our way back, we stopped at a local market to stock up on food for the evening. We decided to cook as soon as we returned, even though it was only about 6:30 and the hour for merienda (snack) instead of formal dinner. It seemed a better idea to use the kitchen while it was vacant and have the leisure of taking turns cooking while the other showered.

Food Checkpoint: Dinner

  • Three potatoes, diced
  • One onion, diced
  • One tomato, diced
  • Eight spinach leaves
  • Two sausage links, chopped
  • Total cost: AR$34 (US$6.80)

Although the sausage ended up being more ground than in fine slices, this was easily the best home-cooked meal that we prepared on our adventure! The combination of flavors was perfect. (And after a day without meat, I was grateful for the sausage!) We cooked enough to each eat two servings, and a couple hours later, we savored a dessert of instant cinnamon oatmeal with fresh peach slices, AR$4 (US$0.80). YUM!

It turns out that cooking early didn’t stop other guests from beginning their dinner preparations in the kitchen or simply peeking in to chat with the strange girls who were ready to eat at 8:00. Among the guests, we met one guy who had been traveling on his own for two months and prepared his own grain-and-oatmeal bread (also had an interesting fascination with the color of my eyes); a couple from Córdoba who met as neighbors and had been dating for only about a month before leaving on an extended trip together; two cousins and their mom who were attempting to learn English and practiced a little with us; and a group of five from Spain and France who also study at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and want to meet up at one of the city’s many international student events later on. It was a great time to practice our Spanish and see some interesting characters, which I’ve now come to expect from hostel culture!

The next morning dawned beautiful, with a perfect view of the mountains unhindered by city structures or even clouds and a breakfast of biscuits and dulce de leche waiting for us. Sasha and I needed to run a few errands into the town, so we left early to buy bus tickets for the next day and enough fruit and vegetables to last us the rest of the day’s meals. Once we returned to the hostel, we packed our backpacks and prepared a picnic lunch of sandwiches for our hike to a highly recommended trail, La Garganta del Diablo (The Throat of the Devil). Might I also add that we performed this hike on Easter Sunday?

Food Checkpoint: Lunch

  • French bread
  • One tomato, sliced
  • Six spinach leaves
  • Two apples
  • Total cost: AR$8 (US$1.60)

To actually arrive at the trail, we walked about ten minutes to a trail heading and scaled four kilometers of sandy mountain. We had to stop every few footfalls to admire the scenery around us.

One view of the mountains behind us from the trail.

The trail and blue sky ahead of us.

Before you ask, these are pictures that we took ourselves! When we were preparing to leave the hostel, our host reminded us to bring sunscreen, water, and a camera. This led to the inevitable retelling of our robbery story. The host was appalled and insisted that we borrow a camera that another guest had left behind. He promised that we could extract the memory card and upload our photos on the hostel computer once we returned. We were so grateful to have even a temporary fix for our problem!

The four kilometers lasted a little over an hour. Once we reached La Garganta, it was AR$5 (US$1) to enter and a second walk of about twenty minutes to reach the advertised waterfall ahead. We hiked through this bed of loose rocks with a small stream running through the middle, occasionally jumping or crossing rocks from one side to the other when the walk was too narrow. For awhile, it didn’t seem like we would find anything spectacular. Then, out of nowhere, we rounded the corner to find ourselves in an oasis in the dry and barren canyon.

Sasha and me standing by the waterfall in La Garganta del Diablo.

We eagerly selected a nearby rock to sit down and eat our picnic lunch, after which we rested for an hour just enjoying the sunlight, the cool spray of the waterfall, and the sounds of nature around us. It was well worth the hike; we were prepared to revel in our surroundings. Where did we have to be?

We made our way back more quickly than before to hike another short trail in La Garganta. Without warning, the best surprise approached us from around the corner: Antonio, Alan, and Paulina! We greeted each other with the traditional kisses and even hugs; we were so happy to have found each other again! Antonio and Alan led us two girls (Paulina stayed behind) to the end of the next trail, where we conversed easily for about half an hour and took “studio shots” with Alan’s highly advanced camera. (Hopefully, those pictures will be on Facebook soon to share with everyone.) The fun part about reuniting with them is that the guys mentioned our names to the owners of the hostel, and the owners very enthusiastically revealed that we would be sharing the same room of bunk beds that night! We would never have thought it possible, but we were able to spend the next day and part of the next morning as companions once more.

The rest of the day passed smoothly and easily for Sasha and me. I uploaded our photos from the hike to Dropbox, showered, and rested until we felt ready to make dinner (which we prepared early again…). Dinner was a strange mix of whatever vegetables — potato, tomato, pepper, spinach — and rice that we had left over, yet still tasty. We also prepared the same oatmeal and peach dessert from the night before and ended up explaining our interesting choices to our travel companions when they joined us for dinner.

That night and next morning were full of easygoing charla and a sense of peace and community. We were happy to chat in the kitchen and to play foosball in the hostel courtyard. (Alan and I won!) It was a sad moment when we had to part with them and the beautiful mountains of Tilcara to catch our ómnibus back to Salta, but Sasha and I are hopeful to meet them again in Buenos Aires a few weekends from now and exchange even more traditions with them. (Paulina is interested to taste our version of pancakes.)

Salta Again

Though we had only four hours to kill between arriving in Salta and leaving again for Córdoba, Sasha and I made good use of our time. We found a sidewalk restaurant in the Paseo de San Martín right next to the largest artisans fair in the area. After a late lunch of milanesa (for me) and lasagna (for her), we wound our way through the aisles of booths in search of gifts for our friends back home. I was happy to find gifts for three of my friends as well as a pair of striped pants and a new wallet for myself.

Outside of the Paseo, as we strolled toward downtown Salta again, we ran into a sidewalk of secondhand book vendors. For only AR$100 (US$20), I selected El Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (so excited!), Inés del Alma Mía (Inés of My Soul) by Isabel Allende (one of my favorite Latin American authors), and Martín Fierro by José Hernández (an Argentine epic poem for my literature course). It’s a good thing that Sasha shares my love for books, because we spent a good twenty minutes simply fingering the volumes and enjoying the feel of the old paper against our skin.

The walk to Plaza 9 de Julio in downtown was short, but we found a vacant bench and took turns walking through the plaza and stretching our legs without the weight of our backpacks on our shoulders. Once darkness was approaching, we began the trek back. We even ran into another friend we had made at the hostel in Tilcara! A brief reunion, the short walk to return to the terminal, and it was another thirteen hours to return to Córdoba.

Córdoba

Now that I’ve had a day of rest (and a real shower), it’s nice to think back on this short journey that Sasha and I embarked on together. Maybe spending half the day on a bus and half the day on a hiking trail isn’t the ideal vacation for everyone, but we absolutely loved being away from the city for a few days. We had the chance to expand our horizons, both physically and personally. We witnessed incredible beauty that surrounded us at every moment.

Most of the time that we hiked together, we weren’t discussing anything in particular or moving forward with clear purpose. It wasn’t that we tired of each other’s company, by any means. Words simply weren’t necessary. There was this entire new world that absorbed our emotions and expelled them into the open, that stirred excitement in our hearts yet shrouded us with tranquility. Our outward appearances didn’t matter; our spirits were glowing. There were times that one of us would tentatively verify that the other was alright, and the answer was always the same.

Sí, estoy contenta. Estoy muy emocionada de estar acá.”

(“Yes, I’m happy. I’m so excited to be here.”)

It’s now April, and we’ve been here for nearly two months. July 31 seems at once so far away and far too close. I’m sure that I won’t know all of Argentina by the time I leave. At the beginning of my trip, that fact would have bothered me. But now, after my last two trips to La Cumbrecita and Salta, I know that I am making the most of my time here and accepting what comes my way. I will live the next three months in relative peace and leave this place with the same sense of peace. There is a time for everything, an appropriate season. And it’s all so right. It’s all so beautiful.

The beauty of Tilcara.

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