In Tilcara the only thing that reminds me we are still in Argentina is the mate for sale at local markets.
For the rest,As far as I am concerned, I could be in Bolivia where coca leaves are sold, short and a bit pudgy women wear wide skirts, gathered her long hair in braids, wearing heavy woolen shawls, which I discovered in Bolivia is called manta, holding on their back heavy and colorful bags and selling handmade fabrics in vivid colors.
Here I found what I expected to find in the neighboring countries before getting into the them!
At 7.20 am I am waiting at the bus station of Salta, la linda (the pretty) as it is called in Argentina. It 'still dark, sun comes up not before 8. In about 3 hours we arrive, myself and the Spanish travel companion during this route Juam, to Tilacara.
The station is worth to be photographed, it seems to be in a western movie where there are gauchos on horseback, streets are not paved and whenever passing a horse or a bus a brown fussgets up.
This is not the Argentina I have been in the past 2 months and what I see now is definitely something closer to my tastes.
The village is still empty, there are not even the stalls in the central square, usually markets start early in the morning but not here. Only later I discover that the market begins no earlier than 10 am.
Luggages left at Los Molles hostel and we head straight to the mirador located in the old indigenous citadel, partly reconstructed faithfully, from which admire the view of this village at our feet.
And I can just think that this is so far away from the Argentina left a few days earlier (and 20 hours bus ride in total, more or less...probably more).
Not much to do in Tilcara but the visit is worth the long and exhausting trip. The small colonial houses, the colors, the music and the central square that comes alive after the 10 is a perfect spot to enjoy this area of Argentina that has little to do with one of the largest and cosmopolitan city.
Just 20 minutes away by bus ($ AR5 one way) we reached Purmamarca, famous for the Cerro de los Siette Colores and nearby, remind that the word "near" in Argentina means pretty far away for a European, in this case is about 70km, the salar. I didn't even know there was a Salar there!
After 2 hours asking around for a driver and car, spanish is pretty useful and makes negotiation easy, we eventually have been able to negotiate with a driver that will take us to the salt flats.
We only need two more people to let the price down to $13 per person instead that 25.
I know it sounds very cheap, even if 2 people, but after 3 years backpacking 15$ more make a HUGE difference when it comes to my daily budget and I have to deal with it.
$700 per month for traveling, life can be tough mainly when some countries are more expensive than I expected.
We eventually found a couple happy to join us and there we are! We left straight away!
The tour took about 3 hours in total, of which most are spent in the car, getting up to 4170 meters and then down back again.
I have enough time to take a photo with the sign indicating how high we are that, as soon as I sat in the car, I sank into a deep sleep.
This is the effect that altitude has usually about me when I don't chew coca leaves. But I forgot the coca bag into my backpack and so...I fell asleep a couple of times within the 3 hours drive.
The salt flat is much more smaller than that the Bolivia one, that is 80 kilometers for 4, it's also surrounded by mountains so the game photos in perspective here don't work out, but the effect is striking and blinding!
During the short moments I was awake my, lawful I think, question to our driver came up.
If we are that high how is it possible that there is a salt lake, as far as I know they should be close to the sea or, at least, at the sea level.
The explanation is quite simple and probably obvious.
Millions of years ago at this height there was the sea. What it is today the salt flat was a salt lake, still inexhaustible. There are still long water pools.
In about 1 year the salty water (I tried it and was super salty) crystallizes creating then mountains of salt.
The white of the salt is so much stronger that without sunglasses I can't see that much and my eyes hurt. 30 minutes and we get back into the car as, on our way there, we all fall asleep till our arrival to Purmamarca where we took a bus to get back to Tilcara.
The next day we go to the one destination that will my my last stop in Argentina: Humahuaca.
It's Sunday and it's 9 in the morning. There's is nobody around, I got used to it, I guess here as well as in Tilcara life doesn't start before 10am.
These villages look like ghost towns sometimes. The streets are not paved, it is low season and many hostels and businesses are closed. At that hour in the morning there aren't open markets, or bars or resaurants. We had to wait a couple of hours to see some people getting our their houses and fell like in a inhabited village.
Also finding an hostel has been a kinf of a mission, high prices for backpackers, at least for my little and miserable budget, and a strong headache, because the altitude, makes me feel a bit sick and I find complicated moving.
So while Juam goes around looking for a dorm I sat along the street with our backpacks accompanied by two stray dogs that, when my friend walked me to the hostel, drove us up to the front door.
We ended up at La Antigua Hostel ($ AR40 per night with breakfast included, hot water and heat pump in the room), a pretty nice place managed by super nice people that looked after me when sick providing me mate de coca (tea made with coca leaves) and warm food.
I think Humahuaca is an hippy town, your guys with long dreadlocks all crowded around the main square where they sells items like jewelery handmade, play guitar or dabbles in circus exibitions.
The scenario changes now. It's 12pm. The market closes at 14 pm and at noon is really crowded with stalls of secondhand clothes and emergency shopping ideal for me that will probably throw away all these things once I will cross the border Peru - Ecuador.
The crazy cold I am living in will end there. I am sure about it, but right now what I need are jumpers and winter clothes. All items I don't have with me because...i feel ashamed to say that but it's the dirty truth, I didn't considered that in South America winter really could mean winter, and arriving from more than 1 year between Central America and South East Asia the 10 kg backpack was only plenty of bikins, t-shirts and shorts.
I decided to postpone the departure to Bolivia of a day. With Juam and Julia, an Australian lady who has traveled for a year across Europe and parts of South America, I go to Yruia (3 hours by bus, $ AR62 roundtrip).
The journey was worth more than the visit to the small village that is over 4000 meters above the sea level.
The colorful mountains introduce us to this small village literally nestled in the valley of tall and majestic mountains. Honestly to me, and also my fellow travelers, the village itseld did say that much but the bus ride was scary and exciting!
However is worth climbing to the top of the Mirador. To get to the Mirador you have to walk about 15 minutes to a steep climb that at that altitude makes you think you are accomplishing an epic climb. But the view repays effort.
Big mountains on all sides and the small town behind, silent and empty, as almost all villages in northern Argentina. Groups of dogs, including a Dogo Argentino, play undisturbed in the streets, acting as they are the masters of this silent and sleepy village. 3 hours is more than enough for our visit so we go back.
After a few hours we are ready to get back to Humahuaca. The bus crosses small rivers, there a no bridges, even if I think we really are in the middle of nowhere still people keep on popping up and get into the bus.
The mountain road is scary, a car can pass hardly I can't understand how this bus can do the same and being close to the window the feeling I have is that we are suspended in the air.
I want to trust in the experience of the driver, but the image of him driving with only one hand doesn't contribute to my feeling of security.
At 10:10 am the next morning I take the bus to La Quiaca (AR $ 32 one way from Humauaca), the border with Bolivia.
La Quiaca is literally attached to the border of the town of Villazon in Bolivia, where the wind seems to be a constant presence.
The border crossing is a long walk with thousand people of small stature that look down strictly and have on their back heavy bags.
All women wear the typical Bolivian bowler hats, wool socks, 2 colorful sweaters on top of each other, an apron, a cape that seems actually a blanket and her hair are tied in long black braids.
The sociability of Argentines leaves room to the closure and shyness of Bolivians who speak little and rarely.
A sign says "Bienvenidos a la Republica de Bolivia".