Good evening peeps,
I've been attempting to write this for the last couple of days, but without much success so far (distractions have included photographic uploads: www.picasaweb.google.com/sidmouth12, catching up with internet fripperies (such as the news and banking), (many) friendly people to chat to, food to cook and eat, wine to drink and thumbs to twiddle. I'm going to attempt at least a couple of days tonight before heading off to bed, so here goes:
Tuesday 4th January 2011
It was up early(ish) and out of the hostel to get the bus. It was a stinking hot morning in Salta and so the trudge to the bus station was a particularly sweaty one (naturally I could have got a taxi, but thrift prevailed! What's a bit of a sweaty t-shirt between fellow passengers?!). The bus (Balut) was rather older and dirtier than the ones I had previously been used to, and I didn't get a window seat, so was thwarted in that respect (I was a little bit miffed, but probably didn't feel quite as hard-done-by as Dad does when failing to get a front seat on the way into Exeter [or on the X53] - and I had to actually pay for my ticket!!!). The start of the journey was a bit hard-going: not that much to see (especially from the aisle seat), slightly uncomfortable seats and a crowded bus (am I reaching the point of exhaustion with long-distance travel? I guess it's not quite as exciting as it was in the beginning...). I was also surrounded by a group of Argentinian hippies, two of whom insisted on groping each other right next to me. My delicate British sensibilities in that regard were well and truly offended!!!
Still, things improved once we got past Jujuy (and a 20 minute petrol refill in the very third-world-feeling Balut Bus Depot). The landscape started off as nobbly green hills (lush and jungly), but as we ascended into the mountains, the landscape dried out and the colours started going from brown to red to purple and back again, and every combination in between. I also got a window seat once we were past Pumamarca (stunning 7 colour mountain, btw), so was able to get some good shots of colourful rocks from the window. Unfortunately, the window was so dirty, the photos look soft-focus (vaseline smeared on the lens for that romantic effect!). But you can get the gist from the countless photos here: http://picasaweb.google.com/sidmouth12/TilcaraAndAround#
We arrived in Tilcara on time (the distance isn't actually that far from Salta, but the mountain roads are damn slow... and I thought we were going to be late because we were held up for ages in a town that was obviously on the route of the Dakar rally [note to Dad - I keep forgetting to mention this, but I'm sure you'll be interested - if you happen to see any highlights, look out in particular for the stage between San Miguel de Tucumán and San Salvador de Jujuy, because that was the section I crossed in the bus], so there were a lot of support vehicles and spectators holding things up!), and, anyway it seemed a nice, small, dusty little town... which, handily, also serves as a description of the hostel. Burrito hostel was easy to find (a five minute walk up the main street from the bus station), and certainly had character (i.e. pokiness, grubbiness and and loads of flies). It was a bit basic (and not that cheap at 50 pesos) but seemed friendly enough. I dumped my stuff and headed out to explore. I had decided to make the most of the sunny afternoon because the forecast for the following days was duff, to say the least. It was amazing actually, because there were clouds encircling Tilcara (up the valley and down, on the mountains, all around...) but none directly overhead. Yay for that.
Anyway, I stumbled across the Pucara (pre-inca fortress thingy), more or less by accident (although I had a rough idea that was the direction I was heading in). It was dazzlingly bright in the thin mountain air (Tilcara is nearly 2500 metres above sea level) and quite hot too (at least in the sun). It cost 10 pesos to go in the Pucara, but was well worth it! There was also a Botanical Garden attached, which was mainly devoted to Cacti (including the amazing giant "cardóns", that look like they were designed for the set of a western and are absolutely everywhere here). However, there were also a few "exotics", such as borage (!) and other European herbs!!!
After the Botanical Garden it was on to the Pucara itself, which is much bigger than I expected and in part has been painstakingly restored by archaeologists from the University of Buenos Aires. It's certainly an impressive site/sight and the views all around were stunning. The reconstructed "houses" were interesting... and revealed that there must once have been a sizeable community living there at one time (hundreds/thousands of years ago - you know I'm not all that up on my history). There is also a slightly unfortunate modern "pyramid" at the very top of the site, dedicated to the archaeologist who carried out a lot of the original work on the site. Which is weird, as it doesn't really fit with the rest of the site. Actually, there seems to be a bit of a tendency to concrete over things here in Argentina. I guess that is the curse of the New World. But still, it's a beautiful place, and the number of photos I took is testament to that. I've already mentioned picasa twice this update, so I won't bore you with the details yet again. If you're interested you know where to look.
Upon my return to the hostel, the number of people had increased dramatically (from just me [when I arrived] to a good dozen or so). (Argentinian) Spanish voices abounded and at first I felt a bit out of place and wasn't sure where to put myself (it's [usually] easy enough to strike up conversation if you've got something to "do", like cooking or arranging stuff in the dorm or offering wine, etc., but rather more difficult if people are just sitting down, already talking to each other [especially when it's in another language]). I decided to make myself a cup of tea (how very British), and just sit down among the people sat in the courtyard and see what happened. At first I felt a bit ridiculous... just evesdropping on Spanish conversations that I couldn't really understand, while supping from my cup. But I was soon offered mate and things progressed from there... (and no, that does not mean romantically... it just means that I was accepted into the group, as if I wasn't the stranger that I am). That's the great thing about Argentina... the people are so friendly that incredibly soon after meeting they are all chatting away, as if they have been friends for years. At first I thought eveyone knew each other, but I later realised the larger group was made up of several disperate smaller groups. And soon I was a part of that.
There was also a fellow non-Argentinian among the crowd. Kieran from Ireland was a thoroughly nice chap, and a welcome break from the intensive Spanish course that was underway! Of particular note were a really nice couple from Buenos Aires, about my age, and with very good English to boot (again very welcome when I was struggling to find the right words in Spanish). Anyway, the evening progressed fluidly from there. We ended up all going out together...
The first port of call was La Peña del Norte, which (like all Peñas) is a folk-music-venue-come-bar-come-restaurant. We ate and drank wine (a very nice 2005 Malbec from Cafayate - pushing the boat out at 40 pesos a bottle). I had a tamale (meaty thing steamed in sweetcorn husk) followed by a llama stew, which was interesting, if a little tough. The company was great (a table of 17: me, Kieran and a selection of people from all over Argentina, including a Korean chap from Cordóba) and the conversation and drink flowed... so much so that I didn't take too much encouragement to get up and dance (and after the initial embarrassment, I really enjoyed it!).
We progressed to a second Peña, down by the river, on the edge of the village - through a couple of fields, over a couple of brooks (in the dark) and thus very atmospherically located (under a sky of scintillating stars). It was lovely. And was able to put my usual aversion to panpipes to one side and enjoy the local folk music whole-heartedly (I didn't even mind that after a while every song started to sound the same - obviously spirits were high!). Talking of spirits, we moved from wine onto Fernet and coke, and more dancing ensued. It was a lot of fun... although I think I perhaps drank a little bit too much Fernet (it's just too easy to drink! Yup, let's blame the drink, rather than my lack of self-control!). Anyway, I managed not to embarrass myself too much (apart from ludicrous dancing - but at least I wasn't the only one!), although I did manage to step in one of the brooks on the way back and got a shoe covered in mud! ;-) Still, it was a great evening, and a fitting ending to a memorable first day in the mountains.
Well, it's taken me much longer to write about the first day in the Quebrada than I thought it would and there are people waiting to use the computer. So, I had better leave it there for now and return tomorrow with news of the rain and hangover that were to follow...
Hope you are all well.
Lots of love,