Author Archives: Gio&Bert

Crossing the tropic along one of Argentina’s top scenic roads

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11/02/2014

The impossible hue of the Quebrada de Humahuaca keeps being fascinating no matter how long a person has been staring at the valley.  It looks unachievable for the brain to understand and get used to this view.  And when our host in Humahuaca tells us that it gets even more spectacular as we would follow the valley of the Quebrada traveling to San Salvador de Jujuy on National Route 9 (NR9), we can’t wait to get a transport early in the morning and do some bus-hop-off-hop-on to eyewitness this quirk of nature.  Our first stop after passing the Tropic of Capricornio is Tilcara, as head of the department; this small settlement is located at 2465MASL on the banks of the Rio Grande, at 84 miles north of San Salvador de Jujuy.  With a mild dry climate the poor vegetation of the area is made by acacias, cactus, poplars and willows, providing development of a varied fauna including vicuñas, guanacos, foxes, ferrets, viscachas and condors.  This town of low adobe buildings with steep streets offers a magnificence outlook on the Quebrada and its polychromatic hillocks.  Leaving our backpacks in the luggage lockers of the bus station we enter the village and get some information on a hike, following a path contrary to the current of the Huasamayo River.  So after walking a 5 kilometers path without much difficulty among the mountains of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, appreciating the eccentric landscape, we can see a waterfall flowing out of this large crack formed by the eroding force of the Huasamayo river called: The Garganta del Diablo. We go a bit further on the main path, leaving any turist behind, and descent to the river for a nice relax time in the refreshing breeze coming from the surface of the flow.

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Back at the village we eat something and after a saunter at the local handcraft market we continue the NR9 down to Jujuy.  The bus takes us through Maimara to get to Purmamarca which means “Town of the Virgin Land” in Aymara language.   Nestled at the foot of Cerro Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours) Purmamarca grants another stunning view on the Quebrada de Humahuaca and its multi-coloured naturally carved slopes since it delights the senses of travellers passing through the town.  The village, with adobe buildings likewise Tilcara and ceilings made of teasel covered with mud pies, was drawn around the main church in 1648 consecrated as St. Rosa of Lima, today declared a National Monument because of its architecture as well as the paintings and images from Cuzco that contains its interior. We read and heard about the distinctive cuisine with authentic dishes but were not able to try them.

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The bus goes on and we pass hamlets with names as Tumbaya, Volcán and Yala before we enter the first big city of Argentina coming from the north, named San Salvador de Jujuy.  Big buildings, a river with ramshackle bridges, a park with flowering trees, a traffic free shopping street for those who like expensive coffee houses … nothing special as a city, so we stay here just one night and take a chance on the first true opportunity to look for a good rate at the blue dollar market.

Our recommendations:

  • Tilcara is cosy as a village and with lots of tourists, so a bit more expensive to spend the night but a good centre of operations to visit the whole area.
  • Aimara and Purmamarca are very small communities but still have the possibility to spend the night in hostels or family houses. The celebrations for Pachamama at both places are very old traditions worth a stop and participation.  Typical dishes should be cheap, tasty and generous as lots of backpackers and locals told us.
  • In Jujuy we stayed at Hospedaje Castaneda for 50 pesos each, not very recommendable but as we arrived very late on the evening we did not have much of a choice.
  • If the alarm clock is set very early in the morning, a traveller has a daylong time to organize carefully the journey and to take buses from village to village to see all without staying in all the different communities.
  • Check daily the blue dollar exchange rates.

 

Categories: Argentina | Leave a comment

The Quebrada de Humahuaca, welcome to Argentina.

8-10/02/2014

Bolivia was great.  A lake as large as an ocean with a culture as old as the hills, a city fusing modern and ancestral, as dense as an anthill, mountains as high as the sky covered by eternal snow, mineshafts so deep they descent straight to the abode of the spirits of the dead and a salt desert from outer space will travel with us for the rest of our lives.  At Villazón, on the bridge over the river with the same name that separates the two countries, we leave Bolivia behind us and enter Argentina in the republic most northern village, La Quiaca.

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From there we take the bus and drop 160km down on the map to the village of Humahuaca at 3012MASL.  The rugged topography of this area determines distinct climatic zones: during the day recorded a high temperature (38 º C), while at night it can drop considerably (-10 ° C), varying according to the season.  Humahuaca has a colonial look and with its narrow cobbled streets with lanterns stolen from middle age fairy tales and adobe houses, is it worth a walk through.  The fragrance of ‘tortitas’ (flat round bread filled with cheese or ham, or both, or not) freshly baked over red glowing charcoal and the aroma of big chunks of meat roasting on improvised barbeques float at nose-heights throughout these alleys.  Cute little squares cheered up by youngsters playing music for a few coins are dispersed through the centre of the town.  At the church there is daily a celebration showing typical dances in emblematic clothing on the rhythms of folk music and ending with the twice-told ‘Carnavalito de la Quebrada de Humahuaca’.  A wide staircase brings the visitor at the feet of the ‘Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia’ which offers, apart from some history knowledge, a beautiful view over the whole area.

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 During the meeting held on 2 July 2003 in Paris, France, the Andean valley that stretches for 155 kilometers in northwest Argentina, obtained a unanimous vote of the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, who described the landscape as a “hereditary ancestral system of outstanding features”.  The Quebrada de Humahuaca possesses a cultural itinerary from over 10000 years.  Its trails are walked by different indigenous ethnic groups and continue to hold religious beliefs, rituals, festivals, art, music and farming techniques that are a genuine living heritage.  With this declaration, UNESCO is committed to support the education and sustainable development of the area as well as the preservation of the culture of the native people.  So we can state that in this region the traveller is brought into direct contact with the roots of Hispanic America, amid a landscape of valleys and ravines where indigenous and Spanish cultures merged.

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Astonished by the surroundings we feel the need to lose ourselves in the rough environment which locals are so proud of and that presents a landscape flowed through by the river Rio Grande and climaxes interesting archaeological sites framed in colourful hills.  It’s a day where a minute counts an hour, lukewarm feels hot and where a Sunday afternoon stroll turns into a daylong hike.  The views on the ravine edging the horizon as far as we can see are amazing and the wildly growing endemic vegetation with its tiny flowers has an interesting beauteous.

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We liked every inch of Humahuaca with the open hearted being of the gentle population and adored the nutritional change as we adventure ourselves in a country that brags about culinary supremacy… as the matter of fact we couldn’t imagine a better entrance in Argentina.

Our recommendations:

  • Besides the Quebrada itself, there are more interesting sites and spots around Humahuaca than first expected: the archaeological ruins of Coctaca, Uquía, Peñas Blancas, Chulín and in the city, the Independence Monument and the Regional Archaeological Museum,…
  • Humahuaca is an outstanding location for travellers with time to perambulate the North-west corner of Argentina.
  • For travellers traveling towards Argentina from Bolivia, use the banks and ATMs (most have the option for Bolivianos or dollars) to obtain dollars. As in Argentina changing a dollar on the street gives you about 25 till 45% more value for your money. Big notes of 50 and 100 are getting the best rate. Look for the right rate at twitter (@DolarBlue) or on the internet comparing the many websites.  The same story for those traveling with euros (max 200€ notes!).  We noticed that the change offices at Villazón offered a very good rate.  Humahuaca as a small village does not have good opportunities to change dollars.
  • We find the food on the streets from very good quality and with the ‘blue dollar’ change exceptionally cheap. Tortitas at 10 pesos… try it and be prepared to be amazed!
  • Different hostels are to be found in the centre of town at fair prices. The real backpackers-deal is to take advantage of the possibility that people offer.  Some of the locals rent rooms in their homes and give the traveller the opportunity to be part of the family.  We met our lovely host lady as we got out of the bus.  She explained her proposition and paid the taxi to her home.  We paid 25 pesos a night a person (around 2.25 euros) in a room for the two of us, a bathroom to share with the other 3 rooms (also travellers) and a kitchen where we cooked together with the host family.  It’s almost unnecessary to tell that instinct and a feeling of trust are very important here.

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Categories: Argentina | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Tupiza, hiking the Inca Canyon in Bolivia

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Born around the year 1535, nestled in a valley alongside the river in between precarious mountain slopes, hidden from the cold high altitude wind and settled on the ancestral grounds of the Chichas tribe, the village of Tupiza is a short pause on our travel schedule.  It’s a town with a relax atmosphere and rural ambient where nice and friendly are a daily obviousness.  After an overnight bus ride, coming from Uyuni, we arrive very early in the morning.  At 4 0’clock no hostel opens their doors for us so we lay down our camping mat at the bus station and sleep till the first ray of light resuscitates the life in the streets.  Fast we find a nice hostel with a cosy indoor patio that offers us a private room for the right price.  Tupiza, as many of the villages in the area, outcries the lost grandeur it once had as a miners paradise.  Great buildings showing off majestic towers with diverse architectural features at the town square expresses a past of welt while decaying with the passing of the time.

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And still, settled at the shore of the Tupiza River, the village did not fade away in time did not turn into a ghost village as many others did.  Agriculture took over from mining activities and could maintain the small population.  This area has rich landscapes with gorges, canyons and valleys that makes you feel like being in a western movie and a high but small mountain pass and bizarre rock formations amplifies the effect in settings such as those found in the Valle De Los Machos and the Inca Cañon.

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Popular and a great attraction are horseback excursions made to the hypothetical tomb of the legendary bandits Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, in the neighbour village San Vicente.  Another important tourist attraction of this town is the ‘Fiesta De Reyes’ to be held in the district of Remedios January 6.  Walking through the centre we become aware of the unwinding ambient here as trifling markets with vendors having time for a chat and a laugh meddle with happy children running on the streets and passageways and as young and old friends in the shade of carefully well-trimmed trees come daily play some kind of local billiard at an almost forgotten little square.  It feels good to see how simple live can be and how happy it can make people.

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Talking with the locals they tell us that there is a nice hike to do in which we can appreciate the full range of bizarre vicissitudes that erosion offers.  First the adventurous hiker walks the old railroad, then a turn to the right leaving Tupiza River behind him to pass through the ‘Cañon del Duende’.  El ‘Cañon Del Inca’ as a hike is not difficult but rather a long resistance test on the human body as both the solar radiation and the dry hot breeze brings you to your limits.  Once passed the Puerta Del Diablo (gate of the devil) where the sun high in the sky, shining luminous on the rocks, highlights the almost Valentino-red colour of the canyons but does not offer much shade to cool down.  Tower high cactus and some local thorn armed bushes are the only vegetation able to make it through the summer.

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With the devil left behind, scenery of incredible rock formations beautifies the abruptness of the ‘Valle De Los Machos’ as the hiker keeps on penetrating the purgatory.  A bit further the soil seems moist, and moist changes into wet by a hairbreadth and some few steps further wet becomes a tiny flow.  This micro river continually absorbed by the dry and thirsty soil grows by ever footstep the hiker advances into the narrowing gulch and ends up into a minor but very welcome cascade at Inca Canyon.  Clothes are taken off and a fresh shower in the canyon with no other soul around is a priceless reward for doing this hike.

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Our recommendation:

  • Hostal Pedro Arraya is a nice place to stay, close to both bus- and train station and the centre of Tupiza.  It has a small kitchen for you use but closes quite early on the evening (20:00hours!).  A good internet connection and comfortable rooms and dorms (without lockers) to spend some nights.  We paid 35 Bs a person per night in a private room.  The hostal offers tours and tickets for transport to the border.
  • The Cañon Del Inca trail is beautiful and cost nothing. Be aware to take enough water, suncream, food, …
  • For travellers heading for Argentina, use the banks and ATMs (most have the option for local bolivianos or American dollars) to obtain dollars as in Argentina changing a dollar on the street gives you about 25 till 45% more value for your money. Big notes of 50 and 100 are getting the best rate. Look for the wright rate at twitter (@DolarBlue) or on the internet comparing the many websites.  The same story for those traveling with euros (max 200€ notes!).
Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Salar de Uyuni, a perfect valediction for Bolivia.

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30/01-03/02/2014

Formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes, near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 3656 meters, the world largest salt flat is by far the harshest and most inhospitable terrain we have set foot on so far.  The endless salt crust reflects the sunlight with such intense whiteness that it seems to be snow, at night it looks like the moon let its light absorb by the salt which glows bright under the with stars filled firmament.  Once saturated because of the seasonal rains (December till April), a thin layer of water at the surface turns the Salar into an infinite mirror that reflects the blue sky, the white cotton clouds and the surrounding highlands so perfectly that horizons fades away and that the mountains give the impression of being islands floating avatar-wise in the sky.

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By sunset the Salar de Uyuni’ (or Salar de Tunupa) plays with colours and masters optical illusions which words can’t describe.

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Both the 10.582 square kilometers salt dessert and the ‘Reserva de fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa’ form a natural frontier between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. To visit this wonders we travel to Uyuni village, founded in 1889 at the junction of the railways that enter Bolivia from Chile and Argentina.  Uyuni has nothing more to offer than a 19th century clock tower, several rusty tributes to the golden age of steam and if it wasn’t for the salt it probably would have become a ghost town.  Bolivia offers the cheapest possibilities to contract a tour that guides tourists through this rough area.  It takes us a while but after gathering some information we find the right deal: a 3 day tour with lodgements, food, guide and transport included.   It starts with the railway graveyard just outside the village and from there to the village of Colchani just some kilometers away from the salt dessert.

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We are amazed by the stunning views of this over-white otherworld landscape that the Salar awardus and the three day trip just had started.  After a short sleep on beds made of salt in a house made of salt we feel a bit dehydrated but are ready for the second day, where we leave the salt flats behind us and enter in a world of singular, eccentric landscapes. We enter a land of freezing salt lakes whose icy waters tinged bright red, pink, grey, orange or emerald green by microorganisms or mineral deposits. At the ‘Desierto de Siloli’, rocks sculptured by the very elements of nature designing the wildest and the most impossible formations are appearing any direction we look.

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There is a wide range of rare Andean wildlife in and around all these lakes. Large herds of vicuñas grazing on the slight vegetation of the high, semi desert grassland, as well as viscachas and even the elusive Andean fox are sometimes spotted.  The salty lakes, apart from the 80 species of birds, support large colonies of all three South American species of flamingo (James, Andean and Chilean) giving a supreme touch to a travellers experience.  In the morning we have a sunrise with geysers at ‘Sol de Mañana’ and a bath in a natural hot springs at the shore of Laguna Challviri… it’s all just perfect.  Refreshing the mind and recharging our inner batteries we are ready for a last day of wondering and gaping with disbelieve at this corner of Bolivia.  All in this three day trip is just so spectacular, enormous, and breath-taking that while driving back to Uyuni we are aware of the difficulty to describe such a place…

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Our recommendations:

-       As there is not much to visit in Uyuni village the stay is just functional, one afternoon to check out prices a cheap and comfortable night rest and the next day we start the tour, so we did not expect any luxe or extras.  Hostal ‘El Chavito’, close to the train station we got for 70 Bolivianos for the two of us.

-       We paid 630 Bolivianos each, at the agency: ‘Expediciones Libez‘ for a three day tour with food, transport, guide and hotels/hostels included.  If you are with a group of 5 then try to get the car for just the five of you, some tour operators load up the car with 7 persons which is very uncomfortable for long days of driving off road. Plus a 150 Bolivianos a person as entrance at ‘Reserva de fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa’ which is never included at any operator in the tour price.  Ask explicit for a sunset at the Salar of Uyuni as not every tour includes this spectacle.

-       There is the possibility to cross the border with Chile at San Pedro de Atacama, instead of driving back till Uyuni.  You miss a last half day of excursion but win a day of traveling to Chile.  In order to take this option it is important to get all the necessary papers and stamp passports at the police office of Uyuni.

-        In Uyuni railway station the cheap train tickets, on a reclining seat is a treasure to look for so try to purchase your tickets in advance we recommend to get them before the three day trip.

Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Potosí, the pearl of a Spanish empire

26-29/01/2014

On a deserted, windswept prairie amongst barren highlands at almost 4100MASL, Potosí is the highest city in the world, and once the most attractive and catastrophic place in Bolivia.  It owes its existence to mount Cerro Rico, which towers authoritatively above the city to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver the world had ever seen, its treasure turned Potosi into the sparkler of the Spanish emperors’ crown, and at the time into one of the world’s most prosperous and largest cities.  The mining city of San Luis Potosí in Mexico was named after Potosí in Bolivia and also in the United States, the name Potosí was optimistically given to mining towns in Wisconsin, Missouri and Nevada.  In Spanish language the expression ‘eso vale un Potosi’ still describes anything priceless.  The Potosí sign on the Spanish coins was so important and powerful that it became a worldwide symbol for money or value,… it’s what we know these days as the dollar sign.  On the other hand, this fortune was achieved at the cost of the lives of millions of indigenous forced labourers and African slaves.

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Today as we speak the body count goes on and while there is less silver to dig at, Cerro Rico goes along with modern times and vomits now, apart from other minerals as tin and boron, litio in the mine trolleys.  In Potosí, mining activity is an everyday thing, a way of living and a religion for those descending ‘the ravening beast that swallows men alive’ when offering coca leaves, cigarettes or pure alcohol to ‘El Tio, the Lord of the Underworld who rules the mineshafts.  The miner market can be found at the base of the mountain.  Apart from the usual mining tools, coca leaves and 96º alcohol are considered absolutely needed for the hard job.  Even more surprizing are the piles of dynamite sticks free for sale to anyone asking, waiting to be detonated in the mines… or not…, as nobody controls that the explosives indeed enter the mine!  Once inside, it is fascinating to see how a mine works, how deep inside the mountain men and youngsters are digging their way to their daily bread.  Than the guide shouts, everybody becomes one with the shaft wall as suddenly a heavy duty rusty mine cart appears out of the dark pushed by two of which we just can see their white eyes from under the helmet on a with dust covered face.

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Visiting the active mine is one of the highlights of Potosí but for those with fear of the dark, with claustrophobic issues, obsessed by security or health problems there is more to see in and around this city.  Potosí dresses the colonial look with well-maintained buildings, plazas, fountains and churches what makes it a beauty to walk through. It moves a balanced young nightlife on streets with lighted ancient facades and outstanding social graffiti.

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Potosí has highlands to discover all around with not a few possibilities to do some serious alpinism or better said andenism. Another of the possibilities that this city offers is ‘Ojo del Inca’, a 30 minute ride away with the microbus, where a natural pool with a stunning peak and valley view seduces the visitors with hot water and black mud containing mysterious healing power.

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Both, the city as an architectural wonder and its vibe that runs through the streets absorbed us for a few days.  A few amazing days…

 

Our recommendations:

-Hostal Koala is prepared for backpackers, offers a lot of information, organizes trips and excursions for the guests, an endless included breakfast at a long table makes it easy to get in contact with travellers to obtain info about trips and prices, a nice kitchen, TV-room, … for only 50Bs (5€)night/person.

-Ojo Del Inca just costs 8Bs for 30 minutes of bus and it is a nice relax day out there.

-To visit the mines at Cerro Rico the traveller will find an infinite offer and a range of prices.  We did a good tour with an ex miner for about 3 hours underground.  Pay attention that the time of the tour is during the morning. Visitors offer gifts to the miners, some of them give dynamite which they use between visits of the morning and the afternoon.  The consequence of the explosions is dust and other particles in the air in the mine shafts.  We paid 40Bs a person.

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Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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