Salta – A Trip to the North

Posted by on Jun 4, 2013

Salta – A Trip to the North

Part of the reason I stayed as long as I did in Salta was because of my hosts Rubén, Nellie and their son Rubén Dario. They picked me up from the hostel and I spent a week with them.

I’ll deviate here to expand briefly upon the couchsurfing experience as a whole. Traditionally, a host will receive a surfer and they will share in a few activities and lots of small (and not so small) exchanges and conversations. Perhaps the host is going to travel soon and wants to meet people from, and learn a bit about the country they are going to. Perhaps it’s simply because they enjoy hosting and meeting new people. For these reasons alone Couchsurfing is better than hostelling. But of course the hosts will have their lives and schedules and they’re not tour guides so the surfer must also be their own agent. With Rubén and Nellie it was a bit different: Rubén really was a tour guide! Rubén is retired and had, or made the time to show me parts of Salta for which I am very grateful. But that isn’t all. After regaling them with tales of my travels and a desire to go to a place some hours north of Salta called Purmamarca, it was revealed to me that they had been intending to make a trip in that direction themselves. Soon a trip had been planned. We would go north towards Bolivia, past Purmamarca, through Tilcara and Humahuaca and spend a night in Iruya; a remote little hamlet in the mountains before returning to see the sunset on the Hill of Seven Colours in Purmamarca.



UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the Pucará de Tilcara; a fort built by the indigenous Tilcara and taken by the Spanish at the end of the 16th century. The fort and surrounding buildings were largely destroyed but the remains were discovered and the fort ‘reconstructed’ by archaeologists from the University of Buenos Aires and is now Tilcara’s most popular tourist attraction. The town also hosts an annual peregrination with participants from all over the country including the Tierra del Fuego in the far south. We had lunch here on our way north, and walked the reconstructed ruins.



Iruya is the sort of place you try to find on the map by looking further up the road. You’re about to give up and then you see it off to the right, about 35km as the crow flies and with no visible line connecting it to the main road.

It’s deliciously remote, nestled in a valley between mountains and straddling a river. The bulk of the town is squished together and composed of low stone or cement buildings. There’s a bus service, a hospital and cell coverage so it’s not really that remote any more. The steep rough cobbled streets are narrow and many are pedestrian only. The town square is a lovable space, faced by the picturesque church and overlooking the river valley.

The sun had deserted us on the other side of the mountains leaving us to navigate the pass (at 4,000 meters) and make the long, winding descent into the valley in the dark. When we arrived in Iruya, the town seemed to have gone to bed, and none of the advertised accommodation was answering its door. I shivered in the frigid darkness. In the background I could hear the sound of running water, confirming my suspicion that we were close to the river we had crossed a number of times on the descent. A light fog enveloped us making everything seem closer and quieter. Sporadic lamp posts glowed like small balls of light in the mist revealing a cobbled road that continued onward before disappearing around the edge of an overhanging cliff. Conscious of our late arrival we crept slowly along the road, aware that our super modern vehicle clashed horribly with the timeworn venerableness of our surroundings.

After heading up past the main square, we encountered the inhabitants. It wasn’t actually very late so people were about, although they moved in silent groups looking almost disapprovingly at this big black vehicle and its lost inhabitants. We stopped and got out enquiring as to the price of accommodation at a small hospice that appeared to be open. Walking back to the car we were approached by an older lady in a green shawl, who, without stopping her knitting that she carried around with her, offered us accommodation.

’40 pesos, each person,’ she told us. ‘And that includes two rooms, a common area and bathroom.’
My own room for the equivalent of five dollars.
Abandoning our previous prospect, we got back in the car and followed her up the quiet, uneven street and into a gated compound complete with carpark. Back out in the night air, I shivered once again, thinking of how hungry I was and wondering what we were going to eat.

Travelling with a young child means a certain degree of patience and tolerance is in order. Random screeching and crying and plenty of inquisitive energy kept Nellie occupied most of the time ensuring that all things toddler were ship-shape. As Rubén and Nellie busied themselves with baby business, I waited; rubbing my hands together and watching my breath condense into water vapour in the cold, clear air. Finally, all three and half of us set off in search of something hot.

Sporadic lamp posts glowed like small balls of light in the mist revealing a cobbled road that continued onward before disappearing around the edge of an overhanging cliff. Conscious of our late arrival we crept slowly along the road, aware that our super modern vehicle clashed horribly with the timeworn venerableness of our surroundings.

After a similar story to the one we encountered looking for accommodation, we found ourselves peering into a dingy little dining room where a couple of small plastic tables with plastic chairs and a plastic cover stood empty beneath a single fluorescent light, deaf to the vacuous trash blaring from the television suspended on the wall opposite. A short, smiling lady in an apron greeted us at the door and informed us of the menu options which all contained meat. We ordered a pizza, a bottle of coke (I had a sparkling water) and waited, listening to football news for the fifth time. A very important game of soccer had occurred the day before in Buenos Aires where team red-with-the-black-shorts had played team horizontal-blue-stripes and lost 3-2, causing much of the country to go batty with celebration and despair. Then followed the endless analyses as buffed fútbol pundits in suits tore the game apart, scrutinizing each minute detail and concluding after lengthy debate and many slowed-down zoomed replays that it was because of team horizontal-blue-stripes’ goal keeper’s crouch position being too low to make the fast and accurate dive required to prevent the goal that came from the free kick afforded to team red-with-the-black-shorts in the 34th minute. Not even here, in the remote mountain valley of northern Argentina could I escape the ubiquitous monotony of football.

My eager anticipation and optimism of the impending food turned to despair as the pizza arrived. It was an Argentinean disaster of cheap bready base, a smattering of acidic tomato blup all smothered in fast drying cheese. A great pink slab of pig could be seen sweating beneath the mat of processed dairy. Mouth firmly closed, I swallowed quickly to prevent the bile from rising. Insisting that Rubén and Nellie pig in, erh, dig in, I ordered another pizza without the meat, cutting my losses and resigning myself to the fact that I would just have to dream about Al’Albero pizzería in Brunswick while shovelling in this reprehensible muck.

Despite the let down of the meal, I slept a blissfully long sleep that night in my warm and comfortable double bed.

Next morning I was amazed to see just how close to the mountains we were. They surround the small town on all sides with bare slopes dotted with small shrubs and tufts of grass. Thousands of years of wind and rain had carved spectacular crevices into to rock and soil and the river below had carried it away. Iruya truly lives in the shadow of the mountain and they dominate the life and climate of the small town.

Walking the streets in the day was delightful, peering up each laneway that I passed until I found myself in the cobbled square looking around at the people. Many of the women wore the more traditional and colourful garb of indigenous Bolivia, and they looked like Bolivians more than cosmopolitan mix of Buenos Aires. I traipsed happily along the same road we had driven the day before, turning left and crossing an impressive suspension bridge to view the centre from afar, before returning to lunch with Rubén and Nellie and food that was happily much more palatable than last night’s offering.

Driving away from Iruya yielded a spectacular view as we retraced our steps from the night before, climbing steadily along the edge of the gorge. The road twisted torturously, many steep switch-backs as it cut a line in the hillside as it clawed its way up to the pass. Seeing the mountains from above is a study in shades of blue as mountains more distant are shrouded behind a subtle blue veil lending perspective and scale to the impressive vista. A very elemental picture. The rocks, the sky, the wind and sun times thousands of years.



Cony had told me to go to Purmamarca, and I’m glad that I did. But it was not the highlight of the trip. Iruya, a place I would never have gone too had I not gone with Rubén and Nellie was for me the highlight of the trip.

Purmamarca is on the road to the northern pass with Chile. The small town is located at the base of a hill whose exposed slopes show an impressive array of layered sediment, each a different shade of pink or red. The town is in a gorge and the hill, or Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours) faces east meaning it can never catch the fiery red rays of the setting sun which would make the colours glow spectacularly. However, in evening, the general ambience is very pretty and the long shadows create an almost eerie ambience.


One beautiful detail of the town is its market, a permanent fixture in the town’s main square where one can buy very colourful garments, rich in red ochres of the surrounding soils and all imaginable varieties of Mates, memorabilia and trinkets. We ambled through the market, stopping to tomar Mate in the square before making our way to the base of the Cerro de Siete Colores.

After Purmamarca, we drove the final remaining stretch back to Salta. I even drove some of the way – something I had been wanting to try since arriving in South America as here they drive on the right hand side of the road. In all it was a whirlwind of a trip and slightly unbelievable but I am very grateful that it happened. It is things like this a traveller hopes to find I would say. It was a great side trip for me and I am glad that my arrival was the catalyst needed to made Rubén and Nellie leave Salta and do the trip they had been intending to do for some time.