Monday, August 22, 2011

Disconnecting Part II: Ten Days of Bliss in Northern Argentina

Day 1
As a New Yorker living in Buenos Aires, it is often difficult for me to justify going anywhere else but the Apple when I have time off from work.  But for this winter break I decided that I must see more of this country I live in, and so I chose to travel to the North. Traveling alone, I felt that staying in hostals would be a great way to stay social and connected, without obligation.  And so I booked my flight to Salta and my first two nights at the San Jorge Hostel.  Beyond this, I only knew the towns that I wanted to visit: Tilcara, Purmamarca, Humahuaca, and Iruya, deciding to book my stays as I went along.

My 6:30 AM flight from Jorge Newberry Airport was quick and easy.  No check-in as I had only a small backpack and a shoulder bag, traveling lighter than I’ve ever done before.  With a great sense of freedom, no real plans, and a slight anxiety about engaging with others, my goal was to embrace whatever landed in my path, find a deeper connection with nature, meet interesting travelers, connect with the local people, and gain wisdom from the experience. 


Too early to check into the Hostel San Jorge, I drop my bags and headed out to wander.  It is chillingly cold topped off by traffic, clogged sidewalks, pollution, and noise.  I wade through the jetsam to arrive at the Plaza 9 de Julio to see the majestic buildings and the beautiful park, which is the heart of the town.

By 9:30 AM I’m sitting in La Basilica de Salta, a richly depicted pink and white church with an interior of ornate golds and terra cottas.  I then find a café in the sun where I can thaw over tea and medialunas, listening to folk music playing, as it would throughout the whole of my trip.  Slowly my coat opens and the sun enters as the morning’s mountain chill mixes with the coming heat. 

At once a horn conflagration has gathered to play:  military drums, uniforms, a conductor, all very serious and formal.  It’s definitely time to move on.

At the hostel I am to room with two currently absent guys who have obviously claimed the bunk beds. I can’t wait to get out of this overly-bustling town and have scheduled a tour to Cachi for tomorrow. It will be one more night before I take a set of buses to each future stop, with Iruya as my final destination.

In the afternoon I take myself to the neighboring town of San Lorenzo for lunch, which is a half hour ride by bus.  Once arrived, I uncannily find myself appreciating my hometown of Croton-on-Hudson outside of NYC.  Funny how travel sheds light on the things one has taken for granted.  Realizing how magnificent it is living by the Hudson with the proliferation of wildish nature that I so took for granted while growing up.  Often one doesn’t have to travel far to find the exquisite.  That being said, I was looking forward to being astounded here in the north of Argentina, and in this, I would not be disappointed.

After lunch at a local “parilla”, I take a siesta on a bench in the sun, waiting for a friend.  Ramiro arrives to show me around and we end up having tea with another friend whose home is devoted to gardens, a small forest, dogs, chickens, roosters, geese, and a parrot.  Laughing and chatting over tea, already I see how easily accessible the people are here, so far from Buenos Aires.

Back at the San Jorge night falls and I am freezing and don’t feel like venturing into the town center. The room is uninviting and a shower is definitely not going to happen, as there is no heat in the bathrooms. I end up talking to some of the guys around the computer and then shiver myself into bed under a million blankets.  One of my roommates comes in and slips into a lower bunk .  Our final roommate becomes scarce for the night, so it’s just the two of us.  We chat away in the dark.  He is from New Zealand, an incessant traveler who can’t stop the motion, though he’s looking for something concrete.  This theme of the perennial traveler seems common in these parts.  Earlier, speaking with the Greek biker who doesn’t want to stop his life on the road and then the Italian who will take a film course so he can document his travels.  All of these guys are getting themselves off the grid, and all are in love with the warmth of the Latin style.  The sensation of wanting to be free and gravitating towards something more “authentic” is palpable and will be the theme of my trip. 

Day 2

Up at 6:00 and riding Route 33 to Cachi.  The mountains in the morning light are green and wheat colored with soft, rounded peaks.  There is a small river below with overhanging trees that becomes dry as we wind our way up and up now, through folds of mountains.  At time the dry gully moistens to become a tiny rivulet pathway that I’m told can swell a hundredfold in summer.

The “cordones” or cacti, grow up the mountainsides.  With lives up to 100 years old they are often cut down to provide wood for the community.  Wild pigs, goats, and cows graze lopsided on the mountainsides.  Do they have two legs longer and two legs shorter to stay attached?  We pass a small cemetery and see homes dotting the landscape made of stucco and wood.  They are low roofed and seemingly dark inside.   

We are continuously winding up and around as if we’re wrapping ourselves around a giant snail shell.  All is shadow and light with the occasional condor gliding through overhead space.  I will see many throughout this trip, but never will manage to catch one on film.     

The mountains are striated with iron-rich earth alternating with copper-green that are the emblem colors here in the North.  Every few kilometers there are tiny open cement huts with chimneys along the roadside where locals will burn wood to keep warm as they pass the night waiting for a bus to arrive.

Just as I am feeling weak from the spiraling, we stop for refreshment.  I have two cups of coca tea to help me adapt to the altitude, a piece of local bread, and a snappy conversation with Alejandro, who is on holiday from selling solar panels throughout the region.  We spend the good part of the trip chatting and exchanging stories.

We are rising to 3,500 meters high as we approach Cachi with its population of 2,200.  As we ascend, we travel through the Parque National de los Cordones, a natural reserve that is filled with kilometers of cacti in all states of growth and obscure shapes.   This is one of the largest cactus parks in the world and it is both beautiful and bizarre.  I walk alongside huge green fingers pointing upwards, careful not to catch myself on the lethal looking quills.  

Back on the bus we continue to climb until we stop again for dried fruits, herbs, and spices.  I buy a supply of dried apples, freshly ground cumin, oregano, Baila Buena, an herbal tea for energy, and another fragrant herb for aches and pains.  Two young children play flute and drums for the tourists and the locals seem pleased with our purchases.

Though I’m on an excursion bus, I feel the adventure and freedom of this first trip to the mountains and am happy for the comfort of my androgynous clothes and the boots that will hardly every leave my feet until the end of my trip.

Before we get to the town of Cachi, we stop at an open-air restaurant, beautifully set up to receive us.  Though I usually loathe this kind of touring, today I am grateful as my companions are genial and I am easing into socializing with no problem.  Ale and I order a delicious local red wine, which goes well with my salad of arugula, goat cheese, dried tomatoes, and croutons accompanied by impeccable homemade bread and dark green, virgin olive oil.  The conversation is warm and witty and once we’re sated, we’re on the road again.

We arrive in the Valle Calchaqui, which was conquered by the Spanish invading northeast Argentina in 1536.  Cachi is a beautiful pueblo, situated around a tree-filled park with wide benches, cafes, a small church made of stucco with a cordone wood ceiling.  There is the Archeological museum along with other sites, but I am happy to rest in the sun with the dry heat toasting my skin, penetrating my bones and dusting my hair.   We stay only an hour before turning back towards Salta.  I chew on coca leaves listening to Argentine Samba music as we begin our journey back with the sun setting and a great sense of peace.

Back at the San Jorge, its beyond cold now and I go to sleep under mounds of blankets with all my clothes on.  I like this cowboy feeling, and it’s so dry that one feels clean.  My roommate is leaving for Bolivia in a half hour, so in the end I have the room to myself.  The last thing I see before my eyes close are my dusty boots by the bedside, commemorating my trip and voyages to come.

Day 3
Riding in the front on the bus on the top level, I’ve got legroom and an unobstructed view.  We leave at 7:15 with the site of farmland running to the base of the sloping green mountains.  We make our way slowly behind creeping camions, but there is no rush to anywhere. 

As we cross the border between the province of Salta and Jujuy, the sign says, “Portico Marvelloso de la Patria ” or marvelous door of the motherland.  We ride through Yala with a pair of condors floating in the near distance.  Gaining height in the dusty mountains, it is indeed slow going and I feel the altitude.  Fortunately I have coca leaves in my pocket, which are essential in these parts.

It is a wonderful life, the sense of rising into these mountains, free as these condors and with not too much in my head. I’m riding into each adventure as it comes, feeling present, with a magisterial landscape up close and personal:  flowing, moving, non-static waves of mountain landscape, seemingly indestructible and eternal. 

We pass through Purmamarca where I will stop later in the trip, as well as Tilcara, which will be next after Humahuaca.  I’m aware that I will be backtracking, but that was how the hostel bookings went, and so it is.  And now an amazing and unexpected landmark:  a sign that says “Tropic of Capricorn!”  Can it be?

I arrive in Humahuaca and it seems that I’ve been magically guided, as the Hostel El Sol is inviting and rustic.  My bed upstairs is in a beautiful light-filled space, which I later will share with a French guy, but mostly I am alone here.  The bed is firm, the blankets are warm, and the place is spotless.  The common area is filled with folk music and warm vibes as well as the welcoming energy of Ramon, the owner.

Walking down the hill and across the bridge, I arrive at the center and find myself on Calle Buenos Aires 278: Artesenas Sasakuy.  This is a cooperative of artists who study and create hand-dyed woven items, jewelry, paintings, clothing, and more.  There are old regional rugs and throws, and many local artifacts. I’m shown around by a weaver and instructor who tells me about how the dyes are made (from plants) and how a woman’s life is woven into her shawl:  emblems of family, work, locale, deaths and births, until all her life’s events eventually fills the formerly black material.  He speaks about the local people’s concept of death and how it represents transformation and is considered a part of a continuing cycle, rather than something absolute.  He speaks about the concept of abundance:  that rather than money or possessions, to the people of the northern desert climes, abundance is water, whether in the form of rain or tears.  Water is life.  Later I meet his wife, a folk dance teacher and dancer and we speak about movement and I promise I will take her class the next day.

Lunch is at a simple off-the-beaten track hole in the wall where I drink rather bad house wine and wait for a vegetable stew.  The old waiters, peeling walls, and neon bulbs make me happy.  There are no tourists in sight.  I am basking in the grace of the people around me and am so grateful to be traveling alone, especially in places filled with heart, where the people are solid, connected, grounded to their terrain and customs. This palpable sense of earth-connectedness fits me, this roaming and taking what comes.  I so understand the meaning of abundance, real abundance: water, authenticity, simplicity, and soul.

It is cold inside these buildings, which serves for summer temperatures, but not for now.  Still, the sun warms all outside and I walk up the many steps to an important Humahuacan monument next to the center square.

On the way down I meet two artisans, one from Chile and one from Bolivia, who are selling macramé and copper jewelry.  I buy a necklace, so delicate with a palpable movement woven into its design.  Both artists are in their mid-20s, with a young child each.  They both speak of family and I note the great sense of belongingness among these people.  Loved ones are never far away.

That evening I go to Tantanankuy with Ana, a Portuguese girl who is staying in the hostel.  We walk up and up towards this cultural center created by the musician, Jaime Torres as I have an introduction to his daughter from a mutual friend.  As we stroll, a young guy on a bicycle stops to chat and invites us to his home to share a maté.  I am curious to see how he lives, so we follow him up through an alley into an unadorned cinder block structure where his two roommates lounge under blankets.  Artisans, they are young, gracious gentlemen proud to have us there, offering us tea. 

The Peña at Tantanankuy is lovely with two musicians, one playing a wooden flute and the other guitar, singing beautiful sambas and chacareras.  I eat a deliciously fresh caprese with goat cheese and meet Claudia Torres who invites me back the next day to meet her young folk dance students.  Ana and I stay for several hours, warmed by the nearby wood stove, and then descend to the town and back up to our hostel, inhaling the crystalline air as we gaze try to catch the dripping stars.

Day Four
There is no rush to do anything.  I awaken and lazily do some chores, washing clothes and putting them on the line, eating breakfast, and chatting with Ramon and his daughter Sol as well as some French travelers who had just arrived.  

I spend the day resting in the sun, going to the market to buy bananas and dried apples and a large shopping bag that the local grannies use.  I buy several bags of herbs for Pachamama ceremonies in August to share with friends at home as well as ointments and unguents from Peru, Bolivia: fat of the viper, the iguana, the mule, and more.   

Back on the plaza steps, watching the world go by.  There were great crowds in the square by the church at noon, all gathered to see the automated wooden monk emerge from on high to raise his forearm and bless the masses below, cross raised in other hand.  Ave Maria played. It was a Fellini moment, and then the figure receded into the church once again.

I sit in the sun with a beautiful artisan selling copper jewelry (a “noble” metal) and buy a ring that embraces a diamond shaped amethyst along with a wide Grecian style bracelet to soothe my sometime computer-wrist pain.  These pieces look commanding on my hand, as a ruling queen would have it.

At once, a beautiful young girl comes running to me from across the plaza.  She is the partner of the Chilean from whom I bought the necklace yesterday.  Seeing me from a distance, they want me to have the appropriately macraméd rope from which to hang the piece, rather than the leather thong they gave me.  This, a perfect example of how the people here view their work and life.  It wasn’t just a sale they made.  We made an exchange for a personal and precious creation that deserved its best setting and I was touched by this care.  The artist also wanted to look at her piece for the last time, so proud of her work and the preciousness of her labor. 

I go back to the artisans at Sasakuy to buy an old rug that I’d fallen in love with for its subtle colors and soft weave.  Then off to lunch for a quinoa risotto and a salad, needing to eat this staple, healthful grain that commonly shows up in the cuisine. 

The early evening takes me back to Tantanankuy where Claudia and I have tea and wait for the village children to arrive for their folk dance class.  Claudia teaches these kids for free, sometimes having them stay the night for a pajama party where they cook, sing, and dance.  She is a real Pachamama, giving these children a place to go where they may not have one, as well as a purpose and a passion.

The kids arrive, the beautiful, fresh lot of them, all chat and laughter and one lovely girl makes up a copla for me, a traditional Argentine song pattern with original lyribs.  I take the class with them, everyone giggling all the way through.  I’m smiling from ear to ear and we all stay on for tea and cookies until it is dark and the kids must go.  Claudia shows me videos of some of the traditional festivals from the north: Semana Santa and Dia de los Muertos where the men dress as skeletons and the women as life itself.  The traditions here are strong and continue through time. 

From here I go to Mariela’s folk dancing class back at Sasakuy where we dance Chacarera, Argentine Samba, and Saya from Bolivia. Her husband serves us a strong, sweet, warming liqueur and we dance like banshees amongst the art on the walls.  Walking home under the dangling stars, all quiet and peaceful.  Back in my bed, with the room to myself, I fall into a deep night of dreams.

Day 5
I’m on the bus watching the immense scenery go by.  The astounding power and immobility of the mountains once again renders me speechless.

Once in Tilcara, I land at El Albahaca, another welcoming hostel run by Dani and Delia where I share a room with three girls who will return tonight.  

In the main plaza I eat a sizzling tortilla, filled with cheese and veggies, sitting on a bench with a little dog as my companion.  Tilcara is lovely, filled with tourists and shops that cater to them, but with taste and a sense of northern Argentine downplay.  There are no harsh noises, no garish moments to jar one out of mountain reverie.  It is easy to walk around, to feel relaxed, to take in the mood. 

Up and up beyond my hostel lies the ancient civilization of Pulcará.  These are the ruins of a pre-Incan community that predates the Spanish invasion.  I enter and walk the winding path through the cordones and piles of rectangular and square stones that comprise the walls and homes, stones that mirror the shades of the mountains in pale green, mauve, beige, and gray.   

I am high up overlooking the valley below, the mountains rising sharp around me. The sensation of this other world, homes expanding and diminishing in size as a family ebbed and flowed, silent hearths and alters, give the place a silent magic and power.

I walk into dark chambers to emerge into blazing sunlight where the outdoor corrals and cooking areas lie.  Feeling at one with the slate, dry brush, desert floor, and the crisp air filling my lungs, it is early and I am alone in this vast, sacred place.  It is like being alone in Macchu Pichu, which is nearly impossible and its not until I leave that the tourist buses begun to line up.

A wonderful café lies at the foot of Pulcará’s entrance.  Sofas and deep cushioned chairs are covered in old rugs that also lie on the ground outside and the floor inside.  Artifacts and artisanal offerings along with wonderful paintings abound.  Who is this painter?   

I have a tea and inquire and at once a taxi appears and I am whisked away over the stony roadway, across the dry riverbed, and through a mountain pass to a wooded world.  I walk a short path and into the root and clutter of the artist, Emilio Haro Gallo, who seems to be a legend in these parts, as I will see his paintings over and over again wherever I go.

He is an adorable gnome, with a constant chunk of coca leaves and ash rock protruding in a round ball on the inside of his cheek.  This is a recurring theme with his painted characters, which all look like semi-robust, sad-eyed, earth-grounded livers of life.  Pachamamas, devils, subway riders, bus drivers, wine makers, musicians, and more clutter every painting, and there seem to be hundreds piled and stacked in every which way.  Chatting away, I make a pile of choices, landing on a serious Pachamama with a fish.  Emilio and I hang out and I am happy as I always am when connecting with artists.  He walks me down a back path past the old, unused rail tracks where I can then easily cross the bridge back to the village.  On the way I realize that I really want the painting of the celebrating winemakers, and that is the one he eventually delivers. 

Now I sit having a cup of tea with three women who have come back frnm a march for the “disparacedos”, the missing people who “disappeared” during the Argentine Military takeover in the 70’s.  This is an event that can never be forgotten, where the repercussions linger as many families have suffered the losses of fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, uncles, aunts, friends.  There has been a huge turnout and these diligent mourners and protesters are finally getting response from the courts, as cases are being heard and resolved with monetary compensation.  They have waited over 35 years for retribution and now at last something is being done, if not the least, the public recognition of a government gone wildly bad.

In the evening I take myself to a highly recommended restaurant just a few hundred meters from the hostel.  With its deep orange interior, low couches and tables, and walls full of beautiful artifacts I have a stupendous meal of cubed llama cooked in dark beer with small baked Andean potatoes and a Quilmes beer.  My dinner mate, a small black cat, sits daintily upright on the floor beside me waiting for my offerings.   After dinner I take a long walk in the cold night, wondering at the stars and the enormity of life and its possibilities.  Energized by the altitude, oxygen, and my thoughts, it was not a night for sleep.

Day 6
Just a short ride from Tilcara, I decide to spend a few hours rather than more time in Purmamarca as I am so tired.  Sitting in a café by the central plaza, as usual, I watch artisans setting up and selling a million colorful handmade wares.   

Walking around, up and up I discover the private home, Azul Andina.  It is a mix of art nouveau and Andean basics: a cane roof woven with pampas-like thatching, Gaudi-shaped windows, and a dark green/blue painted exterior. A magical anomalous home with a ravishing view.

Here in Purmamarca is the “Cerro de Siete Colores”, or the hill of seven colors. The hill is really a series of mountains that rise in waves of undulating striations in mauve, green, beige, grey, and colors in between.  Standing on top of an opposing hill, I take the obligatory photos and then headed back to Tilcara, exhausted. 

Back in Tilcara I make a brief appearance in the archeological museum, which contains all the usual suspects: pottery, tools and the description of life way back when before the Spaniards came to upset the balance.  It is a good view of the region’s history, well exhibited in a lovely building. but it was all I could do to glance around and then walk slowly back to my café at the base of Pulcará to spend a few hours with a cup of tea over a deep discussion with a newly made friend.

That evening I am told to arrive very early for a seat at the popular Peña de Carlitos, so I planted myself two hours early with a book and a picada of fresh goat’s cheese.  Opposite me hangs a painting by the ubiquitous Emilo, this time a dreamy man with a devil’s mask on his shoulder.  The hours pass and I order a warming stew of corn and other vegetables including sweetish Andean potatoes along with fragrant herbs and grated cheese. By the time the first musician appears I am ready for horizontality, but I stay a bit longer to hear his deep and expressive voice singing odes to nearby towns in the North. Reluctantly I leave and weave my path towards bed.

Day 7
Riding to Iruya on the Panamericana, thinking about the subtleties of life: the blatant realities that we find in cities versus the ephemeral nuances inherent in big nature. 

The power of the land and the authenticity it brings through breathing in its essence and the true presence this brings. The paring down as the ego dissolves and essence emerges.  All of this especially in the face of vast space, majestic mountains, and the zest for life that this type of travel implies. 

The magnetic pull of cities with their promise of stimulation and cultivation versus the opposite pull of silence, stars, rocks, and minerals.  The noble metals like copper and bronze… the metals people in cities forget about.  I look at my copper bracelet and ring from Humahuaca and they are more precious to me at this moment than gemstones.  The dignity of the earth and what it brings of its own, without asking, is what attracts me now.  The linear mind glued to cities dissolves as the spiral within seeks nature.

Blasting sunlight on the mountains reflects red rust.  Jaunty music plays from the driver’s seat and we are on the road, moving forward.   We stop here and there to pick up locals waiting along the roadside:  beautiful weathered faces.  Women in their flat brim black hats, shawls, bags of groceries and goods.  Old men in hats, old suit jackets, scarves, baggy pants, all worn and large and dusty.  Old shawls covering the contents of bags.  Blackened, wrinkled, dirt-engraved hands.  A sweet land-and-sweat smell coming from their clothes and bodies, crinkled and sun worn.

The old women are adamant about not having their pictures taken.  I understand.  Their immortality comes in other, more respectable forms. 

Now the landscape changes to soft hills with wide expanses of tufted land dotted everywhere with rocks. Where did they come from, these tumbled rocks?   There are no rocky mountains in sight!  It’s a bumpy ride now and we are climbing.

There is a wonderful Italian guy, Vincenzo, chatting away with the bus driver.  He is animated and engaged and interested, in the way Italians are at their best.  He makes me happy just listening to his questions, his curiosity, and his verve.  We stop for a few minutes to refresh and we chat up a storm.  He wakes me up with his light and energy.

Arriving in Iruya and I am met by a beautiful shining man, Celestino, perhaps in his late 60’s or early 70’s.   He helps me with my bags, as the way to the hostel is almost impossibly vertical, as all streets in this pueblo are. 

We arrive at Milmahuasi, the hostel that has totally been sight unseen and that will be my favorite of all.  Dora, Filipe, Ale, and two Italian guests are in the main room, sunlight-filled with The Cure playing full on.  The place is charged with amazing onda (vibe) and I am immediately happy and comfortable.  My room is perfect:  beautiful colors and so comfortable with its own bathroom that is comes with 24-hour hot water!  Eureka! There are four beds.  I will have Vanessa as a roommate that night, but she is barely there as she comes in late.  The beds are covered in striped Andean rugs and the mattress is more comfortable than mine at home. 

Dora suggests I go to Comedor Margarita for lunch and walks me there.  It is a local place, tiny with turquoise walls, a few tables in front that reap the benefit of sunlight coming through the door.  There is a second area, darker, down a few steps to the back.  A dramatically and typically extravagant and terribly acted telenovella is on the TV in the corner.  I order a potato omelet and a salad.  Ale, the dentist is there and we chat.  He and Luis, the regular doctor, are living in Iruya for a few years at the behest of the government to serve the locals for free.  They sometimes hike up to 14 hours through the mountains with their equipment to tend to the people who cannot come down.  They are hard and dedicated workers who are paid a small sum to do great work.  They both hang out at Milmahuasi for the meals and the company.

Ale has discovered a path to a mountaintop that he says is beautiful and silent and asks if I’d like to join him on the trek later on.  Yes, why not, and we agree to meet at the hostel at 8:00. I finish my meal with an exquisite café con leché, which seems to be the best ever made in the world and I’m buzzing and ready for the day. 

With the hand-drawn map by Filipe, I wander.  The weather is cool, but the sun is intense.  Almost 4,000 meters high I am acclimated and love the climbing. 

I buy a hat, which is more than necessary here and walk down and down to where two rivers meet.   

There are so many sights along the way... the valleys with horses... corrals of sheep and goats, women hanging laundry... men packing adobe bricks as they build a wall, children coming and going...

 ...wild pigs lapping water from the rivulet I must cross.  

I am feeling completely connected with the land and stop to meditate, seeing an ancient man of the mountains in my mind’s eye, my personal guide.

That evening I meet Ale at the hostel as arranged.  We climb, walking straight up the village to an even higher incline towards El Mirador.  We then take an obscure path, climbing into the night, clothed in stars with the very narrow path lit by his small lantern.  A guitar plays in the distance, the player’s voice following us. The path is fine with rock and gravel: the mountain is one big precipice.  I don’t look down, not that I can see anyway.  I’ve had a maté and am jittery from it, so I am not as centered as I should be.  In moments, I am slipping as the matéine throws off my equilibrium, but we proceed cautiously.  I need to stop here and there, heart pounding with the aerobic work of climbing, but loving the sensation.  Still higher, and yet higher we go. Ale asks me several times if I want to stop, but I choose to go all the way up and we do. 

Sitting on top of the peak with “La Via Lactea” (Milky Way) and the stars of the Southern constellations above, the village way below.  Spectacular is the word.  I keep myself from thinking about the descent and we chat about a thousand things and then melt into silence.  Someone is descending another mountain path way over there and we signal to him or her with our lantern and get a return blip.  I note that a few hours before I didn’t know Ale and here I am sitting with him in the vast night on top of a mountain.  I love these adventures and feel perfectly comfortable with this sweet and gentlemanly being.

Down, down we go, but the maté has worn off and I feel stable.  That being said, it is slippery and narrow and I fall into a thorn bush that stabs my palms and fingers with its long, piercing spines.  It is part of the adventure, and once I’m thorn-free I feel like an invigorated mountain goat, resplendently oxidized and alive. 

Back at the hostel, Dora has cooked a ‘pastel de papas’ and made rice and salad to go with it. Filipe, Ale, Vanessa, and Luis, the other doctor for the pueblo and its environs are at table.  The meal comes with good, intelligent conversation accompanied by great music and I feel at home with my tribe.

Day 8
Dora prepares a breakfast of tostadas with homemade marmalade and café con leché.  I never eat this way at home, but am fully content and ready to continue my explorations.

Sitting in a curved indentation in the mountain after hiking up to El Mirador on a ravishingly splendid, windy, sun-filled day.  Watching the dissipating clouds nestle in the peaks beyond as the sun sharpens its incline, the wind becomes softer and carries the sounds of children on the football field around the bend at the base of the mountains.  What a setting for after-school play, but of course for them it is life as they know it for they certainly don’t register the startling and unique setting. 

I walk up to El Mirador where there is a tiny chapel and meet Federico, a gym teacher who saved money, quit his job and is now traveling with no end in sight.  He takes jobs where he can find them and is as happy, free and off the grid!

Lunch has to be at Comedor Margarita again and I have one of the best meals of my trip:  wrinkled, twisted Andean potatoes baked in their thick skins and anointed with olive oil and salt; fresh goat cheese; and a juicy salad of beets, tomatoes, and lettuce.   Again I order a café con leché (I never have coffee at home, but this is an irresistible manna from heaven) and am in a state of euphoria!  Ah, the simple things…

After lunch I walk across the bridge to the other side of Iruya, past the dusty football field, up and up and up past the little enclosed capilla with its yellow trim.  

 I find a tiny rise along side the ascending path to lie on and install myself there for several hours, looking at the sky and feeling the sun on my skin.  A little boy runs full speed down the mountainside with three goats.  His mother makes him haul the mama goat back up by rope with the two little ones following behind.  I nap and chat with passer-bys until I’m ready to move on.

Back in the hostel to read after a day of splendor doing nothing but daydreaming.  I have a new roommate, a motorcycle guy from Rosario with piercing blue eyes.   I have a siesta and then move to the common room to read some more.  Warm, soft music plays and everyone does their own thing.  Walter the local taxi driver comes by to confirm my ride tomorrow to Salta, as there are no buses on Sundays leaving at the right time to connect with from Humahuaca.  Paula and Lupe will go with us as far as Tilcara.  The local mountain guide, Pablo, is offering a two-hour guided talk this evening, which includes a short walk and then tales of the region, songs on his violin, and swigs of warming local liqueur to keep everyone even happier in the cold mountain air.  It sounds marvelous, but I’m not in the mood.  I need to continue bathing in the quiet and am feeling a bit anti-social.  As it is, I will eat with everyone later and go to bed early if possible.

Cooks arrive from outside and begin to make empanadas, rolling out the dough on the kitchen table and getting enormous pots ready for the stuffing, which will be Arabian style with lots of lemon and spices.  By the time it is all made and ready it is midnight.  The people who went with Pablo have been long back and we are all ensconced in conversation.  I am talking with a man from the provinces outside of Buenos Aires who is here with his young wife and three year old daughter.  He is a taxi driver and by far one of the most interesting and engaging people I’ve met.  We speak for hours.  The meal is heaven on earth and I think I’ve eating at least fifteen empanadas non-stop!  With a cold bear it is clearly one of the more excellent dinners to date. 

Day 9
Up for breakfast, paying bills, with everyone preparing for their own day.   Walter shows up around 10:00 or so and off we go on the 2 and ½ hour ride down the mountain, leaving Iruya on a hairpin mountain road.  

 Clouds are forming and it is the first day of my trip that is overcast and portentous.  We dropped Paula and Lupe in Tilcara and continued to Salta as it begins to rain.  A five-hour trip, it is easy and pleasant chatting with Walter, who is smart to have this taxi service, which is cheap and great in a pinch or if you’re not in the mood for the bus.

I arrive in Salta famished.  Most everything is closed as it is around 4:00 now, so I go to the plaza and have my first disappointing meal: touristic and poorly handled.

Back to the San Jorge Hostel, which is entirely open to the elements downstairs and where the arctic common room upstairs and equally freezing rooms are more than unwelcoming in this weather.  I have a room to myself, courtesy of Reuben at the desk, who has also given me a blow heater.  The Greek motorcyclist is back with a sprained wrist, and others flock in the common room to watch TV and get what they can from the meager heater by the window.  I doze as I hog the screened in flames, watching TV and dominating the remote until I’ve had enough.  I wrap myself in as many clothes as I can and dive under a mountain of blankets, the heater blowing full tilt.  I drift off immediately, with dreams of hiking and adventure and never-ending routes opening up ahead.

Day 10
It is before dawn when I rise to eat a hastily made tea and some medialunas.  The taxi comes to take me to the airport and back to quotidian civilization.  I have one foot still in the mountains, but the other is already poised for a hot shower, the comfort of home, and the knowledge that I will be marinating in the indelible peace and scope of the North.

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