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Touring the Salta Countryside in Northern Argentina—Part 2

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The old trading routes of salt and vegetables

After 38 miles of switchbacks, we reach Salinas Grandes, said to be the third largest salt desert in the world at an altitude of 3,550 meters (11,650 feet). We learn that in the old days, unaccompanied mules transported salt downhill one way and fresh vegetables uphill on return. The road was paved in 2005, but we can still see some original mule trails. Water covers the salt in summer but harvesting happens in the dry winter from April to December. Our stopover is an otherworldly place with buildings and sculptures carved out of salt. Deep purple storm clouds brood over the wide valley, with just a sliver of light reflecting off the salt lake.

Las Salinas grandes

Heading back, we see that Chañi, the highest peak in the area at 5,965 meters (19,500 feet) is covered with what looks like snow. “It’s hail, not snow,” says Fede. Proving he’s right, icy goofballs pelt us as we drive over the pass in the midst of a thunderstorm.

At La Comarca, a boutique hotel on the edge of Purmamarca, we settle into a comfortable room. In the hotel restaurant, we share casuela carbonara, a delicious chunky soup flavored with ham, bacon, beef, chicken, apricot, fig, squash and onion. Next morning, we’re up early to drive through a small gorge where the rocks are bathed in the warm colors of a “painter’s palette” before the sun rises high and blasts the multicolored sediments into stark whiteness.

Humahuaca Gorge, a UNESCO world heritage site, has been a major trade route for more than 10,000 years. It follows the spectacular Rio Grande valley from the high Andes to its confluence with the Rio Leone, about 100 miles to the south. Here, prehistoric hunter-gatherers etched petroglyphs and worked stone tools and weapons. Later, small settlements organized irrigation systems, kept camelids and tilled fields. The Incas (1250 to the mid-1500s) came next, and then were subjugated by the Spanish invaders.

The Pucará de Tilcara, a pre–Inca fort on a hill overlooking the valley and obviously a great place from which to spot invaders, has been partially reconstructed. At the summit, a stone building once used for human sacrifice has been converted into a church. We get a creepy feeling from the place. Tourists flock to the Humahuaca area, tempting the children to ask for money. But town leaders have turned this into a win–win situation. The young people are told they can only get money if they inform the tourists of their town, their history and their culture. They now attend tourism school at night and work in the tourism information industry in the daytime.

During lunch at a Humahuaca restaurant a lively local band and dancers entertain us. Then it’s up a steep set of stairs to the towering Monumento a la Independencia, where we spot the rare sight of a Cardone cactus in flower six months out of season.That night we are back in Salta, dining at La Casona del Molino, a rambling old house just west of town. As the place fills, patrons reach for their guitars or drums and play rousing folklore music long into the night—at least way past our bedtime.

Into the Andes clouds

We had hoped to take the spectacular “Tren de las Nubes.” The Train to the Clouds is a 17-hour return journey that covers 19 tunnels, 29 bridges, 13 viaducts and two zigzags. It reopened in 2008 after years of being dormant, but it doesn’t run during the rainy season. So Fede and the trusty 4WD follow its 135–mile route as closely as possible. It’s up and up all the way—Santa Rosa de Tastil at 3,100 meters (10,000 feet), San Antonio de los Cobres at 3,744 meters (12,283 feet) and finally the stunning La Polvorilla Viaduct at a heart–pounding 4,200 meters (nearly 14,000 feet).

Good thing we had coca tea with lunch to help us cope with the altitude! It’s illegal to grow coca leaf in Argentina but teabags of coca come from Bolivia. The stuff has a rather bitter taste but does the job. Back at ground level, we spend the evening on Salta’s Balcarce Street, which is lined with peñas, restaurants featuring folkloric music and dancing. At El Viejo Station, the gauchos stomp and twirl as they act out old stories of love and conquest, the girls curtsy gracefully and the bomba (drum) pounds the exuberant beat of the Çamba (pronounced samba but nothing like the dance rhythm from Brazil). The Salteños love it – and so do we!

Story and photos by Paul and Lorie Bennett.

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