Seeing the world, one country at the time

God’s Color Palette

A thick bright rainbow fills the sky of Salta and reflects off a building. It seems to be right next to us as we drive, growing larger until it finally vanishes. Our guide to Purmamarca and Humahuaca is Maria Jose. She slowly and carefully (but too softly) explains things in Spanish, then English while constantly fiddling with the radio to listen to music. She alternates between talking to us, singing or chatting on the phone.

During the drive she drinks the customary “mate” and pours it to share with our driver, Nadir, who wears side burns and slicked back dark hair. The two seem to have a flirtation going. I wish I’d brought my “mate”. It is everywhere in Argentina, outside of Buenos Aires, where the custom is considered provincial. It has a social and personal importance that is only comparable to Starbucks coffee. Unlike coffee, however, it can be drunk for hours, either alone or with a group of friends, sharing the same straw to suck the bitter liquid from the “mate” (cup used to sip from). It is really only a strong herbal tea, but the “mate”, unlike your cup of English tea, is always carried close at hand, whether at home, at the office or on an excursion.

The “mate” is filled with – this gets confusing – “mate” (the strong herbal tea) to the brim, leaving only enough space for a little hot water, which soaks up the herb taste and is then sipped. Each person gets one full “cebo”, or sip, before the water has to be refilled. The art of “mate” could be compared to the Japanese tea ceremony. It can be time-consuming and precise, though nowhere near as graceful. However, today’s hectic world has opened up the market to fast-“mate”. Taragui is the McDonald’s of “mate”. It’s quick and available at any major gas station. There are even vending machines that sell you hot water for your water thermos. My friend Veronica and I drank it on our beach excursion, pouring each other “cebos” until our water grew cold in its thermos.

We drive toward Humahuaca at 3000 meters (9843 feet) above sea level, as compared to Salta at 1140 meters (3740 feet). The light filters through the clouds as we head into the hills. We pass San Salvador de Jujuy and continue north. “Animales Sueltos - Denuncie su presencia” “Loose animals – denounce their presence” signs sound like an outcry against animals with loose morals, but are merely looking out for the livestock that can escape onto the roads from nearby ranches. The climate changes with the altitude. Wide rivers are now trickles and most of the riverbeds are dry.

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The hills we climb contain myriad minerals and volcanic rock, so they are rich in colors. The green is copper, red is iron, light yellow is limestone, dark yellow is sulfur and purple is zinc. We were traveling “… through a country broken by gulches and mesas, where the most unlikely colors had been spat to the surface. In one place the rocks were alternately lilac, rose-pink and lime-green” remarks Bruce Chatwin in his novel In Patagonia. As the bus passes through the town of Volcan, our guide tells us the city’s story. It is called that not because there’s a volcano there, but because during a landslide nearby, the noise was so great that it sounded like a volcano erupting. We are back in the mountains that we got used to seeing in northern Chile and southern Bolivia, but these are even more colorful.

We cross the Rio Leon and enter the Quebrada (valley) of Humahuaca, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 2003. Gray, green and purple hills roll by, a brilliant red at their feet, where erosion has exposed a different soil. We drive on the road that leads to the border with Bolivia (ruta 9) and then to road ruta 52, which crosses into Chile. Now we are entering Purmamarca, founded in 1594. The name signifies the “Lion’s Town” in Quechua or in Aymara, the “Virgin Land”. It boasts 900 citizens. The road is lined with willows and poplars, though the surrounding land now is very dry and barren. The climate and mountains are much drier than in Salta. We pass the famous Hill of Seven Colors to the right. The hill of seven colors. Seven doesn’t even begin to cover it and I don’t know that J. Crew’s catalog would either. It has every hue and nuance imaginable, spread among different hills. No wonder travelers come just to see this. Especially next to the more subdued tones of the mountains nearby, the color is unbelievable. Lars tried in vain to capture the scenery with his camera – there are simply some places that you have to see for yourself.

In the village, at one end of the main plaza sits the Santa Rosa de Lima church, built in 1648. The church is simple but very peaceful, with bright flowers tied to the trees and to a trellis on the grounds. A native Algarrobo tree stands outside with its wide branches supported by poles shading the road. Inside, the altar, choir balcony, ceiling and staircase are made of Cardon, as are plaques depicting the stations of the cross and statues of Mary and Jesus. Cardon is a Swiss cheese wood, dark yellow and full of holes. It is a cactus-like tree, which thrives in the mountains. Although in the same family as the cactus, it is a tree, not a plant. Its wood is used for construction when it dries. It lives 500 years and, growing from one to four cm a year, doesn’t produce its first arm until it reaches 50. Its first yellow, pink or white flower blooms when it is 20, leaving a fruit full of seeds.

Unfortunately, we find Purmamarca to be very touristy. Not busy, but geared toward tourists, so the plaza is lined with vendors selling the same alpaca and goods you find in Peru and Bolivia. Several children ask us for money. We are always strangely disappointed when we get to a touristy area, as if we aren’t tourists ourselves and the vendors, guides, hawks and touts aren’t there precisely because people like us come to visit. It’s an irony that is not lost on us. Everybody wants to be an explorer, the first person to discover a place. When you live in one of Argentina’s most beautiful landscapes, I guess you have to take advantage.

After some quiet time in the church and a subsequent cup of tea, our guide calls us and we straggled back to the bus, not wanting to leave this peaceful spot. As we drive on, I can see an oasis of green between the mountains. Rain and wind have eroded the mountains into pillars or conical or triangular shapes. One of these cones was balancing a carpet of original cover with cacti growing on top. It looks like a flying carpet. Posta de Hornillos, another World Heritage Site, is a little parador in an oasis where people traveling from Buenos Aires to the Potosi in the Viceroyalty of Alto Peru stopped to rest and change horses in the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The houses are made of adobe to conserve the heat in winter and the cold in summer and have small windows because winds here can blow at 80 km per hour. The temperature here is lower than Salta’s, due to the altitude. We are on a very curvy road with some Inca ruins. Our next destination is We enter Tilcara, population 7,000. The Tilcara Pukara (fortress) ruins lie on a plateau with a view of all the mountains. It has been renovated and reconstructed with neat angles, using the multicolored rocks of the area. The buildings have narrow doors and no windows and the ceilings are made of bamboo with cross beams of large cardon trunks.

In the town of Tilcara, the Cacti serve as Christmas trees, decorated with tinsel and lights, as they often are in Arizona. We visit the museum of Doctor Eduardo Casanova, featuring objects from northern Argentina and pre-Colombian cultures; mummies and pottery. We see vestiges of our old friends the Mochicas and the Nazcas and Chimus from Peru, though we question the authenticity of these pieces. Afterward, we walk through another plaza full of souvenirs back to the bus. That’s why we like the plaza in Salta so much. It’s clean and has neither souvenir vendors nor cars.

This being a typical tour, we push onwards to the next destination. Uquaia, a small village whose Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula displays a series of paintings of an army of angels wearing 17th century musketeer uniforms, and known as the “angeles arcabuceros”. These paintings belong to the Cuzco school of art, and paintings of this series only exist in two places in Argentina, 15 worldwide. The Cuzco school is famous, and the church guardian is proud of this collection, but I find it sobering to look at the faces of these Michael and Gabriel, their white wings protruding behind their rifles. The guardian sits by the door holding the large silver key, which opens the doors to the church. He gives it to me to feel its heft. He loves to talk about his church and its paintings and sells little pamphlets describing them for profit to maintain the church.

On to Humahuaca, where we pick up Omar, a local who will guide us through town in exchange for tips to help him pay for his university studies. It is an interesting town with a towering monument to the Heroes of the Independence, who were mostly indigenous and gauchos. We climb the 140 steps up at this 3,000 meter altitude, breathing hard again for the first time since La Paz. This monument has less graffiti than the one in Salta. Everywhere, little children ask us for money as they race with us up the stairs. We visit the church and school of art with its alpaca and vicuna textiles. They are beautiful pieces, and we regret not having money or space in our packs. Lars fell in love with a simple brown vicuna scarf, of course. Only the most expensive kind of wool. It costs a mere $130. We walk through the streets and have lunch in a tourist restaurant with musicians. Our meal consists of empanadas and tortillas because there isn’t much else.

Afterward, we enter the city hall, which boasts one of the only three moving glockenspiels in the world. The others are in Prague and Munich. How one ended up here I have no idea. We found a dark little hole of an internet cafe to send a quick email. Giggling children were peeking around the corners of the computer cabinets at us. From there, we walked back to our meeting place in the plaza, but everyone had left. We were FIVE minutes late. Omar found us and as we walked, I suddenly had an epiphany. A sign over a store read “Humahuaquena” and reminded me of one of my favorite Spanish folkloric songs, the same one played in a restaurant in Puno.

My mother and I spontaneously get up and dance the Peruvian Huaino when we hear it. I only understood half the song and have wanted to know all the lyrics to it ever since. So, on a whim I asked Omar “do you know this song that is called humanaquena?” “Humahuaquena?” he asked. “Maybe. It goes’ llegando esta el carnaval…’” “quebradeno mi cholita” he finished for me. I got so excited. Finally! I’d be able to sing along when I heard my song! The song is called “el Carnavalito”, which was news to me, and is a famous in all of South America, made popular by well-known singers. I asked Omar to go over all the lyrics and he did, until we got to the bus where Maria Paz took over, so I could write them all down. She even played the song for me, which made me so happy I teared up. All my life I thought it was Peruvian, and it was northern Argentinian!

With an Andean pipe flute playing in my head, for the rest of the trip I sang “el Carnavalito” under my breath. “Llegando esta el carnaval, Quebradito mi cholita. Fiesta de la Quebrada Humahuaquena para cantar. Erque, charango y bombo Carnavalito, para bailar. Quebradeno, Humahuaquenito…” The repetitive lyrics are sung by a man joyfully announcing the arrival of carnival in the valley, which will bring singing and dancing to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. It became even more meaningful when I learned the story of the Carnival of this city that inspired the song. It is one of the most interesting carnivals in South America, though nearly not as well known as that of Brazil. Carnival in Humahuaca is all about folklore and dances.

Starting the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, the carnival takes place over nine days in February, during which nobody works. They dress up in masks and devil costumes and have waterfights and perform traditional dances, like the zamba. This is similar to the Chilean Cueca or the Peruvian Marinera, but instead of waving handkerchiefs they wave corncobs. This is all accompanied by copious amounts of chicha, the local beer made from fermented corn. The men and women go out separately, as everyone is considered single during carnival. With the masks and costumes making them feel anonymous, their drunkenness and ribald flirtations lead to considerable bed swapping. The word is that women don’t enjoy having their husbands gone for days on end as much as the men enjoy being out, but it’s tradition. Such a large and famous bacchanal celebration surprised me. I would never have guessed it from this tiny mountain town. I guess with such a hard life, they have to let loose somehow. I would have liked to have been there for carnival, but then again, would I really want to let Lars loose in those streets alone with the happy cholitas?

Back in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, we head to the town of Maimara, or “falling star” in the native language of quechua. It is also a World Heritage Site. This is home to the Painter’s Palette, another collection of natural color. We stop there while Lars runs up to the windy cemetery for a good view and the rest of us admire the colors. It is simply hypnotic. We drive back south, the whole time admiring and snapping photos of the landscape. A camera just doesn’t do the brightness of the colors justice. It sounds like a typical excuse, but it’s true. We cross the Tropic of Capricorn. Paul Theroux wrote “the line was actual, a fissure that ran over the mountains, which were themselves marked with stratified stripes as on a topographical map, pink, orange, green; indeed, the landscape was as simple and clearly colored as a map.” It’s “my” tropic, since I’m a Capricorn, though I have no idea what that means. I don’t what the Tropic is for, why it’s called that or if it has any importance at all. I just know that this is significant enough to warrant a stop, where I jump out to straddle the line in front of the monumental obelisk and prove that I’ve been there.

Our final destination is San Salvador de Jujuy where we visit the plaza with its city hall, cathedral and government house. It’s a grand and elegant French style building in an otherwise unimpressive plaza. Inside you can find the original flag of Argentina. In front are four statues depicting Peace, Progress, Justice and Liberty; men and women with giants’ muscular bodies. They were sculpted by Lola Mora, the first important Argentine sculptor and a Minister of Culture and Education of Jujuy Province. The plaza is so disappointing after seeing Salta’s. Half the buildings are atrocious, and radio antennas stick out of every roof, the biggest at the Government house. We can’t believe the zoning (or lack thereof) in the plaza, which is surrounded by private homes, a police station and businesses in communist-style blandness.

The lovely Cathedral has a very unique ceiling decorated with large flowers, which reminds me of the old style Swedish churches. A raised domed roof features painted angels. Immediately we are approached by a man handing out estampitas, little paper photos of the Virgin Mary, for money. When we shook our heads no, he still asked for money. Later sitting in a pew, I noticed him again in a side nave, asking for money from women in the midst of prayer. This seemed so incredibly rude to me, on top of being totally anti-Christ, that I hoped he would come up again so I could remind him of the story about Jesus in the temple. But he didn’t, so I kept my mouth shut and we left through the side courtyard.

With the tour over, we returned to Salta. On the road we suddenly noticed the smell of gasoline. Noticed is an understatement. It was overwhelming and I could hardly breathe, having to breathe through my sweatshirt. We lost engine power and puttered along, as Nadir got more and more nervous and Maria Jose got giggly. Smoke started pouring into the car from the dashboard and into our faces. He kept going, but they called another car and within 20 minutes another van arrived and we transferred.

Back in town we had to get money for a barbecue at our new hostel, so we walked to the only ATM a half hour away in the plaza, where a chubby girl was on a makeshift stage performing Mariah Carey songs in Spanish. She was talented. We passed the same street performers, same crowds, same vendors. I bought popcorn. I couldn’t fight off my cravings any longer. On our way back, we passed a prostitute with big synthetic boobs. Naturally, Lars noticed her right away. We passed some more prostitutes whom Lars described as very young. They were, but more interestingly, they weren’t even women. I found out from our guide the next day that that particular area is full of transvestite and transsexual prostitutes. He was impressed that I had already discovered that Salta is colorful not only for its mineral rich hills.