There are two roads to Tilcara from Salta. One is pretty and one is shorter. Based on this tiny tidbit of information from Geraldo, our Mexican hotelier, we launched early in our rental car, excited to see what lay ahead. Many people had told us we had to go to Tilcara, a small mountain town in the state of Jujuy (pronounced whowhoeee).
The first 7 hours of the drive from Salta to Tilcara were incredible the road was decent but of course winding and prone to erosion but the views were gobsmacking so we loved it. Still relatively “intact” we stopped for lunch in San Antonio de los Cobres, the highest city in Argentina. They say you shouldn’t go there without a hat, water, sunscreen and cocoa leaves to chew on for altitude sickness, a possibility as the town is a whopping 13,770 ft above sea level. We had a delicious meal at a chalet type resort run by the local people. Tourism is clearly an economic driver here, not much else seemed to be happening, but there are mines inn the area, so that may mean work for some.
After lunch it was Javiers turn to drive and off we went on our merry way soon to discover that the next rather long and desolate part of the road was unpaved, full of deep potholes and at one point I had to exit the car and walk ahead through a small river to ascertain the depth and likelihood that the rental car would make it through. That accomplished, we bumped and thumped our way along the road, Javier, hitting the brakes often, to get us though the larger holes that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Hours passed and finally in the distance we could see one of the main attractions to this area, (also accessible from Tilcara on the faster road), the Gran Salinas. It is a huge expanse of salt and is quite stunning, so white against the blue sky. Of course as a local attraction there are things to see beyond the great expanse. They have built small houses and other structures from blocks of salt which having turned brown from wind blown dust were not as grand as they might sound.
Once back on a paved road headed on the last stretch to Tilcara and just as nightfall approached, we came upon a line of traffic stopped dead. At first we thought there had been an accident but came to learn that it was a protest against a mine that was being planned for the area. I imagine this is an especially sensitive issue as at the moment in Brazil several towns have been devastated by erosion from mining.
A few hours later, with dark creeping ever closer, we were allowed to procede through the blockade and make our precipitous decent into The Valley below where bed and sleep awaited our weary bones.
Tilcara, together with Pumamarca and Humahuaca are the main destinations for this northern part of Jujuy. As small mountain towns, they are all three very different and are positioned along the Quebra de Humahuaca, a 10,000 year old trade route that links Boliva with Argentina. The Quebra, or gorge, is phenomenal and the roads is full of twists and turns and beautiful vistas. Tilcara itself is beautiful but really the town is a launch pad for mountaineering type activities. It is full of young people, climbers, adventurers and the odd sophisticated types from Buenos Aires. Dinner that first evening was in one of several Argentinian style cafes where live music is the rule. It was interesting as the trio that was on stage played traditional music and instruments from Jujuy but everyone seemed to know the songs and there was a great deal of singing along and clapping of complicated rhythms. It was all taken very seriously and when one song would stop and before another would begin, the “lead” in the band would orate at great length about the songs and the traditions they represented. The diners gave their rapt attention, nodding in agreement, clapping at certain times and generally giving accord to the seriousness of the emotions being expressed.
A late arrival led to a late breakfast and my Mexican friends decided they wanted a better look at the salt lake and I decided I would like to do some hiking in the local mountains. I shared a cab with them on their way back toward the Salt Flats, to the town of Pumamarca, where they would hire a guíde and I would spend the day solo, taking in the sites. I hiked up a hill in the middle of town to get a better view of the town and its beautiful mountain valley, from there I spotted another “easy” climb that was higher than the first.
It was great to have some solo time and to wander in the beautiful Andes in the incredible state of Jujuy. Even the name is inviting. Only two nights in Jujuy and it seemed like enough as we had spent so much of our time in the car seeing the sights as we approached Tilcara and the following day in Pumamarca. Sticking to our schedule of returning the car to Cordoba by the 21st of February, meant launching ourselves early from Tilcara and heading down the Queda de Humuhuaca and onto the flat plains of central Argentina.