The Quebrada de Humuhuaca is the name of the valley that stretches from the town of Yala, north of the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina, up to the city of Humuhuaca, Argentina. AR Route 9 follows the Rio Grande up through the valley, and around the river is green and lush, while the mountains above are dry and dusty, with lots of cacti and brush and not much other vegetation. The valley is oriented more or less north-south, and as you drive north the elevation increases steadily. Purmamarca is near the southern end, Tilcara is around the middle, and the city of Humuhuaca is near the northern end. In between there are a few smaller towns, and a few groups of adobe houses, with farmers herding goats and llamas and growing corn and potatoes in terraced gardens.
Waking up in Purmamarca, we had a nice breakfast of bollo (homemade bread) and cafe con leche, then hiked up a big cliff to look out across the town of Purmamarca to the famous Cerro de Siete Colores, a stripey colored mountain behind the village.
Before leaving town, we took a drive around a kind of sketchy dirt road that goes around the Cerro de Siete Colors and stopped at the amazing and beautiful town cemetery. We decided to take a side-trip to visit the Salinas Grandes salt flats a few hours west of Purmamarca, along the road towards Chile. To get to the salt flats we had to basically drive up out of the river valley and across the mountain range, onto the high altiplano. It’s a crazy switchback stretch of road called the Cuesta de Lipan, it’s a really dramatic ascent (the high point of the pass is 4,170 meters) but the road is two lanes and it’s in good condition.
We saw lots of llamas and vicuña and goats grazing happily among the cacti on the steep dry hills, and looking back over the road we could see clouds far below us. The Cuesta de Lipan ascends about 1,978 meters in elevation, then descends another 800 meters to the salt flats, over 17 kilometers of driving, which our tiny little rental car managed happily with Mike at the wheel. The salt flats are weird and unwelcoming, as soon as we arrived I felt blasted by heat and light and had to fight the urge to retreat as fast as possible. I remember feeling the same way when I drove through the salt flats in Utah long ago, it just feels intensely alien and unfriendly. We wrapped scarves and towels around our heads to fight the sun and glare, and wandered around a bit. There are square pools of salt water where salt has been harvested and water has seeped into the square hole. The salt underfoot is crunchy and crackly. There were some cool crystallized chunks of salt lying around. Unbelievably, there were some guys there selling handcrafts carved from salt blocks. They all had t-shirts wrapped around their heads too. I can’t imagine spending the whole day working there, yikes.
After the salt flats we had to descend by the same road again, and then headed further along the valley to Tilcara, another town along the Quebrada de Humuhuaca. It’s a slightly bigger tourist town, cute but a bit overstuffed with other backpackers. We found a place to stay at the local cooperative schoolhouse! The kids are on summer vacation, so they put beds in the classrooms and rent the little schoolhouse to travelers! It was a perfect place for us, with a kitchen and a barbecue in the back yard and beautiful fruit trees and gardens that the kids had planted. We felt super comfy and ended up staying a few nights in Tilcara.
There was lots of music and festivities for Three Kings Day, which I believe is a big holiday in all of Latin America. There were tons of kids in costumes marching around to drum and flute music all day, and there was a stage with performances in the town square, and there was a maypole dance which kind of blew my mind because I thought that maypoles were just a european folk tradition, I had no idea there were maypole dances in the Andes!
One day we did a great hike to a canyon with a waterfall called El Garganta del Diablo, it’s a 12km hike there and back, and there are really amazing views of the valley and striped mountains, there were only a few steep parts but it felt like we were so incredibly high up, we could look waaaayyy down into canyons below us and across to the pastel rows of mountains beyond.
Another day we climbed up to the Pukara, which is the site of a pre-incan walled city that’s been excavated and partially reconstructed by archaeologists from the University of Buenos Aires. The site is covered in cacti, with a maze of low stone houses that look very tidy and new. It was incredibly windy and surprisingly cold up there so I spent a lot of our visit hiding in the little stone huts trying to stay warm.