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Hard to reach, easy to love

Tourism is still in its infancy in Argentina's remote northwest

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2007

IRUYA, Argentina -- Leaving this secluded village was more difficult than we could have imagined.

It wasn't just that Iruya , a hamlet tucked among jagged mountains in the middle of nowhere, offered beautiful scenery. We literally couldn't leave because two trucks were blocking the way. Access is so tight here, with buildings hugging narrow, cobblestone streets, that the few residents who own vehicles simply park them in the middle of the road.

A few folks gathered to watch the gringos in their dusty compact rental car try to figure it out. Finally, we located the truck drivers, who backed up enough to let us through.

Reaching Iruya (pronounced i-RU-zha), which is perched on a mountainside and looks like it could have been transported from a distant Greek island, had been equally difficult.

We knew that the 33- mile road to the village from the main highway was un paved, but we had not anticipated bumping across rocky river beds, some with flowing water; crossing a 12,000-foot-high pass; or braving miles of steep and narrow hairpin turns on washboard roads.

At least we had Juana to help with directions. We had picked her up as she walked home, a daylong undertaking in the glaring sun. From the back seat of our air-conditioned car, she told us of her life on a small family farm without electricity. The absence of modern conveniences is hardly unique here. Later that day, as we hiked in the foothills, we encountered two women dressed in brightly colored sweaters and skirts and a young boy taking supplies by donkey to their home far up in the mountains.

We were halfway into our tour of this Andean area of northwest Argentina, a region much closer to Bolivia than to Buenos Aires in miles and mentality. Life is harsh and many areas are desolate, save for the roaming donkeys, llamas, and occasional llama-like vicunas. The population is mostly indigenous Quechua Indians. Goat and llama are staples at meals, as is quinoa, a grain. More people walk than drive, and often the only signs of modern life are gleaming solar panels atop adobe homes, part of a government initiative to increase solar energy.

Two provinces make up the region, Salta and Jujuy (pronounced hoo-HOOEY) . The namesake city of Salta, one of the country's best preserved colonial towns, is a gem, lovely and sophisticated, while San Salvador de Jujuy is less remarkable. Visiting either the city or the country is a bargain for Americans, with comfortable hostels and hotels available for around $30 a night, and sizable meals with wine for about $5. Many tour companies operate from the cities, taking visitors on one- or two-day trips north or south, but we created a do-it-yourself weeklong trip north by car.

Tourism in the northwest, still in its infancy, was fueled by the 2003 declaration of the Quebrada de Humahuaca (pronounced oo-ma-WAH-ca) as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The colorful " quebrada, " or gorge, carved by the Río Grande cuts through the mountains north of Jujuy for almost 100 miles. Reminiscent of the American Southwest, minerals color the slabs of rock red, pink, and green, and cactus and occasional oases provide vegetation.

For decades, the must-do activity in Salta, where we started our journey, was a ride on the "Tren a las Nubes," or Train to the Clouds . Service has been suspended since 2005, though a new operator promises it will resume. The rail zigzags, goes through tunnels, and crosses bridges to the highlight -- the Polvorilla Viaduct -- 210 feet high and 735 feet across a canyon. We decided to do the next best thing by driving along much of the route, which ends near the town of San Antonio de los Cobres.

Armed with maps, we headed northwest from Salta, expecting well-marked roads to the tourist destination. The road ended with a sharp left that intersected with a gravel road and no signs.

We assumed we had taken the wrong road, but kept driving until we reached a sign. It read "A. de Los Cobres." We never again assumed a road would be paved, and, indeed, many weren't.

The road followed a huge, dry riverbed. Cactus stood in salute under dazzling blue skies while the sun baked the earth, some of it marked with offerings of piles of water-filled soda bottles. Although the scenery and famed viaduct were impressive, San Antonio de los Cobres is a dreary, windblown town, even at 12,500 feet. I was relieved to move on.

A little to the north was Salinas Grandes, one of Argentina's largest salt flats, with huge lakes of cracked salt ringed by mountains. As we plotted our way eastward, the map did not hint at what was in store: a mountain pass with miles of unbelievably long switchbacks mostly frequented by huge trucks carrying freight between Chile and Argentina. Later we saw a postcard with a dramatic aerial shot of the route, called "Cuesta de Lipán."

In the small city of Humahuaca, we joined other tourists admiring the colonial architecture and spending pesos in the many craft shops. A crowd of vendors and visitors gathers in the square each day in the late morning to view the statue of San Francisco Solano, which is unveiled from behind a door at high noon to bless the audience with the stiffly moving cross attached to its hand.

We rented mountain bikes and pedaled seven miles uphill on a rocky road to Coctaca, a tiny village with a school but no stores that is home to a large area of unexcavated pre-Columbian ruins. As we searched for the ruins (there were no signs), it hit me that the modern housing of crumbling adobe structures and rock walls looked identical to what I'd seen at archeological sites in Arizona. Although we never located the ruins, the past was certainly present there.

The next day, we could not pass up the opportunity to cross the border into Bolivia, only 100 miles north on a paved highway through the high plains. From La Quiaca (pronounced kee-AH-ka), we crossed the short bridge over the border into Villazón to shop for Bolivian bargains. Although we had seen discreet selling of coca leaves in Argentina, here they were displayed in barrels on the sidewalk.

You could find anything from clothing to plumbing supplies, but the fastest-moving items when we were there were supplies for All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), and All Souls' Day, the day after. Like Day of the Dead in Mexico, this is when families honor the departed both at home and at the cemetery. At the central market, almost every customer left with bouquets of cut flowers and rings of brightly colored plastic flowers. Also popular were sugar skulls, crosses, and baby heads, as well as "pan de muerto," or bread of the dead, sweet bread baked in various shapes, including crosses and llamas.

By the end of All Souls' Day we had visited seven cemeteries, from Yavi, the small town we woke up in, to Purmamarca, which is flanked by the stunning Cerro de los Siete Colores, or Hill of Seven Colors. At La Quiaca cemetery, one of the liveliest, we followed the crowds to the main gate, flanked by ice cream and empanada vendors. A 10 a.m. Mass was wrapping up around noon; another was scheduled for 4 p.m. Families and friends clustered around gravesites bursting with color from flowers real and fake. There they swept, wept, drank, prayed, and sometimes sang. Hundreds of people milled about, with none of them paying much mind to us, the only outsiders . We felt honored to walk among the dead and the living.

It was time to say goodbye to northwest Argentina, and, again, it was difficult. The main highway back to Salta unexpectedly became a one-lane country road of switchbacks and wandering cows and goats. We missed our deadline for returning the car, but the rental company manager seemed to understand that some places are just hard to leave.

Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

If You Go

How to get thereAll flights to Salta go through the capital, Buenos Aires, as does all in-country air travel. Less expensive travel in Argentina is by overnight "cama ," buses with seats that fold down almost flat. Salta is about 1,000 miles west of Buenos Aires.

Where to stayHotel Salta1 Buenos Aires, Salta011-54-0387-4310740hotelsalta.com Attractive hotel on Salta's main plaza, near shops, restaurants, and tour operators. Doubles $60.Hostal AzulBarrio Medalla Milagrosa, Humahuaca011-54-03887-421107hostalazulhumahuaca.com.ar Guest rooms and central areas are clean, comfortable, and decorated with authentic regional furnishings and art. Town center is 15 minutes on foot. Doubles $35.Hosteria de Iruya 011-54-0387-15-407-0909 hosteriadeiruya.com.ar The village's only nice lodging offers a stunning hillside setting and fine dining (entrees $10- $20). Doubles $60- $75.Hosteria de YaviGuemes 222, Yavi011-54-03887-490508 Home-cooked meals can be ordered for about $10. Doubles $25.El Viejo AlgarroboCalle Salta, Purmamarca011-54-0388-4908286jujuy.com/elviejoalgarrobo/index.htm Small but comfortable rooms just off town square, near market, shops, and restaurants. Doubles $25.

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