Buenos Aires to Tilcara
This is Part II of my experience on an epic Argentine Road Trip. To read Part I click here.
The journey lasted hours on end. Night fell and I dozed in and out of a fitful sleep. Potholes, honking horns, and sudden high speeds would jolt me awake. Cold air whipped my hair and stung my face as the other people in the car decided to keep their windows down. Perhaps to help them stay awake. Or perhaps since they were all born and raised in the confines of the Buenos Aires metropolis, the mountain air was a welcome change from city smoke. I wrapped the brown fleece blanket tighter around me.
When I awoke again we were there, after 20 hours of driving. Cloaked in a yellow dusty light was the pueblo of Tilcara. The road into town was flanked by single story buildings. Sat a good distance from the road, the buildings were adobe with covered front areas like food stalls. At the top of the hill we turned right and made our way along a dirt road to our camp site. All I will say for now about camping in Tilcara during Carnaval is this: Don’t do it.
The morning brought with it the sun and a welcome dry heat. It was Friday, the day before Carnaval would really kick off, so we decided to hop on a bus and visit Humahuaca.
Located in the Jujuy Province of Argentina, Humahuaca. It is situated in the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley bordered by the Andean Plateau and lower hills of the Andes. At 9,882 feet it’s possible to lose your breath due to the high altitude. Humahuaca is a traditional pueblo built around a central church. Adobe houses line the cobblestone roads. In the heat of the summer, the air is thick with dust and the bright sun will quickly burn your eyes.
Next to Humahuaca’s main square is a long set of stairs leading up Santa Barbara Hill. Towering over the rest of the town is the Heroes of the Independence Monument. During the National Independence War, 14 battles happened on Humahuaca soil. The graphic and multidimensional sculpture immortalizes the Northern Argentinian Army and the fight for independence.
We met Carlos while climbing the steps to the monument. Carlos was sitting in the shade, below a blanket he had strewn across the rock walls of a side set of stairs. He called out to us and drew us to him with his jovial smile. After chatting in Espanol to us all, very little of which I understood. He began trying to sell his wares. He dreaded hair and braided threaded “dreads” into people’s hair.
Hailing from Santiago del Estero, Carlos was a true nomad. Working his way around the country from Florida Street in Buenos Aires to the Andean Mountains. He claimed that his wandering had taken him to Brasil in the past, a claim the guys didn’t quite believe. I looked at the threaded “dreads” and decided on a whim to let this spiritual nomad decorate my hair.
He spoke about spirituality, energy, and the many gods of the world. For 20 pesos (less than $2 USD) he braided the fabric wrap into my hair. Then he put his hand on his heart and asked if “for the heart” he could put a small dreadlock in my hair.
He was so open and was emitting an aura of genuine good will. So I said yes. I sat there nervously wondering if I would regret letting this stranger add one tiny dreadlock to the underside of my long hair. A friend of his joined him at his stoop and pulled out a guitar. As we left the two of them smiled, strummed, and sang. Sheltered from the burning sun by that inventive blanket roof.
When he finished he hugged me and gave me the classic Argentine cheek to cheek beso, “You are so very beautiful.”
After we left Carlos we continued the climb up to the monument. By the time we were there the altitude had gotten to me and my asthma was kicking in. I tried to ignore it, taking shorter and slower steps. The monument was imposing and awkwardly huge. It was worth the climb for the view, and for the incredible cemetery that lay behind it.
On the other side of the monument was the town’s cemetery. Surrounded by adobe walls it was the most colorful burial place I had ever seen. It wasn’t near as grand as La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The colors were brighter and the sky was more open. The tombs were smaller but felt more personal.
I wandered ahead of everyone. Each tomb was personalized, some with small but colorful sculptures. Some were adorned with piles of flowers. Others were small and unimposing; their white paint chipping away. The colors brought emulated the souls of the dead. My legs were shaky and the words of the dead whispered through the air. Their lives became real and I felt the heaviness of death. For an instant I lost my breath and was relieved when my boyfriend called to me, it was time to leave.
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