REALITY VS. EXPECTATION – Trekking through the “Quebrada de Humahuaca”

Paul leading taking the mules

Accepting the invitation

Although I had visited the north of Argentina some years ago with one of my brothers, my dad’s proposal seemed interesting. Going on a trekking with a group of adults. Rather, and to be objective, they were fans of mountain hiking being my father the eldest, close to 60. The rest of the group consisted of 4 women between 40 and 50, my father and two of my brothers. Little did I know about them and the tour guide. Without wanting to miss the opportunity to participate in such an experience, I convinced my brothers to join the trip. I think the expectation was the greatest teaching of this adventure. Not knowing the dynamic, the route, the other hikers and counting only with the certainty of having a family company in a unique landscape like Humahuaca, it was uncertain what was going to happen.

Immersed in positive thinking, we solved the bureaucratic issues. Ticket and documentation were ready. The departure date made autumn in Buenos Aires go by faster and with mountain delusions.

When: July 2015
Where: Jujuy province, Northwest Argentina
What: Trekking
Duration: 6 days

DAY 1: Welcome to San Salvador de Jujuy!

With backpacks ready and smiles on our faces, we got into a taxi that picked us up at my parents’ house. Without any stops and an enjoyable two hours flight we landed in San Salvador de Jujuy. Once off the plane, we found ourselves in the northernmost province of the Argentina, bordering Bolivia and about 1250 meters above sea level. With a completely different landscape, the manager of the Dublin Hostel picked us up at the airport and while the sun was setting, he drove us to his cozy hostel. We were allocated to a shared room of nine beds. In the middle of a childish discussion about who was sleeping above and down, Paul the tour guide presented himself.

A simple man, of short stature and with a very sincere smile. He interrupted the situation with a joke and after breaking the ice we started talking. Meanwhile, the rest of the group was also allocated and before dinner, we had already shared a few mates ( typical Argentine infusion ) together. After a while, I decided to go for a walk around the city to know a little more about the mythical “Tacita de Plata” (silver cup – the nickname given to the province of Jujuy) affectionately called, the same as the city of Cadiz in Spain. Of low houses and surrounded by mountains the night turned cold and because of it I returned to the Hostel in search of a coat and to have dinner.

I had given myself a moment of solitude since the next few days I would be mostly accompanied.

Dinner, laughs, and introduction

The table was long. They were three small tables put together with a very colorful tablecloth that along with the blue plastic cups composed a beautiful scene. Almost all chairs had different designs and heights. We sat in a non-arbitrary way to enjoy an Argentine asado (barbeque). The classic tomato salad, lettuce, and onion couldn’t miss. Until then, the conversation started full of “aah, how interesting ..” Paul was the only one that between bite and bite sat in different places to chat with everyone and make a more formal presentation identifying his new companions. It was not until the dessert that he got a little more serious and accompanied by silence introduced us to the trekking plan. The tired faces because of the flight and the body acclimatizing to the height witnessed the itinerary, words of enjoyment and responsibility. He recommended resting early as the next day started near 5 in the morning. A local would pick us up with a van to travel about 43 km through the yungas, leaving us in Ocloya to afterward start the trekking to San Bernardo. Without much preamble and some after-dinner conversation, I read some book pages and went to sleep.

The Wild Yungas

DAY 2: The local way

As agreed but not expected, the man showed up at 4:30 am at the hostel’s door. The early morning was cold and to everyone’s surprise Raul, the driver, was accompanied by 3 more people. It was a real feat to enter the 13 members of the group in a double cab with all the equipment, supplies and personal backpacks. It had to be solved and taken with humor since there was no other alternative. It was a Saturday, early in the morning and we had to travel 43 km of gravel to cross the yungas. It was 5:30 am when we had everything organized neatly with a skill obtained after many years of playing Tetris. Our way towards Ocloya finally started. Between the car weight, the gravel, and the constant hills, the average speed did not exceed 20 km/h.

Tetris Level 9000

The Yungas is a region that goes from Catamarca province in Argentina to Venezuela and is an area of altitude jungle and mountain forests. The mate chilled our bodies and being the initiator of conversation we listened attentively to Ana, a villager who decorated the landscape with details and stories. She lived a few kilometers away from where we were going to camp the first night, so she accompanied us on the first walk. Her pace was very fast and her physical condition was incredible. Curious and a little shy, she spoke with total security and fully aware of what she was talking about.

All on board with Ana

The legs were grateful every time there was a gate to cross, forcing us to stop and giving place to stretch them a little bit. Perennial trees, fluorescent greens, irregular shapes and unequal heights were left behind as the meters above the sea rose. Other colors started to appear, more opaque, drier. Trees and small shrubs, mostly without leaves. It was here when two of the crew got off, making the end of the trip a little more comfortable. Relatives were waiting for them on the route with great happiness.

The Unwanted Wind

We continue our way and suddenly a warm breeze awakened our happiness. Ana was not the same. It was the so-called “north wind” (viento norte). The north wind is hot, dry and can blow very violently.

Often some people suffer from low pressure due to this phenomenon and the animals do not feel comfortable.

The truck stopped and the trekking started. There were no trees left in the distance, the sky was blue and without any cloud. The vision extended to kilometers. It looked like a postcard. The vans returned the same way we came. Mules carried our provisions and each one, with his backpack moved his feet forward. First one, then the other one. After four hours under the sun, we silently arrived at the campsite. It was a town that consisted of a school, a small church and less than 30 inhabitants.  We had arrived to San Bernardo. The following day we would stay there to enjoy the valley and acclimatize to the high since we were already near the 2500 meters above sea level. Besides, and the reason why the trekking was done on those dates, that following day was the celebration of the holy Virgin of San Bernardo. This meant people from all the gorge would arrive to party and pilgrimage. A really unique celebration we would have the honor to presence and share.

Mules loaded and we were ready to march
Trekking beggins

DAY 3: Tradition learning

Sharing some morning mates and waiting for “torta frita” (a flour salty fried dough) we woke up after a night of strong winds and peace. The school was the main activity of the town. The boys stayed to sleep during the week because they lived far away all around the gorge.

The school, church and flag waiting to be raised
The view from the church

The Virgin celebration started with 4 children taking their first communion and there were two baptisms. The priest was from Banfield, a city in the south of Buenos Aires province. He had been living in that place for ten years, tired of the city, in search of silence and wanting to help people in need. I asked if I was allowed to make some photographs and then captured some moments. From the church to the cemetery there was a peregrination with chants and a band of Sikus ( a musical style from Peru and Bolivia, consisting of siku players and drum accompaniment ). It was about 400 meters and in a 360 view, there were only mountains.

The church
Peregrination started

It was already 1 pm and from 4 am on that same day, Ana and two other colleagues were preparing the food. They cooked Locro ( “a hearty thick stew popular along the Andes mountain range. It’s one of the national dishes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. The dish is a classic corn, beans, and potato or pumpkin soup well known along the South American Andes. Typically locro is made using a specific kind of potato called “papa chola”, which has a unique taste and is difficult to find outside of its home region” ). In a little adobe room with only one door and no windows, the two pans of 100 liters boiled in patience. Between the smoke and the darkness, I found the work of the cooks extremely meritorious. A beautiful gesture that they made us was serving us first. We were their guests. The pumpkin and corn stew taste was indescribable. It was a whole new experience. Everybody in silence. The sound of spoons hitting the dishes, and while queuing patiently, one by one everybody received his meal. While we ate, some raffles were distributed. At the end, the draw was made and the winner of the big prize, a bag full of coca leaves, went happily to fetch it.

Ana handling the Locro from 4 am
Locro served

Cinematographic football in the mountains

It was a non-ordinary encounter that happened only once a year and being in Argentina, the opportunity to challenge the neighbor town in a football match was something happening almost by rule. The field had an uneven ground level but was for sure the most beautiful I have seen till the date.  Playing at that height demands to be local or in good physical condition. Bearing that fact and the fear of an injury I stayed on the side of the field. Football is taken with extreme passion in Argentina and I was no local…

There was a nearby cliff giving even more adrenaline to the match.

After the match we went to Ana’s house. There was a horse dressage and then a party of pure wine and local music. We ate another stew and when people started to get something aggressive because of having too much wine, we decided to go back to camp. It was late, I was tired and with the help of the headlamp, I returned to the tent. I wanted to sleep immediately upon arrival when I learned that the tents had to be disarmed due to a possible storm. We all slept together in a little room on the floor.

Argentine football being played in every field, corner and even mountains
At Ana’s house with her sons
Storm was coming so we had to sleep in the dinning room floor
Storm was coming so we had to sleep in the dinning room floor

Day 4: Blessed with homemade empanadas

When waking and tidying the room up, with the help of the group, two banquets and a table we changed the place into the dining room. Some drunk mate and others coffee accompanied by a fresh homemade bread. The hospitality was amazing. While we were having breakfast, the owner of the house was preparing empanadas (*stuffed bread or pastry baked or fried in many countries of Latin America and in Spain. Made by folding dough over a stuffing.) She prepared them with a dedication worth watching. She had the stuff at her right. It was meat and potato with black olives. Everything was homemade. It was the perfect stuff. We were supposed to eat them at midday and on our way, so she was a bit rushed and under the look of several of us, a little intimidated.

Boiling some water
The most autochthonous empanadas in the region
Group photo before leaving


The Swiss style

The trekking started near 08:30 am. There was a thick fog that did not allow us to see beyond 20 meters. At about 1 pm, we decided to stop and rest. We drunk more mates, ate some nuts and tasted those amazing empanadas. We ascended some few meters and the cold had increased the appetite. It was a glorious moment. Having seen almost all the process enriched the snack even more. We continued our journey and at around 6:30 pm we arrived at the place where we were going to spend the night. It was a school in the middle of the mountain (and middle of nowhere!) that received the children who live in the most remote places of the gorge. They were on holidays and the only living being was a man in his late 60s who was a nurse. The facilities were very precarious. Abra Mayo was the name of the place. A little wet and quite tired we settled on the floor of the main room. Occupying almost all the space Paul gave us a master camping class. He prepared a cheese fondue. Yes, a cheese fondue!!! Outside, the temperature was close to zero degrees and in extreme joy, we shared dinner. But that was not all. There was also dessert: Chocolate! I can say I was really, really happy and surprised. I couldn’t believe it. All of us sitting on the floor around the burner eating fruit, chocolate-covered with chopsticks. After that, sleeping was easy.

Every stop, an excuse to share some mate
The Hospital sign
Paul preparing the fondeu

Day 5: Snow is coming!

The morning was unreal. When I went out to brush my teeth I found a landscape covered in white. It had snowed the whole morning. Something rare in these places. It was a show. I took my camera out and made a few pictures. With the horses covered in snow, I felt in a Lord of the Rings set. I was stunned. We were inside a valley. The silence was complete.

The refuge, also a hospital
The Lord of the Rings
Fighting the cold with some hot mate
Everything was covered in snow

Above cloud level

Trekking began. That day we were ascending to 4300 meters to afterward sleep in Punta Corral (last town before ending the trip). The altitude was not a minor fact taking into account the average age of some of the group participants. The local guide shared us some coca leaves and while chewing them we started ascending (it is said it helps to acclimatize). Almost at noon, we arrived at the top. Nobody wanted to go down. We were above the clouds! The only thing in the top of the mountain was a huge cross. We were all proud of everyone and everything.

Experiencing things like this makes life really worth it!

After 30 minutes of enjoyment and rest, Paul encouraged the group to start walking again and arrive Punta Corral at a prudent time. Our way descending the mountain was exhausting. Suddenly there was no more flora and everything was dry. The wind was present at all times. We arrived at destination almost at night.

Paul leading taking the mules
Already over the clouds
Franco looking for a bathroom
Paul, the city tourer guide and Luis, the local guide
Making it to heaven!
With my brother Franco, soon going round Australia by bike together

The Pilgrims arrived

We had problems to find the villager since he was already sleeping. The place was big but there was only one family of 4 children living in there at that time. There was also a church, quite big too. The curious thing about this town is that for Easter it receives more than 5000 people from all around the gorge. They descend from Bolivia and while blowing the sikus they celebrate the resurrection of Christ. In fact, this place holds a Guinness record: The biggest sikus band playing simultaneously. As you can imagine, the villagers were very religious and in order to be welcomed and allowed to spend the night there, we pretended to be pilgrims. After opening the church doors for us, we were shown our rooms.  Once settled, we ate in silence. The sky was full of stars. I had never seen a sky like that. There were so many that you could see like daylight. The air was pure. Sleeping was easy again.

Welcome to Punta Corral
Everything is fine around here!

Day 6: Learning something new every day

With my teeth brushed and a mate in hand, almost hurried to start the last descending, we had some fruit and a little cereal for breakfast. Again, there were no clouds in the sky. Surrounded by mountains the light filtration between them gave a reddish color. Without animals at the sights, the silence was almost perfect. The noise of our footsteps was heard clearly and like if we were a band marching we started walking the last kilometers. Unlike the other days, being this the last one, it invited us to the reflection. While I was going down I tried to contemplate what we had experienced through the days. Remembering gestures and faces. I wanted to embrace everything I had learned before getting to the road. There, there was a long distance bus already waiting to drive us back to routine. Both left and right the cardon cactus slowed the trekking down asking for attention. Something curious I learned here is that the cardons of the puna grow very slowly. In fact, they grow only between 1 and 5 centimeters per year and those we saw were up to 7 meters high. Contemplating such an old species was all an experience. Almost static, I froze looking at one. Their spines were almost 15 cm long. At the age of 50, they give their flower and with it, their incredible capacity of reproduction. They can spread up to 80 thousand seeds per flower!

Walking in between Cardons

Travel for soul healing

The trekking lengthened due to this type of stops. Nobody wanted it to end. Once on the route again and waiting for the bus I observed the group. Everyone’s face was red, lips broken and were showing their teeth. It was the smile of having reached the objective. The good humor and the constant stories made that week fly. I flew too! We had walked on snow and above the clouds. I felt that I had been floating at all times. Light, without any tension and anxiety. Without prejudice. Completely evoked to the moment and the place. Being present felt incredible. Each color change, each smile reflected, each meal, enriched reality.

Traveling predisposes people in a good way. We all share the quest for finding ourselves some time alone with the pacha/earth.

Enough to be able to empathize. I learned a lot from this trip. I learned to leave expectations aside accepting reality as such and always take positive advantage of what is presented. We were treated with great hospitality. The “Quebrada of Humahuaca” (name given to the region) is magical. I remember its simple and humble inhabitants with plenty of peace. The bus took us back to San Salvador de Jujuy. In those two hours the journey lasted, nobody uttered a word. It was not necessary.

Ending a little bit more mature
Going back to routine with a backpack full of new learnings
What a better way to end the trip than with the sun shining at you
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