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Northwest Argentina: The song of the salt llamas

The Indian North of Argentina – including Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman – is considered an original insiders' travel tip that today, in South American springtime, tempts holiday-makers with blooming ravines in the Andes, culture and tender steaks.



Hand carved salt llamas on a salt lake in the Atacama region in the Northwest of Argentina
Picture by T. Micke

Gauchito looked like Jolly Jumper, comic hero Lucky Luke's clever horse: brown and white with a casual curl in the middle of his forehead and a really crafty look about him. I specifically chose Gauchito for my "unique Argentinean riding experience". I spent all of these days journeying in a hire car and in a cross-country night bus because riding is a part of Argentina just as skiing is of Austria, and I was eagerly looking forward to it, because my riding ability is comparable to my snow plough and schuss: every adventure requires some courage!

Yet whilst we were waiting for the guide, I stroked Gauchitos nose and just like a real horse-whisperer, I whispered in his ear that in a previous life I would have liked to have been a horse and that now my fate lay in his hooves, may he forgive my ungainly manoeuvres and allow me the pleasure of a short gallop. In return, I would treat him kindly and respectfully. I really hoped that we would be friends.

Beneath his casual curls, Gauchito had other ideas: It was hot, it was siesta-time and all of my whispering passed right by his broad, skewbald rear-end. In short, Gauchito thoroughly cocked up my "unique Argentinean riding experience." Besides a few escape attempts, we did not get past a reluctant jog trot, and made that only because Gauchito could already smell his feedlot on the journey home and because the guide rode behind him gently whistling.

An old Calchaqui Indian woman in the Puna border region of the Andes between Chile and Argentina
Picture by T. Micke

Only a wonderfully juicy Pampas-Steak and an inky "Malbec" from Mendoza, the red wine Mecca of Italian emigrants, could console me this evening over the fact that I will not respectfully go down in Argentina’s history as "the blond Gaucho" but rather mocked as a blond Gringo...

Argentina is not only the uninterrupted Tango beat of Buenos Aires, huge cattle herds grazing endless grasslands in the middle East or the raw wilderness of Patagonia in the South. Argentina is also the indigenous country of Pacha Mama in the North, the mother earth worshipped to this date by tribes such as the Calchaqui-, Wichi- and Tapiete-Indians in the Andes frontier bordering Chile and Bolivia. Here, the red wine is thick and heavy like the Indian blood that was spilt around the walls of the 1000 year old terrace fortifications of Quilme, when in 1667 the Spaniards took over the land like locusts. And here in Tucuman, not even 150 years later, the present-day states of South America proudly proclaimed their independence from their European mother country. Now, in the springtime of South America, the sun is bringing everything to life, so that a mountain pass can await you with desert-like cliffs on the shaded side and take you by surprise with lush tropical forests and orange trees full of butterflies on the other side.

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Picture by T. Micke

Then you return to spectacular wasteland like in the "Garganta del Diablo", the devils gorge between the colonial towns of Cafayate and Cachi: chains of hills in rainbow colours, rust red clay pyramids lined with natural temple-like columns that the rain has washed out. And to the left and right of the narrow dirt road powerful slates, razor-edged like shards of glass, rise up into the sky by a mile, as if they had just now erected themselves with a loud crash.

Besides alpacas, llamas and vicunas, Zorro the fox is also at home here in the ravines of the snow-covered chain of Andes around the picturesque provincial capital Salta. Here, on festive days in celebration of Maria, the Gauchos ride through the streets with their unusual equestrian costumes. In front of an exultant audience, proud wives in colourful dresses, and likewise old men and six-year old children are all able to command their horses standing on their head. Home-brewed beer and red wine flow at the Parillada, the traditional grill speciality that besides tender steaks also offers chitterlings, udders and stomach.

On festivals for Saint Maria the Gauchos of the Salta region saddle up their horses and proudly ride through the towns' streets with their leather shields.
Picture by T. Micke

Next to these processions and the magnificent colonial churches on the main square, the "Safari over the clouds" is one of the most worthwhile attractions in Salta. A converted all-wheel lorry gives visitors the opportunity to journey through really breathtaking scenery: the journey starts 5000 metres up, along the old tracks of the "Tren a las Nubes" to the little copper mining town of San Antonio, then along the river passing waterfalls below in the "Quebrada". Once again out of the ravine up to the dry Puna plateau at 3000 metres, here entire forests of 3-6 metre high candelabra cacti grow, a height at which in the Alps gentians and edelweiss courageously stretch out over the turf.

In the middle if this Puna, Pacha Mama scattered a handful of salt lakes. Ice white glimmering deserts, which can blind someone without sunglasses and render one speechless from the blatant dryness, and which because of the regular cracks in the salt crust look like the world record attempt at bathroom tiling. For hundreds of years, this "white gold" was for the indigenous people of the region a valuable source of income. It used to be transported for more than 1000 kilometres, as far as the capital Buenos Aires, but today is only still actually lucrative in one form: as a lucky llama. According to the local people, at the harvest festival in February, where for three days the whole region celebrates the fertility of Pacha Mama, these hand crafted salt llamas sing the song of mother earth. And whoever doesn’t believe this, they say smiling, must either buy one of these white lucky charms or return once again to the harvest festival of thanks in February.


On the Safari a las Nubes, a converted all-wheel lorry drives through the impassable ravines as well as over salt lakes in the Andes of northern Argentina.
Picture by T. Micke

Organisers in Austria: RUEFA, STA Travel, Siesta-IT-Reisen and others.

Arrival: via Paris (Air France), Rome (Alitalia) or Madrid (Iberia) to Buenos Aires; then with a domestic flight in 3 hours to Jujuy or Salta or cheaply with the luxury interurban night bus.

Offers: For Argentina, RUEFA arranges individual car-hire-tours with pre-booked hotels (PA) and programme highlights such as a safari above the clouds. Furthermore, there is a 12 day round trip to Patagonia in a double room (PA) including all flights from 2310 Euros (+431/58800/9413)


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© A report by Tobias Micke (06-11-05) – Contact