Colored Hills

Sunday, July 7

In the future, skip Tucuman entirely and go to Cafayate instead.  

We checked out of our Condo Under Litigation in the morning.  The whole room was crackling;  my guess is that the sun was expanding all the steel and glass at different rates.  A line of photographers developed outside the hotel front door, wanting our photos.  The social situation seems to be that one person fetishizes beards in some way, and then a bunch of other people decide we must be celebrities, and so want their pictures too.  There was also a crazy looking guy speaking incoherently as I put the suitcases into the car, which unnerved me a bit, but the doorman at Point Casa made the universal sign with his finger and head meaning “loco” (what does that gesture refer to, anyway?) and we drove off without being mugged or anything.

We drove toward Cafayate.  There was a big traffic jam from an accident outside town that cost us an hour, which meant that, allowing for the time to look at the grand cactus forests on the high pass, we got to Cafayate quite late in the afternoon.

The Wikipedia entry on Cardones, Echinopsis atacamensis, reveals that they are Near Threatened.  We’ve been seeing this cactus ever since the city limits of Mendoza, and if its population is really in decline, it must in pre-Columbian days been a lawn covering the Andes.  They look a lot like Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) but are not closely related, apparently.  (Check back on this evaluation later.)  The International Cactaceae Systematics Group has been in session since 1984, and in the decades since DNA sequencing has been declining in price, has determined that a large number of relationships in the family are impossible.  I only want to know why they have clearly the same name as Cardoons.  Cardoons are the wild plant from which artichokes were cultivated, and what they have in common with cactus, is that they are prickly.

This day —this trip — was badly planned.  The key goal was this: drive down Quebrada de las Conchas from Cafayate toward Salta just before sunset.  This gave us approximately zero time in Cafayate, a major wine center of Argentina, famous for its Torrontés.  We decided we would have one empanada and leave.  We stopped at an empanada cart.  She was out.  We decided that we would go to one winery and have one glass and one Something, and then leave.  So we went to Bodega Piattelli, getting lost along the way because Google compiles its maps using cell phone data purchased from motorcycle riders, who are able to cross an irrigation ditch on a board, not available to us.

When we got there, they wouldn’t serve us.  Something about the kitchen not being open.  Some people in the fabulously architected room were eating.  Dave left a nasty note in their customer log and we had cheese and salami and bread in the car and drove to the canyon.

It was beautiful in the way that red rocks are.  We picked up a couple of hitchhikers at Garganta del Diablo and drove them to Alemania.  Garganta del Diablo has a lot of families, taking photos of their kids on the rocks that the signs say it’s prohibited to climb.

It was dark when we got to Salta.  The lady who runs the airbnb was annoyed we were so late and sent her daughter to let us in.  It was a nice place.  I don’t remember what I said in the review.  I was annoyed because the checkout time was 10 AM which is ridiculous for Argentina.  Early checkout times are not uncommon here, it turns out.

Salta was only a stop on the way to the Hill of the Seven Colors, in Purmamarca.  We ate a quick dinner at El Viejo Jack, which, although highly rated, was empty.  Everyone was at another parillada in the previous block.  We ordered sweetbreads, which curiously were also called mollejas.  We also had locro, completely different from the first time.

Monday, July 8

The next morning, we had coffee, tea, and medialunas at Cafe del Convento, which is across the street from an imposing cloister.  Tour groups are milling around it all the time, but don’t seem to go in.  The convent is not exactly welcoming.  A door in the imposing solid wall leads to a gift shop of sorts (display cases with doodads), which is monitored by a camera.  Purchases are apparently made by writing a note, placing it on a shelf on an axle, and rotating it so the note disappears into the black box which is the community.  A few minutes on Google has informed me that the name of this type of place is “turn room”.  I didn’t see anybody make any actual purchases. 

Cafe de Convento made me think of Coffee Point, in Szczecin.  “Made me think of” is different from “reminded me of”.  There’s nothing in common, except the familiarity of the baristas with the customers, who are clearly regulars more than tourists.

There is a big mission critical segment on this vacation: getting from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama by bus, and then to the Bolivian border to meet the guides who will take us on our grand tour of the Bolivian altiplano.  The bus is a critical link.  

So we went to the bus station to make sure that the people at Pullman Bus had heard of us.  The woman there had heard of us.  She took our passport data for future reference.  Our reservations were on the bottom level of the bus because Pullman Bus only accepts Chilean credit cards, and BusBud only offers reserved seating on the ground floor of the bus.  She suggested that we’d be able to get a seat on the top level of the bus, because Friday’s bus was not looking very full.

We drove to Purmamarca, via the slow road directly north of Salta.  It went through beautiful countryside, with the usual amount of desvios and narrowness.

Once in Purmamarca, Google Maps had issues telling us how to get to the hotel.  An access from the highway had been closed off.  After we got on the frontage road, it sent us down a narrow dirt road to the front patch of some NGO.  They pointed to the roof of our hotel, but it was up to us to figure out how to get there (i.e, go down the next driveway).  The hotel, El Refugio de Coquena, is wonderful.  We can see the Hill of Seven Colors from our balcony.  We walked around the hill (about 3 km) starting in the Sunset Lighting direction, and had cazuela de llama with quinoa salad for dinner.  Pear poached in Torrontés with a scoop of ice cream.


  • Ambulances and police cars always have their lights on and there are PARE signs that indicate no imaginable stop. Makes you less likely to pay attention.
  • Most intersections in cities are uncontrolled; no stop signs or lights.  There are rules for who should go first, but in practice it boils down to who is most aggressive.
  • Car manufacturers don’t get yet that the smart phone holders are more important now than the cup holders.
  • One more thing about Mendoza: I didn’t realize until a waiter used the word — “Mendocino” is the adjective form of “Mendoza”.  They are both derived from family names, ultimately.

Tuesday, July 9

Having gone in the sunset direction at sunset, we got up at dawn and had our customary continental breakfast of coffee, tea, and pastries, and walked around the hill in the sunrise direction.  I took some pictures at the cemetery when the sun was higher.  The cemetery gate lies at the end of a Dead End street but the pun doesn’t hold in Spanish.  There are a lot of crypts there that don’t have occupants and clearly haven’t been looted — they have just overbuilt.  Should offer a move-in bonus.

Instead of AIDS victims, the Argentinian cemeteries have desaperacidos who died young because they were tortured to death by the fascist regime of the 1970’s.  It’s really a race to the bottom between God and man.

July 9 is the Argentine National Holiday.  They sang the national anthem in the square.  The town of Purmamarca has been packed with tourists because this is the big winter vacation for them.

In the late morning, we did some research about another nearby canyon, Quebrada de Humahuaca, a World Heritage site.  Looking for it in Google Satellite View, we found another huge area of gloriously colorful hills, with no roads to get there. We decided to head north to see what we could see.

The first stop was one of the more interesting archaeological sites in my experience. It is a hilltop fort of the pre-Inca period called “The Pucará of Tilcara”, and it seems to exist primarily to apologize for the Bad Archaeology practiced in the early to mid 20th century. 

The apology begins with an apology for the actions of the Argentine dirty war of the 1970’s, in which many students from every discipline were murdered for their real or insinuated political beliefs. Many Argentine public spaces contain monuments to the victims of that dictatorship. It only came to an end with the loss of the Falkland Islands War — you can get away with anything while you are winning, as Margaret Thatcher discovered afterwards.

After that, comes a dusty trail past rocks which have been piled back up in the shape of detached single-family houses, ending in a hilltop with a pyramid on it, dedicated to the archaeologist who piled up the rocks.

The signs explain that there’s no reason to suppose any of this corresponds to what was there when Tilcara was an active hilltop fort, and by the way, pyramids were an Inca thing, but they are going to leave it up anyway, because bad archaeology is now a part of history, and deserves to be preserved as a warning to future generations of presumably good archaeologists.

Upon arriving to the town of Humahuaca, we drove into the first place that said Tourist Information and were immediately surrounded by many touts.  We zoomed way way in on Google Maps, saw highway 73 appear, and the letters “Mirador: Hornocal o Cerro De 14 Colores “ suddenly pop out.  (Zooming Google Maps is like Christmas): The folks in Tourist Information didn’t speak English, but somehow assured us a normal car would make it on highway 73.

So we set that as a goal and drove for an hour.  The road was dirt but not bad.  There are switchbacks but no boulders or ditches.  When you get to the Mirador, a lady charges you 80 Argentine pesos, and the elevation is 4300 meters above sea level.  The temperature is freezing and the wind is blowing.  The place is packed with people watching the sunset colors gradually being swallowed by the shadow of the surrounding mountains.  Did I mention it was freezing and windy?  We talked to some German tourists until they were hustled back into their bus.  We did not wait for the last gulp of shadow.  It was a long drive back to the town of Humahuaca and even farther back to our hotel in Purmamarca.  And it was freezing.  And windy.  And ultimately, getting dark.  You can see most of ruta 73 from various places on the switchbacks, and it was graphically amusing: a line (as you near the town, in the bottom of the valley, the road becomes straighter) with each car represented (but not seen) by a long plume of dust blowing sideways into the freezing cold darkening wind.

We ate at El Meson.  There was a very nice waitress there who speaks good English, which is a plus for us.  Pumpkin soup with a floating blini is a really good idea.  The short ribs were good too.  So was the bottle of local red wine.  We unfortunately did not have room for dessert.  The table next to us said the flan was excellent.

Wednesday, July 10

The next day, it was a little cloudy, so we skipped the intoxicating morning walk and photo panic around the Seven-Colored Hill.  Plus we’d just seen Fourteen.  We did a bit of shopping.  This is the first town I’d seen significant amounts of post card stock — in the dimension of many places to purchase post cards, and many different designs of post cards, and different places have different designs (these are orthogonal conditions).  And they were cheap, especially the place next to the t-shirt store where Dave had found a cute t-shirt that wouldn’t fit him, but this morning we decided he should buy it and give it to his sister.

We drove back to Salta, via the fast road.  (The bus to Chile stops in Purmamarca, but we could only return the car in Salta.)  The place we had booked was kind of a hostel, with the same name as a hotel in the next block, and there wasn’t any staff there when we got there because we were earlier than I thought we’d be. (I don’t think I’d do that again, but at $22 a night — it can’t all be Raffles, you get bored.  If you stay at places that are just at the edge of your budget, you meet people just like yourself, who are also staying at places just at the edge of their budgets.  In hostels you meet the people who are traveling for years.  And you have more to spend on food.)

After thinking a bit, we decided to turn in our car to the SiXT downtown office a day early.  We decided we weren’t going to drive anywhere.  They gave us a day’s credit, and took it right back for a ding in the windshield that had not been on the officially agreed-upon ding list at the time we picked up the car in Mendoza.  There are any number of places where a piece of gravel could have hit, but Dave assumes it was the fast drive on the dirt road back from Fourteen Colors.  

We also didn’t get any credit for having had their stupid muffler welded back on in San Agustin.  The man had offered to write a receipt for the $12 USD or so it cost, but he would have had to wipe his hands off and go find a piece of paper so we didn’t bother.  (In Latin America, you lose face if you debate about amounts of money that are beneath your station.  It’s different than the world that C. Northcote Parkinson describes, where the coffee machine gets more conversation than the airplane purchase.)

SiXT is a highly variable company.  One of the worst car rental experiences I’ve had was at SiXT in Frankfurt; while one of my favorite tourism providers in the whole world works at their office in Miami Beach.  I haven’t any idea what his name is.  I think he is an immigrant from Nicaragua.  I’ve been there twice, separated by some years, and he recalled me.

(Did I ever mention about the guy who works at Wells Fargo in Sharon Park?  Photographic memory for faces.  I thought they had facial recognition software cueing their tellers, and the lady at the next window said, no, he’s just like that.  I can’t remember what he looks like.  I tried to take a photo of him with my telephone but he said, standing in front of a bank of security cameras taking thirty frame video of every aspect of the bank office, that photography wasn’t permitted in the bank.  “Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”)

That night we walked to the tourist restaurant José Balcarce, the sort of place where you get an amuse bouche.  Bread strips in refried beans — see, we’re so far from Mexico here, that refried beans are exotic.  

We were once again offered gizzards, and we ordered them, along with Bolivian peanut soup, and some perfectly done beef.  (After having a tough piece of beef in Jachal, we were encouraged to see that this place actually offered you your choice of how you’d like it done.)  And guess what — the gizzards turned out to be sweetbreads!  Mollejas is the Spanish word for both the chicken giblet, and the beef gland, and these restaurants which had translated it “gizzards” were ultimately just confusing their non-Spanish-speaking customers.

There were potato chips in the peanut soup.  I thought they tasted stale but in the Andes there are so many kinds of potatoes that you risk seeming foolish if you compare them to the Idaho kind.  Everybody there was nice.

Thursday, July 11

We visited two museums in Salta on the town square.  The “high mountain archaeological museum” would remind you of the Ötzi museum in Bolzano.  It displays a frozen Inca child sacrifice mummy.

There is a movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini called “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” which explains a lot.  To me, the most striking feature of this movie, even including the coprophagia and exotic slaughter, is the way in which parents vie with each other to sacrifice their children to fascism.  Pasolini presents this in passing — it’s so utterly commonplace, the proud dads sending their sons to war and their daughters to become supermodels, that it goes without notice.

The Incas did this.  The vassal states of the Inca empire would select the best of their children and send them to the seat of government to be ritually killed.  The children were physically perfect, and fed a royal diet before being drugged and beheaded or exposed to the freezing cold. The museum on the square in Salta has three such mummies, found on mountaintops in the region.  They exhibit only one at a time, to reduce wear on the artifacts.

In case you’re wondering why God is not smiling on America, consider the people we choose for human sacrifice.  Poor, mentally defective, social outcast murderers, for the most part.  God is like, what is this shit?

Oh, by the way, Salò was a real place, the rump republic led by Mussolini after Italy surrendered and withdrew from the Second World War. I see no reason to presume that anything Pasolini depicted was made up.

The second museum on the plaza was really weird.  It is billed as a museum of contemporary art, but it’s a showroom, at least its current exhibition is.  Everything is arranged as if it’s at a trade show for modern design, down to the spokespeople, and with the URL you can go to if you want to purchase this for the lobby of your upscale hotel or home.

Parked in the museum courtyard was a nice little empanada truck which was out of the first several empanadas you wanted, but the ones left were good.  We sat at a table in the shade to drink our beer, and were informed that you couldn’t sit at that table and drink beer, so we moved to a table in the sun.

We went to a cowboy-themed cafe kitty-corner from our hostel for dinner, and turned in early, to be in shape for the long bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama the next day, and the start of the next phase of the trip.