The even wilder north of Argentina

On the bus, on the way to Jujuy.

We had to do one more ‘city’ to do in the north of Argentina, surely? Hmmmm, OK San Salvador de Jujuy, otherwise known as Jujuy.  Besides, I had not been here in 1999, and I was trying to throw in a little bit of new as well as revisiting with Alex many of the splendid places I had already visited. Juyuy is also renowned as the national capital of Pacha Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth. Apparently this is the place where you start to feel the real proximity to Bolivia. Apart from food that seems more Andean (like locro, humitas and sopa de mani) than Argentina’s pizza, pasta and meat show, I cannot say that I really felt this.  I did like Jujuy though. It felt more like a big town than a city to me. I loved its markets and its buzzy atmosphere.  It was a nice place to relax for a couple of days, as we knew that we were well and truly on the way out of the country, but we still had a few places to go.

When in doubt, take all roads!

North of Jujuy the road snakes its way through the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a painter’s palette of colour on  barren hillsides and small hamlets that communities ofQuechua speakers call home. This route is also part of the infamous Inca Trail, the route that the Incas both carved out and took from the north to the south of the continent (effectively from Colombia to Santiago de Chile) all those years ago.  There were three places that we were deciding on doing in the Quebrada; we could not decide, so needless to say, we did all three! Purmamarca, Tilcara and Humahuaca, in that order.

Having fun in Purmamarca.

Purmamarca is renowned for its Cerro de Siete Colores or the Hill of Seven Colours, which literally sits behind the tiny town.  As the bus rolled into town, I was blown away by the number of buses and cars I saw parked, quite literally, everywhere!  My, my how this tiny town had changed since 1999. The Quebrada de Humahuaca, incorporating Purmamarca, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. Such an act has clearly increased the interest of both national and international tourism to the area. There were people … everywhere! The central town square was crawling with vendors and tourists.  Eek!  It just seemed like the Disneyland of the Quebrada to me. Having said that, nobody can take away from the beauty of its surrounds, and I tried to focus on that. Accommodation, and particularly budget accommodation, still has a long way to go.  We checked into a place called Mama Coca, but had to leave at 10pm as the chain smoking owners had us gasping for air. They were also both particularly rude when we politely approached them about feeling like we were being gassed!

With Naty and Marcelo of Alta Montana.

Tilcara followed Purmamarca. This area features even more dramatic mountainous landscapes that are very rich in aboriginal/ indigenous traditions. I love people and culture and it was just getting better the further north we went. We hung out here for a few days in the amazing Alta Montana Hostal. The owners, Marcelo and Naty made us feel at home, and in no time at all we were sitting on the porch together sipping mate. We ‘shared’ the hostel with a big group of kids in their final year of high school from Cordoba. The school was Colegio Maestro Diehl; a music/arts school.  They were on an end of year gig, which included playing instruments and singing with some of the local schools and communities.  They were awesome, awesome kids! Open-minded, friendly, polite, courteous and fun, Alex and I built an amazing rapport with them over the several days we were there.

Chewing coca leaves with Horacio Galan.

One of the highlights of our trip to Tilcara was our walk with amazing local guide, Horacio Galan (if you go to Tilcara, look him up via Alta Montana Hostal). He took us on a walk through the countryside, including some steep uphill climbs, amazing caves (Cuevas de Waira) and breathtaking views. As we had been slowly moving up north the elevation was also creeping up slowly; in Tilcara it was 2465 metres above sea level. Horacio bought us some coca leaves (widely used in northern Argentina and Bolivia) and explained how they helped combat altitude and altitude sickness.  After this walk I was sold and they would prove to be invaluable in the high altitudes of southern Bolivia later on!

Another Tilcara highlight was the walk culminating in the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. A geographical feature formed by the movement of teutonic plates, it is now a deep chasm or gorge, and a walk further along the track leads you to a gorgeous waterfall. There is much evidence of aquatic life here, as in fossils of trilobites. Like a lot of the surrounding area, this was once under water. No trip to Tilcara, however, would really be complete without visiting El Pucara, a pre-Inca fortification strategically located on a hill, just out of town. Of course, we decided to do this on the same day as the walk to the Devil’s Throat!  When we got back to the hostal we were dead!

Trekking with Horacio.


Happy Birthday to Ombi!

We have been lucky in Argentina to find hostels and accommodation with kitchens, so we have been
able to do a lot of cooking.  The fruit and veggies from the markets have been excellent.  It has also been relatively easy to find grains and pulses such as lentils, chick peas and quinoa (although the latter is ridiculously expensive; more so than in Australia). Alta Montana had a particularly good kitchen. I also spent my birthday here; pretty laid back.  Naty made me a rice flour cake and surprised me by singing me Happy Birthday later that night. I was going to miss her and Marcelo; they had been truly awesome!

It was finally time to go, and Humahuaca would be our final destination in Argentina. The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl would also be going to Humahuaca … hugs all around as they asked us to look them up when we got there. I liked Humahuaca as soon as we arrived.  It had the small-town feel and beautiful scenery of Purmamarca without the throngs of tourists. We found a gorgeous little place to stay called Waira; small, comfortable, homely and with excellent staff. With the northern Argentine landscape providing one spectacular backdrop better then the next, Humahuaca was no different. The Hill of Seven Colours move over … here we have the Mountains of 14 colours!  Despite the fact that the last weeks had provided us with more layers of colour than we had ever seen before, how could we not do the hills with 14!?

The mountains of 14 colours, Humahuaca.

Of course we did it!  We went with a local elder in his truck who was super-knowledgeable and gave us a lot of history about the area.  The windy road up was almost as spectacular as the final destination (thank heavens for those coca leaves, it was pretty high!) The mountains of the14 colours are known as Hornocal. It was a beautiful spot to breathe in (quite literally!), sit down and just take it all in!  So often, here in the north, I have found myself taking in the spectacular beauty and being thankful that I am able to do this.  I am well aware that so many are not!

The town itself is small, but still a wander around is very revealing.  Very close to the Bolivian

The kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, Humahuaca.

border, Humahuaca certainly has a different feel and vibe, from the people’s faces to the food!  We caught up again with the kids from Colegio Maestro Diehl, and hung out with them at their hostel. Seriously, lovely, lovely kids!  They would be leaving a day before us! Their ways, personalities and drive had so impressed Alex and I that we decided to give them a farewell speech at their dinner (before catching the bus back to Cordoba that night).  I spoke in English (many of them had excellent English) and Alex in Spanish.  Many of them cried, and each and every one of them hugged us both. They told us how great it had been meeting us and that we were an inspiration to them! One girl grabbed me before I left and told me that although she knew that she could ‘do it’, how important it was to hear it from us, that ‘each and every one of them was able to achieve if they believed in and followed their dream.’ Wow! As we walked away and waved goodbye, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. To make a difference in someone’s life is one of the greatest gifts!  Since saying goodbye, many of these kids have contacted us personally to tell us how wonderful it was to meet us, and how inspirational we were to them.  Honoured, that is the only word to describe how I feel!

The end of the Argentine line! La Quiaca.

So, the time had come, Bolivia was around the corner!  Well, perhaps over the hill! La Quiaca is truly the end of the line; 5171kilometres north of Ushuaia, Argentina’s most southern point, and a world apart. Our only mission here was to spend the last of our pesos and cross over into Bolivia.  We found this pretty flawless, actually. A bag full of goodies later, we were exiting Argentina and … Bolivia here we come!


Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”. – Bernard M. Baruch

Next: The tranquility of Tupiza and the breathtaking Salt Flats of Uyuni.

On the way to San Juan de Jujuy.


San Juan city centre.


A bit of Dulce de Leche?


Hugging a llama!


A tiny town amidst spectacular hills; Purmamarca.
Alta Montanita Hostal, Humahuaca.
Soccer, Humahuaca.
The students of Maestro Diehl College, Cordoba.
Stream; Tilcara.
El Pucara, pre-Incan fortification, Tilcara.
Cactus, Tilcara.
Waira Cave, Tilcara.


Some meat in San Juan.


Waira Cave, inside.


Cacti, Tilcara.
Humahuaca street art.
The mountains of 14 colours.
Transport in La Quiaca.
The last pesos go on an ice-cream … of course!
The adventure continues.
Goodbye Argentina!


Trekking, Tilcara.
Ombi’s homemade lentil stew.
Chillin’ at Alta Montana, Tilcara.
Humahuaca town centre.


May there be peace and love.


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One Life! Live It!
Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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