It’s a Long Way to the Top

So Tom and I spent Halloween night in the little town of Purmamarca shopping at a local artisan market and listening to Andean music while dining on llama. Certainly a far cry from dressing up in a costume and giving out candy.

The Band

Anyway, next morning we met Alejandro at 9:00 a.m. for a walk through Purmamarca and the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours). We could see the “hill” from our hotel and Alejandro promised that the 3 km walk was going to be taking was easy to conquer despite the altitude of 2,192 metres (about 7,800 feet). So we set off through the little streets lined with ochre adobe houses and numerous stray dogs.

The street in Purmamarca
Panorama of the Hill of Seven Colours

At the end of a street, Alejandro directed us to take a dirt path up a little incline for a fantastic viewpoint of the Hill of Seven Colours. As luck would have it, we were the first ones there so we were able to take numerous pictures of the glorious multicolored hill in front of us before the first interloper arrived. (He was actually a nice Brazilian man who seemed genuinely thrilled to be there.)

We then hiked back down the sandy dirt path being careful not to slip and began the walk along a dirt road that circumvents the Hill of Seven Colours. And we were not more than 5 minutes into the walk when we stopped at a handicraft shop recommended by Alejandro for being authentic (i.e. selling locally made products as compared to products that were made by machines or imported from China). After Tom made a couple purchases, we pushed on.

The dirt path off the road

The road had a slight incline, but was not too bad. Once we rounded a bend in the road, we cut over onto a dirt path and began to hike up hill. And this is where I began the heavy breathing portion of the hike. To be fair, I have climbed much higher hills in higher elevation on this trip, (Colca Canyon, Peru). Nevertheless, the lack of oxygen still sucks the life out of me.

The view from the road

Anyway, we pushed onwards and made it up the little hill only to meet up again with the dirt road. As we walked along in the warm morning air, we walked around a corner and were met with really spectacular views of the painted mountains and greenery. Tom and I periodically stopped to take pictures and chatted with Alejandro as we walked along.

Walking downhill
More of the Hill of Seven Colours

The road then took us downhill and around the backside of the Hill of Seven Colours before we left the road again and took another path towards town. The final portion of the hike took us up a rather steep, but small hill allowing us to look back and take a few more pictures before hiking down the other side of the hill and back to our hotel.

Mural in Purmamarca on way back to hotel

We then loaded up the truck and began the drive to the little town of Tilcara about 20 minutes from Purmamarca. Now about 5 minutes outside of Purmamarca, we entered the Quebrada de Humahuaca aka the Humahuaca Gorge. (Alejandro told us that the real name of the gorge is Quebrada de los Rio Grande, but no one uses it anymore.) The gorge is famous for its small Incan villages, spectacular scenery and narrow roads that take you up and around high mountain passes. We would be travelling through the Quebrada de Humahuaca for the remainder of the day.

Anyway, once we reached the very touristy town of Tilcara we drove south of the city center to Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Incan fortress (pucará means fortress) that sits high above a valley below. The ruins date from the 12th century and were continuously inhabited by the Tilcari people until the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the inhabitants.

Ruins of Pucará de Tilcara
Ruins of Pucará de Tilcara

After paying the entrance fee, we began an easy hike up the hillside to see the ruins. Now the ruins were reconstructed in the 1950s and as a result, these ruins had roofs, but as Alejandro pointed out there is no evidence to confirm what kind of materials were used for the roofs so apparent liberties were taken in the reconstruction process.

Burial hole at. Pucará de Tilcara

The ruins include houses (very tiny entries and low ceilings as the people were tiny), artisan shops and tombs. Now the interesting thing about these people is that they worshipped the sun and when someone died, they placed the dearly departed in a large pot in the fetal position facing the east (where the sun rises) and buried the person in the family house. As we walked, Alejandro pointed out the interesting burial holes in the homes.

Views at ruins of Pucará de Tilcara
View of at ruins of Pucará de Tilcara
Hungry llama

As we continued up the hill, the views became better and better all the while surrounded by sorrel cactus that had taken over many parts of the site. And this made for some spectacular pictures.

Anyway, we finished our walk around the site, stood for a bit and watched a hungry lama in a pen a the site chew on a tree and then drove back to the city center square where we all (including Alejandro) did a little shopping before setting off for Uquia where we were going to stop for lunch. Now the huge upside to having a guide with so much experience is that we have been able to dine at off the beaten path restaurants. And Uquia is certainly off the beaten path. A tiny little Andean village with dirt roads and not a lot going on.

Cerro La Señorita Resto and Bar.
Backyard at Cerro La Señorita Resto and Bar.
Kitchen spices at Cerro La Señorita Resto and Bar.

However, I implore anyone who ever plans to visit the Quebrada de Humahuaca to go to Uquia and dine at Cerro La Señorita Resto and Bar. This place fronted the residence of the owners and was perhaps one of the top five meals I have had on my trip. We sat at a little table facing the backyard and were immediately served home made lemonade, some breadsticks, olives and goat cheese. Next up was homemade empanadas with homemade salsa. I had a quinoa empanada and a chicken empanada while Tom and Alejandro each had one quinoa empanada (hey I was hungry). The empanadas were lights out fantastic. For the entrée we had sorrentino (ravioli) covered in red sauce and cheese. Alejandro and I had the pumpkin ravioli and Tom had the spinach ravioli. The homemade raviolis were incredible. In fact, the only words exchanged between us as we chowed down were “amazing”, “fantastic” and “the best.”

And if all this wasn’t enough, we shared a bowl of homemade dulce de leche (similar to carmel) ice cream that I will dream about for many years to come. Amazing, amazing, amazing meal.

Road to Hill of Fourteen Colours

We sadly left the restaurant (but not before Tom made a couple more purchases of local products on display at the restaurant) and began the looooong drive to Mirador del Hornocal aka the Hill of Fourteen Colours. The drive took us north and east to the little town of Humahuaca (we will visit the town tomorrow) and then up into the mountains. The rocky bumpy road was narrow, and we frequently hugged the hillside as there places on the road when there was only room for one car to pass. And the road was mostly a series of switchbacks cutting through very barren landscape. At times, we could look down and see the windy, narrow road we had just travelled.

Tom and I continued to suck on our coca candies and drink as much water as possible as we travelled higher and higher. As we neared the Hornocal, we caught our first glimpse of the coloured hillside and it was amazing.

Elevation marker at Hill of Fourteen Colours
Hill of Fourteen Colours
Panorma of Hill of Fourteen Colours
At hill of Fourteen Colours

Once we reached the entrance to the Hornocal, we drove another 5 minutes before we finally saw the complete picture and it was definitely worth the 45 minute bumpy ride.

Now, surprisingly, the weather remained quite warm as we got out of the car, although I grabbed my wind breaker as the afternoon winds had once again picked up. As we walked over to the viewing point, a sign advised us we were now at 4,350 metres (14,272 feet), the highest point of our trip. In addition, another sign explained how the magical hills came into being. Apparently the hills were formed 150 million years ago from sediments from rivers, lagoons and coastal regions that settled in the semi-desert area. The diversity of the sediments gave the hills the colours we we now.

Anyway, Tom, Alejandro and I simply gaped at the amazing scenery for the better part of half an hour. The colours in the sunshine were simply gorgeous. And while I did not sit and count to see if there really were 14 colours, I would be surprised if there were not more. Every time the sun went behind a cloud and then reappeared it seemed we saw something different. It was really, really beautiful to see.

With Tom and Alejandro at Hill of Fourteen Colours

After spending time at the site, we began the drive back down the same windy narrow series of switchabacks. When we reached the main road in Humahuaca, I was nice to be back on a paved road. Unfortunately, the smooth ride was short lived as about fifteen minutes north of Humahuaca we took another gravel road that would take us to the other side of the mountain and the little Andean town of Iruya. Now the drive was only 50 km, but Alejandro advised us it may take up to three hours depending upon the condition of the road. Whaaaaat?

Road to Iruya

I soon understood why. The road was BRUTAL. I felt really bad for Alejandro having to navigate this rocky, pot hole filled road. And as if the condition of the road was not bad enough, the road that carried us high up into the Andes was filled with hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Yikes.

Rocky landscape

And the landscape was vastly different from anything we had previously encountered. Sure we passed by some tiny villages, but as we climbed higher and higher, the surrounding hills became covered in tiny mounds of grasses and lots and lots of large stones.

Fog rolling in
At Condor Pass summit

As we neared the Abra el Condor (the Condor Pass), the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped … a LOT. Instead of hanging out in 25 or 26 celsius (about 79 fahrenheit), which had been the temperature in Humahuaca, we were now down to 12 celsius (around 52 fahrenheit). It was coooold with the wind. In fact, when we got out of the car at the summit to take a picture showing that we were at 4,000 metres, I literally ran out of the car, snapped a picture and ran back. Yuck. Give me back the warm weather please.

Anyway, after the summit we wound down the hillside and actually reached better road conditions. It appeared that the road had recently been graded so it was nice and smooth compared to the other side of the mountain.

The Inca Terraces

Now unfortunately the fog prevented us from seeing the Inca terraces (the stone terraces use by the Incas for their gardens and still in use today) at the summit, but as luck would have it the fog lifted just enough as we began our decent to have a look at the amazing terraces.

Heading down the mountains to Iruya

And the drive on the backside was also a lot more interesting. Although there were still the hairpin turns, the valley below was spectacular with a wide meandering (somewhat dry) Iruya River, little farming communities, the occasional goat or donkey and gorgeous rock formations.

The Andean town of Iruya

We reached the little Andean village of Iruya by 6:30 p.m. so in just about a hour an a half instead of the potential three hours so yay for us. And the approach to Iruya was spectacular, but because of the late hour and long day we did not have a chance to explore. That will be part of our agenda tomorrow, which is also our last day of our tour. I am certain it will be another glorious day.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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