The End of the Altitude

I woke up to brilliant blue sunshine in Iruya. I was supposed to meet Tom at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, but when I went to the breakfast area he wasn’t there so I decided to take go on a short hike up a small path near the hotel to a lookout point, which Alejandro had recommended. The initial portion of the path was pretty steep (and left me gasping for air at 2,780 metres or 9,121 feet). However, after the initial steep incline, the path continued up gradually and I made it to the top in less than 10 minutes.

The path to the viewpoint in Iruya
The view to the town below
Panorama in Iruya

And I had to admit that the view was magnificent. I could see to the little town below and all around me were gorgeous rock formations.

Now, the one site I was hoping to see was the condors. Apparently the condors swoop through the valley after 8:00 a.m. similar to what I saw in the Colca Valley in Peru, but this morning they were a no show.

After a few pictures and some waiting, I decided to head back down and have some breakfast. I met up with Tom and after breakfast, we sat on the terrace and continued to look for condors, but they were MIA.

Villagers on a little street in Iruya

Alejandro met us just before 9:30 a.m. After sitting on the deck for a bit, we loaded up the truck and headed down hill to the main square for some pictures. As we drove, we saw many village people walking up hill to the cemetery with flowers to place on the graves of their loved ones. (Day of the Dead is very popular in Latin countries, which occurs at the beginning of November, and these folks were commemorating their loved ones in accordance with Day of the Dead traditions.)

Donkey packing goods
Iruya Catholic church

We were also fortunate to see a man loading up his donkey to head out of the valley. Many of the townspeople still use donkeys to transport goods in and out of the valley (often in caravans), but this morning we only saw one donkey.

We also stopped by the beautiful Catholic church just off the main square. The design of the church was simple, but what set it apart from others we had seen was that the church exterior had been painted in lovely yellow and white colours allowing you to see it from almost any vantage point of the town.

After the tour of Iruya, we set off on the same windy, bumpy road we had come in on, but this time under bright blue skies. We traced our path from the day before winding up the hillside through the same hairpin turns passing goats along the way.

Goats on the dirve
The road through the mountains

Just before we reached the Abra el Condor (the Condor Pass) at 4,000 metres, we pulled over to the side of the road to take some pictures of the Inca terraces (the stone terraces used by the Incas for their gardens and still in use today). Today the terraces were much easier to see since there was no fog to impair our view.

Inca terraces
Shrine to Pachamama

At the summit, we stopped to take a look but, surprisingly, the view to the terraces was not nearly as good as the roadside stop a short distance below. However, in stopping again at the summit I was able to find out what the deal was with the huge pile of bottles that had been left at the summit. (I had been too cold the day before to even bother with what the pile of bottles meant.) Alejandro advised that the bottles, as well as cigarettes and coca leaves, which were visible on closer inspection, were offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Of course! I should have realized that, but I had not looked close enough to see the cigarettes and coca leaves and only saw the bottles. It was quite the offering!

The rocky hillside

Anyway, we continued along the road and then down the other side of the mountain. We passed little farms and the same rocky hillside, which, frankly, looked much prettier in the sunlight. We also had to pull over a couple times to allow trucks and busses to pass us going up the hill because the road was simply too narrow.


We finally drove through the little village of Itrube at the bottom of the mountain and then drove a few short and very, very bumpy kilometres to the main highway that would take us to our next stop in Humahuaca.

Once in the town, Alejandro parked the car and hurried us through the Humahuaca streets to the main square to the Iglesia de la Candelaria (church) built in 1641. And we were speed walking because at noon a lifesize figure of San Francisco Solano appears from behind a door in the clock tower to deliver a benediction. As we hustled along, we could hear music signaling the start. We fortunately arrived just in time to see San Francisco finishing his “benediction” before he disappeared behind the door.

San Francisco Solano at Iglesia de la Candelaria
Iglesia de la Candelaria in Humahuaca

We then walked from the plaza to a staircase that led to the rather imposing Monumento a la Independencia (Monument to Independence), which was made of bronze and completed in 1950. The monument commemorates the 14 battles that were fought in Humahuaca for independence from Spain and incorporates gauchos, women and indigenous peoples who all fought for freedom. The main figure in the monument is Pedro Socompa who was in charge of transmitting the news of freedom (although some think it is Diego Viltipoco who aided General Belgrano in the struggle for independence).

At Monumento a la Indepencia

To reach the monument, we had to climb 103 steps (about 300 metres) so once again, I was a little winded at the top. Once at the top, we wandered around, took a few pictures and then began the walk back to the truck. On the way, Tom and I bought a ham and cheese tortilla, which a nice couple were making on the street. The tortilla was very, very good.

At the truck, we filled up our water bottles and then walked across the street to a local market where Alejandro wanted to buy more coca leaves as well as show us where to buy a local lip balm used by many of the guides. (The high altitude really dries out your skin and we were looking for a good lip balm.)

Humahuaca market

As we were walking through the market, which features some produce, but mostly lots of clothing, a dust devil kicked up and blew through the market. I still have no idea why this area is prone to these little dust devils, but I presume it must have something to do with the hot air that swoops into these areas and collides with cooler mountain air. Anyway, there was no damage done but it sure sent people scrambling.

Tropic of Capricorn marker

After the visit to the market, we  began the drive to Tilcara.  However, about halfway to Tilcara Alejandro pulled over so that we could take a picture of the Tropic of Capricorn monument.  The Tropic of Capricorn is in the south and the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the countries in between the two will always have the sun directly overhead at noon.  There is nowhere else that this phenomenon can occur.  (This was Tom’s favourite stop of the day.)

Anyway, after the geek stop, we continued on to Tilcara where we had visited the pre-Inca ruins the day before. Our destination today was lunch at El Puente, a little outdoor restaurant that specializes in llama sandwiches. Alejandro swore by the restaurant and since he had not steered us wrong yet on anything, including food suggestions, Tom and I happily followed along.

Our lunch destinatoin
Llama sandwich and quinoa salad

And of course, lunch was spectacular. The llama sandwich was, in Tom’s words, an explosion of flavour, which was entirely accurate. The homemade bread was thin, the llama was tender and then there were the tomatoes, avocado and bacon to top it off. (I opted out of the sweet onions, which Tom had.) We also had a quinoa salad, which was equally tasty. All in all, a fabulous lunch.


After lunch, Tom and I walked across this little footbridge and then hopped in the truck with Alejandro to begin three plus hour drive back to Salta. The drive took us out of the glorious painted mountains and through more desert like scenery, some small villages and finally into the city of Jujuy.

We continued on through the city of Jujuy and onto the old Route 9, aka Camino de la Cornisa, to Salta. Route 9 used to be the main road from Jujuy to Salta until a highway was constructed in the 1980s. And it soon became apparent why the road was replaced. The road was very narrow and winding and would certainly make travel between Salta and Jujuy difficult. However, the downside of the road was also the upside. It turned out to be incredibly scenic taking us through the Yungas forest (jungle).

La Cienaga reservoir
Yungas Forest with sleeping man

At the entrance to the forest, we passed the La Cienaga reservoir, a massive area of water relied upon in the Jujuy and Salta provinces for their water supply. As we crossed into the forest, the scenery immediately changed to dense areas of trees and greenery. Shortly after we crossed into Salta province from Jujuy province, Alejandro let Tom and I out of the car and we took a short 15 minute walk along the narrow road. At the point we were let off, we encountered a young fellow who had made a bed out of a nook in a massive tree and was taking a siesta. I am certain he had no idea we were taking pictures of him or that he will be part of this blog. Oh well. You sleep in public spaces you become fair game.

Yungas forest

Anyway, Tom and I wandered up and down the gently sloping roads taking in the gorgeous scenery. And since there were so few cars on this road, we were able to enjoy a nice relaxing walk. Periodically we saw butterflies flitting about and we could hear birds chirping all around us. It was another zen moment.

Leaving Yungas forest
Driving towards Salta

Alejandro picked us up on schedule and we continued the drive through the forest, eventually reaching the end of the dense growth and were immediately met with new scenery. This time it was large pines that seemed to suddenly sprout from nowhere. However, the pines did not last long and soon enough we had reached the edge of Salta.

By 5:30, we were pulling up to our lovely hotel Legado Mitico, and it was time to say goodbye to Alejandro. Now I cannot stress enough what a tremendous guide we had in Alejandro. Tom and I would have never found the restaurants we were fortunate to dine at throughout this trip without Alejandro. And Alejandro added in sites that were not part of our itinerary, which turned out to be fantastic, including the first views of the painted mountains on day 1 and the two hour hike up the see the Quilmes ruins from above. (If you are interested in coming to Salta, Alejandro is your man. He runs SaltaBiking,  which provides mountain biking and hiking tours, and I promise you that you will not find a better guide.)

Goodbye Alejandro

So we sadly said goodbye to Alejandro. Our fabulous tour of “Authentic NW Argentina” had come to a close. Tom and I were going to tour Salta tomorrow and then I will be heading south to the Patagonia region and Tom will be heading north to Lima, Peru. It had been an absolutely glorious trip.

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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