Buying up/selling out

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have almost reached the northernmost point of my trip. This afternoon I’ll head from Tilcara, a town in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, to Iruya, a smaller village 50km off the main road to Bolivia. I have no idea what it will be like, but have heard a constant stream of positive comments about the natural beauty, the people, and the condors.

I was excited about coming to this part of Argentina because I saw it as a sort of return to the South America I knew in 2009, when I lived for three months in Pisac, a Andean town near Cusco in Peru.

It has felt like a return, in many ways. There are the same breathtaking mountainous landscapes (though here with more sand and cacti), the same abundance of maize, the same stalls arts and crafts.

And there is, of course, the same dependence on tourism. Tilcara, where I am now, resembles Pisac not just in its location and architecture but also in its ever-growing concentration of hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

It’s common for the independent traveller to lament the vile influence of globalisation, the eruption of Coca Cola signs on every street corner, the drowning of local culture beneath waves of dreadlocked, baggy-trousered travellers. It’s common because there’s a good point behind it, but I can’t help thinking that as a viewpoint it’s a bit simplistic.

The arts and crafts, I think, provide an alternative answer. The thought came to me from an experience in Salta, the biggest city in these parts, which was a repeat of one I had in Arequipa, Peru, two years ago.

In both cities there are museums which showcase the remains of Inca children sacrificed at the peaks of some of the Andes’ highest mountains (In Salta, the MAAM, in Arequipa, the Museo de Santuarios Andinos).

The cold and dryness have kept the human remains in astoundingly good condition. We’re not used to thinking of the world of the past in the same terms as that of the present, so any experience which makes us do so tends to send shivers down the spine. These photos from early 20th century Russia do the same, for me.

As well as the ‘mummies’, what most struck me about these museums (then as now) were the fabrics and jewels left with them. Not just their perfect preservation, but also how astoundingly similar, when not identifical, they were to the stuff you can pick up in any Andean town square.

It’s not totally ingenuous, I hope, to think that horrible ‘Western’ tourism plays some part in maintaining this incredible cultural continuity, even if in an ‘artificial’ way.  If it brings money to keep museums going (as one example of economic benefit), then that’s no bad thing.And though the flow of globalisation may be horribly imbalanced, it is not entirely one-way. Some Andean goods find their way to Europe, the US, etc. as a result – so there is a presence, if not an influence, in that direction.

I won’t subscribe to a rather Panglossian phrase I’ve learnt while in Argentina: ‘no hay mal que por bien no venga’. But I will persist in thinking that the terrifying flux of the world deals in ‘bien’ as well as ‘mal’.


Sun and stone

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m writing from the town of Cafayate, on the southern edge of Salta province. A small but stately cluster of buildings around a central square, it sits in a broad valley surrounded by vineyards. This is Argentina’s second most important wine producing area, and I have been taking full advantage of the possibilities to visit the bodegas and, obviously, sample some of their produce.

Being back among mountains, and free of humidity, is wonderful. Today I set off up a rocky valled full of cacti in search of some apparently beautiful waterfalls. My guide book had suggested it was a straightforward, if fairly lengthy walk…and failed to mention that to get to the waterfall(s) – I only saw one – there’s plenty of scrambling and leaping from stones to cross the river.

Luckily enough, I ran into a group of German girls (also exchange students from Buenos Aires) and a guide, which made things a lot easier. And it was certainly worth the effort to reach the waterfall, take a dip in the pool, and enjoy views like this:


(not my photo  – I’m being too lazy to deal with the ‘hassle’ of uploading from an Internet café, sorry. I’ll get my act together soon!)

I came here yesterday (Friday) from Tucumán, with an overnight stop in the tiny mountain town of Tafí del Valle. The hostel I had booked there, called the ‘Nomade’, had appropriately enuough upped sticks and moved to the other end of town from the address indicated on the website. Once I found it, though, I had a brilliantly relaxed evening watching trashy American movies and chatting over dinner with the couple who run the place and two builders from across the road.

I’m going to permit myself a horribly general observation here: Argentines love to talk. Silence is not one of my great virtues either, so this suits me just fine. It’s never just chat about the weather, either: people will nearly always get stuck in with politics, culture and the economy on the smallest or grandest scale.

Another related (and probably unfair) general observation, then: lightheartedness is not a common national trait. My friends and I had already drunkenly arrived at this conclusion in Córdoba, and I still think there’s some merit to it

Much has been written about Argentina being a nostalgic, backward-looking, melancholic nation. Two examples of this sort of view are on my Christmas wish list – V.S. Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Perón and Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires. I’ll let you know what I think.

The city of Tucumán itself (San Miguel de Tucumán) only managed to keep hold of me for half a day on Thursday. There are some interesting things to see, such as the house where Argentine independence was first declared. Sadly, though, the historical monuments and the like are fairly drowned out by the grimey roar of what is another large Argentine city – see my whinings about Córdoba below.

My main memory is of oppressive heat, and of the strangeness of walking through a market selling tinsel and Santa Claus hats in shorts and sweating.

I’m off to the city of Salta itself tomorrow – traveller capital of the northwest, if not of Argentina.

P.S. To attempt to make the title relevant – I passed through a little town yesterday that claimed to have 360 days of sun a year. My British insides churned with jealousy.

Roads again

December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another gap, again mostly full of Buenos Aires. The capital isn’t going to figure this time around, though – partly because I want to have a proper think about it just before I head back to the UK in mid-December, but mostly because I’ve left it behind for the next couple of weeks.

I’m writing this from Córdoba, Argentina’s second city which lies some 9 hours northwest of Buenos Aires. Founded by the Jesuits in the 16th century, it has a beautiful colonial centre and some stunning churches. Apologies for the guidebook tone – in fact, as always happens, the Lonely Planet version of the city didn’t quite fit over reality. The colonial centre is gorgeous, yes, but much of the rest of the city is the standard Argentine grid of concrete towers.

This isn’t suprising or bad, of course, but the guidebook hyperbole distorted expectations. I have had a fantastic three days here, though, taking it very easy with some Mexican and Colombian friends from Buenos Aires. Our lethargic schedule of visits to Jesuit estancias in the countryside, long breakfasts in cafes and hours lying in parks was the perfect antidote to BA’s constant, nervous roar.

This time spent with good friends in fact made the guidebook version of Córdoba completely irrelevant. As far as I’m concerned, Córdoba is the following:

adopting a dog for the walk from the bus terminal to the hostel, laughing at an impenetrable ‘real estate business’ board game, talking to the ducks in the park, sneaking into a Mass in a church like an upside-down wooden ship. Not to mention drinking tereré (mate but with cold orange juice), running into a road block in the main square, enjoying an excellent example of a drunken DMC (deep and meaningful conversation) and pondering the many eccentricities of the Argentines.

In other, very naff words: it’s the people, not the place.

Soon after I finish writing this, I’ll be heading to the bus terminal for the overnight trip to Tucumán. Argentine independence was first declared there, and it’s the starting point for my whistle-stop tour of the Andean northwest. I am very, very excited at the prospect of mountains, ice, llamas, and many other Andean things I miss from my time in Peru. Among these are pecularities of Andean travel, such as rather surreal combination of luxury double-decker buses and winding grit roads.

I’ll try to write an update every couple of days. Hasta pronto, then.


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