Humahuaca and Iruya

I traveled to this region earlier in the year, spending my time in Tilcara, 45 kilometers to the south in this massive quebrada. I was focused on learning a new area, so I came to Humahuaca, a much larger village, and that much closer to my real objective of the otherworldly settlement of Iruya. 

Iruya is something else altogether

Humahuaca is situated at 1100 feet altitude, much like Tilacara and Purmamarca, its closest neighbors. Tourism seems to be the economic driver here, and there are a few features that visitors can access, such as the giant salt flats to the west, Valle Grande and Calilegua National Park to the southeast, and the celebrated multicolored hills throughout this immense gorge. The town itself has a historic center with narrow cobblestone streets, a clean traditional plaza with lots of shade trees, and all sorts of monuments. Chief among these is the very prominent memorial to the ‘Heroes of the Independence’ two blocks west of the plaza, with a promenade of steps leading up to a towering statue of the heroes, sitting atop the municipal museum of archeology. The views from the top are splendid, and it’s obvious a lot of work was devoted to this site. Colonial style street lamps lend a lovely light, and this is a worthy place to witness the dusk settle over the big valley. 

The top of the monument offers an excellent view

As in many of these isolated towns, there are a number of renowned old cathedrals and cultural centers, along with open air markets, a clock tower, and souvenir shops galore.

Of course there’s a central plaza

Several outfitters can transport travelers to other points of interest outside of town, and there are ample opportunities for biking, hiking, and long distance trekking. I stayed two nights en route to a planned circuit of southern Bolivia, but my main purpose here was to get to Iruya, a place I had been inspired to visit by many who already had.

The road to Iruya

The turnoff to Iruya is 19 km north of Humahuaca on Hwy. 9, and from then on it’s 54 km of dusty, bumpy, serpentine and steep pitches into the valley where the village sits perched on a mountain shelf at 2800 meters. Even a mountain dweller is likely to feel the altitude here which is deceiving, as this is the bottom of a valley, but there are 5000 meter mountains both north and south of here. 150 Argentine pesos was the fare, and while the destination is quite the payoff, scenic splendor wise, the actual road there is an engineering marvel. The first part climbs steadily through a number of tiny settlements and grazing animals until it reaches the crest of a high ridge. The abundant cactus is in full bloom in early December, and several familiar Arizona cousins are blended with odd altiplano plants. 

A window seat is cumpulsory

The landscape becomes more dramatic and steep with the distance until it falls off that pronounced ridge into a series of switchbacks where large white rocks mark the edges. Which is a good thing, as fog or rain could render visibility near zero here, and competent drivers in a solid 4wd could feel spooked and compelled to crawl along at 5 mph white knuckling this entire stretch. Our driver, piloting a creaky old 40 passenger bus, handled it all like a maestro, no doubt due to his prolific mileage on this king’s camino.

From this shrine on top of the pass it’s all downhill

There is a religious shrine tucked into the big rocks at the top of this pass, and a crowd of locals were congregated here to mark some holy moment. Here it was downhill all the way into the bottom of a broad valley bordered by vertical cliffs and sheer bluffs. Finally the fabled pueblo comes into view, a postcard perched on the bottom of a precipitous mountain. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and although some of the desert on the way in is stark and daunting, the living beauty is something else altogether. As John Muir or Ed Abbey might say, life affirming, at the very least.

This is as far as the bus goes in Iruya, a bit below el centro

I complimented the driver on his road skill getting off, and he told me would be departing at 2:30, about 3 hours away. My foot ramble commenced with a search for something to eat, wandering narrow stone streets up through the mostly adobe buildings. It was Sunday, and there was a crowd of folks in and around the striking yellow church, with the sermon broadcast via loudspeakers outside. Built in 1690, this structure is the most prominent of all here and has held up quite well. Stopping into a store with a sign advertising empanadas and such, a crusty old guy answered my query with, ‘No quedan nada, hippie’, ‘there’s nothing left’, which cracked me up, not so easy to do. I was sporting a daypack and no doubt looked like a vagrant of sorts, but this response surprised me. I do imagine that some of the locals get weary of the tourist day trippers, if only because this place is so isolated that everybody is an ‘us or them’ to some degree, and as many resist the changes as embrace them. And change used to be much slower here, for sure.

Not many skaters on these streets

Continuing my climb up to the limits of the center, I arrived at a locked up cemetery with million dollar views. Looping back down a lane which could be skied with enough snow brought me back down to the people’s church, where I knocked out 3 small empanadas, carne and goat cheese at 15 pesos a piece.

A fine spot for some serious rest

This was enough fuel to do the trick and get me across the much newer, and solid as a rock pedestrian bridge which spans the broad and usually dry Iruya river, which must be a wild sight when it actually flows. I wandered through this other half of the village, mostly residential, with a jumbo dirt soccer field where first a boy’s team, and then the girl’s, each played a game.

The neighborhood on the other side of the river

It doesn’t take much time to see most of what’s here, and one more leisurely stroll delivered me to the most commercial block with a few hostels, cafes, and small stores surrounded a tiny covered plaza. The pace of life is slow in Iruya, sporadically interrupted by the  tourist bus arrivals, and I killed the rest of my allotted time before returning to the idling bus at 2:15. Which was fortuitous, as after I paid my 150 for the return fare we took off at 2:19, with just a handful of riders and nobody I could recall from the ride in. So maybe all those visitors were staying the night, but if not they missed the ‘boats’ early launch.

Read them, know them, live them

The ride out was as pretty as the ride in, with a new appreciation for the pitch, curviness and route of the mighty road, and the worshippers were all still up around the shrine when we passed over the top. A couple of pick ups and drop offs later, and a quick pull in at the only real village on the way, San Isidro. The 73 kms between Humahuaca and Iruya takes almost 3 hours in good conditions, so a day trip definitely uses up a day. It is an amazing destination and worth the time, but plenty of peeps would enjoy an overnight stay to further absorb the glacial pace of the place. There are trails heading out in all directions, most going straight up, and mountain biking is likewise an option for fun. Don’t miss it if the opportunity presents itself.

The road to Iruya is a serious piece of work

Vital Information

I stayed at the excellent La Humahuacasa hostel, 2 blocks from the central plaza at Buenos Aires 740. Paola and Juan are exceptional hosts, providing a tasty basic breakfast and super useful local knowledge on the area’s delights. Shared and private rooms are very economical, the wifi is good, and a fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill is ready to go. It makes for a fine base while exploring the area.

www.humahuacasa.com.ar     info@humahuacasa.com.ar   0338 154 120868

There is no shortage of places to eat, ranging from swank tourist cafes to ultra local eateries offering everything from humitas to llama burgers. Just on the other side of Belgrano avenida is a sizable outdoor market where the locals buy everything from clothes and appliances to produce. This is the right place to stretch a peso to the limit.

There are a bunch of outfitters catering to vacationers looking to explore the countryside, trekking or biking, and excursions of all time frames and costs. The Bolivian border at La Quiaca is 160 km north, the appealing Tilcara 42 k to the south, with San Salvador de Jujuy, capitol city of the province and a major hub, another 84 k down Highway 9.

Four leg drive

Tilcara in the Quebrada Humahuaca

The Quebrada Humahuaca is some rugged country

This dusty town is situated in the acclaimed multicolored valley that runs from north of the city of San Salvador de Jujuy towards the Bolivian border. Sitting between the 7 colored hills of Purmamarca to the south and the equally vivid hills of Humahuaca 42 kilometers to the north, it’s a transportation hub serving this 100 mile long valley, and provides a plethora of accommodation options for visitors.

Tilcara is a dusty but charming little village

Tilcara lies at an altitude of 2400 meters, sandwiched by stark desert mountains on either side. The population of 10000 is employed primarily by the tourist industry, and most live in adobe houses that cover the level areas near the highway. It’s a picturesque village with most traveler services available and is an ideal base for exploring the region.

 

The points of interest include the rebuilt ancient ruins of Pucara, where the original inhabitants lived until displaced by the Inca’s in the 1500’s.This settlement is located on a hill above the Rio Grande River immediately south of Tilcara and reached with an easy walk. The local indigenous community, Ayllu Mama Qolla, operates the site, along with a very impressive botanical garden full of local flora.The rock ruins are extensive, covering much of the hill which features hundreds of huge, wooly cactus which are shaggier cousins to the Saguaros of Arizona. An hour or two can easily be spent wandering the area, enjoying the views and taking pictures.

The ruins at Pucara 

The other notable attraction is 6 kilometers up the Huasamayo River, which runs into the Rio Grande from the east. The Garganta del Diablo(the Devil’s Throat), is a narrow chasm which was formed by an ancient earthquake. It now includes a hydroelectric plant that produces energy to the Pucara village but is an impressive geographical spectacle. A well maintained trail drops into the gulch from the entrance dwelling, with metal handrails to lend some comfort to folks prone to vertigo. A short walk further up the riverbed leads to a beautiful 10 meter waterfall surrounded by lush desert and some very lovely vegetation.

Like you might find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

I was fortunate enough to start my hike in the morning when the sun was still low enough that the slopes of the canyon offered some shade, but by mid day, that relief was gone, and late comers going up while I was descending were all sweating profusely, with many inquiring, ‘How much further’? I calculated most of these folks would give up before making it to the falls. But there’s plenty of water to splash on your face, and each one of those might be good for a quarter mile.

Where there’s water, there’s green

Tilcara is a total dog town, with lots of hounds with a human to look after them, and even more doing it on their own in the streets. They all seem to behave pretty well, and I saw no fights or even major disagreements. People have a benevolent attitude towards most, and leave water and food out for the hungry. They are everywhere, sleeping in a dirt pile in the shade, wandering around in small packs like fired up pre teens, and quietly patrolling any outdoor patio where they might find some discarded food.

Siesta time for a couple of the Tilcara locals

The town has an abundance of lodging options, from bare bones hostels to sleek stone and glass B & B’s. So many, in fact, that I have a difficult time believing that it ever fills up. The dining choices are likewise bountiful, elegant to way earthy, with many featuring local delicacies like Llama burgers and Humitas, a type of corn tamale. There are loads of free range chickens around, and cheap, filling street food , especially empanadas. My 180 peso hostel, the very chill Andino, served a decent breakfast with coffee included, and that seems to be the rule in Argentina’s north.

A ditch at the bottom of the Garganta del Diablo, Tilcara

All this makes Tilcara  an excellent base to explore the area from, with the fabled dead end village of Iruya two hours to the north, and the colorful trails around Purmamarca. less than 20 km to the south. Two days might not be enough, and maybe 3 too many, depending on how relaxed you want to be, but I know some who could spend a very leisurely week.