Calilegua National Park

This is a place that is somewhat difficult to get to, and thus doesn’t attract hordes of visitors like other national parks in Argentina. There lies much of the appeal, as it feels like you have the place to yourself, usually a welcome sensation. it’s located 130 km north of San Salvador de Jujuy, with the closest town Libertador General San Martin 8k from the park entrance. There is a smaller town called Calilegua a couple of kilometers closer, but it’s very limited in terms of tourist services and not very useful.

Calilegua doesn’t get much more crowded than this

Public transportation to the park is provided by a bus that leaves San Martin each morning at 8:30, and returns from the entrance gate at 6:30. There are also taxis available for hire, and the standard rate one way is 200 pesos, about $9. The ranger station at the park gate provides maps and practical information, while the visitor center across the road features remarkable metal sculptures of some of the parks wild residents, such as the redoubtable Jaguar.

The Plush Crested Jays are  numerous in Calilegua

There is a very well maintained network of trails that extends into the park from the station, each color coded and signed. I covered most of four different ones in an afternoon, and would have needed just another day to traverse most of the others. There is a clean, orderly campground with water and fire pits which would make an easy position to explore the park in a leisurely manner. A tent is essential, as well as insect repellant, as the mosquitoes are many. The vegetation is thick and very similar to the dry rain forest of Costa Rica, but without the monkeys. The bird population is stunning, and really the prime attraction for many. I spotted several beauties, including several species I’d never seen before. One, the Pijui Canela, or Cinnamon Spinetail, shined through the greenery like an electric orange lantern. The Irraca Comun, or Plush Crested Jay, is numerous, not shy, and striking, similar to a Magpie. I spotted many types of hummingbirds, fleetingly of course, and heard dozens of unfamiliar calls and whistles. A serious birder could spend unlimited time in this forest and not be disappointed.

The Interpretive Trail close to the Calilegua entrance

I was looking for resident Jaguars, and any kind of mammal, and saw none, but I would venture to say that these would only be encountered at night. Camping would facilitate this, as would spending a few days rambling all the trails, especially early and late.

Calilegua has good camping and day use faciliites

Several locals told me that the other side of the park, called Alto Calilegua, was more remote, higher, and open than this side, and wilder to boot. There is a very small settlement called San Francisco here, and a couple of places to stay, and this seems to be the superior portal from which to discover the parks marvels. The wanderer who is reasonably self reliant, and not tied to any rigid schedule, will find Calilegua worth any effort to reach. The only mechanical noise around is the sound of vehicles winding around the curvy Route 83, the only road in the park, bringing very sporadic traffic from San Francisco, 18 km away. Utilizing the daily shuttle bus permits access to the interior of the park without having to rely on a rental car or commercial transportation. Proper footwear, bug juice, binoculars and a camera will enable wanderers to make the most of their likely limited time here. A tent and proper cooking gear would be the icing on the cake.

If you’re going off trail here, bring your machete

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.