The route out of Salta kick-started with a warm send off from our Hostel Salta Por Siempre’s obliging manager, after which wended us once again on the frilly edges that is ruta 9’s rah-rah skirt. Its snaking width narrowed down to four metres at best and three at worst. I intimately encountered three fly-sized hapless individuals that left a smarting sting after pinging straight onto my face. I think I swallowed one. That coupled with an all-consuming tortuous road, which when taken unawares by a speeding oncoming four-by-four kept any emerging hunger locked up til lunch.
The skirting road’s silver lining however was two-fold. We met Lloyd from France who was in the middle of pedalling his way from Peru to the southernmost city of the world, Ushuaia. Not an inch of fat was visible on this guy, he was just bones wrapped up in enthusiasm. I rather liked his blonde dreads that hung down his back. The guy’s high-octane vigour was contagious and we blitzed through some banter at a high-energy speed. The second positive – post the Kamikaze driver oblivious to one and all – was scrubbing my new tyre in. It’s surprising me more to confess such a declaration. What good road manners this shiny ‘straight from the mould’ tyre had; Pearl now cornered like she was on rails.
Route 9 we were heading on was taking us the 288 kilometres to Iruya, northwestern Argentina. Pearl never skipped a beat for the whole duration. We descended a whopping 1,220 metres over 19 kilometres through an intense set of gravel and sandy hairpins. I lost count to the number we twisted tightly around but I’d guess in the ballpark of around 50. Practice I was getting but improving I was not. The terrain around most of the hairpin bends was a whisker above my skill level or at least they were on that day, changing every turn into a near-mis-adventure a shade too close to the edge. The nervous tremors in my major organs became serious quakes on a couple of occasions. Fortunate for me, Pearl’s innate aplomb as well as instinct kicked in and more than once, saved me from myself.
Reaching this faraway town obscured from the mainstream became a real escapade; we totally underestimated the time it’d take to reach based on the distance. Maps give little and less clues on the conditions of the road; mayhaps I should be rising earlier than I had been. Much of the road to get there kept us neatly inside Jujuy province territory, until we met the town of Humahuaca. This is where we came upon the diversion to Iruya, deliciously tucked away from the masses.
Psyched to take the diversion, the first interesting point was the Iturbe Station. After endless curves and always climbing, we peaked at the highest point of the trail, Abra del Condor 4,000 metres above sea level, which served as a natural boundary between the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. The view of gargantuan mountains brightly streaked in ribbons of reds, pinks and a browny green moss – the green of moss in deep woods at dusk just before the light fades – evoked an awe-inspiring reaction. By now we were getting supremely spoiled with beautiful riding roads and it took something special to lure our sights.
Iruya was a tiny town accommodating around 1,000 people. An old town too, whose name means ‘Place of high grassland’, was surrounded by two rivers: Milmahuasi from which our hostel took its name and The Coranzulí. We caught sight of a colonial-style building that was dominated by mud, stones and straw for its construction. Its streets were exceptionally narrow, steep and cobbled to prevent erosion of water. The most curious and wonderfully heartening aspect of the place was that its residents still retained their dress, values and traditions from over 250 years ago. A magical place where the odd traveller doesn’t pass unnoticed.
Chin cocked up in the air, Hostel Milmahuasi was half way up a sharp slope. This is where my day commenced its crescendo on a note of melodic mayhem. Obliged into dodging donkeys, excitable children darting like a shoal of minnows in shallow water and the odd parked vehicle consuming the width of the road, I had to ride 100 metres past them all. Up a hill of rough-hewn cobbles protruding like chunky ice cubes. I stood on the foot pegs intent on giving Pearl enough momentum to power us both up, balanced with the required flair to skirt around all the local obstacles and avoid scraping if not altogether colliding into them. Zooming up, it felt like a 45 degree angle to Pearl and me. I was assured it most certainly was not. Not altogether sure how, Pearl and I negotiated the 30 degree bobbled incline, circled around the obstructions and dealt with a couple of sharp turns part way up – signalled by the local whistle-blowing police officer thrown in for helpful measure. Jason was leading me a merry dance up to the town’s highest point.
At the summit, I wondered about the effect of adrenaline spiking through me. I rapidly removed a glove to determine how shaky my hand was trembling. I think after the day we’d both just enjoyed as much as I’d endured, my body was in a calmer state than I’d anticipated. My hand was as still as a statue. Suffused with the glow of success, the swell of triumph expanded under my heart. A trace of ecstasy in my heart manifested itself as I grinned at the vista from the top of town, which was radiant in the late afternoon ephemeral light. Wow. It bowled us over epitomizing the beauty that is Argentina.
The day’s enchanting marvels mingled with a handful of misdemeanours over, we checked in at our lodging. A happy fatigue ran from my fingers, up my arms, down my back and through my lower limbs. My stomach had pretty much run on empty a while back; nothing but wariness lay behind my overworked muscles. The bed duvet was downy and heavy, I slept like a baby full on milk.
We took a rest day of pootling strolls down the zigzagging, tiered layers of Iruya. Past every stony switchback, I saw children playing with mud, sticks and stones sat on their haunches while their parents were busy with work. What looked like big natural buttresses – underneath those typically offering up Gothic style cathedrals – formed the hillsides, eroded by water and weather. Docile donkeys drifted past us with curious eyes to any nibble of food on offer and old looking men took their packed lunch to the town’s hub, a small cobbled square overlooking the never-ending magnificence of the valley.
We spent a pleasant evening with an Australian couple Neil and Mel that treated us to a couple of crisp beers in their plush hotel. Lovely people from Perth visiting their son after nudging him to take off and see a bit of the world. What a parenting pair! And another night with Cristina and Dora, two ‘larger than life’ women from Buenos Aires. They reminded me of school dinner ladies, singing away to themselves during the kitchen preparation: ‘Just keep cooking, just keep cooking!’. They rustled up a plethora of homemade pizza for us and a handful of other travellers, which after a day of gorging my senses outdoors my stomach followed suit on the lovingly prepared feast. We were all fit to burst in a foodies’ corner of heaven. Over a babble of excited people, dozens of questions were cast out of the inquisitive crowd; we swopped stories, supped on the local red wine and gregariously laughed the night away with one another.
Two hikes up both sides of the towns’ noble mountains turned into a pair of extraordinarily errant albeit furious footslogs. The first one we spotted a hummingbird, heard a chirping grasshopper and watched a couple of condors riding the thermals. High atop a ridge on the sloping edge of a sheer drop, we chanced upon a lady called Terradora whose makeshift windowless house boasted Iruya’s most enviable view. She calmed her dogs into a muted quiescence, kindly acquainted me to her one-year old daughter Evelyn – wrapped up in warm layers from her head of tousled hair to toe – and continued washing clothes in the front yard.
It didn’t take more than a thimble of sense to realise this woman had endured a life of hardship living off the land. I catalogued her face; deep wrinkles hatched her hollow cheeks and her mouth had thinned. She appeared well into the autumn of her days although was clearly of child bearing age. Her features were etched in weathered lines that were hard like drawn wires but somehow softened by intrigue. Her face was quiet and she gave me a curious look through eyes like the timeless eyes of a statue. I liked her a lot.
We chatted for a while when Terradora gestured for me to feed her kid, the baby goat variety not her child. I tentatively enquired if it’d be okay to capture a photograph and although her smile remained infectious, gently shook her head from side to side. I’ve read that in some cultures taking a permanent image of someone is tantamount to taking their soul. Seeing the interplay of emotions on Terradora’s face, Jase popped his camera away and we thought nothing more of it. Up here time had stood still, it washed over me and washed me away.
My eyes leapt across the velvety landscape adorned in rich fragments of burnt oranges, sienna and deepening rusts and reds. A warm wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water. The greyish pinks looked the most striking against the spearmint and pistachio greens amid an unknown violet presence piercing through the ribs of rock. The colours were so rich in the light they might have been shades cast by another world. On a precipice, I mused this must be the most kaleidoscopic land in which I’ve been immersed. If Jason was Joseph, he was definitely cloaked in a technicoloured dream coat living out his own photographer’s fantasy. It was ample to make me fall in love with Argentina all over again; I already couldn’t wait to revisit the region.
Crossing the river, slogging up the hillside through a labyrinth of twists and turns on trek number two, we met Izara. I admired the character reflected in his face – a picture of two hamster cheeks bulging with cocoa leaves sandwiching an almost toothless smile – thrilled that he was happy to pass the time of day with us. I deciphered the gist of his conversation, slightly distorted by a mouth preoccupied with chewing; the pronunciation practically impossible to wrap the human tongue around. He introduced us to his workhorses and pack donkeys including a pregnant one loaded up with supplies; presuming by his direction of travel for trading with the town folk. With legs like wood, I took my time traipsing along the mountain trails. Picking my way carefully not just because they were steep and we were at altitude but some were gravelly ruts no wider than half a foot across accompanied by a fatal drop. I marvelled at how sure footed the donkeys we’d encountered were on the treacherous terrain and surmised they only needed a hoof-width to get just about anywhere. I didn’t hear a single one’s braying call from these beasts of burden.
By four in the afternoon, we meandered around jagged peaks that rose as if to scrape the sky, passed the odd mud bricked house on open land home to man and his donkeys – Izara’s of whose had led their way back by themselves – and made it to San Juan. It was a village only accessible by the precipitous mountains we’d climbed; the inhabitants had no electricity and such folks had to face the long arduous journey back and forth to Iruya to replenish their provisions and supplies. This corner of the world blew my mind another notch. It whet an insatiable appetite for more of these pearlers, those as solitary as they were special. That night I lay deep in sleep drained of physical strength. Weariness still hung in my muscles at the sun’s first smile, the night’s rest hardly a payment on the debt I owed my body for the unyielding hours of uphill trekking. My well-being however was reawakened and revived.
The finale took place when my ears pricked up to some singing piquing my interest – emanating from a small town hall. Towards the end of a ceremony or service of some kind, people began shaking hands with one another in time to some appeasing Argentinian music. As well as exchanging polite kisses, pecking one person on the cheek to another. Someone noticed me peering half a head in and didn’t think twice in greeting me in the same manner. Before I had chance to discern my whereabouts, I was inside a sea of warmth and tactile reception, friendliness flowing from every direction. I got this incredible feeling of togetherness, family ties bound in a congregation of fellowship and companionship. It was overwhelming yet I felt calm, in possession of the moment. I was received by every local, dark haired member of the room, about 50 in all from a community of: waddling toddlers; curious children stroking my face and hair; young boys carrying out their obligations towards both the familiar and a strange white woman wondering through; teenage girls and elders well into the winter of their days; the women organisers of the event and parents pleased to see an unknown face. To this day, I have no idea what I walked into, I just know it made me feel wonderfully wanted and part of something.
Iruya was a grand-scale projection of the human mind onto a petite piece of landscape. To my mind, its form wasn’t accidental or random but an enigmatic reflection of shared vision of the peoples’ physical as well as spiritual world, their kinship systems. A gem buried deep within Argentina’s trove of treasures whose soul-enriching and life-rejuvenating energy was impossible to miss.