Salt flats, earthquakes and jacuzzis

27 02 2010

We’d planned to get up much earlier but I think the multiple bus journeys of the last few days had tired us out more than we expected. Jola’s phone kept going off with lots of panicked smses about some earthquake in Chile. We asked the hotel owner if he knew anything about the terremoto in Chile but he shrugged his shoulders with a look that said, “Who cares what happens in Chile?”

We put our bags in storage on the street by the bus stop and found a minibus heading to Salinas Grandes. The whole trip would take about 3 hours. There was a big crowd of guys from Buenos Aires on the bus; another woman from BA, Marta, and her French friend who also spoke Spanish. Jola and I were therefore the only people on the bus who didn’t really speak Spanish. We took quite a windy road as high up as 4170m and then descended down towards the on the salt flats. The scenery was very dramatic with lots of rugged mountains all around but nothing could compare to the sheer whiteness and vastness of the flats themselves. It was really hot so I joined the BA guys in divesting my T-shirt and effectively sunbathing on the flats.

Me at the salt flats

The bus back to Purmamarca was lots of fun – everyone was singing along with lots of Spanish songs. When we got back to town we went to lunch with Marta and the French girl (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten). After lunch we headed around the market to buy some souvenirs and then headed to the bus stop. Unfortunately the bus depot (along with our rucksacks) was closed so we just had to hope that he’d come back in time for the next bus so that we could buy our tickets and get our stuff. Fortunately he did.

The bus to Jujuy was also quite basic. As we were loading our bags into the boot I managed to whack the bag boy around the head which, when I also didn’t have any small change to tip him with, probably pissed him off even more. Once again I really worried about whether our bags would arrive at our destination. Halfway through the police boarded the bus – I’m never really sure what they’re looking for – and looked through the luggage hold, I began to worry even more that some corrupt copper had removed our bags from the bus so that he could rifle through them in his own time.

As we pulled into Jujuy we saw lots of people celebrating carnival and throwing flour and water over each other. Originally we were going to stay in Jujuy for the night but Marta had really slated the place so we decided to see if there was a bus to Salta instead. There was one within 10 minutes at 20:00 so we quickly booked ourselves on it and jumped back on a bus. Since it would be our last night as travel companions we decided to blow the budget a little and celebrate by staying in a four-star hotel instead of a hostel.

After looking up some options in the Footprint guide (for some reason the Lonely Planet on a Shoestring doesn’t include the more opulent options) we eventually found ourselves at Ayres de Salta Hotel. You could feel the sneers from the hotel staff as they looked down on us scruffy backpackers. Jola is an aquaphile so even though it was almost midnight she decided that we should hang out at the roof terrace pool.

We also decided that we should get a bottle of champagne to celebrate the end of our travels together. Having looked at the exorbitant price of the tiny bottles in the mini bar I went downstairs to ask if there was an off-license in the neighbourhood. The concierge told me that it was too late for such places but I decided to ignore his advice and wandered back into the hotel 5 minutes later with a bottle of Argentinian sparkling wine under my arm that I’d found less than a block and a half from the hotel.

We got up to the pool but there were no towels and we thought there might be more lights so I went down to reception again and the guy arranged to bring us some towels up. There was no additional lighting in the pool, however. Whilst he was there he asked us if we wanted the jacuzzi filled up to which we of course replied in the affirmative and after a lot of rummaging around in a weird basement under the decking the jacuzzi started filling up. He told us it would be full in half an hour but not to use it before then.

After a few laps of the very cold pool we got into the jacuzzi which was lovely and warm, and we sat drinking the champagne whilst looking out over the city of Salta. It was a fine end to our travels together. After a while we tried switching on the jacuzzi but it didn’t seem to work. Also the water level kept on increasing and started to slosh over the side into the basement below. I also thought I could smell burning. Eventually I had to telephone reception (the real conversation was longer):

“Hi. I’m in the swimming pool and the jacuzzi is overflowing”
“The swimming pool is closed, sir”
“But I’m in the swimming pool”
“It’s closed, sir”
“Anyway, the-jacuzzi-is-overflowing”, I said, as slowly as possible.
“I’m sorry, sir, I do not understand what you mean”
“Agua to dos”
“I don’t understand you, sir. I shall send the concierge up”

After some time the concierge came up and turned the pump off and then informed us that the jacuzzi wasn’t actually working which was why we couldn’t get any bubbles in the water. As he locked up the basement door he managed to drop the keys for it between the slats of the decking back into the basement. I’m not sure what he said in Spanish but I’m sure it was “Whoops!” We all laughed a lot.

After we’d finished the bottle of wine we headed back to the room for some much-needed sleep.

Reconstructed Inca ruins

26 02 2010

On the morning we headed into the main square of Humahuaca to have a quick look around the town that we’d not really seen yet and Jola also wanted to get some cash out. Unfortunately her card didn’t work in the machine there (it seems to be a quite common phenomena that your card only works in certain machines). We then hopped on a small bus to Tilcara just down the road. Someone at breakfast had told us that the “Inca” ruins there were well worth visiting.

Town centre of Humahuaca

Because the guide-book told us that the ruins didn’t open until 4 o’clock we dropped off our bags at a luggage storage place at the bus station and spent our time wandering around the local markets and an interesting cemetery. After killing some time we went and got some lunch – it was possibly the best yet. I had some llama stew and I think Jola had a salad that was really fresh – unlike the rest of Argentina the lettuce was green!

After our lunch we headed up the hill to the Inca ruins of Pucará de Tilcara. In the market just outside the ruins Jola bought a new bombilla (straw) for her mate gourd (for some strange reason when she left her gourd behind in Córdoba she also left the straw behind). It turned out that the ruins were open all day so we hadn’t needed to wait for so long before going there. We even bumped into the people from our hostel on the way who’d recommended it to us – the guy was going there for the second time. Jola and I were deeply disappointed, however, because it turned out that it was a monument built sometime late last century dedicated to the archaeology team that had been investigating the Inca ruins. Also the nearby houses had been built in the 1960’s.

Pucará de Tilcara

Afterwards we got on a really small local bus to Purmamarca. Since we’d paid so little for the bus ticket we couldn’t really see why the bag boy should get a tip but I worried that our bags wouldn’t actually be on the bus for most of the way there. The bus seemed to stop all over the place and at one point I thought we were the only gringos on the bus but I noticed a couple more as we got off at our destination.

There isn’t really a bus station at Purmamarca: it’s just a little street leading to the town centre. The town centre itself is literally one square with a few streets leading off it. The whole town sits in the shadow of Cerro de Siete Colores (the seven-coloured mountain) and is really quite cute. We headed to the tourist information centre and he marked lots of places to stay on the map but most of them were either expensive 4-star establishments or hostels that were such dives that even the cockroaches wouldn’t stay there (and that for a price of more than 90 pesos). Another guy showed us a place that we could stay at but it was effectively his house so it was a bit dubious. After wandering around for an hour we were just about to go back to one of the places that had offered us a room for 120 pesos (and wasn’t prepared to negotiate even though it was late in the day and there were unlikely to be any other customers coming through) when we bumped into a guy who gave us a card for a hotel that offered us an en-suite room for less.

Unfortunately when we got back to his hotel there was no one there and we couldn’t get in. We were just about to give up on that too when suddenly he turned up and showed us the room. It was by far the best and most reasonable option that we had seen so far so we were very pleased. After grabbing a shower we headed out to the main square where we had arranged to meet Lea and Rachela the previous day. They didn’t show up so it is possible that they had struggled to find reasonably priced accommodation too and given up on Purmamarca and headed further afield.

Jola and I found a cheap restaurant just off the main square and had our first tamales and humitas. It was good food but I think we were the only customers there for the whole evening. The town seemed deserted even though we were expecting some carnival celebrations somewhere. As such we headed back and called it a night.