Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Motorcycle trip day 4: Salta, Purmamarca, Tilcara, Humahuaca

November 23, 2011
quebrada de humahuaca unesco world heritage

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 4: Salta - Jujuy - Purmamarca - Tilcara - Humahuaca
Distance: 260 kilometers

We woke in Salta at 6:30, well rested from a real bed. The plan was to make haste to Purmamarca via Jujuy, so we skipped breakfast and were on the road by 8:15. In the road atlas, it looked like rt9 north was the most direct route, but the hostel manager explained that the newer highway east (also called rt9) was actually faster. The older road was "very dangerous," he said repeatedly while making spiraling motions with his hand.

The rain had passed, and the sky now was sunny and blue. The road was surrounded by mountains and occasional wheat fields. We rode 200 kilometers, past Jujuy (a city with not much recommending a stop) and turned off the main road toward Purmamarca. This was also the road to the Salinas Grandes salt flats, so the town would be our base for the next few days. (Originally we had planned to do the mountain ride to the salt flats on the same day, but Steph had the foresight to reverse the itinerary with the next day, making the time much more balanced.)

purmamarca town jujuy argentina
locro restaurant purmararca
Purmamarca is a small, dusty desert pueblo of four square blocks, but its position as a waypoint (and luxury spas outside of town) make it a tourist hub. We rode in before noon alongside tour buses and parked on an unpaved corner a block from the town square. Having eaten only trail mix all morning, we found an open (but empty) restaurant and devoured delicious locro, milanesa sandwiches (a very common breaded pork filet), salad with good fresh produce, and - possibly more important than food - coffee.

Energized, a little rested, and electronics fully charged (including our very important helmet walkie-talkies), we got back on the road for the 30km to Tilcara. Tilcara is another dusty desert town, but much bigger than Purmamarca, and is home to archeological excavations of an Incan fort city, Pucará.

In Tilcara my bike-handling skills were put to the test: The Street Glide is a heavy, strictly-road bike, and loaded top-heavily with a passenger and gear, was a challenge to handle even at city traffic lights. (Essentially, when not moving, the bike could lean at most 10° to either direction before the downward inertia overcame the strength of my legs, and the bike would fall over. This was compounded by the road angle or slippery surfaces.) The roads in Tilcara were steep, dusty gravel, with few signs, and barely wide enough to K-turn a small car, let alone this big bike with no reverse gear. So we got lost trying to find the ruins, but eventually found the bridge across toward them, and - having had enough of muscling the big beast - parked it and hiked the rest of the way.

pucara tilcara jujuy argentina
Pucará. (The pyramid in the center is a monument to the discovering archeologists, not part of the ruins.)
llamas pucara jujuy argentina
Llamas at Pucará
Some very odd cacti
Pucará was a strategic fort city for the Incans, but had no known fortifications; its value was purely in its topography, located on a mountain peak with a clear view around, the roads are nearly impassable and easily defended. It was no match for the Spanish invaders, however, who killed the chief and enslaved the population.

From Tilcara, we continued north toward Humahuaca. The mountain curves were wide, the kind that can be safely ridden at tight leans very fast. Unlike while stopped, the Street Glide surprised me with how wonderfully it leaned while riding. Curves are a vital part of what makes motorcycling so thrilling: a bike doesn't fight the inertia like a 4-wheeled vehicle; it leans into a turn the way a running animal would lean. In the riding course I took, we learned to accelerate through turns (after decelerating if necessary before entering it), to maximize control and traction with the road, and that feeling (multiplied by the thousands of curves we traversed) is incredible. Some passengers freak out at this, but Steph - as long as I didn't go too fast - loved it!

fort ruins pucara tilcara

This whole area is part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a ravine that has served as a trade route for millenia. All along the way were bridges over wide, dry riverbeds of the Rio Grande, which was still dry from the winter, but which flows again in the summer.

quebrada de humahuaca jujuy argentina road

Campsite with laundry and rain cover drying
In Humahuaca we found a very cozy campground. Like most of the campgrounds we saw, this was a plot of land owned by a family, their house next to the campers' bathrooms, adjoining a farm that was probably also theirs. The property "managers" were two brothers maybe 8-12 years old, who played soccer all evening. (At one point the ball came our way, and Steph, who played soccer for years, tried to kick it back, but the ball hit a rock and veered off; she remarked later that she understands why Latin American soccer players are so good, when they play for hours every day on gravel growing up.)

Amazingly cheap feast
Dinner was an amazing experience in cheap living. The campsite had a grill, so we walked into town for provisions: half a chicken for 12 pesos; 2 peppers, 2 onions, a potato, and 2 peaches all for 5.50 pesos; 4 rolls of bread and 7 dessert/breakfast pastries for 5 pesos; beer, sprite, and 3 bags of charcoal for another 20 pesos. So we had an enormous dinner, dessert, and breakfast the next morning all for US$10. Camping was 15 pesos ($3.50) per person, and on this off-season night, there were 5 other campers, which would easily easily cover the host family's meals for the day. (This prompted a discussion of how well we could live out here, on dollar incomes - if only there was high-speed internet, and things to do... cities are expensive for a good reason.)

How many colleged-educated Americans 
does it take to start a fire?
Getting the fire started was rather comic. This wasn't the lazy kind of charcoal with lighter fluid baked in, and the kindling I had bought did a whole lot of nothing. With cardboard and twigs we got it going several times, but it kept going out. Finally we resorted to using gasoline as lighter fluid, and that (aided by much fanning) eventually stayed lit for long enough to burn the coals for cooking. Ironically, the next morning I lit another fire with only matches and twigs (using the lean-to method I had read in the US Army Field Manual android app), and that lit up immediately and stayed lit through breakfast. Lesson learned.

The bike covered in mud, dust, and splattered bugs

1926 Ford Model T
Randomly, a 1926 Ford Model T at a gas station

A wild horse
Herding goats

- Ben

Continue to Day 5...

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