I came home from my Rotary meeting around midnight on Thursday, February 28th. I had a facebook message from Brittany Coppola, an Ambassadorial Scholar in Buenos Aires. She realized she had some time before her classes started, and she wanted to travel. I’m the only Ambassadorial Scholar in Argentina who isn’t in Buenos Aires, so naturally, she figured she might come to Salta. The catch was that her message read, “I’m thinking about buying a plane ticket and leaving Buenos Aires tomorrow.” Luckily I didn’t have class that weekend, so I said, “Why not?”
The next day, Friday, I took the bus out to the airport in Salta to find her. I looked around and saw the one white person standing outside — must be her! We hugged and then walked to the bus stop. I’m fortunate because the bus line that goes to the airport stops right outside my apartment. So around 40 minutes later we were in my apartment. We spent the next two days exploring Salta, something I hadn’t really done yet (whoops).
We enjoyed a dozen empanadas at a café on the plaza and went to the anthropology museum that has mummified children found buried in a mountain on display.
We also went into two of the huge, gorgeous cathedrals here in Salta. It’s funny, I am so used to walking by these amazing churches and historic buildings that I don’t even notice them anymore. But seeing Brittany so amazed at the gorgeous architecture reminded me that I am indeed incredibly fortunate to have these gorgeous churches just a few blocks from my apartment.
We also had the opportunity to go up the Teleférico, or cable car, and were treated to a gorgeous view of the city, even though it was a cloudy day.
Brittany suggested we head out to a peña, a bar/restaurant with live, traditional music and dancing. After getting a suggestion from a friend here in Salta, we showed up and were treated to an amazing show that was absolutely free!
Saturday night rolled around and Brittany hopped in the shower around 11 PM while I cleaned my apartment a bit (if you know me well, you know I exclusively, randomly clean late at night). When she came out, she looked at me and said, “Do you just want to rent a car with me and drive around the northwest for the next week?”
I laughed, thinking she was kind of kidding at first. And then I thought about it, and said, “Yeah. I do.” So I decided to skip class the following weekend (sorry, Rotarians! But the returned scholars at my orientation told us to do this kind of thing), we researched the best car rental company, I packed my bag, and we left Salta the next morning for Jujuy. I can’t pronounce Jujuy (no, it doesn’t sound like the candy Jujubes) so I just call it J-Town now. J-Town was alright – a smaller, more indigenous version of Salta, really.
We also heard about a Carnaval celebration happening in a neighborhood southeast of the city, figured out the bus to get there, and went. We showed up and I felt like I was in Ecuador again – gravel streets, poorly constructed homes, a random market selling everything spread out around the neighborhood, and lots of indigenous-looking people. We finally found the parade, and it was AMAZING. Apparently Argentinians like to celebrate with “nieve,” (snow), which is basically white fluffy silly string in an aerosol can. Being tall and white, we were the target of some nieve attacks, but nothing too serious. There were indigenous dancers, modern dancers, people dressed as devils, people dressed in some traditional indigenous clothes, people wearing huge masks… so cool! As it started to get dark we headed back to our hostel and made plans to head to Hertz first thing the next morning.
I’m pretty sure the guy at Hertz thought I was nuts, because I asked every single possible question. What happens if we get a flat tire? What happens if someone breaks into the car? What if someone steals the car? What if we get in an accident? What if we want to return the car early? What if we return the car late? Oh, we can return it to Salta? Is that more expensive?
After finally being assured that Hertz was a good bet because of the insurance aspect, we took the plunge and I signed my name on theline. Brittany didn’t know how to drive stick, and I had exactly 2 hours of prior experience in the states. But travel isn’t fun if it isn’t an adventure, right? I stalled 3 times just trying to get out of the parking space, but once we got going I was doing just fine. Until we took a wrong turn and had to turn around. I suddenly realized… I had no idea how to put the car in reverse. We were on a country road, it was raining, and there was no one around to help. The car literally wouldn’t go into reverse even though I was pushing the gear stick. Brittany literally got out of the car and started waving down the first car to pass. The guy was nice enough to stop, and he sat down and reversed the car in no time. He just told me I had to “levantar” (pick up/lift up/elevate) the gear stick, got out, and continued on his way. Even though I understood what he said, I could not figure out what he meant. I tried to pull up and couldn’t do it. So we continued on our way and hoped we wouldn’t have to reverse again.
We pulled into our first stop, Purmamarca, about an hour later. Of course, we had to put the car in reverse once we got into town, and had to ask someone else. This person actually explained it, and had me do it before he let us drive away. There was this little switch underneath the knob that I had to slightly pull up with my hand underneath… SO confusing, and the car I practiced on definitely didn’t have this. We finally figured it out though, found a hostel, and set out on a hike around Purmamarca.
WOW! Being from flat old Wisconsin, I was just in awe at the gorgeous landscapes. I had seen pictures in guidebooks, but the pictures did not do this place justice. It was warm, sunny, clear, and the rock formations were so many different colors! The bright red rock contrasted so beautifully with the blue sky.
After a night in Purmamarca, we headed to the salt flats. We were sharing a hostel room with a guy from Buenos Aires, Martín, and we asked if he wanted to come to the salt flats with us. He happily agreed, and we set out on the drive. As we started to ascend, we were literally driving through clouds. Visibility went down to about 4-5 feet, and I couldn’t see anything.
This was also a curvy mountain road without guard-rails in most cases. I didn’t realize that the lower you shift, the more power we would have to go up the mountain, so I was SO happy Martín was there. From the backseat he kept telling me to shift to 2nd, back up to 3rd, back down to 2nd, and so on. Finally we made it out of the cloudy mountain madness and saw the salt flats in the distance.
The flat flats are considered a “retina-searing experience.” All of the white really hurts your eyes after awhile, but my $10 Target sunglasses seemed to do the trick. We also ran into a Rotary Youth Exchange student from Vermont who was in Jujuy for the year and her family came to visit her… small world!! At the salt flats there wasn’t much traffic and I figured it would be a good idea to have Brittany try to drive stick shift. After all, you never know what can happen. Shockingly, she started accelerating totally fine. She didn’t stall. Martín and I were in complete shock that she learned how to drive stick in approximately 5 minutes. She had been watching me drive stick and had been helping out as much as possible, so all that time in the passenger seat really paid off.
After the salt flats we spent a night in Tilcara (nothing to report besides a terrible hostel), said goodbye to Martín, and then headed out of town. We stopped to get gas and I went to use the bathroom. As I was walking into the gas station, there was a tiny (1.5-inch) step up that I entirely missed. I slammed my toe into this tiny ledge and fell, catching myself with my hands. The guys at the gas station were clearly trying not to laugh, but I asked them where the bathroom was. I headed around the corner to the bathroom, looked down, and saw quite a bit of blood on my toe and my flip flop. Crap. I literally put my foot in the bathroom sink with freezing cold water, but as soon as I looked down again there was more blood. I hobbled back to the car, looked at Brittany and said, “Okay. Pretty sure I broke my toe or something and I can’t drive.” I put a few band-aids on my toe, Brittany got behind the wheel, and we set off. She stalled twice as we were leaving the gas station but after that she was phenomenal. Good thing I had taught her how to drive stick the day before, huh? (No, I didn’t break my toe, but my toenail is pretty purple right now. And yes I realize we broke the rental car contract agreement by having her drive, but it all worked out).
We safely made it up to Humahuaca, which is a lovely, lovely city. I really enjoyed the time we spent there — it has such a “buena onda,” what can be loosely translated as good vibe. From Humahuaca we headed even farther north, and finally found the tiny village of Hornaditas. Martín had told us about a couple, Hector and Clarita, who live on a farm in Hornaditas and open up their home to travelers. We had to ask 2 different families where their house was, but finally found it! Their daughter, Gabi, came up to greet us and shortly thereafter we met Patrick who is from Canada and was doing WWOFing (google it). We paid 50 pesos ($10) a night to stay there, and in return helped them milk their goats, make cheese, cook lunch and dinner, help Gabi a little bit with her English.
It is clearly a shock that I milked a goat, but it was a pretty cool experience. We also helped to herd them, learned a lot about the goat lifestyle, and I didn’t even get allergic! Success.
When we weren’t busy on the farm, Clarita and Hector also took us out on a couple of expeditions, including a 9-mile hike in the area. Somehow I missed the 9-mile memo and thought it would be a nice little 2-hour excursion or something like that. I was so, so wrong. It really was worth it though… take a look:
Like the quote at the beginning of this post reads, “Travel is about the GORGEOUS feeling of teetering on the unknown.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I told Brittany I’d go with her, but it was an awesome trip and I’m so thankful I got to explore the gorgeous villages and landscapes in the Jujuy province. We had no real plan and arrived and left each town whenever we felt like it. I’m going to travel like that more often… and teeter on the unknown.