Tilcara was hot and everything was tinged with a blinding shade of dust. The mountains, the buildings, the streets, the dogs – it was all dusty. I felt like I’d stepped through the TV into the wild west. But instead of a six shooter, I was packing a laptop, and instead of horses, there were llamas.
Yes. Llamas. Finally. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Tilcara is only a few hours north of Salta, but it’s dramatically different. With a population of less than 6,000, it draws a few tourists because of its reconstructed Pre-Incan ruins.
As with so many choices Jared and I make, this town was chosen at random. I’m finally letting go of the obsessive planning for perfection and learning to take things as they come. Heck, at the moment we’re even talking about turning up in Uyuni, Bolivia without pre-booking accommodation.
It’s madness, I tell you. But I digress.
This time we did book accommodation, a double room in La Albahaca (which, according to google translate, means ‘basil.’ I would appreciate if someone could confirm or deny this). Imagine my surprise when we were led to the top level and let into a family room with its own private balcony.
The mountain view was spectacular. This is the stuff dreams are made of, people. All around the world, it’s the small towns that we don’t plan for that turn out to be the highlights.
Pucará de Tilcara
The site of the pucará (no, I don’t know what that means) was once a booming hilltop civilization overlooking the valley of the Rio Grande. The remains of the village houses were rebuilt and a pyramid-like monument was added. I don’t really understand its significance, but to me it says ‘virgin sacrifice.’
While the pucará itself was interesting, the real winners for me were the cactus garden and its resident llamas. I don’t know what it is about cacti, but they fascinate me. I have to fight the urge to touch their spikes and photograph them from every angle.
The only thing that distracted me from the cacti were the llamas. About eight of them were enclosed in a large field by a low stone wall, munching away at the grass. When Jared and I appeared, they moved as one towards the wall, obviously expecting to be fed.
La Peña de Carlitos
A peña is a place where traditional folk music is played while you eat or drink. When we walked in off the main plaza at 8:30, the restaurant was barren. Within an hour, there wasn’t an empty seat to be seen. Jared ordered a llama empanada for a starter, which I thought was blasphemous but he insisted was tasty. I made one of the best decisions of the whole trip, and ordered a ‘devil’s salad.’
It looked like this:
Between that and our liter of house wine, I was well prepared for the live entertainment.
And boy, did they entertain me. This troupe of traveling musicians played all sorts of instruments I hadn’t heard of before, and threw in a couple of Beatles covers for the gringos in the crowd.
The show lasted an hour and we all went home happy.
Forty minutes north is the town of Humahuaca (pronounced ‘oomawaca’), twice the size of Tilcara and home to two major tourist attractions.
One, this monument:
And two, a church on the plaza in the middle of the village. It’s not the church that’s famous, but what appears at noon. The plaza fills with tourists, kids eating ice cream, and ladies selling hats, all awaiting the stroke of 12. At that moment, a door on the side of the church creaks open, revealing a statue of Saint Francisco Solano to a chorus of tinny background music.
I’d like to add a third feature of interest to Humahuaca, and that’s this giant llama outside of a pottery store on the highway. If you’re über-quick, you can get a good shot of it. Sadly, I only saw it in passing from the bus window.
I’d heartily recommend Tilcara to anyone visiting northwestern Argentina, especially if you like gorgeous mountain views, fat, shaggy llamas, and cacti.
If you don’t, well, there’s always that salad.