Day 4 (Tuesday, January 31, 2012). Many Argentine kids learn about the Quebrada de Humahuaca through a song by Maria Elena Walsh—a wonderful Argentine music writer and singer— that talks about a studious cow that wanted to learn and decided to go to school. It was not easy for the cow. On top of being a cow, she was old and could not hear well from one ear, so her young human classmates made fun of her and raise havoc in class. At the end, the cow was the only one who learned anything at school and became the only wise inhabitant of Humahuaca.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a narrow valley that runs north-south in the Province of Jujuy. In the rainy season (now, the Southern Hemisphere summer) the Río Grande runs full of sediment at the floor of the valley but in the winter months the river is dry.  The valley is relatively short, less than 200 kilometers, but offers very colorful rock formations—that remind me of certain areas of Death Valley in California—and holds several picturesque towns like Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Humahuaca.

The indigenous people of this region, the Diaguita-Calchaquí, fiercely resisted the Inca invasion but were ultimately subjugated. The farmed and had herds of llamas. Indian blood runs through the veins of many of the people who live here today. During the Spanish domination the Quebrada de Humahuaca was the southern gate to the rich Alto Perú (Upper Perú) and its mines. During the wars of independence, the narrow Quebrada became an impassable barrier for the criollo forces coming from the south.  Many battles took place here and the Spanish were almost always victorious.  The Upper Perú, the last stronghold of the Spanish in South America, will be freed from the north.

Today was our rest day; we planned to ride only a few kilometers to the city of Humahuaca. We woke up at a beautiful hotel in Purmamarca. After breakfast we took a nice walk through the town (we and plenty of other tourists). Purmamarca is located in a very narrow valley that opens a few kilometers from the town into the main valley of the Quebrada. The sandstone of the mountains around the town offers a wide palette of colors dominated by ochre and yellow. Saguaro-like cacti stand on the hills as tall sentinels. Droopy molles or aguaribay (false pepper, relatively common in California) and big algarrobos (think mesquite) grow at random locations through the town. Skinny poplars planted in rows offer protection to the cultivated areas of the valley.  At around noon, we started riding towards Humahuaca. There were big clouds on the sky but it did not look like it was going to rain. We turned into a muddy road to get a closer look at the planted fields.  We saw corn with purple stems, beets, tomatoes, lettuce, and several different kinds of flowers growing on perfect rows on the red soil.  We crossed a cement bridge over the muddy red Río Grande to find a man tilling a large plot of land by foot with a donkey.  Most houses on the countryside—built with homemade large mud bricks— seemed quite simple and are rarely painted.

We briefly visited the little village of Maimará with its charming cemetery (can a cemetery be charming? A few kilometers later we stopped at the city of Tilcara, site of a famous pukará—a typical Inca fortress built on a hill. A few kilometers after Tilcara we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn as large dark clouds were developing around us.

We took another detour from the main road to get closer to my favorite mountain in this region, a red mesa with a yellow top layer. When I was a kid, I took a great picture of this hill with my mom’s Kodak Instamatic. The rain from the day before had left several deep cuts on the road so we ended up doing a bit of “offroading”.  It was fun but we need to get better at riding on gravel roads before we get down to Patagonia.

We finally reached Humahuaca a few minutes before heavy rain begun to fall. Once again we found shelter at a gas station. Most service stations in Argentina have WiFi so I do most of my blogging there.  After two hours the rain gave us a break long enough to find a hotel. We went to sleep without having dinner.  It was raining hard again and it was cold.