tilcara-1280It is a truth universally acknowledged that in every major city around the world, you’re never more than three wrong turns from encountering a troupe of brightly clothed street musicians playing ‘El Cóndor Pasa‘ on the pan-pipes. This is as much a hazard in Chicago as it is in Covent Garden, as problematic in Paris as in Prague. Unexpectedly, it is also true in the far north-west of Argentina, despite the fact that the phrase ‘major city’ is here used to denote anywhere with a five-figure population.

The north-west of Argentina, it turns out, is pan-pipe territory. ‘El Cóndor Pasa’ may have been written by a Peruvian, but its roots apparently lie in an Andean folk melody. Folk melodies are notoriously rootless things, and the Andes are a big and mysterious place. We’re on the edge of them here, and our wanderings have been accompanied by the sort of jaunty, unrefined, tourist-friendly world music that the world music industry doesn’t bother to promote. In backpacker-packed Tilcara, we even heard a pan-pipe rendition of ‘The Last Post’, tooted out at a Saturday-morning ceremony in the main square to mark an occasion whose significance we couldn’t quite understand.

This corner of Argentina feels a world apart from the rest of the country: more akin to Bolivia than to Buenos Aires, defined less by European influence and more by the folkloric culture of the indigenous people who still make up the lion’s share of the population. In isolated Yavi, a fascinating museum tells the story of a once-thriving, centuries-old town that was shrunk to a village of just 200 souls when the railroad passed it by, but it doesn’t mention the postscript: the half-dozen hostels and hosterías that are starting to bring a measure of tourism, and income, to a village with more obvious past than present.

 


 

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We’ve ridden up here partly for the joy of it: the northernmost stretch of Ruta 9 is one of the country’s modest glories. From the handsome city of Salta, the road delivers you to San Salvador de Jujuy via a soaring, serpentine, unexpectedly green hill road, then rises through a desert landscape soaked in reds and oranges as it runs through the Quebrada de Humahuaca and north towards Bolivia. (We’re writing this at the frontera, holed up in a splendid hostel in a desert town called La Quiaca, but with no intention of crossing the border to Villazón for more than a quick look and a spot of lunch.) It’s a fabulous road on which to ride a bicycle.

However, we also had an ulterior motive for heading this way, which was to see how our bodies coped with cycling at altitude. Altitude sickness is a mysterious thing, affecting sufferers essentially at random, and neither of us has had any experience of riding at the kind of heights that leave some people dizzy. If one or both of us struggles badly at these elevations, we’d rather find out here, where help is easily found, than on the more isolated Andean crossing we’re hoping to make next week.

quebrada3-1024We’ve spent the last four or five days riding and resting at around 3,500m above sea level in a landscape that, figuratively and literally, can leave you breathless. The air is thinner here, and feels it. The clouds are closer overhead – close enough to touch, it seems sometimes – and the skies are vast, dense, dramatic. The crispness of the atmosphere leaves perspective skewed or shot: a tree or a turning on the road ahead can appear imminent from eight, nine, ten kilometres away.

Riding is harder, then, but not yet hard, and we’re blessedly free of the symptoms of what the locals know as soroche. Reassured, we’ll be heading back south when the weather clears, turning right at Purmamarca and heading over to Chile.

from La Quiaca, JY, Argentina