Argentina’s north-west is off the radar for many international travelers. Chile’s famous Atacama desert is nearby, to the west, and just north of here is the popular Salar de Uyuni. When people have seen those, most will head north towards Peru, or fly back to home and/or civilization. That’s okay, but it’s a good idea to spend a few days exploring in Jujuy, Argentina’s extreme north. The big draw here is the amazing coloring of the mountains. This destination is commonly known as the Quebrada de Humahuaca. When you get here, though, you will find several different “quebradas”, meaning ravines or canyons, all containing some pretty exciting geology.
We enter Argentina from Bolivia at the Villazon – La Quiaca crossing. It’s easy, but we have to walk a fair distance from the bus terminal in Villazon, across the border and into Argentina, and then find our way to another bus terminal to continue our journey. It’s not long before we see our first “layered” mountains. Even just driving through the area you’ll see a lot, but to really appreciate the phenomenon you have to stop somewhere and do some hiking.
The layers come in many color combinations, but also in a wide range of shapes, often wave-like. We don’t usually think of rock as moving around like this, but given the right conditions and a lot of time, mountains “float”, too.
Jujuy province is a long way from Buenos Aires, and one of the country’s poorest regions. Much of the population this far north seems to be military personnel. We drive past a few camp-like villages, where every house looks exactly the same, all the way down to having a revolutionary figure painted on the chimney.
It looks like a bleak place to serve. Every little bit of inspiration must be needed.
We choose the village Tilcara as our base. It might seem more obvious to stay in the main town in the area, Humahuaca, but we want to be near Pucará de Tilcara, a restored old Inca fortress. The surroundings are pretty spectacular, too.
The Pucará is within walking distance from the centre of Tilcara. This creaky old iron bridge takes us across a river with no water in it.
This is it. The greyish hill in the lower left part of the picture was built by the Incas, the Pucará de Tilcara. You may want to gape at the red rock in the background, but the main attraction is actually the tiny stone houses.
Some local kids play on the “main square” of the Pucará. It’s all stone, so if anything is damaged, it will probably be someone’s head, foot or arm. There are few visitors around, and not that much to do here, but we are happy to tick off another World Heritage Site from the list.
About 50 buildings have been excavated and rebuilt, dating from between the years 900 and 1500. As many as 2,000 people may have lived here back when the Incas used the place as a military outpost to secure the transport of various metals that were mined in this geological wonder world.
Rocks are good for walls, but to build a good roof that won’t necessarily kill you during an earthquake, you need planks. Luckily, the giant cactus that grows here is sturdy enough to be used as building material.
The people who lived here probably decorated their home somehow. All we see when we visit are stone walls, though. Nicely piled up, but it looks more like a medieval prison cell than actual living quarters for a family.
This is why the Incas decided to build their fortress in this spot. Both to the south and to the north, seen here, we can observe every movement in the valley from the top of this hill.
At the foot of the hill there are various animal closures and protected gardens. Stones have been meticulously gathered and made to fit tightly together to build these walls. The Incas were masters of this art. You can see it in Machu Picchu, and you can see it here.
Most stones in the walls are nicely rounded; some by having spent millennia in a river, others have been formed by hand. What they all have in common, though, is the same wide range of colors that we can see in the mountain sides all around us.
While the living quarters appear dark and gloomy, there are a few free-standing windows around.
Did you know that the word “window” comes from old Norse “vindauga”, meaning “wind eye”?
Anyway, they probably needed windows from where they could watch the comings and goings in the valley.
Like everywhere else in South America, there’s an intense ongoing evolution of new species of stray dogs in Tilcara as well.
A short local bus ride brings us from Tilcara to Maimara. It’s also possible to walk here along the river in a couple of hours. Here we find a particularly colorful part of the mountain range on the east side of the valley. We’ll be hiking in this area today.
Looking closer at the mountain “waves”, we can pick out several “shark fins” of colored rocks. Each color comes from a different era, taking a million years or more to form.
Halfway up the hill I meet this tiny-butted ant. To brighten her day, I pick a flower from a cactus and present it to her. She happily accepts, and starts unwrapping the gift right away.
More mountain waves awaits. This is one of the few places in the world where I actually enjoy the results of erosion.
Let’s zoom in on a section with a great many different colors close to each other. The green-ish grey probably contains copper and may be about 600 million years old. The pink is clay, mud and sand from 3-4 million years ago. The purple-ish part is a mix of lead and calcium carbonate, and yellow is sulphuric sand-stone, both estimated to be from 80 to 90 million years ago.
All of a sudden I feel young again.
Hiking in this environment can be risky. As I walk around looking at various rocks, they often crumble and slide or fall. I become slightly more cautious after finding this simple memorial.
The trail goes up and up, each turn offering a view more spectacular than the previous.
This is as far up as I get, giving me a generous view back towards Maimara. The barren and hostile landscape becomes an oasis of green farm land down where the river cuts through the valley.
The houses are basic. A farmer here may not get rich, but may well lead a rich life in surroundings like these.
The geology is accompanied by a fairly impressive flora. The Argentine Saguaro, Echinopsis terscheckii, can grow up to about the height of four men.
The most unexpected sight of the day are these random modern special characters graffitied all over a rock high in a hidden ravine well off the trail from Maimara. Did the Incas invent the typewriter?
This must be the rudest cactus in all of Andes. F U 2!
A much nicer cactus, and the colors in the background don’t hurt, either.
As I return to the river, I turn around and take this photo of the mountain I have just visited. It’s almost like an inverted rainbow in stone.
Walking along the river I am treated to more pretty sights. The flowering cacti contribute to this landscape of intense colors.
I’m almost ready to take my shoes off and ford the puny version of Rio Grande that currently flows through the Humahuaca canyon. Then this minimalist bridge appears, allowing me to cross with dry feet.
Back in Maimara, I find the locals wearing exactly the kind of clothes you expect to find up here.
A huge country like Argentina will always be a diverse place, and this part of the country is more like Bolivia than like Buenos Aires.
Two horses happily graze on the narrow strip of green enabled by the river.
The main “tourist attraction” in Maimara is the cemetery. It fills two whole hills in the town center, and there’s a variety of grave designs on display. Thanks to the harsh climate, all the flowers on the graves are plastic. Combined with the surreal mountains it makes for an interesting scene.
By the way; I’m glad I turned around when I did. There are some evil-looking clouds descending upon Maimara from the mountains now. They look cool, but they wouldn’t be much fun to get lost in.
Another series of colorful rocky waves, leading south down the valley.
For a few minutes there’s a pretty dramatic contrast between the dark and heavy clouds and the bright light from the setting sun. I just know it’s going to rain soon, but I can’t tear myself away from this view. Until it starts raining, and I can.
A last look back at the small canyon I explored, before it is hit by heavy rain. This day of hiking in some Andean relative wilderness has been quite rewarding. And I think you should give it a try, too.
How you can do this
For a similar experience in this area, you can base yourself in Humahuaca and take a day trip to the Mirador Hornocal. This is mainly a drive, with just a 20 minute hike to a viewpoint, from where you can see the most famous part of these mountains.
Another option is to stay in Purmamarca and hike to various viewpoints for the Cerro de los Siete Colors, the “Seven Color Mountain”. If you come from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you can get straight to Purmamarca by bus from there. You arrive late in the afternoon, having left San Pedro early in the morning.
You can also “do” the area on a looong and strenuous day trip from Salta (about three hours drive away) or from Jujuy (about an hour and a half away). I don’t recommend it, but it’s better than nothing.