Tilcara, Argentina – Argentina

As the jungle road wound its way from Salta, vegetation seemed more and more exhausted the higher we got, changing from moist greenery to brushy shrubs until only cacti survived around the commanding heights of the Andes cordillera. What was lost in flora was gained in colour, as a rocky rainbow of ochre, violet, grey, olive and amber replaced the green of the leaves.

Argentina is a diverse and beautiful country, mistakenly thought to be exclusively Latin. One only has to travel to the Puna to see how the conquistadors wonderfully failed to dominate the indigenous people of this region.

There are cars and telephones in Tilcara and its smaller neighbour, Purmamarca, but visitors feel transported in time nonetheless. The natives of the Andes here in Jujuy Province have experienced Spanish invasion, Catholic conversion and industrial revolution, yet their culture and customs remain basically intact.

Although the colonial town structure of a square surrounded by a church and town council is still the rule in Andean towns, the stone walls and homes, constructed of hay, adobe and cactus wood seem to have sprung up from the earth itself. Constructed in the same style of their Inca ancestors, most of these newer versions now boast running water and electricity.

Despite the shops selling commercial soft drinks and candies, most people subsist on the same tamales, tortillas and goat or mutton meat pies of their forefathers. The small, wide-boned, dark-skinned people of the Andes are far more silent and reserved than the Latin immigrants in the south, and although Spanish is spoken, their native Quechua is the language of choice.

Perhaps because these people are so verbally reserved, music plays an important factor in daily life. Charango and Quena music were born in these mountains, and made popular by musicians like Jaime Torres and Los Chalcheleros. The unique string and wind instruments used lend a soft and melancholy quality to the tunes, and the lyrics usually touch on themes dealing with nature or folklore.

The presence of the Catholic Church is evident in this corner of the earth, but the indigenous belief systems were too strong to be completely dominated by foreign idols. A hybrid of native and Catholic religions is practiced here, yet the modesty of the churches and the flamboyant gravestones, decorated by huge, multicolored plastic flowers and bottles of soft drinks (poured onto the earth to revere the dead) show that the Pope definitely takes a back seat to Pachamama, the Earth Mother.

Carnival is further evidence of pagan/Catholic cross breeding. The celebrations here begin with the unearthing of a small devil-effigy from its rocky lair, which is decorated with cornhusks and flowers as symbols of fertility. Offerings of cigarettes and alcohol are made to the earth at this time to ensure good crops. Villagers light firecrackers to provoke the devil, and once the doll appears, several boys dressed as “El diablo” toss it around to nearby revelers, and followed by a band, lead a dancing procession through the streets. The congregation ends at the town hall, where music and dancing continue until the wee hours.

The celebration is a chance for villagers to thank Pacha (the Earth) for all it has given, and is also an excuse to go a little crazy. It is said that the devil possesses the souls of people during Carnival, and it is at this time that the normally shy people of Northern Argentina shower each other with confetti, talc, water and foam and maybe have a bit too much plum wine.

Nine days of partying later, the festival ends with nine offerings to Pachamama (one for each day of the festivities) and the devil is once again buried back in his hole and covered safely with rocks until next year.

The climate of the region ranges from dry and hot in summer to near zero in winter. Traditional garb like the poncho and wide-brimmed hat used in summer and ear-flapped hat for winter are the key pieces in each person’s wardrobe, but are worn with a more modern combination of running shoes and jeans.

Hand-loomed blankets and clothes in traditional red, fuchsia and black , candied fruit, pastries, charango guitars (made from armadillo shells), pottery and coca leaves (chewed in huge wads to combat altitude sickness) all fill the markets at both Tilcara and Purmamarca, but shopping is for tourists; locals use marketplaces principally to meet and chat.

Another key attraction of the zone is the Pucar� ruins in Tilcara. It is not the differences from, but rather the similarities to modern-day Tilcara that are most striking to visitors here. The renovated pre-Colombian village is quite similar to that below, but for the tiny doorways to

the houses, and the distant, deep holes in the rock patios are a sure sign that progress has been made in sanitation.

Another captivating fact is that the dead were buried alongside the houses of the ruins or under patios. Otherwise, the restored farming plot is a mirror image of those still used today, as are the materials of housing construction and the philosophy of not focusing on home interiors, but rather giving more importance to the natural world outside.

Visitors, especially those with photographic interests, should not miss the Mountain of the Seven Colours in Purmamarca. Indeed, a veritable artist’s palette of colour exists on this natural wonder.

Another unique photo subject is the mountainside cemetery along the highway at Maimar�. Historians will be interested to know that many battles for liberation were fought in

this region. Generals Belgrano and G�emes are the two dominant liberators, local heroes for having spared the Quechua from Spanish rule. The former general once stayed in the Posta de Horillos hotel, a historic museum located in Maimar�.

There are several other museums of interest, such as the Museo Arqueol�gico Dr. Eduardo Cassanova, which features native artifacts, and the Jose Antonio Terry museum which showcases this artist’s indigenous-themed work.

At 2500 meters above sea level, it is said that the lack of oxygen can leave newcomers gasping for air, but after marveling at the colourful Northern Argentines going about their daily business, surrounded by the muscular arm of the mountains they have called home since the Incas ruled South America, I realize it is not the altitude that leaves me breathless.

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