I have been walking in a waking dream for the past three days. The psychedelic landscape I am surrounded by cannot be real.
Multicoloured mountains rise from the desert and mould themselves into shapes that even my wildest imaginings would struggle to create.
In one day’s driving from Salta to the tiny white-washed town of Cachi we passed through rich river valleys of green pasture to subtropical rainforest coating steep mountain slopes to a vast red desert sprouting huge green cacti as far as the eye could see and interrupted by huge technicolored rocks like great shipwrecks in a sea of sand.
The next day enroute to Calafate, home to the delicious Torrontes grape vineyards, mountains of red, blue, pink, green, purple and yellow towered thousands of feet above us as we drove through the winding corridor of a shallow river that has, somehow, over God knows how many millennia carved deep into the sandstone edifices to create the Quebrada de Calafate. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
And now I have arrived in paradise – or my version of it, in the form of the tiny pueblo of Tilcara sitting deep within the Quebrada de Humahuaca, home to the Hill of Seven Colours, though I would argue there were many more.
I am more than 2000 metres above sea level and yet the mountains still rise far above me, into the clouds which drift lazily across the azure sky.
I am running out of superlatives to describe my time in Argentina but the provinces of Salta and Jujuy have blown me away.
They are mesmerising.
If a painter produced an image of such an otherworldly landscape, no one would believe them.
On the drive back to Salta from Calafate yesterday Anna, sitting next to me, starting giggling to herself for no apparent reason.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“It’s just this landscape, it’s so ridiculously beautiful it kind of makes me laugh.”
As we rounded another corner of the valley to see more deep red and pink intricately carved mountains tickling at the sky, a thousand weird faces seeming to stare out from the rock, she guffawed again:
“I mean, like, come on!” she said, “This is just too crazy.”
It does feel like whatever hand of nature created this place did have a sense of humour.
It is partly the insane variation within such short distances. Salta is one of the most green and verdant cities I have seen in Argentina although this could be partly explained by the fact it is now the rainy season – and that is not just a casual claim – it rains, a lot, every day. It is as humid as the jungle and one feels that without much encouragement the jungle would reclaim the city, which sits in a bowl of land between two mountain ranges. However, less than an hour’s drive out of Salta and you are once again in the sun, the land is green and has an almost English cosyness about it. Meadows and gentle wooded slopes surround babbling streams and rivers. An hour more and you are climbing, these are no English rolling hills but mountains wearing thick Amazonian foliage. Then suddenly you turn a corner and it is desert, rust red, but with forests of cacti.
Amusing anomalies occur when one of the plants oversteps its boundaries and enters enemy territory. The cacti are particularly prone to this so while you are driving through luscious grasslands, embarrassed looking cacti appear, standing like lonely cowboys unable to find a way home.
“I do not understand the vegetation,” Anna said, as we passed in moments from desert to forest one again.
Someone with a much greater knowledge of botany and geology would have to explain the reasons but I assume the enormous mountains must play a large part, creating microclimates over their deep valleys and high wide plateaus.
I am in Inca country now, and it shows. The people have indigenous blood running through their veins, you can see it in their beautiful faces, high cheekbones and slanting eyes.
Salta, a lovely colonial city where stress remains an unknown concept, has several museums where one can learn a little more about these mysterious people whose empire stretched from Mendoza all the way into Southern Colombia and who worshipped the mountains they traversed as Gods.
One morbidly fascinating exhibit is found at the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana. Three Inca children found mummified at the peak of nearby Llullaillaco in 1999. The children, two girls and a boy, aged six, seven and 15 were fed a strong alcoholic drink and once asleep were buried alive as a sacrifice to the Inca Gods. The Incas did not believe the children died but lived on watching over their loved ones from the mountain. It was an honour to be chosen for this ritual.
Only one child is displayed at any one time in the museum. Staring into the perfectly preserved face of the little girl I prayed that she had died before the effect of the drink had worn off. Wearing her ceremonial clothes, her hair intricately plaited, she looked strangely at peace but so alive I was waiting for her to open her eyes.
Lamas are now a regular sight and still fill me with delight every time I see them grazing or standing around outside small fincas. Few animals can combine cuteness, comedy and size as well as a lama. They are just so fluffy and ridiculous.
Anna has fallen in love with lamas. It is an obsession which I fear will now last for life.
“I think they must have such small brains,” she said, staring adoringly at yet another family of these animals chewing the cud near a small roadside cafe where we had pulled over for a break.
Lama is also now on the menu and our affection for them has in no way dampened our desire to see if they please us as much on the plate as in the field.
Lama for supper tomorrow.