I walked across a small bridge and out of Argentina today. I thought I would cry – last night I became tearful at the thought of leaving.
“Oh for God’s sake”, I hear you scoff, tightening your English stiff upper lips. But truly, it feels like the end of a love affair. In five weeks Argentina has stolen my heart, utterly and completely. And I do not know when I will see it again.
In the event I didn’t cry, I was too focused on getting my passport stamped by the requisite morose Argentine and Bolivian officials and navigating my way, with my seemingly ever weightier backpack to the bus station in the hope of heading straight to La Paz.
My last two days in Argentina were as bittersweet as the end of any proper romance should be. The country gleamed and shimmered before me as if wanting to remind me, one last time, of what I was leaving behind.
I also left Anna behind in Argentina, another love affair of sorts, and one that also ended in a few tears. She will continue her travels in Argentina before returning to a new job in Stuttgart in three weeks time. But Anna I know I will see again. We were old friends within hours of meeting.
“You only met in Mendoza?” Said one girl, incredulous.
“But you talk as if you’ve been friends for years – you’re so rude to each other!”
This came after an episode in which Anna had been loudly complaining that I had invaded her dreams of the night before.
“I spend all day with you for the last week, I see you all the time, there are so many other people I haven’t seen for ages who I could dream about, so can you just get the fuck out of my dreams please!”
We make each other laugh too much to allow one another to fade into hazy travel memories.
My last days in Argentina we spent exploring more of the crazy geography of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, first walking up to the Garganta del Diablo – or Devil’s Throat – a narrow gorge in the mountains near Tilcara which ends in a cooling cascada where you can rest your tired feet in the fresh water.
On the way up a lonely condor came gliding past us, it circled above us then soared down the narrow valley passing close enough for me to get a sense of the scale of these kings of the sky for the first time. The Andean condor has a wingspan of 3.2m. They are huge. And when you see them close at hand, quite frightening. But also captivating, they hardly move their plane-like wings, there is no messy fluttering, they rise and fall on the air currents with an elegance that belies their purpose, to search for carrion on which to feast.
Condors patrol the mountains from southern Patagonia right up to Bolivia and possibly beyond. I had seen many of these rare birds, which fascinate and delight nature lovers the world over, as distant black specks while on buses and hiking but none had performed for me like the condor of Tilcara.
The air is thinner in the Quebrada, no surprise when you are well above 2000m, but it is strange how quickly it effects you. Walking even a short distance uphill leaves you huffing and puffing with your heart pounding fast against your ribcage.
The locals swear by the coca leaf to ease any symptoms associated with high altitude, be it headaches or faintness.
My first trial of coca was not a success.
The kindly Argentinian who offered it to me failed to explain – or perhaps I failed to understand – that you must not chew on the leaves so I merrily started munching on the small cluster he had given me only to find my mouth filling with an acrid bitterness that forced me after a couple of minutes to spit it out. I am fairly confident he didn’t see.
Trying it the second time I learnt that you push the leaves to one side of your mouth, between your gum and teeth and simply leave them there sucking on them for half an hour or so. While not exactly a taste sensation, this is much more agreeable. Although I have also been warned that too much of this can dye your teeth green so I have not been overindulging myself in the questionable delights of coca.
How on earth these inauspicious looking little green leaves help with altitude I have no idea. One man tried to explain that it was something to do with rebalancing pressure in your head but my Spanish was not good enough to do anything other than guess at what he meant.
Happily the altitude didn’t affect me but Anna was hit by a constant headache while we were in the Quebrada and since there had been no recent repeats of our excesses in Mendoza the only explanation we could find was the height.
So she was understandably apprehensive about visiting Las Salinas, salt plains sitting on a plateau more than 4000m above sea level an hour and a half’s bus ride from Pumarmarca.
But the blinding white lunar landscape we discovered was worth it. Stretching for miles, the salt glistens in the sun like freshly fallen snow, until it reaches the distant green mountains.
The Argentinian salt flats I know are nothing to the vast scale of those in Bolivia and Chile but still engender a sort of magic.
It is a lake, but a lake with no water. Over thousands of years what little rain falls has collected in this high basin then been quickly evaporated by the desert sunshine, leaving behind its minerals and salts as the only evidence of its presence.
The salt crunches under foot as you skip across it invading its silent emptiness.
But Argentina had saved its best secret until last. Have you heard of the famous Hornocal? No, nor had I. And that is because it is not famous at all. But it should be. The Lonely Planet does not even mention this miracle of nature.
Part of me would like to keep it a secret, to be enjoyed only by those travellers lucky enough to find out about it.
I could never tell a soul and just covertly look at photos to remind myself of its beauty.
But this would be too selfish.
There is a long rocky road which leads out of the small town of Humahuaca and winds its way into the mountains for an hour and a half before depositing you at an altitude of 4300m where the road stops.
With the late afternoon sun on your back you gaze across a steep valley at a row of triangular peaks built of layers of fuschia, pastel pink, white, green and black, zigzagging their way across the opposite side of the valley.
Each layer of colour represents a different distant epoch in our planet’s history, whose bright palettes long buried have now been pushed to the surface once again by the earth’s tumultuous tectonic movements. As the Pacific’s Nazca and the South American plates collide the Pacific is submerged while the South American plate rises in great folds forming the Hornocal and its better known cousins, the Andes.
It was silent except for the wind, we were the only people there, standing in awe as the sun sank lower casting long shadows among the peaks.
Words cannot do it justice. If you ever have a chance to see the Hornocal, go. It will leave you breathless, and not just because of the height.