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CULTURE | 23-11-2019 10:16

Uquía: Andean North’s secret paradise

Argentina’s cultural north provides more than just new scenery and a little exploration goes a long way

“If you pass the cemetery, you’re going the right way!” Those aren’t the words you really want to hear when traveling alone, in a small town off the highway, looking for a trenching path.

Yet it’s where I found myself while on a trip to Jujuy.

On our way to Humahuaca, the home of the famous Cerro de los 14 colores, our hostel owner recommended a stop in Uquía, a small town about 40 minutes away.

Argentina is not usually thought of as an Andean nation. Typical tourist attractions revolve around the cold south, with destinations such as Bariloche and Ushuaia, or the tropical northeast of Iguazú and Missiones making the tops of people’s “must-see” lists.

Yet the country’s cultural north provides more than just new scenery and a break from Buenos Aires’ metropolis. Get further away from the capital and closer to the northern neighbours in Bolivia and things change, even the people.

For one, sometimes cold and abrasive porteño dialogue is replaced by the countless calls of ‘Mami’ in the streets. A term of endearment, mami is used more as a stand-in for “dear” than for its literal meaning. The subtleties stand out; the “sh” sound in ‘yo’ or ‘ella’ so common in the capital is replaced here by the more regionally used “y” sound.

As much as the province of Jujuy reminded me of the Latin America I grew up in, the landscape and ‘tourism circuit” in the northern region starkly differs to those in Peru, my home country, especially that of our national pride, Machu Picchu.

Jujuy is known for its mountains; set against beautiful skies and formed of different colours, the Cerro de los 7 Colores and Cerro de los 14 colores, in Purmamarca and Humahuaca respectively, draw both nationals and foreigners in large numbers.

As part of a five-day trip, I based my travels off the town of Tilcara. Located about two hours from the airport in Jujuy (Gobernador Horacio Guzmán International Airport), I chose Hostel Albahaca to sleep off the long days of exploration.

The town itself is not only perfectly centered for the circuit of paseos in the region, with multiple restaurants, peñas, grocery stores and hostels located around the town plaza, Tilcara provides the perfect mixture between town and tourist destination.

But beware: distances may seem short but they can be steep – trainers or hiking books are strongly recommended!

As you move away from Tilcara and continue exploring the wonders along Ruta 9, the two best-known stops are Purmamarca and Humahuaca. Both circuits centre on colourful mountains, so your best bet is to leave one for each day (they go in opposing directions from Tilcara). I, along with three other friends, did Humahuaca first, with the plan to see the Cerro de los 14 colores in the afternoon, when the sun shines onto the mountain, showcasing its multitude of colours.

The lesser-known Quebrada de las Señoritas is a definite must-see. With its deep red stones and sand, this hike is one that both amateurs and experts will enjoy. If you are on a budget, the best way to get there from Tilcara is simply getting on a bus – any that go in the direction of Humahuaca will drop you off at the town of Uquía, where the start of the hike begins. (It’s not a formal bus stop, instead it is one of the many side-stops along the highway where the bus will be taken mainly by locals.)

The entrance to the hike is mostly accessed by cars, but the roads tend to be clear enough that walking isn’t a problem. Once there, you’ll be quickly met with a sea of red; the sediment coats the pebbled, informal path, forming larger-thanlife natural sculptures. The hike will take you one hour until you get to the Señoritas, but the way back will take you closer to 30 minutes (since the “path” is now on the way down).

It’s a lengthy but rewarding hike and afterwards, I recommend a visit to Doña Lidia. Known for her tamales and empanadas, this small restaurant offers a quick and homemade meal for an honest price. Oten frequented by locals, Doña Lidia has won multiple prizes from the Jujuy government for her empanadas – the dining room’s walls are decorated with certificates and pictures.

Just off the side of the road, Uquía is perhaps one of Jujuy’s best unknown treasures – the views, the hikes, sure, but it’s also a feeling, a sense of comradery, with strangers all encouraging each other to keep going.

Off Ruta 9, there’s a little paradise “right past the cemetery” – and it’s a must before heading on to Humahuaca.

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Maria Gracia Santillana

Maria Gracia Santillana

Peruvian student of journalism and international relations at New York University. Interested in international politics and human rights.

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