50 Shades of Red (and Orange, and Green, and Purple)

My next day was spent with getting to the Quebrada to Humahuaca in the far northwest of the country, near the borders with Boliva and Chile – famous for its spectacular coloured rock formations.  I had a couple of hours free in the morning before my flight, which I spent unsuccessfully looking for a Western Union branch that had enough money to pay my second transfer. After that it was a two-hour flight to Salta, and a three hour drive to the small town of Purmamarca. At first the road passed through nondescript, flat, featureless and dry country, with litter strewn by the side of the road. As I approached my destination, it climbed. The weather had become cloudy, but I could still make out the outlines of tall mountains all around me. I arrived at six, to find a town bustling with travellers and full of bars, shops and restaurants serving them; it had a nice, busy atmosphere.  I celebrated my arrival with a beer in a café on the town’s central plaza The clouds had lifted, and I could see that all around the town was surrounded by bright red, brown and green rock formations, promising some interesting exploration over the next two days.

After my beer, I had dinner in a peña – a restaurant where live music is played. The singer asked where everyone was from – the other diners were all from Argentina or other parts of Latin America. Everyone was very interested to meet a bear from London, and I had my photo taken with the singer.  The menu was very reasonably priced and even had a bottle of local red wine for 990 pesos (less than 3€). I was so intrigued that I ordered a bottle, and it turned out to be pretty good. I had a fun evening eating, drinking and listening to the others singing (my Spanish was not good enough to join in).

The next morning my jet lag caused me to wake early, at six. I had a slight headache, which I attributed to the high altitude rather than last night’s wine ;).  I got dressed and set off to explore the town of Purmamarca, hoping to find somewhere for a coffee. Everything was closed and the streets were quiet except for the traders setting up their stalls around the central square.

I abandoned my hunt for breakfast and explored the town instead, with its handsome old church…

……colourful shops

…colourful houses

I walked up a steep hill on the outskirts of the town to a mirador (viewing platform) with a 360 view of the town and the surrounding mountains, which glowed in the morning sun. The scenery resembled an impressionist artists pallets, with many shades of red, orange, green, brown and purple. As the sun rose higher, the colours changed, a transformation that continued for the whole day.

The view from the Mirador

It was now eight, and a finally found a place for a reviving coffee before setting off north to explore the valley. The road was spectacular, running along a deep valley with towering, coloured mountains on either side. My first stop was a set of restored buildings which were one of the staging posts for travellers and mail along the route from Bolivia to Buenos Aires. The complex had a beautiful setting, and in the mid-morning sun the colours of the rocks had evolved again, becoming more subtle than the bright display of the dawn.

Next stop was an upmarket restaurant recommended to me by the Tourist Information Office as having the best coffee in the valley. When I arrived though, they had no electricity and could only make me some tea and a huge jug of lemonade, which helped my headache. This place also had amazing surroundings.

I continued driving north past many different strange and colourful rock formations until I reached the town of Humahuarca, the largest settlement in the region. It was a pleasant place with interesting old architecture, and I stopped to eat in the central plaza. I continued my exploration of the town after lunch and even managed to find a Western Union branch that actually had money!

In the late afternoon I set off to see one of the highlights of the region – the Serrania de Hornocal. I drove along a rough track for about an hour, which rose steeply until at 4350 metres I reached a viewing point for one of the most spectacular natural phenomena I have ever scene – a panorama of brightly coloured mountains shaped liked jagged shark’s teeth. It was quite cold and there was a strong wind. The few human visitors were shivering, but I was comfortable under my fur.

I had hoped to sit and enjoy the view for a long time, watching as the rocks changed colour in the setting sun, but I was unlucky. I had only been there about fifteen minutes when clouds emerged.  The dramatic colours occasionally reappeared when the sun broke through the clouds, but the periods of light got shorter and shorter until the sky and the rocks were both dull grey. I comforted myself that I had arrived just in time to see something that I will remember for ever.

It was a long drive back to Purmamarca, but it was made memorable by yet more wonderful landscapes, now with the colours of the evening sun, which had now re-emerged.

When I arrived the sun had already set. I opted for a quiet dinner this time – it had been a long but inspiring day with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

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