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March 23, 2005 -> Great White North: chile and argentina 

Argentina and Chile are the two whitest countries in South America, thanks to significant European immigration and draconian colonial policies towards the indigenous people.  Both countries have sizeable mestizo (mixed race) populations, but as in so many other places in the world, true indígenas exist only in lands deemed unsuitable by the colonists: high mountains, deserts, and jungles.  The far north of Argentina and Chile - where the waterless Atacama Desert slopes up to the 4000-meter Bolivian altiplano, and white-hot salt pans sit beneath 5000-meter Andean peaks - is one of these ever-shrinking refuges.  That is not to say that the people of northern Argentina and Chile maintain the same traditions as their ethnic brethren in Bolivia – only the women in the tourist markets and the people in remote communities wear the customary shawls, skirts and hats – but their dark skin, crooked noses and wiry hair showed them to be the progeny of South America's original peoples. 

 Humans first arrived in the area around 12,000 years ago, but they did not form pastoral societies until around 1500 BCE.  Artifacts found near San Pedro have been dated to 1000 BCE.  We all learn about the three major Empires (Aztec, Maya, Inca) that the Spanish encountered (and crushed) when they claimed Central and South America in the early 16th century, but the cultures that came before them are largely ignored.  Despite the obvious achievements of those three Empires, their cultures developed directly from much older, and often much longer-lived cultures.  For example, the Incas of South America enjoyed 100 years of power, while the Tiwanaku culture had a broad influence for almost a millennium.  Furthermore, far from being stone-age societies, their artisans created beautiful works of pottery, wood, and metals.  The Museo Arqueologica in San Pedro had wonderful displays of artifacts, including gold death masks, wooden instruments for elaborate shamanistic rituals, and intricately patterned woven baskets.  The area represented the meeting point of the ancient Atacameño and Quechua cultures. 

Salta is the largest city in northwest Argentina, and the capital of the eponymous province.  It boasted a beautiful plaza with an unusual pink church in a pastiche of styles (wooden mashrabiya screens, stained glass, tiled dome.)  A short walk away was the stunning orange bell tower of the San Francisco Convent.  (Across the street from the convent was a small, nondescript restaurant with the best empanadas we tasted in all of South America.)  The famous “Train to the Clouds” leaves from Salta, crawling its way up to 4200 meters by way of tight switchbacks and towering viaducts.  The train wasn't running when we arrived; heavy rains had washed out a few bridges.  Several companies offer truck-based excursions that followed the route of the train up to San Antonio de los Cobres, but they were quite expensive and fully-booked.  Instead, we took a wonderful day tour to Cachi, an old colonial town.  Along the way, we drove up a treacherous 3300-meter pass and passed through the Parque Nacional de los Cardones (cacti,) a high plain filled with archetypal desert cacti and bright wildflowers. 

Many travelers take long-distance buses from Salta to the Bolivian border town of Tupiza.  They miss some charming towns along the way.  We had discovered a wonderful website inn (www.welcomeargentina.com) that had detailed information and photos about all the cities, towns, and parks in Argentina.  That's how we found out about Tilcara, a pretty little town about halfway between Salta and Tupiza.  We splurged on a gorgeous inn (www.rincondefuego.com) and used Tilcara as a base for exploring the area.  A short walk from Tilcara were the ruins of a Pucara, an ancient city built among towering cacti.  To the south was Pumamarca, a small village below the Cerro de Siete Colores (Seven-Colored Mountain), where the different mineral layers made the mountain nearly as colorful as the local woven shawls.  On our way back Humahuaca –which turned out to be an incredibly boring town – we passed a large Sunday market that seemed to have sprung up from the desert.  There were thousands of people carrying bundles of branches and flowers, and stuffing their faces with local delicacies.  Only later did we realize that it was Palm Sunday!  There were no palms, so they made do with what they had.

The long bus ride from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile took us over the 4600-meter Paso de Jama.  Everyone in the bus was feeling light-headed and dehydrated; we had to force the hung-over conductor to serve us some mineral water.  The landscape along the way was singular and spectacular.  We passed salt flats and sand dunes.  We seemed to climb forever.  First the trees disappeared, then the bushes, and finally the cactuses.  Then we were in the puna (the local name for the altiplano,) an endless expanse of sun-baked earth watched over by volcanoes.  In a few places, small pools had formed.  Vicuñas (a smaller wild camelid) graced on the yellow grasses surrounding the pools.  Once over the pass, we descended the longest, most barren slope I have ever seen.  Below was the Atacama.  

San Pedro de Atacama is billed as one of the most interesting and beautiful towns in Chile.  Maybe we were in the wrong place.  What we saw was a tiny grid of mud brick restaurants and hotels, surrounded by mud brick homes and aluminum siding-topped shacks.  There were nearly as many stray dogs as tourists.  It was situated in the middle of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth, and really only existed for tourists.  Strangely, it was a tourist center with no tourist services.  The sole ATM didn't work, exchanging money was a pain (no one wanted to touch a Euro,) and the service in the restaurants was so apathetic and slow that it bordered on Russian.  The tourist information office had a book of complaints from tourists that excoriated every agency.  Yet we heard so many people say that San Pedro was charming that we began to wonder if we weren't just tired and grumpy.  But then I realized that everyone saying that was 18-20, and “charming” was a merely a synonym for debauched.  We had planned on spending four or five days in San Pedro, relaxing and writing, but it was not a place for relaxation.  We left within a few days, eager to visit the Bolivian salt flats.