I spend my week in Argentina on the back of a stegosaurus. He moves laboriously, with gentle movements that have me rocking from side to side. His flesh is calloused, hardened and eroded by millennia of wind and rain, and cacti rise from his skin like prickly pimples. But it is the plates that line his spine that dominate my world and hold my attention. They surround me on all sides, glorious in their technicolour, and I settle my head firmly on a swivel, the better to take them in.
My Jurassic adventure begins in Salta, a city in the north of Argentina that I neglected on my first trip, when my journey took me south, to Patagonia. I have spent more time in Argentina than any other country in South America and its cities are refreshing in their familiarity. Salta’s heat, tree-lined streets and breezy plazas, its milanesas and helados, the accent of its market vendors, all put me at ease immediately. However, the city, though lovely, does not hold me long, and I settle myself comfortably on the back of my dinosaur as I wend my way north to the small settlement of Purmamarca.
And the plates that erupt out of my dinosaur’s back come into view.
In Purmamarca, I meet – and have the sensation of being adopted by – Natalia, a young doctor from Uruguay, whose limited English demands that I spend the three days we travel together speaking solely in Spanish. Despite my many mistakes and misunderstandings, we more than get by, and her patience and kindness enables me to experience this part of my trip in a truly unique way.
As we head north, we stop briefly at the quaint town of Humahuaca, where we marvel at the suddenly low price of empanadas (signs of Bolivia, just ahead), while away some time over a typically watered-down Argentinean beer and take photographs of the first rainbow I have ever seen in a blazingly blue, rain-free sky.
But it is the small village of Iruya that is our final destination – a village of steep, cobbled streets, of simple subsistence living, of dogs and donkeys, and of only a few tourists, almost entirely Argentinean in origin. It takes us over three hours to travel the 57km dirt road to Iruya in circumstances that have me thinking, ‘My mum would kak herself if she knew what I was doing.’ At best, the rain that has descended over northern Argentina has turned the roads into muddy swamps, at worst, they are rivers. We slip, we slide, we scrape uphill, we skid downhill, we close our eyes, we hold our breath, and we applaud our driver when we arrive safely.
On our only full day in Iruya, Natalia and I, and the new Argentinean friends we have collected along the way, hike to an even smaller village. With a population of 200 or so (though goodness knows when the last census was taken) and connected to the rest of the world by pathways only passable by the feet of man and beast, San Isidro sits silently on a forgotten mountain in a forgotten valley.
I find myself in Bolivia now. I have been here for a week and already there are more stories and photographs than one humble blog and its select readers can handle. Suffice to say, for now, that it is magical in every way. The warmth of its people, the breadth and height of its landscape, the vibrancy of its markets and the flavours of its foods have captivated me completely. More to follow soon – when I am older, in just a few days.