Iruya, where the ground slipped beneath our feet - Backpacking South America

Camping at Iruya, North Argentina

Sport: Camping

Posted by: Tautik & Rohini

It’s kind of romantic to travel to places you can hardly pronounce– Jujuy (pronounced Choo-Chooey, with ch as in Scottish loch), La Quiaca (Key-aka), Iruya (i-RU-zha).

Pablo, on a boat ride at Tigre, started chatting up and recommended Iruya. Sebastian, a cyclist who camped next to us at Bariloche too pointed Iruya on the map. The name ‘Iruya’ somehow stuck on with us.

Iruya, we figured is a small hamlet town wedged on a hill northwest of Argentina, in the province of Jujuy. A four hour rattling bus ride from Tilcara on rough ripio road brings us to paradiso. The road to Iruya is bone-rattling, but one of Argentina’s most amazing drives with endless hairpin bends. The bus is unlike the fancy tourist buses we had ridden so far, and was more like the local buses plying on the windy Himalayan roads back home.

Northwest Argentina has a wild Andean feel compared to the European cosmopolitan look of Buenos Aires. A woman donning the traditional dress in mercados is a common sight in this indigenous region. A typical dress includes knee length socks teamed with flat leather shoes (like the one girls wear to school), knee-length pleated skirt with yards of cloth and a solid sweater over a printed top. The skirt and top combination essentially is red-blue-green. A floral scarf is adorned along a wide-brimmed hat with an elegant leather bow, and two neat plaits of hair hanging out.

Figuring out the Iruya campsite with our broken Spanish words was a task in itself. The guy at the Tourist Information centre spoke only Spanish(with local dialect). Campers made us feel welcome and we set carpa under a small shade with huge mountains on three sides and the condor gliding atop to keep guard. Like most other campsites we were soon joined by a dog as company.

The village is winding cobble-stoned paths, very walk-able, as long as you don’t mind the climbs. The evening rains could hardly dampen our spirits as we found a cozy nook serving chorizo and milanesa. We dozed off with pitter-patter rain drops falling on our tent.

The morning sun swept away all our gloom from the rains. Any camper would sympathize – rain and camping do not go well together. A late breakfast and we crossed the bridge to the other side of the village to be-friend three gazing sheep. A souvenir shopkeeper was excited to know that we were from India, and told us all about her online friend from Chennai.

Another lazy day under the sun with books and pasta. Post sunset we strolled down to the plaza to find a pleasant surprise – a feria with music and dance and stalls selling oddities and lots of food. Joviality in the air - children playing football, youths chatting loud and older men-women in traditional dress huddling next to the music. No tourists to be seen. Our dog pal too joined in the festivity.

We slept under the star-filled sky but heavy rain and thunderstorm soon had us wide-awake and worried. Morning was spent with the elaborate ritual of drying out our possessions. The rains ruined our plans of an early day hike to San Isidro.

San Isidro has to wait for another time as we decided to take the afternoon bus to Humahuaca. The man at the boletería kept us guessing for hours, saying tickets would be issued only when the onward bus arrives in town. Hours later we were told that tickets would be issued on board bus. A backpacker pointed out that we needed to hike few kilometers to catch the bus. With confusion weighing heavy over our backpacks we crossed the swollen river. A pile of humans, buses, cars and Royal Enfield motorcycles told us the story – the rains had caused a mudslide and cutoff the roads. A macho Enfield motorcycle was half-drowned in mud with the bikers struggling to move it either way. A bulldozer gave up after trying in vain clearing the road.

Buses from either side were stuck. News trickled in that a bus would depart from the other side to Humahuaca when full - that is only if we could make it to the other side. A trickle of passengers started piling courage and trying different routes. A backpacker was balancing a box of pizza along with his mochilla! With a sigh we lifted our backpacks and took baby-steps towards the gushing stream. A step on the innocent looking rocks and LO! our feet got stuck in mud, and we get this sinking feeling. The ground literally slipped away under out feet. Stories of quicksand were always fascinating, but the first hand experience of sinking in mud was also terrifying. I could read the fear and panic in Rohini’s eyes! A little mind-over-matter pep talk and co-sufferers made us move on. The trick is to keep your steps light and fast (with backpacks!!). The gushing stream was a cake-walk compared to the sliding mud. The torment was not yet over – another road caving ahead greeted us. A chain of humans helped each other cross over.

I managed to get in the packed bus with cheers from fellow travelers. As the bus started pulling off, my brain blurred out Spanish words faster than I could think. With translation assistance from co-passengers, the bus slowed down and Rohini could just about make it.

Crossing over the mud barricade and in the safe comforts of a rattling bus, we had a hearty laugh with fellow passengers showing off our bruised legs, mud-caked pants, shoes and everything else. People kept piling in the bus from villages en-route and mochillas got tossed all over in the melee.With a quick stopover at Humahuaca, we decided to take the next available bus to La Quiaca, the border town to Bolivia, standing our way in yet another overcrowded bus.

A bright hostel greeted us in La Quiaca with what else –a hot shower!

- tautik@gmail.com
March 2015

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