The Colonial Governor’s House

Today I am in a very small town called Molinos.  For a small town it is a very nice hotel!  It is a very old hotel.  It was probably once owned by a very, very rich man.  Salta’s last colonial governor lived and died here.  Isamendi was his last name.  In the courtyard is a very old tree that Isamendi probably planted when he was just a little younger than my mom.  I like that it is old.  It makes me miss school because it is old times.

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-La Niña Curiosa

 

From Cachi to Molinos, with a stop in Colome

This morning we bid a sad farewell to the dog, cats and goats of Miraluna and headed for Molinos. We stopped quickly in Cachi to see if we could recover several key items that didn’t make it back with our laundered clothing yesterday (my only pair of jeans and Noah’s only two semi-decent pairs of shorts.) They were unable to find them, confirming my suspicion that it is unwise to combine a bread store and [pseudo] laundry service under one roof. Drat.

Despite that setback, our timing worked out well, and we arrived at the Colomé estate and winery just before 1pm. To set the scene, imagine that you have been driving for over 2 hours on a windy gravel road, the last 40 minutes of which was quite narrow and bumpy. During the entire drive we passed through a total of 2 tiny towns and met very few cars along the way. The landscape is arid and desolate, but beautiful, particularly as we get closer to Colomé.

As we finally pulled into the winery, suddenly everything around us looked professionally landscaped and modern.  We could almost have been at a big Napa winery if we weren’t in the middle-of-nowhere Argentina. [We later learned that Mr. Hess, the owner of Colomé, also owns 2 wineries in Napa, as well as 1 in South Africa].

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When we entered the visitors’ center, it was kind of a shock to the senses – a bit like walking into a 5-star hotel for the first time. There are high-end finishings both inside and out, a lovely outdoor terrace for dining, and even a private cinema with about 30 cushioned seats where they show a movie about the history of the vineyards. I just kept marveling at the sheer logistics of building a place like this so far from any significant population center and with the only access being a narrow dirt road!

We toured the winery (unfortunately just an indoor tour) and then had a delicious lunch outside on the terrace.

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After that, I visited the James Turrell Museum, while Noah stayed with the girls. [Kids under 12 are not allowed inside. I was not familiar with James Turrell, so it was a steep learning curve. His art is entirely about light, and the different colors, shapes and – most importantly – illusions that light (or the absence of light) creates. It’s really quite an impressive set of installations – I can’t even fathom how much it must have cost to build a complex structure like this. This is apparently the only James Turrell museum in the world. Wow, this Hess guy must be LOADED…

On the way back to Molinos we stopped at a rather dusty and somewhat abandoned refugio de vicuñas.  I’m still not sure exactly what that means, but in any case, we got to get a bit closer to some mangy vicuñas and attempt to feed them weeds that we picked from the yard. I’ll take a wine tour any day over vicunas, but alas: you win some, you lose some…

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Back in Molinos we had to ask for directions but eventually found our lodging for the evening – the Hacienda los Molinos. I’m so glad we decided to stay here for a night – with its low door frames, 2-foot thick adobe walls, iron bars on the windows, huge old stone fireplaces, and cactus ceilings (looks like bamboo), the place just seeps history.

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The original hacienda dates from the 1700s (it was owned by the last Spanish colonial governor of the province of Salta), and the huge old tree in the courtyard is amazing.

The small church just behind the Hacienda dates from the 1600s and is set on a cobblestone street lined with colonial buildings.

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I think the little town of Molinos might be the most quaint town we’ve visited on this trip, and it seems much less touristy. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw a single artesania store as we drove through town!

Something about the stately hacienda setting made Cassidy decide to get fancy for dinner – too bad her dad now only has athletic shorts left in his Argentina wardrobe…

-La Portavoz

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Mommy likes boring views

[Title credit goes to La Niña Curiosa]

Yesterday we did a tour of the bodega and learned how they make their malbec and merlot wine here at Miraluna (see Sierra’s detailed post on this topic!)

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Then we drove to Cachi – the photo below is taken from the road into town; the wildflowers are amazing.

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We were in search of a [much-needed] lavadero (laundry service), which is apparently housed at a bakery (?!) Needless to say, it was therefore rather difficult to find!

In the afternoon the girls and Noah enjoyed a chilly swim at Miraluna, and then we had a tummy-friendly starch dinner in our cabin.

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This morning I was feeling a bit better so went out on a solo walk to explore the valley a bit. It’s so lovely and peaceful, and morning is the time to go, as the sun gets blazing hot in the afternoon.

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The most interesting thing I saw were these fields of red peppers that have been harvested and are now drying in the sun. Apparently after they are dried they are sent to a local mill of sorts that crushes them into a condiment called pimenton.

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We decided to stay at Miraluna all day, which has been quite relaxing, and also gave me a chance to catch up on this blog!

This afternoon, Sierra and I went for a short walk in the hot afternoon sun, during which she complained:  “I don’t know why you think views are so interesting.  The 14 Colores on the mountain was pretty, but just a green valley, I don’t know…”  So, you have to imagine she is enjoying the view in the photo below, but really she is not. Alas.

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-La Portavoz

Wine Making

I am staying at a place that makes wine. This is how they do it:
First they cut the grapes off the vine with scissors and put them in a basket.
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Then they put the baskets on a wagon and the tractor drives up to a little cabin.
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Then they dump the baskets into a machine that takes the stems off and sends the grapes up a tube into a HUGE tank. Then it sits for fifteen days in the tank. Next they separate the seeds and skin from the juice. Then they put the juice into barrels made of oak. They can not put it in any other type of barrel because the grape juice mixes with the flavor of the oak. When it’s in the barrel it turns into alcohol. It sits in the barrels for six months. Then they mix it with grape juice that hasn’t been in barrels. Then they put it in the bottles and let it sit for a year.
They have goats, chickens, at least four cats and a dog that is tiny.
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– La Nina Curiosa

Drive to Cachi

The drive to Cachi was pretty spectacular – but totally different than I had imagined it for some reason. I knew we would be driving through Parque Nacional los Cardones (un cardon is a type of cactus), so I had pictured it being an arid desert landscape. Instead, it was lush and green, and extremely mountainous – we climbed from about 1200 meters to over 4000 meters. That part of the drive was just gorgeous, climbing up to the height of the clouds and looking down into a verdant green valley.

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There were very few towns or people for the entire drive, and the landscape reminded me of parts of Ecuador. At the pass there was a lovely mirador called the Cuesta del Obispo.

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After that we descended somewhat, but not as much as I’d expected. We then drove through a more arid, altiplano-type landscape, where we finally saw the many cacti for which the park is named.

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It’s just amazing how varied the terrain is here and how quickly it seems to change.

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The last part of the drive took us into the Valles Calchaquies, and finally to the small town of Cachi (pop ~2500). Our lodge – Miralunas Cabañas – is about 8km outside town on a narrow gravel road. But it is completely worth the extra 20 minute drive. They call it “Cabañas entre Viñas”, and it is a really special place. It’s a small boutique winery – with organic grapes – and then about 10 adobe cabins nestled amongst the vineyards.

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There is a play structure for the kids, a very cold pool, a small herd of goats, an organic vegetable garden that guests can use, and an adorable 3-month old puppy named Luna. The girls are in 7th heaven! And the young ‘caretaker’ couple that staffs reception, does the bodega tours, etc. are just lovely.

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Unfortunately, Noah and I have both been suffering with a bit of ‘funny tummy’ since Purmamarca, so we are grateful for a lovely place to lay low for a couple of days. Valeria (who works here) tells me a small amount of red wine is actually good for stomach ailment — I wonder what nurse Mimi (my mom) would say? I have not yet experimented, but am considering it…

-La Portavoz

Easter Sunday in the Countryside

The Easter bunny (or llama?) found its way to Purmamarca and left Sierra and Cassidy some bon bon Easter chocolates.  They were thrilled.  After breakfast we finally did the 3km circuit hike around the Cerro de Siete Colores in Purmamarca. It starts right in town, but within 10 minutes of walking, the town is no longer in sight; you are surrounded instead by different colored rocks in all directions.

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The girls did a great job with the hike – this is about the right length for them, and they are generally more cooperative in the morning! We continue to encourage them by telling them they need to be in good hiking shape to keep up with Liam and Ellery on our first backpacking trip in July. This has been extremely motivating, and there is a lot of smack talk – look out Knudsens! 🙂

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After the hike, we packed up and drove back to Salta. We took the back roads this time – and boy was the route narrow and windy, but at least it was paved the whole way. It seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived at Finca Valentina around 2pm. Finca Valentina is a casa de campo (aka B&B) owned by an Italian couple who emigrated to Argentina around 10 years ago (I think). Valentina is apparently an architect, and the place has been renovated and decorated beautifully in what I would call ‘upscale-rustic-farmhouse’ style. I loved it. The food was also delicious home-cooking. And the 3 dogs and one horse (named Piñata) were of course a hit with the girls.

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While we were eating lunch, Valentina’s daughter Sofia (age 8) came over to see if Sierra and Cassidy wanted to join them for an Easter egg hunt. She and her family live in a house they built next door to the inn, so we walked over there after lunch. They had some neighbors over for lunch, and Valentina invited Noah and I to join them for coffee and dessert. We ended up sitting and chatting with them for about 2 hours while our girls [sort of] hung out with the other kids. It’s a shame, Cassie and Sierra both get so incredibly shy when they are with a Spanish-speaking group. Even though she understands a lot and has a lot of vocabulary at this point, Sierra just completely clams up in terms of speaking.

The conversation amongst the adults was rather fascinating, as they wanted to discuss U.S. politics. I assumed they would mock Donald Trump (as Noah and I do), but the [very opinionated] Argentine guy and [apparently quite conservative] Dutch guy were essentially defending him. I was shocked. They seem to think he is more ‘honest’ than most politicians – it’s truly incredible that he has managed to project this image, even as far away as Argentina. Especially when he lies constantly! Somehow LOTS of people seem to be equating not being PC with being honest…and yet they are two different things entirely. They also sympathized with his anti-immigration rhetoric. Hmmm… In any case, I wasn’t that interested in talking about Donald Trump so tried to steer the conversation to get their views on Argentine politics as well.

The next morning we enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and lazing around the lovely grounds of the inn.

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The girls and Noah braved another extremely cold – but this time very clean! – pool, and then we packed up for the drive to Cachi.

-La Portavoz

Quatorze Colores…and Matias the Tenor

Since we arrived at Hotel La Comarca I have been rather disappointed in the service. This place just doesn’t have the friendly vibe that we’ve enjoyed at many of the smaller places we’ve stayed, and some of the staff seem downright annoyed when you ask for information. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find a more attentive gentleman at the reception desk this morning when I stopped by to ask about our plans for the day. He proactively suggested we visit Quatorze Colores, which is about an hour east of Humahuaca (so close to 2 hours from here). We decided to go for it, and I’m very glad we did!

We had been to Humahuaca on Thursday, so we knew that part of the drive was easy. The next part was on a ripio (gravel) road that became increasingly bumpy and steep as we went over a pass and climbed to 4400 meters. (That’s the road in the photo below!)

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It was definitely a long haul, but the mirador at the top was incredible.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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On the way back to Humahuaca, when we were about 15 minutes from town, we saw a car on the side of the road that was clearly having problems and pulled over to see if we could help. 3 young French women told us they’d had not one but TWO flat tires on the round trip to 14 colores. Both tires were completely shredded, so they were now stuck. We took one of them with us back to Humahuaca, where we finally found a store that had the right kind of tire. TI’ll spare you the next chapter, but suffice it to say that Noah really helped them out. Meanwhile I took Sierra and Cassidy – who were being extremely patient despite their hunger – to finally eat lunch.

This evening the girls and I went to a baroque music concert in the hotel lobby. It was part of a music festival for the week of Semana Santa. I thought the girls would be bored stiff, but they were actually fairly captivated. Well, I should say Cassidy was captivated for about 20 minutes; Sierra, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave, even after an hour!

I think I can hereby document Sierra’s first ‘crush’ of sorts: the tenor and percussionist of the group whose name was Matias. She leaned over at one point and whispered to me: “even if he were really dirty I would love his voice.” I’m pretty sure those were her exact words. And a few minutes later she said she really wanted him and the woman in purple to sing alone with the music (without the rest of the chorus).

**To all who know Sierra: do not tease her about this or she’d never forgive me!

-La Portavoz

Las Salinas Grandes

Today we drove to the Salinas Grandes (big salt plains) due west of Purmamarca. The Salares de Uyuni (salt flats) in southwestern Bolivia are to this day one of my top 3 attractions in South America, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the comparison. The salt plains here cover a much smaller area and don’t have the crazy colored lakes and flamingos that you see in Bolivia.

That said, it’s still an other-worldly sight to see this massive area of white ‘baked’ ground, that apparently was a lake over a million years ago and is now a 500-sq kilometer flat-as-a-pancake plain made of salt, apparently up to ½ meter thick in some places.

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The surface is cracked in a pattern that looks like hexagons, and the white is in stark contrast to the bright blue sky and pinkish mountains on the horizon.

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It’s generally hard and a bit crunchy underfoot, though at one point I went off the beaten path and broke through the surface, soaking my shoes in mud!

The girls enjoyed climbing on the mounds of salt from the nearby salt mine, putting their ponies in the aquamarine water ducts that are used for harvesting ‘pure’ salt crystals, and of course buying the requisite touristy souvenir of llamas carved from salt.

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So the Salinas Grandes were well worth the visit, but I was even more blown away by the drive there and back (65km each way, just over an hour). The road was paved the entire way, which was amazing considering the desolate, mountainous landscape it traversed. There were loads of switchbacks as we went up and over a pass at 4100 meters and down the other side.

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One of the coolest views was our first glimpse of the white Salinas Grandes, just barely visible on the horizon, with rust, brown and pink colored hills in the foreground. Stunning.

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Sadly, I just couldn’t capture the colors of the rock or the immense scale of the canyons we were driving through in these photos.  [We are lamenting once again our stupid decision not to bring our real camera – all these photos are from my iphone!]

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-La Portavoz

Exploring the towns of the Quebrada

We had a great day today exploring the Quebrada de Humahuaca. There are a string of small towns nestled in the canyon, all rather similar in general look: one-story adobe structures along narrow gravel streets, Andean/indigenous vibe, touristy artesania in all the plazas. What differentiates them is their size (ranging from 500 to about 8,000) and the relative quaintness of their central plazas, usually with a small cathedral of some sort dating from the late 1600s or 1700s.

We visited Tilcara, Uquia and Humahuaca – in that order, driving north. Humahuaca is the largest and probably most interesting, at least from an architectural perspective. It has a much greener central plaza than the others, with a pretty little cathedral and a funny – almost Gaudi-esque town hall (white adobe with a knobby texture). Many of the streets in Humahuaca are cobblestone vs. the orange-colored gravel streets in the other towns.

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I enjoyed Uquia the most, however, mostly because we found a great local place for lunch with yummy home-cooking (Casa de Senora). Funny enough, we met two women from Marin County at this tiny out-of-the-way restaurant, which had a grand total of 4 tables and was at the end of a dirt road in a town of 500 people. It truly is a small world! [Side note: we really haven’t met many Americans at all in Argentina. Most of the tourists we’ve met have been Argentinian, followed by Europeans, particularly Germans and French. Here in the northwest, there seem to be French people everywhere!]

I also really liked Uquia’s cemetery on the hill behind the cathedral, which had amazing orange rock formations as a backdrop.

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Cassidy wanted to know if she was walking on dead people and then reported that the flowers on the graves all seemed to be fake (she was correct on both counts).

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When we got back to our hotel in Purmamarca the clouds had rolled in, and the wind had picked up, so it was downright chilly. The weather otherwise has been fabulous – perfect daytime temperatures in the low 70s – warm in the sun, cool in the shade.

-La Portavoz

The Quebrada de Humahuaca

Today we drove about 2 ½ hours north from Salta to Purmamarca, where the Quebrada (Canyon) de Humahuaca begins. The drive was actually quite easy – most of it on divided highway, the first such highway we’ve driven on in Argentina (don’t think they exist in Patagonia). As we approached the Quebrada, it was amazing how quickly the scenery changed from rolling green hills with lots of trees to a much more dramatic and arid landscape of colorful rock cliffs and green cacti. This is definitely why I wanted to come north, and the scenery is even more impressive in person than the photos that originally inspired me. The colors of the rock faces of these mountains are incredible: gray, green, orange, red, pink, even lavender.

We stopped in the town of Purmamarca for lunch before heading to our hotel. The food was just OK but lunch was fun because the restaurant had live folkloric music, and the elderly couple next to us got up to dance some of the traditional dances (apparently spontaneously, though I’m not certain).

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Noah and I enjoyed the atmosphere, though Sierra (over-tired from staying up late the previous night) just complained that it was too loud. She and Cassidy amused themselves by drawing. Alas.

Purmamarca is very small (population 600 according to Lonely Planet), in an incredible setting in the canyon, surrounded by red and gray rock faces. However, the town itself is not very impressive – narrow, dusty streets, mostly tourists and tons of artesania shops that all seem to sell exactly the same thing. (This area is similar to the Andean highlands in Peru in terms of the indigenous culture, food and artesania, though the landscape here is quite distinct.)

Our hotel is just at the edge of town with adobe buildings painted the lavender color of some of the surrounding cliffs. The contrast between lavender rock in the background and bright rust-colored rock in the foreground is quite striking. (The photos below are taken from our hotel, La Comarca.)

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The other interesting feature of the landscape is the ‘rippled’ rock faces, which must be caused by erosion, though I can’t figure out why the pattern is so distinct and uniform.

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In the afternoon the girls and Noah swam at the hotel pool – a lovely setting and great temperature, but water of questionable cleanliness…I decided to pass. We had dinner at the hotel across the street (it opens at 7:30 instead of 8pm!), where the sunset views were spectacular.

What do you think of the below still life with the famed unicorns and Amber the princess?

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-La Portavoz