Northern Argentina – Humahuaca, Iruya and Tilcara
July 20, 2014 – July 27, 2014
We entered Argentina from Bolivia and visited a string of small northern mountain towns, Humahuaca, Iruya, Tilcara, Maimara and Purmamarca. We crossed the border at Villazon, Bolivia into La Quiaca, Argentina on July 20, 2014.
Typically in our travels we use debit cards to get cash from ATMs, and use credit cards where possible. However this was not a good idea in Argentina. We knew due to Argentina’s economic difficulties and the country heading towards its debt default crisis (something that would happen while we were there) that there are different exchange rates, the official and the unofficial rate. The official exchange rate was around 8 Argentinian pesos to the US Dollar – which is from all banks and ATMs. We learned the unofficial exchange rate was up to 12 pesos to the Dollar. Bolivian Bolivianos on the Bolivian side of the border are as good as US Dollars for getting a good exchange rate from the various cambios (money exchanges). We got an exchange rate of around 12 pesos to the dollar (after the math of changing Bolivianos to USD). Inside the country of Argentina we would consistently find an exchange rate from shops, restaurants etc. of 10-11 pesos to USD, far above the ‘official rate’.
All the math aside the lesson is the people of Argentina value the American Dollar more than their own peso, and more than the government would like to admit. Our advice would be to exchange USD for pesos with people offering the ‘unofficial’ rates and not by using banks or ATMs. Unofficial cambios (people holding cash standing around in public places) can be found in most big cities, usually near the central plaza. Also some hotels, hostels, shops and restaurants will exchange money for you as well. After a day in our first stop, the town of Humahuaca, we discovered that the exchange rate of 10 from a local business, while better than the official rate at an ATM, was not the 12 we could get at the border. So we actually decided to head back to border in order to take out more Bolivianos from ATMs and exchange as much as we could and hopefully save money for the rest of our time in Argentina. We also had extra dollars with us for the purpose of exchanging to pesos while in Argentina, should our huge stash of pesos obtained in Bolivia not last the entire journey.
Our first stop was the small town of Humahuaca just south of the border. This town has about a dozen restaurants and shops and a few nice streets to walk down. We arrived in town during Argentina’s two week winter holiday so the streets were crowded with Argentinian tourists and the hostel options were slim – something that we would encounter for the duration of our stay in Argentina since a large portion of the country was on vacation.
To the northeast of Humahuaca through a narrow deep canyon is the small village of Iruya. The scariest three hour bus ride later, driving along steep cliffs on bumpy dirt roads through blinding dust clouds from other vehicles ahead, we arrived in Iruya. This trip is not for anyone who gets car sick or is afraid of heights. Several people on our bus were clearly scared and crying at times during the journey.
This small village in the middle of the canyon offers hiking opportunities and scenery but admittedly not much else. We went for a hike up the canyon to another small village called San Isidro, making over a dozen river crossings and hiking with two local dogs who tagged along for the trip. There are so many lonely and hungry wild dogs in South America that a tiny bit of attention like a pat on the head, can assure a hiking companion for hours.
Donkeys and dogs wander the streets.
Local kids playing soccer.
Our hike through the canyons to the next village.
On of the highlights of the many small towns in northern Argentina was the town of Tilcara. It has much more tourist infrastructure, such as hostels and hotels and restaurants, as well as tourist attractions, than most of the other towns. You can also use it as a base to stay and make day trips to smaller towns a short bus trip away such as Maimara and Purmamarca. Just outside of town (walking distance) is a low hill covered in cactus, this is the reconstructed ruins of Pucara where you can see the ruins of many stone buildings, though the views from the hill and the cactus are just as worth seeing if not more so.
This rock sounded exactly like a large iron bell when hit.
Ruins of Pucara
Local hamburgers for sale in the supermarket, I’m not sure if the name inspires confidence.
About 5-10 minutes south of Tilcara by taxi is Maimara, where you can see colorful shaped like a line of teeth hills and a small hill covered in an elaborate and highly decorated cemetery.
The best day trip from Tilcara and possibly worth staying at as well was the town of Purmamarca, with excellent hiking right outside the town and tons of little shops and a large marketplace.
Colorful hills were everywhere and all easy to hike around.
Great views from the hills.
Of the many small towns in northern Argentina we would recommend staying at Tilcara, and taking a day trip to Purmamarca. The other towns, while interesting, were worth a skip, especially if you are limited on time.