As there was no carnaval activities today and the main event started tomorrow evening, we decided to go and explore a little further north to a small town which had come highly recommended to us both by Lonely Planet and also from a couple of overlander blogs.
Iruya at one time was a major trading town on the road constructed by the Incas through the Quebrada/mountains. Today it is a pretty hilltop village which has retained a great deal of its original buildings and has amazing steep cobbled streets. It is a remote village just 50km from the main road but a world away in other respects. The drive in is worthwhile doing all by itself. Turning off RN9, 26km north of Humahuaca, the ripio/gravel road ascends slowly to a spectacular 4000m pass at the Jujuy–Salta provincial boundary. Here, there’s a massive apacheta (travelers’ cairn). Plastic bottles are placed here and liquid offerings to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) are made. We witnessed a family making their offerings with Fanta and wine? You then wind down into another spectacular valley a point at which there are consecutively over twenty 180 degree turns as you twist and wind the 21kms down the valley and eventually reach Iruya some 2000 meters below. The Blonde nicknamed this the "Wacky Races Road”…it becomes especially interesting when you are negotiating 40 seater coaches and mad locals driving around these hairpin bends with 1000 meter drop offs, seemingly without a care in the world.
Iruya with its stand out yellow and blue church, steep streets, adobe houses and spectacular mountainscapes is a photographers dream. It’s an indigenous community with fairly traditional values, so “respect" is called for but it seemed the local tourists coming in by bus and mostly young folk and again a real hippy influence, were not so interested as they had rolled up in the buses in their seriously revealing cut off denim shorts and low cut tops. We drove up the steep main street to the front of the church and were promptly directed by the local “traffic warden” to go to the main square/plaza. Wow….it was a mother of a steep climb and then an equally steep descent off a 90 degree bend into the square, here we parked up and set off to explore. The town/village itself did not really come to life until after 6pm…and then the plaza was the centre for everyone to come and chat, drink mate, play football and watch street entertainers…all very colourful. We decided there was no point in trying to find anywhere else to camp…we would stay at the plaza.
Tojo negotiating through the cobblestone streets in Iruya
The view to Iruya as you enter the town.
So….it didn’t turn out to be so bad parked up in the Plaza in the centre of Iruya. After the footballers, the entertainers and the street food sellers packed up around 10pm, and the final shop, which of course just happened to be the one we were parked beside, had disgorged it’s final customer at around 11pm, then it went very quiet indeed. It rained during the night. When we woke up just before dawn the streets were slick wet and reflecting the lights from the plazas' strategically located ornate iron lampposts on each corner. What to do? We had taken lots of photos in the town yesterday and with the cloud now hanging over the 4,000m peaks surrounding us it did not look as if the weather was going to make it worth our while hanging on.
By 7.30am we had Tojo all packed up. We decided to head back to Humahuaca, perhaps the weather would be better there and today we understood that Carnaval would start with a real vengeance with the parading of the “devil”. I think also in the back of our minds was that if it rained again today then chances were we were not getting out of Iruya in a hurry. We had been warned that the road could be closed at this time of year due to flash flooding and especially the steepest section, the 21 km stretch climbing back out of the valley and up to the Mirador at 4,000m. To exit the plaza over the steep cobble stoned streets, which were also now wet of course, I needed to engage 4wd low….no problems, Tojo sailed up and over! The two fords over the river we had to cross after leaving town before the long ascent were running just a little faster, but again no issue. It wasn’t until we started to do the first major climb out of the valley that we realised there had been more rain than we thought. There were two or three very muddy and very slippery sections on the “wacky races” section and across the plain…we had a couple of little sideways manoeuvres! Tojo did his stuff well and despite the fact that he is seriously underpowered at low revs, the turbo doesn’t kick in until 1500rpm, we twisted and turned our way up the track to the mirador at the top of the pass. Fortunately, at this time of day very little traffic on the road…we saw only two other vehicle on the 21km up slope. The cloud was starting to clear and we could now see new falls of snow on top of some of the higher peaks over 4500m. It had taken us nearly an hour and twenty minutes to do the 21kms to the top….we stopped and took one final look back down the Iruya Valley. Despite the extra challenge of the wet road the drive was still historic and one we will always treasure and remember.
The Road into Iruya
It only took a further 45 minutes to get back to the RN9….29kms. It wasn’t that the road was any better, in fact as we got closed to the main drag it seemed as if they had had a considerable amount more inclemency than we had had over in the valley the other side. It made for a couple of interesting river crossings as we reached the township of Irubia….one very much deeper than when we had come in the day before. We cruised down the RN9 into Humahuaca….there was a great deal more street activity than when we had left. Lots of people arriving for the carnaval which would start in earnest today. We found a little camp spot down by the river next to a family of sugar farmers who had come in especially for the show. By 10.30am we were walking into the main square and already the stage that had been set up at the foot of the main staircase to the independence statue and was in full use with a group of three guys, suitably attired in matching carnaval t-shirts doing some kind of dance routine….the crowd was building and then it was we had our first glimpse of what was to come. We don’t think there is much spontaneous entertainment or otherwise available to the area and so when carnaval comes around it is really well supported. We much enjoyed the entertainment on stage, the waving of huge flags in the “mosh pit”, at the front of the stage and the singing and dancing…plus the bobbing up and down of hundreds of heads in these brightly covered felt hats which seemed to be on sale on every street corner and were almost the uniform for the carnaval attendees. We had some great empanadas and tamales from a lovely lady selling on the plaza and enjoyed the Midday spectacle of the “wooden priest” emanating from the church tower, as two rusty iron doors opened and to the tune of Ave Maria blasted from speakers across the square, the automaton (probably 6 feet tall) performs a mechanical benediction on the gathering below, before resuming his post behind the doors until the next day at the same time.
Unfortunately, there is another side to carnaval. What has happened is to a degree the tourism surrounding this event has developed too quickly and then has been taken over by the visiting revellers…. some coming all the way from Buenos Aires, with the only intention of having a party. In that respect the best part of the day was in the late morning and early afternoon, family time, before the drunks arrived. We enjoyed the spectacle and the people dancing and singing….we did not enjoy so much the throwing of grey talcum powder (supposed to represent ashes of the devil) and the 100’s of people young and “old” kids alike spraying foam from cans…how this is linked to the devil ceremony we have no idea. As The Blonde put it, fine for you to spray and throw talc at those who were also doing the same, but the “attack” on the innocent bystanders was really not called for. We sound a bit grumpy and like party poopers, but it was really starting to get out of hand. So, I took off to the same restaurant we had visited two days previously, whilst The Blonde walked around the centre for another hour, camera stowed away in her shoulder bag and only extracting it when she could get a decent shot safely without being sprayed. I had a great Llama stew and a bottle of Salta Negro beer…the litre size of course…and managed to get some emails. The Blonde arrived and pronounced that she was not hungry but needed a drink….non alcoholic….and we enjoyed a little break in the restaurant, reflecting on the events so far. We went back to our camp spot after lunch and then decided at around 4pm having downloaded photos, to go back and see what happened next. By the time we reached the plaza things had now escalated again. Now there were 100’s more people all carrying spray cans, bags of talc and the next issue…alcohol. Boxed red wine seemed to be the favourite tipple….cheap and quick to have effect…and the more alcohol being consumed then the small “gangs” of boys and girls now wandering around were “performing” attacks on each other, all good humoured for now but we thought that once more people arrived and more alcohol got consumed it would only deteriorate further….time to leave…this is not what we had come to see.
Humanuaca main square….in full on Carnaval mode….
We managed to get out of town without too much trouble, but nothing had prepared us for what we would then encounter. Each and every small town and village on the RN9 as we headed south was having their own carnaval celebration. The traffic coming north to Humahuaca was stretched out in one long queue for at least 10kms….this included bus loads of revellers probably from Jujuy the nearest large city some 150kms away. It was mayhem. The police were all but ineffective in trying to manage such a situation…and actually were more noticeable by their absence. People were driving their cars on the hard shoulder on both sides of the road trying to find away around the queues….Argentinians strangely so relaxed and with time on their hands generally, become this other person when sat behind the wheel of a vehicle or in transit to anywhere and faced with a delay. We gave up any attempt of visiting one of the Spanish styled churches at Quita, and also just managed by pulling off the roadside to get photos of the multi coloured peaks now basking in the late afternoon early evening glow of the sun at Maimara. There was no chance of getting fuel as we had planned at Tilcara or even thinking about camping…it was chockers! So we continued south and turned out on to the RP52 to Purmamarca where there should be a campground we could stay and if not some wild camps a little further up the river valley. Purmarmarca was however the same story. Crowds of people, and lines of vehicles and the town campground full….wow….what to do? We decided that as everyone was literally in town, then the wild camps about 10kms further west up the valley should be ok. There has been a newly constructed road here, that runs all the way through to the Chile Border, some 200kms distant. It has become a major transport route for the movement of new vehicles to travel from Japan and Korea to the port at Valaparadiso in Chile first and then trucked by car transporters across the border to feed the larger cities of Salta, Cordoba and Mendoza on the north and western side of Argentina…cheaper than shipping around the cape to Beunos Aires. The new road construction meant that most of the side tracks into the river valley were now inaccessible, with new barriers and large flood berms created. We found a small track we could access that would take us down to the river’s edge, not that there was much of a river, merely a trickle of water maybe 5 feet wide going down this extraordinarily river valley bottom which must have been over 150 meters wide.