Iruya is in the far north of the Valles Calchaquíes, and probably one of the hardest towns we’ve ever tried to reach. From Salta, we took the midnight bus to Humahuaca, arriving there at about 5am. After a long freezing-cold wait, we got on the 8am bus to Iruya. The journey took 3 hours along a very windy dirt track through the mountains. Spectacular and breath-taking, not only for the views, but also, due to the tight narrow bends and the bus driver’s apparent indifference to driving on the edge of the sheer drop.
Once you make it to Iruya though, it’s simply extraordinary. To think that these people live so far away in a town tucked away high up in the mountains is just fascinating and astonishing for someone like me who has grown up in a densely populated and built-up country. Even more so when you consider that to get there, you must travel along a route that is mostly impassable half the year due to the rain.
The town of Iruya is made up of 2000 residents and the town spreads out across both sides of the river, or at least, the riverbed. When we visited, during winter when there was no rain, there was just a small stream trickling down the huge riverbed. In summer, when the rains come, I have been assured that the river fills up, and it can do so at drastic speed when they get a downpour for an hour or so.
As you can imagine, life is simple and rather quiet in Iruya. When we visited at the weekend, many people congregated around the football pitch, where there were endless games throughout Saturday and Sunday. We were surprised to learn that they also have their own cinema club. During siesta hours, however, the town is almost silent. People live in basic houses, most with their own small patch of land growing their own produce and raising their own livestock. There are lots of donkeys and horses plodding about, which are an important means of transport for the people there. Some have motorbikes, and even fewer have a 4×4.
What to do in Iruya
For tourists, Iruya is the perfect place to enjoy the peace and quiet and explore the surroundings. The owner of our hotel (Federico Hostería III) was a very friendly and helpful chap, who gave us some useful information about walks in the area. I can imagine, however, that you could keep walking for days in the mountains, visiting yet more isolated and remote towns.
When we first arrived, we were pretty tired from the journey and also we felt the altitude was dragging us down a little. Despite our coca leaves, we didn’t have much energy on the first day. We simply wandered around the town and took it easy. Everywhere you look, the views are outstanding, so it’s quite easy to just sit in a spot and simply admire. You’ll catch some glimpses of condors circling around the mountains, particularly in the mornings and at sunset.
There is a walk up to the Mirador, or viewpoint, which takes about ten or fifteen minutes to walk to. Although not very far, it’s quite a steep walk up through the town. Once you reach the cross, the views are yet more astonishing and you’ll definitely need an hour or so to sit and take it all in. If you have your binoculars, try to spot the small house on the very top plateau of the mountain in front of you. We were told that a family has lived up there for generations and occasionally take the trail down to the town. You can see where their path from the town begins on the opposite side of the river, above the football pitch. It’s unbelievable to think that someone could live all the way up there, but the views must be out of this world.
On our second day, we walked to the next town called San Isidro. It’s about a 5 hour round-trip, not too difficult, but you’ll need decent footwear for the rocky paths and to cross the river. The views are beyond amazing, as you walk along the river through the valley of the mountains. The colours of the rocks are magnificent, from a striking red to pink to orange, yellow and almost white, and also blue, green, purple and turquoise. As the day passed and sun cast new light on the mountains, the colours and shapes continued to change and transform. Every time we looked up, it was as if we were seeing a whole new unique sight.
As we neared the town of San Isidro, we passed a beautiful house and working flour mill. It belongs to a Yugoslavian man who is, in fact, a relative of the guy who owned our hotel. The mill only works half the year when the river is high enough. For the rest of the year, I’m not sure what he must do, but I can imagine the scenery must never get old. In contrast to the rest of the mostly barren land, he lives in a corner that is beautiful and full of yellow flowering shrubs. I can imagine the Yugoslavian has an interesting story of how he came to settle in such a faraway place.
San Isidro is a small village settled on the cliffs of the river. To reach this tiny community, you have to walk up a set of steep stone steps. Apparently there are some three hundred people living there, however, we only saw maybe a handful of children playing in the street and a couple of elderly people strolling around outside their front doors. It must have been siesta time. As you can imagine, the place is incredibly quiet and tranquil. The people all smiled and said good day to us as we passed them along the single narrow cobbled street running through the village. They appeared to have a happy and peaceful uncomplicated-life, which was a pleasure for us to see.
We returned to Iruya feeling satisfied and content. The walk had been wonderful and beautiful. When we got back to our hotel, we relaxed on the terrace with a cold bottle of Salta beer whilst enjoying the view and trying to spot condors. A friendly Argentinian offered us his more high-tech binoculars and we managed to catch a couple that had perched themselves on the side of the mountain. From that simple friendly gesture, we ended up chatting with this man and his family all evening as they offered us drinks (the typical Argentinian Fernet & Coca-Cola) and tasty chorizo. We were then invited to join them for dinner in the hotel restaurant, where we were treated to a delicious meal and yet more Salta cerveza.
On saying goodbye the next morning, they all gave us a big hug and kiss, said how it had been a pleasure to meet us and invited us for dinner again when they next visited Salta. What kind, warm, compassionate people the Argentinians are! I find it impossible to imagine that people would ever experience the same friendly welcome from the British. It makes us feel extremely lucky to be here meeting all these different people and having all these fantastic unforgettable experiences.
On our return trip to Salta, we manged to spend a few hours in the town of Humahuaca. We had been told it was worth a visit, but also that it was one of the more touristy places in the Valles Calchaquíes. For this reason, we were not too bothered about going there, but, in fact, we found it to be a pleasant place to visit for the afternoon. Yes, there were quite a few tourists, but I guess it was this that made it an interesting and lively town. Most people stay in Humahuaca in order to visit the Cerro de Siete Colores, or, hill of seven colours.
In Humahuaca, there is quite a good selection of restaurants, souvenir ‘boutiques’ and markets all catering for the more well-heeled tourists that we often come across in this region. The cobbled streets in the central part of town looked very quaint with all the colourful clothes and fabrics laid out outside the shops. The main plaza is very attractive with a pretty relatively-modern looking church. From there, you can walk up the steps to the huge monument commemorating their independence. We visited when the sun was low in the sky and it was an impressive panoramic of the surrounding mountains.
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