Coca y bica in northern Argentina

In the last week or so we have covered more than a few of Argentina’s various eco-systems. We started last week in Salta, located at about 1100m in the Lerma Valley, descended 600m or so to the cloud-forested region of Las Yungas, and then climbed up over the sub-Andean range to the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the village of Tilcara, at just over 2600m.
I went to Salta back in 2003 but I have to say that my recollection of it was way off. Must have been the 13 million beers I drank last time, or maybe the relatively recent onset of Alzheimer’s that comes with old age….either way, the city was bigger and less beguiling than what I remembered. We visited the private Museum of Ethnic Art, where an exceedingly eccentric curator/ owner with three strands of hair combed over his balding pate scampered around us describing the exhibits and artefacts. To be fair, it was quite a good collection but he was far more entertaining.


From Salta we headed north east to Libertador San Martin, planning to explore Calilegua National Park. The hotel we stayed at also offered rooms by the hour….and we heard quite a lot of high heels clip-clopping their way out in the early hours of the morning. Classy.

We found a bar in town where they played some fairly decent ‘rock nacional’ and had a few beers with the yokels- all of whom took an immediate shine to Martijn (it’s the AC/DC shirt- they fucking love it). I spent the night translating as each of them fell over each other to talk to him. There were a couple of close-talkers among them so we were also on guard, trying not to get splattered with chewed up coca leaves.
Yep, chewing coca is as common here as smoking tobacco, and completely legal in the northern provinces of Argentina. Almost every corner store advertises ‘coca y bica’, bags of picked coca leaves and small pouches of bicarbonate soda, the alkaline which releases the active ingredient of the leaves faster. Renowned for its ability to combat fatigue, hunger, cold, altitude sickness and almost any other discomfort you can think of, coca is chewed by (it seems) about 90% of the male population. It tastes a little like chewing tea leaves- both Martijn & I agree it would be a hard habit to form. The greenish tint it gives your teeth is less than attractive, to say the least.

We set off for Calilegua N.P armed with bags full of water, snacks and some coca y bica of our own. We spent the day hiking the park trails, walking about 15km and climbing around 700m over the course of the day (must be all that coca!). The park was very pretty, but sadly we didn’t see any of the wildlife that it is famous for….though we did spot what we thought were jaguar & tapir tracks by the river!
From San Martin we took the bus to Tilcara, located at the beginning of the Quebrada de Humahuaca and surrounded by 3500m peaks.

We have spent the last couple of days hiking (and getting lost), huddling in our sleeping bags (as soon as the sun goes down), and enjoying the super cheap accommodation (about AUD$4.50 a night, which allows us to stretch our beer budget quite a bit further).

Today we walked to the Garganta del Diablo ( the Devil’s Throat), a huge canyon about 6km out of town- along the way we adopted a local labrador whom we named Rudi, and who walked all the way there and back with us. We fed him chicken sandwiches for his loyalty : )

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