Note: this post content some graphic descriptions and photos of hunting and meat preparation. I apologize to my vegeterian and vegan friends out there – but I think it’s important to share this part of my experience too.
During our hike to the Cascadas Rio Colorado, we met with a local who was in charge of the log book at the trailhead. After seeing that we seemed to be 3 young enthusiastic hikers, he told us about how he organizes excursions in the local mountains to introduce travelers to their native community. Our curiosity led us to ask enough questions to take his contact information and think about it. About 1 minute after we left him, we had made up our minds: we decided to contact him and plan the trek for one day later. Baptiste, Stig and I prepared to stay a bit longer in Cafayate.
The next morning our guide, Huayra, came to meet us at our hostel to chat about the trip. We planned the food we would need, meet up times and we chatted about his culture. The idea was the following: he would take us up in the mountains to visit the locals who live from the land and animals in the region. Their community was living up in the local mountains way before the town was built, and a few of them still remain. It seems that somehow most of the people in that community are related to our guide (he’s got one big extended family!). He is also the cacique (leader) of the community, and he really takes pride in exchanging cultures and introducing his customs to foreigners.
Day 1: We met Huayra at his house near the Rio Colorado trailhead at 730AM. We met with his daughters and his wife, who prepared us a quick breakfast with some hot tea. We waited as he geared our two lovely donkeys for the trip. We were lucky that the donkeys carried all our food and our overnight gear, which means we had minimum weight in our day packs. Of course I can never pack totally light, considering I need a lot of water and can’t avoid carrying my survival kit (ah!)… but that was lesson learned for this trip. Donkeys ready, we started to hike at 815AM knowing we had a big day ahead.
Huayra’s house is at 1800m, and we hiked for about 1h45 in the valley until we reached his mom’s house (elevation roughly 2100m). His mom welcomed us and invited us to have a breakfast (fresh home made bread with peach marmelade and hot tea), which we enjoyed gladly. We also had a very sweet moment playing with the puppies (tons of them!) and learning about their lifestyle. Huayra’s family lives from the farm animals – mainly goats – which they use for meat and producing cheese. They use everything mainly for their extended family, and when they need some money, sell some products or meat in town so they can buy some food or items that they can’t produce themselves. Our discussions were interrupted by walking chickens and goat screams, and we left to continue our long day.
Wait – did I mention the puppies?
And so we went – up, up, up, up. And up. And up. We had lunch near another family’s house (gotta love bread, cheese and dulce de batata), oxygened ourselves (as our guide said) and kept going!
I must say in all honesty that this trek pushed me out of my physical limits. First, I started the hike with a bit of an upset stomach and a headache (hostel life – short nights, sometimes so-so comfy beds = back pain!) and had no idea how my body would react to the altitude. I tried to stay very aware of how I felt to avoid bad altitude sickness (or react to it if I was feeling very badly). On the first day we hiked up to 3500m (about 1700m of elevation gain) in 10h. After lunch I started feeling tired and very easily out of breath. I slowed down a lot (thanks to our guide and my travel partners for their patience) and took a lot of short breaks on the way. We also stopped on the way to give a gift to Mother Nature – a custom where the locals here always give a little something to the Earth so that their trip goes well. Few coca leaves and a lighted cigarette did the trick. We reached our camp at 6PM.
At that point I was quite tired – exhausted more appropriate – and could feel the effects of the altitude (shorter breath, definitively faster heart beat). We met with the two persons living here, Ramon and his wife (none of us ever fully understand nor remember her name… sorry for that) and discovered where we would stay for the next two nights. At this point I’d like to mention that they are completely self-sufficient and go in town only few times when really necessary. For us, the idea was to bring up our own food and leave them anything that we wouldn’t use during our trip. We were hoping to buy some meat from them, but they didn’t have anything fresh when we arrived. Luckily they threw in some dry meat into our dinner so we can get some proteins.
We slept in their ‘storage’ house, stacking sheep skins and blankets on the ground under our sleeping bags. It was also the first time in my life where I slept with dry meat hanging from the ceiling above my head – hopefully you don’t get nightmares too easily!
That night I did not join the group for very long, as I literally needed to fall asleep and rest… So I took a nap, got up for dinner, went back to bed, and tried to sleep as best as my body could!
Day 2: After a rough night, worst back and neck pain, still quite faster heart beat and a growing headache, I got up for breakfast (tea and bread… which doesn’t get me very far in the morning). Our guide was such a big help for me – looking closely to make sure I wasn’t having bad altitude sickness symptoms (called Puna by the locals). He actually gave me a neck and shoulder massage to help me start my day, telling me to stay relaxed and calm to avoid more tensions in my back and take it easy. We left camp at 940AM with the goal of reaching the first laguna of the valley (there are 4 in total, the highest at over 5000m) and having lunch at another house in that area.
Headache to its best, my guide carrying my bag for me, listening carefully to my breath and stopping regularly to allow me to rest, it took – me – 3h20 to reach the house at 4300m for lunch. I say it took – me – because we separated the group about half-way ; the guys and Ramon heading faster and starting to prepare the lunch at destination. I am still amazed at the amount of animals we saw in the mountains there. The families live from their animals for meat, wool, etc., but the animals are free to go live their lifes up in the mountains. The locals actually go get the herds when they need them, which means they sometimes have to hike up hours just to go get the cow for the week. That’s what I call an environmentally-friendly way to consume meat.
After lunch we headed to the laguna (much smaller than I expected, but in a very lovely area, surrounded by llamas, cows, horses, donkeys and others). On the way back we split up again and I took some advance with Ramon, when the other explored a bit longer. At that point I was focusing on just getting back, as my headache had unfortunately gotten a bit worst. We made it back to camp and once more, I headed for a nap, got up for dinner (feeling better as noted by my guide, when I took a refill for my dinner plate for the first time of the trip), and back to sleep (after 2 ibuprofenes and what I like to call a ‘magic’ tea made just for me by my guide).
I am still amazed at how for me, this was such a challenging hike whereas for the locals, this is just their normal walk to go visit family members or go get their dinner. It definitely makes you re-think your way of living and how everything has gotten so accessible for us in the Western world.
Day 3: Early morning, anti-inflammatory to start the day to make sure I don’t get a bad tension headache again, breakfast and a slow morning watching the clouds and relaxing before starting our descent. Huayra also took the opportunity to give everyone a haircut!
Our hosts decided it was time to have some meat – so they went out to regroup the herd of sheep and keep them closer to camp. At 1130AM they set out to catch our lunch – with 4 of them, they surrounded the sheep, ran around, caught one with a lasso and pulled it back to camp. They even have a table made from rock outside the kitchen to place the animal and prepare it. During 13 minutes, we watched Huayra and Ramon kill the sheep (cutting the throat), collect his blood (for blood sausages), cut it open and separate the skin from the body (with the force of their fist to detach the fashias and tissues), break the lower part of the legs and put it aside (probably for the dogs), attach and close the oesophagus end with a piece of wool rolled into a string (from the animal’s own back), take the organs out, empty the bladder and the guts, separate the muscles and skeleton to prep the ribs and other parts for the asado (BBQ) and fully cut off the head (which then laid in a bucket in the kitchen, until they are ready to boil it to eat). Hygiene levels during this would give anyone back home chills – bare hands, using the same knifes we use to cook and eat (and cleaning them by wiping the blood on a… somewhat dirty cloth), hanging the empty guts and the trachea and lungs on a pole, with blood and feces dripping on the ground meters away from the kitchen. At that point – you just have to go with it. So when Huayra asked me to help him pull the leg off to cut the meat for the BBQ, I just went for it… warm meat, bare hands, no soap and cleaning my hands with some snow laying around (and hoping the dogs did not pee on that somewhat clean snow). That said – lunch was amazing and we totally devoured the meat we were served after 3 days of bread, cheese and rice.
After the very tasty and long needed lunch, we set out to go back down around 245PM, hoping for a 4hrs descent. We did pretty well on the way down, our energy going up with the level of oxygen raising, with a few delays. Huayra had to chase after one of his dogs who was biting goats just for fun… it was interesting to see him literally throwing rocks at the dog and screaming to him to get home. At that point, the dog is actually hurting and killing small goats (which are the living bread of the family!). Special shout to my travel partners for keeping the good vibes up even when my face and hands were full of blood after I caused myself a nosebleed when wanting to blow my nose (dry air of the mountains…). I actually particularly love this photo – very natural smile while I am laughing after pushing the cotton ball deeper in my right nostril so it doesn’t show up on the photo:
We made it back to Huayra’s mom’s house, had a snack, left one of the donkeys behind and finished the last 30min of the trek in the dark. We then hung out with our guide’s family, playing guitar, ukulele, dancing chacarera, eating asado and saying goodbye.
From all the things I have seen and done so far in this trip, this excursion was by far the most authentic, cultural and eye-opening experience. Now I am up relaxing in Salta for a few days and getting ready to explore the North of the country before I cross to Chile.
Stig’s trip report about this hike can be found here.