Tilcara, Argentina - Sitting on a swaying bus, speakers blasting salsa music, I watch the cacti grow taller as we travel the dusty road from Jujuy toward the northern town of Tilcara.
An adobe pueblo seemingly a million miles away from modern Buenos Aires, Tilcara welcomes visitors looking to find breathtaking beauty without rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other people thinking the same thing.
It's not Patagonia. In this valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca, there are no pines or penguins. Home to pre-Hispanic ruins, whitewashed chapels and red rock that could take on southern Arizona in a second, this area of wide desert punctuated by 20-foot cacti and edged by distant mountains is another Argentina. Mystical. Beautiful. A mecca for hikers, history buffs and people wanting to sip maté under the giant sky, a busy village market bustling around them. The place takes my breath away.
The local trails and footpaths have been around for a while. Named a Cultural World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2003, the valley is the site of a 1,000-year-old route between the mountains and lower land. In my few days here, I explore both elevations.
Monica, my hostess at the family-run and very friendly Con Los Angeles, helps me hook up with a hiking group for an afternoon exploring the local terrain. A few days later, the Spanish-speaking proprietor manages to communicate another opportunity to this English speaker. A guide she knows is heading to a mountain salt mine. For $30, I find myself in the back seat of a tiny red car, trying not to watch the earth drop away at the edge of the road as we negotiate dizzying switchbacks. I happily accept the maté passed in traditional counter-clockwise direction by a fellow traveller in the front seat.
I venture into the stunning surrounding landscape as much as possible, but there's also lots to see in town.
An art museum displays work by local artists; the archeological museum, with its collection of thousands of objects found in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, explores the region's historical roots. Just up the hill from the latter museum is the Pucara de Tilcara, a pre-Columbian fortress.
A fortified structure used by local peoples for defence from both the Incas and the conquistadors, the stone Pucara can be explored after steep climb for a nominal fee .
The Iglesia de Purmamarca, a small whitewashed cathedral in the nearby pueblo of Purmamarca gives evidence of the area's colonization by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries. Standing beside a large tree, the church is at the end of a trail that winds through a canyon walled by giant statue-like red rock formations.
The wind howls, and from high points it's easy to admire the wide purple-grey and brown earth below, dotted by cacti and adobe huts made tiny by the sky. Nearby is the Mountain of Seven Colours, an astonishing geological formation naturally painted in a handful of hues. At the end of this short trek, a cemetery splashes sharper tones against the earth's muted hues. Plastic flowers in fuchsia and blues glare in technicolour against the gravel-covered graves.
But the astonishing landscapes in this area don't inspire awe only in visitors. For the locals, this beauty is more than scenery. The big sky and painted mountains climbing all the way to Bolivia are celebrated in an annual festival paying homage to the Incan earth mother, Pachamama.
When I leave, I take Pachamama with me. One version of her, anyway.
Made by a Bolivian artisan, a cloth doll hangs on the clay-coloured wall of my hotel among other items made by locals and sold on their behalf by Monica.
Throughout my visit, the black eyes and stitched red mouth gaze at me, and I know I have to have her. Once paid for, I tuck her carefully into my dust-covered backpack before starting the 24-hour journey back into the noise and neon of Buenos Aires.
Now hanging on my living room wall, her silent burlap body captures what the Quebrada was for me: a place so vast and beautiful it swallowed all my words.