After leaving Salta, Argentina, I booked a tour that would lead me towards the Bolivian border, stopping in tiny towns along the way famous for multicolor, seven-color and twelve-colored mountains. It was hard to tell which numbers corresponded to which, but every photo of the desert hills striped with reds, oranges, purples, whites and greens looked casually magnificent. I couldn't believe that nobody had mentioned this area to me before. It's incredible how many parts of South America host breathtaking landscapes but still reside under the radar, and this trip kept teaching me that. When I began my journey from Rio de Janeiro to Lima I had tried to plan my stops so that they would be more or less on the way, lead to convenient border-crossings, work with the hours of the buses and give me semi-decent spots to stay each evening (and of course, where I could get by with my minimal Spanish). What at first had seemed to be a string of random places I'd never heard of quickly turned into a route of underrated gems of destinations, nooks of the massive continent that were accessible enough to a newcomer like me but far from the herds of travelers flocking to nearby cities. The kinds of places you might not come if you weren't passing by already had developed into warm memories, places that made me feel a real connection to the countries I was visiting. Driving through the dusty painted desert of Northern Argentina surrounded me in these feelings once again.

 

The Painted Hills of Argentina, Pumamarca

 

I packed all of my things and check out of the cozy winter cottage of a hostel I had been staying in, ready to move on to my last stop before leaving Argentina. I booked my tour through the front desk the night before and now waited, cozy with my hot mate in the freezing morning air. The amazing thing about Argentina right now is that, unfortunately for their economic situation and luckily for anyone coming in with USD (which I traded on the blue market aka an old man on a street corner), Argentina can be so cheap. It doesn't make enough of a difference in the big cities, but for where I was- I felt like a queen. This entire day trip to seven towns would cost $30, and that was the gringo price. It was hardly more than a simple bus to where I was headed, and without coming back with the group I would find myself as close to the Bolivian border as possible for the next leg of my trip.

 

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When I was picked up, I realized, as I had been a lot lately, that I was the youngest on the bus, by a decent amount. At this point, traveling alone was really beginning to wear on me, and this was the last thing I had hoped for.

 

Purmamarca, Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

People describe traveling alone in blanket terms, usually amidst some declaration of how they would “never travel any other way” or it “changed them like no other experience”, or one of those typical things that either makes you roll your eyes or go try to copy their actions exactly hoping for the same results. I had already had some amazing moments that I knew wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been alone. But I’d also spent a LOT of time by myself and I was starting to realize only actually enjoyable in small doses, and only truly profound in the I-spent-2-years-alone-in-the-mountains-of-Nepal-with-nobody-but-animals extremes. The middle ground: just a bit lonely.

 

Pumamarca-Argentina-3-The-Borderless-Project

 

So I was ecstatically relieved when two young nice girls got on my bus and were put in seats next to me since we were the extent of the English speakers. Us and our wonderfully enthusiastic tour guide.

We would be driving through the chilly desert hills and stopping in these tiny towns bunched up against the colorful mountain bases, and she was more than excited to tell us everything about each of them.

At the first, Purmamarca, we stopped in the tiniest town with the most colorful of all the hills. To be very clear though, town was a generous term. We shuffled off the bus and were let loose to walk the 4 blocks of town and just headed for the hills, literally. We found an apparent lookout where we paid a woman “charging admission” (in reality, she had just stationed herself at the base of the hill and decided there was a fee, which of course only deposited into her pocket and was monitored by nobody but the nearby stray dogs). But with our very worthless entry tickets, we climbed the tiny mound of dirt, emerging on top to 360 degree views. It only took a little to make us feel perched on top of the world.

  Purmamarca, Argentina--The-Borderless-Project  

We could see down onto the stucco homes, little boxes arranged in rows beneath the curve of the hills. From the small viewpoint we had, it seemed to be a fake town that only came alive each time the bus rolled in. The inhabitants perked up, laid out their colorful souvenirs and retracted back in right when the bus would leave. They did have a little bar, homestyle restaurants and a main plaza so we had a glimpse of some lifestyle here, but it was as cozy as they come.

 

Pumamarca-Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

Next, we stopped in Tilcara, and despite the options to either, a.) visit an anonymous bridge, or b.) pay to look at recreations of what the traditional homes looked like (this town is still made up of many traditional homes, someone jumped the gun a bit early), so the girls and I made our own adventure.  We wandered up to the highest street at the edge of the neighborhood where we thought we’d find the best view, and we did. We could see the broad landscape of colored mountains and millions of cacti. We trekked off the road and through the brush up on the hill a bit, just near where a little home was perched. I sat down among the rocks and cacti, and watched this Argentinian family’s life take place, my favorite thing to do while traveling. Sometimes, just silently watching is the most exciting thing.

 

Pumamarca-Argentina-Local-Family-The-Borderless-Project

 

They had at least six children, including a baby, two parents, one grandmother, two big dogs and a puppy, some birds, and a kitten one of the children was playing with. There was a llama hide hung to dry in the sun, using cacti as poles to hang the line from, a few kids were playing a game of soccer as the mother weaved in and out of the ball’s path to hang laundry, while the father jumped in to pass the ball occasionally. Food was cooking, the grandmother and another child were playing with the baby, two more kids were running around playing tag. And all of this was happening on a little house on the hillside, a house no bigger than the tiny, tiny apartment I later lived in in Lima, with nobody around them except for us watching from a distance. I could smell the food and hear them laughing and was so amazed that in such a tiny, isolated space, this many people were playing and smiling and happy together.

My first thought was that if my sisters and I lived in a house that size, that removed, we would just kill each other. Any group of people would! But here they were, loving the sunshine and afternoon together, several of them in Argentinian soccer jerseys, simply happy.

 

Tilcara-Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

It was a really nice moment for us to watch. They were Dutch and we had just spoken about my favorite Dutch word - gezellig- which describes those moments when you look around and are really happy, sharing a nice moment with nice people. Sort of living the moments you later become nostalgic for. The closest thing to a translation is "cozy company", and this encompassed all of that.

That is, until one of the dogs saw us and decided that we were not supposed to be that close to his drying llama hide and in a second the silence of the hillside broke as the dog came tearing across the hill and tried to attack one of the Dutch girls. Luckily, she says she watches The Dog Whisperer and knew what to do. I don't know how, but she did because the dog instantly calmed when it got near her and ran back to the bustling house, the family's life continuing as if it had never left. I guess we've exported some useful television after all…

We waited for our bus at a little empanada stand, sharing bite for bite with a stray dog of the yummy beef-filled pastry. We continued driving through more of Jujuy county's beautiful scenery and passed several more small towns, until making our final stop at Humahuaca.

 

Humahuaca-Cactus-Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

This was the most “town” of all, even though you could still cross it in 15 minutes or so, and definitely the only place I could imagine staying the night so I was happy to see I had made the right choice. We were now only a couple hours from the Bolivian border, so I planned to jump off the tour here after the group explored.

We sat down for a traditional lunch organized by our guide and dug into her recommendation- soup with every type of meat. With our limited Spanish, we didn't get many more specifics than that.

 

Humahuaca-Soup-Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

We walked outside into the now baking desert sun and follows the few roads to wherever they would lead us. Humahuaca has beautiful little cobble stone streets, tiny white and tan colored buildings, and bright colorful fabrics hanging out of every shop and restaurant. It’s surrounded by hills and landscapes, and has a beautiful square in the middle with a church, with actual gaucho-type men in tipped hats to block the sun and women in huge skirts and shawls hanging out and sharing teas and snacks in front. It was like a movie set for a “typical small South American town”, and I finally realized how real it all was. Some places made a bit more of a spectacle of the traditional culture, but here people were actually just living their lives as I would have pictured a small town in South America would, and it was such a gratifying moment to see it in action.

 

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When the tour headed back onto the bus, I stepped in to pick up my things and find somewhere to stay. I walked off from the tour group, the adorable guide waving after me once she had hoisted my back on my back, and sauntered down the first road looking up at the signs. I went into the first hostel I saw (Humahuaca Hostel on the main road), and it was perfect. The rooms didn't even have keys, there was a little indoor patio where breakfast would be served, and thick wool blankets sat in different corners waiting to be cozied up with. I felt as much at home as was possible for how many thousands of miles away I was, and I decided to stay until a morning bus.

 

Boy Playing Cards in Humahuaca, Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

I stumbled around the emptying roads of the afternoon, making sure I didn't miss anything. I had the rest of the day here, and it seemed I'd seen all of it right off the bat. I walked into the very tiny market, outside of which women were fanning the flames under some empanadas. Inside had some sundries and not much more. As the morning crowds cleared, the roads were empty. Clothing stores remained open, but even the tiny cafes shuttered their doors for a siesta. I took advantage of the only one I could find and stretched my llama-decorated cup of tea over 2 hours (also the only cafe with Internet in the whole town - my hostel's hadn't been working for a few days apparently).

 

Streets of Tilcara, Argentina-The-Borderless-Project-

 

I met some great people in my hostel room and we spent the evening hanging out together. I was so thankful to have company once again. I met a guy from Singapore who had traveled down from New York, all by himself, which I always find so inspiring. It was always nice to meet other lone travelers, even though my trip was much shorter, we were both so excited to meet and hang out with someone new and exchange trip advice (we were on the same path in opposite directions), and we could understand how the other person was feeling, which just adds a very important connection to the mix. It felt like we were the kids on a family retreat, and everyone in our room made plans to go walk around and grab dinner together.

We went next door to the nearest restaurant, one of few in town. We sat down to a little list of specials and I went for a comfort food option of pesto. As it happens, their pasta is black. Which was strangely beautiful (and just as delicious).

 

Black pesto pasta in Humahuaca, Argentina-The-Borderless-Project

 

While we were eating some musicians came in, a father and son duo. The father was playing a wooden flute, closing his eyes and you could see on his face that he was so into the music. People actually went silent, enveloped by his music. The young boy, playing the large drum incredibly well, was playing without looking and staring at the soccer game on the television next to him the entire time. It may be a tiny quaint town, but a kid in a traditional Argentinian poncho and hat isn't that different from a kid anywhere else. His dad, eyes still closed, didn't notice.

 

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