Monday, 29 December 2014


For those in the know: RN 9 ~ El Cornisa: Salta ~ San Salvador de Jujuy. Argentina. The old non-motorway connection between these two cities. (6th.~8th.December.)

There's one colour that stands alone. One colour to which I'm pathologically attached. One colour that screams 'Life!'. Green. More particularly the green of vegetation, chlorophyllic Green. Yet, for those of us who inhabit a moist country, it becomes common, the norm. It becomes habitual. But take a few days travelling away from its comforting presence, and its return comes as a physical shock.

Salta is, in effect, an oasis town, with well shaded plazas and some tree-lined streets. The colonising Spanish considered it permanently springlike. Only today, the locals are calling it hot, and this is just early December. But it's worth remembering that if you travel over a few hills and down into the ' Yungas', the jungly, sweaty cane country, or head south into the dry thorn and arid sand country, this place becomes a comparative haven.

Salta has, over the past few travels, become for us a staging post. A place to start or finish an element within a journey. The fact that it has, right on its doorstep, one of my favourite Argentine roads, is an added bonus. In part, because it's so easy to incorporate it into the next travel.

Take a standard single track highway, four steps wide, coat with asphalt, then paint a yellow dividing stripe down the middle. Only an Argentine road planner would attempt this. Twist it through a serpentine of valleys, then clothe it in cloud forest. And you have El Cornisa. We set off from Salta on a clear, cool Sunday morning. A time when even the buses have the courtesy to give way to others, giving us time to appreciate the old colonial buildings. Where the only hazards are the congregations spilling out from Mass and the celebration for the first Sunday in Advent. Passing fields of tobacco, their adobe walled curing sheds ranged around a yard. The aromatic drifts of cookfire smoke, the clutches of family gatherings down on the shingles of the braided river. Motos pass, the pillion clutching a giant cooler box of ice. It's a holiday weekend and the city is fast disgorging out to the campo.

The narrowness and the gradient of the road is a testament to an earlier time of infrequent equine drawn traffic. For this was once the primary route out of northern Argentina, over the Andes to the Pacific coast. It's now surpassed by an autopista that absorbs the lorries, that keeps to the low ground, leaving our road to wander without intent. Climbing steadily up through the remnant of a volcanic caldera and into a cloud forest of lianas, epiphites and ancient aliso trees, all festooned in ferns, smothered in mosses. Where each tree is a host for a forest. The over arching limbs forming a tunnel of dark vegetative shade that traps the smell of green. Where the sun shafts down through clearings, butterflies swarm on the flowering herbs. Wild beans and the plethora of solanums, that vast clan of the potato/ tomato family are identifiable, the rest are not. Yet, like the butterflies, I don't need an identification to appreciate, or to claim some form of ownership. Their beauty lies in their diversity. A soft sulphurous one floats along, landing on my bag, an iridescent blue flashes past, such that I only get a fleeting glimpse. In another spot, hundreds hang like flowers from one particular plant. All arising in a cloud as we silently wander past.

That green can only happen if there's a supply of water. Yet on each occasion that we've riden this way, we've had hot, sunny conditions. For this trip, we've not experienced any rain for sixty-five days, such that our waterproofs have disappeared deep into the pannier's depths and they're probably suffering from a seasonally affective disorder, becoming pale anaemic shadows of their former selves. Then, on the second morning, we wake to thunderstorms. Glutinous red muddy rivers are surging down the road, the house gutters are waterfalls, tree leaves quake under the assault. The bromeliads that encase, like threaded fuzz balls, the telegraph wires survive solely from these conditions. Tomorrow they'll be flowering. We ride wrapped in a fug of humidity, as damp inside as its soaking out. At least my panniers' un-repaired holes will allow the rain water to escape.

This green cannot last forever. Heading north up the Quebrada de Humahuaca, our bioscape of humidity gives way to the dry again. A transitional zone that is barely ten kilometres wide. The southern slopes of the side valleys are still cloaked in green, only their northern sides are now denuded, mere sparse grasses. The hill tops crowned by explosive thunderheads. Boiling storms building, accumulating a resuscitation of water. Wet season is coming. A new green will be growing over the backside of that hill.

But for ourselves, we'll soon have the cactus and pepper trees as our travelling companions once again. The small pueblo houses, flat roofed, and painted to reflect the rockhills that are a multiplicity of metamorphosic colours. The merger plots,tiny fields that are utterly reliant upon the occasional trickling spring. Gone the Green.