In a restaurant in Tilcara, Argentina (in the northern province of Jujuy), we’re in restaurant. We walked in around 9 p.m.; the place was busy but not overcrowded. In a corner, three men were playing instruments—there was a drum and a recorder or two, some wooden harmonic instrument. A little bit of light singing. Strangely melodic, the other people in the restaurant watching and eating intermittently. A waiter walks by with a basket of bread rolls while we’re waiting to be seated.
Tilcara is a small desert town in the Jujuy province of northern Argentina. The scenery here is dramatic—large desert mountains towering on either side of this town in the valley. There’s not much in the city except for some small buildings, a central square with a regular market and plenty of roadside vendors. There’s a quietness and a stillness here in the valley.
The music continued for hours—throughout our entire meal. An appetizer of grilled provoleta cheese with balsamic (a typical Argentine appetizer on the grill) being the standout from the dinner, but the real star was the background music.
So many times we walk into restaurants, especially in tourist hotspots and on weekends, and the music is always there. It’s a background, an ambience, a taste of local culture. But while I was standing in this restaurant’s entrance watching the crowd of eaters and the guys playing their instruments, I was struck with a thought. The music captured me as and I watched intently, I could suddenly see where I was.
I’m in Argentina, of course. But I step back—inside this valley of deserts between tan red mountains, cactuses dotting the horizon like hands poking up through the ground. The Purmamarca gorge, wide and expansive, the “land of colors” with a 10km canal providing water to these desert towns for two thousand years. I’m far away from home, far away from the big cities I usually travel to. I can see the sky through the large windows of the restaurant—a navy blue that’s somehow crystal clear, rich and dark like I haven’t seen in a long time.
Earlier in the same day I was on a nature walk through the Tilcara archaeological site. With the local tour agency Caravana de Llamas, we walked through the countryside as a motley crew, a group of gay tourists, five llamas, two dogs and our guide, Santos. He told us of Pachamama, the Mother Earth. Over the next few days, Pachamama would come up again and again.
Local lore has Pachamama as an ever-present goddess, looking over our Earth. It’s common ritual to leave gifts for Pachamama in small mounds where prayers are sent with each offering. The offerings might be anything from small bits of nature (leaves and branches) or beer bottles, cigarettes and even home-cooked empanadas. As a self-professed city boy, I was skeptical, but after a few days of this ritual, with the quietness of the Tilcara scenery, the desert valley…I was sold.
Our natural world is beautiful. But it’s not just that—it’s a part of who we are, where we are. There’s a connection—something you only really discover when you step into it, when you shut off the distractions. Next time you’re outside, give it a try. You never know what you might discover.
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Visit Tilcara, Jujuy
There are regular flights to Jujuy Airport, including many direct from Buenos Aires, Argentina. From Jujuy Airport, it’s a picturesque drive up north to Tilcara. Nearby, Purmamarca is a popular tourist hotspot and the Hill of Seven Colors offers a few treks and hiking paths, plus a great scenic overlook. During my visit through Jujuy, I stayed at the Hotel Huacalera (room prices from $120 per night)—a Spanish colonial-style hotel. Wifi wasn’t very good on the premises, but that was the point of staying in the desert: the chance to actually experience our Earth.