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Destination Argentina

The Hills are Alive with Color in Purmamarca

Some 980 miles from Buenos Aires, in the province of Jujuy, the terrestrial rainbow that is Purmamarca Gorge colors the mountains.

By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Julia Henríquez, Marco Guoli

Legend holds that a rainbow ends in a pot of gold that will finance an eternity of carefree living, but since I was not prospecting for gold, I walked the other way in search of the birthplace of the rainbow and I found it: some 980 miles from Buenos Aires, in the province of Jujuy, Purmamarca Gorge cuts through the mountains.

The sweeping panorama embraces the enormous mountains that mark the path of the Río Grande. The baldness of the mountains reveals steep contours, jagged peaks, gorges, and irregular humps, but the hills wear enchanting cloaks of sand in red, orange, violet, and yellow. The most striking draws the eye with its cloak of seven colors arranged in horizontal stripes, underlining its close resemblance to a rainbow.

Down below, in the valley surrounded by these desolate mountains and nearly dwarfed by the imposing landscape, rise the adobe walls of the eponymous town of Purmamarca. In Aymara, the name means “desert” (purma) and “city” (marca), but in this culture “desert” also indicates “something untouched by human hands,” so Purmamarca is a “city on virgin land.”

My first impression of the town is that it is indeed desolate. Everything pauses for a siesta after lunch, which is when we arrived, whirling in under our burden of things, bringing the bustle of the city and an appetite. We soon realized that we needed to set aside our cell phones, laptops, tablets, and all traces of technology in order to allow the magic of the place to cast its spell and slowly transform us. We absorbed the atmosphere and set out to stroll along those streets drowsing under their blanket of silence. The sun glared down and the landscape disappeared into a heat haze, just like in those movies where the hero gets lost in the desert. All the shops were closed, bearing signs that read: “Back Later.” The shuttered windows of the restaurants did not bode well for our hunger.

This was a good time to study the rustic adobe façades that were constructed in the 17th century, yet are still in perfect condition. We stopped at the church —built in 1648— whose austere beauty earned it the designation of National Historic Monument; nearby, we spied the equally historic carob tree, under which it is said that General Belgrano rested during his hard-fought campaign against the Spanish Crown. And just behind the church lay the reason for our visit: the splendor of the proudly rising mountain of seven colors that we would climb the following day.

We finally spotted a small restaurant with signs of life behind partly-open shutters. We were revived by delicious llama turnovers. Yes, llama, which is more common than beef here: llama shows up in stews, turnovers, soups, and breaded cutlets, among other dishes. The affection some people feel for the animal prevents them from trying the meat, but that day my hunger let me enjoy the food without thinking too much about it.

Already under the spell of our surroundings and trying to protect ourselves from the sun, we returned to our campsite and sat in the shade of a tree to wait for the town to wake up. Certain destinations and landscapes envelop a visitor in mantles of silence, which is part of their charm. The world came slowly back to life and people popped out of their tents with thermoses under their arms and cups of mate in hand to begin sharing information.

We learned that, geographically speaking, a “quebrada” (as it is known in Chile and Bolivia as well) is a narrow passage or gorge between mountains that descend abruptly toward a valley, as they do here. The Purmamarca Gorge is also the site of other rustic, colonial adobe towns that subtly blend with the setting, delighting the eye. It is clear why UNESCO designated this area a World Heritage Site in 2003.

This region preserves the traditions of Argentina’s ancestral peoples, making the daily artisan market and its many street stalls of great interest. We also learned that on the other side of the gorge, where the high plateau begins, lies the white desert of Salinas Grandes. Purmamarca Gorge is bisected by Humahuaca Gorge, equally well-known for its beautiful landscapes, deep-rooted indigenous traditions, and especially the impressive pre-Hispanic fortress of Pucará de Tilcara. We heard that tours on horseback are available. As we exchanged information about the site and suggested activities to each other, the sun slowly dipped below the horizon and the night unfurled its display of stars and constellations.

At dawn we emerged from our tent to a spectacularly blue sky and a warm day, inviting us to walk among the colors of the mountain. The exotic coloring of this gorge, which attracts thousands of tourists, is a product of its complex geological history, the result of ocean, lake, and river sediments being pushed upward by movements of the earth over the course of centuries, creating the view that can be seen from any window, painting the dreams of afternoon naps in watercolors.

The intense blue of the sky was complemented by various shades of purple, teal, and terracotta, leaving us powerless to do more than simply admire the explosion of colors. From the heights, the cardon cacti watched over us as we lost ourselves in the beauty. We are not sure what happened, but at some point we left the marked trail and found ourselves in a maze of branches and giant rocks, not knowing which way to go or how to return. We stayed calm, laughing about the situation and wandering aimlessly among the colors of this rainbow of mountain soil and stones, fascinated by each new color we discovered, when suddenly a large dog appeared. It looked less lost than we felt, so we followed it.

The animal walked ahead of us, and if we stopped to take a photo or gaze in awe at the view, he sat down to wait for us or came back to hurry us along if we tarried. The thickets soon thinned out and what looked like a road appeared on the horizon. When we were once again on the right path and headed in the right direction, our new friend barked farewell and ran after another group of visitors. We continued ambling through the incredible surreal landscape, climbing hills to enjoy gorgeous vistas of the town from above. From there, we identified known points and stretched out on the ground to enjoy nature’s gift of silence. We beat a retreat as the midday sun began to intensify. As we walked along the street, we came upon our canine pal sitting in the doorway of a shop; the owners told us that every day at sunrise this unusual admirer of the landscape makes his rounds, enjoying leading new friends around the place.

It was our last night here. By way of a sendoff, we dined at a small spot that offered music and dancing: we enjoyed the food and danced the chacarera and other folk dances. Legend has it that the pixies of northern Argentina come out to play in the mountains when they hear the music of northern drums, so as the pixies danced unseen, we marveled at indigenous instruments like the traditional charango (small stringed instrument) and the erke (wind instrument). It was a gastronomic and musical feast where wine flowed liberally, even for Pachamama (Mother Earth), in gratitude for an evening where myth entwined with reality. When the party ended it was almost dawn; we collected our gear and broke camp in silence, taking last looks at the incredible terrestrial rainbow. We were left with the sad sensation of too little time for so much beauty.