Humahuaca: El Cerro de Catorce Colores and excessive money changers in Villazón

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping view I saw in all of South America – el “Cerro de Catorce Colores” (The Mountain with 14 Colors) in Argentina’s Humahuaca  – is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Bolivia’s Tupiza.  From Tupiza you can take a quick bus ride to Villazón, one of Bolivia’s towns that border Argentina.

I had already been to Villazón once after oversleeping a bus ride where I was supposed to get off at Tupiza.

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Most border towns have cash exchanges where you can exchange the currency of the country you are leaving for the country you are entering at a rate that is decidedly not in your favor.  Many cash exchanges also double as general stores (food and other goods) as a side business, and vice versa.

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The cash exchanges are more than willing to buy U.S. dollars, euros, and British pounds, currencies that have historically been relatively strong and stable.

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For whatever reason Villazón seemed to have more pure money changing stations (no business besides changing money) than any border town I’ve passed through in the world.  I can only speculate that this is because Villazón borders Argentina, a country where Argentine people are absolutely mad for any currency besides their own, in particular, the U.S. dollar.

Argentines lost faith in their own pesos after the government’s debt default in 2002 and since then, have headed to the streets to buy what they view as much better currencies to have in store, in case it happens again.  I will elaborate more on this in my blog post about Buenos Aires in a week or two but for now, just know that it behooves one to load up on U.S. dollars and/or euros before entering Argentina because you can sell them to people on the streets for better than the going rate (the only country in the world where you can do this).

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So to make a short story long, my educated guess is that there are more money changers in Villazón because people crossing the border into Argentina have better reason to change money (buying U.S. dollars with Bolivianos, e.g.) than, say, people entering Ecuador from Colombia.

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I had already loaded up on U.S. dollars to exchange in Argentina, so I bid adios to my favorite country in South America, Bolivia….

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…and said hello the final country I traveled in my South American trip, Argentina.

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Another couple hours from the Argentina border is a quaint town called Humahuaca.

The typical South Americann style cemetery -graves adorned with garlands of flowers -  in Humahuaca

The typical South American style cemetery – graves adorned with colorful garlands of flowers – in Humahuaca

Humahuaca is just 169 km from La Quica, Argentina’s town that borders Bolivia, making it a convenient first stop on my travels through Argentina.

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Humahuaca’s most eye catching structure is el Monumento a los Heroes de la Independencia.  This region had an important part to play in Argentina’s War of Independence.   At the time, Humahuaca was a crossroads, a strategic location on the road to the colony of Alto Peru (now Bolivia) because of its natural resources (in particular, silver – think Potosi).  At the time, these silver resources were far more important to the Spaniards than they were to Argentina.

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The giant panoramic sculpture is the work of Ernesto Soto Avendaño, built to pay homage to the Northern Argentine Army that fought 14 battles in Humahuaca during Argentina’s National Independence War.

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The Monument is made from an almost unbelievable 70 tons of bronze.

There is some dispute as to who the main man in the middle of the sculpture is.  Most believe the monument is meant to honor the Army in the north and that the man in the middle is Pedro Socompa, delivering news of Argentina’s freedom, which it earned in the early 19th Century.

Indigenous locals believe that the monument is meant to honor the indigenous people in the fight (Humahuaca and its locals successfully resisted 11 sieges put on by the Spanish Army) and that the strong armed fellow is Diego Viltipoco, an Omaguaca Indian Chief who helped Belgrano in the Independence Fight.

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Whoever the man in the middle is, Avendaño’s sculpture has images of people from both native and European descent, an accurate representation of Argentina’s beginnings.

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From the top of the staircase leading to the monument you can turn around and take in the small town.

Humahuaca’s central plaza reminded me a bit of State Street in Madison and the ped-mall in Iowa City, complete with hippies (Argentina has lots of hippies) selling mostly useless, arguably decorative trinkets made from hemp.

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One of the pieces of graffiti in Humahuaca featuring naked mother earth – cleverly stretching across the right angle of a wall – was some of the best I’d seen in South America, though it was not as good as the giant mural I saw in La Paz, which also featured naked mother earth.

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I had not come to Humahuaca for the graffiti, however.   I had come to see Serranías del Hornocal, a mountain with the most colors I had ever seen in my life.

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There were 14 colors to be precise, giving rise to the mountain’s nickname “Cerro de Catorce Colores.”  Its really surprising that this place isn’t more popular – it was one of the best views I had throughout all of South America and I was one of only 4 people there that afternoon.

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In what seemed like an optical illusion, certain parts of the top of Serranías del Hornocal seemed to be giving off a wispy colored smoke, as if the mountain itself was leaking the different colors of its peaks into the sky.

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I have seen more majestic peaks than this one but none so colorful, making the afternoon I spent up here one of my favorites in Argentina.

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