Tilcara: How the worst first impression turned into the best day ever!


July 16, 2012 by Leah

Tali and I arrived in Tilcara at 8 p.m. after a four-hour bus ride from Salta. (It should be noted that the bus was freezing cold and they decided to show the movie “Grey,” in which Liam Neeson is repeatedly attacked by wolves while he freezes to death in Alaska.) We were cold, tired, and hungry, and it was dark. Since we weren´t able to book a hostel in advance, we gladly accepted the offer from a hostel-lady waiting at the bus station to stay at her hostel for the night. That was a mistake.

The hostel was not good. It was tiny and I was not really clear which parts were “inside” and which were “outside.” When we arrived, our four-bed dorm was occupied by an Argentian couple cuddling on one of the lower bunks. There was barely enough room to walk between the two bunk beds, and nowhere to lock up our stuff. There was only one toilet and one shower for the whole hostel, and they were in the same room. (I say “room,” but it was really more of a freestanding, one-room, non-insulated building?) As we were considering our options, the Argentian couple switched rooms and we decided “Welp, it´s only one night,” and went out in search of dinner.

Now, when it´s dark outside in Northern Argentina that means one thing: COLD. I should mention that the day before in Salta, after yet another sub-zero night, Tali and I had a small and hilarious mental breakdown when we finally admitted to each other that we were freaking freezing. In attempting to “pack light,” we sent ourselves into winter without coats, long underwear, sweaters, scarves, hats, or pajamas …

“We´ll just sleep in our underwear!”

“South American winter? Sure. We´re from Boston. How bad can it be?”

SUCH HUBRIS! Winter in South America is totes real, especially up in the mountains after dark. And especially when you´re staying in hostel dorms that are not only unheated, but not even insulated (many have open spaces between the walls and the roof, made of some sort of stalk that looks a bit like bamboo).

So, after a hilarious laugh/crying episode, Tali and I vowed to buy as many freaking llama sweaters and socks and hats as we needed to keep from shivering the whole night long. (Pro-tip: Steal blankets from free beds in your hostel room.) Since then, we´ve aquired 2-pairs of llama socks, a llama hat, and three llama sweaters between us. When we leave for the night, we look like fluffy marshmallows.

Anyway, back to Tilcara.

We found the town center and the restaurant that had been recommended to us was full. The town did not look that impressive in the dark. We finally found another restaurant that looked okay, but everything just felt very awkward. I was definitely on edge thinking about the hostel and having all kinds of worries about the next leg of our trip in Bolivia. The stray dogs begging at our table didn´t do much to ease my anxiety. We did however, try llama milanesa – our first llama meat – and it tasted, well, a little funky.

After dinner, a freezing Tali and I began walking back to the hostel. As we were walking up a gradual hill we found ourselves completely winded. Tilcara is 2,400 meters above sea level, and our first real experience with altitude. Basically, the simplest exertion has us panting for breath. It´s very strange.

When we got back to the hostel, we stole the blankets from the two empty beds and cuddled up together on a bottom bunk and listened to Tina Fey´s Bossypants audio book. This finally put me at ease, and we both managed to sleep rather well in the sketchy hostel under our double-blankets.

The sketchy hostel

The next morning we woke up, and were served breakfast by the woman who ran the hostel. She was very nice. We paid (40 pesos each, which is less than $10), gathered our packs, and headed off to find a better hostel. We found one just down the road with a beautiful open area and big communal kitchen. The rooms are still unheated, but that just seems to be the standard here.

The nicer hostel

In the morning light, everything looked different. Tilcara is absolutely adorable. It´s clearly a tourist destination for Argentinians, and there are restaurants, peñas (restaurants with live, traditional music), and artisan shops everywhere. There´s also a giant market in the main plaza full of stalls where Bolivians sell their llama sweaters and other souvenier-type things. Another thing we missed the night before was the fact that Tilcara is nestled in a valley and surrounded by giant, beautiful mountains on three sides.

We spent the morning exploring and buying llama sweaters. We ate lunch in the sun at an outdoor asado. We both got delicious chorizo sandwiches piled high with chimichurri, tomatoes, peppers, and other things. I saved the last bit of my chorizo for the obligatory stray dog begging at the table, who accepted it and promptly moved on to the next table.

After lunch we bundled up as much as we possibly could and set out for our horseback riding adventure! Without so much as a crash course in horsemanship, we were up on horses and riding through the town with our guides, Adrian, who says he prefers animals to people, and Santiago, a hoodie-clad 15-year old who didn´t make eye contact for the first half hour or so of the trip. We rode through the town, which was pretty terrifying since there were cars and dogs and people everywhere and I was pretty sure my horse was about to freak out and throw me off. It didn´t.

As we left the town, we headed up a dirt path up the mountain. We were headed to La Garganta del Diablo (yes, a second Devil´s throat). The horses carried us up, up, and up. We were climbing the side of the mountain, right on the edge. I tried not to look down too often. Really, it was easy beacuse the view was absolutely spectacular.

By the time we reached La Garganta del Diablo, our exposed hands were frozen stiff. We were so, unbelievably cold! We were perhaps 50 ft below the clouds gathered at the tops of the tallest mountains. Adrian told us we could have 40 minutes to look around, but we reassured him that he and Santiago, in his meager hoodie, wouldn´t have to wait that long. We looked around and saw the source of Tilcara´s water supply coming out of the moutain.

When we ran (or tried… pant, pant) back to the horses, we found Adrian, Santiago, and two dogs huddled together against a rock drinking mate. We gladly accepted their offer, and had us some mate (our first on the trip). Then we saddled up and headed back down the mountain. We could see the whole valley, and the sun streaming through the clouds was strangely magical. I did my best to take photos, but it was difficult to do one-handed, with my fingers frozen stiff, on the back of a horse.

We arrived back and went straight back to our hostel where we, literally, spooned for warmth. It didn´t really work, though. We just couldn´t get warm. However, that night we went early to La Peña de Carlitos, a touristy restaurant with live traditional music. And it was fabulous. But more importantly, it was warm.

We gave llama a second chance, ordering a kind of llama stew, and it was delicious. We also ordered a liter of wine, which didn´t hurt either.

llama stew

By the time the band took the stage, we were warm, full, and drunk. It was wonderful. In between songs, the band members did stand up comedy. We didn´t understand a word, but laughed all the same.

Later they went around the restaurant and asked every table where they were from. Most were from Buenos Aires or Rosario, and when I answered “Los Estados Unidos” we got extra applause. Two women from the table behind us leaned over and asked what state we were from. When we told her we heard the entire table repeat “Las chicas son de Massachusetts! Las chicas son de Massachusetts!” Great.


The band got a standing ovation, and played an encore. The last song was clearly one much beloved by all the Argentians, who were singing along. The table next to us got up to dance. Suddenly, and older man was grabbing my arm to drag me up as well. I grabbed Tali and before we knew it we were at the front of a conga line snaking around the restaurant.

The wine, the music, the people – we were having a wonderful time. After a conversation in Spanish with the Argentinians behind us, we were passed a guestbook. Tali, who has little patience for touristy stuff, rolled her eyes. I said, “Tali, we just led a conga line. You don´t get to roll your eyes.” She laughed, signed it, and we giggled our way back to the hostel.

Best day ever.


3 thoughts on “Tilcara: How the worst first impression turned into the best day ever!

  1. alan berkenwald says:

    Wonderful posting.

    Lesson here – next time listen to your Father who told you to bring warm clothes!

  2. Yulia says:

    I thought you knew it was going to be cold!!!! Well, now it’s a real adventure. You will love your llama sweaters. ;o)

  3. Ben says:

    Hah, I’m glad that experience turned around well. I feel kind of guilty emphasizing to you how light packs are really the best thing for traveling. I remember that being a difficult burden in the cold months… But seems like you found the trick to solve that – Just buy the local warm wear! Now you have llama clothes souvenirs 😀

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