Three Vignettes: Beautiful Everyday People of Northwest Argentina

In a future incarnation, we will run world tours that seek to deliver extraordinary travel experiences through encounters with ordinary people. And when we do, a road trip in Northwest Argentina will be one of our first stops in South America.

After stumbling upon a dazzling gaucho festival on the first day of a week-long road trip, we figured our travel karma would have run out. Instead, our journey across the valleys outside of Salta featured interactions with engaging people open to odd encounters.

Here’s a taste.

Dan and the Tobacco Pickers

After carving our way through the Quebrada de las Conches, my mind drifted to thoughts of supper and sleep. Clouds settled in, the sky no longer popped and I looked out the window thinking that even in the luxurious flexibility of a car, things outside zipped by much too quickly.

Then I saw it.

Cleaning and Hanging Tobacco - Outside Salta, Argentina
Northwest Argentina, roadside stop and the people you meet.

Giant leaves in turns of gold and green in the waning afternoon light, worked by cowboy-men in mesh aprons. This struck me as the sort of beauty reserved only for the eyes of masters.

I asked Jason if we could stop; I jumped out of the car, camera in hand, to investigate.

To me, the scene was stunning. I also felt very much like I didn’t belong there. But I figured “What the heck?” and engaged the men with my broken Spanish skills and curiosity. I broke the ice and chatted with them about their work and where they lived. It turns out these giant golden leaves were tobacco.

Instead of shooing me off, the men gave me an extended lesson in globalization through the story of a tobacco harvest — these leaves would eventually make their way to China and Japan for use in cheap cigarettes.

Drying Tobacco Outside Salta, Argentina
Drying Tobacco Outside Salta, Argentina

At the very end, Señor Guerrero approached me with a fatherly warmth. He explained the difference between the low-quality tobacco in his hands and the stuff where I came from. “It’s cheap and easy, not like Virginia tobacco used in Marlboro cigarettes,” he suggested in an attempt to make a connection with my home country.

I thanked him, I shook his hand and waved to the rest of the men. They smiled.

I hope they had a story to tell over the dinner table that night. I departed with a memory that won’t be leaving me anytime soon.

Audrey and the One-woman Empanada Factory

At around midnight in Cachi, I searched for the owner of our guest house to help us with a fickle lock. Surprisingly, I found her in the kitchen hovering over dozens of freshly-folded empanadas queuing for the oven. Wishing to share this experience, I called Dan and our travel mates for the week, Jason and Aracely.

When we asked the woman her recipe, she just smiled. In her modesty, she insisted that making empanadas was easy, something we all could do. As she spoke, her hands moved methodically, tucking and pinching the edges of one after another perfectly formed bundle.

Homemade Empanadas in Cachi, Argentina
Making Empanadas for Children in Cachi, Argentina

Empanadas in her hands: second nature, in the blood.

The reason for this midnight empanada fiesta: her children. They were adults and worked far from home, but that didn’t prevent a mother from trying to take care of her children from afar. Each week, she sent a batch of empanadas by remis taxi to their homes in Salta to satisfy a need – hers and theirs – that they eat at least a few hearty meals each week.

A mother’s desire to care for her children, even when they are grown, seems to be universal.

Dan and the Coffee Connection

There we were in little town Campo Quijano. It was 9:00 in the morning, the town was just waking up and we walked the streets in search of breakfast at best, coffee at least. We were crushed to find that the recommended café in town was closed. (Frankly, it was the only café.)

There had to be coffee somewhere. No need generates action like the need for caffeine. I approached several random people on the street, “Is there a café or restaurant where I can buy a coffee?”

After a few confused exchanges, the woman in the photo below proposed to me a rather simple solution: “Buy some pastries for breakfast at the bakery over there. Then, come to my house and I’ll make you coffee.”

Coffee with a New Friend - Campo Quijano, Argentina
Jason, Aracely, the Coffee Lady and Dan

A few minutes later, there we were seated at her dining room table — boiling water, instant coffee and sugar laid out. As we chomped on hard pastries (bread was not Campo Quijano’s strong point), our host told us stories of earthquakes come and gone through the cracks in her dining room walls. She explained her need for friends. She was this town’s social hub; she used to have her friends over for breakfast on their way to work each morning. These days, she doesn’t have the energy to cook breakfast, but friends still pop in to say hello and bid her good day.

Their looks of surprise – at a group of travelers having coffee at the table — were priceless.

If we shared more cups of coffee with one another, would the world be a better place? I think so.

By the way, if you go to Campo Quijano, make sure you find this woman. Thank her again for us. And be sure to get her name.

———

Your turn: What sorts of interactions with ordinary people make your trips special?

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Comments

  1. says

    When you start your world tour company, please let us know. Betsy and I want to be your first clients. If for no other reason than an opportunity to meet you guys and talk for hours about the amazing people you have met on you journey. Thank you again for taking time to give us a glimpse into their lives and how it impacted you.

  2. says

    What wonderful stories! I must say I am impressed by your confidence at going up to chat to people – it’s a skill I really need to work on as I know it adds so much to the travel experience.

  3. says

    Echoing the previous comments but I love this glimmering moments. Looking forward to my own in that area!

    One example of my own? My family and I visited the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. As we returned to our mammoth van and then en route to Portree, we noticed a Finnish couple from the tasting that were waiting for a bus they had just missed. Now this is rain- and wind-swept Scotland. It’s sparsely populated. We drove 300 yards past them before I told my family to turn around. We had room in the van and it just wasn’t right to leave them out in the rain. Needless to say, they happily jumped in the van and we had rousing, if a little crowded, conversation all the way back to town.

    We did a small good deed, met some new friends, and added a little human warmth to the whisky in our bellies.

  4. says

    It’s true, when I look back on that road trip I realize how lucky we were to experience real life in Northern Argentina with real people.

  5. says

    Yes, TOTALLY!!! I love this message! You should create a website called sharemorecupsofcofee.com. Haha!!! What an AWESOME post and pics as always. :)

  6. says

    Awesome shots! Tobacco? That’s really interesting post. I only visited coco beans farms or sugar cane field. Hopefully I’ll get to meet some tobacco pickers in my life : P

  7. Maca says

    I’m form Argentina. I actually live in Buenos Aires but up till last year I was living in the southern Island: Tierra del Fuego. I have went to those northern places the previous winter (for this half of the world) and I can personally say to Erin, that the only need, if you want such kind of experience, is to be a little easygoing because they are totally friendly and peaceful people. It’s often said that this is for the reason of the climate and the high altitude that led human activity to be done with calm and with a “religious” nap from after lunch till 3 pm! Nonetheless, the wonderful landscape is worth to be alive. I really love my country and I hope I can someday see rest of the world. Thank you for shearing this fulfilling moments of your travels.

  8. says

    @Warren: Whether or not we start this tour company imminently, we look forward to crossing paths and swapping stories.

    @Michael: We’re with you. The most memorable, by far.

    @Erin: Thanks. It guess it boils down to curiosity (well, and the need to get coffee). I also know that more often than not, people are surprisingly friendly. And when they happen not to be, you just sort of move on.

    The other feature at work: although we get weird or curious looks from people in these sorts of situations, they are much less likely to judge us than people who know us. I know that’s counter-intuitive, but I believe it’s true.

    @Keith: That’s the way to do it. Those good deeds pay dividends. Enjoy your month in this region – it’s really a great area to meet people and explore.

    @Jason: It was a terrific trip. I wonder if we were fortunate beyond normal or whether that area just delivers 24x7x365. Given the people, I’m inclined to think the latter.

    @Andi: Thanks. Great suggestion, actually.

    @Sarah: Tobacco indeed. Senor Guerrero also told me they grow garlic and peppers.

    @Maca: Thank you for sharing such beautiful sentiments.

    Wow, you’ve lived in some beautiful places. Your suggestion to Erin about easy going is a good one. It’s always a good idea to meet people where they are at.

    I love your description “human activity done with calm and with a religious nap.” Sounds like a recipe for peace and tranquility to me.

  9. Phyllis says

    We were in the Boston area this summer for my nephew’s graduation – a big wind went through town and knocked all the trees over. We met many neighbors of my brothers’ that afternoon helping everyone pick up limbs, etc. Still enjoyed our cookout graduation party! I have always found that it is easy to meet people when the power goes out!

    @ Sarah Wu – Come to Eastern Kentucky – tobacco farms are going out of fashion, but you can still find many of them here.

  10. says

    Back in December, my boyfriend James and I were couchsurfing with a young woman and her boyfriend near the Grampians in Australia. The woman was out of town for the night but the boyfriend came home after work and said to the two of us–
    “Would you like to come to my grandparent’s for dinner? When she heard about you two she wanted to invite you (even tho she doesnt really understand the cs’ing idea) she couldn’t bear the thought of you eating alone?”

    So along we went to his grandparent’s place. They were sheep farmers with a what I thought was huge farm (thousands of acres) although we were told it was small, sitting between grandma and grandpa as well as some uncles and the young guy’s dad. I learned so much about sheep farming and farming that night it was unreal. And then on the drive back home (which was from the middle of nowhere) we drove by the light of the full moon, winding our way thru the fields. It was beautiful and made our Australian experience that much more authentic.

    Johanna

  11. says

    I remember trying to find a coffee with you guys one morning too. It is the quest for important things – like coffee – that leads to great exchanges like this one. I’m missing you both stationed at a cafe in Albuquerque.

  12. says

    @Phyllis: I suspect there are leagues of attendees of the great blackouts (I’m thinking the one in NYC a few years ago, in particular) that are inclined to agree. Nothing like a step back in time and a bit of a slowdown for people to come together and get to know one another.

    @Johanna: Very sweet. Proving again that some of the very best travel experiences are unscripted and unforeseen. Thank you.

    @Gaea: When I saw your name, I knew it could be only one.

    “The quest for important things — like coffee” — can I quote you?

    Missing you, too. Thanks for delivering a smile.

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