Perdido en las cerrazones | Vacaciones de invierno haciendo trekking en Tucumán

The car slides downhill from the top of a rolling hill towards Valley Tafiamong a velvety green grass with cardons as chandeliers. It’s winter, which feels a little less here. One comes to Tafí –inhabited 2000 years ago–, among other things, to walk its mountainsa discipline enhanced in a pandemic.

Cristian “Pinocho” Mamaní lives in the La Ovejería neighborhood and has a finite voice with a hurdle musicality, almost a song. And he leads travelers to the mountain. The trek begins by car on a dirt road in the middle of the afternoon, so that the clouds are low. The objective is the Cascade of the alders. It starts from the side of a deep ravine with a river in the background, in an environment similar to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: stone, forest and low clouds. At 2,500 meters above sea level, the vegetation shrinks and a small forest of alders and queñuas with a twisted trunk like a floor cloth appears: it peels like an onion and its layers look like tobacco leaves.

The walk progresses uphill, in and out of the clouds without ever getting to see the sky. Until the first waterfall of 35 meters appears and the walkers recharge canteens. Already close to 3000 meters, a meter and a half tall golden grass appears, so dense that you have to make your way with breast strokes. And looking back, the dream image of the cloud forest: the precipice has disappeared under a cushion of clouds, the sky below the sky.

On the way to Cascada de los Alisos in Tafí del Valle, the atmosphere refers to Machu Picchu.

Upon reaching the undulating top, everything disappears and a fine grass like a yellowish golf course remains. And when you go down a few meters, a large amphitheater with stones opens up like a field of meteorites. Mamaní says that some people come without a guide, they get lost: “some have spent two nights up here in the open until I could find them and they burst into tears when they saw me. The worst thing is that later they say they hadn’t gotten lost!”

Going down the opposite slope, sheep and goats appear that vanish in the cloudiness and reappear a few meters away. Then, a stone and mud house in front of two enormous drywall pens. There seems to be no one, but Doña Clarusa comes out of a cloud: at 66 years old, she lives alone in the heights, sometimes with her son.

Clarusa plays with a newborn lamb that does not leave her legs: “the mother is very stupid and she has thrown it away; now I have to be the mother and I give her a bottle”. It’s because of the drought: lack of grass, she couldn’t nurse him and abandoned him. “They’re skinny,” Clarusa justifies, squeezing the word with a long note on the antepenultimate vowel. With a storm cloud, she lowers a new chorus of bleats: a group of sheep returning to the pen: “I yell at them and they come; and if I don’t shout, they come alone even when it’s too late; I have 200 sheep more or less, I don’t count them, but I know them all”. Clarusa has her house in Tafí: “this is my job, but I only pay for it; nooooo, I’m not leaving here, I live alone and I don’t get bored at all, it’s beautiful to live; one knows nothing, sees nothing, hears nothing. Where are you coming from? From Buenos Aires?”.

The house was built by Clarusa’s husband –he has already passed away– and a son: “it’s adobe with cement because if not, the wind blows; It’s terrible cold here.” Among the adobe remains of straw can be seen: “it is so that it grabs the mud”. He says that she was born further down this same mountain, “but the landowners locked us up and we had to leave; but my son is now fixing up where we knew how to live”. Doña Clarusa’s only problem is “the lion”: “Whenever he wants, he eats my goats, a lot. It doesn’t get up here because of the dogs, this year several lambs have caught me; six last time.”

Clarusa goes to sleep–it’s almost night–and the walk continues downhill, effortlessly now. In a tall pampa appears a small brick house with two slopes without windows, surrounded by three planted trees and a fence. It has a wooden door with a cross and a strangely lit candle in the open air: it is the cenotaph of a girl found dead here.

Cenotaph in a high pampa in the Cascada de los alisos trek.

A truck waits at the foot of the hill and Mamaní celebrates the mark: “we have taken 4 hours and a half; normal is 5”. In the last kilometer, the caravan of walkers goes down with the unstoppable conviction of the horses that know each other near the stable. The medium-high difficulty of the trek –7.5 km and 750 meters of unevenness–justifies the effort to glimpse vanishing panoramas, veiled by an aura somewhere between surreal and Yupanquian: an elusive genre of landscape unknown in the rest of the country.

In Los Alisos National Park

From the Tucumán city of Concepción, a trip begins by car –at this point it must be a 4×4 to cross a ford– towards the Campo de los Alisos Portal of the Aconquija National Park. The plan is to enter the Yungas jungle, which climbs hills to its peak there and hides in the cerrazones, those clouds that descend to human heights and inspired Yupanqui’s verses. Passing the town of Alpachiri –“cold land” in Quechua– is the Santa Rosa Operational Center, where it receives Page|12 the park ranger Gerardo Sans: he lives in a cabin in the middle of the jungle with his wife and baby. Proud of a land that he watches over and cares for, he says that “The park ranges from 800 to 5,600 meters above sea level with dense jungle in the lower part, montane forest in the intermediate part, and high Andean grassland where Ciudacita is located, the most important Inca ruins in the country.”

The idea is to walk the Puesto Los Chorizos trail (9.5 km round trip). The first visible and palpable feature of the Yungas jungle is the green moss — phosphorescent against the light of the sun — covering almost every meter of stone, trunks and lianas. The “old man’s beard” moss hangs from the bark and branches of trees and in the dry season, condenses the low clouds, drips and waters a forest that could not be what it is. The problem -explains Sans- is that it suffers from depredation: “Río Seco is the Provincial Capital of the Manger and many take out the moss to make the baby Jesus’ bed”.

Walking single file down the path, the forest thickens and the other kind of moss appears — a little green rug — covering all living space. The humidity is so great that large rocks are covered by that layer of moss where micro-plants grow: each rock is a small forest. One of them is a block of 2 which a 10-meter pacara tree has grown on top of, whose trunk never reached the ground. Its thick roots go down the rock wrapping it like tentacles. Sans interprets the scene: “here a bird landed years ago, defecated a seed, the moss gave it moisture and it germinated”. The park ranger puts his hand into a crack in the rock and twenty little white butterflies sprout. The stone supports another small pacara –“a son”–, ferns, cobwebs, perhaps it hides a non-poisonous climbing snake, ants, microbes and dry leaves. And right next to it grows a white guili with its trunk resting on it, which gives it stability.

The park rangers of the Aconquija National Park live invaded by the jungle.

Further on, the trail is invaded by hundreds of yellow butterflies and reeds bent in an arch like an entrance: they fall with the snowfall. A fallen log is riddled with holes by woodpeckers looking for the “drill bug”, a white worm. The dead trunk is a source of food for decades. The advance of the jungle is a headache for Sans: “every millimeter of land is occupied; if something falls out, your space is immediately covered with new life; in Patagonia you open a trail and it lasts 50 years; but here, in a summer, it was closed and you have to go back to machete. Note that we walk through a green tunnel of 5 kilometers, closed at the top. Before being a national park, this land was from a sawmill and was bare. In 30 years it sprouted”.

Sans makes a stop and silence sign: there is a permanent buzz of bees. Tiny white worms hang from many branches on silk threads and perch on clothes and hats. And everywhere, heClimbing ianas like skeins of snakes and bromeliads in forks of trees with their leaves like a slide carrying the water towards their interior. The sun barely penetrates the environment and the fight for its rays is to the death: the one who reaches the highest wins. The weak, like lianas, use the power of the strongest by climbing it. At first glance, this is a haven of peace. But it is rather a silent war of everyone with everyone for a crust of sun. More info: Aconquija National Park

To the Huaicondo waterfall

From San Miguel de Tucumán there is a trekking circuit to the Huaicondo waterfall that starts by car, winding its way up the slopes of Cerro San Javier towards the old mansions of Villa Nogués in the middle of the forest. The guide Sergio Sánchez says “here”, stopping the car on the side of the road. And he leads his group of walkers into the jungle as if through a hole in the vegetal wall. He recommends inhaling and exhaling through your nose to become less dehydrated.

The first half of the walk is downhill along a hillside among thousands of trees with thin trunks: tipas, cebiles, horco molles, horco sebiles and again moss, lots of moss. The closed forest hardly allows to see the sky. The birds are calm and the silence is absolute. It begins to drizzle –the tops of the trees act as umbrellas– and a sweet “green” scent rises up, which Sergio defines: “this musty smell is produced by geosmin –“earth’s aroma” in Greek– , a substance produced by bacteria streptomycescoelicolor and soil cyanobacteria that become active when the soil gets wet.”

At the edge of the trail white mushrooms appear on dead trunks and the slope becomes steep. At the bottom of a ravine you reach the ruined building of a century-old rusty English water pump, eaten away by the jungle. The slope is complicated by the wet ground but Sergio and his team have installed ropes tied to logs in case of a slip. After a brief rappel, the Huaicondo waterfall appears with its natural pool and a stream that falls 16 meters. In winter, only the daring venture into the crystal clear waters.

The sky below the sky when going for a walk from Tafí del Valle.

The difficulty of this hike is intermediate (600 meter drop). The tiring thing is the return, two hours uphill. But the forest with its trunks sprouting green hairs is poetically stimulating: the clouds have descended to ground level, the cloud forest in its splendor. The group traverses the domed green fortress with “columns” lined up trunk to trunk to infinity. The narrow path invaded by the mist is from a Tim Burton movie with bearded and hairy trees. Nothing can be seen beyond 10 meters and when looking up, there is a continuous arborescent bubbling that turns the forest into a “closed” space: that was the original logic of the temple, which separated man from nature in a sacred area. In Tucumán the temple is the forest itself.