- By Bill Bonner
Jorge had decided to come with us. He didn't quite believe that we could get there on our own - and well before the end or our ride, we were relieved to have him as our guide. He was more than a guide, of course: a lively companion - quick to point out the source of a spring, or where an ancient rio had dried up. To name a mountain or a plant. Nodding to the distant horizon to tell us that the sick calf - one of several little black dots amid the rocks and cactus - we had tended with him a couple of weeks ago was fully. To recall the days and characters of his youth; to tell us about the gente that live in arriendos and puestos tucked into the mountains and hills of Gualfin.
Every year, Jorge's wife Maria explained later, the patron saints of Taquil and Gualfin "se inviten". In pomp and ceremony, the saints cross the mountains, attended by their respective faithful. In August, the month of the fiesta of San Ramon, Gualfin's patron saint "receives" San Isidrio, the patron saint of Taquil. And in October, the month of San Isidrio's fiesta, Taquil's patron saint returns the favor. Gualfin's statue of San Ramon, Maria showed me, dresses in a hat and little satchel crocheted especially for his voyages.
Our plan was to go to Don Justo's arriendo near the Pena Punta, a mesa that juts out of the gentle upward slope of Gualfin's plane and extends for several miles toward Taquil. Then, we would ask for directions. After about an hour and a half of easy riding, we came to Justo's new road. It lead to a galpon, where Justo parks his car.
"I told him to stay away from the cows," answered Jorge, with a twinkle in his eye.
Up and over the abra we went, noticing the pile of cajas that Justo had propped up against the rocks for fetching and carrying, and the posts he intended to pick up at a later time. Down below was a pretty scene - a small green field of alfalfa, with a parva, or haystack, next to it in an enclosure to keep animals away.
Justo's house is set up on a little rise, backing against a mountain slope and overlooking the imposing mesa. Here is he lives with his wife Victorina. Their sons have emigrated from Gualfin to work at other fincas; their daughter to the town of Molinos. Next to the house, behind a thorny barrier of bushes and branches, is a field of corn, tall tassels golden in the mid-morning sun. Jorge whistled. Justo's dogs rushed out, barking. Justo himself then appeared, with a welcoming smile in his eyes.
He is a small, lean man, in harmony with the arriendo's little field and reservoir. Like the gauchos of Jorge's generation, he wears a broad-brimmed hat, tilted slightly forward over his eyes. A pale-blue flannel pajama shirt, with a Chinese blue willow scene embroidered on the pocket, was neatly tucked into his trousers. A reminder that here at Gualfin, far from centers of fashion or any kind of shopping, practicality trumps convention. He and Jorge exchanged news. Jorge, who is the appointed vaccinator for most of the gente of Gualfin, told him when he would have to round up and corral his cattle for vaccination. And Justo told us how to find our way to Taquil.
"Follow the river." Off we went, over the treeless plain, passing the goat corral enclosing Dona Victorina's flock. A tin can for milking hung on the gate. Jorge pointed out the spring where water for the house, and the water that eventually flows down to the campos of Gualfin to water our cattle, has its source. Justo keeps it protected from animals with the prickly-thorned branches of dead churqui. In the near distance, we saw a pair of burros, yoked together. Enacuellado, explained Jorge. The stubborn individualism of the burro makes it hard for them to roam too far away.
Our path was pleasant as we followed the meandering river through the dry landscape. Jorge showed us a lintero, a white stone posed atop a black rock, a boundary marker for the fincas of Gualfin and Taquil. He pointed to the mountains on either side to show us a line of white rock on one mountain slope and the peaks of other mountains that define the zigzagging limits. Soon, we would come to the quebrada de Palam and descend into Taquil's valley.
We saw a herd of cattle, with a brightly brindled bull. "There's an criollo for you," commented Jorge. He didn't seem to think much of Taquil's livestock - big heads, small bodies, horns. They stared at us calmly as we rode by, though the bull retired to a safe distance.
Gradually, the river spreads into a cienaga, where a short dense grass cover fed a herd of horses. We passed the first arriendo we had seen since leaving Don Justo. Weeds grew in the courtyard. The abuelita, the little grandmother, who lived there had died. Her children live in towns now.
Suddenly, the descent was no longer gradual. The terrain was rocky and steep, entailing leaps across boulders, slithering amid loose rocks, and above all, not looking down. We dismounted and let the horses figure out the safest trajectory for themselves. But what a view! Below us was the green bowl of Taquil, surrounded by mountains.
Back in the saddle on smooth ground, we followed the deepening channel of the river until we crossed a bridge, following the deep acequia and the murmur of its clear water. We met our first inhabitant of Taquil, old man resting under the shade of a tree. Next to him was a little table. We asked for the sala. It was another hour and a half away.
Almost immediately, we could look down into the vineyards. The first we saw had been planted in the 1930s by Don Federico, known locally as El Ingenero. The Davalos family of Taquil were the earliest in Salta province to plant vineyards, owners as well of the nearby finca of Colome. There, the first grapes had been planted in 1831.
But more remarkable to us than the vineyards, after two months in our dry, high-altitude Gualfin, were the trees. Towering above us, with thick trunks and broad-spreading branches, they might have been inspired by trees in an English landscape park. Raul's grandfather had planted them almost a hundred years ago. Alamos lined the acequia, punctuated by enormous weeping willows in groves. Farther along, we rode through an allee of ancient cardon cactus, interspersed with large well-watered algarroba.
Taquil has been a work in progress for the Davalos family since the 16th century. Not only is the finca marked by their tastes in trees and landscape, but so is the infrastructure. The road is excellent. Raul's mother oversaw the installation of running water and septic systems in all the arriendos back in the 1990s. The cemetery itself has an air of bright modernity, with crisp white tombs set on sturdy stone and concrete foundations.
We finally reached the sala, where Raul was waiting for us with a hot estofada and rice. The house was modernized in the early 20th century, and it feels like an austere product of Argentina's boom years, when Salta and the north of Argentina were increasingly marginalized by rich Buenos Aires.
We took the short cut home, following Taquil's road part of the way, and then crossing over the hills to our own road into Gualfin.
"Do you drive it? Jorge asked. "I'm learning," he answered. The car was not the only sign of changing times. Next to the sarzo for drying cheese was a Direct TV dish.
We left the arriendo and turned on to our road. We made one more stop.
"Would you like to make a phone call?" asked Jorge. Where? Out amidst the brush is Gualfin's "cabina telefonica," which amazingly captures a clear cell phone signal. We were delighted to be to call our daughter Maria in California. And then it was back on horseback.
It was a long way home yet, as the sun gradually set over the plain of Gualfin. The mountains changed color from pink to purple and brown. The Lucera del Manecer was hanging in the dark sky, glowing like a lamp, when we finally entered the alameda and arrived at our own sala. Jorge's wife Maria and our housekeeper Marta were waiting for us, sitting on the steps. With relief, Bill and I slid down from our saddles. Jorge, agile despite his arthritis, helped us unsaddle and put the horses away. It had been long day, through familiar territory into another landscape, another place, and back again to Gualfin.
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.