As we stepped off the bus at La Asunción, a tiny village in the Mendoza region of Argentina we were greeted with a huge smile. Our guide, Humberto – an active member of this indigenous Huarpe community – was waiting for us with open arms, tagged along by his energetic son Joaquín. There was an evident sense of relief in the air as the area had just had its first rain in over six months, an early Christmas present in this extremely arid environment. Dry it may be, but what a striking landscape it was as we walked along the dirt road towards our new home for two nights, with a spectacular lightning display illuminating the horizon. Only two hours earlier we had been in the beautiful city of Mendoza sampling some of the world’s best wines, yet now, just a stone’s throw away it seemed as though we were in complete isolation.
There was a melody of burps and strange sounds coming from the hundreds of frogs that had also come out to enjoy the recent rainstorm, and a rather noisy owl perched on the telegraph pole. He was slightly less pleased to see us though. Our home was a masterfully constructed building made out of clay bricks, teeming with character which beautifully blended into the natural surroundings. All the building materials in the community come from the land, and it is as though they are born out of the earth. We were not the only ones staying for the night, however: a frightening-looking tarantula was standing in our way. Fascinating, but we were somewhat relieved when Humberto ushered it away to safety.
Once settled in, Humberto took us over to Mr. Carmelo’s house where a beautiful spread of roasted goat, chicken broth, homemade bread and red wine was waiting for us. We sat down to enjoy the feast – which had almost entirely come from his land – after another warm welcome. Most of the P. Guaquinchay community raise goats for a living, the other half make beautifully handmade artisan gifts which they sell to tourists as far as Buenos Aires. Conversing over dinner with Carmelo and his family in his cosy clay-built house was a special moment as we exchanged cultural differences before a power cut unfortunately cut it short. Making the short way back to our house was even more spectacular than before as the lights had died and all we could see was the spectacular night sky, giving us the opportunity to do some star gazing in blissful silence before bed.
After a good night’s sleep we woke early and headed over to Carmelo’s house for breakfast, mate and some more of his homemade bread. He was wide awake, enthusiastically showing us around his home. Hanging outside on his wall was a magnificent puma skin, his chairs were decorated with goat skin and the table was made from a native hardwood by a neighbour. On top of the table were some brightly coloured fruits called chañar, drying in the sun. These fruits are vitally important to the people of La Asunción: they act not only as a sweet snack but can also be dried out and turned into flour. Growing everywhere throughout the village, they have been part of their diet since as long as Carmelo and his ancestors can remember. ‘Everybody has their specialty trade in the pueblo village or neighbouring communities,’ he explained, whether it be making arts and crafts, furniture, bricklaying or making sweet bread. ‘It’s how we sustain our community.’
Carmelo was a man who got things done, not a moment had passed after serving breakfast and giving us a tour of his house before he was getting his hands dirty and showing us how to milk his 150 goats, each one selling for 400 pesos (approx. £40). Milking done, he then proudly showed us his new project, a house he was building to welcome more tourists. The process was incredibly resourceful, everything from the bricks to the cement was produced from the very earth we were standing on, mixed with horse manure. After knocking up a fresh batch of clay cement in a type of well also created out of mud, he then swiftly and precisely began laying bricks. Asking him whether he prefers working with tourism or the old way of raising livestock he explained, ‘tourism represents 60% of my income nowadays, I don’t just do it to make money but because I want to share our way of living and make tourists feel welcome here by way of cultural exchange.’
Home is where the heart is
Leaving Carmelo to get on with his work, Humberto then took us on a guided tour of the village, carefully explaining each and every tree and its medical purposes. These days they have a government health post but it was only installed two years ago and natural medical remedies still have an important part to play in people’s lives. In need of a pick-me-up, Humberto took us to the saloon belonging to him and his brothers where he prepared some mate on the open fire. The yerba mate – a type of bitter green tea infusion – was prepared with etiquette. This caffeine-infused hot drink is believed to have been originally consumed by the indigenous Guaraní people and later spread throughout southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Sharing it around, we chatted about Humberto’s previous job as a construction worker in Mendoza, ‘I used to earn a good living but I didn’t like it so I came back to the village,’ he said. ‘Tourism here has only been around for four years, they thought we were crazy when we first started but now we believe it’s the best way to maintain the community.’ After fighting hard for the right to be accepted as part of modern society by the Argentina government, the people of La Asunción can now work in everyday jobs. Yet, it is here in the village doing what they know best where they feel most at home.
After another traditional lunch of empadas and a well earned siesta of course, we went to José’s leather workshop where we made our own bracelets out of dry goat skin. José is a very interesting, inquisitive man, as curious about our culture as we were with his. After teaching us how to make bracelets he explained how he has to travel all the way to Buenos Aires to sell his work. The 15 hour long journey is not a chore for him – he is very proud to raise awareness of the Huarpe community not only to foreigners but to Argentine people as well. ‘It’s a satisfaction to show my work to tourists from around the world, I’m very proud. The only problem is the language barrier,’ he said.
We finished the afternoon with two workshops: wool-weaving and sopaipilla – a type of fried sweet bread. A lovely family affectionately welcomed us into their home and showed us how to make a range of woollen artisan souvenirs. They are another family who rely on their age old handcrafts trade for income. Their eldest daughter, however, is studying to be a nurse alongside her work in the community. As we tucked into our freshly made sopaipillas accompanied by homemade peach jam, I felt extremely privileged to be welcomed into their family environment and to experience a small part of their unique lives. Comparing and talking about our cultural differences I asked them what they liked best about living here, ‘the peace, tranquillity and security,’ the eldest daughter said with no hesitation. Looking around and listening to the rich birdlife singing all around us, I couldn’t agree more.
On our last day in the village we woke at the crack of dawn to witness a spectacular sunrise before making our way to Altos Limpios with Humberto’s brother, Sergio. A nature reserve, 40 minutes drive from the village where we trekked over sand dunes in the early morning breeze, spotting endless animal tracks in the sand. Sergio has been working for several years as a guide in this reserve, which he believes to be a natural phenomenon: ‘it’s a complete mystery as it’s the only spot in the whole area that is covered with sand’. He loves this place and feels completely at home here – I could completely understand why as we rested at the top of a dune looking over the stark horizon, once again in blissful silence whilst a magnificent eagle soared over our heads.
Regretfully, it was time to leave this wonderful community and move onto the next step of our Argentina Adventure: indigenous tourism with the Mapuche communities of Patagonia. In such a short time spent here I feel like I’ve learnt a great deal from these incredibly resourceful people. What strikes me most is their warm hospitality and how proud they are of their community. Their traditions, values and way of life date back to the fifth century, yet, they have found a way to move with the times and have adapted wonderfully to modern society. By keeping their strong traditions, passing it on from generation to generation, raising awareness with the help of the local tourism board and welcoming international tourists they have found a way to be sustainable and live the lives they so desire. The future for this charming little community looks bright.