A Visit to Cachi, May 4, 2017
The second yerra accomplished and the vaccination of the calves and cows to be sold almost finished, our thoughts turned to a change of horizon. We left Gualfin in the morning, heading north toward the glistening slopes of the Nevado de Cachi.
It was a wintery day, and the fine veil of dust suspended in the air sparkled in the sunlight. A herd of goats poured down the slopes of the Banda, the farmstead perched on the far side of the río Barranca. A pair of plump hawks watched us pass from the rounded top of an algarroba. A gopher-like cobayo scuttled across the road. Cows and their calves, liberated early from the corral, grazed on the stalks and dried seed heads of pasto, nibbling them down before the winds of winter blow the brittle remains away. Accompanying the cows was a furry black bull. Though but a common criollo, Gualfin-bred, he is much admired for his industry in the field. Unlike our fancy Brangus bulls, he doesn’t mind ranging far and wide in search of amorous liaisons.
The plain of Gualfin telescopes down until it reaches the Molinos valley. The mountains on either side, touched with coral and pink minerals, are lightly coated with drying greenery. Far ahead, the mountains ranges were a pale violet blue, with the thin transparency of watercolor. The snow- covered peaks of the Nevado de Cachi blurred into the bright blue sky. We drove past the entrance to Tacuil, through the next finca of Amaicha, and on through Colomé, with its tidy church and school, its low-lying, low-growing woodlands and little fields of alfalfa and chocla. We went down the dusty main street of the municipality of Molinos, seat of local government and the regional colegio, with its shops for provisions, its gas station, and its public park. We crossed the Molinos River.
Here, we turned to enter the broad valley of the río Calchaquí. We found ourselves in a life-size relief map. The valley is a part of an immense panorama of small valleys, eroded hills, and scattered clusters of volcanic cones. Tall, faraway mountain ranges rise on either side. The town of Seclantas sprawled below us in its fertile plain. We drove on, following the Calchaquí upstream to its source in the Nevado.
The bright, vigorous río runs through an open bed of gravel and sand, bordered with ample fields. Here was an unaccustomed landscape after the arid plain of Gualfin. The algarrobas grew higher, the willows thicker, the very cardón cacti were stockier. Here and there a very tall tree, an unfamiliar deciduous species, soared above the canopy. In the well-watered fields, workers bent over rows of onions, packing them into mesh sacks. A trail of tall cylindrical piles marked their progress. The pimentón had been harvested. The peppers lay spread out on sun-catching slopes to dry as quickly as possible, the garnet-colored squares and rows vivid against the pale brown earth. Tall stands of chocla, tassels fading from golden yellow to white, stood waiting for a final harvest. Drying corn cobs were laid on the roof tops of the few, scattered houses.
But many houses were abandoned. Adobe pillars still uphold a verandah, walls still stand with wooden doors fastened shut. But the roofs have fallen in, leaving bedrooms and storerooms bared to the sky. Presumably, there has been steady immigration from the countryside to the cities. And, the government has funded charmless identical boxes – albeit with access to electricity and running water -- in the local towns. We drove past poor San José, with its empty municipal garden, its empty shops, its regional ministry of education, and its general air of a place that had been built -- and no one came.
The abandoned houses are a little unsettling and so are the fields of untended quinoa, and the ruined vineyard outside Seclantas, its posts sticking out of the ground like rows of uneven teeth. Agriculture and the agricultural life seem timeless – and are eternally subject to change. The high plains of northern Argentina, with their eroding mountains and unpredictable rainfall, are a stark reminder of nature’s relentless inconstancy.
We arrived in Cachi in time for lunch. Fortified with big chunks of asado, cut from roasting mutton with a resounding whack of the chef’s immense knife, we strolled around the town. What a change from Gualfin! Around the main square, the town was quiet and traditional, but off on the side streets were shops selling sneakers and backpacks, bicycles and motorcycles, watches and costume jewelry. A pushcart vendor sold brooms. There were fruit stands and a couple of hardware stores. There was even a small hospital. People bustled to and fro, school children walking home to lunch or playing in the park, women buying groceries, men taking a few minutes to lounge against a wall before going back to work. Beyond the little town rise the snowy peaks of the Nevado de Cachi, as picturesque as the wrapper on a Swiss chocolate bar.
Cachi is a market town for the immensely productive valley behind it. Cachi Adentro, rich in sediment washed down from the mountains and abundant water, backs into a sunny fold of the Nevado de Cachi. Driving up the dusty road from the town, you come upon a hidden world. The road is lined with thickly planted poplars behind walls of adobe and stone. Orchards of peaches and walnuts, vineyards, fields of peppers, pimiento, tomatoes, onions, corn, zapallo, and alfalfa abound, along with pastures for horses, milk cattle, and a flock of llama. Through it all, a complex network of acequias carries water from the mountain streams.
“Used to belong to a cousin of mine,” our neighbor Ramon told us when he heard we had visited the valley. He shook his head in his usual gruff manner. “He made a mess of it.”
Ramon’s cousin sold his large finca San Miguel in Cachi Adentro and divided some of it into smallholdings. But water, as everywhere in the Calchaquíes Valley, bears not only life but strife. Since the Inca conquest of the 15th century, and perhaps before, Cachi Adentro has been controlled by one major landholder. The encomenderos, who took over from the Inca on behalf of the Spanish Crown, controlled vast expanses of the Calchaquíes including Cachi. In 1636, when the big encomiendas were mostly broken up, the hacienda of Cachi was awarded as a merced real – a royal favor – to a certain Donã Margarita Chavez. The estate passed from private hands to private hands, losing bits and pieces but essentially remaining a large agricultural parcel.
“Now, you have one person growing peppers and another one growing chocla. One fellow has a vineyard and walnuts, a few llamas and a horse. The real farmers have big fields of alfalfa and corn. How’s that going to work? Everyone needs water in a different way.”
Cachi Adentro, for all its pastoral beauty, its herds of milk cows grazing against the snows of the Nevado, its emerald alfalfa and grape vines reddening in the clear autumn air, is torn with unneighborly strife. Recently, “originarios” claiming to be descended from the original Indian tribes have laid claim to farms in the valley.
Tires burn, blocking roads -- and so do crops.
But we didn’t feel a single bad vibration as we drove along the road that encircles the valley. We were enchanted. Harvesters sat on crates in a field picking peppers. Alfalfa had been pitchforked into picturesque montones. Little foals slept beside their mothers. Pimentón dried on the arid ground above the acequias. Looking down into the valley, the fields were marked off with rows of poplars. And as the day waned, the setting sun washed the horizon with gentle glowing pink. The lights of the town began to twinkle.