Jujuy & Carnaval – First Impressions of Argentina

After a long (9-hour) drive, I arrived in Jujuy, Argentina, without local currency nor a local phone chip (so unable to contact the person I would be staying with). While I wasn’t too worried – (I’m getting used to navigating without those basic things we take for granted like money and cell phone service – for a short amount of time) – those moments are still somewhat humbling and uncertain.

Yet I felt like I was greeted in Jujuy by a welcoming committee!

First was David from the grocery store. I asked him about phone cards, money exchange, wifi, how to get around the city, and not only was he super friendly and helpful, he made me feel really welcome and we ended up chatting for 15-20 minutes about life in general.

My first experience in Argentina was a warm welcome from David from the grocery store

Then there was Pablo from the internet store. He lent me wifi for free, told me about his favorite things to do in the city and we exchanged travel stories and ended up chatting for nearly an hour!

A serendipitous trip to the internet store led me to another welcoming and fun soul who made me feel right at home (and gave me free wifi). (Don’t judge my appearance – I had been traveling through the desert for 9 hours!)

Then I arrived at the house where I was couchsurfing, and my host invited me to the dinner he had cooked, introduced me to his cat, the washing machine (it’s a real treat to have access to a washing machine when traveling!), and made me feel right at home. Over the course of my stay there, we ended up becoming friends – he even invited me to a birthday party where I made friends with his friends, and even vacationed later with some of his friends! (Unfortunately, we forgot to take a photo together.)

I crossed this beautiful city park to arrive at the house where I would stay.

Given the friendliness of everyone I met, I was surprised to hear that a famous tv personality from Buenos Aires visited Jujuy and noted that the locals complained a lot. A friend I met from Jujuy agreed that it was a fair stereotype. (As a traveler passing through, I didn’t experience any complaining while I was there, and actually had nothing but wonderful experiences with all the locals I met!) To be fair, “Porteños” from Buenos Aires also have a reputation among other Argentines to be snobby and less friendly, and so the stereotyping across regions continues, just like we do for east-coasters and west-coasters, New Yorkers, and southerners in the US.

To be clear, I am in San Salvador de Jujuy – the capital of the province of Jujuy. For those who live in other parts of the province, the city is usually called “San Salvador” to distinguish it from the rest of the province, whereas by outsiders, it is often referred to as Jujuy.

San Salvador de Jujuy is a pretty big small city, with wide roads and a fair share of traffic. It is clean and seems well organized, with nice parks, good infrastructure, good public transportation, and I was surprised how many people had personal vehicles.

My first impression was that Argentina is a bit more well-off than Bolivia and Peru, especially because a local informed me that the province of Jujuy is one of the poorer provinces of Argentina. To me it seemed a bit more put-together than similar cities in other parts of South America, though it also has a clear wealth gap, with neighborhoods of what seem like makeshift houses, where people are just making ends meet, according to one local.

Argentina has a history of an economy that fluctuates drastically, and they are in a period of inflation, with the currency devaluing monthly. At the bank, I learn that it’s very difficult if a foreigner wants to sell Argentine pesos, and they only permit it one day per month.

One friend I met is earning half of what he earned three years ago, but the cost of living hasn’t changed. For him, he can still get by, but he points out that there are a lot of people who struggle to get by because of it. Throughout his life the economy has been in drastic fluctuation – growing at insane rates, like 8%, with everyone doing really well economically, then inflation getting out of hand and things falling like they are now. While it’s not ideal, he kind of casually said. “We just have to wait a few years for the economy to improve again. And the cycle continues.”*

I was planning to run some errands in the early afternoon, and luckily my friend stopped me. Siesta is a thing here,** and most places close at 1pm and don’t open again until 5 or 6 pm. Restaurants typically don’t open again until 7:30 or 8. When things do open again, downtown “el centro” is a bustling place, people hurrying from one shop to another, people passing out flyers, reading your blood pressure for a small donation to the Red Cross, and even a huge protest with a marching band (protesting a raise in some type of tax) passed by when I was walking around downtown.

Most of the locals and transplants (the majority of people I met were actually transplants) agreed that the best thing about Jujuy was the outdoors. The city is surrounded by forested hills, has some great parks, and it’s fairly easy to go out and immerse yourself in beautiful nature for a day trip, for the weekend, or anytime.

There are a ton of great hikes and also many sites to see in the towns outside of the city, the most famous being Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Quebrada de Humahuaca. In addition to being home to great hikes and outdoors activities, these towns are also the heart of Carnaval.

I just so happened to arrive in Jujuy during its annual Carnaval, which is similar to Louisiana’s Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnaval, but with its own unique flavor. It was both a blessing and a curse to be there at this time; on one hand, I had the opportunity to get a taste of Carnaval, but on the other hand I wasn’t able to take advantage of the beautiful hikes and outdoors activities because of traffic and logistics.

I was told that the best places to experience Carnaval are “in the north”, in Tilcara or Quebrada de Humahuaca, (though Pumamarca, and many other small towns throughout the province of Jujuy and nearby provinces have insane celebrations too)…BUT, then I heard horror stories of the traffic and that there wouldn’t be a place to stay.*** In the end, I opted to participate in a celebration in the city put on by the local government, which I would call “Carnaval Light”, though it did have a live performance by the regionally famous Carnaval band “Los Tekis”.

While each town does it a little differently, the main aspects of Carnaval are the “desentierro” and “entierro” of “el diablo”. That’s the unearthing of the devil to kick off the festival, and the burying of the devil to end the festival a few days later. The idea is that after unearthing the devil, people are free to do whatever they want that would normally be considered immoral (what happens in carnaval stays in carnaval), and then once the devil is buried again at the end of carnaval, life goes back to normal.

Each town has their own unique way to exhume the devil, but it usually involves a bunch of people dressed in devil costumes appearing from some special spot. This “desentierro” is the main event and that is why traffic is so bad as crowds of people try to arrive to witness the desentierro.

Before, after, and during the desentierro, people drink (especially box wine, often mixed with any number of other drinks – soda or alcoholic), people paint themselves and throw paint on everyone else, people throw powder and flour on each other, and spray cans of foam at anyone passing by.

Luckily, my friend had warned me not to wear any nice clothes. If you enter clean, you don’t stay clean for long. Random strangers do you the favor of painting you or spraying you with foam, like a little sibling trying to annoy an older sibling. (It would normally be a situation that would lead to a fist fight, but it’s expected at Carnaval and people who don’t like to be randomly attacked by foam in the face or paint thrown at them don’t go.)

All the while, the music is playing and people dance and drink and party all day and all night long, some for multiple days. I enjoyed Carnaval “light” for a few hours Saturday night, and when I arrived in a small town in the south (Amaicha) two days later their celebrations were still in full swing.)

Soon after arriving (still clean), with the Basil of Carnaval
About an hour after arriving (still very mild paint and foam coverage – and no flour still)

The atmosphere in Jujuy in general and also during Carnaval was super friendly. I met multiple people who offered to help me in one way or another – a group of women my age invited me into their group to dance and hang out at the event, a group of older women offered me basil to put behind my ear, which is supposedly a thing you do during carnaval (right ear if you’re married, left ear if you’re single), and a family of three offered me a place to stay in their home if I ever visited Santiago de Estero in the next province over.

Carnaval friends
They hooked me up with basil so I could be legit
I gifted my hat to the woman and she invited me to stay at her house if I ever visited her city.

My first impressions of northern Argentina have been highlighted by the friendliness and generosity of the people; I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where I felt such generosity everywhere I went!

 

Famous Footnotes
*Just one perspective on the economy from one person of upper middle class.

**Siesta is not unique to Jujuy, as it seems to be the norm for all the places I’ve been in northern Argentina so far. It is so hot at mid-day in some places, that it makes a lot of sense to be at home resting.

***For future reference: If you want a place to stay in one of the towns in “the north” during Carnaval, you either need to know someone that lives there or reserve a year to 6 months in advance.

Another option is to arrive early the morning of the desentierro and then not sleep the night – just party all through the night and catch a car early in the morning back to Jujuy (I shared a car south to Salta the next day with some people who had done this.)
You would need to leave the city before noon, otherwise you might not make it before the “desentierro.” The normally 2-hour drive often takes up to 6-8 hours the days of Carnaval desentierro.

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