Celebrate the humble spud

potatoes

The humble potato gets a bad press. It’s associated with unhealthy eating habits: eg crisps, often eaten by a couch potato while another member of the family is provoking a chip pan fire in the kitchen.

There’s the Irish potato famine which prompted mass starvation and emigration (blame the English landlords, not the potato).

It’s always the go-to character for the butt of jokes: think Mr Potato Head from Toy Story, or Spud in Trainspotting.

And yes, it’s always attached to an adjective underlining its “humble” origins.

Which is surprising, as the potato’s origins are far from humdrum, and actually quite exotic.

The potato originated on the banks of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the borders of Peru and Bolivia, and it has been the staple crop of Andean cuisine for at least 7,000 years.

It was taken to Europe by Walter Raleigh, along with tobacco (hence The Beatles’ cursing of the “stupid git” on the White Album).

Once introduced to Europe, the potato revolutionised the daily diet.

As the economist Adam Smith wrote in his paean to free market capitalism The Wealth of Nations: “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

Where I live in Argentina, the potato is known simply as the papa (the same word means “father” or indeed, with a capital P: “Pope”): you see, we treat it with a lot more respect.

The potato contains every vitamin except A and D: but there’s plenty of Vitamin D in sunlight, of which we have plenty. The locals supplement their intake by chewing coca leaves, also rich in that vitamin, as well as in vitamin C, calcium and iron.

(You can read more about coca on our blog The Holy Leaf.)

Having just entered Spring, on my recent tours of the Quebrada de Humahuaca we still found chuño on the menu: this is potato specifically dried to see the locals through the winter: it has a more solid composition and an earthier flavour than many varieties.

As two of the world’s biggest four producers of potatoes are Russia and Ukraine (along with China and India) perhaps we should all be stocking up on chuño.

Other types of potato which you really must try if you’re on a tour of Argentina include the ullucu, the oca, the maswa and the batata (sweet potato).    

As we are all threatened by food insecurity, the wonderfully named Potato Park in Cusco, Peru, is investigating ways to strengthen and adapt the 1,367 varieties it has in its inventory.

Perhaps it’s time to give the potato its due respect.

  • If you can’t get enough of potatoes, check out the World Potato Atlas for an incredibly comprehensive analysis of the world’s 4,000 different varieties.
  • And this is an excellent BBC article on the potato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duration
2 days
Group Size
1 to 4

Essential Humahuaca

Combine the highlights of the colourful Quebrada de Humahuaca with the other-wordly Salinas Grandes salt flats in the Argentina Altiplano.

Rich in indigenous culture and colonial history, the old trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima features the Seven Coloured Hill of Purmamarca, and Hornocal's lesser known sierra of Fourteen Colours.

A side-trip to appreciate the immensity of the Salinas Grandes salt flats makes this one of the most diverse two day trips available from Salta or San Salvador de Jujuy.

Click here to view map route.

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$250
Duration
6 days
Group Size
1 to 3

Footsteps of the Conquistadores

A high altitude 4x4 adventure along the old colonial mining route: this Altiplano tour brings you into close contact with the mountain plateau wildlife of vicuña, flamingoes, and rhea.

This excursion combines the must-see highlights of the UNESCO-protected Quebrada de Humahuaca with little-explored sections of the Argentine mountain plateau.

Far from artificial light, enjoy the breathtaking night sky in remote hamlets places like Yavi and Santa Catalina, close to the border with Bolivia.

Click here to view map route.

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$900
Duration
4 days
Group Size
1 to 4

Fourteen Colours & Cloud Forest

Hike Argentina’s Inca trail, linking two completely different eco-systems, the dry canyon of Humahuaca and the Cloud Forest of Calilegua.

We take a narrow mountain road which was only finally completed in October 2019, tracing the footsteps of Inca explorers of northwest Argentina from the 15th century.

This trip can be extended to include a visit to the gorgeous mountain town of Iruya and the historic settlement of Yavi on the Bolivian frontier.

Available April to November.

Click here to view map route.

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$500
Duration
6 days
Group Size
Up to 4

Mountains to Cloud Forest trekking

This is one of our most challenging north west Argentina hiking trips, recommended only for experienced trekkers: covering 58km over four days, we climb to an altitude of 4,200m, gradually descending to 1,325m, following the contours of mountain tracks along the way.

This hike offers a complete change in eco-system during four days: starting in the mountains which enfold the Quebrada de Humahuaca, we descend into the Yungas Cloud Forest of the east, following the trail of indigenous traders who travelled between the salt flats and the sub-tropical jungle.

There is an extraordinary range of landscape in these four days, and a warm welcome for modern hikers from the families in the refuges where we sleep overnight.

Available April to November.