This year with very little time to play we flew to Salta for 2 days. Our timing was not great as a volcano in the south of Chile decided to erupt and create major chaos in travel throughout the country.
We had an action packed trip. Upon our arrival we visited the main plaza – Plaza 9 de Julio. There we visited the Museum of Archeology (http://www.maam.todowebsalta.com.ar/ or http://www.turismosalta.gov.ar/internacional/in/reco_maam.asp) famous for the 1999 discovery of 3 children found frozen at the summit of the volcano Llullaillaco. They were discovered buried at 6900m above sea level. The little boy was the one we saw on display – I was very moved by this “mummified” little boy – not quite a mummy but a ghost to the past. He and 2 young girls that were discovered along with over 146 artifacts buried with them are known as los “Niños del Llullaillaco”. It was a tremendous insight into Inca culture. I was moved by the vision of the little boy in his display case, his head lowered, his clothing still colorful. The theory is that they were from noble families and therefore, sacrifices to the gods, they were given chicha to drink (a fermented beverage) and probably lots of it. There were also traces of coca leaves on the mouth of one of the girls. What would it be like to know that you were pleasing your gods by sacrificing one of your own?
In the evening we went to a Peña – a traditional presentation of folkloric dance and music. I thought it would be something more “intimate” or “special” but they were ready for the tourists with 1 particular street, Balcarce, and almost 4 blocks of restaurants that offer “peñas” – food, drink and a “show”; could be musicians and dancers or just musicians. The songs are beautiful – they are sambas and chacareras. We were recommended to El Viejo Estacion. The food was good, the service a little slow and not particularly friendly. The entertainment was nice. There was a group who danced Baile Folklorico, Nuestra Tierra was their name – with choreographed pieces to Sambas and Chacareras. The male dress was super interesting – very “gaucho”like, boots with chunky heels, big babucha pants, vests and hats and belts. The girls were less interestingly dressed. They were in dresses, with broad skirts – they used while dancing, picking them up, whirling them about.
We enjoyed the music and the 1st set of musicians we saw were very interactive with the audience. The restaurant was almost full and seemed to be mostly with Argentine tourists. I was amazed at how the songs were all known – so many people singing along and making song requests to the musicians. The musicians and the 6 dancers joined forces for a few numbers and of course Rommel and I jumped into dance a chacarera with the dancers!
The next day we did a 12 hour excursion – all day on a bus with 16 other people, 2 Italian girls, and the rest from Argentina visiting this region. We had a fabulous tour guide – Fernando – he was like an encyclopedia.
Our day was to include 540 km of road and about 150km unpaved!!!
Our trip took us West through the Andes via El Quebrada del Torro (the gap or gulch of the bull) through several micro-climates to 4170m above sea level into another province called Jujuy and then back down switchbacks where we would descend 2000m in 33km of road!
We saw part of the train tracks for the famous Tren a los Nubes and paused at Campo Quijano at 1520m above sea level.
At 2500 m above sea level it was recommended to take some coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness. Rommel and I had prepared the night before by buying some at a little kiosko (shop) around the corner from our hotel. A baggie full was 3 pesos ($.75). SO before you judge me – I have to tell you that I did not experience altitude sickness. I also did not experience hallucinations or tripping of any kind!!! It has a funky smell to it, it can be found as a tea as well that women are supposed to love as an appetite suppressant!
It was interesting to hear that the few people we spoke to about coca leaves all mentioned it as a part of the culture, something that you do, a habit. Fernando, the tour guide, said, you share water, maté and coca leaves – you will never be without these items. He mentioned that over time with the regular use of coca leaves, the red blood cells are rejuvenated in a shorter amount of time and of course they oxygenate the blood. The coca leaf has always been used and recommended by the people who work and live in high altitudes.
At 2500 we took 5 coca leaves and placed the bundle inside our mouth, between the cheek and gum. The idea is not to chew the leaves but for them to interact with your saliva. We saw some people with huge wads in their mouths, like our tour bus driver, Marcelo! It had an earthy taste for me, like green tea!
We made our way to 3100m to Santa Rosa de Testil to see some Pre-Inca ruins, pre-Quechua language. They were discovered in 1900’s and the area covers about 16 hectares. The archeologists theorize that this place was a commercial center for tribes. There are some elders who are known in these parts for their part in the folklore about the site – one is Luis Santellan and the other Leopoldo Barbosa, neither of whom we met but it seemed like a good advertising plug from our fearless tour guide.
At about 3734 m we stopped in San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch. It was a town at the top of this “Alto Plano” – high plain, about 5000 habitants and mostly miners. It is uncommon to have a small town in this high plain. We were greeted with a closed main road due to a parade for the “Fiestas Patronales” – Founding Father’s Day. Some of the locals ignored us, going about their business of participating in the parade or meeting friends. We were aggressively bothered by a weathered older woman trying to sell us a shawl or a miniature sized stuffed llama. We were also “sung” to by a small boy who called himself “Ryan” or maybe it was “Brian”! He let me tape him and that was worth a few pesos!
The downside to the lunch stop was that our tour guide suggested a place to eat and yet we were never told that no matter how much or how little you ate it would be 50pesos per person. This was a huge surprise to all of us. I know – 50 pesos doesn’t seem like a lot – $12 – but really – at this altitude a small bowl of soup or a grilled breast of chicken? $12?? so maybe a piece of advice – ask how much before committing!
We continued north through the Andes into the province of Jujuy.
Fernando told us that the plants – these shrubs we saw along with some cacti – don’t actually decompose when they die but merely petrify so that the land is sterile. The plants have to endure the extreme climates from day to night and the seasons.
The people at this altitude are either shepherds or miners.
We headed to our next stop – Las Salinas Grandes. A good proportion of this road was bumpy and unpaved. Bouncing around for some time it was nice to hit paved road again and to see this flat white landscape first hand. 212 km2 of salt at about 3450m above sea level all flat in these hexagonal shapes. But not your usual salt – not from the sea but from volcano, with high concentrates of “borax” and lithium – the 3rd largest producer of borax. Lying walkable distance to the road are a few rows of little pools of water amongst the salt landscape. There are 3 ways to extract the salt – and 1 has to do with these pools! And of course Rommel and I decided that our tango feet could use a dip. What could happen? Dry skin?? I don’t think anything happened – the water was very cold. Unfortunately the few guys who were carving sculptures out of salt for tourists to buy were not friendly. And the 2 crickety smelly port-a-potties cost money to use!
We saw burros and llamas on our adventure and some vicuñas. I had seen their brother in the southern parts of Argentina – the guanacos. Fernando was able to explain the difference between these 3 very similar looking animals. He explained that the llamas are domesticated animals, the guanacos wild and very strong, able to withstand 3 days without water and able to go a distance of 35 – 40km/day. The vicuña is the “bambi” of the family he told us – however, this bambi has some wool that can’t be dyed and is VERY expensive. A vicuña gives about 200 – 250grams of wool every 2-3 years. They are protected by law and were nearly extinct at one point in time. There is a very special system in place for shearing them – they corral them. There is a large gathering of 80 + people who help to corral them and then shear them with care. He did mention that the president surely has a vicuña poncho!
As we headed into our descent we had hit our 4170m above sea level when we finally saw some vicuñas up close! We took our pictures at the highest point on our excursion. The sun still shining brilliantly and warmly. Some of us tired and winded but not sick, thanks to our coca leaves!
Our road to our last official stop on the tour dropped 2000m in 33 km of road – filled with switchbacks. We stopped in Purmamarca, most famous for the Mountain of 7 Colors. It was about 2000m above sea level and this little town nestled amongst a beautiful almost Sedona-like landscape had started out as a Jesuit Mission. We were there for such a quick stop that I never got a proper picture of the Mountain of 7 Colors. The main square or little plaza was filled with vendors – all selling the same thing. All for the same prices! The vendors inside the little stores around the plaza were a little more expensive. There were sweaters, shawls of different sizes, ponchos, socks, and mittens. By this time it all looked the same to me. I felt cross – eyed from looking at the same wares.
I enjoyed my adventure to Salta. We got to stay an extra part of a day due to flight cancellations so although that was stressful we found a really interesting restaurant with interesting fusion/regional fare. Jose Balcarce is the name of the restaurant and I recommend it for anyone looking for something a little different. There was quinoa on the menu, chicken and fish, beef of course, pork and llama, for the adventurer. All the food had a wonderful mix of flavors. The deserts were yummy! There were figs in almibar (sweet figs) wrapped in a thin cheese with a side of ice cream. There was a very buttery ‘mille fueilles’ type apple desert – with a hint of ginger and cinnamon. Those who know I don’t do dairy – don’t fret, I didn’t crossover, I just ogled! and enjoyed a bowl of strawberries with orange rind. YUM! The discovery was to blend the flavors for a party in your mouth!