Salta, settled in 1582, is an Andean city of half a million people in northwest Argentina. It is a popular base for exploring the local parks and Inca ruins. It will also be the start of the cross-Andes bus ride that inspired my trip.
I'm not supposed to be staying in Salta tonight; I should be on an overnight (20 hour) bus from Buenos Aires to Salta then continue on to Tilcara on Tuesday but this morning plans changed and I flew to Salta to spend the night in a hotel. The hotel, Ankara suites, is modern and tastefully decorated, though the staff speaks little English. Lucas, who checked us in, was well dressed in his dark suit. Argentinians dress better than north americans, who think nothing of leaving the house in sweats, t-shirt, and trainers.
If only I'd paid more attention in high-school Spanish.
I've not seen much of the city yet but it looks to have a charming colonial downtown surrounded by nondescript sprawl. Sometime i'll have to write about eating in Argentina, perhaps when my trip is done, but what i will say is that South American food is a bit bland for my taste. Argentina is said to have been settled by Italians who speak Spanish (I am, of course, rudely ignoring the indigeneous people) , but they seem to be stuck in a pre-spice time period, perhaps that was the state of European cuisine when they immigrated.
My wifi connection is cutting in and out so that is it for tonight.
I've left Salta for Tilcara and today I return to Salta. As I walk down the hill to the Tilcara bus station I see bands practicing, streets blocked, dreadlocked backpacking kids looking for a hostel or campground with space, and police are everywhere. You get used to seeing police when in South America. This is the eve of carnival. Every hotel, hostel, and campground is booked and the bus companies have added extra runs to bring people to town. Part of me is sorry to miss it but mostly I am glad to get out before the crowds take over and the noise begins. Little do I know that I won't totally escape the crowds.
The ride south in the second floor front seat of the bus provides a perfect view of the red, green, and brown rock mountains that line each side of highway 9. A couple of towns gave hills covered with tombs. I take lots of pictures and listen to happy Spanish music in the near-empty bus. I am also munching Argentine Oreos that are similar to but not exactly the same as the north American version.
Once we pass Jujuy, the mountains are gone and it is mostly flat green agricultural land broken up by the occasional small town. The towns are dusty and poor. The bus driver impresses with his skill at maneuvering the giant double decker through the narrow streets of the towns, sometimes backing up or waiting for others to back up, scraping on low hanging trees, and sometimes there is a loud bang when a fruit-laden branch hits the bus.
6km short of Salta, stopped in traffic at a toll booth, I look down to see the driver's door open and both drivers are on the side of the road, talking on their phones, and horns are blaring as traffic passes around us. The bus has broken down. A few minutes later I am off the bus, queued to get my checked bag, toll workers stopping traffic so the passengers can safely walk on the highway. Another bus is stopped a short distance behind us so I get on the second bus and am back on my journey.
So what about the revolution? I'll write more about the Carpe Diem B&B later and I still haven't written about Tilcara 's cuisine (preview: llama) , but I want to talk about the activity in the square tonight. As I eat pizza and beer at a sidewalk cafe about 30 or so demonstrators circle the square holding signs and pictures of young men and women. The only words I understand are narco-terrorist. Soon on the other end of the square an orchestra starts playing Beethoven before a seated crowd of a hundred or more. And then, another much larger group of marchers drowns out the orchestra, and I make out the chant "the people, united, can not be defeated..." but in spanish so I may be wrong about the words but I recognize the chant. All of this takes place among a festive mass of happy shoppers and tourists snapping pics (I photograph and film, too) and lots of police standing around looking a bit bored. I gather that this is not unusual but it is fun though maybe not if I understand what it is about.
Carpe Diem is a European style B&B in an old Spanish home. Silke and Riccardo, the hosts, speak a multitude of languages and are gracious but reserved. Though presenting nothing more than a door on a busy Salta street, the spacious home but a short walk from Plaza 9 de Julio, features many comfortable sitting areas as well as a spacious garden. I was a little cool on the Place at first but I have grown more pleased with it.
After a breakfast of cold cuts, fresh bread, cheese, and cafe au lait, I head to Salta's Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM). The museum is famous for one thing, the Llullaillaco children.
In 1999 archaeologists found the preserved remains of three Inca children buried 500 years earlier on Mount Llullaillaco, a 6700m mountain in the province of Salta. The Inca, revering the sun and the restless volcanoes, sacrificed their children by leaving them to die on the tops of mountains. Theses three children, one of whom is on display at MAAM, were 6, 7, and 15 years old. On the day of their burials, each was dressed in fine clothes, married to a member of another clan to cement clan-clan ties, then buried alive after drinking an alcoholic brew so as to put them to sleep.
The story makes me wonder about the actual pre-burial process. Climbing to 6700 m (21,900 feet) is no walk in the park. This is a very far distance, icy cold and low in oxygen regardless of time of year. Where was the ceremony, at the top of the mtn? Did the kids know what was to happen, when did they start drinking? It is all very curious.
The museum is controversial with some. They don't like their ancestors to be disturbed.
Later in the day I walk about twenty three city blocks to a large market for artisans. Based in an old mill house, the items sold have been certified (no factory-made junk) and prices controlled, whatever that means. Today the market is also hosting the first day of carnival celebrations with live music by native people as well as face painting and a lot of glitter/confetti floating about, which is also popular in Tilcara.
Tonight I eat dinner at a French-ish restaurant. Paul eats ravioli and I have chicken. No llama today. Towards the end of the evening the cook (complete with cook's hat) walks out to talk to each dinner guest. As I walk back to the B&B I pass a large old building running occupying a whole city blocks, a convent, and in front are several setsof newlyweds having their pictures taken.
Salta is an interesting city. A bit worn but with enough charm and variety to offer several days of enjoyment for the traveller.
My last full day in Argentina. Salta is quiet on this Sunday morning. I walk by a market selling handicrafts and tourist kitsch. If i buy anything it's gotta be small, light, and unbreakable and so far I've resisted all urges. It helps that I'm not much for shopping.
Next, I walk up Cerro Saint Bernardo, a hill about 500 m above the city. The stone steps feature the 14 stations of the cross. At the top is a park, restaurant, mtn bike rental, and, curiously, stationery bikes and weight machines should you want to work your upper body to match the lower body workout from climbing the hill. From the top I take a few pictures at the overlook then jump on a teleferico (cable car) for a fast ride down then reward myself with a dulce de leche - my new favorite flavor - ice cream.
My opinion of Argentinian meat has been restored: tonight's dinner at a nearby steakhouse, El Charrua, is excellent in every way: service, ambiance, food, and cost. And with the bill came free shots of lemoncello.
I finally nail down transportation from Calama to Santiago. After every credit card attempt failed I book a flight - no bus, unfortunately - with PayPal.
Tomorrow morning I catch the 7am bus for an 11 hour journey over the Andes, crossing via the Paso de Jama (4,800 m or 15,780 ft) into Chile. Ciao.
This morning I took the 7am Genesis bus from Salta to experience: the thrill of a bus driver passing in no passing zones on hairpin curves; the headache producing altitude of Paso de Jama; the maddeningly inefficient Chilean border patrol; the fun of seeing vicuna graze at the highest altitudes; and the surprise to find a transportation company that serves food worse than Air Canada.