Reaching New Hights

On Friday, May 1st, I arrived early in the morning in Salta to celebrate another long weekend with some travel. Workers’ Day had given me that Friday off, which was great, but I had forgotten that not only would universities be closed that day, but everything else in the country as well. So, Salta was an absolute ghost town when I arrived. It was a bit unsettling, but I felt better as soon as I got to the hostel because breakfast was still being served and where there is coffee, there is hope. The hostel I had chosen, 7 Duendes, is certainly not going to win any awards for beauty or comfort, but the staff was extremely helpful and gave me and the other lost tourists at the table a pretty good list of things to do around the city even with everything closed. I had sat down next to a Spanish girl named Esther, and as we listened she seemed to become more and more determined not to let the lack of open shops ruin her trip. I loved her enthusiasm so, along with an Australian named Kate, I decided to follow her around for the day. We started in the central plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio, which had much more life than I had expected. I suppose that is because that’s where all the tourist shops and restaurants are and tourists don’t take Workers’ Day off their travels. Like every Spanish-style plaza I’ve been to here, the city’s main cathedral was at the head. La Catedral de Salta, though quite traditional on the inside, was pink outside which I found very charming.

Catedral de Salta
Catedral de Salta
The 1021 steps begin
The 1021 steps begin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there, we decided to take on the 1021 Steps because, especially that day, any free outdoor activity was more than welcome. It felt good to get the exercise even if it made me miss hiking in Patagonia, and I was definitely out of breath by the time we reached the top. It was worth it though, because when we had made it we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the city. Salta is bigger than I had expected and it made me realize how little you can ever really see of a city with just a couple of days. Without the panoramic view I would have gone away telling people that Salta is a very small city, when in reality it would have just been my limited experience. After enjoying the view for a while and making the long walk back down the steps, we were absolutely starving. So, we went in search of some empanadas. Before getting there I hadn’t realized that empanadas are from Salta. Apparently, you’re not going to find better ones anywhere else in Argentina. Back in Plaza 9 de Julio, a restaurant was selling them at 300 pesos a dozen which was down right insulting.We decided it would be best to get away from the Plaza, so we wandered the streets for a bit until we came across a place with live local music with no other tourists inside and empanadas at 100 pesos a dozen. All the other people inside knew just when to clap and sing along to the songs and I smiled the whole time about how authentic of an experience we were getting. Of course, the empanadas were absolutely amazing.

Empanadas with Tamale sauce
Empanadas with Tamale sauce

As much fun as we had visiting Salta, the real beauty of the area lies outside the city and the best way to see the landscape is to take a bus tour. There were lots of options, but Esther, Kate, and I decided to take the trip to Cafayate and we definitely chose well. If Patagonia is blue, Salta is red. As we drove along the windy roads we were surrounded by clay coloured mountains and formations. The good part about taking a bus tour was that the guide knew just where to stop for the best views. I’m not used to being herded on to and off of a bus every twenty minutes, but I swallowed my pride and really enjoyed it. He showed us formations that looked exactly like a frog, an iguana, and even the Titanic sinking. That a lot of fun, but even better than the gorgeous views was experiencing the rocks up close.

Red rocks of Salta
Red rocks of Salta

The little kid inside of me came out and I climbed all over the rocks. They climbed so high all around me that looking up at where the tops met the sky made me feel dizzy and at one point I just stopped and sat and let them spin around me. My favourite stop was El Ampiteatro or The Amphitheatre. According to our guide, the acoustics have the same quality as El Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, which I talked about in one of my first posts. There were two guys, one playing a pan flute and one playing a guitar and singing as we wandered around. The sound was amazing and the music added such a nice layer to the experience. After that, Cafayate itself was a little anti-climactic. It just could not compare to the landscape that surrounded it. I did, however, get to try wine flavoured ice cream. You would think it would be amazing… my two favourite things are ice cream and wine… but although it was good at first it was quite strong and I struggled to finish the whole cone. My last day in Salta I decided to visit the archeological museum, which I had heard great things about. I was not disappointed; it was very well curated and very informative. I had no idea how powerful the Inca had been in Argentina. I had always pictured them in Peru, of course, but their empire stretched extremely far. The highlight of the museum was the mummy that was found on the mountain Llullaillaco. It was the body of a girl who had been sacrificed to the gods over 500 years ago. It was crazy how well the cold had preserved her. Her skin was so perfect that I felt like I was looking at a doll.

That night, mummies still on the brain, I took a three hour bus from Salta to Jujy. I am very lucky because a friend of my dad’s has family there so I was able to stay with them. It felt amazing to be a part of a family for a few days eating home cooked Locro made by Abuela and with lots of little kids to play with. It also meant that instead of taking bus tours, I had personal tours around the area. My second day there, Roberto and his girlfriend, Susanna, took me up north because, like Salta, the beauty of Jujuy lies in the nature. One could say that it was a similar mountainous landscape, but instead of the red, the mountains here were all sorts of colours. The different types of minerals in the rocks made them shades of blue, green, red, yellow, and grey. One spot, called the Painter’s Pallet, had all the colours pushed up against the side of the mountain that seemed just like different shades had been pushed around by a brush. On our way through the mountains we stopped in Tilcara to see the Pucara ruins which had been there since even before the Inca arrived in northern Argentina. I really liked the site because the archaeologists had rebuilt houses in slightly different spots than the originals and we were able to see where the original stones were placed. I’ve always liked places like this because I love imagining how life might have been so long ago.

The inside of a Pucara home
The inside of a Pucara home
The Pucara must have been a bit smaller than I am...
The Pucara must have been a bit smaller than I am…

Our final destination that day was the Salt Flats. We followed a long, twisty road up the mountains which would eventually have taken us to Chile if we had let it. I couldn’t believe how high we were going and I believe that I reached the highest point I’ve ever been above sea level (soon to change when I go to Peru). As we drove I looked up in awe at the mountains and then all of a sudden I was looking down at them. We arrived at the flats at sunset, and I got to watch a brilliant pink sky over a huge expanse of white.  I couldn’t help but pick some up and taste it and discover for myself that it was, in fact, salt.

Jujuy's Salt Flats
Jujuy’s Salt Flats
Yes, that's salt
Yes, that’s salt

We stayed until it got dark and a spectacular full moon took the place of the sunset. As we drove the mountains cast shadows against each other in the moonlight leaving spaces of intense darkness in the silver. Since the mountains got taller as we worked our way down, the moon played a game of hide and seek with us. It would duck behind a peak and then all of a sudden we would turn a corner and it would jump out at us in all its brilliance. The mountains in the full moon gave everything a very spiritual feeling and it was definitely an amazing way to end my trip up north. I felt like had gotten to know another side of the people of Argentina, much more connected to the indigenous roots of the country and I felt much closer to Pacha Mama.

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