We couldn’t go to Brazil, so we did the next best thing: caught a flight to Salta, northwest Argentina’s biggest city. How did we choose Salta? It was easy – it’s one of the few cities in Argentina with a direct flight from Puerto de Iguazu. And since we weren’t ready to go to Buenos Aires – the other easy destination – Salta it was. Oh, and we really wanted to see Matt Damon’s wife’s hometown!Sitting in the foothills of the Andes at about 3,800 feet above sea level, Salta is famed for its mild weather, beautiful architecture, great scenery, and European sophistication. We thought it more than lived up to its reputation; I was just constantly thinking that it was the most European city we’d been in since, well, we were last in Europe. Like all old Spanish colonial cities Salta has a central plaza surrounded by great old buildings (pretty much always including the cathedral), but Salta’s 9th of July Plaza was in a class by itself, probably the most beautiful square we’ve seen in Latin America. The cathedral was stunning and a couple other churches were worth seeing, too.
We had only scheduled two days there before moving on to Córdoba (Argentina’s Córdoba, that is, not Spain’s), so we had to pack stuff in. Our first tourist stop was the attractive and very quirky Pajcha, a private museum of ethnic American art, both ancient and recent. It’s a small place owned and run by a woman who is obviously passionate about indigenous art and the links between archeological finds and modern artisans. We were guided around the various displays by Diego who, well, is hard to describe. Little, very excited by his work, sweet, charming, odd … all of that and more. For an hour’s tour through a private collection, though, it was a great time.
The next stop was Salta’s Museum of High Mountain Archeology. Normally I would pass on a museum like that but this one had a unique exhibit. It houses the remains of three victims of Incan child sacrifice from about 500 years ago, all remarkably well preserved; to ensure they’re properly cared for, the bodies are displayed on a rotating basis, one at a time for a few months each. They were discovered in 1999 at the top of Llullaillaco Mountain, a 22,000 foot high peak in the Atacama Desert, the world’s highest archeological site. The display was insightful, if obviously somewhat disturbing.
These child sacrifices were held to commemorate particularly important passages in the Inca emperor’s life. Only children from high-ranking families were chosen and allegedly it was considered a high honor; parents are said to have genuinely believed that their children weren’t dying but rather were being elevated to a place of honor with their ancestors. But after all that explanation in the museum – and the exhibits were well done – there you are, face to face with the mummified remains of a seven year old boy sacrificed and left to die on the top of a mountain. Apparently there is a fair amount of controversy as to the ethics of displaying the body, but for now, at least, there he is.
Beyond that there were some beautiful churches to poke around in and great little parks to sit in. High above Salta is San Bernardo Hill, good for an energetic climb (or a lazy cable car ride) for great views of the city. And great restaurants. We’re already getting a little tired of Argentine grills but the quality of the food here was petty high.
Two days here was not enough; there are lots of day trips we could have done and we’d have enjoyed just hanging out more. But we already had our flight booked to Córdoba so we had to make do with a quick stop here.
One last note. Before getting rejected for our Brazilian visa, we’d expected to spend a few days on that side of Iguazu Falls and then fly to Rio for a few days before heading to Uruguay. We had all those flights and hotels booked. When we failed to get the visa we were sure we were out several hundred dollars. To our surprise and delight, though, ultimately it didn’t cost us a penny. Within just a couple days the airlines had refunded every penny of the cost of the tickets. One of the hotels – the most expensive, of course – was supposed to charge us for at least one night, based on the terms of our purchase and the fact that we canceled at 3:00 PM on the day we were supposed to check in, but they waived it.
Airlines just saying “Oh, OK, here’s your money back”? Hotels saying “Yeah, we could charge you for one night, but we won’t”? Where does that happen? Here, apparently. Obviously, we’re not complaining.