Salta, Argentina

Up here in the northern city of Salta, life among the locals tend to revolve around Avenida Florida, a pedestrian-only street that stretches for many blocks till it ends up in the huge Plaza 9 de Julio. The Avenida is lined with rows of shops and restaurants. But late this afternoon, my mind was set on seeing the mummified remains of the 3 Inca children found on a volcano´s summit back in 1999. Their new home: The Museum of High Altitude Archeology located just beside the plaza.

Our flight last night from Buenos Aires to this city was delayed which is normal with Austral, the local airline serving some Argentinian destinations. Despite our late arrival, Gary, Johanna and I, seated on the first 2 rows of aisle seats on an MD-80 plane, had a commanding view of the cockpit as its door was kept opened while we were about to land in Salta. It´s a very unusual treat really, given the post 9/11 measures in North America to secure plane cockpits like fortresses. We saw the Captain maneuvering the plane on its descent. We even heard the electronic countdown of altitude: 500, 400, 300 and then some beep beep sounds. Seconds later, we´re in terra firma.

Railroad track of the Tren de las Nubes
Anna informed us about the many optional activities we can do. As I´ve been set to follow the original itinerary involving the Tren de las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) - which is not running unfortunately due to repairs - Anna had arranged a car for me, Johanna, Andrew and Marnie to go to the same route that the train does...and more. I say this because the car that came, driven by Patricio who also acts as our guide, was in fact a better way than the train due to the numerous stops we made along the way.

Patricio was driving a brand-new Renault Kangoo, a spacious car that truly had its baptism of dust on this long road trip to the mountains. We stopped for photos as soon as we found the opportunity to do so, something that can´t be done with the train. There´s this bridge and that awesome mountain range - truly lunar looking - that stopped us in our tracks. Patricio was very knowledgeable of this area, having worked as a guide since 2000. He laments the fact that the mountain tops we saw have no more ice caps when only 7 years ago, he says they were more picturesque to see. The usual suspect: global warming, what else?

Unknown to me, there are pre-Inca ruins in the small town of Santa Rosa de Tastil, up in those hills that originally was a settlement some 500 years ago. What remains of the site were these stones stacked on top of each other in a circular pattern which was what used to be the walls of houses and next to it, were smaller walls that housed their dead! The elevation here is actually 3,200 meters above sea level (4,200 meters a.s.l. was the highest we passed through) and when the winds picked up, it became a blast of cold air to my face. Cacti so tall (14 meters) grow along these area and we found out from Patricio that these are strong enough that houses in the area today have actual cactus wood used as beams. For so long, I only associate cactus with cowboy movies, a thirst-quenching plant in the middle of nowhere in the wild, wild west.

San Antonio de los Cobres

Our final destination was San Antonio de los Cobres, another small town with a truly wild, wild west appearance and a population of 5,400. The dusty streets are lined with houses made from adobe: a brick molded from a combination of clay and straw. In one of these was housed a restaurant whose specialty was grilled goat´s meat. All of us ordered the same thing. I'm not a fan of goat meat - but this one was well grilled with some herbs I don´t know that it came out tasting good. My hands were dripping with the goat´s fatty grease as I finally got hold of it for that final swoop down to its bones. Marnie and I may have felt a bit dizzy from the high altitude but this wonderful lunch made up for our pesky ailments.

Grilled goat anyone

The long trip down to Salta (1,200 meters) was fast enough - we´re driving a 2-day old car remember - that we found ourselves with plenty of time to hit Salta´s sights. In my case, I decided to see the museum - it closes at 9 p.m. anyway. I passed by the three beautiful churches with the towering Saint Francis Church winning the prettiest title in my books. At the museum, I got face to face with one of the 3 Inca children, in fact the one on display is a 16 year old lass (called "the maiden") so perfectly preserved in her mountaintop location that she looked just like she´s, well, sleeping.

These 3 Inca children were sacrificed 500 years ago as part of a religious rite called capacocha. They were selected for their beauty, good health and physique and made to walk from Cusco in Peru all the way to this rugged area in Northwestern Argentina. Accompanied by high priests, they trekked up to the summit of 6,700 meter Mt. Llullaillaco where they were given chicha (maize beer) that made them sleep and eventually freezing to their deaths.

To see someone dying that way was kind of spooky. Here I was, on a Halloween, gawking at her while ¨The Maiden" sits the way she´s been sitting for centuries in that mountain and now behind her refrigerated glass enclosure. In her death, she has ignited curiosity among the living. I wonder if she minds all these hordes of elementary kids noisily eyeing her? No trick or treat eh?

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