Salta, Argentina

The bus from San Pedro to Salta took about 12 hours. It was actually a really comfortable bus ride and we were treated to the most amazing scenery throughout the journey. It was just a bit of a shame that the bus was all during the day as we felt like we had lost a lot of time; arriving into Salta in the evening.

We arrived at our hotel which was lovely – particularly again as I had lucked out with my own bedroom, complete with a HUGE king size bed and a spare bed that I used as my wardrobe…

We got in and unpacked before heading straight out to get some dinner. I have obviously visited Argentina before, but this was the first time for all of the group. So what’s the proper introduction to Argentina you might ask? Steak and red wine of course. And lots of it.

Camilo took us to this really traditional steak restaurant where we feasted, to put it mildly. Many of the guys ordered huge platters of meat which were brought out sizzling on hot plates. I on the other hand ordered the most delicious fillet steak served with pepper sauce and creamed potatoes. OH YES. It honestly was so delicious – even if we were all in a food coma the rest of the evening.

The next morning we all woke up pretty early and wandered into the town centre getting our first glimpse of the beautiful Salta. I’m not sure what I expected from Salta, I knew it was much smaller and more rural than Buenos Aires but I definitely didn’t think I would love it as much as I did. There’s a real quaint Colonial feel to Salta, the buildings are older, the people are more relaxed; it’s a much slower pace of life here which I loved. We ventured into the main square in the city; some people opted to go an exchange cash, I on the other hand went on the hunt for coffee (obvs).

We soon all reconvened and headed to the meeting point for the Salta free walking tour; which, I couldn’t recommend more if its your first time in the city.

Our guide for the morning was a super nice guy called Fille; Fille was really knowledgeable about Salta and a really enthusiastic tour guide which made the whole thing super interesting.

The first stop on the tour, conveniently, was exactly where we met; just outside the Cathedral of Salta, the Roman Catholic Church which dates back to 1883. Fille explained that the architects who designed the Cathedral were the same that designed the Vatican; knowing this it is easy to notice the Italian influence on the building. Fille also explained that Pope John Paul II visited Salta in 1987 and addressed the people from the balconies at the front of the Cathedral. Apparently two million people came to Salta that day which is incredible when you think that Salta’s population is only 200,000.

Interestingly, this Cathedral is not the original but a rebuild after the original was destroyed by an earthquake that hit on 13 September 1692.

It is recounted that, in the middle of the chaos of the earthquake, while the houses were shaking and roofs were falling off, a statue of the Immaculate Conception (then called the Virgen del Milagro), which was located in the Cathedral, fell some three meters to the ground. Locals who had run to the church to pray, saw that the image was not only undamaged from the fall, but that it had landed at the feet of the image of Christ. The people interpreted that the image was interceding to Christ on behalf of the city.

The following day the people paraded the image through the streets; the anniversary of which are now celebrated the yearly Fiesta del Milagro (Feast of the miracle) on 15 September each year. The Fiesta del Milagro is the most popular religious festival in Salta and one of the most important in Argentina. Super interesting stuff.

From the Cathedral, we walked to the other end of the main square ( 9 de Julio square), where Fille wanted to show us the Colonial Cabildo which used to operate as Salta’s City Hall. The building itself is a real architectural jewel from the colonial period, with simple lines typical of the viceroyalty. Its two stories maintain parts that date back to the year 1717, but it mostly corresponds to the great repairs done between 1789 and 1807.

Interestingly, Fille pointed out that the bottom level of arches are uneven as they was built by hand, by the original settlor. The second row of arches was built by architects 150 years later and are noticeably more in line!

The Cabildo now acts as a museum which summarises centuries of Argentinian and South American history, however apparently the building has, throughout its history, operated as a private house, a jail, a hospital and even a grocery store.

We soon left the square and made our way across to the beautiful San Francisco Church. The church of San Francisco is one of the typical postcard images of Salta. The current church was finished between 1796, however the church’s iconic tower was built afterwards. In 1870 the Fray Luis Giorgi brought Italian architects to build it and at 57 meters high, it is the tallest bell tower in South America.

Fille explained that the actual bell was made out of the cannons of the Spanish Army after their defeat. There is also a hark back to the Incas in the Church with the Inca signeology outside showing an image of the sun, Pachemama (Mother Earth) and the corn.

The inside of the church is in no way a disappointment after the beauty of the outside. I could have spent ages wandering around. Near the front, is a statue of  St. Francis of Assisi which contains a real bone of the saint at the foot. This relic promoted the church to Basilica status in 1997.

As we wandered outside the Church, Fille pointed out a statue which was apparently gifted to the city of Salta by Mussolini in 1944. I’m guessing he was trying to buy favour for some reason…

Having visited the Church, the next stop off for us was, for me, one of the most interesting things we saw during the tour; the San Bernardo Convent.  This building is the oldest in Salta, having been built in the 16th century. The building was gifted to the Carmelite nuns, and is still to this day resided in by them.

Back in history, rich families would send their youngest daughter to the convent to be a nun. It was believed this honour would out great blessings on their family names. Their daughter’s didn’t have a choice in this, their families took them there and dropped them off. The worst part – they could never leave. Once you’re in, you’re in. The rich families would pay great sums of money to the convent in exchange for their daughters. Fille pointed out the equisite handmade wooden door of the convent which dates back to the original build. That door, Fille explained, was gifted by one of the rich families, and was hand made by the indigenous people of the region.

Nowadays, women are not sent to the convent against their wills, however some of the same rules apply. Once you’re in, you’re in. You can never leave. The nuns are not even allowed visits from their families. Sometimes their families will try to visit them by attending confession, however even then the nun sits behind a small hole in the wall so you cannot actually see them. The best chance to see the nuns is apparently at morning prayer where you can see them sing, although again, behind a veil. It must be incredibly hard for the sisters and their families. Fille explained that there are currently 19 nuns living at San Bernado; the most recent of which who joined the convent in 2004. Fille did laugh that he once saw a huge delivery of pizza arriving at the convent – so I guess they’ve moved forward in time in some ways.

Although you cannot visit the convent, you can enter through the amazing wooden door where you can buy a selection of goods, all handmade by the nuns.

So bloody interesting.

From the convent, we continued walking until we stopped at a very fancy gated building, in what obviously was a very wealthy area in Salta. Fille explained that this building was the Salta Social Club, which, until 1999, would not allow women to enter. Worryingly, even today, if women do attend, they must wear skirts and heels… Fille explained that members children celebrate their quinceanera (16th birthday) at the social club, where they will officially be introduced into Salta society in the hope that they will marry into the same circles and keep the rich family names intact.

Having learnt about the historical and current traditions of Salta society we turned our attention to the areas flora and fauna for a bit of a biology lesson.  Fille pointed out one particular tree; the ‘Palo Borracho’ which literally translates as ‘drunken stick’. These funny looking trees have attracted this title on account of the swollen beer belly shape of their trunk, which infact is filled up with water that the tree soaks up to store in times of plenty. So interesting.

Fille also pointed out the national tree of Argentina; the Erythrina (often referred to as the Cockspur Coral Tree) which blooms with the most beautiful pink flowers.

We continued walking up through the beautiful neighbourhood before stopping outside a large monument.

Fille explained that this was a monument to Martín Miguel de Güemes; a famous  military leader who defended Argentina from the Spanish during the Argentine War of Independence between 1810 – 1818. Salta is particularly proud of Güemes as he was born in the city- you therefore see a lot of references to him here.

The statue in his honour here shows Güemes on his horse, looking out to the border in the horizon for the threat of invaders. Super interesting.

This pretty much brought out tour to an end and it is a tour that I would definitely recommend if you are in Salta. It takes about three hours but we learnt so many interesting things about this amazing city. We did decided to wander through the main centre of the city for a couple of hours to soak up some of the atmosphere which was great.

All walked out we decided it was time to sit down for a bit and grab some food. On Fille’s recommendation we ended up at this most beautiful courtyard restaurant called Viracicha where we had a delicious three course meal. I opted for the empanada to start (one of the quinoa variety and one of cheese and ham), followed by chicken tacos and finished with the most decadent dulce de leche desert. This was washed down with plenty of the restaurants homemade basil lemonade and of course, it would be rude not to to have a Salta beer too – well when in Rome.

We ended up sitting and chatting at the restaurant for ages, before heading a little but further down the road and grabbing some al fresco cocktails at one of the lively streetside bars; Cafe del Tiempo. It was soon time to head back to the hotel where we got showered and changed ready for the evening ahead.

A little while later (after a good old disco nap) we all met up and wandered with Camilo to a restaurant the recommended where we dined on, again, all the meat! I had empanada to start followed by a chicken Milanese which was delicious.

The night didn’t end there, we returned to the cocktail bar from a little earlier for another round. I made everyone try fernet, but its safe to say, no one was that keen (sorry Juan, Mechi and Martín – I tried to convert them!)

We then continued the evening on Balcarce Street which is the main street in the city for bars and clubs. Being midweek it wasn’t all that busy but we did have a fantastic time! Oh Salta.

The next morning, all feeling surprisingly chipper, a few of us decided that we would wander across to the city’s cablecars which take you up Mount San Bernado and offer amazing views out across the city and across to the Lerma Valley. The cable cars can get really busy at sunset, but this bright in the morning it basically felt like we had the place to ourselves.

We made our way up the mountain and were instantly blown away by how beautiful it was up there. Theres a really lovely articifical river installation which you can walk around before making your way to the edge and admiring the beautiful views. It was fun trying to point out all the various spots that we had visited on the walking tour the previous day.

Something else we loved about visiting the top of Mount San Bernado – the incredible market they have up there! Now I won’t lie when I say we all went a bit crazy. I went home with the most beautiful huge blanket (which only cost me £10 and is now proudly displayed on my bed) and a gorgeous, handmade nativity set which I think is a mircacle that it survived my hourney back to the UK. Yesss.

Having spent quite some time up there in the clouds (and having spent all our money) we hopped back in the cable car and made our way back down to earth.

We then headed back to the centre of the city to a museum (Museo Maam)  which, I genuinely believe, houses on of the most crazy/ incredible/ awful things I have ever seen – the Children of Llullaillaco.

in 1999, the mummified remains of 3 inca children were found near the lofty summit of Volcano Llullaillaco by a team of National Geographic explorers. The remains of the children date back 500 years and have been so perfectly preserved that they honestly just look asleep. Their hair and skin are in perfect condition, their clothes are intact, and the expressions on their faces are still so clear to see. The children are so well conserved that they put a human face on the ancient ritual of ‘capachoca’ – Inca child sacrifice.

Capachoca was an important part of the Inca religion and was often used to commemorate important events, such as the death of the emperor (the ”Sapa Inca”). Human sacrifices were also used as offering to the gods in time of famine, and as a way of asking for protection. Children selected for sacrifice were generally sons and daughters of nobles and local rulers; children were seen to be the purest of beings and therefore the ultimate sacrifice to the gods.

The children were sent to high mountaintops throughout the Inca empire to be sacrificed. According to traditional Inca belief, children who are sacrificed do not truly die but instead watch over the land from their mountain top perches, alongside their ancestors. The Incas considered it to be a great honour to die as a sacrifice.

On the day of the sacrifice the Incan high priests would take the chosen child on a long and difficult journey to a high mountaintop. They were fed coca leaves that would aid their breathing so they could reach the burial site alive; coca is also known to have mind altering effects which may have eased the process. Upon reaching the sacrificial site, children were given an intoxicating drink of chicha (alcohol made from corn) that was meant to minimize pain and fear, but mostly resistance. The children were then left in a pit dug out in the ground where they would eventually succumb the extreme elements. I often wonder how the children’s parents would have felt about their children being selected for capachoca. Would they feel honour? Sadness? Apparently if they outwardly showed any signs of grieving this would be the ultimate disrespect.

When the children were left on the mountain, they were left alongside various other offerings to the gods. Jewellery, blankets, religious symbols etc. These are also also available to see in the museum and are just mind boggling. Some of the textiles and jewellery looked like it had only been made yesterday.

The three mummies are placed on display, however they are rotated to ensure their continued conservation. Whilst we visited it was the ‘Lightning Girl’ who was on display.

The six year old little ‘Lightning Girl’ was found seated with her legs bent. She was wearing the typical Inca female outfit; a dress tightened to the waist with a multi coloured waistband and a cloak held by a pin that covered her shoulders. Among the offerings that accompanied here there were miniature statuettes made of gold, silver and seashells, ceramics, food and textiles. After her burial, at some moment during the last centuries, a bolt of lightning burnt part of her body, hence the name.

Although we didn’t see the other two mummies; if you visit the museum you may also see ‘The boy’ or ‘The Maiden’ who were found along sider her.

Even though the discovery of the mummies has proven revelatory in many aspects, a veil of controversy surrounds it. There are descendants of the Inca people who have expressed their belief that exhumation and display of the bodies are sacrilege and a gesture of great disrespected towards their culture. Apparently there was actually protests in Salta when the mummies were placed in the museum for public viewing.

I must admit, we all left the museum in a bit of a daze, unsure whether we were in awe or total disbelief at what we had just seen. I do however think it is important that people understand the religion and cultures of the generations who have gone before us and I therefore found the entire experience fascinating.

We decided we all well and truly deserved a bit of a sit down, so we wandered across the square to a restaurant called Buenos Caseros where we had the most delicious meal. Again I had a Milanese, because well when in Argentina…

That pretty much brought our trip to Salta to a close as we would be flying to Buenos Aires that evening. After dinner we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags (wake up the others from their naps and present Aziz with his bottle of Dada!).

We all absolutely loved Salta and I wish we had more than just a couple of days there. It is certainly a place I hope I get to visit again some day!

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