So Tom and I had a free day in Salta before he moved on to Lima, Peru and I headed to the extreme south of Argentina to the Patagonia region. We decided to do the free two hour walking tour of Salta with Salta Walks. We met our guide, Homar (prounounced “Omar” in Spanish) In front of Cathedral Basilica de Salta with some other folks (it was like United Nations with people from England, Germany, Holland and of course, Canada and the U.S. As we began the tour in very hot weather, we were joined by one other “person” a dog who apparently follows the tour group each day (which ironically also happened when I took the free tour in Sucre, Bolivia.)
Homar started the tour telling us that the city of Salta is known as La Linda (the “pretty”). And having spent time in Salta, I can attest that the city is absolutely lovely.
Homar then moved on to the Cathedral Basilica de Salta that is part of the Plaza de Armas (square) where we were standing, and which you find in most countries conquered by the Spanish. Homar told us that the Spanish built all of their cities and towns in grids around the square with a church on the north side and the government building on the south side.
In Salta, the square also divided the haves from the have nots. Back then it was common for the wealthy to live in segregated areas where the common folk could not go. As a result, the Cathedral Basilica de Salta was used by the wealthy.
And the road that divides the two areas still causes problems because the intersecting roads use the same building numbers going south of the road and going north of the road. This causes all sorts of problems, and Tom and I became acutely aware of this confusion later in the day.
Another factoid was that the church on the square was both a cathedral and a basilica. A cathedral because it was the primary church in the area and a basilica because Rome awarded the church this designation after Pope John Paul II spoke on a balcony of the church back in the 1980s.
After the introduction to the square, we walked around the square learning a bit about the colonial style buildings around the square, including the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, which Tom and I were visiting later in the day and a building that housed a former social club for the elite of Salta.
At the other end of the square was the former government building that also housed a museum dedicated to the local history of indigenous peoples and the Incan culture.
We then walked a few long blocks to the Iglesia San Francisco Church originally constructed in the mid 16th century. (Blocks in Salta are more like two blocks back home so if someone says a place is only two blocks away more the double the estimated distance… we learned that the hard way. More about that later.)
Anyway, the church is easily the prettiest church in Salta with a gorgeous magenta and yellow façade and the largest bell tower in in South America. The church had been rebuilt a number of times due to earthquakes and other disasters and the most recent iteration dating to mid 19th century was built in a classic Italian baroque style at the direction of Roman architects. And once inside, it was clear Rome had a huge influence on the construction with a massive domed ceiling and intricate details.
After the church visit, we continued on through an older neighborhood where we stopped to visit the Convento San Bernardo. The convent is the oldest building in Salta and has been occupied by Carmelite nuns since 1844 who, except for an entryway and a room reserved for families, are the only people permitted to enter the building. Tradition had it that the middle daughter would always enter the convent. In order to be admitted to this convent, the family had to pay a sizeable sum (in today’s money almost $2.5 million dollars). The tradition no longer exists, but is remembered by the gorgeous 18th century hand carved algarrobo wood door donated to the convent by a family who didn’t have quite enough money to have their daughter admitted the door made up the difference.
And once you entered the convent you could never leave. Yikes! You could also only have contact with your family through a dark screen with small holes through which the family and daughter could communicate. However, they could never actually see or physically touch one another. Today there are less than 30 nuns remaining in the convent with the youngest in her 30s.
We then walked a “few” blocks to an up scale neighborhood and down to the end of the road to view the Monument a Güemes (the monument to General Martin Miguel Güemes). Now General Güemes was born in Salta, was one of the leaders of the independence movement organizing the resistance in 1815, is revered by the gauchos in Argentina who were part of his loyal army, and is a symbol of freedom to millions of Argentinians.
Anyway, after the walk around the monument, we started the walk back to the center of old town. Now the weird part of this tour is that after the monument, we walked a short distance to a foodie area of the city where Homar pointed out some good restaurants, but for the better part of the next 20 minutes we walked without stopping to see anything else. And this was not slow walking, this was all out speed walking. At one point, Tom and I fell behind when we were looking at some restaurants and we weren’t sure if Homar and the group had turned a corner or not. Fortunately, Tom saw a couple in our group who were in front of us veer left, so we followed.
We ended up the walk/tour at the Plaza General Manuel Belgrano. After we tipped Homar (since the tour had been free), we walked a couple blocks to an ATM machine. Now one thing I have not talked about in the blog is Tom’s love affair with the MACRO ATM machines in Argentina. On the first night in Salta, Tom had a devil of a time finding an ATM machines that would accept his card. The next day, Tom’s troubles continued. Alejandro suggested he try the MACRO ATM in Molino and sure enough “it was just like Christmas” according to Tom as he finally found a machine that would give him money.
And the trip to the MACRO ATM became a daily routine since Argentine ATMs limit the withdrawals because of the currency value fluctuations in the country. Anyway, it became a running joke as Tom would stop at shops every day and by the next day would need more money. So it was only fitting that on our last day we visited one more MACRO ATM. And in homage to Alejandro, I did indeed finally take a picture of Tom at his beloved ATM.
Once back in the main square, Tom and I visited the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, which is one of the best museums in Argentina for its dedication to the preservation of Incan culture, including child sacrifices. This museum displays one of three mummified children, two young girls and one young boy, recovered in 1999 from the top of Llullaillaco, a 6,739 metre volcano near the Chilean border.
Now I had already been to the museum in Arequipa, which is the only other museum to feature the mummified body (Juanita) of a child. However, unlike Arequipa, this museum did not permit picture, which I think is a real shame.
Anyway, when we entered the museum, we learned that the child featured would be El Niño, a six year old boy with hair and clothes perfectly preserved. We stopped and watched a video about the museum as well as a video in the first exhibition room about the recovery of the children in 1999.
The first few exhibition rooms featured small figurines of humans and the occasional llama made of various made of various metals. The clothes on the figures were in pristine condition as were the feather headdresses that adorned the figures. There was also an exhibit of Reina del Cerro, a mummified child who was stolen in 1922 by tomb raiders and only recovered in 2001 after years changing hands from collector to collector. The mummified remains (of which we only saw a picture) are not in good condition.
The last room contained the remains of El Niño, a child of approximately six years of age who had been drugged and bound before his death. Tom was very surprised that the mummified remains were in such pristine condition (on one side you could see his perfectly preserved arm as well as all of his hair. And as with Juanita, the child was displayed in refrigerated chamber.
Now the Incas sacrificed children as a way to appease the gods or in times of famine. The Incas believed that children who were sacrificed do not truly die, but instead reside with the gods or join their ancestors to protect the living.
With stayed with El Niño for about ten minutes before leaving the exhibit. After the museum visit, I wanted to go looking for bubble wrap (to wrap some of the items I have purchased). The little store in the museum had bubble wrap and the woman at the counter provided us with directions to a store where we could purchase the wrap. As usual, the directions were confusing and not nearly as short a distance as represented.
We finally found the plastic store just before 1:30 and as luck would have it, the store was closed for “siesta”. Tom and I trudged back to the square and by the time we got there, I was dehydrated and exhausted. I found a bottle of water and guzzled it down and then told Tom I needed to rest for a bit. Tom continued on with some shopping and a trip to another museum while I walked back to the hotel in the blazing heat.
Later in the day we enjoyed some wine and then just after 5:30, the hotel called a driver for us to take us back to the plastic shop. Now this driver might have been the angriest driver alive. He was awful. He sped through the streets, kept yammering at us in Spanish even though we kept saying “no comprende” and pulled over and indicated the address we provided was wrong. And this is where the dividing street comes into play. Turns out he went on the wrong side of the dividing street and rather than accept blame, he kept yelling at us in Spanish.
We finally found the shop, but there was no bubble wrap. Then I spotted a shop across the street, walked in, did a mime to show I wanted bubble wrap (pop, pop, pop was the key) and viola, I had my bubble wrap. Then angry driver raced through the streets back to our hotel while he played his music on full blast. Tom and I were just happy to be alive. And no, this jackass did not receive a tip.
We ended the night with another 4 block walk (which turned into about 15 blocks) walk to a steakhouse. At this point, I was once again dehydrated so Tom and I ended up guzzling three bottles of water at the restaurant. The service was brutal (the staff was all watching a “football” aka soccer game, but the food was very good.
We then walked back to the hotel and called it a night. We had to get up at 3:00 a.m. (yuck) for our flights (both Tom and I had flights close to 6:00 a.m.) My two glorious weeks with Tom had come to an end, but I still had two more weeks of my sabbatical. I will be forever grateful to Tom for sharing in my adventure. We had a wonderful time!