Monday, February 22, 2016

When not to visit Salta, Argentina


Carnival in Rio de Janeiro looks like great fun from the outside, but for those who have reached Carnival fatigue-like this blogger- it is better to abandon the city to its revelers. Rio hosts two separate carnival festivities: the extravagant four-night-long show of the well-established samba schools, and a two-week-long street carnival which attracts millions of rowdy people. The resulting gridlock is what many Cariocas who enjoy their carnivals in carefully chosen doses, try to escape. This year, many Cariocas also wanted to escape the bite of Aedes egypti the mosquito which spreads zica fever. The annual exodus benefits carnival-free locations. The city of Salta in the Andean part of Argentina looked like an attractive place for a five-day break; however it turned out to be not the ideal choice.

Visit of Salta la Linda.

The visit started with the run-of-the-mill city tour to get a feel for the geography. Two day-tours to discover Andean Argentina were also booked. Salta city is a bit of a tourist fraud, not as beautiful as its nickname implies. Promoted for its colonial heritage, it has little to show for its glorious past. Most of the old mansions have been replaced by non-descript buildings put up during the post WWI period when Argentina, as rich as the US, was booming by feeding beef to the world. The heart of city has retained its square block colonial plan but now shows a mishmash of ugly buildings. The few surviving 18th century landmarks have undergone ugly post-earthquake reconstruction. Staying outside town in a charming finca, was a quaint choice but a logistical mistake: the excursions all depart from the city center, 40 minutes away. Doing some research for this blog, I discovered that the extended city tour had taken us to the remote and picturesque location of Taras Bulba, a Hollywood film (1962) starring Yul Brunner and Tony Curtis (so much for the Russian steppes!) Our young guide did not mention it: he probably never heard of Taras Bulba!



                             Salta: The Cabildo on Carnival day (BL).

The must see Mummy museum.

Salta has many museums. One, the High Mountain Archeological Museum (MAAM), puts the city on the map. It was especially built to protect three mummies of children dating from the Inca civilization, 500 years ago. The very well preserved mummies were found during the 1999 scientific expedition to the volcano Llullaillaco on the Argentine-Chilean border, 400 kilometers west of Salta. The stratovolcano (6739 meters above sea level) is probably the highest active volcano in the world. It is now dormant, but geologists have identified evidence of late 19th century lava activity. The Incas worshiped mountains as sacred places and many mummies have been found in high altitude sanctuaries. The children, two girls and a boy, were from noble families. They had been taken to the sacrificial site at an altitude of 6715 m, and made to drink chicha, a fermented maize alcohol. Drugged to stupor and unconsciousness, the three children look as if they are sleeping. They may not have been buried alive, but died of hypothermia.


                               The Maiden mummy: the 14 years old girl.

Only one mummy is exhibited at any given time. In February, the young boy was displayed in an acrylic cylinder at -20 degrees C. The museum also exhibits another mummy, no longer frozen named la Reina del Cerro, or the Queen of the Mountain. Unfortunately the queen was discovered by looters and not scientists in 1922. Various offerings were found in her tomb on Mount Chuscha (over 5300 m) south of Salta. Between 1922 and 2006, when it was given to the MAAM, the mummy had been unceremoniously bounced between different owners.

Checking landmarks.

This blogger travelled to Salta to discover the Humahuaca Quebrada and the colonial village of Cachi. The Humahuaca Quebrada is a narrow mountain valley over an altitude of 2000 m, a World Heritage site some 250 kms north of Salta. To get there and back took 15 hours! An agonizing slog which included a 45 minute loo stop at a gas station overwhelmed by tourist minibuses! Salta should be avoided during Carnival; this was a second mistake.


                                   Seven Color Hills in Purmamarca

Several villages along the valley were in an advanced stage of carnival madness, the result was a stop and go traffic. To make matter worse, a mud flow blocked the road to the village of Purmamarca, the most picturesque site of the region, famous for its Seven Color Hills. It was dark when we finally arrived at the village and too late to fully enjoy the valley’s colors.


                                      Purmamarca and Seven Color Hill.

Needless to say tempers flared in our minivan group. If the Argentines took it in stride, the foreigners were less forgiving. As you may know, I like to criticize, but this time I kept quiet, adopting a neutral position. To avoid such hassle, travel agencies should be more flexible and adapt their itinerary to the circumstances.


                                             Humahuaca Quebrada

The Salta region is either wet and lush or dry and parched. In the dry winter, the city is often plagued by nasty dust storms. Mistake number three was to visit Salta in summer during the rainy season, from December to March. Although it mostly rains at night (monstrous thunderstorms), mountain roads are often washed out in the morning.


                                                     After the rain

My other excursion was a 320 km long day trip to the colonial village of Cachi through landscapes of impressive beauty and diversity. The famed provincial road 33 is a scenic experience in itself. It snakes along hills covered by lush tropical vegetation (incidentally the road was blocked by a rock fall from the previous rainstorm and we had to drive along the muddy river bed instead!) then climbs the Obispo slope through bends and loops.


                                                     Obispo Slope

It finally reaches the Piedra del Molino at 3.620 meters above sea level. The road then drops 1000 meters and crosses Los Cardones National Park in the arid Argentine puna, the high plateaus of the Andes. Cardones cacti are the brothers of the Saguaros of the American West. Some are as old as 300 years and can reach 3 meters high. The park is home to herds of guanacos and wild donkeys, and sometimes solitary well-fed pumas can be spotted at night. The burros were abandoned by the Spanish conquistadores and the miners of colonial time.


                                    Los Cardones National Park

Cachi (alt. 2210m) is a charming colonial village nestled at the foothill of snow covered volcanoes, which play hide and seek during the rainy season. During the 15th century, the locals who were subsistence farmers did not welcome the heavy handed administration of the Incas and fought successfully to keep their ways of life. The white-washed streets display many opulent adobe houses, remainders of its prosperous 18 and 19th century when mining took place on both sides of the cordillera. Now, the village’s slumber is only broken by busloads of rowdy tourists, as tourism has become the main economy.


                                           Colonial church of Cachi

Andean Carnivals.

Andean populations take their carnival as seriously as the Brazilians even if their rituals are different. Carnival is a family affair, men and boys dress as diablitos, (little devils) and women wear very shiny and colorful raffled dresses, a tradition going back to the early Spanish colonization. The Humahuaca carnival is famous for its Indian, Criolla and Spanish cultural mix. The atmosphere was joyous but a bit wild with people throwing water balloons, tossing handfuls of talcum powder and flour and spraying white foam. Drunk youth stumbled on the spray cans which were littering the ground. I got sticky white foam on my hair (it looks like shaving foam). The dancing, marching and drinking were non-stop. Coincidentally, Salta carnival with its diablitos, water “bombas” (balloon) and foam sprays reminded me of the Indian carnivals of Peru, Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

diablitosme          IMG_3764

                                                   Diablitos de Humahuaca

They are all very similar, except for the music. In Humahuaca it was distinctly Criolla, not Indian. These similar carnival traditions perhaps result from population mixing. In the 15th century, the Incas colonized the Salta region and as customary, forcibly resettled uncooperative population to replace it with a more dependable people. The result was a strained ethnic mix which greatly facilitated the Spanish conquest.

Argentina under new management.

Gone are the days when restaurants were competing among themselves not by the quality of their food but by the competitiveness of their peso/dollar exchange rate. Patrons were selecting eateries by their exchange rate rather than their food! Now, the restaurateurs are back in the kitchen! After years of Kirchnerism, named after the husband (the late Nestor Kirchner) and wife (Cristina) presidential team, the newly elected president Mauricio Macri is trying to make Argentina a “normal” country again. One of his first actions was to lift currency control and thus devalue the Argentine Peso by 30 percent to its more realistic black market value. Kirchnerism, a left-wing, authoritarian populist utopia destroyed Argentina’s economic dynamism. Even the marginal symbols of Kirchnerism are being removed. Notably the portrait of Evita Peron will disappear from the new 100 peso note, and the 200 pesos note will lose the picture of the Malvinas/Falkland islands. Both notes will display the less controversial pictures of Argentine iconic animals.


                                              Soon a collector’s item

People met during this trip, like taxi drivers, guides and hoteliers did not miss Kirchnerism. They complained of its distorting and indiscriminate subsidies, red tape, lack of transparency and grand larceny by the political elite. These people are hopeful that life will improve and that the atmosphere will be less confrontational.

Carnival is like zica, hard to escape in Latin America. Visiting Salta again? Certainly, but in springtime with a friend and a car. I have to figure out where to escape the 2017 Carnival? Any suggestion?