Seeing the world, one country at the time

Salta, la Linda

Although we already had a hotel reservation in Salta when we arrived, we were approached by a hostel owner at the bus station selling his hostel. Too late, too bad! Arriving at the Hotel Italia on Alberdi street, a main pedestrian thoroughfare, the receptionist gave us a smoker’s room at a discount. The huge, powerful shower alone was worth it. We ventured into the city to find out about tours and car rentals. At one rental car place, the owner insisted that we couldn’t get full insurance anywhere else, and that if we took his car, he could guarantee that nothing would get stolen and that we would be very safe. It seemed a strange guarantee. Lars thought “mafia”. Concluding that insurance is sketchy at best, we decided against renting a car. You cannot buy insurance, but have to put down $1000 on your credit card as a guarantee in case anything happens. It’s not worth the risk. Instead we booked two all-day tours of the surrounding region.

Salta comes from the Aymara word for “most beautiful”, and that is why Salta is often called “Salta la Linda”. It is situated in the northwest of the country in a valley surrounded by a range of mountains called the Cordillera Oriental. This area is rich in intense lush green vegetation and is warm and humid. The city was founded in 1582 by Hernando de Lerma. It was a prosperous area in the 1700-1800’s but is now mostly agricultural since all the wealth and business went to Buenos Aires. The principal crops are onions, garlic (which they export to Japan), potatoes and quinoa, a grain that has more protein than soy. People say that if you eat quinoa all your life, you’ll live to be a hundred. Their biggest crop, however, surprised us. It is tobacco. The local tobacco plantations employ 74,000. There are two kinds: light “Virginia” and black “Criollo”. Criollo tobacco is used only for spicing cigarettes and is produced by manual labor.

In Salta’s very busy city center the biggest industry was shopping. Christmas was around the corner. We fought the crowds in the walking streets. A multitude were out so late that it seemed like a weekend. Street vendors had their wares displayed on cloths and performers entertained the passersby. There was Michael Jackson doing the moon dance, a trumpet player and a portly pop singer with a big voice who had a septuagenarian in a blissful trance, as she danced in front of the crowd, her dark blue skirt swinging and her white shawl waving. We walked on through the main plaza, which is the most beautiful we have come across and our favorite thus far. It is quiet, warmly lit and undisturbed by traffic. There is plenty of seating in the park and at the cafes surrounding the square. It features a huge and ornate pink cathedral. This always amazes us, that even a small city can have so much opulence in its churches. It must be the Lutheran blood in us.

It wasn’t the only church though. The Church of San Francisco, flanked by a huge bell tower and painted pink and yellow with white theater curtains over the doors is a landmark. Another more tasteful church was home to hundreds of cats that slunk along the bell tower. We passed the Convent of San Bernardo, which is closed to visitors, but has a beautiful wooden entrance that is worth seeing. Later we visited the Guelmes memorial. General Miguel Martin de Guelmes was a great military hero, part of the independence movement of the region, but if the statue was anything to go by, the Salteno youth don’t have much respect for their history.
The memorial was covered with lovelorn musings etched in white-out. Couples were hanging out all over the park, making out or drinking “mate” and eating their “panchitos” (hot dogs) or sandwiches (always made from thin white bread with ham and cheese and no crusts).

The road leading to the memorial is lined with “drunken pole” trees. They retain water (I know how THAT feels) during dry seasons and develop a barrel-shaped trunk. This bloated look is highly amusing when it’s a novelty. The trees shade an upscale neighborhood where we passed one of the most beautiful homes we have seen thus far; a colonial style villa painted white with dark wooden balconies and blue tiles. Surprisingly, there was no gate or real security and the owners were standing in the door chatting. Yet it was the grandest house in the area. It seemed like the middle class homes had higher walls and gates than the wealthiest of the area.

For dinner we end up at Dona Salta, recommended by the hotel guy. It is an enchanting restaurant with so much charm that it is filled with tourists. Although with such reasonable prices, we don’t care. We partake of a great meal with good service. The waiters, dressed in traditional garb, are unobtrusive but available. Our choices include empanadas and tamales, beer and wine. The drinks are half the bill at eleven pesos, but the whole thing comes to a whopping 24 pesos (about seven dollars), a real bargain. That night we made a reservation at the hostel that the man had tried to sell us on the first day. While we were there a German couple came in wanting to call the police because they’d just been robbed. It looked like the woman got slashed when they took her pack. What a horrible way to spend the holidays. We’ve now met at least four couples who have been robbed. Somehow this doesn’t bother us. We haven’t had any problems and we must think we’re invisible. I am sure that will change once our luck runs out.