Salta, Argentina – Bish, Bash, Bosh
We’ve been getting antsy: our travels in Central and South America have lasted longer than anticipated and we are anxious to see other parts of the world. We thus decided to start speeding up by reducing the number of places we visit. Argentina was the first country where we were going to put this into practice. One of our must-see destinations was Iguazu National Park, but it is several bus rides from our starting point, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Investigations soon revealed a town in Argentina a single, long and picturesque bus ride away that we could use as a pit-stop en route to Iguazu: i.e., Salta. We didn’t know much about it before we arrived, and I’m afraid we remain only slightly more informed after having visited, but overall it provided a nice introduction to Argentinian food, wine, people, football (soccer), and money. Not necessarily in that order.
A mini adventure
We knew we were going to have to search out dodgy strangers in the street, identifying them by their fairly discreet calls of cambio? (change?) to those within earshot. In anticipation, in the preceding two countries we had been withdrawing sizeable wads of cash in the form of US dollars. Once in Salta, and after extracting from our hostel’s manager the name of the street where these strangers were most likely to be found, we set out with said wads in pocket in the hopes of making a decent deal.
You see – and to put it mildly – Argentina is having some money troubles. I’m no economist, but my understanding is that their peso has become so devalued and (as a result) the country has restricted its citizens’ ability to withdraw in other currencies, that other currencies – especially the US dollar – are highly coveted. Argentinians who have the time and means often cross borders (into Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay) to withdraw from their accounts in dollars and then return to Argentina to convert the dollars back into pesos. This increases the spending power of the peso to nearly 1.5x (depending on the day) what it would have been. Given our travel budget, we too were lured by the promise of getting more bang for our bucks. Hence our first act in Salta was the aforementioned search for deals with dodgy strangers on the streets.
In Salta these blue dollar dealers are usually older men, and we soon found ourselves walking back and forth amongst a small handful trying to figure out who would give us the best rate. We thought we had made a decision when it then turned out that the rate changes depending on the denomination of the dollar: the rate is better for larger bills. So back we went to the first guy. It all felt super sketchy and, to be honest, also a little exciting: he motioned us into the entry hall of a business building and there each side whipped out calculators and handed back and forth stacks of bills (he even rejected some of our dollars because they weren’t of high enough quality). Voila! We now had 1.5x as much money as we would have if we had withdrawn Argentinian pesos from the ATMs. Cool beans. Then our man disappeared fast, so fast that we had no idea which direction he went. “Um, I hope he gave us real pesos?!”
Salta itself is not a major tourist attraction, so it doesn’t really tempt you with a million different options of things to do and see. I’m not saying that it is boring, just that it seems more conducive to living there as an inhabitant rather than a tourist. That being said, the town’s center is actually quite pretty, with the main plaza encircled by some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in Argentina. Unfortunately, and as seems to be our fate as we travel through South America during the winter, the plaza was under renovation and so we didn’t get to see it at its best. Still, the cathedral was impressive…and pink of all things! It looked like a cake for a three-year-old (stereotypical) girl’s birthday party. That’s one way religion might be more appealing: make it look as if you could eat it. Nom, nom, nom.
Other cool things to see/do in Salta include:
1) Spending an hour or two in the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña. Here you can learn about the indigenous tribes of the area and their practices. You will also encounter some of the best preserved mummies in the world. These aren’t anything like the mummies we saw outside Nasca, with their dessicated skin and skeletal appearance. These people look like they died only a few days ago. And that makes what you are seeing so much more visceral. There are three Mummies of Llullaillaco (also called Children of the Volcano) which the museum puts on display in rotation (so you don’t see all at any one visit); there are very clear, close-up photos of the off-display mummies. Two are children of approximately 6-7 years of age and the other a 15-year old girl. The reason they look so well-preserved in death is that the children – members of the Inca community who had been sacrificed – were buried at high altitude and were naturally cryopreserved; the museum artificially reproduces that state to maintain the mummies as they were found. Seeing these children in such a pristine state – dark eyelashes, fleshy cheeks, pursed lips – really brought home to me the fact that these had once been living fellow humans, and I felt distinctly sad about their fate. It is difficult to feel the same way about objects that seem like they might be props in Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
2) On a lighter note, we can recommend taking the teleferico up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo to have a nice cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the view over the city. Then if you walk back down the hill as we did, you are likely to encounter a park with a huge statue of some war-related person or other and, more importantly, a plethora of homeless dogs, some of whom are wearing shirts (?!). I simply patted one on the head and said “hola”, and s/he evidently interpreted this as an adoption certificate and began to follow us. And this scene has been repeated numerous times across South America. Toby now tries to discourage me from even looking in a homeless dog’s direction but, alas, that is an impossibility for me. I must say hola perro to them all. If only I could do something more to help. :/
3) Another suggested to-do is meander down La Balcarce (Balcarce Street) in the evenings to enjoy the outdoor arts and crafts mercado and partake of the offerings of the many stylish-but-rustic-looking bars and restaurants. Here too is also where you will experience live Argentine peñas, or folk concerts. We were subjected…er I mean…treated to one such concert while eating dinner. We could hardly hear ourselves think let alone each other talk. But hey, after traveling together non-stop for so many months, maybe that’s no bad thing.
Throughout our stay in Salta there was an air of excitement about the place, as Argentina was performing well in the World Cup. In fact, one night we watched the locals reacting to the quarter-finals match which was being shown live on a huge outdoor TV screen. Everyone was wearing their light-blue-and-white tops and waving corresponding-colored flags. Not being a follower of sports in my regular life, I have to admit to not realizing until I saw the crowd in front of the big screen that this explained why so many people had blue-and-white paint on their faces that day. Let’s just say I am not always the most observant of people (on the other hand, it could be interpreted as my tolerance for human oddities)! Happily for us and our Argentinian hosts, “we” won.
And so we headed to Iguazu knowing that not only were we about to see an incredible natural wonder, but – oh no! – we were in Argentina just as they were entering the semi-finals of the World Cup! How did we, who normally don’t give a monkeys about professional sports, end up here? Actually, we couldn’t help but be swept up a little in the excitement, in part, thanks to our pleasant introduction to Argentina. A country where wine is cheaper than bottled water (seriously) and money can magically inflate itself. Go Argentina!