Travel Notes (Marshall)

Packing for the trip, we searched for weather news, and planned for going out, to see friends and shows…but over-estimated formality and under-estimated humidity.   The affective power of temperature is strongly affected by humidity and we are spoiled by El Paso – 60 dry degrees is not the same as 60 damp degrees! And packing for a reverse season (Argentina is in late fall while El Paso enjoys late spring) is not an easy mental shift – my sweaters were all stacked away.  The immediate consequence was shopping for a sweater on arrival!

The first day was otherwise uncomplicated, as we returned to the same flat we stayed in some two and a half years ago, and it is in the same general neighborhood where we lived.  Not having to search for basic services such as a pharmacy or grocery removes a lot of stress.  I slept poorly on the plane and did take a siesta after lunch the first day.   Lunch was a great pleasure –  a not particularly special restaurant but a very nice setting, with three-foot-long garlic braids and equally large hams hanging from the ceiling beams.  We both choose the milanesa, a thin breaded steak – let’s say chicken-fried steak as prepared in heaven – and a glass of Argentine red (strangely, Delta did not serve any Argentine wine, so it was our first of many glasses to come on this trip).

Following another day of wandering about we headed for the city airport and our trip to the northwest, NOA as it is called here.  The flight was delayed for nearly an hour, and that turned out to be part of a general slow-down of air traffic due to the loss of the main radar in the country to a lightning strike on March 1.  It is still not repaired, and so air traffic controllers are heavily reliant on reports from planes as to where they are.  We have not yet read any explanation as to why the government has not stirred itself to repair this radar. 

Salta was always a favorite city and it is even nicer now, with many new shops and restaurants.  My only complaint is that we did not stay long enough – and we forgot to take into account the Monday closing day for almost all museums, so my intention of visiting the three principal museums was stymied.  I did manage to get to the new one, established to showcase high altitude archaeology – meaning 6500 meters, over 20,000 feet.   There have been a number of finds in the last two decades of Inca materials, including mummies of children sacrificed in essence for the good of the social order – drugged, placed in an urn and left to freeze.  The articles found with these tiny mummies are quite extraordinary, and the exhibits very well done, with magnifying glasses strategically placed to show the very fine weave of the ancient fabrics, more than half a millennium old and still brightly colored.  The display is extremely respectful of the human element. 

On the way out to Cafayate the next day we detoured to the Mercado Artesanal, which is highly recommended.  The main market is a warren of little places on one side of the road, fronting a building some three centuries old, dated to the Spanish colonial era.  The more elegant things are here. It also contains a restaurant and music hall, or peña, where folkloric music is played (shows in these traditional places usually begin at 10 or later, making it harder to plan to go the longer we’ve stayed away from Argentine/Spanish time),  These markets are now found in many tourist destinations; Salta’s was the first and will be fifty years old in 2008.  Don’t miss it!  In fact, go here first if you can.

Mercado Artesenal

The drive to Cafayate, once past the rather ugly outskirts of Salta is very pleasant.  Beyond the city are fields, mostly tobacco, with many old brick tobacco barns dotting the landscape.  Many of the fences were draped with drying tobacco leaves – on the return we saw them covered with plastic against the threat of an unseasonal rainstorm.  Everywhere are huge bush-like stands of yellow sunflowers, eight to ten feet high at least.   Midway is a pleasant stop at a farm where goats are raised, and a small café offers sandwiches, salads, and platters of varieties of goat cheese and cured meats.  Shortly afterward begins the Quebrada, or valley, of the Rio de las Conchas – a wild landscape of contorted shapes in red sandstone – a giant toad, castles, a monk, an ampitheater, and so on.  Then a range of sand dunes, and then Cafayate, a wine-making center.  Here in the past we stayed in a pleasant old house belonging to one winery, but this has now been turned into a fancy affair where you can order up a bath in local wine.   We found another spot by a web search, and were rewarded with a lovely little inn surrounded by many hectares of vines, at the foot of a mountain.   A huge working fireplace, a good dinner, and a comfortable bedroom.  Regret we were not staying several days! 

The next stop was only 54 km away, but many centuries apart – the ruins of Quilmes. Here an indigenous people, incorporated briefly into the Inca empire (the Incas reached the area of Argentina only in 1480 and were overthrown by the Spanish conquerors fifty years later), resisted Spanish rule for some 130 years.  The ruins of their settlement are impressive, and the best way to see them is in the early morning, before any tour groups arrive – just you, perhaps some llamas, and a local guide, who may well be a descendant of these people, the Daiguita.  Heavy clouds the night before, most unusual in this part of the country in the winter, gave way to a beautiful blue sky.   A hotel is nestled in front of the ruins, disguised with cactus gardens on its roof.  Everywhere are huge cardones, which look much like saguaro but are not closely related.  An extraordinary landscape; not quite Machu Picchu, but you won’t be alone in Machu Picchu.

The last night, a return visit to El Lagar, our stately-mansion turned hotel.  There are many sitting-rooms, and a fine garden with pool. The waiter in the breakfast room was a remarkable figure, 87 years old and hair as black as coal.  He was most attentive and even after several days remembered which one of us took coffee without milk.  It was hard to leave! 

Out the window on the flight back to BA was a surrealistic scene; clouds filled the valleys, leaving only the tops of the mountains visible – at about eye level - like a huge spread of whipped cream with bits of cookie here and there.   No delays, despite the radar – and the strike by one airline’s staff a day before. 

Plunging back into urban life, we found that we had missed: a massive strike by subway employees, which threw a million or so commuters out on the streets to find their way to work, coupled with a demonstration that cut one of the major streets for several hours, and a fire at a power station leaving a hundred thousand or so without electricity for a few hours!  Somehow it all seems to work out.  The strikes seem never to occur on weekends, the weather has been delightful (ten days and so far not the umbrellas have not been touched!) and we spent most of Sunday at the great craft fair in Recoleta near the famed cemetery.  The design skills on display here are simply incredible.  One stallholder will custom-size a belt for you while you watch; others have knitted little finger puppets, or children’s sweaters.  The jewelry is amazingly creative.  There are hundreds of stalls.  And it all seems to be for pennies.

Lunch on the terrace overlooking the park – and on passing to the bathrooms, one is confronted with two doors, bearing no silhouettes or other clues, marked D and C.  Watch for a later note on how to choose!   


© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.