After two weeks in Buenos Aires and the Pampas and a mere five days in the Littoral of the Northeast, we boarded yet another bus for the 20-hour journey to the Andean Northwest and the provincial capital of Salta. We envisioned the easygoing city of 1,000,000 as a place to relax and regroup before our last big push through the more primitive and much colder countries of Bolivia and Peru. As it turned out, Salta, known to Argentines as Salta La Linda (Salta the Fair) delivered what no other place has for 10 months–five days of thick cloud cover–the perfect excuse to slack off of the sightseeing and simply soak up the flavor of the city.
Salta proved to be our South American Chiang Mai, a friendly town with cheap, delicious food, honest taxis, and a mellow vibe. Tom quickly scouted out all the best restaurants and bakeries as well as a laundromat that picked up and delivered. Fortunately the staff of the Sheraton (aaaahhhhhh) were good sports and understood that the backpacking family staying on frequent guest points couldn’t afford room service or in-house laundry. They just smiled when the Clampetts strode by toting plastic bags filled with dirty clothes and empanadas. The big boys jammed out schoolwork, Kieran and Asher mastered bingo, Tom archived more of his 25,000 photos and I finally got the Hotel Finds section of the site up.
Our one big excursion while in Salta was to the spectacular mountain gorge to the north known as Quebrada de Humahuaca. We opted for a tour, always a risky venture, but Tom wasn’t eager to spend 8 hours driving a rental car for a 1-day circuit through the region. Though we were rushed from place to place, it proved to be a good decision as we slept for the 4-hour ride each way and shared the van with a few particularly fascinating folks.
We left in the early morning darkness and woke as we ascended into the cloudforest, a terrain unique to this part of Argentina and southern Bolivia. Thankfully the clouds that permanently linger over the dense forest cleared as we rose even higher into the Quebrada, allowing the sun to shine through and cast a revealing light on the multicolored mountain scenery. We stopped at a succession of small towns, each offering its own unique spin on the role of remote mountain village. The first, Pumahuaka, offered a charming church and festive town square oozing with cheap souvenirs.
The next, Maimara, offered a funky hillside cemetery, while a few kilometers down the road Tilcara boasted some reconstructed pre-Incan ruins, impressive cacti, and a quirky museum containing a mummy from the Atacama desert in Chile and a ready group of entrants to our scary mannequine collection.
Humahuaca was the feather in the cap of the gorge towns and we spent a few hours here feasting on local fare and wandering the city’s cobbled streets. A grandiose yet artistically questionable statue in honor of Argentine independence loomed large on a hill behind the main square while a graceful 17th century colonial church adorned one its sides. Perhaps the strangest thing about the town was the ubiquitous strains of Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” wafting through the dusty air. This song, which we could neither escape nor get out of our heads in China, was at least rendered on an Andean pan flute without lyrics in this remote Argentine hamlet.
Unfortunately clouds moved in as we exited Humahuaca and our opportunities to capture the vivid colors of the mountainsides faded with the dwindling sunshine. We weren’t too upset though since we soon got engrossed in a conversation with one of our fellow tourists, a grandfatherly Argentine agronomist who was a historian by hobby and a gentleman by nature. We discussed our impressions of the global economy, the future of world politics, and the soil conditions of the pampas. This South American Thomas Jefferson dazzled us with the breadth of his knowledge and the strength of his character. He complimented us on our endeavors and expressed confidence that our kids will benefit immeasurably from their RTW experience.
As we discussed Samuel Huntington’s Clash of the Civilizations, the rest of the van broke into applause. I assumed they were congratulating the glib guide on a job well done, but the agronomist informed me the kudos were for me. Why? Because I had magically kept four kids relatively quiet for an entire 12 hours. They didn’t credit Tom since he had been sitting in a row toward the front while the kids and I had been crammed in the last two rows. While I appreciated the praise, what they didn’t realize was that an early morning start guarantees good behavior from the Andrus kids, i.e., they sleep. As for the return trip, we bribed them with treats from the gas station and managed to get a few more hours of dozing out of them.
The tour was much like our entire time in Salta, a comfortable, pleasant addition to our worldwide experience. McKane, Kieran, and Asher loved the hillside gondola and dozens of randomly placed statues, Dax and Tom couldn’t get enough of the city’s parrillas, and I particularly dug the beautiful main square and rich architectural variety of the city’s churches. Ah, Salta La Linda, yet another fair place to someday return.