SALTA, historic capital of one of Argentina’s biggest and most beautiful provinces, easily lives up to its well-publicized nickname of Salta la Linda (Salta the Fair), thanks to its festive atmosphere, handsome buildings and dramatic setting. In a region where the landscape and nature, rather than the towns and cities, are the main attractions, Salta is the exception. Fifteen hundred kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires, at the eastern end of the fertile Valle de Lerma, nationally famous for its tobacco plantations, and bounded by the Río Vaqueros to the north and Río Arenales to the south, the city is squeezed between steep, rippling mountains; at 1190m above sea level, it enjoys a relatively balmy climate. In recent years, Salta has become the Northwest’s undisputed tourist capital, and its top-quality services include a slew of highly professional tour operators, some of the region’s best-appointed hotels and liveliest youth hostels and a handful of very good restaurants. In addition to a cable car and a tourist railway, its sights include the marvellous Neoclassical Iglesia San Francisco, and a raft of excellent museums dedicated to subjects as varied as pre-Columbian culture, anthropology, local history and modern art. A generous sprinkling of well-preserved or well-restored colonial architecture has survived, giving the place a pleasant homogeneity and certain charm.
San Lorenzo, a self-contained suburb of Salta only fifteen minutes west, enjoys a slightly cooler mountain climate and is awash with lush vegetation, making it alluring for both visitors and locals who want to escape from the big city, especially in the summer.
Governor Hernando de Lerma of Tucumán, who gave his name to the nearby valley, founded the city of Salta on April 16, 1582, following the instructions of Viceroy Toledo, to guarantee the safety of anyone entering or leaving Tucumán itself. The site was chosen for its strategic mountainside location, and the streams flowing nearby were used as natural moats. In 1776, the already flourishing city was made capital of a huge intendencia that took in Santiago del Estero, Jujuy and even the southern reaches of modern Bolivia, becoming one of the major centres in the viceroyalty. From 1810 to 1814 it was the headquarters of the Ejércitos del Norte and for the following seven years was where General Güemes posted his anti-royalist forces, creating the now traditional red-and-black-poncho uniform for his gaucho militia. However, once Buenos Aires became the capital of the young country, Salta went into steady decline, missing out on the rest of the country’s mass immigration of the mid- and late nineteenth century; the railway didn’t arrive here until 1890. A belated urban explosion in the 1920s and 1930s has left its mark on the predominantly Neocolonial style of architecture in the city. Since the turn of the millennium, Salta has joined the ranks of Argentina’s fastest growing and most dynamic metropolises, and its increased wealth can be seen in the remarkable sophistication of its inhabitants and the services they share with visitors.Read More
Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña
Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña
In an attractive Neo-Gothic building on the western side of the plaza, at Mitre 77, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) is the one museum in Salta that you should not miss. It was specially created to present to the public the discovery of the so-called Llullaillaco Children, one of the most important archeological finds ever made in Argentina. In 1999, three naturally mummified Inca children were uncovered by an expedition of mountaineers and scientists on top of Volcán Llullaillaco, due west of Salta on the Chilean border and 6740m above sea level. They are a 6-year-old girl, visibly struck by lightning some time after her burial, her hair arranged in two small braids and with a metal plaque as an adornment (which attracted the lightning); a teenage girl whose face was painted with a red pigment and who had small fragments of coca leaves above her upper lip; and a 7-year-old boy wearing a white feather ornament tied around his head. Their incredibly well-preserved corpses – all three lived around 1490 AD – were at first kept in a university laboratory in the city while tests on their tissue and other remains were completed. They are now shown, one at a time, in specially refrigerated cases and the effect is startling.
The jury is still out as to whether it is sacrilegious to display the bodies in a public museum: the decision to do so provoked a furore, including demonstrations by representatives of local indigenous groups, so bear in mind that this is a sensitive issue. Certainly the fainthearted will want to skip the room where they are shown, as expressions of fear are clearly shown on their young faces – the children were sacrificed to the Inca deities, possibly in a fertility ceremony or as an offering to the gods of the sun and moon. They were probably knocked out with a blunt weapon (so their bodies were not rendered imperfect by wounds) and then left to die of the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold.
Over a hundred artefacts, part of the remarkably intact treasure trove buried with the children at the end of the fifteenth century, are on display in the museum’s other rooms, where the temperature and humidity are kept artificially low – bring something warm to wear. The exhibit is both scientific and didactic, including a video about the expedition, displays of textiles and the like, but it is no musty old-fashioned museum. The ground-floor bookshop is prime hunting ground for souvenirs, mostly of very high quality, while the marvellous cafeteria, offering local specialities, is open daily from 9am to 10pm.
Earthquakes and the Fiesta del Milagro
Earthquakes and the Fiesta del Milagro
No earthquake as destructive as those that flattened the cities of Mendoza in 1861 and San Juan in 1944 has struck the Northwest region of Argentina within recent history, but this part of the country lies along the same fault line that was responsible for that seismic activity and is prone to occasional tremors, some of them violent. The Nazca plate, beneath the eastern Pacific, and the South American plate, comprising the whole continent, are constantly colliding – a continuation of the tectonic activity that formed the Andean cordillera. To make matters worse, the Nazca plate is subducting – nudging its way beneath the landmass – an action that accounts for the abundance of volcanoes along the range; some of them are extinct, others lie dormant, but none in the Northwest is very active. Nonetheless, frequent earthquakes of varying strength (but mostly mild for geological reasons) rock Northwest Argentina, accounting for the repeated displacement of many settlements and the absence of colonial architecture in some.
Salta still thanks its lucky stars for El Milagro, the legend according to which two sacred images have spared the city the kind of destruction caused by seismic disasters. An image of Christ and another of the Virgin Mary were found floating in a box off the coast of Peru in 1592, exactly a century after the Americas were discovered by Columbus, and somehow ended up in Salta. Precisely one century later, on September 13, 1692, a series of tremors began to shake the city, damaging some public buildings and houses. During that night, a priest named José Carrión dreamed that if the images of Christ and Mary were paraded through the streets for nine days the earthquakes would stop and Salta would be spared forever. Apparently it worked and, ever since, the Fiesta del Milagro has been a major event in the city’s calendar. Festivities and religious ceremonies starting on September 6 reach a climax on September 15, when the now-famous images, which are kept in the cathedral, are paraded through the city’s streets in a massive, solemn but colourful procession.