Certainly I have never been in a city before jammed with tourists where no one was speaking anything but Spanish. This is Salta, Argentina where all the tourists are from other parts of Argentina. Some from a few other South American countries. I encountered two American families, the parents in ex-hippie mode, the children teenagers somewhat sulky and uneasy about being seen in public with their parents. They spoke English. Other than that, Salta is not international.
Salta is in the north of Argentina near the Bolivian border. This is high, flat desert country, surrounded by mountains. The Andes one must cross to get to Bolivia begin here. Argentina runs very far south to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world; the jumping off spot for Antarctica. South America runs much further south than Africa or Australia. There are direct flights from Sydney, Australia across the Pacific to Santiago, Chile but Chile runs much further south to Cape Horn. Still a very difficult passage for ships.
The exploration and domination of South America is fascinating. The Spanish came down from the North from Mexico in search of silver and gold. They came by land. The Atlantic coast was unexplored until much later. Down the Pacific side of the Andes they came in the 16th century, less than a century after Columbus discovered North America. They crossed the Andes and founded Salta in 1589. A good 50 years before my ancestors, the Sumners, came to the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts.
I don’t know if I could have ever been a pioneer. One had to be dauntless. Of course, one’s life in one’s hometown was one of growing crops, heating with fireplaces, illuminating interiors with candles. Pioneer life was only a simpler version. But even so, to plunge across the Andes, stumble into the desert, establish a town? The Catholic church is owed a great deal in these adventures. The priests were always the first to go forth into these unknown, unexplored places.
Although Salta supposedly has a good climate all year round for growing the food supplies that supported the Bolivian silver mines, I wonder. This may be wine country but it looks pretty deserty. The guidebooks also say that the main business activity here in Salta for many years was the raising of mules which were used as transport and labor all over this side of South America through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even though the cell phone is omnipresent in Salta, it still feels like a frontier town, even with its 300,000 inhabitants. There are a few buildings of up to ten stories in Salta but it is for the most part a flat, spread out town. Its old city center has several very old, large churches, an archeological museum which I skipped (I don’t care much for history where there is no fashion), a very interesting historic museum in the old Cabildo, whatever a Cabildo may have been. It houses furniture, paintings, and in an interior courtyard a collection of wagons, stagecoaches and one car, a very large French-made car belonging to an important judge. The largest car ever made by the manufacturer. There was only one other, made for the President of Bolivia. In 1909. Very early. The chauffer sat out front without cover, the steering wheel was on the right, English style, and the back was large and roomy and outfitted with cushions now hanging in sagging tatters.
There was a stagecoach that made the run from Salta down to Alemania in the south. A four-day run. We did it in two hours in the car the next day. It took four months to go to Buenos Aires. I imagine one was really tired after that adventure. The driver and horses changed very regularly. The poor passengers didn’t.
Buenos Aires, interestingly to me, was founded long after Salta when the southward push of exploration went on and on. True also of Montevideo, where I live. Some two hundred years later than Salta, both of these now much larger cities.
Finally in the middle of the 19th century the connection to Europe was made regularly by ship and that is when the tides of Italians and Portuguese came in the Rio Platte area to Buenos Aires and Montevideo and became the dominant force in that part of South America.
Another Museum, the Museo Casa Uriburu, was a family residence for an important family for nearly two hundred years. Built at about the time of our Revolutionary War, it is stark in its white plaster and dark beams. It has some very early heavy oak furniture brought in from Spain. One imagines a donkey with a heavy bureau on its back laboring over the Andes. It was no joke getting furniture this size or quality way out into the vastness of Salta.
There are very handsome and beautiful people here, but not as we know them in North America. There are women with strong, clear features of our early movie stars. Many great profiles, strong noses, beautiful chins and jawlines. There are men, too in the Spanish tradition. Great profiles, great sweeping eyelashes. Again a look of early film stars.
Also, the nose is prominent. It seems to me when I was very young there were more prominent noses. Many here are beaked and sweep downward and made me think of Michigan in the 1930s. I wonder if the nose job has condemned North America to a look of some kind of uniformity.
Many of the women are tall here. Some very tall. I’ve seen any number of young girls with long legs, great faces, and strong profiles who could work in the modeling industry. Perhaps it is their good fortune that there is no one in Salta to encourage them to pursue this destiny.
There is also a very high proportion of inhabitants descended from the original Indian inhabitants. Tan, dark hair and eyes, tending to be shorter, with strong interesting features. It’s strange, but in the United States exotic locals intermarried and became part of the national gene pool. In the U.S. we like blondes but everyone is considered American and we pay little attention to racial background. Black people excepted, of course.
In South America racial background continues to be very important. And even has some connection to class level. The upper classes are certainly fairer and have lighter hair. Without discussing it ever I think they are very aware of the connection between class and racial descent.
I should mention also that there are no black people or anyone of Asian background in Salta at all. None. I did see one Chinese restaurant but that seemed to be it. Everyone here is from the original Spanish settlers or Indians. Not at all like Montevideo, which is very international in its inhabitants.
1. There are a lot of dogs and babies here. In the central square of the Plaza 9 de Julio with its trees, grass and national monuments it also has many sizeable dogs who lounge around on the lawns and under the trees and many sprawl out to sleep in the middle of the sidewalks and you must dodge around them. I think they have owners somewhere and are well fed, although quite dirty. As I was walking down the street along the square one came up from behind me, bumped my hand. I pulled away and scratched his ears and petted him. He romped a bit, munching my hand as dogs do and accompanied me to the corner and there wandered off to be on his own.
2. There is also an enormous presence of small children, many of them babes in arms. Argentina must be going to have a vast population jump as every young couple has at least three children. There are many young mothers under 30 with three children, which would have been a pattern in the United States some hundred years ago. My mother married rather late for the period (at 24) and had four children by the time she was 34. There are many strollers about and on all the South American flights we took lots of babies on the plane. True also of the Montevideo to Miami flight. There are some small children about in Miami Beach but not to the point where they are almost equal to the adults, which is true in Argentina.
Other interesting things in Salta. The trees in the streets are orange trees. The oranges, perfectly edible, fall into the gutters and onto the streets. Mr. C. said “If you’re going to be a street person this is the town to do it in. You will stay alive just eating the oranges that fall from the trees.” There is so much evidence of this also, with a lot of orange peel littered about. Somehow it didn’t really look like litter.
Salteanos (I think that’s what they’re called) also like their pastries. The croissant is very present although called “media luna” (half moon). Which, of course refers to the same moon the croissant is named for. The crescent moon. Smaller but very tasty, some are plain and a little salty, some are sweet. Breakfast at the hotel was presented with many croissants and other pastries I found less tempting. No bacon and eggs. As in Europe, breakfast here is largely a cup of coffee and a pastry of some kind. It’s not a big meal.
I should also mention there is a high level of police about and a large percentage of policewomen. We stumbled into the main square one morning and found there was a kind of police event occurring with ranks of police people about four deep on three sides of the square. They came to attention at the sound of whistles and had a variety of uniforms, one group looking like paratroopers. Mr. C. thought they might be a special attack group, plunging from the sky. I rather doubt it.
The women of Salta are rather prominent bosomed and full buttocked but not in an overdone way. They looked fine in uniform, hair pulled tightly back into buns, forepiece caps pulled down over their eyes. Patrolling the streets, frequently alone, they didn’t look like people you wanted to fool around with. There are not a lot of overweight people in Salta either.
Our second day in Salta we drove to Cafayate, the heart of the vineyards. About 200 kilometers to the south, maybe about 125 miles. We estimated about a three hour drive. However we did not anticipate that the road would be two lanes and very winding. A double yellow line was almost always present in the middle of the road, and frequently twelve or so cars would be backed up behind a slower driver, unable to pass. We had gone almost eighty of the miles when we reached Alemania, the town that had been the end of the stagecoach run from Salta to the south. Now Alemania is only three of four buildings, one of them the former train station. This is now a small restaurant. Other buildings that had been warehouses had a garage and what seemed to be dwellings. The railroad tracks, and there were three or four different pairs in front of the station, had not been used in some time. There was even a fairly large tree growing in the middle of one pair. There were a number of tourist cars parked about to look at the metal railroad bridge that crossed a small river quite near the station. At one time this must have been a busy hub, probably for shipping grain, or wine or whatever they were raising in the fertile area to the north.
The little restaurant only had empanadas, the little meat pastries, but we ordered about four each and some soft drinks. There was a black mother dog and her gangly black pup hanging about the restaurant and my heart went out to them. I played with the pup and rubbed his stomach, as I do to my dog Sophie in Miami Beach. Both dogs were very thin and one could only hope that passing tourists gave them food. The Argentineans are very dog prone but even so, I thought of that pup a lot and still do. All the dogs we saw were so friendly and playful you felt you owed it to them to take care of them.
As soon as we left Alemania we understood why the train line stopped there. We immediately were plunged into a mountainous landscape where the road wound perilously along the edge of a snakelike river. There had been volcanic upheavals here long ago and the mountains were tipped on edge with striations revealing the centuries of earth accretians. The earth’s shuddering upheaval had tossed them about in gigantic scraps and bits. Mr. C said they looked like gigantic pieces of cake, tilted this way and that, layers all exposed, rising high above our heads.
They reached off in all directions and the light was beautiful. The mountains were striped across in pale brown, yellow, red, lavender. The soft light veiled them so they were pastel-like and every few miles the colors would shift and suddenly they would be largely yellow, then in a few miles shifting to rust with stripes of dark brown and beige. There were also leafless small trees along the road that were brilliant chartreuse. A bright yellow-green I have never seen in nature before. The road was also lined with crosses and shrines. There had been many accidents along this treacherous route. “This is really driving.” Mr. C. said. “Not just drifting along holding the wheel for miles and miles.” He is an excellent driver but the road required his complete concentration. Again, just two lanes and whipping around sharp cliff corners and under looming overheads with signs warning of falling rocks. The falling rocks were often huge boulders as large as a small house precariously perched on the mountainside above. A few smaller rocks seeming to hold them in place. I wouldn’t want one suddenly bolting down the hill, rolling and tumbling, as I drove beneath it. We are rarely in what we can call real danger when driving. But this road seemed to be. And it made you think that the early settlers faced this kind of thing on a daily basis. How many of the passengers on the four month run from Buenos Aires didn’t make it at all?
It took about an hour and a half to get to Cafayate, a small flat town that is evidently heavily visited by tourists from the south as it is the center of the wine industry in this part of the country. They had quite a remarkable museum brilliantly designed and lit, ultra-modern, to tell the story of the history of this region’s vineyard and then a second section really detailing how wine was made and is made, showing all the many antique tools and kegs and bottles from the past. Very well done and surprising in this very isolated and not well known town. With Mr. C. there was much scouting about from museum shop to store to vineyard buying some of the wines that are grown here. There is a business to be made of importing Argentian wines and making them as well known and sought after as French wines. They are of excellent quality and as they are completely different from European wines, the Malbecs and Tannats and other types could become very popular I think. My own favorite is Tannat, a red wine that is actually best grown in Uruguay. You can buy a vineyard in Uruguay now for not much money. For anyone who longs to own a vineyard, now is the time to decamp for Uruguay.
We drove back from Cafayate more rapidly than we descended. It was still daylight and I wanted to at least get through the canyon road while it was light. It was like driving at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for overall effect and not to be taken casually at any time, let alone night. We were almost back in Salta before nightfall but then got trapped in the endless backups behind slow drivers and got to our hotel after dark. But then a lovely supper in the elegant dining room! But no, it was Sunday and the dining room wasn’t open. We marched across the square to the Alejandro Primero (Alexandre the First) hotel, a much larger enterprise but with a less ambitious dining room. Lots and lots of families with many older parents and one or two adult or later teen children along. There were many really lovely daughters with relatively nondescript parents. There was something almost late-Victorian about it. Beautiful girls being launched in society.
On Monday, our last day in Salta, we did some shopping after returning the car. A very handsome young man was reluctant to believe us when we said there had been a gas leak during our drive and we were hesitant to refill the tank completely as we feared it would just leak out. He had that Tyrone Power style of many young men in Salta. His cohorts finally got him to agree to charge us for the gas to be put in at the rate of a gas station, not the normal high Hertz price.
We then tackled the telepherique that was to carry us onto the very high hill looming over Salta. It was not really a mountain, but high enough to see the city down below. And popular enough that it required a two and a half hour wait in line to board the little six passenger car. We were plenty high in the air as we creaked and tottered up to the top. I looked up at the smallish cable supporting the car and wondered if they regularly checked it. Yikes! At the top there were ornamental gardens and a tightly packed little restaurant flooded with hungry tourists. We lunched there anyway. Service was so slow that families would come, occupy a large eight person table, wait a long time and then depart having never ordered. We managed to catch a waiter’s eye and did all right. I think it might be able to earn a spot as the worst restaurant in the Western Hemisphere. Certainly up in the top ten, but then again it was on top of a mountain.
Once we regained the ground we walked back to the hotel and passed the consulate for Serbia and Montenegro. I was startled. How many consulates for Serbia and Montenegro must there be in the world if there is one in Salta? Much of the population of these tiny countries could be assigned to the consulates if they have one in a far-flung spot like Salta. Or perhaps this is a desirable destination for Serbians and Montenegrins. Who know? I love mysteries like this.
After dark Mr. C took me up to the open air swimming pool on the roof so we could see the lights of Salta reaching out and out through the valley. We were as high as any building in town and there were only a few at this height. We packed that night and the next morning dashed about town to do some last minute shopping and buy a knee brace for Mr. C. at a medical supply store which had stretch things not available in Uruguay. Mr. C. is a handsome, fit young man with a myriad of physical problems from having been battered about playing soccer. Or “futbol” as it is called there.
We flew back to Buenos Aires in the early afternoon, lunched at the airport and replaned for Montevideo across the Platte River. About a half an hour flight. And there the trip was done. May I add, Mr. C is the best looking, most capable, great at planning, decision-making guy with whom I have ever been involved. Great trip.