Salta - A Dead Boy and a A Tale of Two Gorges

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April 16th 2014
Published: April 16th 2014
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I liked Salta from the off. It helped that after the frustration of the Argentinean transport strike I was finally on my way again and that after plenty of practice I´d started to get the hang of bus travel Argentina-style. This time it didn´t matter that films were repeated from my journey up to Mendoza a few days previously or that they remained playing long after the coach had decided to call it a night, I just got my head down and slept.

As I mentioned in my previous blog Salta would represent a (temporary) change of approach. I´d booked ahead, letting a travel agency in Argentina know my budget and itinerary, so rather than staying in hostels I was now in a pretty nice boutique hotel. The room was spacious and en suite, with mod-cons I´d yet to see on the trip such as cable tv (handy for The Masters), a room safe and mini-bar. The garden at the back even had a pool (all be it one more suited for paddling than swimming). But best of all was the location - 5 mins in one direction from Salta´s main square with all the city´s major sights and in the other direction a couple of minutes from a quieter but stil attractive square with a number of nice restaurants.

I showered and breakfasted and set out to see the sights - some impressive, colonial architecture (particularly the cathedral) and a very interesting museum (the museum of the high mountains), whose main attraction are the nearly perfectly preserved bodies of 3 Inca children, who were discovered in 1999. The story of the child sacrifices, while it may sound ghoulish to our ears, bears repeating. The Incas believed that the mountain tops were sacred places close to the world of the gods (almost like a gateway). They also believed that in addition to looking after the Inca people on earth the gods would welcome the Incas into their equivalent of heaven after they died. In addition the Incas believed that children were pure souls and as such were best suited for communication with the gods. (They were the people with whom the gods would be most pleased). As far as archeologists can tell to retain and strengthen the bond between the gods and the Inca people the Incas chose children from the highest Inca caste to send as their emissaries. In addition to caste, children were also chosen for their exceptional beauty. To be chosen was a great honour for the child and the child´s family (remember that in Inca belief these children were not dieing butbeing born into an after life intricately linked with life on Earth). Chosen children were kept in seclusion and treated with great honour. The children were taken to the Inca capital Cusco for a ceremony before returning to their place of origin for the sacrifice. Because of the sacred nature of the children and the relationship they were cementing it was very important that the children suffered no violence and (as far as we can tell) felt no fear. They were led up to a mountain-top, given a sacred, alcoholic drink, which they drunk until they passed out. They were then placed in a tomb with toys and objects that they may need in the after life or that may please the gods. They were wrapped in clothes and placed in particularly attitudes and then the tombs were closed. Forensic evidence carried out on the bodies recovered in 1999 suggests the children would have frozen to death without recovering consciousnness. The bodies have not
Pucara Del TilcaraPucara Del TilcaraPucara Del Tilcara

Hill top citadel
been treated with any mummification process but the cold and the lack of moisture has kept the bodies almost perfectly preserved over the last 500 years (the mountain on which they were buried is just under 6,000 metres high.)

The bodies are now on display in the museum at Salta. Held in a climate controlled cabinet, which replicates the conditions in which they were preserved on the mountain top. They are rotated by the museum so that at any given time only one is on display. It´s an eerie experience to take the tour, hear the explanation of the ritual and the story of the archeological dig that discovered them and then in the museum´s final room come face to face with a 500 year old 6 year old Inca boy. It seemed at once incomprehensible and compelling, a genuine human link to a time and civilisation that pre-dates the European filter through which contemporary South America is inevitably viewed.

The transport strike meant that what I had planned as a 5 day stay in Salta had been trimmed to 3. This would mean that after my day´s orientation, I would have an extremely busy itinerary for the
Humahuaca GorgeHumahuaca GorgeHumahuaca Gorge

For reasons that I hope are obvious they call this section of the Gorge "The Painter´s Palette"
next 2 days. It's fair to say that, after a 20 hour bus drive, my feelings about back to back days of 7am starts for packed full day excursions followed by a 6am start to transit into Chile were somewhat mixed. Hopefully all this activity would be justified.

The first trip was to Humahuaca Gorge and its off-shoot Purmamarca, about 2 hours drive north west of Salta. Humahuaca is long (over a 100 miles). It is a wide, shallow gorge that rises steadily from about 1,000 to over 3,000 metres. The town of Humahuaca is at its end. In addition to its stunning scenery it is notable for the vivid bands of colour that can be seen in the rocks and the fertile valley bottom, which has meant that it has been a site of human habitation for many thousands of years. The name Humahuaca is taken from the Inca name for the people who lived in this area when they arrived c.1450. The gorge´s remoteness and its dry climate have meant that many of these sites are very well preserved. UNESCO has recognised the unique geographical and cultural history by awarding it special interest status on both grounds,
Climbing up Calchi GorgeClimbing up Calchi GorgeClimbing up Calchi Gorge

The cloud hung suspended at eye level

We wound up through the middle of the gorge, keeping to the gentle incline of the valley floor, marvelling at the coloured rocks and stopping for the obligatory photos. We made a number of stops to look at remote churches built by the Spanish in the 17th century and at Pucara Del Tilcara, an indigenous citadel excavated and reconstructed by archeologists. Pucara Del Tilcara was particularly evocative. It is a spectacular setting, surrounded by imposing mountains, dotted with cacti, commanding views back down the green valley floor. The town of Humahuaca, was nice enough. UNESCO restrictions limits construction to 2 storey adobe brick buildings and this has helped to retain the character of the place. Further restrictions on the development of industry have, perhaps indirectly, limited the inhabitants to tourism and traditional occupations: farming, textiles and potteries. So inevitably whilst the town was pretty enough it felt a little touristy, although at least the objects for sale had been made locally and were of good quality.

Humahuaca was also the place I had my first taste of llama meat and coca leaves. The first was so-so - very lean and a little bland, served in a bean stew.
Top of Calchi GorgeTop of Calchi GorgeTop of Calchi Gorge

View down into one of valleys in the high mountains off Calchi Gorge
I wasn´t sure what to expect from the coca leaves but have to say that they too were at best so-so. The leaves are balled up and placed in the cheek and then sucked rather than chewed; in my case to no discernible affect. That said coca leaves are said to prevent altitude sickness and be good for the digestion and since I had no problem with either, perhaps they did have an affect after all.

We had journeyed up the gorge on Palm Sunday. This is an important day in the religious calendar of the Coya people and as luck would have it our route passed through one of the centres for their celebration. The Coya moved into the area after the Spanish and disease had effectively dealt with the Incas and the original indigenous people. The Coya practice a kind of religious dualism, combining devout catholicism with aspects of original Inca pantheism. These come together in the very similar figures of the Virgin Mary and Pachumama (mother earth), who is often represented as a mother with a baby. Depending on the festival they will pray and make offerings to either. Today of course it was Mary´s turn.
The land where the cactus is kingThe land where the cactus is kingThe land where the cactus is king

Here are some of the 1,500,000 cacti which we were told were in this "field". Admittedly it was a pretty big "field".
Celebrations took the form of a procession carrying a statue of the Virgin from a mountain top shrine (the sanctity of the place echoing old Inca believes) 10 hours down to a village called Tumbaya. In addition to those people involved in the procession villagers from elsewhere in the mountains spend all day walking down mountain paths to converge on Tumbaya, where they spend a day praying and making offerings, drinking and catching up with friends and family before walking back to their village a day or so later. Looking up into the hills you could just make out a small, steady stream of people on the various paths down to Tumbaya. On the return leg of our trip back down the gorge the procession itself was visible, a large crowd of people quite close to the village now. In the village itself locals had gathered in their thousands to welcome the statue into town. Like the Inca boy it was a brief but fascinating glimpse of how an older, still not quite vanished, time still resonates today.

The trip out to Calchi gorge on the following day was a fascinating contrast to Humahuaca. Calchi is steep sided and narrow, where Humahuaca is broad and largely flat. Whereas yesterday had been mostly desert today we travelled through a riot of Yunga forest. The yunga is the result of a particular set of geographical and meterological factors that have combined to produce a narrow strip of rainforest-like environment at altitude. It exists in a thin band across, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and down into Argentina. It´s temperate but humid. Trees drip with creepers and vines. After a week or 10 days of mostly desert it was nice to see some greenery again. In this part of the world the Yunga is the result of a micro-climate that forces clouds up through the valley and traps them at a certain altitude, making this one of the few places in this area that stays green year-round.

We climbed quickly (about 2,500 metres in 20 kilometres), hugging the side of the gorge. The Yunga was left behind. As we climbed the climate became drier and cooler. Forest turned into shrubland and subsistence farming. Cacti replaced trees. Soon we were in the clouds themselves, and then we were through them, heading towards the high plateau beyond the end of the gorge. It was an unearthly site to look back down the gorge - mountain tops looked like islands floating in a sea of clouds. Once out of the gorge the desert took over again. We were onto the high plateau and into a national park dominated by cacti, huge imposing plants, the highest 8 to 10 metres high that grow in their million. On the western horizon the snow-capped Andes provided a spectacular backdrop. We travelled west to a small, unspoilt town called Cochi. The town was quiet and sleepy, basking in the sun. In the lee of the Andes and situated by a river for water, it felt like it had been built and perfected many years ago and now had nothing to do except enjoy its embarrassment of riches. From Cochi we retraced our steps making the long drive back down to Salta. It had been a serene day. Despite the distance covered, a day for appreciating a slower pace of life,

All too soon it was time to leave Salta. In advance I´d hoped Salta would be a relaxing staging post before my whistle stop tour of Bolivia and Peru, a time when I´d be able to reflect on Argentina and plan the next month. It wasn´t to be. Instead it had been exhausting, exhilerating and above all fascinating few days. After bemoaning the absence of any indigenous history or population earlier in my trip here at last was a fascinating insight into an older, non-european culture.


16th April 2014

Do you have a photo of the boy?
17th April 2014

No photo I'm afraid Torbs. If you are interested you'll find some pictures by googling "maam Salta Inca boy". If you're really interested it might be worth searching YouTube for the short firm about the children's excavation - you might try "1999 llullaillaco archaeological dig". Mx

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