Salta and Peña

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Argentina  , Northern Argentina,
Friday, May 7, 2010

Stepping off the bus in Salta, one thought came to mind; "Todo, we're not in Patagonia anymore."

I’m not sure of the total mileage, but in less than a week we traveled almost 48 hours by bus.   We were in a totally different climate, higher in altitude and hot.  So hot, in fact, when we checked to our hostel, I threw on my shorts for the first time on the trip.  With pasty white legs, a Wesleyan tee-shirt, and New York Yankees cap, I fully embraced my inner gringo.

Aside from the climate, Salta represented a dramatic change from places we visited in Patagonia and Mendoza.  With the exception of Chiloe, most cities and towns in Patagonia are relatively new (less than 100 years old).  Salta, by contrast, is one of the oldest cities in Argentina, as well as the economic and cultural hub of Northwest Argentina.  In the early colonial era, the Spanish crown ordered that all legal trade in Argentina flow through Lima, Peru.  As a result, the Northwest of Argentina developed into the early economic base of the country, as all goods traveled overland through Bolivia en route to Peru.  As such, even though Salta is landlocked in a remote corner of the country, it is a large and historically important city. 

Salta’s history is one of its most endearing attributes.  Unlike Mendoza, many of Salta’s older buildings and churches are still standing.  The main plaza and many of the blocks surrounding it contain a colonial feel, with an emphasis on southern Spanish architectural and design.  There are two beautiful looking churches, which rank among the most impressive we’ve seen in Argentina.  If you look closely you can see the Moorish influence in some of the detailing of buildings and archways, and even the dome of Salta’s cathedral has mosaic tiling similar to what one might find in a mosque in North Africa.

The heavy indigenous cultural influence represents another distinguishing characteristic of Salta.  The Bolivian border is just a few hours north of Salta, and most people have darker features, reflective of their indigenous heritage.  Elaborate weavings can be found in the interior of buildings, pan flute music blasts on the square, and the chewing of coca leaves is about as common place as cigarette smoking in the United States.  It felt good to be a new and distinct place.

And to wear shorts.

After spending an afternoon meandering about the plaza and soaking in the city’s charm, we decided the next day to climb the 1,070 steps of Cerro de San Bernardo.  We climbed to top, with a significant amount of huffing and puffing by yours truly.  I’d like to think it was the altitude (about as high as Denver), but most likely, the couple of weeks of wine drinking and decadent food since hiking the “W” in Torres del Paine were mainly to blame. 

Once my heart rate returned to acceptable levels, we enjoyed some nice views of the city and surrounding valley.   Nothing spectacular per se, but seeing Salta from the top of the Cerro de San Bernardo made me appreciate the size of the city, and it felt good to get some meaningful exercise for the first time in a while.

After our walk, we made our way to the High Mountain Archeology Museum (MAAM).  Located right on the main plaza, the museum has a permanent exhibit of high-altitude mummies left by the Incas at the summit of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas.   Though small, the exhibit contained some interesting information on the history of the Inca in the region.  At the end, one comes face to face with the preserved remains of a pre-Columbian mummy. 

For some visitors, it might be a macabre experience.  But I found it riveting.  Because of the cold dry weather at 22,000 feet above sea level, the body, clothing, artifacts, even hair is nearly perfectly preserved.  Looking at the face of the mummy is like looking back in time; very eerie, but very cool.      

After the intense dose of history, culture, and death at the High Mountain Archeology Museum, we had a drink at our hotel to inject a bit of levity into the evening, and made our way to a peņa.  

A peņa, in essence, is dinner and show.  But the show can be an elaborate production involving dance and music that combines indigenous, Argentinean, and European cultural elements.  Traditional peņa are based on improvisation – a few musicians playing together.  Over time, peņa have become more institutionalized for tourism with formal start times, set lists, and complete meals served by waitsaff during the course of the show.  Now there are multiple establishments throughout the city offering evenings of peņa to visitors.

We arrived to the peņa at a little before 10:00 PM, and shortly after ordering our meal and drinks, the “espectaculo” (spectacle) began.   The first set involved a local dance troupe performing some unique chorography likes of which I’d never seen (then again, I’m hardly a avid consumer of the arts).  Dressed in gaucho garb, the men and women performed all sorts of twirling, stomping, lassoing, and spinning perfectly in step with regional folk music.   I found myself on the edge of my seat, applauding loudly.

Around the time our waiter served dinner, the live music began.  Two guitarists, a bassist, and a percussionist one on large drum comprised the band.  Both guitarists sang, and one periodically switched to fiddle. 

In the first set, the group sang a variety of local folk tunes, mixed with a couple of standards.  Since most of the audience were Argentines (tourists from Buenos Aires and other parts east), there was a fair amount of singing along from the audience.    

By the second set, the band ratcheted up the intensity (see the videos below).  The dance troupe returned and performed to the band’s music, and virtually the entire restaurant sang along to each song.  It was quite a sight.  In the final 45 minutes, any folks sitting in the front tables were invited (or compelled, it wasn’t clear to us) to dance with the professional dancers.   Singers sang; dancers danced; audience members clapped, hollered, and laughed; waiters delicately navigated the frenzy to deliver desserts to their patrons; and Monique and I polished off a bottle of our favorite Argentine wine while hollering and clapping with everyone else.  It was a marvelous time, and one of the highlights of our trip.

We returned to our hotel a little before 1:00 AM, exhilarated by the evening but dreading an early wake-up call.  Tomorrow, we would be off to town of Cafayate, the center of Argentina’s second largest wine producing region.         

Traveling Notes

You have many options to see peņa in Salta.  We went to La Vieja Estacion on Ave. Balcarce because it was recommended by both our hotel and the Lonely Planet.  It did not disappoint.

Incidentally, if you are looking for good nightlife in Salta, Ave. Balcarce is the place to go.  About 8 blocks north of the main plaza, there are a large number of bars and clubs (including a few that offer penas) that I imagine are packed on weekends.  

Doing the hike up the cerro de San Bernardo is pretty easy to find.  Just ask your hotel how to get to the main statue of Guemes (a War of Independence hero from Salta), and follow the steps right behind it.  There’s also a gondola to get to the top.  It took us about 45 minutes to get the top, and was about a 20 minute walk from the plaza.  So give yourself 2.5 to 3 hours total if you like to move at a leisurely pace and want to spend some time at the top.
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