I never thought I would have the opportunity to hike up a mountain, lick rocks, turn water into medicine and purify myself in a cave, but Salta, Argentina, has exceeded all my expectations.
We left for Salta around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and then took a bus from Salta to Jujuy, Argentina. Salta and Jujuy are located on the North-west side of Argentina, and it was the closest to Bolivia I had ever been.
The city in Jujuy we stayed at was this little town called Tilcara. We got dropped off around 3 a.m., and a few of my friends were a little terrified. It looked a little sketchy and there were a couple drunk men wandering the streets. We were trying to figure out how to get to our hostel, and we wandered into a bar to ask for directions. Luckily two of the people in the bar worked at the hostel (that’s how small this town is), and they walked us to the hostel and showed us our rooms.
I fell asleep almost immediately, and I woke up to a pretty cool view.
Day 1: Ruins and Jugglers
We woke up and had the hostel’s free breakfast, which was toast, fruit and coffee. We asked the worker at the hostel, whose name was Tino, what to do the first day. He recommended these ancients ruins that belonged to the native tribes in Tilcara.
Walking to the ruins, I was admiring the streets of the town. They were what I imagine towns in Bolivia to look like.
The ruins were only a mile or so away and were next to a botanical garden filled with a bunch of huge cacti. We walked around the ruins and admired the views. We learned a little bit about the natives that once lived in the houses, and to be honest, they don’t seem to be living much differently now. The houses of Tilcara are bigger buildings made out of stones, and life still seems relatively simple and rural.
After we explored the ruins, we hung out on top of an overlook and made friends with fellow Porteños who were also traveling. I loved how we bonded over the fact that they were also from Buenos Aires, even though we’re not actually from Buenos Aires. We’ve just lived in the city long enough that it feels like home.
It turns out our friends were pretty talented. They were street performers, and they juggled for us and did gymnastics, which one of my friends jumped in with them. We talked with them until we got hungry, and then we went off to find some lunch.
We found a cute restaurant called Alli Waita, and I tried locro, a stew indigenous to the Andes made out of pumpkin, beans, corn or potato. Mine also had chorizo, pork and pig intestine, and it was delicious and filling. I also had a tamale, and it was interesting to see Argentina’s interpretation of it. I’m used to the Mexican tamales with sauce and pork, but these had beef, potatoes and vegetables inside.
After lunch, we explored more of the town and went to a cafe with Wi-Fi. Our hostel, however cute it was, had no wifi.
We rested back at the hostel, and then pretty soon it was time for dinner! I shared food with Jess, as we usually do, and we tried llama for the first time. I enjoyed it. It definitely isn’t my favorite meat, but I could see why it was a common food here. I also had papadines de Khucha, a hot dish that had potatoes, chorizo, egg, tomatoes and vegetables. This was the highlight of the dinner.
Afterwards, we went back to the hostel and passed out, getting ready for the next day.
Day 2: Salinas Grandes and Eating a Kid
In the morning we walked from our hostel to the small bus station and took a bus to Purmamarca, a town where the famous Cerro de Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colors) is and is accessible to the Salinas Grandes (salt flats). On the way, we caught a glimpse of a cemetery that was built into the hills. The graves were tiny houses of different colors scattered on the hill. I wondered if all cemeteries in the area looked like that.
The town was also very cute and was filled with vendors selling souvenirs and colorful, warm sweaters. While we waited for our tour bus to take us to the Salt Flats, we walked around the streets and ate some street food.
The drive to the salt flats was about an hour, and was one of the most exciting drives I’ve gone on. We zig-zagged up a mountain and saw some awesome sights. I forgot how many different landscapes Argentina offers, and just how big the Earth is.
The salt flats were expansive sheets of salt, and it looked like snow. I had never felt more like a penguin in Antarctica. We took a bunch of photos and walked around the salt flats, and I ruined my jeans with all the salt.
The drive back from the Salt Flats was relaxing, and many of us took a nap. I couldn’t help but think about how privileged I was to be able to experience this. Many people have never left their own country, never mind travel to a rural part of a foreign country just to taste some salt.
When we arrived back at Purmamarca, we shopped and ate lunch. I had cazuela de cabrita, which is a stew with baby goat. It was delicious, and I enjoyed telling people I ate a kid and watching their faces as they remember the name for a baby goat.
Another big tourist feature of Purmamarca is the Cerro de Siete Colores. Unfortunately, the best time to see the hill is in the morning when it’s all lit up, so we didn’t get the best impression of it. We climbed a small viewpoint to take a look at the hill, and I could see where it got its name. Layers of different sediments gave it a bunch of different colors. The hill was pretty, but what I enjoyed most was the view of the small town of Purmamarca.
We made it back to Tilcara in the evening and hung out until it was time for dinner. We split a bottle of Malbec and watched live traditional music in which one guy played the longest instrument I have ever seen. I could barely get it all in one photo.
Day 3: Spirit Purification in a Cave
You might have been wondering when the part about licking rocks and turning water comes into play. We’ve officially arrived at the highlight of the trip.
Tino, the worker at the hostel, told us about this cave tour we could take in which we would go to a cave and participate in some native ritual. We thought it would be a good idea. We pictured driving out to this cave and sitting in on a native ceremony. No big deal, right?
Our guide, Javier, met us at 9 a.m. at our hostel, and led us through the town to meet two other people going on the tour. He encouraged us all to buy more water, which I did since I did not bring any with me, thinking it wasn’t going to be very strenuous.
We began walking up a hill, and then it became steeper. Still we kept climbing. The views of the town were beautiful, and I was enjoying myself. It was much more rigorous than I imagined, and I was glad I got to do some serious hiking. However, many of us didn’t realize how intense the trip would be and didn’t wear the right shoes, and Jess has asthma and didn’t think she needed to bring her inhaler. It was a little rough.
The climb up this mountain was slow with a lot of breaks. Javier took the time to explain his culture and the natives’ religion. The people, called the Quebrada, worshipped the sun and Pachamama, an Incan deity that I took to be similar to Mother Earth.
Javier told us about how it was important to become one and connected with Pachamama. He explained how our bodies were connected to the Earth spiritually, physically and emotionally (this is all in Spanish, by the way). He talked about how most of our bodies were made up of water, and how our blood was part of the Earth.
Javier said his people would pray to Pachamama to bless their water and give them strength. They would ask to be cured from illnesses, ask for strength, happiness, whatever they needed. He had everyone go around in a circle and say what we wanted our water to do to us. I, having had bronchitis and a cough for the past six months, asked for Pachamama to cure me. Others asked for the strength to just finish the hike. We stared at our water, summoning the power of Pachamama, and then we all drank.
After that, Javier said it was important to feel connected to the Earth. One way to do this was to taste and consume part of Earth to feel more at one with it. He picked up a rock and tasted it, and we all did the same. I felt a little silly, but also very blessed to be able to learn about an ancient culture and how they worshipped Earth.
After we turned our water into medicine and consumed the Earth, we continued the trek up the mountain to where the caves were. We stopped a couple more times to talk about his peoples’ culture and their views on death. His people believe life and death are the same, and that when you die you become part of the Earth as dirt.
The climb got much steeper, and it became clear why we needed someone experienced to take us up to the caves. There were times that the trail was extremely narrow where one side was a mountain wall and the other a steep drop to the cacti and rocks below.
Finally, we made it to the caves. We climbed in, and parts of the cave didn’t have a floor (that we could see) so we had to shimmy with our arms and legs on the walls of the caves, which was pretty terrifying for the shorter people.
The cave opened into a big room in which Javier lit a candle for each of us. We continued further into the cave, and then we sat down around the room and blew out the candles.
This is where the meditation began. After, we would walk out completely new people. I closed my eyes, as there was literally nothing to see in the obscurity of the cave. Javier gave us silent time to reflect on our lives, our feelings, our futures, our fears, what kind of energy we emit. He had us go around one by one and explain how we were feeling.
The meditation lasted about half an hour. And as we exited the cave, I felt refreshed, fearless and content. The cloud of upcoming essays and projects that had been looming over me was gone. I had spoken entirely in Spanish and had gotten my point across about how I feel. I felt accomplished with my Spanish, with the hike and with my study abroad trip in general. I can’t describe accurately how I felt in the darkness of those caves.
We sat on an overlook and drank mate together and took in our surroundings. I got a bloody nose due to the altitude, or possibly a bad omen had left my body after my spiritual purification. Who knows?
Then, Javier led us into another cave in which we had to army-crawl through. With all the dirt and nature, I felt like a giddy kid again playing in the ravine back home. We climbed over large rocks, and then the cave opened up to a gorgeous overlook of the mountains. Some of my friends were a little scared of heights and couldn’t venture down this narrow little path where you could sit and stare out at the view, but that’s OK. Anywhere you were was a great view.
Feeling an adrenaline high from the heights and our meditation, I climbed back down the mountain, my legs shaking. After we paid and thanked Javier, we sought out lunch.
And maybe it was because I was so hungry, but I’m pretty sure I had the best milanesa sandwich of my life.
We walked around a little bit more and browsed the street vendors’ booths. Then we went back to the hostel until our last supper in Tilcara.
I had a bife de chorizo, potatoes and a new dish called mote (the green stuff). It was delicious, and we all had a good time at dinner, discussing things from feminism to our favorite parts about our crazy cave experience.
We went home and slept for a couple hours until we had to catch a bus at 3 a.m. for the city of Salta. We waited over an hour at the bus station until it finally showed up, and most of us passed out until it touched down in Salta around 8 in the morning.
Day 4: Eating and looking at Interior Design in Salta
We only had one day in Salta before we had to hop on a plane back to Buenos Aires, so there was very limited time to do stuff. Fortunately, everything was closed on Monday so we didn’t have very many options. We had lunch, in which I had locro again (What can I say, I’m loco for locro). And then we just walked around the streets finding something to do.
Salta had a very European feel to it, and I was happy simply walking around. We found a cafe and had coffee and medialunas, and we found one event that was going on that we could participate in.
The cultural center was hosting some interior design/architecture event in which you could walk around and look at fancy decorated rooms. With not many options, we did that. It turned out quite fun.
At night, we decided to go to the movies and see the new Pirates of the Caribbean. Afterwards, we went to an awesome Italian restaurant, and I had pasta carbonara.
Our flight left around 8:30 a.m. back to Buenos Aires, and I was happy to be going back home. I love traveling, but I also love the calm of familiarity.
My trip to Salta was amazing, and I was so privileged to be able to experience it. Argentina has so much to offer. If you ever get the chance to come down, I promise it’s worth it.