The Andes stratovolcano Llullaillaco rises to 22,110 feet from the neutral reds, yellows, and greys of the Atacama Plateau.
From its airy, chilly summit, adventurous alpinists can see Chile’s Antofagasta Region to the West and Argentina’s illustrious Salta Province to the East.
And nearly 20 years ago, on March 16th, 1999, after a month of brutal winds, -40°F chills, blizzards, and nearly calling it quits, a team of Argentine, Peruvian, and American archaeologists led by Johan Reinhard noticed a small disturbance of “fill” dirt near the summit.
After digging four feet (and nine inches) into the soil and rock, they discovered what is now known as the the highest archaeological site in the world. There, among a collection of carefully placed textiles, headdresses, statues, and pottery, were three perfectly preserved Incan mummies — the remains of child sacrifices drugged on coca leaves and chicha from a religious practice known as capacocha — from some 500 years ago. They were so intact, Reinhard noted, that even their arm hairs remained.
The mummies, now known as El niño (the boy), La doncella (the maiden), and La niña del rayo (the lightning girl) were carefully extracted from their five-hundred-year-old grave and transported over 150 miles to La Ciudad de Salta, the capital city of the vast Argentine province of the same name which sits in the foothills of the Andes in the Lerma Valley at 3,780 feet.
For nearly 8 years the mummies were kept in the Catholic University of Salta as tests were conducted to determine how to best display the mummies to the public without compromising their delicate compositions.
A team of scientists was eventually able to mimic a controlled climate similar to Llullaillaco’s summit—and so in 2007, The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology opened in Salta to permanently display the mummies and artifacts found on the dormant volcano.
It’s early summer when I visit La Ciudad de Salta.
It’s humid and overcast and the Andes that typically act as the city’s stunning backdrop are hiding in thick clouds that swirl in a lazy breeze.
It’s a Saturday and the city’s main plaza is filled with vendors selling leather belts with gaucho designs, hand-carved wood gourds and bombillas for sipping yerba mate, colorful wool blankets and textiles, and children’s toys, like the a wind-up plastic Spiderman that crawls on the ground with an AK-47 on its back.
The highlight, though, of walking through the plaza is stealing glances at the neoclassical Cathedral of Salta that glows light pink in the grey and gloom of the day.
When I step off the humid streets into The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, I feel the cool whisk of air conditioning as we ascend to the second floor to take in the world famous exhibition.
As we meander the neat maze of placards, feathered headdresses, and little stones carved into the shape of llamas, I wonder which of the three mummies will be on display around the corner, at the end of the exhibit.
For whatever reason, only one of the three mummies is displayed at a time and they rotate every few months.
I am hoping to see the lightning girl—after years of mountaineering, one of my greatest fears remains electric storms that scare, scar, and strike the alpine and La nina del rayo is said to have been hit more than once.
I approach the display case—a large, see-through tube where the seasonal mummy on display rests. I press the button that turns on the lights so the the squeamish aren’t exposed to the corpse in full light against their wishes.
Before me is the not the girl of lighting, but El niño, the smallest and youngest of the three sacrifices who is said to have struggled the most, as evidenced by blood and vomit found in his garments, as well as the materials that were used to bound him. He rests forever in the fetal position, in a sunset red tunic, hiding his face.
Later in the afternoon, after seeing the nationally popular museum, Museo Güemes, “the museum of the people”—dedicated to Martín Miguel de Güemes’s life and leadership in the 1800s War of Independence against the Spanish—we zip over to Cerro San Bernardo, a recreational hill that gently rests above the city.
Many Salteños hike the hill beginning at the stately Güemes Monument that sits at the edge of town before trekking the 1,021 steps to the top, where there is a small park, fountains, a wine bar, and storefronts selling regional crafts.
But since we had a packed itinerary, we took the most direct route, the teleférico, a cable car that gradually rises over the city’s orange tiled roofs and white stucco, before climbing a full kilometer over the thick forest of the hill’s western face to its summit.
From the hill’s vista, the city stretches and sprawls in a wonder of white buildings that blend into the green Yerma Valley like water colors. Then a wildness takes over and more hills buckle to obscure the province’s most famous wine region, Cafayate, where the acclaimed torrontes and malbec grapes are grown, plucked, squished, barreled, fermented, corked, poured, and shipped around the world. And lancing the sky in the West, the snowy 16,509 foot Cerro Malcante shows its snowy self.
The view is an argument for two things. The first—the possibilities for extending time in Salta, seeing the city elongate before you from its rich plaza full of Spanish and indigenous influence to its expansive festival grounds that light up in April for the city’s popular arts and culture festival. And second, for the landscapes and adventures for which the city serves as a launching point—for alpinists, hikers, train to the clouds riders, peripatetic roadtrippers, wine sippers, and empanada tasters.
Speaking of empanadas, they are delicious tonight at the rock of Salta’s nightlife, La Casona del Molino.
We arrived for a ten o’clock seating. That’s early, even for Salteños who extend their nights and eat famously late. After a five-minute drive from the city center, we parked and were greeted warmly by the restaurateur. We wound through rooms where families dined before we picked a table in the courtyard ornamented by trees and beautiful worn brick flooring.
After appetizers and the sweetest white sangria, our empanadas arrive.
Empanadas in Argentina’s northern provinces, like Salta, are said to be some of the most authentically made in the country—especially at a family run restaurant like Las Casona del Molino. When our plate arrives, each variety of the baked stuffed doughs is marked by a little repulgue, a marking. The cheese empanadas are poked with three holes and the beef empanadas are sealed with a criss-crossing braid.
The restaurant, built in 1671, began as a general store, transformed into a chicherías in the 1700s, before acting as a carriage house in the 1800s where it served as a supply for the patriotic troops during the War of Independence—now, it is a magnet of the city’s nightlife, but not just because of the empanadas. The main draw is the impromptu, no-frills, folkloric performances.
Each night, local musicians from Salta and the surrounding area come into the restaurant, take a seat (perhaps even at your table if there are open chairs…), tune their acoustic guitars and treat the entire restaurant to melodies as gorgeous as the evening’s atmosphere. As the night lingers, the musicians come and go and sometimes congregate for a super group performance of classics like Mercedes Sosa’s “Gracias a La Vida.”
Nights at La Casona del Molino start late and go even later—many stay past 4 a.m— and unlike so much of American nightlife, bring together multiple generations under one roof, or in this case, under the Southern Hemisphere sky that will have you harmonizing—
Gracias a la vida, gracias a la ciudad de Salta, tú me has dado tanto.