Tuesday is a long travel day. About 12 hours to Salta in Argentina and we are hoping for a fast immigration process at the border. We leave about 9.30am and the first few hours take us through some stunning mountain scenery. The mountains are quite barren but the multitude of colours is amazing. We make it to the border in about 3 hours. It is manned by both Chilean and Argentinean staff. First we are processed out of Chile and then move to the next window to be processed into Argentina. And then we have to exit the building, collect our luggage and bring it back inside to have it X-rayed. Then take it out again to have it loaded back onto the bus. It's just the way things are done here! We keep climbing to about 4200 metres and then its all downhill. The views of the twisting road below us and down the valley are breathtaking. Again the mountain scenery is a kaleidoscope of colours, reds, browns, greens, beige and black. We actually make good time and reach Salta in about 9-10 hours. Our approach provides us with a great view over the city. After checkin our leader, Juani, takes us to a great Argentinean steakhouse. I have one of the best steaks I have ever eaten. Juicy, tender and cooked to perfection. It's a great introduction to Argentina.
We have a leisurely start the next day and head into town for a walking tour with a local guide. Its the start of a period of celebration and the plaza is filled with schoolchildren who have just left the cathedral. More groups are waiting to go in. Apparently they will do this every day for the next month. The cathedral is actually classed as a Basilica. Pope John Paul II held mass here some years back and there is a statue of him to commemorate the occasion. No surprise that the inside of the cathedral is stunning. Salta was a major city in the north west section of Argentina and as a result is home to some amazing architecture, much of it with European influences. We also visit the Franciscan cathedral, which is a minor Basilica, due to some of the artworks it contains. Our guide also tells us that this afternoon there will be a service in the name of Saint Roch, who was the patron saint of dogs (and bachelors, diseased cattle and gravediggers to name a few of his other duties). People from throughout the city will be there with dogs, who will receive a blessing from the priest. After lunch in the market most of us catch the gondola up to Cerro San Bernando from where there are some great views over the city and surrounding landscape. After walking down we make our way to the Fransciscan church for the dog blessing ceremony. Hundreds of people and hundreds of dogs to match. A red ribbon around their neck indicates they have been blessed. A huge statue of Saint Roch is than carried from the church and paraded through the streets followed by the worshippers and their dogs. Once the parade arrives back at the church the priest leads a service including communion. I'm amazed at the outpouring of passion from the crowd. That night we went to a show at a local restaurant. Traditional music and dancing. A change of band half way through the evening and groups of dancers randomly arriving for a few dances before moving onto the next place. A lot of fun, and as usual audience participation was mandatory. Apparently my attempt at Argentinean dancing won some approval from the locals.
Thursday was another leisurely start. A few of us made our way into the plaza with the aim being to visit the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology. This museum has 3 children who were buried on top of a nearby mountain as part of an Incan ceremony. The cold dry air preserved their bodies in a state of natural mummification. Today the 6 year old boy was on display. In some respects he looks like he is asleep. His hair, skin, fingernails etc are almost perfectly preserved. It's a little macabre but an incredible thing to be able to witness. The remainder of the museum is very good, with all the exhibits having an English explanation.
A great lunch in a nearby restaurant and then its back to the hotel ready to depart on our 18 hour bus trip to Mendoza, about 1000 kms south of Salta. Can't say I'm excited by this prospect, but that's the way it is.