Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Argentina's stunning secret

The undiscovered province of Salta veers from soaring peaks to searing deserts

At 6723 metres, on the summit of Argentina's Llul-laillaco volcano, archeologists unearthed three mummified Inca children. One of them is called "Lightning Girl" because a bolt that struck the tomb penetrated her body. They now lie in Salta's Museum of High Altitude Archeology, that is wholly devoted to the Incas, whose empire had expanded into the high reaches of the Andes a century before the Spanish conquest in 1532.

"The three children were sacrificed to the mountain," museum director Gabriel Miremont tells us. "They were given chichi (maize beer) until they slept. They froze to death. The Incas viewed this not as murder, but as the children's passing from one world to the next to live as ambassadors to the gods. The Incas expected good fortune in return."

Welcome to Salta, Argentina's wild northwest. This nation of glaciers, gauchos, the "vertical sex" of tango and, not so long ago, death squads. As Argentina continues to soar on the world tourism hit parade, unheard-of Salta is certain to emerge as the world's next great scenic destination.

Ask Robert Duvall. The celebrated actor and his Argentine wife Luciana Pedraza -- his co-star in the quirky film Assassination Tango -- are the owners of the House of Jasmines, a bucolic ranch hotel outside Salta City.

In Salta, you can travel in any direction and run smack into staggering beauty. Scenic drives are parcelled out in circuits meandering through colonial towns, archeological sites, eye-popping polychrome canyons and the blue peaks of the Andes. Instantly you understand why the region is such a favourite with trekkers, mountaineers, naturalists -- and photographers.

Salta has desert and mountain grandeur to burn, not to mention wine country, excellent food, epic history and a Native population rare in this vast land, whose Spanish conquerors routinely annihilated indigenous peoples -- genocide before the word jumped into the lexicon. Maybe the most astounding aspect is that Salta has remained a secret for so long.

We started in Salta City, a beautifully preserved colonial town of 60,000 founded in 1582. Our first stop was the mummies. At the burial site, archeologists had unearthed 146 artifacts, treasures intended to accompany the children on their journey. They spoke to us about the high-altitude culture of the Incas and their ceremonial rituals.

In funerary figures, feathers convey the Inca belief that birds were magical and that magic was expressed in their feathers. Their hues help to differentiate social classes. Gold figures recall the Inca belief that gold was the tears of the sun, that it was to be cherished -- the same reverence that helped seal their doom when the gold-crazy Spanish arrived.

Today, these Inca children would still recognize the haunting beauty of the Andes, but they would certainly shrink at the sight of 21th-century conquistadors festooned with digital cameras and guide books.

Salta City wakes up twice a day, the second time at 4pm, after siesta. This is the hour to settle into the lovely square of Plaza 9 de Julio and observe the passing parade. In front of the statue of José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina and Chile from Spanish rule, espresso drinkers are filling up the outdoor cafés. Couples are kissing passionately on every park bench -- the Argentines are exhibitionist smoochers.

Salta 'n' Pepper
A little later, Salta's kitchens are readying for the world. Chef Lalo Angelina at Restaurant José Balcarce serves Andean cuisine -- Inca food retooled in a contemporary style -- in a sharply renovated 129-year-old building.


His signature dish is llama carpaccio and little wonder: the flesh of the cameloid is sweet and tender, generously sliced and dressed with olive oil, lemon, capers and shaved Parmesan cheese. As a main, the llama turns up sauced in bitter chocolate and pink peppercorns, which grow wild here. It comes sided with quinoa, a staple of the Andes for 6000 years.

One of the city's most popular restos is La Monumental -- a good name because every steak dancing off the charcoal grill is roughly the size of San Martín's monument. This is routine for carnivorous Argentina, just as it is to pay $25 for a filet mignon dinner for two with a fine bottle of Malbec.

Beef is the national obsession, and it is just about the best in the world. More than once, we watched in awe as a waiter sliced a rib eye about the size of Saskat-chewan with a spoon.

In Salta, epicureans must sample the local white wine, the floral Torrontes and the great reds, Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. If Argentina's Mendoza wines are a large presence in Canada's wine stores, the wines of Salta are yet to storm the barricades. When they do, dive for your wallets.

Yet Salta's greatest enchantment captivates the eye. Exploring the Quebrada de las Conchas (the Gorge of the Shells) at dusk can leave you stunned by the interplay of light and geology. Rock formations with names like Throat of the Devil, Obelisk and the Castles morph into the hot, brilliant colours of autumn leaves under sun-struck, charcoal-bellied clouds. The Quebrada is simply one of the most unbelievable drives on the planet.

Mondo Vino
Driving through desert terrain straight out of a spaghetti western, you find yourself at Estancia Colomé, a winery and country inn in the middle of nowhere. Its vineyards, at more than 3000 metres, are the highest in the world.

The owners are Donald and Ursula Hess, Swiss entrepreneurs who also own such winery heavies as Australia's Peter Lehmann and California's Hess Collection. The property was originally owned by Colonel Nicholas Ysasmendy, a Spaniard who once boasted he'd killed 400 Indians in one day.

The Hesses, who purchased the winery in 2001, appear to be atoning for his crimes. They've become as deeply involved in the lives, educations and futures of their native employees as they are in making the desert bloom. Worldly as well as wealthy, they've found a new kind of life with their "family" in Salta, preferring it to Europe and California.

The inn is a gracious adobe hacienda built around a central courtyard and fountain and set among cactus, lavender, desert grasses, pink peppercorn trees and sweet silence. Its nine rooms come appointed with antiques and four-poster beds. The art by famous painters including Matisse and Miro is original. The hospitality is as genuine.

Motoring to neighbouring Jujuy (pronounced "hoo-hooey") Province, we paused at the Tilcara Archeological Museum. Here you get a vivid notion of how rich and varied native culture was for a thousand years before the Spaniards came and took it all away. There are more mummies, two of them, cracked and brittle, from the Andes, glowering from glass cases.

One late afternoon, we took the road to Las Salinas, the salt flats. We followed dizzying switchbacks through the Cordillera Orientale -- the first mountain range east of the Andes -- and ascended to 4200 metres. It looked and felt like Tibet, only the road was excellent.

Our destination was the flats, but we stopped when we spotted wild vicunha -- cousins to llamas -- grazing in pools of late-day light. The snowcap of Mount Chani practically floated in the background. We took our time, and when we reached the salt flats, the sun had gone down; the flats then looked like blue snow.

We turned to return through the Cordillera. Darkness, thick as ink, fell instantly. Thousands of metres below us, the tail lights of transports from Chile looked like signs of roving fairies. The Southern sky hung above us, indigo drapery pinned up by a billion fat, diamond stars. We pulled over to the side, got out and gaped. The grandeur by night is equal to the grandeur by day. This is saying something.

The Incas looked at the same stars. Maybe it made them feel tiny and insignificant the way it did us. It was a good feeling, a relief, to feel part of something so much bigger and grander than ourselves.


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