I stayed just one night in Córdoba – doing my usual church photography, getting another massage, and having a dulce de leche milkshake – and continued on to Salta. It was a night bus on which I had bought a cheaper seat on the second floor and therefore found myself being stroked by my neighbour, who had got on while I was sleeping. I arrived in the morning to a warm and sunny Salta, hurrah, and upgraded from the dorm to a private room in an attempt to actually get a proper night’s sleep.
After wandering around town, I reached the main plaza, where I had lunch in a restaurant that turned out to be right outside another archaeological museum. So of course I went in. The Museo Arqeolologia de Alta Montaña was created to house the ‘Niños de Llullaillaco’, three incredibly well-preserved mummies – better preserved than the more often advertised Juanita in Arequipa, Peru – of child sacrifices. Discovered near the peak of the Llullaillaco volcano, and at 6,700 metres above sea level, the highest archaeological site in the world, the mummies are some 500 years old. The three children are ‘El Niño’, a boy of seven; ‘La niño del rayo’, a six-year old girl whose mummified body had been struck by lightning, ‘rayo’; and ‘La Doncella’, the maiden, a girl of fifteen. When I visited, of the three I saw only the lightning girl on display. Despite the damage to her face, she looked incredibly alive, as if she were only sleeping. In addition, there was an exhibit for ‘La Reina del Cerro’, the Queen of the Mountain, whose facial expression is disturbingly like that of The Scream. Another child of eight or nine, this mummy had previously been lost for more than 80 years after being discovered, disappearing into private collections in which her condition deteriorated, but now finally brought into the public domain.
Day two I had booked onto a full-day cabalgata with Sayta, a horseback ride in the countryside with a barbecue lunch included. Only at the end of the tour did I notice the witch and her broom in the logo of the company, but I suppose I was sub-consciously drawn to it (I’m descended from two women who were burned at the stake in 17th century rural Sweden, in case you’ve missed that). The owner is the eccentric Enrique, who explained to me why he had chosen the witch: (1) Witches are intelligent, (2) Witches are ugly (and these two facts explain why these women were persecuted in the past, he said), (3) They deal in all the most important things in life – love, health, and so on – and (4) They’re all women (and I suppose he likes women). At lunch, Enrique and his staff made the most amazing ‘asado’ with all sorts of side dishes. I should point out that I was the only tourist that day, so it was all for me! Enrique piled on the sausages and steaks while he plied me with red wine (all the while insisting that the safety of his clients was his primary concern). In the meantime, he was disturbingly insightful into my life. We were joined at lunch by his old friend José, an eternal bachelor who had spent 20 years in France. (I can’t tell you how difficult it is to speak French when you’ve been speaking Spanish every day.) Together, they embarked on heated discussions such as on the difference between having sex and making love. I looked on in bemusement and fascination.
The horse ride was split into three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. There were no helmets, but I was given protection for my legs, they told me that the horse was very calm, and the company had medical insurance. My horse was Caburé; my guide Felix, and his horse Ícaro. I wasn’t afraid, although I’ve only ever been on a horse a couple of times. (Once as a teenager at summer camp, on a small horse that was physically unable of anything more than a walk. The other time in Costa Rica, where my horse lacked any respect for me and would go trotting off to follow his older brother, whom my friend was riding (or trying to).) I was given a stick to urge Caburé on to a trot – it seems my kissing noises were not effective – and eventually, after much bouncing agony, I sort of learned how to rise up and down in the rhythm of the trot. Having a full day really helped, allowing Felix to actually teach me something, and it being the low season, I was lucky enough to have one-on-one attention. We walked along tobacco fields, crossed streams, and climbed up small ravines. Soon, Felix had me galloping through the field by myself. (He was right by my side in case of disaster.) It was the most amazing feeling, and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Thank you Enrique, Felix, and Caburé for a fabulous day at the ranch!