The One Region of Argentina I Wouldn’t Miss If I Ever Want Back

Argentina is filled with many landscapes, from these arid swaths in the north to the frigid and volatile expanses of the south (Photo:  Agustín Lautaro )

Argentina is filled with many landscapes, from these arid swaths in the north to the frigid and volatile expanses of the south (Photo: Agustín Lautaro)

Argentina is a big place — the second largest country in South America, in fact, and the eighth largest in the world by square kilometers, according to World Atlas. And that’s why the six weeks I spent there back in 2014 weren’t nearly enough to get a glimpse of all of the country’s 23 provinces (not that I would have had the financial resources to do so, anyway). I did get to visit four — Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, Corrientes, and Misiones, plus la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, the country’s federal capital — but if I ever went back, there is one other province I’d make sure not to miss.

If you know anything about Argentina, you might be anticipating that here I would tell you that I absolutely could not return to the country without visiting Mendoza, one of the numerous provinces sharing a border with Chile and the Andes Mountains that’s known for its wine; or perhaps Tierra del Fuego, Argentina’s southernmost province, and as such, the so-called “end of the world.” Maybe you’re expecting me to throw you for a little loop by listing not an actual province but the region known as Patagonia, that nature lover’s paradise which covers a large swath of the southern portion of the nation.

But my choice would be none of the above. Rather, it would be Salta, a province located in the northwest region of Argentina. If you’re unfamiliar, here are a few quick facts: Salta is Argentina’s sixth largest province by area; it’s located in a geologically-active area, and experienced a significant earthquake as recently as 2010; the temperature can reach up to around 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, but can also drop as low as 23 degrees in the winter; it’s home to contrasting landscapes, from the high peaks of the Andes to salt pans and subtropical rain forests; and, most interestingly, it lies within the borders of the former Incan Empire.

That last point is actually the reason I’m so interested in Salta. The Inca, like many a pre-Colombian civilization, believed that human sacrifice was the ultimate way to please the numerous gods they believed watched over every aspect of life. One of those aspects was the weather — the sunny kind and the severe kind. Because of the empire’s location within the Andes, which were formed by the continual collision of two tectonic plates, the Inca were often at the mercy of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As filmmaker, writer, and anthropologist Kim MacQuarrie puts it:

“To survive in an unpredictable world, the Incas sought to form reciprocal relationships with their gods, just as they formed reciprocal relationships with one another, or with other tribes,” and, “…to create and maintain relationships with their gods, the Incas gave them a variety of offerings. These ranged from simple prayers, food, coca leaves and woven cloth to animals, blood and, in the ultimate sacrifice, human beings.”

In some cases, children within the empire were raised in a certain manner so as to be quote-unquote “perfect” offerings to the gods. And two decades ago, in 1999, archaeologists found one of those child offerings, in a tomb located high up in the mountains. At 22,000 feet, they discovered a mummy now referred to as the Inca Maiden that had been left on top of the mountain to freeze to death more than 500 years before. The Maiden and two other young mummies, collectively known as the Children of Llullaillaco (the name of the stratovolcano on top of which they were found), are now on display at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in the capital of Salta, which shares its name with the province.

And though there are many other reasons to visit Salta, such as taking a ride on the Train of the Clouds, checking out the city of Salta’s numerous colonial houses or Catedral Basilica, or wandering through the red-rock formations of the Valles Calchaquíes, the reason I most want to go there is to see those mummies, which they say are so perfectly-preserved that visitors often find themselves whispering around them, for fear that they might wake up suddenly.