Serendipity in Salta

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It’s strange to think that not more than five months before I was sitting at my father’s table engaged in a heated discussion on Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Funny vs. not funny; comedic performance vs. social responsibility. On the surface, this may look like a completely unimportant event, and perhaps, it was.

Salta, Argentina

Fast forward to my time in Argentina. I was sitting at an outdoor café in Salta with a friend, having a beer and recounting the main points of this bitter argument. My friend, sharing my sense of humor, unpacked a set of Borat impressions, which caught the ear of a stranger walking past who promptly turned and delivered a spot-on impression of Borat. “In my country…” the stranger smiled mischieviously. Recognizing our common Borat bond, the stranger soon sat down and introduced himself.

This was Paco, one of Argentina’s native sons, who had returned to the country of his birth, after studying for six years in the United States, to renew friendships and strengthen familial bonds. We, as many tourists before us, took the opportunity to ask a local for transportation advice – in particular, the best way to tour the expansive north and the great Valle Calchaquí and the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. “Well,” our Borat-loving friend started, “I’m not doing anything tomorrow… why don’t we rent a car?”

An expansive view of Salta, ArgentinaA car? We pondered the possibilities. We had spent the afternoon wandering around Salta, poking our heads into the numerous touring companies comparing prices. We found an abundance of privately-guided tours in luxuriously equipped Jeeps, but the tours that fulfilled all of our sightseeing fantasies were $225 AR, per person. But a car… A car would cost us approximately $200 AR per day. Factor in $80 AR for gas and a tour of our own making would run a fraction of the cost. It was decided. Tomorrow we would meet early, rent the car and hit the road.

Now a skeptic may be waiting for the punch line. A real pessimist may be waiting smugly for the tale to turn, muttering, “I know these idiots got robbed… This Paco character probably drove them to a mud hut in the desert, and asked for ransom.” In fact, counter to all paranoid fantasies, no such turn occurred. Our good luck continued, for Paco was not only a native who could handle driving these wild roads, but he had friends in Salta who were in possession of topographical maps of the surrounding canyons only available in the towering government offices of Buenos Aires.

The deep red of the mountain rock in Salta.

Not only did we see all the points on our list, our fearless captain drove our tiny Volkswagen through dry riverbeds to take us to canyons the few – tourist or otherwise – see (please don’t tell the rental place). Stopping on a whim, hiking at will, following all the curious impulses that tugged at our shirt sleeves, pulling us down the dusty back roads off highway 40, a day of folly. We quickly learned that one day was not enough, for this expansive and various landscape.

Road and gorge in Salta's upcountry.We ended our day with a meal of freshly-empanadas in the small town of Cachi, a picturesque Pueblo, perched 2,280m above sea level, sitting below its forever snowed-capped summit, the Cachi Mountain or “White Rock of Solitude” (measuring 6,720 m). The sun setting, casting a golden glow on Cachi’s unique, neo-gothic church, Paco remarked: “Just think – if I hadn’t heard your Borat impression…”

Yes, Paco is one in a million. And though I don’t generally recommend attracting serendipity with a Borat siren song (or any other tune of your suiting), I do recommend getting a good map, a rental car, and a dose of courage to explore Argentina’s back roads. There are many things to discover, and many not to miss.

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