La Mascara – First Impressions of Salta, Argentina

Keith goes CouchSurfing in Castellanos, a farming community outside of Salta, and takes in the stunning scenery and imperfections.

Photo © Keith Savage

I shoulder my bags and step off the bus into a blaze. The mid-afternoon sun limns my body in sweat as I scan the sky for the Teleférico. The cable cars bob up to Cerro San Bernardo, hanging from the line like crab apples. It is the first step in what feels, to my travel-fried brain, like a labyrinthine journey to the tiny farm community of Castellanos, outside of Salta. I clamber on to the prescribed Saeta bus and bounce and jolt through the city to a soundtrack of Cumbia. People climb onto the bus, their glances at me stretch on beneath slightly arched brows.

I stare out the window, the details of the streets and blocks roll off me like stones on a pile that has already reached its apex. There are bare brick walls, graffiti-stained concrete, and masses of wires hung haphazardly across the streets. Buses, cars, and motorbikes dash across intersections like a pack of robbers fighting over the last share of loot. From the walls, windows, and rooftops, faint brownish stains reach for the street like run mascara that has been slept in.

She is Salta La Linda, the beautiful, and yet my eyes alight only on her crow's feet, wrinkles, and jowls.

In San Lorenzo, I call my CouchSurfing hosts and soon thereafter I unload my bags at their airy home, Sapoland, in Castellanos. In the spacious guest room I sit on the bed and stare at a white flower in full bloom swaying outside the window. I'm taut as a guitar string, just sitting there breathing. A horse whinnies nearby, the towering hillside holding the sound close to its bosom.

Later I venture to Plaza 9 de Julio in the heart of Salta. Clouds brush the night onto the city, covering its imperfections like makeup, and I'm grateful for the illusion. Whatever hides in the dark recesses is not missed. Around the plaza, Salta's more treasured colonial buildings are lit up, literally, as upturned flood lights send shadows fleeing into the sky. It's Saturday night and people crawl through the square like ants on a drop of dulce de leche. The scents of parrilla and perfume carry on cool, dry breezes. I grab a seat at an outdoor café where groups of ladies chat and laugh, and order a couple of empanadas and a can of beer.

A procession of cars honk incessantly as their tires grumble over the cobblestone streets. A wedding has just finished. There is a depth of life swirling about and beneath me, but on this first night in Salta I feel distanced and in need of calibration. I savor simple pleasures in lieu: the hot, savory filling inside the empanada, the refreshing taste of Salta Rubia, a desperately long yawn.

The next day I don't leave Sapoland. Perhaps I'm still tired, recovering from travel. Or perhaps I'm afraid to see Salta in the graphic daylight, to shatter her night beauty, la mascara. Whatever the case, the next morning I head to Cafayate and immerse myself in the kind of incredible scenery capable of dislocating my jaw.

Days later, as I leave my short-stay apartment and walk toward a grocery store, I notice brilliant purple flowers exploding from the crests of trees. Kids in uniforms flow down the streets to school. There are squat white houses with decorative wrought-iron bars protecting the windows and doors, and terracotta shingles molded, it is said, around a man's leg. They are crucial reminders, like the watery blue eyes of a grandfather now showing in the grandson. I smile to myself in the comfortably warm morning sunlight.

Sometime in the intervening days I had molted and cast off the constricting and hidden structures of expectation. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then what else is it than the acceptance of, and willful blindness to, imperfections.

Plaza 9 de Julio

Behind the Backpack

After almost eight years in the corporate world, Keith checked out to follow his dreams of traveling and writing. He is the creator of Traveling Savage, and he now splits his time between his wife and home in Madison, Wisconsin and Scotland’s rills, hills, and valleys.

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