Inca Cola

I had an « wow, oh my god” moment right there and then, but I didn’t utter the words. Not only because at that time I could barely speak any Spanish. And that surprising and exhilarating moment still stays with me today.

My friend Annie and I had arrived in Salta the night before, flying in from Buenos Aires. It was the beginning of April, and Easter with its string of closed shops, museums, restaurants and bars, had pushed us out of the empty capital 2 days in advance on our well-honed schedule. We had 2 weeks to spend in Argentina and we surely didn’t want to miss a thing.

However, the arrival at the Salta airport was less than glorified as a thin rain was awaiting us. The same tiny but continuous drops welcomed us at 6.30 the next morning while we were heading to the meeting point with Ramiro, our guide for the day’s excursion to Cachi. Ramiro, whose name he pronounced “Jamirro”, was an upbeat and deeply tanned man in his mid 20’s. He told us very mysteriously that in spite of the mediocre weather we would still have plenty of things to see. “Yeah, right” was my reply but I kept it to myself not wanting to start the day with the open aggression of an innocent fellow. While we were driving up the mountain to our destination, I was grimly pondering over our lack of chance. First Buenos Aires, and then that! Nothing was there to change that view as we kept spiraling in a dense fog. Even worse, Ramiro pointed us to a part of the road where a few years before a mud slide has caused a bus accident and several dozens of casualties.

My friend, part from the sinuous road, part from the story, started to feel something funny was happening to her stomach. She was turning a worrisome shade of grey, when Ramiro passed her some coca leaves, a well known remedy in that situation according to him. Our driver, who was already conscientiously munching, confirmed his saying. At first my friend didn’t dare to take them. Was it legal and was it safe, we were both wondering. Ramiro told us that the consumption of coca leaves was authorized in Argentina but that it was illegal to leave the country with this natural remedy. And he explained very seriously that chewing coca leaves doesn’t turn someone into an addict, just as eating grapes doesn’t make someone an alcoholic. We liked his analogy and both took the coca leaves. The taste was very bitter and I didn’t register any difference in my well-being. My friend seemed to feel better though and we made it out of the mountains without any incidents.

Finally we came to our first stop of the day on a high plateau. Still dazed by the early hour and the difficult trip, we got out of the van and had to immediately take off our rain coats and sweatshirts, the sun being too much too bear. Where did the rain and thick fog go? And then Ramiro took us to the edge of the road and our perspective changed. In front of us, the peaks of the mountains were united in an irregular crown. And at our feet, just on the side of the road, there were clouds, hundreds and hundreds of them, compact and perfectly aligned. It was like being on an airplane but without any obstacles between you and the beauty around. It felt you just had to reach out to touch this white perfection, stretched out like the fluffiest of blankets to cover the city below.

And then we turned around and saw the Andes standing majestically at the end of the horizon, the white of their peaks underlined by the bright blue sky. A straight-line road was heading towards them through a desert landscape. It was Recta Tin Tin, the sacred road the Incas were following to arrive at their worship place in the Andes. Three meter-high cactuses called “cardones” were guarding it from a distance. Ramiro explained that they grow only one centimeter per year and he let us do the astonishing math. There was not a soul around us, and save from the smooth asphalted road and a tiny white chapel, we were looking at the same scenery the Incas had certainly seen six hundred years before! After a few minutes of contemplation, we entered into the chapel to offer coca leaves to the Virgin Mary following a native tradition, and then continued our road to Cachi.

We made a lot of discoveries that day, but those ten minutes at the beginning of the Inca world had the stuff magic is made of.


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