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Face to face with an Inca in Salta

In 1999, archaeologists 6,000 metres up Llullaillaco volcano in northern Argentina found something unexpected. Excavations revealed that they had stumbled upon some Incan burial sites that held three children. Further analysis found that these children hadn’t died from natural causes, but were sacrificed – their bodies frozen and preserved for hundreds of years.

Llullaillaco is one of the world's highest volcanos and its name comes from the Quechua for 'treacherous water'

Llullaillaco is one of the world’s highest volcanos and its name comes from the Quechua for ‘treacherous water’

These three children are now in Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, where they are kept in special exhibits that have been created to mimic the same low oxygen and low temperature conditions that have kept them preserved for 500 years.

Salta's Museum of High Altitude Archaeology is hidden away in one of these pretty alcoves - it took us a while to find the door!

Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology is hidden away in one of these pretty alcoves – it took us a while to find the door!

Being a 26-hour bus ride from where we were in Puerto Iguazu, visiting the museum was a bit of a large detour, but one that I was keen to make. Having found out so much about the Incas throughout our travels in South America, I was interested to see how such an advanced culture could commit such horrific acts.

Despite the difficulties that they faced from creating a civilisation in some of the world’s most volatile and mountainous terrain, they’d created miles of trails, conquered millions of people and imposed their language and culture from Colombia down to central Chile in just 100 years. Their brilliance can still be seen today on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu – where intricate buildings and temples formed from huge blocks of heavy granite sit atop a mountain 8,000 feet high in the Andes.

Despite the difficulties that they faced from creating a civilisation in some of the world’s most volatile and mountainous terrain, they’d created miles of trails, conquered millions of people and imposed their language and culture from Colombia down to central Chile in just 100 years. Their brilliance can still be seen today on the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu – where intricate buildings and temples formed from huge blocks of heavy granite sit atop a mountain 8,000 feet high in the Andes.

The Incas were incredible empire builders, who showed they could create a city in the most remote and desolate of places. But their administrative structures and impressive buildings couldn’t prepare for or protect them from the catastrophic events, like earthquakes and volcano eruptions, that would routinely rock their homeland. According to the museum, the Incas turned to their religion for answers; believing that chosen children were able to cross over to the gods’ world, where they could persuade the gods to protect the Incas and stop these disasters from happening.

The capacocha (ritual sacrifices) didn’t happen often and coincided with important events in Incan society – like a catastrophic event or the death of an emperor. When they did happen, the children were carefully selected from the highest classes for their purity, attractiveness and status. It was considered a privilege to be picked – they didn’t believe they were going to die, they would be transcending to godliness.

The children would be prepared with lengthy celebrations – which would see them travel (by foot) across the empire to Cusco, and then to their final resting place on top of some of the highest mountains in the region.

Some of the artefacts that were buried with the children, including pots, jewellery and clothing that they could use when they reached the gods’ domain

Some of the artefacts that were buried with the children, including pots, jewellery and clothing that they could use when they reached the gods’ domain

The children in Salta were walked up to the summit of the mountain and plied with chicha (a sweet alcoholic drink) until they fell asleep. Then, they were arranged in specific positions, lowered into prepared holes in the snow – where they would never wake up.

The museum is able to give a surprising amount of information about the three children. The Ice Maiden was the oldest of the three when she died aged 15 and was believed to be one of the 'Virgins of the Sun'. The Boy, born of Incan nobility, was the only male found and was seven years old when he died. The Lightning Girl was the youngest of them all, aged just six years old. Sometime during the 500 years she was on the summit, her body was struck by lightning – causing some burn marks to her head and clothing, and giving her the interesting name.

The museum is able to give a surprising amount of information about the three children. The Maiden (middle) was the oldest of the three when she died aged 15 and was believed to be one of the ‘Virgins of the Sun’. The Boy (right), born of Incan nobility, was the only male found and was seven years old when he died. The Lightning Girl (left) was the youngest of them all, aged just six years old. Sometime during the 500 years she was on the summit, her body was struck by lightning – causing some burn marks to her head and clothing, and giving her the interesting name.

After strolling through the small exhibit, looking at all of the perfectly persevered pots, textiles and jewellery that the children had been buried with, I was ready to see one of them. The museum only ever shows one at a time – keeping the others safe in storage and rotating them every few months – so the one you see is down to luck.

We entered a darkened and chilled room through double doors and there she was. Sat cross-legged facing us, ‘the lightning girl’ was huddled in a tiny ball – her pale face peeking out from behind long dark hair that hung limply around her shoulders.

The lightning girl in her display case

The lightning girl in her display case

Even though I’d seen how she would appear in the pictures we’d seen in the exhibition, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. In the soft lighting, she looked as if she’d only just fallen asleep – the stillness of her features the only giveaway that she wouldn’t wake up. Staring into her face, I couldn’t help but expected her to open her eyes at any moment (which was a little creepy).

Her ‘life-likeness’ actually made me quite uncomfortable to look at her. In contrast, an exhibition on another floor showed another Inca ‘mummy’ of a woman that had been found by grave-robbers and was very poorly preserved. The woman looked far more like the dried-up and shrivelled skeleton that you’d expect – nothing like the girl sleeping peacefully up the stairs.

The museum is very small and the children are the crowd-drawers, but we left the place astonished by what we’d seen.

Apparently there are other sacrificed children who remain in their burials on the mountain top. But it caused so much controversy when these three children were removed from their resting places that scientists won’t return to search for others. Locals believe that the mountain and the children are sacred, and so the other children will be left up there forever. Although they all suffered an awful fate, I left the museum feeling that at least the children who’d been found were being cared for after all these years; rather than being left all alone on the cold and desolate mountainside.

We’d come to Salta mainly for the museum, but we were both surprised by the prettiness of the city centre, which is very historic.

Salta has a lot of very historic and pretty buildings

Salta has a lot of very historic and pretty buildings

To make the most of it, we took a teleferico ride up to a nearby peak to get a better view.

The city itself is huge and flat – a nice change from everywhere else we’d been for months!

The city itself is huge and flat – a nice change from everywhere else we’d been for months!

The next day we made our next stop in Argentina’s wine country – Mendoza – on the way through to Buenos Aires. We’d planned to do a cycling tour of the vinyards, which produce the world’s best Malbec, armed with nothing but a map and a picnic basket, but it wasn’t to be. Bus problems meant that we arrived too late to get very far and, even though we tried to stay an extra day, it turned out that all of the vinyards and bike rental companies were shut.

A quite Mendoza street. Be warned, do not visit Mendoza on a Sunday – there is NOTHING to do!

A quiet Mendoza street. Be warned, do not visit Mendoza on a Sunday – there is NOTHING to do!

Instead, we wandered through the streets – marvelling at how European it all looked – and took our picnic to the park, where we relaxed in the sun ahead of our whirlwind tour of BA.

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