The stolen hands of a dead president are said to be hidden here. Displayed in the cathedral is the embalmed heart of a priest who died more than century ago.
There are sightings of UFOs and the Virgin Mary. The brothel owner drives a luxury sedan and is a respected entrepreneur. Politicians celebrate birthdays with swimming pools filled with champagne and cakes so large that they are assembled in sections off-loaded from trucks.The town's most infamous politician weighs 400 pounds, a top investigator sent here to solve a controversial murder case is charged with using electric cattle prods on suspects and a main suspect in the murder was seen simultaneously in cities 800 miles apart. The other principal suspect was dating the victim but was married secretly to another woman, who lives with her parents.
"It's not that strange," said Juana Salazar, the wife's older sister. "My parents did not want them to get married because they couldn't afford to buy a house. But they had to get married to qualify for credit to buy a house. So they got married but didn't buy a house. They didn't tell anybody they got married, but I knew."
There are places in this world where some things, most things, make sense. Places where fact is discernibly different from fiction, where most objects move in three dimensions and where most things that happen - and most things that are said - are believable.
Catamarca is not among those places. A national news magazine nicknamed this isolated desert town of 90,000 people "One Hundred Years of Solitude," because events here seem as bizarre as those described in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel of the same name.
The Colombian novelist, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, is a master at capturing the "magic realism" of Latin America. But what seems magical to foreigners is commonplace to Latins. The unbelievable is always believable; the ordinary is anything but.
Last year, someone tried to sneak a 30,000-pound meteorite out of Argentina. The country has had four currencies since 1970 and an inflation rate of 20,662 percent.
The phone system goes down with each rainstorm, the income tax law requires people to pay 169 percent of what they earn annually and a popular TV news program issues pleas about missing dogs in a place where 9,000 people disappeared under a dictatorship a decade ago.
Catamarca appears normal, with narrow streets, tiny brick homes and colonial churches. It's when people talk that non-locals realize that something is a bit off.
Rumor is traded as fact. Everyone has an angle. Nobody is believable, and the other person is always a liar.
Conspiracies abound, usually centered on the alleged misdeeds of former provincial governor Ramon Saadi, who critics say ran a harsh form of government they call "Saadiismo." Saadi was ousted from his job recently by Argentine President Carlos Menem for "losing control" of the province after months of demonstrations by locals who believe the governor helped cover up the brutal murder of a 16-year-old girl, whose body was found in a roadside ditch in early September, cut up almost beyond recognition.
When Saadi's father, Vicente, celebrated his 71st birthday in 1984, he invited all 5,000 residents of his native town and let them feast on the gigantic torte that reportedly needed five trucks to haul it to the party. It was Ramon who filled a swimming pool with bottles of Argentina's finest champagne at his 41st birthday bash last year, which Menem attended.
Many locals believe Vicente Saadi stole the hands of deceased President Juan Peron from a Buenos Aires cemetery as payback for being ousted from public office. Ramon Saadi is said to have the hands hidden somewhere in Catamarca.
When things get bad, many locals visit a nearby grotto, where, they, say, the Virgin was first spotted three centuries ago. A key witness in the murder case said he recently spotted UFOs over Catamarca and insisted that his sightings should not weaken his testimony in court.