Vibrant and lively as Buenos Aires was Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott decided it was time they moved on to Salta to discover the salt flats, pre-Inca ruins, multi-coloured rock faces, mountains and gorges and dramatic scenery that make up Northwest Argentina.
Salta la Linda
Salta is an interesting city and it’s not known as Salta the Beautiful (Salta la Linda) for nothing. In many respects we would have liked to have spent longer there rather than merely using it as a kind of dormitory town for our explorations further afield. There is lots to see and do.
Set in the lovely Lerma Valley, Salta has a mix of stunning old colonial buildings alongside more modern city architecture. Some of its old buildings like the Convento de San Bernardo originally date back to 1582 when the Spanish founded the city.
Salta in the rain
On the morning designated for our city tour it rained. And rained like no rain either of us had ever seen before. Our view over the city from the top of Cerro San Bernardo was almost obliterated by the water – but we were assured that on a good day the cityscape spread beneath us is beautiful.
We aborted our city tour and with Emanuel our driver/guide headed off for better weather and the spectacular scenery the northwest has to offer.
The Northwest is actually made up of several provinces, all fairly easy to reach from Salta and comprising three very different ecosystems.
Consequently each day brought us different and stunning scenery depending on whether we were in the tropical jungles (Yungas), the foot hills of the Andes, or the high-altitude plateau (Puna).
The region was first inhabited by pre-Inca tribes and evidence of their existence is still visible.
Driving can be tricky
Be warned driving can be dangerous; roads are often steep with serpentine bends and sheer drops.
Twice Emanuel was worried – once as we made our way up one of the mountain passes in fog which turned into sleet as we climbed higher, and another when we headed for the salt flats and in the distance a storm was raging.
We were driving on nothing more than a soft, sandy track with deep holes and ruts, and in that lonely and remote part of the country to be stranded could have been serious.
Walking on salt
Thankfully we were lucky that day when we headed to the salt flats (Salinas Grandes).
Once a salinated lake over several millennia the water has evaporated leaving a salt flat of some 30,000 hectares.
The rain that had been worrying Emanuel had changed direction turning the salt flats into a shimmering, magical experience, the thin film of water changing the vast expanse of salt into something almost ethereal.
Walking on salt was a strange experience
The Train to the Clouds
Our first stop after leaving Salta had actually been to the railway station to see the old locomotive that pulled the Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes).
A feat of engineering
Actually these days part of the journey is by coach, and indeed we followed part of the route stopping long enough for us to take photos of the incredibly frail looking bridge (La Polvorilla Viaduct) through the deep gorge – an incredible feat of engineering.
Pre-Inca cities of Tastil….
Gradually the weather cleared and by the time we had reached Santa Rosa de Tastil the sun was shining on the tiny adobe chapel and the few colourful craft stalls.
We popped into the tiny museum to view the artifacts found in the ruins of the centuries old indigenous city of Tastil and then scrambled up to the top of the hill finding bits of bone and shards of pottery.
The view down the Lerma valley over what was once the tribe’s territory was lovely. From its size it must indeed have been an important city. However, important as it might have been it could not withstand the power of the invading Incas.
…and of Tilcara
We found evidence of another pre-Inca community at Tilcara. This was less of a scramble, but nevertheless a fairly steep climb to see the reconstructed ruins of this ancient pre-Inca civilisation.
At the foot of the hill there is a small museum and a fascinating little botanical garden with cacti and other local plants. Look out for the huge stone which rings like a bell when struck.
Fascinating as the pre-Inca sites were it was the scenery itself that captivated us most.
Words cannot describe the awe-inspiring landscape of mountain valleys and the multi-coloured rock faces – World Heritage sites in their own right; the Pollera de la Coya (the Hill of Seven Colours) or the Humahuaca Gorge with the little village of Maimará nestling into the coloured folds of the Paleta del Pintor (the Painter’s Palette) or the aptly named Cerro de los Siete Colores (the Seven Colours Mountain).
From time to time we passed patches of fertile land supporting small farms and smallholdings or found ourselves in arid, barren landscapes where only cacti seemed to flourish.
And there were the rock formations carved by the wind into fanciful shapes – a temple, a toad, a monk, a chameleon.
High Altitude Wines
Argentina is a great wine producer and one of its wine regions is Cafayate noted for the world’s best high altitude white wines made from the torrontés grape. Learn more about the wine of the region at Cafayate’s cleverly designed and interesting Museo de la Vid y el Vino.
Bodega el Cese
There are lots of wineries in the valleys but our serious introduction to the torrontés grape took place at the family run Bodega el Cese in the Calchaqui valley on Route 40.
They have been producing wine here since 2006, and following a tour to see how the wine was produced we adjourned to the tasting room to sample the end result.
Apart from the crisp white wine they also produce a superb Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a delicious rose. Free tastings by the way, but check for opening times.
Handicraft stalls and small churches
Most of the small towns and villages we discovered on our travels provided us with colourful handicraft stalls to admire. But after a couple of days we began to wonder if the handicrafts were bought in from some big central depot – they began to look remarkably similar.
We found one or two churches that took our fancy and in particular the little church in Uquia with its pictures of angels. These, most certainly do not, look like the normal pictures of angels. These androgynous beings were wearing broad brimmed hats and expensive brocade colonial-style clothes of the 17th century Spanish conquerors – and they carried guns. (Photography not allowed in the church.)
Cacti as far as the eye could see
It felt like being in another world when we visited the arid Los Cardones National Park. It had been a steep drive through clouds and suddenly we broke through into sunlight and a landscape like nothing we had seen so far.
Parts of the park are at a height of 5000m and in this barren landscape cacti stretched as far as the eye could see, many of them resembling huge candelabra; beneath our feet occasional glimpses of dinosaur foot prints and above us two condors soared.
Luckily Emanuel knew incredibly good value neighbourhood cafes and restaurants for lunch. Nothing fancy, just steaming plates of hearty lama stew, fried chicken or platters of empanadas straight from the oven, served with home grown sweetcorn and any other veg that were available – yummy.
Yummy was how we also summed up our lunch one day in an unassuming little restaurant near the impressive Cabra Corral dam on our way back to Salta. The man-made lake, set in a lovely wooded landscape is the largest such construction in northwest Argentina and a popular spot for fishing, and various water sports.
Our lunch was a take on fish and chips, inexpensive and oh so good. For just a few pesos we had little herb rolls served with homemade mayonnaise, fried lake fish (pejerrey) and piles of chips (looking more like plump crisps). Truly yummy.
So often it is the little things in life that give the most pleasure – fish and chips – and standing on the ‘Tropic of Capricorn’. There is a fairly discreet official monument – but for us the road sign said it all.
Northwest Argentina is full of surprises.
Hotel: Hotel Solar de la Plaza
We loved our stay at this hotel right in the city centre opposite Gϋemes Square. Our rooms were large, elegant and comfortable and the buffet breakfast good. On the ground floor a small lobby bar serves snacks, light meals and our favourite cocktail!
The staff were incredibly, kind, helpful and so friendly, offering to look after our main luggage on a couple of nights when we were up country. Not that we had time to use it but there is also a heated swimming pool, sauna and gym. Highly recommended. solardelaplaza.com.ar
We also enjoyed our overnight stay at Viñas de Cafayate – a boutique wine resort hotel next to a vineyard near Cafayate. Our comfortable rooms opened onto a long veranda. Excellent restaurant and wines. cafayatewineresort.com
Our tour organised by the excellent 2by2 Holidays: 2by2holidays.co.uk