Visitor finds goods to admire, sand to be mired in, turns that cause gasps and views almost too stunning to grasp.
TRAVELING in this province is rough. Even on a guided tour and traveling in comfortable vans and cars, I encountered bumps. I bounced over miles of unpaved road, got stuck in a tour van in treacherous sand, gasped in fear at steep drops and sharp switchbacks, and gave up sleep for days that started before dawn and ended too late for dinner.
But every bit of discomfort was worthwhile, because Salta’s scenery is spectacular. The remote, crescent-shaped province in northwestern Argentina has dramatic gorges that stretch for miles, mountains that show off brilliant mineral hues and castle-like rock formations, green fields, cactus-strewn desert and treeless tundra so high that the clouds float far below.
Much of this province is uninhabited. Llamas roam free. Wild burros munch scraggly plants and nose at water seeping through rocks. Condors circle overhead.
I first heard about Salta while touring in Argentina’s Mendoza wine country, where I tasted Torrontés, a lovely floral white wine unique to Salta. One sip and I wanted to visit the region to learn more about the wine.
So I came here in April, which is autumn in Argentina. The lowlands were warm, but fierce, frigid winds drove me from a summit.
Except for one overnight trip, I toured by day from my base in the province’s capital city, a two-hour flight north of Buenos Aires.
Salta, founded in 1582 by Hernando de Lerma, governor of Tucumán to the south, is a pleasant city. People lounge at outdoor cafes around a tree-filled central plaza. Nightspots called peñas present shows of boisterous northern music and dance. Women sit in the main square outside the cabildo, a colonial building that was once the seat of government, and sell woolly socks, caps, gloves and shawls. I bought a llama-wool sweater from one.
I also shopped the large public market, which offered a variety of products, including the herbal brew maté; bright, striped cloths from Bolivia; and produce such as corn, a staple used for, among other dishes, the stew locro and humitas, which are fresh corn tamales. Spice stalls sold pimentón (paprika) from Cachi in the Calchaquíes Valley, where the sweet red peppers are sun-dried.
The market was also a place to buy coca leaves, which are reputed to aid digestion and prevent altitude sickness. Every restaurant I visited served soothing, delicate coca-leaf tea. The leaves do yield cocaine, but small amounts aren’t intoxicating.
I stayed at the older, traditional Hotel Salta by the main plaza. A veranda opened off my floor, but I never had time to relax there. What mattered to me was that the breakfast buffet was in full swing by 6 a.m. Most tours start at 7 a.m., and once I had to catch a 6:15 bus, giving me only a few minutes to down a glass of orange juice, swallow a few bites of ham and cheese and grab small, gooey facturas (pastries) and medialunas (crescent rolls).
Travel agencies clustered near the plaza energetically hawk tours, and most offer the same itineraries at the same price. Tour prices generally do not cover meals or overnight accommodations. Understanding Spanish is an advantage, because on my tours, little was translated into English. Many are outdoor adventures. Mine were tame compared with horseback, rafting and trekking excursions.
Some agencies handle tours better than others. I had one poor experience — an uninformative guide, a wretched hotel — and another that was exceptional. That trip went up the Cuesta de Obispo (Bishop’s Peak) to Los Cardones National Park, named for the tall, branching cardóncactus that thrives at high altitudes, then on to Cachi, a town where raised walkways enabled colonial women to step from their dwellings to carriages without dirtying their long skirts in the street.
David, the guide, a music professor by profession, kept up a lively conversation about history, music and folklore, fed us alfajores (cookies sandwiched with caramel filling) and drove smoothly and tirelessly for almost 12 hours.
A rocky road trip in Salta Argentina
ANOTHER tour took me to Iruya, a town tucked into a craggy, precipitous gorge about 200 miles from Salta. Because of the many stops we made, the journey there and back took two days. Along with a couple from England and another from
Switzerland, I set off for Quebrada de Humahuaca, a 96-mile-long gorge that runs through Jujuy province to a turnoff for Iruya, which is in Salta province.
Leaving the city, we rode through fields of sugarcane and other crops. Wisps of cloud floated through hills in the distance. The driver said this parklike land was the “ugliest” part of the trip. The Swiss couple said it reminded them of Switzerland.
Farther on, the highway passed cornfields shaded by poplars, and cemeteries placed on hills so the dead would be closer to heaven.
This rough land, once part of the Inca empire, breeds hardy people. Here, Spanish settlers mingled with indigenous people, unlike in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, which has a mostly European population.
At one rest stop, I came across a stack of rocks littered with bottles, cigarette packets and other trash. What looked like the refuse of thoughtless tourists was in fact an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth), a reminder that pagan rites survive in modern-day Salta.
Adobe homes in this area are so isolated that children may have to walk hours to school. Water comes from rivers or wells, and the kitchen stove is an outdoor beehive adobe oven. People eat what they can raise, including goat, lamb and llama. I had goat stew for lunch in the town of Humahuaca, about 150 miles north of Salta, and noticed llama on the menu.
The Humahuaca gorge was the site of many battles after the struggle for independence from Spain broke out in 1810. Salta’s great hero, Gen. Martín Miguel de Güemes, easily outwitted Spanish troops unfamiliar with the challenging terrain. His gaucho guerrillas wore red ponchos with black trim — now the colors of Salta.
Güemes became mayor of the city at 25 years old and was slain at 36. Each year on June 16, gauchos assemble at his statue in Salta for an all-night vigil, followed by a parade the next day, the anniversary of his death.
Soon after Humahuaca, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road so rough it took two hours to traverse the final 35 miles to Iruya. We splashed through running streams and climbed to 13,123 feet to admire extraordinary vistas of mountains. Below, switchbacks cut through red rock to Iruya.
When we stopped, a little girl, accompanied by two shepherd dogs, rushed up to the car to beg for un caramelo (a candy). Children in this remote area rarely get such a treat.
We arrived in Iruya at twilight, which left little time to explore its steep, rock-paved streets. I did find a tiny shop that sold handicrafts, and for $2 I bought a fuzzy brown wool llama made by a woman named Matilde Díaz.
The guide dropped us at a crude hostel that had no comforts — not even things to wash up with. A young English backpacker in my tour group said it was the worst he had seen. But the view from the back veranda was astounding — I could almost touch the mountains.
After a simple meal of humitas, empanadas and coca-leaf tea in the town’s one decent restaurant, the Café del Hostal, I shopped for soap and a towel, and then listened to kids shooting baskets outside my room until after midnight.
Early the next morning, we were rousted out of bed for a breakfast of dry bread and coffee, then departed for Purmamarca. This town on the old trail to Peru made up for my disappointment in Iruya. It is shoppers’ heaven.
The entire main plaza had been turned into a dazzling marketplace and was loaded with colorful blankets, wall hangings, sweaters, dolls, belts, maté containers, jewelry and bunches of clattering animal claws that musicians use to beat rhythm.
We bought sandwiches and drinks to go and left the town for the salinas grandes, or salt fields. There, we ate our purchases in a restaurant under construction. The tables and benches were fashioned of thick salt slabs, and coarse salt covered the floor. Oddly, though it was hot, the salt furniture was almost as cold as ice.
The sparkling salt fields look like a vast frozen lake, and I couldn’t shake a worry that our heavy van might break through its surface. We did run into trouble — not on the field but on the dirt road that emerged from it. The van became stuck so firmly in deep sand that no amount of pushing could budge it. Luckily, a driver came along and helped get the van moving again.