a guide to the charming region of northern Argentina
Alamy, Ariel Mendieta, Bad Brothers, Shutterstock
A tour of the ochre-colored mountains and colonial churches fueled by empanadas and Torrontés wine in the surroundings of the most charming city in northern Argentina
10:30 a.m. - Historic city center
Two hours from Buenos Aires by plane, Salta is arid and colonial and its horizon is partly blocked by mountains. The best thing is to start at Plaza 9 de Julio, the city's main square, lined with orange trees and surrounded by emblematic, arched buildings: El Cabildo, the Alta Montaña Museum of Archaeology (MAAM), the Teatro Provincial and the Cathedral, which hosts processions that pay tribute to Our Lord of Miracles every September 15. After all, Salta is a province of churches and worshippers. The villages in the valleys may have only a handful of adobe houses, but they surely have their own church with the patron saint dressed in gala clothing – and with a wig made from real hair!
1 p.m. - Elevated cooking
A relative of Brazil's pamonha, humita is a dough made from grated corn, chopped onion, chili peppers, tomato, bell peppers, salt and cinnamon wrapped in corn leaves and boiled for two hours. When it's brought to the table, you have to untie the knot, unfold the leaves and skewer the corn's sweet yellow heart. Tamal follows the same recipe, but with beef. At the restaurant Doña Salta it's possible to try both varieties, as well as some locro (a squash-based stew), goat, dried meat and quinoa.
4 p.m. - The mummies of MAAM
Salta is also the land of archaeologists. In 1999, scientists Johan Reinhard and Constanza Ceruti discovered, at an altitude of nearly 23,000 feet [7,000 m] and a temperature of -34.6 °F [-37 °C], the Niños del Llullaillaco. These mummies of three Inca children, which are now on display at the museum, lived over 500 years ago during the Inca Empire and remained intact thanks to the cold. To favor their conservation, the mummies are alternated so you can only view one at any given time, never all at once.
8 a.m. - Heading to Cafayate
After crossing the Lerma Valley, with its tobacco and bell pepper plantations, you'll see the Calchaquí River emerge in between the reddish mountains. Located 105 miles [170 km] from Salta, Cafayate is the center of the Salta wine circuit. The landscape turns so red that it resembles the Grand Canyon. The erosion caused by the effects of time and the wind have sculpted some unusual shapes, a red Devil's Throat and an amphitheater where musicians can't help but test the acoustics.
12 p.m. - Torrontés and empanadas
There's nothing like savoring some cold Torrontés, known as “lying wine” since it's sweet to the smell and dry in the mouth, in the old manor of the family-owned El Porvenir bodega, located near the plaza. Cafayate has over 2,000 hectares of grapevines: malbec, tannat, syrah and the star of the region, torrontés. Later on, it's time to try the Salta empanadas at Doña Salta, made with potato, chopped beef and fresh tomato sauce with pepper which, according to the saying, is green like a bay leaf and mean like an ox. Before you leave, write down Doña Carmen's secret: with beef, use green peppers; with chicken, use red peppers. But don't let the word get around!
4 p.m. - High wines
A distinctive characteristic of the wines of Salta is the height at which they are produced. Oenologist Thibaut Delmotte of Bodega Colomé produces the “highest” wine in the world. Known as Altura Máxima, it's made of grapes grown 10,206 feet [3,111 m] above sea level. There's a sort of competition in the region to see who can make the most “elevated” wine, as well as an attempt at minimal contact with the barrel's wood, so that the personality of the grapes is better expressed. If you want to know more, the Museo de la Vid y el Vino recounts Salta's winemaking history. Before returning to the city, visit Bad Brothers, a lively restaurant and wine bar a block from the plaza that also produces its own wine: MaTaCa, a blend of three varieties, and Tovio, a blend of torrontés and viognier. You can also make your own blend, label it with the name you want and buy it.
9 p.m. - Calle Balcarce
Back in Salta after a long day, make sure to stop by the lively Calle Balcarce, a street lined with bars, restaurants and places where folk performances take place. “Ay guitarra trasnochada, canta conmigo mis añoranzas, contale cuánto la quiero…” Los Fronterizos sing out of the speakers at Café del Tiempo.
San Martín 2555
6:20 a.m. - Safari in the clouds
The cool wind helps wake you up, even in the early morning. MoviTrack is a panorama bus for steep terrains that covers the old route operated by the Tren a las Nubes. The excursion lasts all day and reaches altitudes of 13,100 feet [4,000 m]. As passengers are just waking up, the vehicle enters Quebrada del Toro, a stop in Santa Rosa de Tastil, home to a church so small that it looks like a toy. Incidentally, everything here is minuscule, aside from the inhabitants and the llamas.
12:30 p.m. - La Polvorilla Viaduct
After many miles, San Antonio de los Cobres finally appears. Every August 1, this mining village celebrates the Pachamama Festival, thanking the Earth for its fruit, offering it the first mouthful of food, as well as coca leaves, chicha (a traditional fermented beverage from the Andes), wine and cigarettes. The Mother Earth cult is very much alive and well in the north of the country. Next comes the spectacular La Polvorilla Viaduct, the monumental feat of engineering that stands at 13,850 feet [4,221 m]. Built from 1930 to 1932, it is 735 feet [224 m] wide and 207 feet [63 m] tall, almost the same size as the Obelisk of Buenos Aires.
5 p.m. - Purmamarca
At first sight, the sensation is that this village surrounded by mineral-rich mountains has more tourists than inhabitants. Some 40 miles [65 km] from Jujuy and at an altitude of 6,890 feet [2,100 m], Purmamarca has grown a great deal in recent years. It now has boutique hotels and restaurants that look straight out of the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo. At the handicraft market in the plaza, you'll find handmade fabrics and many other artisanal pieces. In front is an old church, like all of them around here, with thick adobe walls and one detail: its interior is made of the wood of cardón, a cactus.
9 a.m. - Cerro San Bernardo
Doctors say that over 200 muscles are activated when we walk. What do you say to a hike up Cerro San Bernardo in the morning breeze? – if you're feeling lazy, there's a cable car that leaves from Parque San Martín. Its big panoramic spot is around 4,920 feet [1,500 m] high. From there, you can see the domes of churches, the monument to the Battle of Salta and, in the distance, the paths that lead to Cafayate and Campo Quijano. The last cable car down leaves at 6:30 p.m.
11 a.m. - Handicraft market
The tables are covered in fabrics made from sheep wool, llama wool and (extremely fine) baby alpaca wool. They also have elaborate placemats with vegetal fibers, ceramics, objects made of silver, iron, leather, a wide variety of musical instruments and delicious sweets. Now dedicated to handicrafts, the place once served as the first mill in Salta. Later, in 1760, the Jesuits settled in the region and the building was turned into the province's first tannery. All that's left of the Salta architectural tradition are the thick adobe walls.
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LATAM has direct flights to Salta departing from Buenos Aires and Lima.