The Argentine Northwest

The Austere Beauty of the Altiplano:

A compendium of trips to Salta, City and Province

First Impressions

Leaving behind the stress and humidity of Buenos Aires, we headed for Salta in northwestern Argentina, an area bordering on Chile, Bolivia and a sliver of Paraguay. To the surprise of the check-in agent at the airport, we each chose to sit in window seats rather than next to each other - but we were glad we did, as the view was terrific. The route took us over the Paraná, Uruguay and Paraguay river basins, which feed into the Rio de la Plata delta. Then the terrain shifted to a strange pattern resembling brown peacock feathers, which eventually sorted out as nearly-dry riverbeds with multiple water-courses. There were scatterings of lakes, and clouds, as if someone had shaken out a leaky fountain pen over the land below.

Salta, like many towns in the American West, is dreary on the outskirts. Fortunately, it preserves its colonial heritage in a half-dozen buildings in the center, most of which can be visited. The old fort, or Cabildo, is well maintained and attractively laid out as a museum, as is an old house that had belonged to 19th century President Uriburu. In the cathedral a high Baroque altar with a centerpiece of a huge rising sun, covered with gold leaf, reminded me of churches in the Iberian peninsula - although the habit of surrounding everything with wrought iron, essentially fencing off parts of the church, fortunately did not make it to the New World!  We enjoyed rambling about the city, with occasional rest stops in cafés. Salta is a center of cowboy, or gaucho, life; there is an association here dedicated to the memory of General Güemes, the ‘Gaucho General,’ who led a kind of guerrilla warfare in the struggle for independence - and was the only general who died of war wounds. Gauchos come to town for a vigil on the anniversary of his death (June 17) - only those properly attired get to stay around for the vigil, and then attend a mass the next morning, all on horseback, followed by a gigantic breakfast.

The main reason for our first visit, however, was not the city but the terrain. The surrounding region includes the puna, the high altiplano that runs from Catamarca province through Chile and Boliva to Peru, cut by deep gorges and ridge after ridge of mountains, several over 6000 meters (nearly 19000 feet) and perpetually snow-covered. We explored via “Movitrack,” a Mercedes truck fitted out for 18 tough travelers who could endure truck suspension for 15 hours. The top of the truck opened up, providing a super 360-degree viewpoint – but, depending on the time of year, you may need to prepare for traveling in the early-morning fresh air at -2 degrees Celsius (around 28 degrees F). We visited in early June, a wonderful time for walking in the city, but the mornings are very brisk!  The first part of the route followed that of the Tren de las Nubes, or Train to the Clouds, an engineering wonder constructed in the early part of the century, with multiple tunnels and switchbacks that have the train looping around so that the engine crosses the caboose, and a high viaduct rising 200 feet (63 m) above the plain. The landscape at this altitude (4083 meters, about 12,000 feet) is quite barren  - there are scattered mud-brick dwellings (say, one person per square mile/kilometer), and no visible sources of food other than the meager scrubby brush, occasional llamas and many burros.

Later we stopped at the edge of a huge salt-basin, where we were regaled with an amazing story about the burros, which literally serve as lifejackets for the Indians living on the altiplano. During sudden storms, freezing winds can reach velocities of seventy km per hour (nearly 50 mph) or more for sustained periods, and the only remedy available is to kill the nearest burro, gut it, and crawl inside. (Don’t try this at home!)  In kinder weather the burros help carry firewood - what little there is - and blocks of salt and other goods for trade. The salt blocks are cut by campesinos working for a few dollars a day, for no more than two years (blindness from the dazzling white salt is a serious threat). This salt is iodine-free and there were many problems of thyroid malformations until it became obligatory to add iodine. The reflected sun on the white flats was strong enough to make us feel that spring had arrived, after the deep freeze of the mountain ravines. Shortly afterwards we passed the literal high point of the trip - 4164 meters, about 13,000 feet. From this pass we plunged down a switchback road, described by the guide as having 100 turns; we dropped 2000 meters in 30 minutes, and it certainly felt as if there were at least 100 turns. Once recovered from the shock, you’ll see only the stunning landscape - dotted with the cardon cactus, a cousin of the saguaro cactus that is so amazingly human in appearance.

At the end of this dramatic road we reached Purmamarca, an isolated pre-Columbian town in the neighboring province of Jujuy, with just a few hundred resident souls. Purmamarca is best known for a ridge behind the town where seven bands of colors wrap the hillside like a multi-colored ribbon of salt-water taffy. Many of the hills in the area are decorated in smaller ribbons, or in chunks of colors. Against the deep blue of the winter sky, the bands of green, rose, red, purple, make an extraordinary display. A fine inn, El Manantial del Silencio, and a market here needed a longer visit but the Movitrack team needed to move on; we returned later and enjoyed it as much as we had expected. The time pressure was largely due to a delay of nearly an hour earlier in the trip, when we encountered a truck mired in ice - a river had swollen out of its course over the road, and the foaming water froze, resembling snow. The Movitrack pushed and slid, and finally the passengers helped throw blankets under the tires, and then with the aid of chains the Movitrack backed up and pulled the other truck out of the ice. Failing that we would have had to return via the same route - there are few options for roads on the altiplano, and most are not paved.

From Purmamarca we emerged into another mountain gorge, which rapidly broadened out into a wide and fertile valley- and joined a paved (two-lane) national road. The Movitrack got up speed (to maybe 50 miles /80 km an hour), and we sashayed back to Salta. The Movitrack staff had set up little tables inside the vehicle and we enjoyed a glass of wine and piles of empanadas Salteña style (lots of meat and onion, baked, not fried). We arrived in Salta late in the evening, tired but happy. Later we realized that one of the best things about the trip was the opportunity to talk to fellow travelers in the Movitrack, several of whom were Argentines who became good friends.

Second Visit: Salta and San Lorenzo

Returning from the Movitrack, we wandered around the city the next day, and then took a remise to one of the fincas, or ranches, near Chicoana, along the road to Cafayate. We had no idea what to expect, and could not have anticipated what we did find. The main ranch was created by the first Peronista governor of Salta province in the forties. He left parcels of land, each with a stone casa de labrador, or worker’s house, for each child. The main house is now a well-regarded inn (Los Los). The setting is splendid and you can arrange lots of excursions from here as well as just relax on the terrace.

The rest of the long weekend passed in a kind of languid stupor, as we wandered out to look at things along the plaza and browse in the craft shops - and there are some very appealing ones selling the excellent craftwork by native peoples of the region. My favorite was the black pottery with extraordinary carved animals, but the masks of animal and bird faces were also very appealing - with the advantage of being practically weightless. There is also a wealth of knitted and woven material made from the super-fine vicuña wool or alpaca wool, and other animals of the high plains. And they make lovely things from palo santo, a local tree with greenish wood that carves into very handsome animals and other objects. Periodically we returned to the hotel to read and doze. 

On the last morning we took a 10 km taxi ride to San Lorenzo, a village of “summer houses,” where we found the Selva Montaña hotel, - an inn nestled in a green valley, looking at the crest of the mountain, swimming pool and tennis courts below, surrounded by trees, birds, and silence. It is run by a German couple, who used to work for the German aid agency in projects in the region - and then found a better life. We returned here for several stays.

Horse fans would love this place – you can arrange for horseback rides to begin from the inn. The inn is very comfortable and the hosts do everything they can to make your stay a good one. An excellent restaurant (Lo de Andrés) is available at a short walk. 

The downside is that you are not in walking distance of the attractions of Salta, and they are many. The Anthropology Museum is a wonderful place to understand the indigenous people of the area (and don’t believe the story that Argentina is all European, there is a wide array of native peoples, now recognized in the constitution and active in claiming and protecting their rights). This museum was joined in 2007 by a remarkable new museum dedicated to high-altitude archaeology, with a focus on the finds of Inca mummies at heights of 6000 meters/19,000 feet. Simply working at this altitude, with the associated cold, is a technical challenge. The materials are exhibited with great care and it’s a fascinating glimpse of a different world and world-view. Don’t miss this, there is something here for everyone to appreciate.

Salta always had great craft shops; the recent tourist boom has improved the shopping scene for clothes and shoes, so watch out! On the south side of the main Nueve de Julio square you’ll find entrances to several arcades of shops – we exited with good pairs of walking shoes, a carpincho-leather jacket, many handmade belts, a sweater, a handbag…and just outside are shoe-shine guys competing for your business while you read your newspaper. At the entrance to one of the shopping arcades is Havana café, an Argentine chain originating in Mar del Plata and famed for alfajores (Argentine double-decker cookies) and excellent coffee. Relax!  

Back to Salta City: What to see 

On one side of Plaza 9 de Julio is the Cathedral, a handsome structure with a very fine gilded interior. On the other side of the plaza, the Cabildo houses a wonderful museum showcasing the history of the area from pre-Columbian times; its interior spaces are very photogenic, and there’s a nice small shop inside. A short hop from the plaza, at Caseros 417, is Casa Uriburu, home of the family that produced two presidents: another very photogenic stop. A block away where Caseros crosses Córdoba is the San Francisco Church, a wildly Italianate building painted in deep terracotta with gold and white details and statues decorating the front. Next to the church is an extraordinary bell-tower. Then just two blocks further on is the San Bernardo convent, an austere, chunky white construction, with a marvelous pair of 18th-century carved wooden doors, a complete contrast to the San Francisco exuberance. Not far in one direction is the Paseo Güemes with a monument to the General, and behind it the Anthropology Museum. In the other direction is the San Martín park, where cable cars take you up the San Bernardo hill –at the top you’ll find a confiteria for a coffee break before heading back down. (If you are really energetic, you can walk up the 1458 meters!)  

There are some other museums in town as well, including the Fine Arts, housed in an old colonial building (most of the rooms were closed when we were there, but it looked attractive in its setting on the pedestrian-only Florida street). Horseback riding is widely and easily available. Numerous tour companies compete for your attention, offering bird-watching safaris, photography safaris, the themes are endless and there is something for everyone. You can combine a trip on the Movitrack with a trip on the Tren de las Nubes. You can take a tour to Cafayate and sample the wares of the various (excellent) vineyards there. Or, you can choose a trip to a cloudforest park, a national park for cactus (think saguaro, although they aren’t exactly that), small mountain villages, the Valles Calchaquies Valley, and even across the border into Chile or Bolivia. If you like crafts, take an extra suitcase!

Local music is widely available in the peñas (informal folk-music clubs). Various recommendations:  Boliche de Balderrama, San Martin 1126. La Casa de Güemes, España 720. Ask your hotel desk, check posters around town; the famed los Chalchaleros group came from Salta, and you’ll probably enjoy this music even if it is touristy. The city’s theatre/concert hall is on Caseros just off the main square; check here for a wide range of musical offerings.

Logistics


FROM THE US, DIAL 54 FOR COUNTRY CODE AND 387 FOR CITY CODE. FROM WITHIN ARGENTINA DIAL 0387 AND THEN THE TELEPHONE NUMBER.

Lodging

Hostal Selva Montana. Alfonsina Storni 2315; 492-1184)  <wernerg@arnet.com.ar>; http://www.hostal-selvamontana.com.ar/ (in Spanish)

El Lagar. 20 de Febrero 877. 431-9439. A manor house that previously was the home of the Etchart winery family. A delightful “boutique” hotel choice. Nearby are many restaurants, in the district developing around the train station for the Tren de las Nubes. Reviewed in English on Tripadvisor.

Hotel Solar de la Plaza, Leguizamon 669 (Plaza Güemes), a lovely little hotel, halfway between the train district and the plaza. 431-5111. http://www.solardelplaza.com.ar; reservassolar@salnet.com.ar

Los Los in Chicoana. 431 7258.

El Manantial del Silencio, in Purmamarca, Jujuy Province:  Reservations in Buenos Aires at (11)  4005 0050; http://www.hotelmanantial.com.ar

Restaurants

José Balcarce (corner of Mitre and Necochea, in the train district, 421-1628), serves refined dishes with local, traditional ingredients, in a lovely setting. A don’t miss!

Wagon de cola, on the corner of Bacarce and Ameghino behind the train station. Beautifully decorated with fabrics and materials of the region. Good salad bar and great grill.  Very reasonable.  http://www.wagondecolasalta.com.ar

Solar del Convento, Caseros 444 - just a skip from the Plaza 9 de Julio. A free glass of champagne starts you off. The building includes part of an old convent, and is decorated with masks from native craftsmen and other local items...the menu is wide-ranging and excellent. 421-5124

Lo de Andrés for dining if you are staying in San Lorenzo,  J.C. Dávalos & Gorriti. 492-1600

Folklore:  La Casona del Molino, Luis Burela (corner of Caseros at 2600); La Vieja Estacion, Balcarce 885 both in the train station district. El Boliche Balderrama, San Martín 1126, 421-1542; http://www.boliche-balderrama.com.ar

Sightseeing

The Train: http://www.turismosalta.com; http://www.trenubles.com.ar

We used remisero El Sol 4317 317 and had excellent service.

Recommended tour companies: Movitrack and Clark, both of which have many tours, and have English-speaking guides. 

Clark Expeditions, Caseros 121.  421-5390;  or reserve at clarkexpediciones@ciudad.com.ar.

Movietrack, Buenos Aires 28, runs daily tours that follow the train up the Quebrada del Toro and then go somewhere else; there are two different versions, depending on the size of the vehicle, and many other options.  Reserve: movitrack@movitrack.com.ar, tel 431-6749.

Turismo San Lorenzo. J.C. Dávalos 960, San Lorenzo, 492-1757, organizes photography safaris to many different places around Salta; http://www.turismosanlorenzo.com.

Shopping

Siwok shop on the 9 de Julio plaza at Zuviria 28, a foundation run for the Wichi Indians, √ery nice things.

El Cacuy, Caseros (225) has really nice handcrafts, and many nice tapestries and other larger items in the back room.

Ch’aska. Beautiful handbags and jackets with indigenous motifs. Buenos Aires 20, just off the 9 de Julio plaza.

Del Milagro. Caseros & Córdoba, across from the San Francisco church.

Samponia, Caseros 468 and Mitre 994, locations near the plaza, and near the train station, loaded with beautiful craft objects.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.