Salta, Argentina - heart of the incredible north west

by tracyjohnson

Salta is the most colonial city in Argentina yet still retains much Inca and Pre-Colombian influence. Discover how to start your voyage around the incredible north west, with Salta as your base

Arriving in Salta is to venture into toy town, complete with its own little wooden train into the mountains. Only a child’s version of a city would feature a blood-red church swirling in gold and white swags like a burlesque theatre, or an orange-treed plaza watched over by a pastel-pink cathedral with more white piping than a wedding cake. Maybe that particular shade is designed to complement the peach skin glow at sunset and swathe the couples drinking a copa de vino at the pavement cafes in a romantic blush of light. On the days when gauchos ride like Zorro through the cobbled square, wearing the balloon trousers and high–heeled boots of the proud Argentine cowhand, Salta, known as La Linda (pretty one) really proclaims her colonial nature.

This area was part of the Inca trail and Pre-Colombian artefacts have been found across the north west but the city was properly founded in 1582. A stopping off point between Lima and the port at Buenos Aires from where the Spanish shipped their pillaged gold back home, but also a wealthy crop-growing area due to the luxuriance of the location in a basin surrounded by mountains. Despite the Conquistadores, Indian culture remains in greater evidence here than any other part of Argentina, there are still Pucaras (mini Macchu Picchus), an Akayanka (Inca temple façade) and 500 year-old grain barns dug into rock to be found in the surrounding area.

I have stayed at many of the various hotels in Salta and there is usually a problem with noise – either from the narrow busy streets or from tourists banging about as they head out on early excursions. Salta is the hub for the trips to pueblos and vineyards through some of the most incredible and constantly changing landscapes in the world. The high-rise tower of the Alejandro I is the place the swells check into for its five star ambience and very good restaurant. We prefer something more intimate and found the Refugio del Inca hotel is well-located and very good value for money, only lacking in creature comfort. Romantically-inclined couples seem to like the Casa de las Jazmines, owned by actor Robert Duvall and quieter for being located outside town, but the taxi drive in can be tedious. Bloomers Bed and Brunch feels like home and breakfast is served until noon because they know that people are exhausted after the very long days of excursions. My secret favourite is still Legado Mitico, designed by architects; they offer every comfort and assistance.

The museums surrounding the plaza are all worth a visit. Inside the Cabildo, the Museum of the History of the North shows the changes in the area from ancient times to the present and has a marvellous view from the first floor. Stop for a licuado (fresh fruit smoothie) then move on to MAAM - the Museum of the Alta Montana that has the best café and a rotating exhibit of three frozen Inca children of royal birth who were sacrificed to the Gods on the Volcan del Llullaillaco in the 1500s. It’s a true believer who will sacrifice his own child by leaving him to die at 6,700 metres. The children are believed to be the finest preserved mummies in existence although some feel that they should have been left untouched in their sacred burial ground. Religion is still mystically charged in this corner of the world. The houses may be adobe brick rooms with a sloping tin roof but the churches are lined with gold. The festival for Pachamama (Mother Earth) every August is still an important event and an unusual souvenir is a Sahumerio – a tray of incense and herbs, burnt in every corner of the house to chase away bad spirits and invite in health and wealth.

Salta snuggles gently in the centre of the surrounding landscape like a moonstone on an heiress’ bosom and is used as the starting point for excursions into a startling variety of scenery, from mountains to yungas (jungle), brightly-coloured gorges to massive salt lakes. All can be visited on various day trips but it is better to take a guide with a private car if you really want to get away from it all. To the north, the traditional villages of Purmamarca, Tilcara and teeny Iruya stuck four hours into the mountains may be interspersed with a visit to Salinas Grandes – the third biggest salt lake in the world and a stunning drive across the moon-like Cuesta de Lipan. The Toytown Tren a las Nubes heads west into the mountains, stopping at La Polvorilla viaduct and carrying its own oxygen tanks to an altitude of 4,200 metres. To the south is Cafayate, home to the highest altitude vineyards on the planet and the Calchaqui Valleys, part of the original Inca trail and a possible World Heritage Site.

The north west is huge, journeys are long but very colourful and the roads can be treacherous depending on the season. When you return to the city, some hearty fare is required. Locro (a meat and bean stew) and humita (a pulp of corn-like polenta stuffed with meat or cheese and cooked in a leaf) are traditional but Salta is famous for its empanadas – mini Cornish pasties containing meat, chicken or cheese. Ask for some spicy salsa to pop on top. Even spicier are the disagreements between Saltenos on who makes the best empanadas. Dona Salta is conveniently close to the Iglesia, Plaza de Almas, located in an old house, has an interesting menu and handicrafts but very laid back service. Casona del Molina offers a pena, the indigenous live folkloric music at which Argentines are likely to lose their reserve and raucously join in with the singing and dancing - all were delicious. For a typical parilla (BBQ) full of smoke and meat and locals, we went to Monumental right in front of el shopping. Salta is the sort of place you get attached to.