It’s hard to sum up a place as diverse as Salta. Naturally bestowed with mountainous landscapes, gorges, and fertile valleys, Salta, in Argentina’s extreme northwest, is known for its history, culture, gastronomy, and music. This Argentinean capital city also boasts some of the best preserved colonial architecture in the country. Charming old towns, pre-Columbian culture, and astonishing panoramas characterize the province.
The province of Salta, nicknamed “Salta, the Beautiful,” shares borders with Chile, Bolivia, and Paraguay. It is much larger and just as far north as the province of Jujuy, which it hugs and seems to push against the Chilean desert of Atacama and the southern plateau of Bolivia. The provincial capital, the city of Salta, is about 1000 miles northwest of Buenos Aires and 559 miles north of the city of Cordoba, in the fertile Lerma Valley. The Spanish conquistador Hernando de Lerma founded it in 1582 by order of the viceroy of Perú.
Arriving from Jujuy, we first see the capital of Salta from the Cerro San Bernardo hill, just east of the city center, which offers a sweeping view of the city, the valley, the surrounding hills, and the distant mountains.
We take a little bit of time to wander around the main plaza: we are drawn toward the Cathedral, with its imposing basilica and neocolonial baroque style; the Cabildo (town hall) with its colonial architecture; an array of beautiful neoclassical and baroque buildings; and the stunning Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (Museum of High Altitude Archeology (MAAM). This museum merits an entire chapter on its own; it houses the mummies of three Incan children who were sacrificed for religious reasons shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards. The mummified bodies were found in astonishingly well-preserved condition at the summit of the Llullaillaco volcano, more than 19,600 feet above sea level. The well arranged museum offers visitors an amazing learning experience.
In the main plaza you can purchase a ticket for a three hour city tour (www.busturisticosalta.com) at a reasonable price. But today the city, lively and lovely, invites us to walk. We don’t get very far before we see the old San Francisco Convent, whose claim to fame is being the owner of the highest bell tower in South America. The red and golden color stands out against the blue of the sky. Next we visit the monument to General Güemes, commander of Salta, who in 1820, with his army of gauchos, protected the border from the royal army of Perú. Nearby we encounter the colonial San Bernardo Convent, the simple beauty of which stands in contrast to the grandiloquence of the Cathedral and the Franciscan church. The bronze of the Güemes statue shines in this park that dominates the city. The statue is truly monumental.
At 5 p.m. we begin our trip to Cafayate, 112 miles southwest of Salta, in the Calchaquíes Valley. We plan for roughly a two-hour drive. We want to be sure to arrive before the sun sets to see the Quebrada de las Conchas, which we’ve been told is spectacular. When we share our travel plans, locals tell us, “No, it’s a winding road. It will take you four hours.” At first, our drive takes us along tree-lined roads with gentle undulations. We see corn, lots of corn, and of course, soy. When we enter the Quebrada it is almost nightfall. A winding road? The road is in perfect condition, but we have to travel at between 12 and 24 mph because we see nothing but curves. We know we’re following the river, but what mountains are these alongside of us? How far is the drop from the ridge we are edging along? We are blind, and if that weren’t enough, we encounter wild donkeys, and a creek that crosses the highway. After five hours, we finally arrive at Cafayate. It is 11 p.m.
We leave our things in the hostel and go out to have dinner in the main plaza, surrounded by folkloric peñas (restaurants with guitar music and traditional food). We try tamales, humitas, empanadas salteñas, and roasted young goat, we drink patero wine (artisanal wine, made of grapes stomped with feet or “patas”), and we join the general clamor. The guitarists play traditional rhythms like chacareras santiagueñas or chacareras from the neighboring province of Tucumán (the land of Mercedes Sosa), chamamés entrerrianos, cuecas from the region of Cuyo, carnavalitos norteños, vidalas from the pampas, and zambas from all over. It’s not for nothing that I’ve come to Salta, where local musicians including Los Chalchaleros, Julia Elena Dávalos, and Eduardo Falú have made great contributions to Argentina’s musical culture.
We rise early the next morning. We have to return the car to Jujuy by evening and the radiant sun and our eagerness to explore allow no delays. Cafayate is Argentina’s “second wine capital” (the first is Mendoza) and the valley is full of wine shops and vineyards, with a very well organized wine tour. We tour the town, visiting the colonial Cathedral and several handicraft stands which are well-regarded throughout the province.
We realize that we can’t return to Salta via Cachi, a colonial town in the plateau of Salta, which sits at the foot of the snow-covered mountain of the same name. The roads are very slippery; there has been heavy rain and it’s too dangerous, we’re told. We decide to travel via the mythical Route 40 which starts in the far south of the country and extends to the border with Bolivia, where the pavement ends in the town of San Carlos. We have some extra time now, so we take an exit about 2.5 miles south which takes us to El Divisadero to see the first of the Suri Caves. Visiting the caves requires a short climb, about 980 feet up from the dirt highway.
The suri is a type of ostrich or ñandú from the area and its image was painted on the rock some six hundred years ago. It’s not the cave painting that impresses me the most this morning, however, it’s our conversation with Rodrigo, the guide who emerges from a country house at the foot of the hill and takes us to the cave which we would never have found on our own. We stop to chat on a rock with holes that collect rainwater and discover that they are prehistoric mortars. Rodrigo is 17 years old and he tells us that he lives in the country house along with fifteen other families who sustain themselves through tourism. Some are guides, and others make clothing woven from sheep or llama wool.
“Ah!” I say, alertly. “So you have llamas here?” No, he says, here they only have sheep. They get the llama wool from an indigenous Diaguita community that lives in a village a two-day walk from here, over the hills, which outsiders are not allowed to enter. “We take them vegetables that we harvest,” he explains, “because money is of no use to them.” Rodrigo tells us about the fiesta of the Immaculate, where many residents of the valley in the Quebrada de las Conchas gather. They begin walking the night before and arrive at daybreak. Everyone brings food and drink to share. There is a mass followed by singing and dancing.
Time runs short so we say goodbye to Rodrigo and Cafayate and begin the 15.5-mile trip to San Carlos, via the old Camino Real, which is now Route 40. San Carlos is one of the oldest towns in Argentina. It was founded in 1551 and later destroyed several times by the indomitable Calchaquíes people. It was re-established three or four times in the 16th century. When we arrive it is midday and the town is deserted; it feels timeless, as though it could just as easily be 1683 or 1849. We travel through San Carlos until we reach the plaza where we visit the San Carlos Borromeo church and eat lunch in an exquisite restaurant with excellent service.
When we leave San Carlos, we decide to return the way we came. In the end, because of the rains, we miss Cachi but we are able to see each of the Quebrada de las Concha’s unusual rock formations by the light of day. We pass Los Castillos, Las Ventanas, and El Obelisco.
We stop at the Amphitheater which is a roofless cave with a floor that was formed twenty million years ago. A crevice in the rock leads to what looks like a true amphitheater. People play Andean music on a zampoña panpipe and quena flute. We are not alone, but the atmosphere and beauty of this place move us to speak in whispers. This mystical place is yet another gift from nature that we’ve witnessed on this trip through the province of Salta. In this moment I don’t care that I wasn’t able to go into the Andes or see the puna salteña. I only want to be where I am. My Zen state is interrupted as I realize that I want to hit anyone who defaces these rocks. Further up there is a marvelous cave called the Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’sThroat).
The bumpy road ends shortly after the bridge over the River de las Conchas. Soon we are traveling along an almost straight route and we see signs for the Dique de Cabra Corral Dam. We decide we have enough time to take advantage of the sun’s last rays. “Yes! We are going to see water,” we say like the good people of Montevideo that we are, accustomed to living by the sea. The lake is surrounded by hills and vegetation, and there are a few houses, inns, and restaurants as well. Beyond the dam, the river has rapids, which are ideal for rafting. We watch the sun set behind the mountains, its image reflected in the hyacinth-filled water.
We will travel the rest of the way after dark and we still have a long way to go before reaching San Salvador de Jujuy, where we’ ll return the car. “Salta, the Beautiful,” delighted us for two full days, but some day I will have to return. There are so many things left to see….