Adventure Guide: Exploring Salta & Valle Calchaquiés

Salta city:

Salta was founded in 1582 to serve as a trade post between the Spanish stronghold in Lima, Peru and the port of Buenos Aires.  During the independence wars Salta would serve as an important barrier to Spanish encroachment from Lima.  General Martín Miguel de Güemes was responsible for organizing local gauchos to maintain the retroguard, using guerrilla warfare tactics they successfully defended the city from nine separate Spanish invasions. After independence Salta was left in political and economic disarray and would remain as such until the turn of the 20th century when Spanish, Italian, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrants rejuvenated the agricultural industry.

Today Salta has an interesting dichotomy of modern elegance and rustic traditions. Salta is small enough that it is easily walkable and the pace moves pretty slow especially in the early afternoon when the entire town shuts down to respect the sacred siesta hour, however at other times the city center is abuzz with the same noise and traffic you would expect in any major city. Salta has substantial indigenous and folklore influence and seems to be culturally closer to Bolivia than to Buenos Aires. Gastronomically Salta is a heavy hitter with bold, fiery flavors and time honored traditions, and although Salta’s viticultural industry takes a back seat to Mendoza, the wines being produced are outstanding and continuously gaining ground against it’s southern rival. The colonial architecture and perennial spring climate make a Salta a favorite any time of the year.

Left: Basilica San Francisco; Top: Folklore Musicians performing in Plaza 9 de Julio; Bottom: The colonial Cabildo.

Arriving to Salta: The main bus terminal is just blocks from the city center near Parque San Martín.  Martín Miguel de Güemes Airport is 6 KM’s from the city center and you can take a taxi from the curb, or walk to the end of the driveway entrance and wait for the Saeta 8A bus that drops you at the bus terminal in town, bus fare is $3.50 pesos and it is necessary to pay with coins in exact change.

Accommodations: For budget accommodation La Covacha Hostel has a laidback social ambiance with a good kitchen. The hostel often organizes asados (big family style barbecues) complete with wine on their terrace. Design Suites Salta is a modern hotel in front of tranquil Plaza Belgrano. The rooms are comfortable, the wifi is reliable and the breakfast is abundant.

Sights in Salta:

    • The most important museum in Salta is the Museo Arqueologico de Alta Montaña, an archaeology museum dedicated to the Incan ritual of sacrifices of children! The museum has three mummies of children raised as sacrificial subjects who were discovered in the peaks of the mountains in the region, where the weather preserved their bodies nearly perfectly more than 500 years after their deaths.  The museum tells the story of why the Inca performed such sacrifices and the display rotates 1 of the 3 mummies.  The museum is both fascinating and spooky!
    • Explore the Municipal Market: This is a great way to see local handicrafts, try local foods, buy fresh fruit and vegetables, witness live music, and even try coca leaves to help with any negative effects from altitude.
    • Explore the colonial architecture: Wander through the Cathedral and stroll by the arched colonnade of the Cabildo off the main square. Visit the San Bernardo Convent and the Basilica of San Francisco. To put it all in context and learn the history take a free walking tour with Salta Free Walks.
    • Climb Cerro San Bernardo: Head to the Monument of General Martín Miguel de Güemes, Salta’s hero in the independence war. The trailhead begins just behind the monument, follow the stone steps upwards to reach the peak for great panoramic views. If you don’t feel like climbing the hundreds of steps to the top, there is a teleférico (cable car) in Parque San Martín that takes you up to the peak and back.
    • San Lorenzo: Just 11 KM from Salta is a natural park great for hiking, horseback riding and exploring the nature. To arrive by bus you can take the Saeta linea 7 bus, which stops along the Avenida Entre Ríos. Take a picnic lunch and spend an afternoon in nature.
    • Calle Balcarce: The busiest street for nightlife in Salta is calle Balcarce, which is lined with restaurants, discotecas, and peñas. The latter is an establishment that puts on live folklore music and gaucho shows, it’s a good way to become acquainted with one of the North’s proudest forms of musical and cultural heritage.

Eating in Salta:

The culinary highlight in Salta is one of the most simple, but equally one of the most emblematic foods from Argentina, the empanada.  Argentina arguably makes the best empanada in all of South America and the hands down the empanadas salteñas are the best in the country.  We have found the best empanada in Salta, which is in the central market in a small restaurant near the butcher shops. The empanadas are washed down nicely with Salta Negra, a light bodied, slightly sweet dark ale.

This booth in the market near the butcher shops is the spot!

What makes the empanadas salteñas so special?  They are typically smaller, almost half the size of the empanadas that you find in Buenos Aires. The filling is a slightly spicy mix of ground beef, boiled potatoes and spices.  They are served in masa criolla (creole dough) and fried until golden brown.  Also equally important is the sauce they are served with, a mixture of fiery Bolivian rocoto pepper and tomato. Keep in mind the market closes for siesta in the afternoon so you have to go before 1pm or after 5 pm.

Other tasty Salteña foods:

  • Locro – A thick sweet corn based soup with squash, beans, vegetables, bacon and various cuts of beef. This dish is traditionally eaten in the winter time and especially around the festival days of 25 of May and 9 of July.
  • Humita – A pre-colombian slightly sweet corn dough that is boiled with onions, oftentimes with cheese, and served inside a dried corn husk.
  • Tamal – A corn dough similar to the humita, however generally stuffed with ground beef and spices.
  • Papines andinos – The Incans had more than 300 varieties of potatoes, these are the smaller ones that are generally cooked whole, skin-on with salt and rosemary.
  • Llama and alpaca – Generally cooked as steaks, or occasionally in stews. The preparations are treated as beef, but the meat has a gamier taste and texture.
  • Charqui – Another food that indigenous tribes have been making for hundreds if not thousands of years.  The dried meat is the basis of what we now know as jerky (an anglicism). Because cattle did not live in the America’s before the arrival of the Spanish, charqui was originally made using llamas, but today is mostly made from beef.
  • Dulce de cayote – An autochthonous squash that is cooked in sugar and served as dessert, often times accompanied by quesillo.

Salta Province:

While Salta is a great colonial city, the true beauty in this area lies in outlying areas, which are all filled with incredible red rock formations, surreal desert landscapes, breathtaking altitudes, windswept adobe structures, and plenty of great wine!

Renting a car:

The best way to get around is through renting a car, if you are staying in a hostel ask if anyone is interested in renting a car to split costs. Most of the car rental places are located along the street Buenos Aires, just South of Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta. Shop around in the various rental agencies, to find the best prices avoid large international agencies such as Alamo and Fox which tend to be more costly. All that is necessary to rent a car is a valid driver’s license in your home country and a credit card to place a deposit on the car.  While driving in the province, it is mandated by law to use headlights even in the day time.  In rural parts it is nearly impossible to find gas service stations, it is advisable to fill up the gas tank in each city you stop in, and you will need to return the car with a full tank of gas. In Argentina the word for gas is nafta.

The Valle Calchaquiés

The rural agricultural valley south of Salta city gets its name because it was the ancestral lands of the Calchaquies, a nation of pre-incan people. The Calchaquí indians led one of the most ferocious resistances against invading imperialists for more than 300 years. In the 15th century they were invaded by the Inca who never were successful in incorporating the Calchaquí into their empire. The Spanish also waged war against the Calchaquí, after unsuccessful attempts to implement forced labor upon the tribe. The war of the Calchaquiés, beginning in the 16th century, would continue for some 200 years until the Spanish were finally able to subdue the Calchaquí through war, disease, and forced migration.  Still today the influence of the natives is respected in the tradition of local weavings, agricultural practices, folklore and culinary techniques. The jagged, rural scenery of this area is a testament to the fighting spirit of the Calchaquí, and one of the best off-the-beaten-path travels in Northern Argentina.

Salta to Cafayate

The first stretch travels south from Salta along the highway 68. After about 2 hours you will reach the small ghost town of Alemania, formerly inhabited by German railroad workers until the train was decommissioned.  Alemania warrants a short stop for a couple of quick pictures and walk across the railway bridge. A few more bends in the road and you reach your first opportunity for wine tastings at Finca las Cutiembres, keep in mind that you still have 2 hours of driving before reaching Cafayate, don’t get too tipsy. Continuing on you will come to La Quebrada de las Conchas (the gorge of the shells), a red rock formation that continues on for some 80 KM’s encompassing Río Las Conchas. The various rock formations that can be seen along this route are: La Garganta del Diablo (KM 141), El Anfiteatro, (KM 142), El Sapo (KM 153), El Obelisco (KM 165), and Los Castillos (KM 168).

A flutist performs inside the natural amphitheater.

Cafayate:

Founded in 1840 by former mayor of Salta, Fernando de Aramburu, the name of Cafayate came from the indigenous Calchaquí tongue which means “town that has it all” due to its privy location below the Cerro San Isidro Mountains and cradled between the Rivers Chusco and Loro Huasi. While spending one night in Cafayate is virtually obligatory, many travelers decide to extend their plans here as the appeal of great wines and stunning landscapes make it an easy place to relax and unwind.

Things To Do in Cafayate:

  • Plaza 20 de Febrero – The tranquil main square of Cafayate is where the town comes together.  Just in front stands the Cathedral, many restaurants and handicraft vendors are found on surrounding streets.
  • Río Colorado – 6 KM’s outside of town is the Colorado river, if you walk upriver for an hour and half you will reach the first in a series of 3 waterfalls and a pools for swimming.  You can reach the river by taking 25 de Mayo street west, just before arriving to Finca Las Nubes you will see the river to your left.
  • Mirador Cerro Santa Teresita – located 2 KM’s from town on the continuation of calle Vicario Toscano is an easy climb that rewards with staggering views of the colonial city and it’s sprawling vineyards.
  • Museo de La Vid y Vino – In 2011 this modern museum was inaugurated with the purpose of explaining the process of winemaking within the peculiarities of the climate of Salta and the history and development of the industry. Tues – Sat 9am- 7pm, entrance 60 pesos.
  • Heladería Miranda – Since you are probably in full blown wine mood while exploring Cafayate, why not try Malbec & Torrontés ice cream?  While it is non-alcoholic and the only legs you will find will be as it melts down the side of your cone, it still is worth a try 😉

Wines of Cafayate:

The main viticultural zone in Salta is situated at more than 1,700 meters above sea level and with more than 300 sunny days per years, this is an idyllic wine growing region. The area is known not just for Malbec, but also lesser known grapes seldom exported outside of Argentina. Try the Tannat (very tannic, fruit forward red with spice notes) and Torrontés (a high altitude, dry, white wine that is native to Argentina, believed to be a distant relative of muscat or gewürtraminer).

Vineyards within Cafayate:

  • Bodega Nanni – This family winery is was started by an Italian immigrant in the late 19th century.  Four generations later it continues to be one of the better bodegas in Cafayate specializing in organic wines. Nanni offers a free tours followed by tastings of younger wines (50 pesos) or reserve wines (80 pesos).  This is one of the best bodegas to buy wine, as they have great prices. The reserve Arcanvs wines are quite delicious and a great value for the quality. Tours and tastings: Mon-Sat from 10am – 12:30pm & 3 – 6pm, Sundays 11am – 12:30pm & 3 – 5:30pm.
  • El Porvenir – A boutique, small batch winery located just 2 blocks from the main plaza, with a nice restaurant. Try the Bonarda, one of Argentina’s up and coming red wines. Argentine Bonarda is of no relation to the namesake Italian varietal, Argentina’s version is actually a varietal called Douce Noir that is light on tannins and high on fruit with notes of black cherry, plum, allspice and tobacco. Other wines to try are Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet and Torrontés. Tours and tastings are from Tuesday – Saturday 9am – 1 pm & 3pm – 6pm.
  • Domingo Hermanos – An industrial winery that produces wine determined to be sold in the “damajuana” the 5 liter bottles of house wine.  Make this the last stop on the bodegas in town, as the quality of the wines is not the best, however the view of the vineyards is exquisite.

Vineyards outside Cafayate:

Vineyards in Cafayate.

  • Yacochuya – Follow the dusty Provincial Route 2 northwest of town for 8 KM’s to reach a winery in a stunning setting along the edge of the foothills. The Yacochuya vineyard is a collaboration from winemaker Marcos Etchart (whose family who is famous for wines of Cafayate) and the famed wine consultant Michelle Roland. Try the Coquena, a blend of Malbec and Cabernet that takes it’s name from the indigenous legend of a mysterious guardian of the valley. Mon – Fri from 10am – 5 pm; Saturday 10am – 1pm.
  • El Esteco – The first vineyard that welcomes you into the Cafayate is El Esteco, situated beside the mythical highway 40.  This vineyard’s flagship wine is Elementos, one of the one of the largest produced in Salta, but also specializes in premium wines such as Altimus (Bordeaux blend aged 12 months in French oak) and Chañar Punco (65% Malbec, 35% Cabernet). Tours and tastings: Mon – Fri 10am-12pm & 2:30pm – 6:30pm, Sat & Sun 10am – 12pm.
  • Finca las Nubes – Located just outside of Cafayate along the continuation of Av. 25 de Mayo is the bodega of family of José L. Mounier (look for the signpost that says Mounier).  Finca las Nubes produces a very small quantity, only 30,000 liters per year so it is a great opportunity to try their Cabernet/Malbec blend, Torrontés, Rosé and Spumantes. Tours and tastings are by reservation only, contact +54 03868 422129.
  • Colomé – Located near the town of Molinos, about half way between Cafayate and Cachi is an obligatory stop on the Salta wine circuit. Colomé was founded in 1831 making it one of Argentina’s oldest vineyards with continuous production using pre-filoxera French wine stocks. It also has the bragging right of being the highest vineyard in the world at more than 3,000 meters above sea level.  In 2001 the bodega was taken over by Donald Hess of the Hess Napa Collection in his first venture in Argentine wines. Visits take place Tuesday – Saturday at 3pm and 5pm, by reservation only. Contact: reservas@bodegacolome.com.

Cafayate to Cachi via the Ruta 40

Rural gas station on the Ruta 40.

The trip from Cafayate to Cachi is one of the most stunning drives in all of Argentina, following the Ruta 40.  The national route 40 connects the entire length of Argentina from La Quiaca in the North to Río Gallegos, the southernmost town in continental Argentina. This route was made famous by Che Guevara who traversed the same road on motorcycle in his travel epic Diarios de Motocicleta. North of Cafayate the Ruta 40 passes through rural adobe towns, pre-colombian indigenous settlements, and is flanked by otherworldly scenery.

San Carlos: 24 KM’s North of Cafayate is the small traditional village of San Carlos with population of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Beyond San Carlos the Ruta 40 turns to a rural dirt road.  From here the Ruta 40 winds beside the Río Calchaquí.

Quebrada de las Flechas: 45 minutes north of San Carlos you will arrive to the small town of Payogastilla.  The drive north from here is witness to the most spectacular and rugged scenery in the North of Argentina. The jagged dirt road winds through lunar landscapes formed by millions of years of unyielding work by mother nature. Just before reaching a lush valley the road makes an abrupt turn giving way to a truly phantasmagorical view, the Monumento Natural Angastaco. Rock formations thrust out of the earth as if they were propelled by spears thrown from within the earth’s inner crust. The surreal geological formations point towards the distant horizon as if some celestial signpost marking the way for wayward wanderers from millennia past. If you have a bottle of wine in your car and something to snack on this is a great point to break up your trip with a picnic lunch.

Angastaco Natural Monument.

Angastaco: 54 KM’s north of San Carlos is a town with a population of just over 800 residents that sits at 1,955 meters above sea level.  Here you can find vineyards as well as anise and cumin production in the surrounding agricultural fields. If you need gas, there is one station in town.

Molinos – The adobe architecture throughout Molinos is one of the most striking features and the ultimate expression is the 18th century Cathedral of San Pedro Nolasco. West of town is the Criadero Coquera, where the ministry of agriculture raises vicuñas (camelids similar to llamas) responsibly for their wool. One of the regions best wineries, Finca Colomé is 20 KM’s west of town along a dirt road with dramatic views. In town there is one ATM (Banco Macro) on the plaza.

Cathedral in Molinos.

Seclantas – 20 KM’s north of Molinos is the quaint village of Seclantas known for being the home of one of Salta’s most emblematic handicrafts, the poncho salteño used by General Güemes and his Infernales while defending Salta from the Spanish.

Cachi

View of Cachi from Cemetery

30 KM’s north of Seclantas is Cachi, a village that is the essence of indigenous heritage weaved together with Salta’s folklore traditions. The small town of just 7,200 inhabitants has a cluster of colonial buildings off the main plaza, but many residences remain adobe relics throughout the town. The setting of Cachi is surrounded by a blissful and serene backdrop of the foothills of Nevado de Cachi mountains and agricultural valleys that are covered by thick fog in the mornings. The drive to this point is usually about 5-6 hours, so this will make a nice place to stop and bed down for the night. Although the town is tiny and devoid of street names, Cachi has more infrastructure in the way of lodging and dining than you will find around for hours. You can also find an ATM on the corner of Ruiz de los Llanos and Güemes, as well as a gas station in town near the ACA Automobile Club, just off the 40.

San José de Cachi

Sights in Cachi

  • Iglesia San José de Cachi – Wander through the cathedral adjacent to the main square, whose ceilings, pulpits and confessionals are made from the timber of the Cardon cactus.
  • Municipal Pool –  After a long day of exploring why not chill out poolside, the Municipal Camping site allows day use of the swimming pool for a nominal fee. Look for Camping Municipal situated near the ACA automobile club hostería, one block from the turn in the ruta 40.
  • Museo Arquelógico – The arched colonial building beside the church houses a modest archeological museums with several displays about the Diaguita peoples from the region. Tue- Sun 9am – 6 pm, closed Mondays.
  • Cemetery – A quick walk outside of town will take you to a hill with a short walk to reach the local cemetery that also has a great viewpoint of the Calchaquí valley surrounding Cachi.
  • Cachi Adentro – A short drive, or an hour and a half walk, northwest of Cachi along the Río Las Trancas takes you to the rural hamlet of Cachi Adentro.  While Cachi Adentro has very little to offer besides a small church, a tiny square and one store, the journey there places the river and agricultural fields to one side with the foothills of the mountains to the other. You can return by an alternate route- take the turn at the main urbanization of Cachi Adentro and cross the river (note if you are walking this will make the entire trip some 20+ KM’s).

Eating in Cachi

AshpamantaThis restaurant could be the culinary highlight for all of Salta. The tiny intimate restaurant has few tables and behind the bar is a small exposed kitchen where the main emphasis is passion and integrity for local products. The food is spectacular, everything is made fresh from scratch and very wholesome, slow food. While the restaurant does serve meat, it is also vegetarian and vegan friendly using Andean foods such as quinoa and local produce. The Andean empanadas (goat cheese, quinoa, and basil) are exceptional, and the homemade Sorrentinos stuffed with walnuts, goat cheese, and quinoa are equally divine. The pasta is made fresh to order, in fact you will see the chef rolling out the dough in the exposed kitchen for each order. The pasta is also accompanied by a slightly spicy tomato vegetable ragú cooked with the famous Torrontes white wine. For dessert try chocolate ice cream that sprinkled with cayenne pepper, which is creamy, fiery, and inspired by local flavors.

Parque Nacional Los Cardones (Return to Salta via Route 33)

Be on the lookout for Vicuña in the National Park

North of Cachi just outside the town of Payogasta you turn right onto the Provincial Route 33, where the asphalted road is a sight for sore eyes. While the bumpy road might end, that doesn’t mean that the dramatic scenery has to. After a short ride you will reach Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a national park which is named in honor of the Cardon cactus, a species similar in appearance to the Saguaro cactus in the southwestern United States.  The park has incredible biodiversity, beginning in the Andes and descending down to the yungas, a low-lying, verdant microclimate. The park is also home to several vicuñas, who can be seen crossing the striking landscape- beware of wildlife on the road as you drive.  After about 45 minutes the road unfolds to a green meadow surrounded by green rolling hills, this is the Valle Encantada (enchanted valley).  Just ahead is the small chapel on the left side of the road, from here the road plunges steeply downward along the infamous Cuesta del Obispo (Descent of the Bishop). The scenery changes spectacularly from the top to the bottom, going from high altitude mountains to intermediate desert surroundings. Drive carefully and check your brakes, as the road from here takes several hairpin turns along the steep switchbacks. I recommend pulling off the road from time to time to allow local traffic to pass, this will allow you to be safe and enjoy the views without having anyone tailgating you. After the bends and turns begin to cease continue for another hour along the Río Escoipe until reaching the city of El Carril. In El Carril you will need to change to the highway 68 North, which is less than 1 hour from Salta.

Happy travels!

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