Katie Parsons recently travelled to the Salta province in the northwest of Argentina and discovered a region of stunning canyons, high altitude vineyards and beautiful colonial architecture.
After a couple of days exploring Buenos Aires and the obligatory visit to the Iguazú Falls, most tourists head south to Patagonia or west to the Lake District. Instead, I flew 2 hours north to Salta, one of Argentina’s few remaining colonial cities and home of the empanada: a small pasty-like snack filled with mince, ham or cheese and potato and they won’t be found better anywhere else!
The main highlights of Salta are the rather pink cathedral on one side of Plaza 9 de Julio and the Cabildo on the opposite. The beautifully painted San Francisco church is another example of the colonial architecture the Spanish left behind. Its bright, deep red and yellow exterior makes it one of Salta’s most photographed buildings.
The real highlight of my visit wasn’t the city of Salta but rather the scenery and Andean villages of the Salta province. The Calchaquí Valley and the surrounding canyons are a truly unknown gem in Argentina’s northwest Andean region. The biggest surprise of all was the incredibly high standards of accommodation that are available in even the remotest destinations.
Heading towards the Bolivian border the colourful canyons and the aptly named ‘Cerro de Siete Colores’ (Hill of Seven Colours) are the province of Jujuy’s must-see attraction. The oxidisation process of the different minerals is shown in varying red and green colours, changing during the day depending on the sun.
The small village of Tilcara has some impressive ruins of an Inca fortress and the colourful market in the town sells a wide array of typical Andean souvenirs and products made from the cardon cacti, seen growing in abundance across the region.
At the northern end of the canyon, the charming town of Humahuaca could easily be confused with a Peruvian village. The narrow streets, some cobbled and some dust, lead to a small square and an even smaller and unusual church. Quechan ladies sell their handicrafts and souvenirs and as it is 2800m above sea level, the coca leaf is sold and chewed as a traditional Andean way to alleviate altitude sickness.
Heading south down the Ruta 40, Argentina’s less paved M1, are the charming Andean villages of Cachi and Molinos. With narrow cobblestone streets and small churches, either provides a relaxing stop on the journey. Cachi, the larger of the two, has a small museum and the relaxed way of life is a welcome change from the bustle of Buenos Aires and even Salta.
The dusty road from Molinos to Cafayate passes through the Quebrada de las Flechas (Canyon of Arrows) with striking photo opportunities along the way. All of the formations are made from sand blown across from the Chilean Atacama Desert and are caused entirely by wind erosion since the region receives almost no rain.
The return drive from Cafayate to Salta through the Quebrada del Rio de las Conchas (Canyon of the River of Shells) is on tarmac roads. Photo stops are made at impressive natural rock formations such as Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), El Amfiteatro (the Amphitheatre) El Fraile (the Monk), El Obelisco (the Obelisk) and others, which require more imagination!
Cafayate is the heart of the province’s wine production. The vineyards are at some of the highest altitudes in the world, which winemakers are active to promote as the winning formula of their wines. Within walking distance of the town are numerous vineyards offering guided tours and complimentary wine tasting and in Cafayate it’s possible to buy Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon flavoured ice cream.
For the wine enthusiasts it is possible to stay at some of the vineyards for an authentic ‘wine’ experience. Among my favourite are the Estancia Colomé near Molinos and Patios de Cafayate on the outskirts of Cafayate.
In many ways it is a shame that this part of Argentina is so much less visited but the lack of people and the remoteness of some places just add to its unique charm. The stunning landscapes, excellent food and delicious wine are an added bonus!
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