Salta is nicknamed “la linda,” or “the pretty” and it’s no surprise why. Completely different from Buenos Aires, it’s a small city with a colonial feel in the center, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a colonial gem, as other people marketing the area do. With an attractive center and main plaza (Plaza 9 de Julio), you can easily run through the main central streets in just an hour or so, including the pedestrian streets of Florida and Balcarce, which also houses the bar and club district up by the old train station.
So even though Salta is a small city, it serves as a good base for exploring the Province of Salta, which is the real attraction. A plan I had was to visit the town of Cafayate, which is northwest Argentina’s wine country, and then move on to the tiny village of Cachi where there wasn’t much to see, save for the incredible scenery and a chance to slow down and relax. Both towns lay on opposite ends of spectacular ravines and mountain passes, creating wonderful rides in which take 3-5 hours respectively because of all the twists and turns.
However, it’s nearly impossible to get to Cachi from Cafayate unless you have your own car or hire a private taxi, which is pretty expensive unless you can share the cost with other travelers. Thus, I headed to Cafayate to play the odds and see what I could do, waking up before dawn after one night in the city of Salta. The beginning part of the ride was nothing special—passing through vineyards and small towns where the bus stopped at nearly every corner, until we reached the Quebrada de las Conchas. This valley of red rocks and valleys had scenery like something out of Mars, with towering cliffs reaching over the road.
Soon we were in Cafayate and after finding a cheap hostel, ran over to three consecutive wineries for some cheap or free samples and chowed down on some empanadas salteñas. The friendly woman selling them on the corner told me her story and warned me to go back to the U.S., saying Argentina was nice but just to visit. By 2 pm I was back at the hostel to start a tour of the Quebrada de las Conchas, and though the guide was just so-so, the scenery was excellent. We walked through some of the caves and into the giant, extinct waters falls now dubbed “Garganta del Diablo” and “El Anfiteatro”, which is a place where music is performed every year.
The next day it was back to Salta, after realizing that there was no way I could get to Cachi, and the following day I geared up for a tour of Cachi and the Calchaquíes Valley. With a full day in a small bus filled with mostly older Argentines, we headed up the Cuesta del Obispo, a narrow mountain pass with over 150 switchbacks. I was looking forward to this ride for a long time, but to be honest, after everything I’d seen on the two week trip, it wasn’t the most dramatic. However, it’s still an amazing ride and I recognize that I’d been spoiled in Bolivia, so the trip is still a must.
Along the ride we stopped for lunch in Payogasta, a little hamlet with a view of the Nevado de Cachi, the snow capped mountain with the same name of the village. Once in town, we had an hour to walk around on our own, though after 10 minutes I’d covered the entire area three times. Ending the two week adventure to southwestern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina was laid back and smooth, just as it should have been after constant movement and trekking. My body was tired and my mind full of what I’d seen, but everything had gone off smoothly, and I couldn’t have asked for more. It was now a question of returning to Buenos Aires and finishing strongly with the two months remaining in my time here.
Rarely do you get to stay in a place where you feel so welcomed and at home that you have trouble leaving. There will always be the 5-star resort that is so luxurious that you need to be clawed away from the king size bed, or the friend’s apartment that you wish you could stay in longer just to be with people you know. Yet it’s much less common to find a hostel and feel so at peace that you want to stay around just to be there. In my short time in Tilcara, I was fortunate to find one of those places.
My friend Leo recommended La Albahaca Hostel, a short walk from the bus terminal in the small village. Walking towards the center you take the first right on Padilla and walk uphill (go at an easy pace if you’re not acclimated to the high altitude) and on your right you eventually come to the friendliest lodging in town. There you’ll be met by either Dani or Pablo, both transplants who didn’t grow up in the village, but came a long time ago and wound up staying.
For $30 ARS a night you get Internet, breakfast, a clean bed and terrace to take in the view, but also the buena onda, or good vibes in the place. As I walked in the door it felt like I was watching old friends talk, but the same thing could happen to you after spending a night there. Immediately I was pulled into the conversation and offered a round of mate, the first I had been offered on my trip, making me feel right at ease. The hostel is small and simple—don’t expect spa treatment. Yet the treatment you receive from the staff and most likely from the other friendly travelers who are passing through is more than compensation.
Tilcara is the kind of place you go to in order to relax, forget about work and troubles, and just enjoy nature. You can head up to the terrace where you get a magnificent view of the Jujeño mountains, or walk up to Pucará, a reconstructed Inca fortress. Another option is climbing up to the Garganta del Diablo and checking out the waterfalls. The nice thing about the village is that it’s in the middle of many attractions in the area, like Purmamarca and Iruya.
Dani and Pablo are quick to offer advice and give you their recommendations on the best peña in town or a cheap place to eat. The kitchen is small, but you can also cook your own meals there and eat in the dining room or lounge area, enjoyed in company by the staff. Music is usually on the in background, and since many Argentinians frequent the place, you can usually see mate being passed around and join in a conversation about soccer, politics, movies, whatever.
I can honestly say that I was seriously contemplating spending another night in Tilcara, simply because I was so comfortable in La Albahaca and with the guys. As I left the hostel to head further south, Dani and Pablo gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek (customary between men in Argentina) and it genuinely looked like Dani was sad to see me go. That was a first for me.
If you’re visiting Tilcara and want a place to say, I highly recommend La Albahaca, and guarantee that you’ll have as rewarding of an experience as I did.
The vacation is over now, and this morning I returned to my home in Buenos Aires. It was a long two weeks but I thoroughly enjoyed each part of the adventure through southwestern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. It’s odd to be back here in BA so soon, though the start of the trip feels like a lifetime ago. The amount of people I met, the number of snow-capped peaks I’ve seen and the stories to tell go beyond what I can remember off of the top of my head. But noting that I haven’t updated the blog since the day I left means that there are so many things to recount. This will take some time.
Normally while traveling and writing at the same time, you find yourself giving a step by step account of what you have just seen and done. It’s more of a journal form than story telling, though I find that it’s also an effective means of telling a tale. Yet so much time has passed since Day 1 that it would be pointless to try to go through and tell each day as if it were fresh. Instead, I’m going to be presenting several vignettes, or little slices of life from the trip. A story about the border crossing, riding in the desert at high altitude, or whatever else–these are the things you can expect to read about my vacation. It’s not just words either–I took over 700 pictures (though many have been deleted as duplicates or poor quality photos), in addition of a lot of video from the Bolivian excursion. The videos will take much more time to develop and produce than the writing portion, but they will be there soon enough. The trick is to get it out while the memories are still fresh within me.
So starting today you’re going to be able to learn about southwestern Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and a trip of a lifetime that was truly an adventure into the wild. Stay tuned.