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.
I got off the bus in Tilcara tired and out of it. As usually some random guy who hangs out at the bus terminal grabbed my bag down and then asked for change, but I wasn’t having any of it. “I already gave a tip to the guy who put the bag in,” I told him, and he grudgingly followed me for a few steps before returning to the bus stands. A bit annoying, but I was back in Argentina and the ride in had been interesting. From the border in La Quiaca we rode smoothly until a police checkpoint in Tres Cruces, where everyone had to get off the bus, take their luggage and wait to be checked. As a tourist, I only had to show my passport and move on.
Weaving in and out of a state of sleep, we passed from high altitude plains through valleys with towering desert-mountains on each side. Now in the Province of Jujuy, I was delighted to colored mountains of a range of shades, running streams and tiny villages specked sporadically along the highway. I was wondering at what point we would pass the Quebrada de Humahuaca, until later realizing that the Quebrada is in reality the whole stretch of road. Mountains of red, green and yellow stained the skyline and made for a lovely trip.
Now in the small village of Tilcara, I walked up the road from the bus station and took the first right, walking uphill in search of La Albahaca, a hostel my friend Leo recommended to me. Once checked in and having taken a very necessary nap, I took off for a hike up to another one of the natural wonders in Argentina called “Garganta del Diablo.” I had underestimated the elevation of Tilcara (2,500 meters/8,200 feet above sea level) because I had just been much higher up in Bolivia. But once on the hike I was quickly winded and forced to stop every so often to catch my breath. In fact, on the way back down I stopped a couple of times and had my vision go out slightly of focus.
The hike was very pretty and allowed me to take in the scenery around Tilcara, though I never made it all the way down to the waterfalls because I was losing sunlight, alone, and the wind was picking up (as it always does from around 3-6 pm). Back in town I could see just how peaceful and infectious this place was. Smiling faces greeted you as you passed in the street and the laid back attitude gave a sense of ease which a city will never have.
Tilcara is nice because unlike some other small towns nearby, there are a number of restaurants and peñas, or folkloric shows, which can keep you entertained at night. But of course, the main idea is to come to a place like this to relax and unwind, rather than go out looking for a cool bar. On the first night I checked out La Peña de Carlitos in the main square with two porteños, and though it was interesting, a lot of it might be lost on someone who does not speak Spanish, as it was mostly story telling.
The second day took me to Purmamarca and the Seven Color Hill, truly a beautiful sight, though village itself is a bit too touristic. Later I checked out Pucara, a reconstruction of an Inca fortress towering over the valley below—clearly an important spot. I would have stayed another day in Tilcara just to relax, but alas, the call of the road was too loud to ignore, and I moved on. But I highly recommend visiting this village when passing through northwestern Argentina, and if you don`t know if you`re going to make it there, make an exception.