Oh, Salta, how I love thee. To us, Argentina just kept getting better as we headed further north. Salta is a charming town. It has a central plaza surrounded by colonial buildings and is chock-full of souvenir shops. It feels touristy, in a European way, but I felt more at home here than anywhere we had stayed so far. I also suddenly decided I wanted to buy a lot of souvenirs, but managed to quell the urge (thankfully for our budget!).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF SALTA
Our overnight bus from Cordoba arrived in Salta at around 8am. We took a taxi to our hostel, and our driver really set the scene. Music blaring, cheerily shouting out of his window to the other taxi drivers (for all we know he might have been yelling abuse) and careering around the corners, he instantly made us feel invigorated about this new city. Checking into our hostel so early meant that we didn’t have a room yet, so off we went to explore, despite our lack of sleep. We arrived in the plaza as people and pigeons were heading to work. We avoided the bread-sellers and took a wander down some pedestrianised streets. Aimlessly heading east we happened upon Parque San Martin with its teleférico, or cable car. With the tourist mood upon us (and conveniently forgetting my fear of cable cars) we purchased return tickets (AR$70/US$9 per person) for the 1km, 8 minute ride up to the top of Cerro San Bernado. There is a great view of the city on the way up, and at the top are waterfalls, kiosks and viewing spots. Had we been better prepared we might have known that it’s easy enough to walk back down and saved ourselves the return ticket.
At the bottom of the cable car in the park there is a small tourist market. We took a wander through here, I bought some sunglasses, and wish I had bought a very twee painting of an Andean girl with shiny pink cheeks on a teal background. We ate at a market food stall, traditional Argentinian asado, or barbecue. Argentina is famous for its barbecued meat, and it is indeed fantastic, although be warned portions are large and not accompanied by vegetables.
TOURS AROUND THE SALTA REGION
For our stay in Salta we decided on two full day tours (it was a good deal to buy 2!), the first to Cafayate and the second to Salinas Grandes. We booked these tours with our hostel, the cost was AR$570 (US$72) per person for both days. They had early-morning pick-ups at the hostel, and returned at around 6 or 7pm.
The tour to Cafayate took in the Quebrada de las Conchas, or Shell Gorge. This gorge is named so due to the large number of marine fossils. This whole region used to be the Pacific seabed (a little while ago!), and was lifted up due to tectonic plate movement. The result is fascinating rock formations, with beautiful coloured layers representing different geologic periods. For example, we could often see a dark green layer in the rock – this is apparently composed of seaweed fossils. We made three stops along the way. The first was to La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), a large gorge with windswept (or waterswept may be more accurate) high walls, formed from a beautiful orange-red coloured stone. Some of our group scrambled up a rock face and walked up into the gorge. Our second stop was at El amfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), another large and tall gorge in the same golden hues. There was a small band playing, and the acoustics were impressive. Our guide, Leo, told us that the Argentinian Symphonic Orchestra have played here, what a marvellous setting. Our third stop was at Tres Cruces (Three Crosses). They were erected for three bishops who were important in the area. The crosses themselves were small but the views from here were spectacular. On the rest of our journey various rock formations were pointed out to us including “the giant empanada” (we didn’t have enough imagination to see this one), a frog, the Titanic and a Friar with his congregation of followers.
We stopped off at a winery on the outskirts of Cafayate before being taken into the town for lunch. Cafayate is a small town with an open, colonial feel. Based around its central plaza are many restaurants and cafes, as well as some souvenir markets (I picked up a cute crocheted llama purse). There are hostels here and it would be a relaxing place to spend a few nights, and a good base for treks to the surrounding areas.
Our second day tour took us in the opposite direction, north of Salta and past Jujuy. We made a stop outside the town of Purmamarca to view the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Hill of Seven Colours). The geology is similar to the Quebrada de las Conchas. Many layers of rock formed in different colours, which are striking to see. From greens and teals to reds, oranges, pinks and even violet, the hill behind the town is actually stripy From this photo stop we drove up into the mountains. We had a second photo stop at the highest point in our journey, at 4170m, where we saw lots of vicuña. They are a protected species, with a high value on the black market. I’m unsure whether this value is for their fleece or their meat, but our guide told us they can fetch AR$500 per kilo. Therefore poachers come and hunt them, so there are a lot of police around searching vans and buses for evidence of vicuña poaching.
On the other side of these mountains we saw the Salinas Grandes open up before us, white in the sun. This salt flat is 32km long and 9km wide. Our bus dropped us off pretty much in the middle, and we had a 30 minute photo break. We failed to take any cool “tiny person” shots with our trusty toy VW camper van. Perhaps due to poor technique or maybe the object was too small – our guide Eva tried to help us but no luck! The salt flats are…salty…and very bright. They are formed when annual rains wash minerals down from the surrounding mountains. The water is evaporated leaving a new layer of salt each year.
We headed back over the mountains to Purmamarca for some lunch. Afterwards Nick and I took a walk up a road at the back of the village into the hills. There was nobody else around and we had some good views of the interesting rock formations and colours. We then wandered around the plaza in the centre of Purmamarca, with its abundance of souvenir stalls with enticing bright colours. Having exercised a great deal of physical restraint we settled on purchasing our very own salty llama – a cute little llama carved from salt.
WHERE WE STAYED:
Hostal Coloria, AR$186 (US$24) per night for a double room with shared bathroom. This hostel was pretty good value. It is in a good location a short walk from the main plaza. It was a bit noisy in the evenings and at night – our room had an internal window out to the open living area, where people talked and watched TV until the small hours. We could also hear the doorbell ring all through the night. The bathroom was ok, and the showers were hot. Breakfast was quite good – a selection of breads or cereals, with juice and hot beverages. Most of the staff only spoke a little English.
HOW WE GOT THERE:
Our overnight bus from Cordoba to Salta took around 12 hours, and cost AR$536 each (US$70). Our tickets were purchased through Mercobus, but the bus itself was a Plus Ultra bus (owned by the same company). We had upstairs seats, which were very comfortable. We could recline almost flat, making for a relatively restful journey, and were given dinner and breakfast. My only complaint was a lack of seatbelt – slightly concerning being in the front row upstairs!
By Rosie and Nick