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Argentina’s Salta region offers colonial heritage, great wine and rugged countryside

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As you land, your plane banking in through the clouds, you will catch your first glimpse of Salta City, a 4,000-foot-high, flat urban grid ringed by a patchwork of green and brown farmlands. Farther on, the high, desolate Andes of this far northwestern province loom at their widest point -- formidable, vast and waiting to be explored.


Salta is easily reached by a two-hour flight leaving daily from Ezeiza, Buenos Aires’ downtown airport. Direct flights from the U.S. are not an option, so you probably want to book a day or two in Buenos Aires before heading north. Tour operators typically run six-night itineraries, with day excursions out of Salta City taking in a stunning geographic diversity, as well as strong traditional and cultural heritage.


There are old colonial towns and Inca ruins along the four “circuits” outlined by Argentina’s tourism authority. These are popular vineyard tours out of Cafayate, the Train to the Clouds (which ends in the Andean mountains along the Chilean border), the intensely colored rock formations of the Quebrada de las Conchas and a history-filled excursion in the south taking in gaucho country.


Combine the better-known Patagonia and Mendoza (famous for producing the best Argentine wines); the north’s Inca culture and a sophisticated capital city boasting a broad range of accommodations, authentic crafts markets and a burgeoning high-altitude nightlife scene, and you have the makings of the next great South American destination. Much of the credit goes to Salta’s former governor, who spent millions beefing up the province’s road network while investing heavily in infrastructure renovation and promotion.


In 2005, Salta City got its first international hotel, the Sheraton Salta, which was followed in 2006 by the five-star Alejandro I, part of the Argentine hotel chain La Veloz. Such boutique properties as the Hotel Papyrus, a nine-room gem, ideal for couples, soon followed. The charming bed-and-breakfast Carpe Diem features Spanish-colonial architecture.


Those wishing to stay on the main Plaza 9 de Julio can find such grand baroque accommodations as the Hotel Colonial or Hotel Salta, the latter offering a colonial-era ambience with a modern touch.

Tour companies and rental car agencies are clustered around Salta City’s Buenos Aires and Cabildo streets. It’s easy to book a guided tour or drive the terrain solo, though this sometimes entails traveling over unpaved roads in desolate landscapes prone to extreme heat and flash flooding.


Conquistadors founded Salta’s provincial capital, Salta City, in 1582. Lima, not Buenos Aires, was the regional power then, as it dominated the trade route to the Atlantic. Its architectural character is typical of a Spanish colony, with a cathedral and important government buildings facing a main plaza ringed by covered walkways, and sidewalks so high you sometimes need to take half-steps down to the roadway.


The Diguita Indians ruled this region until several Inca communities arrived and established what made up the southern region of the empire known as Collasuyo. Their ancient culture is brought to life at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, located on the Plaza 9 de Julio and opened in 2004 specifically to house three mummified Inca children who were unearthed from a 22,000-foot-high summit that once served as an Inca altar.


The cloth, pottery, and small gold and silver statues buried with them are displayed in darkly lit rooms where the mood is colored by recordings of ancient songs and poems in Quechua. Walking through the museum is akin to taking a 500-year journey, the endpoint a specially constructed glass case housing La Doncella (“the maiden”), the well-preserved mummy of a 15-year-old Inca girl.


Also on the Plaza 9 de Julio is the main cathedral, a pink-and-yellow building with a long gilded hall and a high altar topped off by an immense golden sunburst. There’s a constant flow of people, some praying, others taking comfort in the communal moment. Outside the cathedral, visitors can hop on a MoviTrack city tour, which begins in the palm-shaded center of the plaza, next to the monument to General Arenales, the governor of Salta who fought in the early 19th-century wars of independence against Spain.


At the entrance to the city’s food market, old ladies with braided hair and parched brown skin sit patiently beside sagging cheese wheels, their reddish-purple garlic cloves splayed out on ochre-colored cloth blankets. There are vegetable stands and crafts stalls, but perhaps the most fascinating are the butchers standing alongside reddened marble counters and meat hanging from cold metal hooks. Nearby open-air kitchens serve sweet humitas (caked sweet corn) and spicy tamales (corn meal, beef and chili wrapped in a corn husk).


You also should seek out the local form of music called Zamba, which can be both mournful and raucous and usually includes an accordion-like bondelon and bass drum. El Boliche Balderrama is one of the oldest and best folk-music restaurants, known as penas, but you can also head to the Balcarce district, where a number of penas have sprung up next to the old train station. Jose Balcarce is perhaps the most talked-about restaurant in the region, owing to an award-winning “high altitude” menu that includes a llama capriccio appetizer and a main course of pumpkin-stuffed ravioli served in a mushroom broth.


Salta City is surrounded by mountainous virgin territory bursting with spectacular microclimates – the endless horizon lines in the salt planes of the Puna desert, the northeast’s humid jungles at Las Yungas Biosphere Reserve and the multicolored landscapes of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. One of the most popular itineraries is the Calchaqui Valley circuit, which takes in incredible rock formations, Los Cardones National Park, and such historic villages as Cachi and Cafayate, the capital of Argentina’s high-altitude wine-growing region.


Driving this circuit, the first dramatic encounter is the Cuesta del Obispo Pass, a 12-mile dirt road hugging a cliff with views of the red-faced Obispo Mountains. The road peaks at Piedra del Molino (10,980 feet), then plateaus lower down among the giant cacti of the arid Los Cardones National Park. After five hours of driving through green farmlands, you emerge on the banks of the Calchaquies River. Across the other side is Cachi, a white-walled settlement with a preserved main square surrounded by colonial houses and high sidewalks.


You can grab a beer at a cafe and watch Mestizo women and schoolchildren walk through the town. At night you can dine well at the Oliver Cafe and stay in the Hostel A.C.A., a three-star property with views overlooking the valley from atop a small hill abutting the town’s southern edge.


The next day, after heading south on Argentina’s famed Route 40 for roughly two hours, you can visit and even stay at Bodega Colome, the oldest working winery in Argentina. Restored in 2001 by the Swiss-born art collector Donald Hess, Colome has nine luxury guest suites that look out over masses of tangled wildflowers, neat rows of trellised vines and the red-rocked Andean foothills.


Route 40 south of Cachi spans narrow gulches and punishing dirt roads that pass barren mountainsides and dry riverbeds. The highlight is a stretch passing through Quebrada de Las Flechas (“Gorge of the Arrows”), a pinnacled moonscape that broadens into a wide valley framed by jagged mountains tinged with mineral greens and purples.


Approaching Cafayate, the asphalt returns and the valley widens and becomes more verdant. Surrounded by three rivers and located at 1,600 meters above sea level, Cafayate has the ideal microclimate for high-altitude vineyards. Visitors can sip some Malbec at one of the cafes lining the city’s central Plaza 9 de Julio, where local craftspeople mingle at sidewalk stalls and along the benches in the park.


Restaurant El Rancho (Vicario Toscano 4) serves excellent beef cuts. For simpler, local flavor, there’s El Criollo’s (Ave. Guemes 254), featuring tasty homemade pasta dishes. Horseback-riding excursions can be arranged through local estancias. Visitors can stay at Hotel Asturias (Avenue Guemes South 154), a larger property ideal for group travel, or at one of the town’s boutique hotels with glazed tiling, center courtyards and Spanish-styled architecture close to the main plaza.


In the center and outlying areas of Cafayate, big wineries alternate with smaller family businesses. At the family-run Bodega Nanni, the most central to the town plaza, you can taste Torrontes, a fruity white wine for which the Calchaquis Valley is famous. You can stay at the five-star Patios de Cafayate, once part of the adjoining vineyard Bodega el Esteco and converted in 2005. Its elegant vintage details evoke colonial-era sophistication for discerning travelers.


Together with Salta City, these landscapes have earned the region its well-deserved sobriquet “Salta the beautiful.” One might liken it to the Sonoma Valley wine country or even Utah’s Moab, given the off-road adventure driving possibilities. One thing is certain. You will wish you had more time in this region of Argentina and will long to return.


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