The Northwest of Argentina is completely different to anything you would ever have thought. The mountains here are wilder and much less travelled than anywhere else along the border, no wonder why today it’s possible still to enjoy the ruins of what once were the cities of ancient civilizations, as if their people had never left.
We decided to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes that this land offers and our first stop was the spectacular colonial city of Salta.
The past and history of “Salta La Linda” is palpable in every plaza, building and face. Each time you walk through the street you can breathe their fascinating culture, which will take you back beyond colonial times.
You will need a couple of days to spend in the city visiting museums, markets and of course to delight in the traditional local food such as tamales, humitas and locro for which Salta is famous.
A little bit of history: The city was founded in 1582 becoming the most important administrative centre in Argentina, this allowed the region to become very wealthy.
During the 19th century Buenos Aires would take a better and stronger position as a trade centre becoming the new capital, meaning Salta would suffer in consequence a decline as a city until around 1930 when newcomers started to arrive.
It is worth seeing the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, housing the controversial mummies of the Children of Volcano Llullaillaco.
In 1999 National Geographic directed an expedition where they managed to discover the sacred burial of three indigenous children. The mummified bodies of the sacrificed children are shown at the museum along with many objects founded in the burial place.
It is said the children lived 500 years ago, and were given to the gods as sacrificial offerings, on the top of the 6.700 mts mountain.
You can’t miss the Plaza 9 de Julio, with its avocado and orange trees and palm trees; surrounded by cafes where you can have a very nice lunch and enjoy the sun and the birds singing, but you will have to be patient enough with the relentless artesan salesmen…we were approached by almost ten at lunch time.
On the north side of the Plaza you will be able to find the Cathedral built in 1858 with its admirable baroque altar.
If you go out of the building and straight across, you will be standing on the other side of the Plaza facing the memorable Cabildo, built in 1783 where you can find inside the Museo Historico del Norte.
The Mercado Artesanal located in an impressive mansion offers beautiful handicrafts not so cheap as the ones you will find in the tiny village but great quality.
On the way to Cafayate we stopped for a tranquil lunch in Dique Cabra Corral. This is an artificial lake very popular in summer season for fishing pejerrey, practicing water-skiing and camping.
Continuing to the South we found ourselves crossing Quebrada de Las Conchas (“gorge of shells”).
The route runs along extraordinary formations of terracotta rocks moulded by the rain and wind, where you can find the following ones: Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat) eroded by the water, El Anfiteatro (the amphitheatre), El Sapo (the toad), El Fraile (the friar), La Casa de los Loros (the parrot’s houses), La Yesera, Los Castillos (the castles) y El Obelisco.
We arrived in Cafayate just in time to watch the impressive sunset from our private terrace at the Cafayate Wine Resort, while testing a wonderful typical wine from the region, the white Torrontes.
Cafayate is a vineyard valley surrounded by mountains, which is becoming increasingly popular for those wanting to blend their wines with a beautiful environment.
We recommend visiting the Museo de la Vid y el Vino, full of history and pieces of old winemaking machines.
On our way to Tafi del Valle, located in the Tucuman province, we hit the impressive Ruinas de Quilmes.
This site represents one of the most important archaeological sites in Argentina; the ruins were discovered by the naturalist Juan Bautista Ambrosetti at the end of 19th century and restored in 1978.
This civilization was the only one to resist the Inca invasions, and continued resisting the Spanish invaders for 130 years more, until being defeated in 1667 when they were relocated 1200km away in south of Buenos Aires.
This journey was made by foot, killing 4000 of Quilmes Indians in the process.
Few Argentines are aware that “Quilmes” was in fact an ancient civilization and not just the name for the most famous beer, as it is popularly believed!
Just when we arrived in Tucuman the weather seemed to change dramatically - becoming cold and humid, as we crossed the high pass we went from high altitude desert to wet damp bofedales. Tafi del Valle is very popular for its microclimate and is a good base for trekking. Indeed only in 1943 you could only get here on horseback.
We stayed in Estancia Las Tacanas, which originally belonged to the Jesuitas and today is run by the family Peña Guzmán. It’s the oldest building in the city and is a fascinating place full of history.
Our next stop was Cachi. On the way we also decided to make a stop in Palo Pintado, where the renowned Argentine artist and curator Sergio Avello made a piece of installation art using huge zigzagging mirrors to reflect the many faces of the valley in myriad ways.
The sun had already set, when we finally arrived in Cachi. We stayed in our new friend Adriana’s house, who received us with empanadas and wine.
Cachi is a beautiful and tranquil hamlet founded in 1694 and located at the foot of the Nevado de Cachi (6.700 m) that flanks it from the west.
You cannot miss the Igleasia San Jose, built in the sixteenth century and the Museo Arqueologico which contains more than 5,000 pieces covering a time period of 10,000 years with a majority covering the time period between 800 BC and 1600 AD. The volunteer curators give an entertaining tour.
On our last night we ate a glorious “asado” made Roberto, a real gaucho. We must admit that eating meat tasted like heaven after spending 10 days with empanadas!
Heading east, we hit the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a majestic landscape full of thousands of cactus that would lead us to a dead-straight stretch named La Recta del Tin Tin, very well known for its optical illusion of going up when in fact its descending.
We finally got to the craggy Piedra del Molino (3358 m) from where you can have amazing views where the road enters the Quebrada de Escoipe.
We stopped for some bird watching in the lovely Valle Encantado.
The road then snakes down the breathtaking Cuesta del Obispo finally arriving south of Salta – back on the wine plains.