Salta lies in the northwest of Argentina. It is one of a handful of places in the country that are popular both with foreign and indigenous tourists due to its beautiful weather, dramatic high-altitude landscape and wine. My mother, brother and I spent five days here, and these are my impressions.
Salta is both a province and a city. The city is called ‘Salta la Linda’ (Salta the beautiful), and it is a bold-faced lie. The nickname refers to the well-maintained colonial architecture, but the city pales in comparison to Buenos Aires, both in beauty and colonial heritage.
The only must-see thing in Salta is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology. It explains the Inca tradition of joining different clans together by marrying a boy and a girl from two clans and then bringing them to the summit of a tall mountain. There, the children drink themselves to sleep and are left in deep pits to freeze to death, possibly buried alive.
The museum also describes the archaeological story that ends in the discovery of three of these children on the 22,000-foot summit of Mount Llullaillaco. These mummies are among the best preserved in the world because no actual mummification was performed. The extreme cold and dryness did the job. Seeing one of these perfectly preserved 500-year-old children is fascinating and well worth the time.
Salta has two interesting looking churches, both reminding me of cakes. The first is the cathedral, a large pink meringue-inspired brick monstrosity dressed up in fake marble. The San Francisco church is equally fake in its red velvet cake outfit, but at least it looks good as opposed to the baby-pink cathedral.
Finally, there is a cabin ride to the top of a large hill overlooking Salta. It has some nice waterfall fountains to walk around, but the view serves mostly to debunk the myth of beautiful Salta.
Fortunately, the area around Salta has more to offer than the city. The city is the starting point for two regional trips, one to the south and one to the north, both requiring two days.
The Northern Tour
The northern tour follows the old railway of the poetically named ‘Train to the Clouds’. This lonely railway cuts through a dramatic mountain landscape through 29 bridges, 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 2 spirals and 2 zigzags. Somehow, seeing this lonely little railway in the middle of these great mountains emphasizes the landscape and makes for some great meditative scenery.
Along the way, the tour stops at a few remote villages, nothing more than scatterings of adobe buildings in the middle of nowhere. These places always make me wonder what it would be like to live such a different and isolated life.
The highlight of the first day is the salt flats. This 212 square km large salt desert formed 5-10 million years ago when a lake rich on salt from volcanic eruptions evaporated, leaving a 30cm thick layer of pure white salt. Impressive as this is, it is nothing compared to the vast Uyuni Salt Desert in Bolivia which, if you have the chance, you must visit!
No matter how jaded you have become from a day’s drive through the mountains, the final mountain pass leading from the salt plains to the town of Purmamarca will not fail to impress. Mother Nature painted this area with a full palette. Red, green, yellow, black, white and orange mountains glow in the setting sun. Purmamarca lies at the feet of the most flamboyant of these ladies, the seven-coloured mountain.
The town seems at first glance to be yet another tourist-flooded town with the same crappy markets selling the same crappy trinkets and pawning of the same crappy food to the same crappy prices, but if you have a cemetery-crazed mother I suggest you follow her advice to wander through the strange burial grounds on the outskirts of town during dusk. Bring a light-sensitive camera and a head full of horror film memories and you are in for a treat!
On the morning of the second day, take a walk around the seven-coloured mountain before setting of on another day of driving. You’ll see more villages and mountains, but nothing worth describing in details. The highlight of the second day is Pucará de Tilcara, a pre-Inca settlement. The archaeological site was not just excavated but also partially rebuilt, which ruins the experience a bit as it sets the stage for a guessing game as to which bits are ancient and which bits are new. Still, it is a dramatic walk among cacti, ruins and burial pits and there is a good view from the, sadly fake, pyramid at the top.
The Southern Tour
The southern tour explores more varied landscapes. There is not a lack of mountains on this southern tour, but these mountains are lower and greener, and they are broken up by rivers and fields. The first day is mostly driving. The changing landscapes keep it from being a boring ride, as long as you let your mind slip into a semi-comatose state of near meditation, letting your eyes slide across the landscape and your mind wander.
The day ends at Cafayate, a dull little town that deserves no further mention. The next day, you’ll return to Salta via an alternative route featuring the two highlights of the southern tour: the amphitheatre and the devil’s gorge. Both are natural gorges cut into the mountainside. The amphitheatre is just what it sounds like: a natural amphitheatre with fantastic acoustics. It’s worth a quick visit, but the real fun is at the devil’s gorge.
The devil’s gorge is a steep and deep ravine. You can only walk a short way into the ravine before you have to start climbing to get futher. If you are stupid, cocky, risk-blind and lack a sense of your own abilities, then you can also try the very last bit of the climbing. I did. Near the top, I turned my head and realized that I was in real trouble. If I lost my grip, I’d be tumbling down the sharp rocks like a torn apart rag doll. I got down all right, but I warn anyone from trying the same. Only a week earlier, someone fell and died at that very point, something my guide told me when we left the site. He hadn’t wanted to scare us, but maybe a bit of fear is just what you should bring into the devil’s gorge.
In my opinion, Salta does not deserve its reputation as a great travel destination. There is beautiful scenery and a few interesting sight, but it lacks that ‘wow’ factor. It is a decent destination for backpackers already in the area and with plenty of time on their hands. For Buenos Aires tourists with only a couple of weeks in Argentina, however, the opportunity cost of Salta is too high.