Forget Buenos Aires and Argentina being the ‘most European’ of the Latin American countries – head to Salta for a taste of colonial Argentina and its otherworldly highlands, punctuated by the odd winery.
It’s a 2-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Salta with either LAN or Aerolineas Argentinas, but the difference couldn’t be greater, at least once you’ve upped and left the confines of Salta’s small colonial streets with their bustling rush hour traffic. Heading out into the mountains and the valleys that lie beyond, you encounter an entirely different Argentina. The ‘Europeanness’ for which the country is famed for seems quickly distant as the contrasting lush farmland, tropical forests or yungas, and arid, pastel-coloured mountains and valleys begin to open up before you. You'll also almost instantly get a flavour of an Andean culture that you hear little about in popular depictions of Argentina...
To experience the wide array of landscapes around Salta you need to drive, so my trip to the region began by heading south toward Cafayate and then northwards following the Calchaqui Valleys. As the road climbed upwards from the fertile tobacco-growing country to the high valley region, the greenery gave way to a drier, dustier and more mountainous environment. A series of short hikes took us through the deep yet fragile sandstone gorges and crevices of this harsh landscape. We trekked over sand, boulders and up huge dunes at one point overlooking a vast, desolated river bed, the remnants of which were the only evidence that any water passed through this desert landscape. Mysterious landscapes met us on the way, from the sandy Las Conchas Gorge with its panoramic views to the bizarre pass of Las Flechas, where huge sandstone spikes jut high into the air for miles around, offering some enjoyable, but steep little walks and astounding views.
All the walking certainly builds up a thirst, so it is fortunate that the dramatic geography of the region also lends itself to the production of fine wines. Scattered among the highs and lows of the mountains and valleys the road at times drops to wetter wine-producing regions where you can enjoy a well-earned break at a winery. Walking through the cool cellars in which the wines are matured is a welcome respite from the relentless sun, and of course after learning about the wine production process, testing the quality of the produce is about as good as it gets.
However, what struck me most was that the further I travelled into these strange and remote places the more the people we met began changing as well. Buenos Aires was undoubtedly European, the people of Salta largely mestizo, yet by the time of arriving in Purmamarca I was beginning to wonder whether we had strayed into Bolivia – no one had told me about the indigenous communities of Argentina. So, imagine my surprise at the morning procession departing from the small colonial church as the local people with drums, trumpets and panpipes processed through the market square and onwards to the next village. This was as strong and as vibrant an Andean community event as any you could wish to see anywhere in Peru or Bolivia.
So, if you're planning to visit Argentina and you want the full picture, make sure you include a visit to this intriguing part of the country to get one more flavour of all that this diverse country has to offer.
By Eamonn Devine, Former Journey Latin America Travel Consultant.