Salta – My Last Uncharted Territory (well at least in Argentina)
Feb 28, 2010
|I finally made it all the way up to the north/western corner of Argentina! Carin, a fellow volunteer coordinator and I took a small trip, 8 great days, and made a giant loop. This vacation was a favorite so far for several reasons: 1) the Company; Carin is a wonderful friend and we had both wanted to make this trip forever. The timing worked our perfectly right after her COS date, so this was her last trip before she headed home. It was neat to spend so much time together before she left, but now I miss her tremendously. We made a great travel team though. 2) New sites; I finally got to take a trip to a wholly new place. I have loved all my trips during the last 3 years but many retraced steps I took during my first stint in South America with study abroad. Salta was the last area in Argentina left for me to see and I was nice to go somewhere new and exciting to say I have now been to “ALL” of Argentina. 3) Driving! Caring and I rented a car to facilitate our trip and not have to rely on bus schedules; it was fabulous!!
We started the trip a little rocky. We missed our bus in Asuncion (long story) and ended up taxi chasing the bus to the turn off to Argentina. Luckily we knew exactly which route the bus took and caught up to it not too far away, but the drivers were jerks about the whole thing. But we made it and that was what mattered! Finally able to take a deep breath we settled down for the 6 hour leg from Asuncion to Resistencia, Argentina (4 hours on the road with 2 hours at the border crossing!) The rest of the ride was uneventful; we grabbed a dinner of sorts at the terminal in Resistencia and boarded an overnight bus to Salta. Overnight buses are both good and bad. You can never really sleep that well (and they are usually cold) but you also don’t have to pay for a hostel for the night and you gain daylight to site see. I had also forgotten how much better bus travel is in Argentina. The buses are all much nicer and cleaner and generally faster moving than even the nicer buses in Paraguay; actually I have a sneaking suspicion that Paraguay gets the buses Argentina doesn’t want any more!
So finally arriving in Salta we get our bearings, changed money/found an ATM and head out to explore. We only had a few hours before we had to be at the airport so we choose to go up in the gondola since the weather was cooperating. The gondola goes straight up a hill in the middle of town, leaving from the main plaza, only blocks from the bus terminal so it was also the most accessible attraction. There was no real line, we walked right on and had a car to ourselves. The view was spectacular from the car and from the top of the hill as well. When you arrive at the top there are a few shops, and things to look at, a large wooden cross etc…. There was also a beautiful poem written about Salta painted on a sign, it took a bit of effort to read and understand but we did pretty well deciphering it. We ate ice cream and walked around taking in the sites and getting oriented by locating the main points in the city, churches and stadiums and whatnot. We road back down, at lunch in the market area and walked around the plaza some more before heading back to collect our big bags from the luggage check and heading out to the airport to claim our car. Yep you read right, we rented a car, and we our reservation stated we had to pick it up at the airport. So we trek all the way out there, just before 5 when we had the reservation, but there is no one at the hertz place. We wait a bit but something seems off. We finally talk with the tourism information office and we call the town-center office and first of all we didn’t need to come all the way out to the airport to get the car and secondly they didn’t even really have our reservation. So after haggling and sending email confirmations back and forth we got things worked out but had to taxi all the way back into town. The airport is nice but the coffee we had was the most expensive coffee the entire trip. Finally we had our little car and everything worked out. We were a bit tired after a long day, but headed out for Tucuman while we still had daylight.
Tucuman was a very interesting mix of urban/modern and historic. Known as the birth place of the Argentine revolution, it was a great place to start our tour of the area and get a good foundation for the history. Via the freeway, Tucuman is a 3 hour drive south of Salta. We pulled in late and went straight to out hostel. We were in a bunk room that slept 8 or 9 and it was really hot and stuffy. Also there was music playing late out in the common area and people were smoking and loudly talking everywhere. Carin and I had been traveling by bus and driving for something like 36 hours and slept on a bus the night before, we were exhausted and a bit grumpy. The next morning we moved to a smaller more isolated room, with just two other girls, much better! This was also one of the first times I have had the thought, “maybe I’m just too old for this”; usually hostels are great. You can meet all sorts of people and hang out but the lack of comforts, like only having one women’s bathroom and it was missing the toilet seat seems is no longer worth the price. I guess I have graduated to a new level. At almost 26 hanging out with the 18 year old travelers isn’t what it used to be either. I guess I will have to keep that in mind as I pick places to stay for my end of service trip home.
Anyways, Tucuman was great. We parked the car and left it, walking all over the city. We first went to the main plaza, surrounded by cafes, the Congreso building (= to the state legislature), and a beautiful Franciscan Cathedral. We got our bearings, drank terere in the plaza and took in our surrounding. Everyone else was drinking mate, which is prepared the same as terere, just hot. We couldn’t fathom mate when it was so warm, even if we were in Argentina! We toured the Independence Museum before lunch. It was neat, apparently the building was where the first Argentine congress was held and the true battle ground was the north as the Spanish troops came down from Peru. We found a place to eat lunch trying the regional food. Apparently, the northern Argentine provinces as known for making Tamales, a different from Mexican tamales but the are cornmeal filled with “meat” and wrapped in corn husks just the same. Humitas are basically tamales with out meat and reminded us a bit of Chipa Guazu, the corn pudding of Paraguay, just more, well humid. At the place we stopped however the humitas weren’t bad but the tamales were not just filled with meat, they were filled with “parts”; luckily we both have had enough exposure to different “parts” being in Paraguay we detected it off the bat and just at our humitas!
After a long morning of walking around, eating and site seeing we headed back to the hostel. Argentines are very committed to their siestas, and town shut down from 1 until 5 anyway! After passing out for about 3 hours, it was really hot even in our new room; we got our selves together and went back out to see the rest of the historic center of town. We only had one day in Tucumán so we made the most of it. We went out for dinner at a nicer place on a plaza a bit farther away but the food was excellent and the atmosphere was like a wine cellar, you got to pick your bottle straight from the wall. We got stuck in the rain but took a cab back; we weren’t too far from home. Tucuman was really nice and aside from being the grumpy old ladies at the hostel we had a great time. Luckily the gal at the front desk was really helpful and gave us directions to get out of Tucuman and on our way to Cafayate, our next stop.
We rented a car due to the fact that very few buses travel the road between Tucuman and Cafayate and the back to Salta, but we didn’t know why until we got there. The road goes up and over a mountain pass (the Northwest of Argentina is an Andean region of Argentina). This would be the best time to tell you about our little renal car. It was a Ford Corsa, which not made or driven in the US probably because it is so light weight it feels like driving a toy car, especially after getting used to driving the big Peace Corps vehicles which are Toyota Prados. Not only was it small and very “zippy”, it had a manual transmission. Now I have had quite a bit of practice with driving stick shift in Paraguay, but that has all been on straight flat roads, which is basically all there is in Paraguay to drive on. Argentina is a whole different bag of worms. This road was crazy. I have, luckily, grown up driving mountain roads and Galena Pass will prepare anyone for winding roads, but this was unlike anything I have ever driven. The road was extremely narrow, barley one lane in places and it was technically paved, but the asphalt was old and pretty rough. So I’m making my way up at a cautious safe speed, around switch backs that switch direction about every 10 to 15 yards and I up on a line of traffic caught behind two big trucks! So I am dealing with a pretty steep incline, an incredibly narrow road that dives and has 180 complete turns following 6 or more cars, I just don’t want them to stop and/or to stall out and get stuck. Luckily we made it without major incidents but my knuckles were white when we finally go to the top. Oh and by the way, some people were crazy enough to try and pass! Like I said craziest road I have ever driven!
We stopped for lunch at the top of the pass in a small mountain resort town called Tafi de Valle (not sure what exactly what that translates to). It was nice, we had good pizza, got the tires checked and filled up on gas for the second leg of the trip. The second half of the drive was better but not by much. We crossed some magic barrier just out of town and found our selves in desert. The weather patterns must be affected by the mountains, because the landscape changed drastically from lush green forest to dry and cactus filled almost instantly as we drop down into the valley on the other side of the pass. We cross the valley to the Quilmes ruins. The Quilmes ruins were one of the holier sites for the pre-Colombian inhabitants of the area. It was used as a fort and ceremonial site. After seeing Machu Picchu, visiting ruins is never the same, but it was still a nice break. We got to get out of the car, stretch our legs and climb around a bit. We hiked up to one of the look out posts, and realized the change in altitude, we were sucking wind a bit. It was hot and dry but a nice afternoon activity. We picked up 5 young argentine gals, who all piled in the back of our little car. They were walking the 8 kilometers into the ruins and due to the heat so took them in and back out to the main highway. They were very appreciative, and after living in hot and sweaty Paraguay we truly know how great it is to get a ride. We hardly wanted to get back in the car, but we had to carry on.
We pulled in to Cafayate just as the sun was starting to set behind the mountains; it was beautiful and really reminded me of home. Cafayate is known for wine productions and has quite a few vineyards, known as Bodegas in Spanish. We stayed at a great little bed and breakfast not far off the plaza in Cafayate. The owners were extremely helpful and helped us plan our days out and gave great recommendations for wine tasting and the Quebrada. The what? Quebrada means gorge or ravine in Spanish and the Quebrada de Cafayate is absolutely a DO NOT MISS for northern Argentina. It was some of the most interesting landscape I have ever scene. The Quebrada was basically a valley, but for whatever reasons it has undergone very interesting erosion patterns and as a result there is fascinating rock formations along about a 50 kilometer stretch of canyon road. Unfortunately it was raining when we woke up in Cafayate the first morning, so we went Wine tasting! One of the vineyards gives tours accompanied with wine tasting. It was very interesting. There is a white called Torrontes that is unique to the Cafayate and northern Andean region. It was nice, a bit sweet, but dry like Chardonnay. We also tried their Malbec, the new up and coming Argentine red wine. After the wine tour the rain let up and we went back to eat lunch in town. Having the car was so nice and defiantly the way to go traveling in those parts, with the roads and the weather we would have never gotten to see what we did with out the flexibility having our own means of transportation offered us. We ate in the market area. I had goat stew, a traditional local dish, pretty good stuff!
With full bellies we headed out for our tour of the Quebrada de Cafayate/gorge/ravine. As suggested by our guide, we drove al the way out to the end of the 50 kilometers of marked attractions to and worked our way back to town. We weren’t going to have time to stop at every single thing along the way to explore so on our way out we identified the ones we wanted to come back and stop at. I urge you to look up at my photos but we stopped at the Garganta de Diablo, the Amphitheater, the Windows, The castles, we passes a bolder that looks like/is called the Toad, the Obelisk, and several others that I don’t remember their names. Basically everywhere you looked and around every corner there was something new and utterly amazing to look at. I drove in and Carin drove back out so we both got the chance to look around while the other focused on the road. Luckily this road was paved and nice, but it was still curvy and narrow in places. This afternoon was one of the most interesting vacation days I have had since I can remember. I know that sounds odd, but it was a truly great day. Carin and I had so much fun exploring and driving and the sun came out turning it into just a gorgeous afternoon. The sunlit up the Quebrada and it was just a great day. Again I urge you to check out the pictures, I am not going to try to describe all the sites we saw, it is too hard.
We went back into town and hit the bodegas. What a better way to finish a great day than wine tasting! First stop was the organic wine bodega. The experience was not what is in the states, but they had the best rose wine I have ever tasted. I made a mental not to come back after we had visited a few more to buy a bottle but where I came back I had had quite a bit more to drink after visiting several other bodegas and ended up with two bottles, oh well it was very good! Next up was a new generation, a family that split from another bodega not too long ago to start their own operation. Carin bought a few bottles from them, their Torrontes was very good, but I prefer reds. Last stop on the bodega train was a small family run vineyard that only bottles some 5,000 bottles a year or something, but it was they had the best Malbec I have ever had. The man giving the tasting was a member of the family and very knowledgeable about their wines and the region. We chatted and he gave us some cheese and crackers to soak up a bit of the alcohol so we weren’t too drunk. They had two Malbecs, one aged in French oak barrels and one aged in the larger more traditional barrels for the region. They had very distinct tastes but we both fabulous. After deliberating Carin and I bought three bottles each; two of the aged oak and one traditional. I will open the extra aged oak bottle on my birthday, but I’m bringing the other two bottles home to share with the family as a special treat.
Moving on from Cafayate, we took the road less traveled up through Cachi. If we had known how long it was and how bad the road really was we would have still gone, but planned to stay in Cachi. Unfortunately we had already paid a hefty deposit on our place in Salta and couldn’t change our plans. It made for a really long day of driving, but we survived and the drive was amazing. It started in a Quebrada that basically looked like what I imagine the moon looks like. It was extremely dry and the sun was very harsh even early in the morning. Oh, almost forgot to mention we picked up two gals hitchhiking to Cachi, so we were plus two for this leg. Apparently it is a very common for young Argentines students to travel during the summer and most do it by hitching rides to save money. The girls were very nice and very appreciative of the ride, not a common destination so they lucked out. We were on the moon for a good 2 2.5 hours before the regular desert returned. We stopped in a very small town around noon to use the bathroom but the road just kept going more and more desert. In total, the drive was 160 km to Cachi. Finally the last hour we started seeing more green. Early in the day the girls offered us sunscreen, but we thought that was a bit weird at the time. As it turned out, we did get brunt through the windows! We arrive in Cachi in the mid afternoon, go straight for lunch, pizza again since the bread and cheese we packed wasn’t quite enough to tide us over.
We wandered around town a bit, went into the museum and took a deep breath before getting back in the car; we are only half way to Salta and hoping the next 160 km are at least paved. Which they were. We being the kind hearted souls we are, picked up a new set of hitchhikers, having left the pair of girls back in Cachi. This time it was a guy and a girl, but they looked desperate, they had been sitting out there on the road all day and no one had stopped. They were nice enough. Finally we hit some straight road as we crossed the valley floor back over to the mountains we had crossed way back on our way to Quilmes. Slowly but surly the road rose in altitude until we crossed that magic divide and everything turned green again and we were out of the desert. At the top of the incline was a gorgeous view of a mountain with a valley, or gorge between it and us. The pictures are breathtaking and we were actually up pretty high as well (see photos). This is where we got attacked by an angry hungry donkey. It came up to the car wanting food but when we didn’t have any to give it started head butting at the window so we pulled out pretty quick once everyone was back in and seated. Other than more curves the road down the mountain was fairly uneventful. There was a storm brewing and it had rained the night before so there was some water on the road, but at least it was mostly paved, not entirely paved, but we think that was for speed control so people wouldn’t take the turns too fast. Towards the bottom of the ravine, we were almost out, we get to a water crossing that was way wider and way deeper than all the rest, call it a river if you want. So Carin had to get out and wade threw it to find the best place to cross! We were lucky and didn’t flood the engine and kept on our way. Finally, we role into Salta, after dark just in time to take our passengers to the terminal to meet their friends and to check into our hostel. After parking, a bit of a hassle, and getting settled we again went straight to dinner, no shower no nothing we were starving!
The place we stayed was very cute, family run and very safe. We slept in a bit and decided how to best use our last day with the car. We were a bit “rocked” out so we didn’t really want to go up north to see the hill of seven colors like we had originally planned. Instead they suggested we go over to a small mountain lake a bit outside Salta and go hang out buy the water for the afternoon. So we did. We got back in the car and drove out there. It was a bit harder to find than we expected but we had lunch out on the deck of a place and then went down, sat by the water and swam a bit. It was nice to relax after so much driving and site seeing. The lake was a beautiful setting also. Not a bad Sunday! We got back and returned the car in one piece might I add. When it was all said and done, we had driven in 1161 kilometers (721.56 miles) in 5 days!
The last day we spent walking around the City, visiting the churches. There were many and they were all very nice. One had drawings on the ceiling we didn’t quite understand; basically one was of either dinosaurs or maybe dragons. We weren’t sure. But we enjoyed our last day of vacation and our last day together. We even ran into a small museum of an Argentine Folklore legend and philanthropist that was well worth the visit and a bit different addition to the day. Then, at 4pm or so we headed back to the bus terminal. Back to where we had started. Carin caught her bus out to Buenos Aires and I headed back to Paraguay. The bus ride back was long but uneventful. Except I was carrying all the wine we bought, eleven bottles total! It was a great trip, with a great friend and now I can say I have been ALL over Argentina!