All the people who have been to Salta and told me I must go there described it as a little, calm place with not much going on there. So the picture I had of Salta was this country-style, deserted town with a few earth-colored houses and maybe a few shops where you could buy something to eat. When the bus reached a hilltop shortly before I saw the “centro” sign and I looked up the number of inhabitants in the Lonely Planet I realized that this “little” town had close to 500.000 inhabitants and was far bigger than I had expected. My first impulse was stress since I am not the big-city person (anymore) when it comes to travelling and I feel much better and happier in small towns or the countryside. But shortly after I had arrived at the bus station and made my way to the hostel, walking through a lovely park with lakes and beautiful trees gracing the streets with old, sometimes run-down colonial style buildings my unease disappeared. Michel had already arrived with his motorbike a while before me so I just dumped my backpack in the room and we made our way to the main square, a 15 minute walk from the hostel. We were both starving because we haven’t eaten all day and were looking forward for a warm bite. Walking down the few blocks towards the center was already a nice thing but as we reached the main square I was really blown away: a lively, beautiful park surrounded by stunning (and I mean REALLY stunning!) big, colorful, majestic colonial buildings and an impressive pink church elaborately decorated with stucco made my jaw drop. I couldn’t believe the beauty and positive energy this place radiated and I instantly made this my favorite city in South America. We sat down at one of the many restaurants on the square, facing the church and the park and ordered our first Lama-steak and – what else – a good bottle of local red wine. The region of Salta is the second biggest wine region of Argentina (after Mendoza which makes up more than 95 % of all the wine) and therefore visiting the wine region was naturally also on our list. After our delicious dinner we walked around the square for a little longer to suck in the atmosphere and then got a somewhat good night sleep in our hostel (it is a common thing here that the only window of the room faces the hallway and therefore the air gets so stale that it felt like sleeping in an airless cave). The next day we spent with organizing a rental car for the upcoming 4 days and walking around town. The churches of Salta are not only on the outside a real gem, their insides were really stunning and it is entertaining to sit down for a while and watch the lively buzz – straying dogs taking a nap between the benches, tourists posing in front of the many statues and locals lining up to make their confessions. The next day we picked up the car and headed off to Cachi. The 170 km drive first led us through lush green valleys and after the first 70 km the asphalt changed to a windy gravel road and climbed up to about 3.500 meters. We drove through Los Cardones National Park which got its name from the Cardon, a huge cactus (which I though only existed in dry desert environments) common in this region. Thousands and thousands of those spiky guys grew on the vast, high altitude plateau and it looked like an army of aliens had landed and occupied the landscape. Actually this cactus accompanied us on our journey for quite a while since its “skeleton” (the dried inside of the cactus) is used for pretty much every purpose here. It is used as the ceiling of churches, as doors, tables, and lots of other things. After a quite long bumpy ride we arrived in Cachi in the late afternoon. This sweet little town is known for its artisanal shops and its laid-back atmosphere and after we found a little hostel we walked through the cobblestone streets and had dinner with a bottle of Torrontés wine. This dry and flowery white wine is a specialty of the Salta region and tastes a lot like the Muscat grape – and me being a big fan of Muscat I was in heaven. The next morning we continued our journey down through the 2 little sleepy towns of Seclatés and Molinos which were so sleepy that we were pretty much the only people on the street. The Lonely Planet praised them as the typical towns where a lot of weaving is happening but we saw absolutely nada. Although there was not that much to see it was interesting to get a glimpse of what the typical rural life was in this region. I often wondered and am still wondering how people can make a living in those secluded towns with often harsh environments and nothing around. Sometimes you see a “town” with only 3 houses in the middle of a dry, desert-like environment, 3 hours away from the next town with probably 5 houses. The dirt road (actually you can’t really call it a road) got so bumpy that it took us about 6 hours to manage the 110 km (I still cant believe that this little car made it all the way) through dusty, bumpy roads with huge potholes, crossing water streams etc with an average speed of 20-30 km/h. The drive itself – despite the roads – was nice because the landscape is once again very impressive – you see all shades of brown and green and the mountains have the shape of shark teeth with their jagged edges. Our target for the day was Cafayate, the wine region. The town was really sweet, once again with a beautiful green park surrounding the main church, people strolling through the streets with its many shops and little restaurants to eat. We instantly felt comfortable there and found a really great hotel which looked like an enormously spacious Spanish Hacienda. We tried to catch a few wineries for wine tastings that evening but they were all closed already so instead we headed to the square and had a parillada instead, a nice BBQ. The next day we visited the wine museum and some wineries where we did a few tastings. They really have lovely wines there and you could easily spend a whole week there and just enjoy the surroundings (with a few bottles of wine). After 2 days in Cafayate we made our way back to Salta but on the way up we still had 2 really nice sights to visit. The “Devil’s Gorge” and the “Amphitheatre” (you have to look at the photos because I can’t really describe what it is). Back in Salta we spent our last evening with yet another amazing steak (knowing that it would probably be the last one we would get in a while, leaving Argentina in 2 days) and headed north to Purmamarca the next day. Purmamarca is a town where every hippie and “wanna-be”-hippie seems to go to for a little vacation. I felt like in a remake of “Hair” or some other movie. Most young people who were on the bus with me had their guitar and camping stuff with them (most of them with dreadlocks or some crazy haircuts – or no haircut to be precise) and when I got to the town and walked to the main square there were tons of young people, selling necklaces or other handmade stuff, singing songs and living off of love, music and maybe some empanadas. Purmamarca was the first place where I already got a bit of a taste of Bolivia – indigenous people, selling colorful clothes and handicraft in the typical Bolivian colors. The day there was great fun and Michel and I enjoyed for the last time a big pile of yummie empanadas before heading to Bolivia the next day. We enjoyed the last bottle of our wine we bought in Cafayate and headed north the next day to the border town of La Quiaca (Argentina) to cross over to the Villazon in Bolivia. But THAT was an experience of its own and I will therefore tell you more about it in my next blogpost…:)
P.S: this blog is dedicated to my Mom – because I am sure you would have really liked the beautiful landscape and nature in this wonderful area.