We only spent three days in Salta, in the north of Argentina. This is a huge change from our original plan of spending six weeks there! Why the change of plan? Well, I guess you could say that after being on the road for a while, we get itchy feet a bit quicker now, and we felt that there was a lot more to discover in South America. So, we added a new country to the list: Bolivia!
Anyway, getting back to Salta… We decided to fly to Salta, since the 21-hour bus ride did not sound like a whole lot of fun. We had saved quite a bit on air fares around Asia, so we decided to splurge this time. The 2 hour flight, however, turned out to be bumpier than a gravel track in Namibia. There was so much turbulence that the crew could not get past row 10 with the food cart. Luckily for us, we were in row 2 🙂 We were suitably relieved to touch down in Salta, and the sun had made an appearance. It was a very pleasant climate, the air warm and dry, since Salta sits at the foot of the Andes mountains, around 1,200 m above sea level.
After dumping our stuff at our tiny Airbnb apartment near the center of town, we headed off to explore (and to buy some food for dinner). Central Salta has a distinctly small-town feel about it, although when you see it from above, you know it is actually quite a big city. Central Salta is a maze of one-way streets, where drivers play chicken to see who stops at the junctions, and the pedestrians have to navigate across this battlefield at their peril. But it all seems to work, as the non-stop traffic never seemed to back up anywhere, and we never got run over. There are a few landmarks around town, such as the Convento de San Bernardo, a historic convent, the Iglesia San Francisco with its impressive tower, and of course the Basilica de Salta, on the central plaza 9 de Julio (BTW, what is it with latinos and naming things using dates?). After wandering around the shopping streets, we came across a supermarket that was bizarrely empty, but it still took forever to get through the checkout. Another mystery of Argentina… The sun had set behind the hills, and it was getting chilly. We headed back to our cozy little flat with our supplies.
The following day was spent climbing up the cerro de San Bernadino (yes, him again!). It was a lovely walk up the hill, through some woods, and the sun was doing a great job of warming us up. We saw a bunch of new bird species, including beautiful multi-coloured hummingbirds, and a red-headed woodpecker. At the top of the hill, we were treated to an amazing view of the city and the surrounding mountains which tower over it. You really don’t have to go far to find yourself in serious mountain-climbing territory here (but not us, of course!). After a nice break at the top, we wandered back down into town, had some empanadas for lunch, and went to visit the other main attraction of Salta: the MAAM (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology). This rather small museum has a few rather special inhabitants, namely three Inca child mummies that were found at a burial site on a nearby mountain peak (at an altitude of 6,700 m). These were the children of the Inca high-born families, and they were basically buried alive, after being given an alcoholic drink to knock them out. Needless to say, Greg and Nina found this a bit disconcerting, but interesting nonetheless. After the museum we began an ultimately fruitless search for a money changer in town, which we gave up and went back to the grocery store for more supplies you can just about get by with a credit card here, but you need to show ID).
Our second and final full day in Salta was spent driving about the countryside. We wanted to see the coloured hills located some 200 km to the north of the city. After a bit of faffing around, we finally got the car at 10 am and hit the road. Argentinian roads are a bit of a mixed bag – some decent freeways, mixed in with some really awful sections of potholed tracks. Sophie was driving since my license had run out in May, and I had not been able to renew it from abroad. She was quite nervous, but did an excellent job of keeping us on the road (and safe!).
Once we got out of town, it was fairly easy going, and we made it to the dusty hamlet of Purmamarca, which is almost entirely geared towards tourists. We got out and strolled to the plaza, where the local vendors were out in force, selling colourful ponchos, wooly hats, and the like. There were more vendors than tourists, but they weren’t at all pushy. We found a cafe on the plaza and sat out in the sun. The sky was deep blue, and the bright sun heated us up like lizards on a rock.
After a coffee and empanadas, we went for a walk up a small hill to where there is a lookout. Some entrepreneurial guy had set up a gate, so you had to pay him 5 pesos each to get in. Fair enough, I guess. It was worth it, as the views of the surrounding hills were quite spectacular – strata of red, green pink, purple rocks all folded and tilted at steep angles. Nature at its finest! We pondered driving further up the road, but it was getting on in the afternoon, and we didn’t want to be out driving at night, so we headed for home. I stupidly proposed a “shortcut” on the way home, only to find that the Route 11 as indicated on Google Maps turned into a dirt track after about 10 km, so we had to double back. We got some added excitement by shooting over an unseen (and un-signposted) speed-bump and had to do some dodging around horses and stray dogs. This was off the beaten track Argentina!
We decided to splurge on our final night in Argentina, and so we ended up in a sit-down Argentinian restaurant, a well-reviewed place, at 7:30 pm – we were the first customers in. They eat late here. We tried the locro stew, and although it was very filling, it was not that tasty, and was full of fatty bits. We spent all the remainder of our pesos on that mediocre meal, and that about sums up Argentina: everything is, well, a bit mediocre, and you don’t feel as if you are getting good value for money there. Everything is expensive, including staples like bread & meat, and anything imported is totally unaffordable. We only really scratched the surface of the country though, and I’m sure that given enough time (and money), you could learn to love it here.