We all know it’s not unusual to paint an idyllic, instagram-filtered, kalaidascopic picture of where we’re from. In my case, there is uber positive correlation between the time spent away from home and how beautiful I depict it to be. Yet the way Juampi spoke about Salta, it was almost impossible to believe the hype. I mean, I’d never even heard of the place before. Nevertheless, off I trot on a gazillion peso internal flight to the north – 12 hours on the floor of Ezeiza airport included, of course – to see for myself.
Sorry for ever doubting you Salta.
Comatosed on the plane, I woke up giddy to a view so stunning that I felt almost winded. I’d say I was speechless but chatting solo while travelling alone is not a habit I’ve developed thus far. I almost felt ashamed for not being more aware of this city until now. A leafy city, circled by gigantesque sloping, blue-grey whale-like mountains layered one against the other. Wow. This is a million miles from the flat, arid landscape in the Chubut valley.
When one travels to Salta one eats empanadas. A lot of them. The city is famous for these pastries, usually filled with meat, sometimes “spicy” (not to home standards) or chicken, ham and cheese or, controversially, veg, and cooked in a clay oven. I do as I’m told and see off 5 or 6 in my first sitting. This set the pace for a fortnight of serious eating, tasting all the regional favourites, from humitas (made with a dough made of corn, enveloped in the leaf), talamares, the biggest sandwich I’ve ever seen from La Esquina, alfajores, more meat (my asado attendance is strong, averaging about 3 a week),dulce de leche and I even ate milanesa de llama. However, I wasn’t quite brave enough to muster the llama that arrived on a plate with cow’s cheese, goats cheese and egg which Juampi put away: far too much animal in one go, even for me. It’s also customary in these areas to chew on coca leaves to combat altitude sickness. Imagine stuffing an entire bag of Sainsbury’s spinach leaves into one of your cheek pouches, causing your tongue to go numb and then attempting a serious conversation with a table full of lop-sided hamster-humans. I had two leaves tucked in my cheek for about as many minutes and survived the first round of bicarbonate soda before surrendering. Not for me, until I’m sick to the stomach and dizzy with altitude, ta.
We stayed in the chacra (countryside) in a lovely family home with a swimming pool, which experienced its fare share of bombs and belly flops in the first week. Temperatures remained consistently above 30 degrees, and while this second summer is a blessing, my body battled, sneezed and sniffed as the dry Salteño heat played havoc. No doctors for me: they sell whatever the hell you want over the counter in Argentinian pharmacies and dish out paracetemols as change if the till’s short of pesos. Bonkers. The chacra is one of many popular gated communities, a short drive from the centre. A crazy number of constructions sprouting up in each corner of Argentina due to the Procrear laws but here the increasing popularity to build outside the centre is testament to the value of security, spectacular views, accessibility to the city, and the sound of nothing but birds and breeze in this part of the world.
The city itself, as is the case in many Argentinian cities, is based around a large, bustling, pretty square. I nipped in and out of the charming little artisanal shops, each jam packed with colourful colonial backpacks, sweaters, key rings; the alfajor tasters being wolfed down as I went. I fell in love with the his-and-her blue and pink fairy style churches of Santa Rosa de Lima and Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria de la Vina. The latter is a bit of a mouthful and takes a while to spit out when asking for directions. We went up to the cierro (mountain) in the cable car although wind stopped play for 20 minutes: if you’re afraid of being stuck half way up trekking up on foot is your best bet. For me, the views are worth the risk/the hike.
I should mention that Salta is not only special for the capital’s charm, but for the surrounding area. Word on the hostel grapevine is that the world and his wife stop in Salta. Geographically speaking, it’s perfect as it nestles between Chile and Bolivia and a number of hugely popular landscapes and touristic feature are easily accessed from here. Making the most of this, in just two weeks I visited four provinces: Salta, Tucuman, Jujuy and Santiago del Estero.
A highlight of my trip so far was our day trip to Purmamarca, Tilcara and the Grandes Salinas (salt flats) of Jujuy. This is now hands down one of my favourite regions. Purmamarca is home to the Cierro de Siete Colores, where a mountain met a rainbow and chose to live up high above the clouds with the llamas. We quite literally left the clouds and drizzle below us, on one of the most spectacular drives I think I’ll ever experience. We bought grilled flatbread and climbed a cactus-studded mountain to view the cierro from up high. Here, you have to pay for everything from the toilet to hot water, but the prices of the souvenirs are dirt-cheap. I bought myself an alpaca jumper for a fraction of the price of Salta, £10, and wore it while eating my lunch of llama meat in nearby village Tilmarca. A bit dark ad a bit insensitive, perhaps, sorry. I can’t quite bend my mind around the fact that these people live here, but I’m glad they do and I’m so lucky I got visit. After lunch I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t in the driving seat while Juampi steered us around every bend, overtaking lorry upon lorry until we reached over 4000m and descended upon the big salt flats: a white desert, with scaly surfaces and pools of crispy cold water where I plonked my feet and drank in the scenery. We took photos and I almost hyperventilated after running 10m at altitude to make use of the self-timer.
Tucuman, a place where my Uncle Aled toured with Swansea RFC in the 90s is still just as rugby mad and we watched another few matches here alongside busy, competitive hockey pitches. Judging by what I saw, rugby clubs in Argentina are like golf clubs in the UK: largely reserved for the wealthy and fees grant access to many facilities. On a personal note, their large perimeters serve as perfect running playpens for people like me whose internal GPS is bust. We watched two games here, two losses, and I witnessed what for me was a horrible case of bad winner. Of course, this being Argentina, football is far from forgotten. It just so happened that Boca Juniors were in town to play against Atletico de Tucuman. We mistimed our drive and coincided with the Boca team bus, whose entourage of about 300 motorbikes (and a grand total of 2 helmets between them) literally rampaged the city. A taxi driver hammered the back of our car with his fist: stopping at red lights is not something you should do under these circumstances apparently. Meanwhile another group was not going to be held up in the same way and ramped onto a football pitch and drove their scooters directly through a game, players stopping in their tracks. It’s a city with a lot of life, a buzzing high street and commercial centre, a little hectic, hot and slightly scruffy, but a trip to Cierro de San Javier, another amazing asado and great company were definite highlights.
Like Salta, Tucuman is located in close proximity to many fantastic sights such as Cafayate, which to people who like their wine is a no-brainer. With time restrictions, a lack of love for the adult grape juice and unfavourable weather predictions, we opted to go to Santiago del Estero instead, a nearby province and namely to las Termas de Rio Hondo. This is home to a famous Moto GP race and a the principal thermal site in South America. It’s hotter than the sun, so unsurprisingly we opted against the thermals which were probably at air temperature and we chose ate more meat instead.
I spent a lot of my time in Salta with a family and friends, and was lucky to be treated to many meals shared in lovely company. It’s a very close-knit, conservative community and the people here are deeply in love with their surroundings and their people. I got lucky and got to experience it from the inside and only now can I begin to understand that La Linda is not only named “the beautiful” for the superficial; but its charm grows from the inside out. I’d definitely go back. I’ve left wanting more.
Now, ironically, it’s me that’ll be singing its praises from afar…