Ask anybody about wine and tourism in Argentina and they will likely name Mendoza. But the province of Salta is going head to head with its southern sister, and its excellent wines and growing tourism infrastructure are putting it on ever more equal footing.
Things are still more rustic than in Mendoza, something that arguably adds to the desert provinces’ charms – there is much less of a circus feel to the tourism. However, this also makes it a little harder to figure out – things are not as well signposted, roads are generally not paved… but if you’re looking for a bit of a red-rock adventure, combining stunning scenery with fine wines, it could be worth putting a week aside and heading north west.
Stunning colonial architecture and cobblestone streets add to the charm of this provincial capital and make it worth hanging around for a day or two. Wander the central square, Plaza 9 de Julio, and take in the cathedral where you will likely be shocked at the amount of gold on display in the poor province. Check out the Virgin de Milagro, the centrepiece of the biggest religious procession in the country outside of Luján, where thousands convene on the capital to participate in the walk every September.
But if there is only time for one stop off, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, also on Plaza 9 de Julio, is a must-see. The museum is host to three child mummies found in the alitplano just a few years ago. The eerie atmosphere goes some way to preparing you for the sight of the mummies at the end of a walk through the history of the province and Incan traditions, but only just – the mummies are so well preserved you really do find yourself face to face with a dead child of yesteryear, a fascinating – if somewhat stomach-turning – sight.
When time comes to leave, the main tourist information drag is on calle Buenos Aires, running a couple of blocks from the plaza. It is possible to book all manner of tours in the numerous agencies there, and also hire cars, the most recommended way to see the province and get off the beaten track. And if there are two of you or more, hiring a car proves to be a budget option in comparison to the whistle-stop day trips, as well as giving you the freedom to explore. Expect to pay from $150 per day.
The province is the shape of a crescent moon, and the low-lying east and north is traditionally more tropical, although most of the province is no longer virgin forest, but has been torn up for agriculture, namely soya plantations. The main tourism – and wine – circuit runs in a loop south and west of the capital, taking in colonial villages, the traveller’s hub of Cafayate and the famous Ruta 40.
Lying around three hours south-west of Salta up in the pre-cordillera is Cachi, a white-washed, cobblestoned colonial village. The drive there is a trip in itself, as after an hour or so, the landscape changes from the plateau south of Salta, becoming more rugged and hilly. Then it is time to traverse the quebrada with its hairpin bends and deep ravines, combined with striking views of the river weaving along the bottom of the valley down below, surrounded by cacti as you touch on Parque Nacional los Cardones.
After three hours of mostly dirt roads, a beer may be called for upon arrival in Cachi, which would be the perfect way to relax into the slower pace the village requires. Serene and calm (until the day-trippers arrive) with buckets of charm, there is little to do but eat and drink whilst browsing the local wares. If doing nothing is not your thing, there are a few sights to be seen, from the ruins that are a short walk out of the town, to driving the Cachi Adentro circuit, a route of around 15km that takes you higher up to give a stunning panorama of the valley below.
When the time comes to move on, head south onto the famed Ruta 40 (Argentina’s Route 66, running the length of the country) and don’t be surprised that it is not much more than a dirt track. Parts of the road are paved, parts are not, and many see this as adding to the adventure. In Salta the majority falls into the latter category, so prepare for a bumpy ride.
If only one bodega makes it onto your list, the must-see is Colomé. It’s not exactly on the beaten track, but that’s why you’re in Salta and not Mendoza, right? And the vineyard is a plethora of superlatives, hosting the highest vines in the world (lying at 3,111 metres above sea level) and whilst being the oldest vineyard in Argentina, built in 1831. In addition, the wines are all ‘biodynamic’ (organic).
The height of the vines, combined with the range in temperatures the desert location entails, makes for unique growing conditions.
Purchased by the Hess Group in 2001, the bodega has undergone a transformation and is now producing internationally respected wines as well as hosting a boutique hotel for those who feel like splashing out. But even if you just want to visit for a couple of hours, the detour is worth it – like many things in Salta, half of the experience is getting there, winding red dirt roads through rocky landscape eventually lead to the oasis-like bodega. And there are hotels to suit all budgets in Molinos, the closest town.
The difficult location adds some other unique qualities: the bodega could almost be described as self-sufficient – there is a small farm where most of the food used in the restaurant is grown and reared. This means the freshest products are used to accompany tastings, ensuring the gastronomy compliments the wines on offer.
If you have the palette for white wines, be sure to try Salta’s signature white: Torrontés. Or if red is more to your taste, the Syrah at Colomé can only be tried or purchased at the bodega or in the estancia, so it is worth tasting as you’ll probably never get the chance again.
The most recent addition to the site is the James Turrell Contemporary Art Museum, which opened earlier this year. The galley was built specifically as a project to house Turrell’s vast light installations, making for an interactive exhibition that uses lights to play on the senses through nine works that span the length of the artist’s career.
Leaving the delights of Colomé behind, it is time to cross the desert and head south to the buzzing tourist town of Cafayate. The Ruta 40 will again feature in the journey, weaving unpaved through moon-like landscape and giant rock formations, before flattening out in the approach to Cafayate.
Cafayate is the jumping off point for most of the vineyards and also for the Quebrada de las Conchas, also known as Quebrada de Cafayate.
Encircled by bodegas, you could spend days getting sloshed in the surrounds, hiring a bike to meander slowly from a Malbec to a Torrontés. And as the tourism is taking off, so the wines from the region are improving. A lot of investment has gone into the area in recent years, and improved technology and oenologists from Mendoza now feature at many of the big label vineyards.
Bodega El Esteco and the luxurious Patios de Cafayate Hotel and Spa are an example of this change. Sitting just on the edge of Cafayate, the whitewashed bodega and affiliated hotel are prime examples of this move upmarket. While a night in one of the 30 exclusive rooms may not be in your budget, a tour of the bodega including a tasting will set you back just a couple of pesos. The Don David Malbec is worth a try and at under $30 a bottle it is perhaps worth investing in a bottle or two.
The road back north to Salta takes you through the Quebrada de las Conchas. The best time for the light to catch the canyon’s walls is in the morning, so set off early and take in the two highlights at the upper end of the quebrada – the Amphitheatre and the Garganta del Diablo – two giant formations to be explored. And if you’re lucky, there will be some local musicians testing out the acoustics in the Amphitheatre.
Alternatively, if you have more time, you can hire a bike in Cafayate and get a bus to the Garganta del Diablo, before riding the 70km (mostly downhill) back to the town.
And when you have drank your fill and taken in more rock formations than most geologists, it may be time to move on… perhaps heading back up to Salta, or perhaps south to Tucumán…
El Bordo de las Lanzas
If you don’t feel like staying in the bustle of Salta capital, an option lying just north-east of the city is El Bordo de las Lanzas, one of the oldest estancias in Argentina. Dating back to 1609, it was built by the mother of General Güemes’, a local hero from Argentina’s independence.
The estancia runs over 2,500 hectares, much of which has been left as an uncultivated reserve, although the estancia is a working farm. El Bordo also boasts a yacaré (alligator) reserve, hosting 80 of the reptiles that arrived there years ago and decided to make the spot their home.
If horse riding and the country life are what you are after, this is a beautiful – and surprisingly green – alternative for a day or so, and very removed from the desert like south-west of the city.