Salta, Argentina

Posted by on September 29, 2006

If I’d written this column immediately upon my return, I’d have scooped the New York Times Travel section, which carried an article about Salta not long ago. Let me tell you a bit about what was NOT in that article.

Salta, way up in the northwest corner of Argentina, was simply crammed with unusual sights and tastes. (For example, have you ever had a cabernet sauvignon massage?  I mean with ACTUAL squishy grapes?  I didn’t think so.)

We arrived in Salta late in the evening, and were treated to a drive around the central square of the city, which is called Nuevo de Julio.  The exquisite baroque cathedral, (yes, it is pink and cream colored) is lit up at night, as is the equally baroque and rococo church of San Francisco, which is blood red and cream.  You can imagine how amazing these buildings look in the spotlights.

We stayed at a charming inn called the Solar de la Plaza, just a few blocks from the main square. The lobby contained some of the wonderful “military angels” paintings.  These paintings are from the Cuzco School, and came into existence when the Spanish taught the indigenous people to paint, and told them something like “angels look just like us, but with wings.”  Ergo, they gave the angels wings AND blunderbusses.

There is a wide choice of hotels in the Salta area. There is even a new Sheraton up on a hill overlooking the city. If you like more local charm, there are several boutique hotels in the city. Just south, near the airport, is the exclusively charming Casa de los Jasmines, famous because it is connected to Robert Duvall. (yes, THAT Robert Duvall)  But it should also be famous because it is lovely, and so affordable.  By now I hope you have figured out that most of Argentina is extremely affordable to Americans, due to the exchange rate, which certainly adds to the charm and ease of being there.  We had a most delightful lunch there in this small estancia decorated in white and beige, with cowhide rugs, and handsome Chilean and Argentinean saddles hanging on the walls, and of course, a photo of Robert Duvall, life-size, over the fireplace. We downed our lunch of pork ribs roasted with sweet potatoes, with a Laborum Torrontes 2004 wine, and a chocolate mousse, all served from a spotless elegant kitchen.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  We saw so much in a week in this province that it is hard to pare down what I can tell you about.

We had a driver/guide, which is way less of a splurge in Argentina as it would be at home, and he became part of the whole ambience.  Turns out that this tall thin patrician looking, polo playing, down-on-his-luck aristocrat is a second cousin of Che Guevara.  In addition, he is something of an expert on the indigenous peoples of the area, and their history.

Beginning in Salta City itself, we took two rather circular trips, one to the south, ending in Cafayate, and one to the north, ending in Purmamarca.

We enjoyed what we saw of Salta City, and its suburbs, which are unlike any suburbs we know, except that in an area called San Lorenzo, we saw places that could in some ways be compared to the countryside in Millbrook, Clinton or Stanfordville, and lots of horse farms.  The center of the city was quite inviting, though decidedly foreign.  On Friday evening, for example, we watched a large group of devoted people reciting an ambulatory Stations of The Cross all around the central square, singing hymns as they stopped at designated spots for the priest to recite prayers. About 12 strong men carried a giant crucifix at the head of the line.  This devout group included many children, and all knelt at each stop.  It was a very moving Lenten service, which would not be seen in the United States.

As we drove south toward Cafayate through the Quebrada de Cafayate (and some of the most colorful mountains I have ever seen) our guide regaled us with history and current social conditions.  In Argentina, if you kill a vicuna, you get five years in jail, and if you cut down a cactus, you also get five years. His passionate information-giving style together with the sight of taupe, red, rose, rust, tan, purple, and salmon colored mountains all at once made for an extremely entertaining day.

We ended up at Cafayate in the early afternoon, and were dropped off at the most amazing place, called the Patios de Cafayate.  We never expected a hostelry of such grandeur in this part of the world.  The inn at El Esteco Winery has been taken over by Starwood Hotels, enlarged and made luxurious.  We might not have chosen to stay in such an upscale place (not much chance of chatting with the locals) but we ended up being very happy to be here in the California-like setting.  When the weather the following day made it impossible for us to go further up in to the mountains to Cachi, we managed to assuage our disappointment with another day of massages, beautiful gardens, and delicious food and wine. Yes, it was here that we had the cabernet sauvignon massage, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Driving back through Salta our destination was the wonderful estancia, El Bordo de las Lanzas.  We had the privilege of staying with one of the most unusual and fascinating families in the area. The distinguished Arias family lives in this estancia that has been in the family for hundreds of years. It is filled with books, silver, furniture and artifacts, antique treasures which are joined with comfortable furniture and beckoning spaces.  Best of all, the family members are ten well-educated brothers and sisters, of whom several have come back to the area to keep this huge estancia running. One brother is a veterinarian, and one is an agricultural engineer. One sister who greeted us, is in charge of hospitality, and she gets an A plus.  Their father, Don Dario Arias, had a distinguished law career and was governor of the neighboring province of Jujuy before retiring back to the estancia.  Our several days there were probably the most memorable of the entire trip. I could go on and on, but maybe I’ll just tell you that I actually rode a horse for the first time in my life.

Our northern route brought us to a southwestern-like area, again with dry Quebradas, and multi-colored mountains.  My fondest memories are of lunch at Maimara on humitos and empanadas, our visits to the churches of the military angels, and staying in Purmamarca at El Manantial de Silencio, an unusual inn with another good dining room.

There is so much more to say about this area. It is remote and not easy to reach. As Argentina continues to be a popular destination, I hope it does not get spoiled. In any event, I have my memories.

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