The city of Salta has oodles of charm. It’s the capital of the province of the same name in the north of Argentina. The area is famous for its folkloric music and white wines which are particularly palatable due to the favourable conditions created by the high altitude. Salta is Argentina’s 7th most populous city but it feels more like a village. Cobbled streets, walkability along the delightful cobbled floors and a distinct lack of tall buildings create a small-town feeling. It’s only when you get to the top of San Bernardo hill (Cerro San Bernardo) that you really get to take in its grandeur.
Buenos Aires and the south of Argentina have a distinctly European look and feel, but Salta is the most indigenous province in Argentina in terms of ethnicity as well as culture. The city enjoys mostly Argentinian visitors (around 80%) and European guests who come all the way here specifically to be dazzled. Locals also boast that it’s a very easy place to live. Students pay zero for public transportation, primary and secondary education costs nada and healthcare and medicine are free too (for Argentines). It’s got a bit of a laidback student vibe due to the two universities in the city, the private Universidad Católica de Salta and Universidad Nacional, which is free.
It’s very traveller-friendly with hotels and tour operators dotted all around. It’s also big on museums (all of which are closed on Mondays by the way). One of the world’s most unique museums is right here; nowhere else can you visit an exhibition of perfectly-preserved mummified Inca children that were sacrificed to the other realm.
WHAT TO DO
Plaza 9 de Julio
Much of Salta can be discovered on foot. After checking in to your accommodation, a stroll to the tranquil Plaza 9 de Julio is practically obligatory as it’s the undisputed heart of the city. Here you’ll encounter locals drinking mate, playing the guitar and leisurely taking in Salta’s renowned warm weather.
Situate yourself at one of the many alfresco cafes and enjoy traditional dances put on by Salteños of all ages as well as the colourful buildings and charming architecture which is French, Colonial and neo-gothic. Within the square, you’ll immediately notice the candy-coloured Cathedral Basilica de Salta. This is one of Salta’s most recognizable buildings and it’s also a Freemason’s church – watch out for the all-seeing-eye watching over you.
Visit a peña
No trip to Salta is complete without visiting a peña, a traditional eatery with live music, regional food, dancing and much revelry. For dinner on day one, I would propose heading to La Vieja Estación where you’ll be treated to live music and an impassioned performance from Gauchos, which are Argentinian cowboys. Salta is a great place to learn about Argentina’s various traditional dances. There’s the tango (naturally), chamame, zamba, queja and the malambo.
At La Vieja Estación you get to witness the malambo live on centre stage. This fiery traditional dance sees men duelling with one another to show off their strength and agility via the zapateo, a term for very fancy footwork. When the men dance among themselves, their glares are tense as they’re in competition with one another. When the ladies come into the fold, they’re like sweet hummingbirds. It’s also a dance of old-fashioned romance; the girls are in white dresses and the men are in black and red gaucho attire and they exchange handkerchiefs as a sign of their adoration. I was sat in the front and so close I even got a hanky in my face at one point (and loved every second of it). It’s an extremely entertaining and energetic show and audience members are later invited to partake and learn some moves.
Between the dances, a live band gives a musical performance tinged with comedy. The band interacts with audience members (in Spanish) and proceeds to play a localised version of a song from their country. After mentioning that I was from London, they devised a folkloric-sounding version of The Beatle’s “Day Tripper”. The band was really impressive and they were able to play a crowd-pleasing titbit from every guest’s country besides Japan.
Later, the singer proposed a toast to the audience: “to health happiness, money and more money and even more money”. An audience member shouted out, “but what about love?” to which the singer replied “my friends, love comes with money” and the crowd erupted into a collective giggle. In actual fact, all the songs played were about love: love of the land, romantic love and love for Salta. It’s a great evening out and La Vieja Estación is rather popular so do reserve ahead.
La Casona del Molino (The Mill House) is considered to be the last true peña standing in Salta where gauchos drink wine, sing all night and tuck into authentic Salteña empanadas. Do try the local delicacies of tamales or humitas, or the sangria there which is made with either red or white wine, orange, lemon and azúcar (sugar). It’s open every day besides Monday and it’s pumping anytime between 830PM and 5AM. If you go in and it looks full, walk further in cause there’s additional seating at the back. Also, don’t be surprised to see locals with their cheeks stuffed full of coca leaves which combat altitude sickness. While at Casona del Molino you may be lucky to catch a live performance from Rodrigo Moro who’s somewhat of a local celebrity. Rodrigo is so synonymous with this place that a football fan at the World Cup in Russia recognized him as “the guy from Salta”.
Don’t miss the empanadas
Salta enjoys a mild empanada rivalry of sorts with other Argentinian provinces. The empanadas here are juicily famous and Bolivians are actually said to call all empanadas “Salteñas” – they’re that good. Many locals will cite Doña Salta as the place to get the best ones and the staff there are friendly, warm and dressed head to toe in gaucho attire.
Visiting Salta’s various museums will give you well-rounded insight into the region and its significance in Argentina’s history. There’s the Museum of Fine Arts (Museo de Bellas Artes de Salta) and Museo Guemes which attempts to outline the life and death of Martin Miguel de Güemes (a Salta hero of the Argentine War of Independence) in a light manner via interactive videos and talking portraits. It takes about an hour to go through the museum, photos are indeed permitted and you do need to understand Spanish for the talking exhibits.
Adventurous souls may also pay a visit to Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM) where three well cryopreserved Inca children reside. The children were found 6,739 metres high in the Llullaillaco volcano in the Andes in the east of the Salta province along the border with Chile. Quechua linguists believe that Llullaillaco could mean “water of memory” or “that which hides away the water”. North American anthropologist Johan Reinhard studied the volcano during an expedition in 1999 where he discovered the bodies of the Llullaillaco children and their treasure trove of funerary goods.
Even if the idea of mummified children may not sit so well with you, the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña is a great place to learn about the cryopreservation methods used and the Inca cosmos and their connection to the spiritual: an ideal yet invisible world. The children were sacrificed to the gods and looking at the spookily lifelike figures (with black hair and all), you’ll notice intentionally deformed skulls which denote their noble origin and high social standing.
You don’t have to see the bodies if you don’t wish to as they’re behind a screen. There are three children in total though the exhibit rotates and you’ll only ever see one in the flesh at any given time to keep them well-preserved. Though over 500 years old, The Maiden (La Doncella) “is” technically 15-years old, The Boy (El Niño) is 7, and The Girl of Lightning (La Niña del Rayo) is just over 6 years old. Note that there’s no photography allowed inside. The museum itself is in a beautiful historic building and the full tour takes around an hour.
Hop on a city tour
To cram six sights into one day, take a half-day city tour by car with UMA Travel. The tour is bilingual (English and Spanish) and commences at 4PM till around 8PM at a reasonable cost of 775 Argentine Pesos (around 29 US Dollars). You’ll be picked up from wherever you’re staying shortly before the start time. Our guide for the day was the lovely and very knowledgeable Javier who describes himself as “a fake Argentinian” due to his dislike of wine.
The first stop on the tour is Cerro San Bernardo, a hill that the watches over Salta that’s unquestionably the best vantage point to admire the city’s splendour. A man-made waterfall, two restaurants, souvenir shops, a mobile wine store (and even a gym) will keep you entertained at the top as you devour panoramic views of the city. There are three ways to get to the top: by car, by walking or running up a designated footpath or with the Teleférico cable car. This option is unbelievably picturesque and costs 400 Pesos (about 15 USD). If you don’t go up the hill by car with the organised tour then you should absolutely take the Teleférico which entices unsuspecting visitors who were none the wiser of the city’s beauty.
A scenic drive out to the neighbouring town of San Lorenzo is up next. San Lorenzo used to be a summer town for the aristocracy. When Napoleon invaded Spain, lots of wealthy Spaniards fled to Argentina and brought their silver with them so there’s a lot of visible wealth here. You get to spot a majestic white building which happens to be the childhood home of Argentina-born Dutch Queen Maxima Zorreguieta. A stone’s throw from this is the equally elegant Castillo de San Lorenzo hotel.
On the way to San Lorenzo, I noticed what has to be the oddest makeshift pop up shop I’ve ever come across – a roadside “shop” solely selling swimming pool floats out of the back of someone’s car boot. This somewhat makes sense as San Lorenzo has a river where locals famously camp, picnic and just enjoy life Salteño style. On the tour we stopped for snacks at Don Sanca, a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating. Here I had a cup of tea alongside a beef empanada that came with a moderately spicy tomato salsa.
Back within the city limits, the tour also stops at the Monumento 20 de Febrero, which honours the victims of the battle of Salta in Plaza Armada Argentina and there’s a half-hour stop at the handicraft market too so you can get your hands on all sorts of trinkets, textiles, Andean souvenirs and keepsakes. The final stop is back at Plaza 9 de Julio where you arrive just in time for dinner. Here Javier explained some local history and Salta quirks that you simply won’t find in the guidebooks. Uma Travel runs this half-day city tour every day so feel free to go on it whichever day suits you best.
Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes)
Train to the Clouds (Tren a las Nubes) is one of the most extraordinary experiences on offer in Argentina. It’s the third-highest high-altitude train in the world; an adventure through the depths of the Lerma valley on a railroad with a century of history behind it.
The province of Salta boasts some of Argentina’s most dramatic scenery, and the Train to the Clouds is a delightful way to take in all of it. It’s a journey for journeying sake with the same departure and arrival point. The service takes passengers from the city of Salta 4,220 metres above sea level to the Polvorilla viaduct, which in itself, is worth writing home about. On the way there, you’ll be treated to the vastness of Argentina’s high Andes with hopes for a llama sighting or two.
The route has changed significantly in recent years. For safety reasons, part of the journey is now carried out by bus and the rest by train with lots of photographic opportunities along the way.
All traces of city life are a distant memory as the train traverses the arid Puna region which spreads across Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The name comes from Quechua, the language of the Incas and it means “place of high elevation”. The Andean Plateau (or Altiplano in Spanish) is second only to Tibet for having the most extensive area of high plateau.
Don’t burn the midnight oil the night before and get lots of sleep to prepare for the early check-in time and long journey – around 13 hours in total. The tourism authority also advises to have a light meal and minimise alcohol consumption the evening before. This apparently reduces the chances of succumbing to altitude sickness when the air is thin. Also, there are USB ports on the bus so you can keep your phone charged to be able to take photos all the way through.
Train to the Clouds is one of South America’s great railway journeys high in the sky, and it’s high time you went on it. Find out more and order your tickets on their multi-language website www.trenalasnubes.com.ar.
WHERE TO STAY IN SALTA
Hotel Legado Mitico
Regularly making it onto the list of Salta’s best hotels is Legado Mítico, an intimate boutique property in the historical quarter. Legado is worthy of your leisure time even just for its open-air area and most importantly, the library and reading quarters. Set in a renovated townhouse, it has 11 rooms, each wholly unique and adhering to its own theme. The luxury rooms also have four-poster beds. Legado Mítico is a member of TheBBH, an alliance of the best small luxury hotels in Latin America. All guests receive a complimentary glass of Salteño wine alongside meaty green olives with llama-shaped cocktail sticks.
There are two 5-star hotels in Salta, one being the Alejandro 1 and the other being the Sheraton on the east of the city. The Sheraton has an on-site Italian restaurant and rooms boast panoramic views of the Lerma Valley.
This stunning property in the centre of town has an indoor pool and state of the art gym. Alejandro 1 overlooks Belgrano square and has doctors on call should you succumb to altitude sickness at any point. The rooms are luxurious and you pretty much get 5-star service for a 4-star price.
Los Amigos de la Linda
Los Amigos de la Linda is a laid-back hostel and hotel that’s popular with backpackers and budget travellers. Rooms are spacious and it’s a stone’s throw from the nightlife of Balcarce Street and within walking distance from Salta station.