Whenever I mention going to Salta to an Argentinean, their response is Ahhhh. Even if they haven’t actually been there, this city has a place in their hearts. Argentineans, beset with a fluctuating currency, have had difficulty travelling abroad and so set out to explore their own amazing and varied landscape. Our Aerolinéas flight from Iguazu leaves early. All passengers are on board ten minutes ahead of schedule, so there’s no reason in this two gate airport not to leave – unheard of. Taxis drop us at our Salta hotel which is just a short walk from the centre – time to un-pack essentials, regroup and prepare to explore a new landscape. We set off en-mass with Emapanadas and Cambio in mind but some get waylaid at the Farmacia. Colds and minor ailments are developing in the group, so with the help of the Spanish-fluent Stephen and Dr Mike to inspect the active ingredients on semi-familiar products, purchases are made. Medications are surprisingly inexpensive and there’s a half hearted suggestion to buy up a load of Paracetamol to sell on in New Zealand.
We have instruction from Richard C to meet at a certain café in the Plaza. We drift apart and I take a look at the Cathedral, make a circuit of the square, noting various museums and galleries to be visited on our free day. Stephen is heading a Cambio expedition and is able to get a good exchange rate from one of the street-corner guys. We later make jokes about spending fake notes, but they all turn out to be genuine and in any case, Argentine pesos are pretty worn, particularly the lower values. I find some of our group having coffee, not at the designated café – we move on in search of our Empanada lunch, which just happens to be outside the Archaeological Museum of the High Mountains. We order beer and three dozen Empanadas – a mix of varieties including Carne (meat) Jamon e Queso (Ham and Cheese) and Vegetarian (Quinoa and Cheese). Compared with the mass-produced, casual versions at the Iguazu Falls café, these are fabulous. Richard C is spotted making his way to the other Café and hailed to join us. Empanadas are simply a pasty, mostly half-moon shaped – cheese and spinach ones can be round – which are eaten in two or three bites. Argentinean cuisine is famous for meat and we’ve been warned to stock up on vegetables before leaving New Zealand, so it’s a delight to visit the most amazing vegetarian restaurant for dinner. Each dish is not only a work of art, but delicious and the ubiquitous Malbec wine is organic and quite drinkable.
So we are off to the wine-producing Cafayate area today. Our tour bus arrives early and we’re not ready – they come back later after collecting the rest of the tourists who are Spanish-speaking. Maria is our feisty guide who has proud connections with indigenous ancestors. Diego, our driver is by comparison, taciturn – he has to concentrate on the road. Maria does everything in Spanish first – then English for us. We travel south through the fertile agricultural areas – it’s still the winter dry season, so young crops are being irrigated. In particular the tobacco seedlings are in the ground and amazingly there is still a great international demand for this controversial plant. Maria chooses to dwell on the harmful effects of the spraying – genetic defects caused by non-compliance with safety regulations. Workers just don’t bother to wear the recommended protective clothing. We are soon riding through a gorge with incredible red-coloured mountains.
Rain is so scarce here and when it does fall, it immediately evaporates, creating weird shapes in the hill-sides. This is an area of geological upheaval and weathering so we stop at a once-flowing waterfall. This ‘Devil’s Throat’ is arid. Andean clay flutes are on sale along with jewellery and handcrafts. Some of the guys just have to climb the dry fall – ignoring the sign not to. It’s too steep and slippery for me.
Further down the road is ‘The Amphitheatre’ where flutes are being played, filling the space with beautiful music. We pass weather sculptured shapes which include: The titanic, a monk with choir of nuns above, a nail, windows and old women’s legs.
Trad band with fiddle
There’s a tour of a commercial winery with tasting of the Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. I stock up for our now regular pre-dinner drinks. New growth on the vines indicates that it’s long past the harvest season but we are talked through the process and inspect the equipment. A bird has foolishly decided to nest on the lawn next to the drive-way, so someone has encircled her with stones for protection. The tour drops us at a restaurant for lunch with a set menu which is opposite the Museo de la Vid y el Vino. We do a quick walk though this ‘presentation’ in subdued lighting before making for the more interesting plaza of Cafayate. The return to Salta gives us opportunities to look at some of the geological phenomena in a better afternoon light.
Richard is keen for us to experience an area of the city where live entertainment is offered with a meal. We find the place he’s remembered and watch local dancers and singers get up to perform their well-rehearsed acts. I decide to try a dish of Llama – it’s quite chewy.