When I was invited to north-west Argentina I jumped at the opportunity. Having travelled extensively elsewhere within the country this less-visited corner had long been on my wish list. The region is known for its extreme landscapes, friendly people and excellent wine, and it did not disappoint!
Salta is the provincial capital of the north-west, with well-preserved, impressive colonial architecture and many squares. It is usually the start or end point for most visits to the region and one can either opt to stay in the city centre or further out in the suburbs. I found the Kkala Boutique Hotel to be a happy medium, in a quiet residential area but within easy reach of the city's highlights, bars and restaurants. During any stay in Salta one thing that should not be missed is a visit to the fascinating MAAM Museum (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology). Three Inca children were found on Llullaillaco mountain and the museum is dedicated to this find.
Finca Santa Anita
I initially travelled south towards Cafayate and stayed with Carlos and his wonderful family at Finca Santa Anita. I could not have been made to feel more welcome and enjoyed the excellent hospitality. I rode around the 60 hectare farm where the riding is generally slow paced due to the terrain, but it was a unique experience riding through some stunning scenery accompanied by local gauchos. The family also own a 200 hectare ranch in the mountains, from where they operate rides for five or seven days into the high altitude Calchaqui valley.
Cafayate is known for its vineyards (it is the second main wine region in Argentina, following Mendoza, and particularly famous for the local Torrontes) and the journey south, via Cachi and Molinos, blew me away. We drove up through the Cuesta del Obispo towards the high passes and the spectacular scenery of the Cardones National Park (1,000’s of cacti), and with glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes too, it was like a picture postcard. After an excellent lunch at Hacienda Molinos we drove through the valley of the coloured rocks and desert scenery, past small local farms, vineyards and huge colourful mountains and ravines.
After sampling the wines in Cafayate I set off towards El Peñon, a small remote village at an altitude of 3,400m in the Puna. It has a population of around 200 people, most of whom are shepherds and farmers, and is one of the last authentic Puna villages. There were some long days of travelling along a mixture of paved and unpaved roads but it was an experience never to be forgotten - donkeys on the side of the road, herds of alpacas, local farmers tending sheep and llamas, distinctive plants, sweeping sand dunes, saline lakes, flamingos, salt flats, volcanoes, lava fields and the strange and unique landscapes of pumice and white labyrinths - as you can imagine, photo stops were never ending!
The journey on to Tolar Grande, at 3,500m, took me past the amazing Cono de Arita conical hill and across the vast Salar de Arizaro, one of the biggest salt flats in the world – wow, is about the only word to describe it! Following the route of the famous 'train to the clouds' I then returned to Salta for a night in Finca Valentina, a wonderful family property just outside the city.
My final couple of days were spent north of Salta visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley and the Andean village of Purmamarca. This area is also well known for the multi-coloured rock strata, cacti, colonial churches and Inca remains, the most important of these pucaras, or hill forts, being at Tilcara. There are some lovely walks with spectacular views of the colourful mountains and El Manantial del Silencio, on the outskirts of the village, was the perfect place to spend my final night.
I had a wonderful trip and returned full of enthusiasm. I have no hesitation in recommending any of the properties visited and the whole region is a huge contrast to elsewhere in Argentina with spectacular scenery.
You have stirred up the travel bug with this- we need to talk again about our plans for 2016! Jamie Oliver