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Road Trip: Salta, Argentina

The ravine leading to El Anfiteatro, on the road from Cafayate to Salta.

Photo: David Nicolas

The week had passed like a fever dream. Perhaps it was the altitude, or the heat from an unfiltered sun.

Or maybe this just happens to anyone who tackles an eight-day drive around the province of Salta, in Argentina’s mountainous northwest.

In proximity, physicality, culture, and spirit, Salta is closer to the Andes than to the rest of the country. The cosmopolitan airs of Buenos Aires seem a world away. The province’s topography is remarkably diverse: a jumble of red rock and green rivers, vineyards and thorny cacti, snowcapped peaks and arid deserts—as if God had crumpled a map and squeezed a continent’s worth of landscapes into one remote corner of Argentina.

My wife, Nilou, and I had caught the two-hour flight from B.A. to the city of Salta, the provincial capital. It was the end of South America’s summer, and the tobacco fields were lush from rain, the alfalfa blooming vibrant purple. From Salta we set out on a 330-mile loop: over an alpine pass to the chalk-white pueblo of Cachi; onward to the tidy hamlet of Seclantás and the fabulous horse ranch and wine estate of Colomé; south to the vineyards of Cafayate; then north through rust-colored canyons on the way back to the capital. And on the eighth day, as we pulled into the rental lot to return our mud-spattered 4 x 4, we had trouble fathoming all we’d encountered: a series of vivid, almost surreal moments, strange enough to make the trip seem half-imagined.

Had all that really happened?

The Pass

“Nothing grows here but scrub and resentment,” Nilou observed as we rounded Hairpin Turn No. 472. We were inching along the Cuesta del Obispo, a near-vertical series of mountain switchbacks in the Sierra del Obispo, en route from Salta to Cachi. We had risen above the treeline, though it was hard to say for sure; you couldn’t see 10 yards for the mist clinging to the road. The temperature had dropped from 71 to 52 degrees. It looked like Venus out there.

“Are we sure this road is even open?” Nilou wondered aloud. She had a point—we hadn’t passed another car for miles.

The fog was thick, the air dizzyingly thin: we were wending our way up to 11,000 feet. At the height of the pass, a stone chapel materialized out of the mist, poised on the edge of a cliff. Nearby stood several primitive crosses, no doubt marking where someone had fallen into the void. We got out to stretch our legs and immediately our feet were soaking wet. Rivulets of runoff cascaded down the hillside, into our boots, and over the cliff, to vanish in the whiteness below.

We pushed on into the murk, the SUV now pointed downward. I rode the brake. Our ears popped; the rain stopped. In an instant the fog fell away, revealing an arrow-straight highway and a vast plain dotted with cardon cacti. Along the roadside grazed a herd of curious, fuzzy-eared donkeys. Two ambled toward us as we idled on the shoulder. The ears were so ridiculously outsized that the donkeys seemed to stoop under their weight; they looked like helicopter rotors.

The Rodeo

I could hear them approaching from the ravine below. It began as far-off thunder, a rumble that became a roar—the deafening drumbeat of a hundred hooves. In a frenzy of dust the herd rounded the corner: 25 unbridled criollo horses at full gallop. We pressed our backs against the fence as they swept into the corral, close enough that we could smell their sweat and feel their heat as they passed. Trailing the herd was a boy no older than 14, riding bareback and wielding a rebenque, the braided-leather riding crop of the gaucho. The crowd cheered as he drove in the last of the herd. The doma could begin.

After the Cuesta del Obispo we had dropped down, down into the Calchaquí Valley, where lush pastures and llama farms sidle up to Georgia O’Keeffe hills striated pink, chalk-white, and green. The highway hugged a canyon wall into which the river had carved faces: jagged brows and cheekbones glowing red in the midday sun. At last we’d pulled into Cachi, a low-slung frontier town that, despite the dust that blows in from every direction, manages to keep its adobe façades blindingly white.

By sheer luck, we’d arrived in Cachi on the day of the doma, a gaucho rodeo festival that draws crowds from around the valley: families in pickup trucks, ranchers on horseback, and, of course, a whole cavalry of gauchos, with their flat wool brims, their baggy bombacha trousers, their faces like rock formations.

We joined the spectators at the rim of a gravel pit that doubled as the rodeo ground. For all the excitement it could have been the Roman Colosseum. Salteño folk music began to blare over the tinny loudspeakers, and one by one the horses were set loose into the pit, to be lassoed and mounted by the gauchos. Most riders were tossed within seconds—much to the crowd’s delight—but a few hung on for a minute or more, whereupon the men in the audience would briefly set down their two-liter soda bottles of homemade wine and murmur their approval. Under the shade of a eucalyptus tree, a cluster of bowlegged gauchos sharpened their facon knives and studied their BlackBerrys. Their horses lapped at a nearby water trough, saddled in full regalia, their stiff leather guardamontes (saddle guards) flared out like butterfly wings—the mounts of flying cowboys.

The Restaurant

One hears all sorts of hype about the wines of Salta, which are second only to Mendoza’s in reputation, but what really sold us was the food. We fell hardest for locro, a hominy-and-pumpkin stew as hearty as cassoulet, spicy as gumbo. (Salteño cooking packs more heat than that of southern Argentina.) Along with beans, pimientos, and fresh scallions, locro might incorporate pork, beef, tripe, sausage, and/or smoked bacon. It is positively soul-reviving.

The best version we found was at Inti Raymi, in the village of Seclantás, a two-hour drive south of Cachi. Seclantás’s town green is improbably tidy, the hedges and flower bushes trimmed just so, overlooked by a lovely rose-colored cathedral.

Inti raymi means “festival of the sun god” in the local Quechua language, a form of which was spoken by the Incas. In addition to locro, the restaurant serves several regional specialities, including a terrific charquisillo (cured-beef and quinoa stew). It was opened five years ago by the Díazes, a couple of Indian and Spanish descent, in an adobe hacienda that’s been in the family since 1700. When we stopped in for a late-afternoon lunch, they were in the backyard making tomato jam. Señora Díaz greeted us warmly, took leave of her canning, and sat us in a cool, chapel-like room decorated with devotional art, antique instruments, and a Victrola. For the next hour she brought out course after course of the cockle-warming food one craves after a long and winding road: empanadas stuffed with raisins, olives, potatoes, goat cheese, and ground beef, bursting with fragrant juice. Golden tamales, the filling light and fluffy yet rich in umami from salted beef. And the tastiest salsa criolla we’d had all trip—an ear-ringingly spicy mix of tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, and locoto peppers. It was all so good we were tempted to stay and order another round for dinner.

The River

“When you get to the river, go straight,” they told us when we called for directions to Colomé.

“You mean the bridge?”

“No—there is no bridge. You’ll have to cross the river yourself.” The man paused. “You do have four-wheel drive, yes?”

Before arriving at this challenge, we had already endured an agonizing stretch of Ruta 40, Argentina’s legendary highway, which we had picked up south of Cachi. To call this particular portion a “dirt road” would be exceedingly kind. We were never fully convinced we were actually on Ruta 40 and not tracing some ancestral pilgrimage route bushwhacked by the Incas. Since leaving Seclantás we had rattled along for ages at three or four miles per hour, until at last we reached the banks of the Molinos River.

Late-summer rains had raised the river to unusual heights. The water was a hundred yards across and rushing at a good clip. “Turn your wheel into the current,” the man on the phone had advised. “And whatever you do, don’t slow down.”

Nilou unbuckled her seat belt in case she needed to get out quickly and swim. I shifted into first. The wheels spun briefly, then with a jerk we launched off the muddy bank and into the current. At this point, for reasons that still remain unclear, I began to yodel. Loudly. Nilou seemed to agree this was the thing to do, and soon both of us were yodeling as we bounced and splashed our way across the river, until at last we reached the shore.

The Estancia

If any place is worth fording a river for, Estancia Colomé is it.

The 96,000-acre estate was bought in 2001 by Donald Hess, a Swiss entrepreneur and art collector whose primary intention was to make wine. Colomé’s vines are some of the oldest in Argentina (one plot dates to the 1850’s), and among the highest in the world, averaging 7,200 feet above sea level. The extreme elevation, and the increased UV-ray exposure, result in more concentrated, intensely flavored wines. Colomé’s Malbecs, Syrahs, and Tannats now rank among the country’s finest.

That a state-of-the-art winery could exist in such a remote and difficult setting seems a minor miracle. That Colomé would also house an 18,000-square-foot James Turrell museum veers into the absurd.

Hess built the museum in 2009, working from a design by Turrell himself. It is the world’s only museum devoted to the California-born artist, whose cunning light installations toy with infinitesimal variations in color; with the interplay of natural and artificial light; and—via mind-bending trompe l’oeil effects—with the limitations of the human eye. The exhibit is mesmerizing, and Turrell’s works take full advantage of the setting. The final installation, Unseen Blue 2002, occupies an entire room, with a rectangular portal in the ceiling: a massive skylight framed by ever-shifting colored lights. During our sunset tour of the museum, the docent instructed us to find a spot on the marble floor, lie on our backs, and watch. Watch what? The sky, for the last minutes of twilight, as it shifted imperceptibly from blue to cobalt, deep indigo to inky black.

Just uphill from the museum is an elegant hacienda full of Spanish archways, timber beams, and wrought-iron chandeliers. Until recently, its nine rooms were run as a luxury hotel, but alas, in September, Hess closed the hotel operation; the house is now available only for group rentals. Colomé’s excellent restaurant, however, remains open to the public, along with the winery and Turrell Museum. I can think of few things more happy-making than a lunch of spit-roasted lamb and greens from Colomé’s biodynamic farm, taken on a sun-dappled terrace perfumed with lavender and woodsmoke.

Few things, that is, besides exploring the property on horseback. Colomé is a rider’s dream, and day visitors can book guided treks around the ranch. The stable has a handful of Peruvian Paso horses, whose unique, smooth, four-beat gait (they set down only one foot at a time when in a trot or canter) makes them extremely comfortable to ride. Led by the resident horse trainer, Ernesto González, Nilou and I ranged deep into Colomé’s hinterlands. Out here the landscape changed every half-mile or so, like a series of disjointed Westerns, quick-cutting from the Badlands to the prairie, the high plains to Monument Valley. We scrambled up rocky slopes, raced along dry riverbeds and cracked mud plains, trotted through pastures of stirrup-high grass, forded silt-heavy rivers and streams (fording rivers being old hat for us)—in short, indulging every cowboy fantasy I’d harbored since the age of four.

La Parrilla

The joint was jammed—every table inside and on the sidewalk filled—and no one looked to be leaving soon. “Momentito, por favor!” our host said, before darting into the kitchen. He returned with two stools and a folding metal table, which he set up in the street between a pickup and an old Ford Falcon. “Ta-da!” he cried, as he laid out two place settings. What could we do but laugh and take a seat?

We had followed Rivadavia Street out to the western edge of town, joined in the final blocks by a gathering procession of hungry locals. At last we spotted the place, enveloped in fragrant grill smoke: Shula Cata, the finest parrilla in Cafayate.

Set in a valley at the southern end of the province, Cafayate is Salta’s most famous wine town, which means it draws plenty of wealthy weekenders, bus tourists, and backpackers. The latter especially have embraced Cafayate’s easygoing spirit—playing hacky sack on the verdant town green, noshing on cheap empanadas, and hitting local wineries for free tastings. The overall vibe is like a scruffier Sonoma; call it Down-at-the-Healdsburg.

Plenty of decent restaurants face the square, but six different people had told us the real deal was out at Shula Cata. The parrilla (pronounced “pa-ree-zha”; meaning grill) is, of course, an Argentinean institution: a temple of fire, a holy church of meats. In larger cities they tend to be more refined, akin to North American steak houses, but small-town parrillas are often as raucous as a rib shack crossed with a biker bar.

Shula Cata fit soundly in the second category. At our table-in-the-street we were circled by a pack of ravenous dogs. (Very Amores Perros.) But the dogs skulked away whenever the host reappeared with his stick—and frankly, everything was so delicious we soon paid them no mind. Just inside the restaurant, the burly parrillero worked an immense grill laden with steaks and sausages, their savory aroma pouring out the chimney and the front door. We had glorious cuts of lomo (tenderloin), asado entiras (ribs), and chorizo, served by the grill man himself on a big wooden platter alongside two ramekins of chimichurri—one fiery, one mild—plus fries, salad, and a half-decent Malbec. The bill? Ninety-six pesos, or $24.

El Anfiteatro

Northeast of Cafayate, en route to Salta city, Highway 68 passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in Argentina. Swirling dunes, rust-red canyons, sandstone monoliths, rock faces like stacked shards of colored glass: although the road itself is in good condition (at least far better than Ruta 40), driving the thing takes forever, for all the slack-jawed rubbernecking required. Nilou and I took three hours to drive the first 50 miles, during which we took 537 photographs. They’re all good.

One place nearly impossible to capture on film: a chasm-like ravine that doubles as a natural amphitheater. El Anfiteatro is a popular stop on coach tours, but on this sun-scorched afternoon we were one of only two cars in the parking lot.

We heard the music as soon as we stopped the engine. Following a gravel path into the ravine—the air growing cooler as we walked—we emerged into a huge, half-moon-shaped chamber, like the belly of a giant stove. The rock walls reached up like a chimney, a hundred feet or more, to meet the shocking-blue sky.

Music now surrounded us. In one corner of the chamber, two guitarists sat on blankets, playing a luminous ballad. Though their fingers hardly glanced the strings, the notes reverberated all around the canyon walls. We sat on a boulder and listened for a while, hypnotized by the interaction of wire, wood, air, and rock: two beat-up guitars that came off like an orchestra.

The Maxi

Salta’s provincial capital is home to 536,000 people, and every last one of them is crazy about their hometown. That’s what you figure, anyway, based on the many billboards promoting the city’s beauty and charm, and, especially, the number of Salteño folk songs extolling the virtues of Salta over anyplace else on earth. In short: people like it here.

Take, for a particularly handsome example, Maxi—short for Maximiano, of the locally prominent Montaldi family. Maxi is 25, and recently passed the bar and joined his father’s law firm in Salta; he also moonlights as a tour guide, which is how we met him. With his bottomless brown eyes and wavy locks, he’s a ringer for a young Antonio Banderas.

Though he has friends who’ve moved to B.A., Maxi has no interest in leaving for a bigger game. He’s too fond of the Salta lifestyle—the deep sense of family, community, the respect for tradition. (In Buenos Aires, he explains, office workers don’t even have time to come home for lunch with their families!)

Maxi led us excitedly around the Plaza de 9 Julio, the city’s elegant main square, planted with eucalyptus, cedar, and sweet-smelling orange trees. Surrounding the plaza are ever-more-striking colonial façades, impeccably preserved or restored, culminating in the town’s Neoclassical cathedral, frosted pink and creamy white. We sat on a bench to watch the sunlight play on its rosy twin bell towers. Every person who passed it, from schoolchildren to businessmen, made the sign of the cross.

The city has changed a great deal since Maxi’s youth. Before Argentina’s economic crisis a decade ago, he says, “Salta was a ghost town—nobody wanted to visit.” But post-crash, when few Argentines could afford to travel overseas, the northwest saw a huge rise in domestic tourism, resulting in an explosion of local hotels, B&B’s, restaurants, and tour companies. Foreign travelers were soon drawn to the region as well. “Especially the French—they love the old buildings,” Maxi says.

That’s not to say Salta has completely polished itself up for tourists. In the gritty Bolivian quarter, we were startled by the screech of a rusted-out El Camino, its back fender dragging on the pavement, shooting sparks. The flatbed was loaded down with hundreds of ears of corn.

La Zamba

Wine, empanadas, and colonial architecture notwithstanding, Salta is most famous for its music. The northwest is the cradle of Argentina’s traditional folk scene, and Salta’s many peñas (music clubs) are legendary. One of the country’s most popular bands, Los Chalchaleros, formed here in the 1940’s and still plays to sold-out crowds, clad in high-heeled boots and gaucho capes. Salta’s signature musical form is the zamba, a stirring waltz-time dance that showcases the bombo legüero, a traditional fur-skinned drum. The lyrics typically name-check provincial villages and landmarks. Like American country music, folklorico Salteño is nothing if not hometown-proud.

Maxi is crazy for Salteño folk songs. As we rode with him around town, he blasted tunes by Los Chalchaleros and Los Nocheros on his truck’s MP3 player. So on our final night in Salta, he wanted to take us out for live music.

La Casona del Molino sits on the outskirts of town in a crumbling old mill complex dating from 1671. It’s a bar, but far more than that: in five cozy salas surrounding an open courtyard, musicians gather to play informal sets, hootenanny-style.

At 11 p.m. on a Wednesday, the place was just beginning to fill up—with students, old men in canvas caps, mothers nursing babies. Tabletops were already crowded with Fernet-and-Cokes (Argentina’s national cocktail) and pop-top bottles of wine. Every man in the place was wearing a gingham shirt; some carried satchels of coca leaves.

We found a table in the torchlit courtyard; around midnight a quartet of musicians came out. The guitarist unleashed a flurry of manic strumming, and the crowd, recognizing the tune, went nuts. Soon everyone was singing along to the triumphant chorus. The only words I could make out were “Salta,” “Salta,” and “Salta.” It was a fist-pumping tribute to the place they called home—the “Empire State of Mind” of folk anthems.

Hearing that song, watching that crowd, I once again had the impression of Salta as a land apart from the rest of Argentina—or at least the sense that Salteños see it that way. Their pride is infectious. As the moon rose over the century-old aguaribay tree, it was easy to imagine Maxi’s grandfather in this same courtyard, years earlier, singing a similar song for Salta. Tonight his grandson took up the mantle, flush-faced and resplendent in his broad-brimmed hat, and singing along at the top of his lungs.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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