Historic capital of one of Argentina’s biggest and most beautiful provinces, Salta easily lives up to its well-publicized nickname of Salta la Linda (Salta the Fair), thanks to its festive atmosphere, handsome buildings and dramatic setting. Fifteen hundred kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires, at the eastern end of the fertile Valle de Lerma, and bounded by the Río Vaqueros to the north and Río Arenales to the south, the city is squeezed between steep, rippling mountains; at 1190m above sea level, it enjoys a relatively balmy climate. In recent years, Salta has become the Northwest’s undisputed tourist capital, and its top-quality services include a slew of highly professional tour operators, some of the region’s best-appointed hotels and liveliest youth hostels and a handful of fine restaurants. In addition to a cable car and a tourist railway, its sights include the ornate Iglesia San Francisco, and a raft of excellent museums dedicated to subjects as varied as pre-Columbian culture, anthropology, local history and modern art. A generous sprinkling of well-preserved colonial architecture has survived, giving the place a pleasant homogeneity and certain charm.
San Lorenzo, a self-contained suburb of Salta only fifteen minutes west, enjoys a slightly cooler mountain climate and is awash with lush vegetation, making it alluring for both visitors and locals who want to escape from the big city, especially in the summer – despite its tourist appeal, Salta is primarily a major commercial centre with more than 620,000 inhabitants.
Notoriously violent Spanish conquistador Hernando de Lerma, the governor of Tucumán, founded the city of Salta in 1582. The site was chosen for its strategic mountainside location, and the streams flowing nearby were used as natural moats. In 1776, the already flourishing city was made capital of a huge administrative region that took in Santiago del Estero, Jujuy and even the southern reaches of modern Bolivia, becoming one of the major centres in the viceroyalty. During the War of Independence, local hero Martín Miguel de Güemes (1785–1821) based his anti-royalist forces in the town, creating the now traditional red-and-black-poncho uniform for his gaucho militia. Güemes served as governor of Salta province from 1815, but was killed during a royalist attack on the city in 1821. After Buenos Aires became the capital of the newly federalized country in 1880, Salta went into steady decline, missing out on the rest of Argentina’s mass immigration of the late nineteenth century; the railway didn’t arrive here until 1890. A belated urban explosion in the 1920s and 1930s has left its mark on the predominantly Neocolonial style of architecture in the city. Since the turn of the millennium, Salta has joined the ranks of Argentina’s fastest-growing and most dynamic metropolises.
Salta has a wide variety of places to stay, but if you have your own transport you’ll also find a number of excellent accommodation options in nearby San Lorenzo, only a 15min drive from the city centre, plus a good many fincas and estancias in the surrounding countryside. Holidays and weekends can get busy in Salta, and it’s a good idea to book ahead at these times.
Salta and, to a lesser degree Jujuy, are provinces with a very long colonial history, which has left behind many estancias (traditional ranches), known locally as fincas, some of which now offer rooms to guests. Estancia stays are a wonderful way of combining rest – and sometimes even luxury – with a chance to get to know locals, tune in to nature and experience criollo customs and farming activities. Free wi-fi and breakfast are usually included. In all cases, reserve ahead.
A number of outfits offering a wide variety of highly professional tours, expeditions and other activities in the Northwest region are based in and around Salta. The following is a selection of the best.
Salta has plenty of eating places to suit all pockets, ranging from simple snack bars where you can savour the city’s famous empanadas to a growing number of classy restaurants where people dress smartly for dinner. The most traditional cafés huddle around Plaza 9 de Julio, while the city market (Mercado Central) at Florida and San Martín has a number of stalls selling snacks at super-cheap prices.
Salta is famed for its lively peñas, informal folk-music clubs mainly found in the Northwest. Most open around 8pm to serve food – mainly local fare such as locro and empanadas. The musicians turn up and start jamming later, often at around 10pm but in some cases not till midnight. Many peñas, particularly the more touristy ones, charge extra for the music/show.
One of the most famous peñas; well known as a bohemian hangout – it was founded in 1954 by the late Juan Balderrama and his brothers, and immortalized by a zamba written by Manuel Castilla – nowadays it’s a far more conventional place, attracting plenty of tourists. Shows can be good fun, but don’t expect a truly authentic experience, despite its historic pedigree.
Empanadas, locro, tamales, humitas, sangría and improvised live music after 11pm, all in a handsomely restored Neocolonial mansion. Cash only (but no cover). Get here early to secure a table.
Modern peña in one of the city’s trendiest streets, dishing out food, draught beer and folk music shows. Shows cost $200–300, but credit cards are accepted. Reservations recommended (taken from 7pm daily). Shows usually start around 10.15pm.
Salta’s central square, Plaza 9 de Julio, is one of the country’s most harmonious. Surrounded on all four sides by graceful, shady recovas, or arcades, under which several café terraces lend themselves to idle people-watching, it’s a great place to while away an hour or two. The well-manicured central part of the square is a collection of palms and jacarandas, fountains and benches, plus a quaint, late nineteenth-century bandstand and an equestrian statue of independence hero Juan Antonio de Arenales. Around it stand the city’s Neoclassical cathedral, the Teatro Provincial (the beautifully renovated Cine Victoria of 1940), the snow-white Cabildo and two of the city’s best museums.
The Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña (MAAM) is the one museum in Salta that you should not miss. It was specially created to house the so-called Llullaillaco Children, one of the most important archeological finds ever made in Argentina and generally regarded as the best preserved Inca mummies ever found. In 1999, three naturally mummified Inca children were uncovered by an expedition of mountaineers and scientists on top of Volcán Llullaillaco, due west of Salta on the Chilean border and 6739m above sea level. They are a 6-year-old girl (La niña del rayo), visibly struck by lightning some time after her burial, her hair arranged in two small braids and with a metal plaque as an adornment (which attracted the lightning); a teenage girl (La doncella) whose face was painted with a red pigment and who had small fragments of coca leaves above her upper lip; and a 7-year-old boy (El niño) wearing a white feather ornament tied around his head. Their incredibly well-preserved corpses – all three lived around 1490 AD – were at first kept in a university laboratory in the city while tests on their tissue and other remains were completed. They are now shown, one at a time, in a specially refrigerated case, and the effect is startling.
The jury is still out as to whether it is sacrilegious to display the bodies in a public museum: the decision to do so provoked a furore, including demonstrations by representatives of local indigenous groups, so bear in mind that this is a sensitive issue. The children were sacrificed to the Inca deities, possibly in a fertility ceremony or as an offering to the gods of the sun and moon. They were probably drugged unconscious with a concoction of coca leaves and maize beer or chicha (so their bodies were not rendered imperfect by wounds) and then buried, left to die of the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold (though the boy’s death was far from peaceful, as he was tied up and vomit and blood was found on his clothing).
Over a hundred artefacts, part of the remarkably intact treasure-trove buried with
the children at the end of the fifteenth century, are on display in the museum’s other rooms, where the temperature and humidity are kept artificially low – bring something warm to wear. The exhibit is both scientific and didactic, including a video about the expedition, displays of textiles and the like (the English labels are also very good). Check out also the exhibit on La Reina del Cerro (“Queen of the Hill”), the deteriorated remnants of another Inca mummy discovered on Cerro Chuscha in 1920 and illegally trafficked in subsequent years.
No earthquake as destructive as those that flattened the cities of Mendoza in 1861 and San Juan in 1944 has struck the Northwest region of Argentina within recent history, but this part of the country lies along the same fault line that was responsible for that seismic activity and is prone to occasional tremors, some of them violent. The Nazca plate, beneath the eastern Pacific, and the South American plate, comprising the whole continent, are constantly colliding – a continuation of the tectonic activity that formed the Andean cordillera. To make matters worse, the Nazca plate is subducting – nudging its way beneath the landmass – an action that accounts for the abundance of volcanoes along the range; some of them are extinct, others lie dormant, but none in the Northwest is very active. Nonetheless, frequent earthquakes of varying strength (but mostly mild for geological reasons) rock Northwest Argentina, accounting for the repeated displacement of many settlements and the absence of colonial architecture in some.
Salta still thanks its lucky stars for El Milagro, the legend according to which two sacred images have spared the city the kind of destruction caused by seismic disasters. An image of Christ and another of the Virgin Mary were found floating in a box off the coast of Perú in 1592, exactly a century after the Americas were discovered by Columbus, and somehow ended up in Salta. Precisely one century later, on September 13, 1692, a series of tremors began to shake the city, damaging some public buildings and houses. During that night, a priest named José Carrión dreamed that if the images of Christ and Mary were paraded through the streets for nine days the earthquakes would stop and Salta would be spared forever. Apparently it worked and, ever since, the Fiesta del Milagro has been a major event in the city’s calendar. Festivities and religious ceremonies starting on September 6 reach a climax on September 15, when the now-famous images, which are kept in the cathedral, are paraded through the city’s streets in a massive, solemn but colourful procession.
One of the most beautiful religious buildings in the country, the Iglesia San Francisco takes up a whole block at the corner of Caseros and Córdoba. Built between 1767 and 1872, it’s an extravaganza of Italianate Neocolonial exuberance, with pure ivory-white columns contrasting with the vibrant ox-blood walls, while the profuse detailing of Latin inscriptions, symbols and Neoclassical patterns is picked out in braid-like golden yellow.
The church’s most imposing feature is its slender 54m campanile (added in 1882), towering over the low-rise Neocolonial houses of downtown Salta and tapering off to a slender spire. The highly elaborate facade of the church itself, behind a suitably austere statue of St Francis in the middle of the courtyard, is lavishly decorated with balusters and scrolls, curlicues and pinnacles, Franciscan inscriptions and the order’s shield, but the most original features are the organza-like stucco curtains that billow down from each of the three archways, nearly touching the elegant wrought-iron gates below. Inside, the decoration is a little more subdued, with a beautiful trompe l’oeil ceiling, Neoclassical altar and ornate side chapels. If you can, take a guided tour, which will get you into the cloisters and fascinating Museo del Convento, where the surprising archeological section features a perfect terracotta Etruscan head dating from the fourth century BC.
Top image: Quebrada de Cafayate, Salta, Argentina © sunsinger/Shutterstock