Salta, in northwestern Argentina, was our kick off point for a road trip through some of the most interesting scenery yet. The area is home to the Andes Mountains, deep colourful canyons, arid deserts, impenetrable jungles, wine producing valleys and small culturally rich towns. Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, we were greeted with more spellbinding views.
Salta, the capital of Salta province, is a very clean, well-preserved colonial city with many beautiful buildings, churches, cobblestone streets and an unhurried way of life. Its name comes from the Aymara word “sagta”, which means ” the very beautiful one” and it is probably one of the nicest cities we have visited, aside from Buenos Aires.
As with all towns and cities we have come across, regardless of size, the town is centered around a main square/park or Plaza containing a church, or two, the town hall, museums, stores, cafes and restaurants. The city is vibrant early morning; the afternoons are usually very quiet with most things closed for siesta between 1:00 and 5:00 pm. However in the evening the city come alive, streets and parks are packed, kids and people are out and about and the activity continues late into the night. It was such a delight to see the locals out enjoying the many parks and activities offered. The other thing to note is most restaurants don’t open until after 7:00 pm, actually most Argentinians don’t have dinner until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.
After a three-day stay in Salta we rented a car for a week heading first to the huge and diverse northern region, an area consisting of dramatic landscapes, high in the Andes. Tilcara, Humahuaca and Purmamarca, our first stops over the course of three days, are little Andean villages where time seems to have stood still. The indigenous folks living in these villages have strong aboriginal roots and continue to make and sell pottery, sweaters and ponchos made of alpaca and llama wool, carpets made with looms and traditional musical instruments in the town squares. The area is also a great place for exploring the “Quebrac de Humahuaca”, a narrow mountain valley about 155 km (96 mi) long and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Grande River (Río Grande) flows through the area, however most riverbeds were dry or reduced to a trickle even though this is apparently rainy season.
We travelled the same route the ancient Incans once did, marvelling at the serrated canyons and ever changing array of colour rippling down the unusual rock formations. It was here that we took the first of many nail biting, white knuckle, ear popping, cheek puckering drives up mountain hugging roads (no guardrails) with hairpin turns, praying we didn’t meet another car coming the opposite way. Little did we know each day would see us travelling higher and higher, up and down through the mountains! I always knew Bob had a Mario Andretti side to him, he loved the roller coaster driving, me as a passenger, not so much!! 😱😱😱
Our first destination was “Garganta del Diablo” or Devil’s Throat, an area sitting high above Tilcara that offers a hiking trail along a riverbed to a small waterfall. Our next stop was Serrania de Hornacol, a range of mountains aka the 14-colour mountains about 25 km from the town of Humahuaca. We braved the climb reaching an altitude of 4,350 meters (14,271 feet) above sea level. The air was thin and cool, our balance a little wobbly, definitely had helium head (no altitude illness, thank goodness) and again the views were absolutely stunning.
Purmamarca is home to the Cerro de los Siete Colores (7-colour hills) and a quaint little village boasting colourful handicraft markets. Again we were delighted by exceptional hills, formed by rocks of unique and different colours, illustrating various geological eras. The town is centered around Santa Rosa church, built in 1648 in the typical adobe style seen throughout the area.
As local folklore has it, when the first inhabitants populated the area the mountains were plain and without colour. While the adults were perfectly fine with this the children of the village were not happy. They made a plan to paint the mountains and snuck out their beds painting the hills with a different colour each night. When the adults woke up each morning they were surprised to see that the hills had a different colour added to them. On the 7th morning the adults woke up early and found that their children were missing from their beds. Panicking they searched all over the village, but to no avail. Suddenly the children started skipping down the hillside laughing, playing and singing pleased with their handiwork, hence the 7-colour hills.
Another harrowing ride through the Cuesta del Lipan cliffs (reaching only 4,200 m)and canyons led us to Salinas Grandes, or the great salt flats. This vast expanse of white salt flats is located 3,400 m above sea level and continues to be a major mining site for harvesting and refining the salt.
We finished our sojourn in the north and headed back to Salta. Our next venture was exploring the southwestern areas, stay tuned for part two.