to the lush green mountains that surround Salta up in the northwest of Argentina.
Despite the lush feel of the valley, this was for me the gateway to the high desert of the Andes (previously only conceived of by me as the Atacama Desert) but I didn't know much about this region of Argentina to start with. Just had friends that told me this is where I needed to go. So I came. And I'm so glad.
Started by meeting two very nice folks on the plane who told me about a locals sort of place to go, a peña which is a place to eat and drink but where people also bring instruments and sing and play in the folkloric tradition... Just sort of happens spontaneously as the night goes on. There are touristy places where this happens in a more formal way with folks dresses in costume like a dinner show, but where I went was the real thing. La Casona del Molino. If you google it you'll find some great photos and some YouTube videos I think.
So that was an awesome way to start my first day/night in Salta. This region is connected to the high Andes culture, it is on the old Incan highway route connecting the furthest south regions (mid-argentina) up through what is now bolivia and Peru, which then became the key link under the spaniards between buenos aires and la Paz/Lima.
Some years ago mummified remains of ritual offerings (children) were exhumed from the top of an old volcano in the region. Pretty amazing museum that shows the culture and history and displays one of the three children at a time in specially controlled conditions to preserve their perfectly mummified states.
The offerings interred with the children were also exhumed and are on display in the museum... Stunning examples of the artistry of the time, intricate weaving and metal work among other things... (This silver/gold figurine is about 3" tall and wrapped with incredibly finely woven robes and adornments... crazy! Google 'mummies of Llullallaco' for more info)
And some excellent food in Salta: empañadas (like a mini calzone but no cheese just meat, potato, spices... sort of the ubiquitous taco or burrito of the region), quesillo con cayote (thin stretched mozzarella like cheese wrapped around a sweetened spaghetti squash mix), and a typical treat for me, a double espresso at a plaza-side cafe while people watching.
Salta's plaza is lovely, very colonial feeling, with an impressive church-- by day and night.
After a couple days in Salta to figure out my next steps, I rented a car to spend some time in the country rather than just take day tours which is the common thing. There was a route heading west from Salta to the village of Cachi, then down the famed (and washboard dirt) Ruta 40 (the 'highway' that runs the length of Argentina) to the town of Cafayate, then back up to Salta... all passing through amazing scenery (jungle lowlands to higher dry desert, to vineyard country), sweet villages, and plenty of open space. Perfect!
Having the freedom of the car meant lots of random stops, for plant pictures
A beautiful roadside cemetery
was another shrine/chapel, a place to leave offerings to acknowledge and ask continuance of safe passage
Further into the rural areas there was a similar practice but just with a large pile of rocks, you bring a rock and leave it as a token of passage. The resulting pile is called an 'apacheta'. Interestingly there is a similar practice in Himalayan Nepal/Tibet.
I passed through a national park to conserve a large desert area known especially for the stands of cardon cacti, but they're all over the region actually...
still beautiful wherever you see them.
But also some other really lovely things like these lilies that just covered some areas...
And surprise... Goatheads!!!!
The mountains connect us, there are so many similarities in plants, and many of the same exact species!
I stayed in the really lovely village of Cachi
And great food, the local version of tamales wrapped up like a hard candy (tied up on both ends) and I got to see small scale wine production, a la I love Lucy... by foot!
Took drives in the surrounding countryside that felt a bit like Tuscany, super green with tall cottonwoods, and it was harvest time, drying chiles on the ground, wherever there's a good clean spot... You might not see them but driving past a compound you might smell them on the wind!
It felt south like home (S Brewster county/N Mexico) in this area... gravelly, spiny plants, and adobe buildings, but everything with dirt roves and not stuccoed...
Day trip north to the village of La Poma, up into the Puna zone, the higher steppe desert of the region. Passed the village of Payogasta, more chiles and a typical old church... Bells from the 1800s, simple interior...
The drive north was spectacular, a neat wind-ey dirt road through small villages along a winding river with lush grasses, adobe homes with dirt roofs, it made me think of big bend /northern Mexico in so many places... And what the Rio Grande corridor might once have been like
The older part of the village was abandoned and I peeked into some of the adobe structures (dirt roofs!) to see the traditional construction methods...
Tree trunks using the natural curves
And supporting beams of cardon cactus wood, as large wood is hard to come by in the desert. Cardon wood is super common in old structures but mainly found as tourist trinkets and high end architectural accents nowadays with an increase in conservation ethic and wider availability of building materials.
There was a spot where the land felt pretty barren, black rock from an ancient volcanic eruption... But there were these splotches of bright red... And on further investigation, amazing red flowers, about 2 inches across, a species of succulent related to some growing in the big bend!
Then it was off South to Finca Montenieva near the village of Seclantas (all the plazas are soooo beautiful!!!)
to see some neat geology (the place/excursion was off the beaten path but highly well reviewed on tripadvisor... realizing what a helpful thing that is!) and some local petroglyphs and pre Incan religious sites
Then continued down the Ruta Cuarenta, the famed 'highway' (mostly dirt/washboard) that stretches the length of Argentina... to see the sights...
Including this 'arrow canyon' or Quebrada de las Flechas, which anywhere else would be a national park like Bryce Canyon, but here is just an area of local designation and signed requests to care for the area.
This route took me to the town of Cafayate, known for its bodegas or wineries. I didn't have much interest in them other than how massively thick some of the vines were, but the town was nice, sweet hostel
some neat old stores like La Ultima Pulpería
Where I bought some quinoa that in addition to eating I hope to plant at home, and went on a fantastic walk up a canyon full of water and amazing plants... This is the region of crazy epiphytes and bromeliads... Growing on everything! Telephone poles, cardon cacti, the local version of mesquite... and right out of the rock! Mounds of them. Crazy!
I drove from there just quickly 'over the hill' to Tafi del Valle basically for more scenery and to 'touch the jungle' briefly as the mtns there block the rain from the east and so it's all thick vegetation there,
On my way through Tafi I realized we're not the only ones that have tacky roadside attractions relating to our pre-European heritage...
Then finally headed back towards Salta... reminders of the big bend area all through this journey...
The last sightseeing bit was the famed Quebrada de las Conchas... just more cool geology, winding roads, and desert plants...
Of course through my whole trip my eyes were peeled for cacti... of the low, mounded sort... and though my special species don't occur this far south, some similar ones do so of course I had to take snaps of the 'cousins'... this was the first species I saw!
Well, I'll leave it at just two photos for now. Don't worry, there are more from the following days... stay tuned!
A few final thoughts/images...
Amazing silver jewelry of the Mapuche culture...
Cool cardon art
And what next? From Salta I headed north towards Bolivia, visiting small towns along the way, which again was along the 'Incan highway' the ancient route linking north to south. Now it's a tourist corridor among other things... but still some neat things to see.
I'm actually back in the US as I type this but will post about the rest of my journey in the coming days, now that I'll be relaxing at home instead if soaking it all in on the road!
xo :) jos