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DESTINATION: ARGENTINA

A beautiful and bruising trip to Salta

Visitor finds goods to admire, sand to be mired in, turns that cause gasps and views almost too stunning to grasp.

January 01, 2006|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Salta, Argentina — TRAVELING in this province is rough. Even on a guided tour and traveling in comfortable vans and cars, I encountered bumps. I bounced over miles of unpaved road, got stuck in a tour van in treacherous sand, gasped in fear at steep drops and sharp switchbacks, and gave up sleep for days that started before dawn and ended too late for dinner.

But every bit of discomfort was worthwhile, because Salta's scenery is spectacular. The remote, crescent-shaped province in northwestern Argentina has dramatic gorges that stretch for miles, mountains that show off brilliant mineral hues and castle-like rock formations, green fields, cactus-strewn desert and treeless tundra so high that the clouds float far below.

Much of this province is uninhabited. Llamas roam free. Wild burros munch scraggly plants and nose at water seeping through rocks. Condors circle overhead.

I first heard about Salta while touring in Argentina's Mendoza wine country, where I tasted Torrontes, a lovely floral white wine unique to Salta. One sip and I wanted to visit the region to learn more about the wine.

So I came here in April, which is autumn in Argentina. The lowlands were warm, but fierce, frigid winds drove me from a summit.

Except for one overnight trip, I toured by day from my base in the province's capital city, a two-hour flight north of Buenos Aires.

Salta, founded in 1582 by Hernando de Lerma, governor of Tucuman to the south, is a pleasant city. People lounge at outdoor cafes around a tree-filled central plaza. Nightspots called penas present shows of boisterous northern music and dance. Women sit in the main square outside the cabildo, a colonial building that was once the seat of government, and sell woolly socks, caps, gloves and shawls. I bought a llama-wool sweater from one.

I also shopped the large public market, which offered a variety of products, including the herbal brew mate; bright, striped cloths from Bolivia; and produce such as corn, a staple used for, among other dishes, the stew locro and humitas, which are fresh corn tamales. Spice stalls sold pimenton (paprika) from Cachi in the Calchaquies Valley, where the sweet red peppers are sun-dried.

The market was also a place to buy coca leaves, which are reputed to aid digestion and prevent altitude sickness. Every restaurant I visited served soothing, delicate coca-leaf tea. The leaves do yield cocaine, but small amounts aren't intoxicating.

I stayed at the older, traditional Hotel Salta by the main plaza. A veranda opened off my floor, but I never had time to relax there. What mattered to me was that the breakfast buffet was in full swing by 6 a.m. Most tours start at 7 a.m., and once I had to catch a 6:15 bus, giving me only a few minutes to down a glass of orange juice, swallow a few bites of ham and cheese and grab small, gooey facturas (pastries) and medialunas (crescent rolls).

Travel agencies clustered near the plaza energetically hawk tours, and most offer the same itineraries at the same price. Tour prices generally do not cover meals or overnight accommodations. Understanding Spanish is an advantage, because on my tours, little was translated into English. Many are outdoor adventures. Mine were tame compared with horseback, rafting and trekking excursions.

Some agencies handle tours better than others. I had one poor experience -- an uninformative guide, a wretched hotel -- and another that was exceptional. That trip went up the Cuesta de Obispo (Bishop's Peak) to Los Cardones National Park, named for the tall, branching cardon cactus that thrives at high altitudes, then on to Cachi, a town where raised walkways enabled colonial women to step from their dwellings to carriages without dirtying their long skirts in the street.

David, the guide, a music professor by profession, kept up a lively conversation about history, music and folklore, fed us alfajores (cookies sandwiched with caramel filling) and drove smoothly and tirelessly for almost 12 hours.

A rocky road trip

ANOTHER tour took me to Iruya, a town tucked into a craggy, precipitous gorge about 200 miles from Salta. Because of the many stops we made, the journey there and back took two days. Along with a couple from England and another from Switzerland, I set off for Quebrada de Humahuaca, a 96-mile-long gorge that runs through Jujuy province to a turnoff for Iruya, which is in Salta province.

Leaving the city, we rode through fields of sugarcane and other crops. Wisps of cloud floated through hills in the distance. The driver said this parklike land was the "ugliest" part of the trip. The Swiss couple said it reminded them of Switzerland.

Farther on, the highway passed cornfields shaded by poplars, and cemeteries placed on hills so the dead would be closer to heaven.

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