"Out of this world, no?,” says Fabrizio. We stand among towering cacti, looking across at a mountain range designed as though by an abstract expressionist in swaths of hot pink and purple, sulphur yellow and avocado green. The wad of coca leaves in my cheek (a gift from Fabrizio) tastes like long-stewed tea. I wonder how much of the dizziness I feel is due to the altitude, how much to the coca and how much to the sheer scale and strangeness of the landscape.
Few still think Argentina is all tango, barbecues and cowboys – but Salta and Jujuy will blow the dust off any other of your preconceptions about the country. These provinces of the northwest, where Argentina bumps up against Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay, offer Andean culture and sleepy colonial towns, indigenous foods and curious wines, not to mention landscapes of sometimes alarming beauty. And there’s barely an accordion to be found.
Until quite recently, one looked to Argentina’s deep south for massive vistas and widescreen travel thrills. But the northwest has been building a reputation as the place to go when you’ve ticked the boxes in Patagonia and want something new, yet equally intense, from your Argentine experience.
I fly into the eponymous city of Salta with Miraviva, a UK-based operator founded in 2012 that specialises in teasing out unexpected Latin American jewels. My guide and driver is Fabrizio Ghilardi, whose agency, Socompa, takes travellers into some of the wildest corners of northern Argentina. Hotels in the region don’t come much more recommendable than Finca Valentina, Fabrizio’s superlative guesthouse just outside town. It’s an outpost of European style where rustic minimalism combines with an exquisite eye (his wife Valentina’s, to be precise) for ethnic, upcycled and designer furnishings.
A slow-paced, cheerful little city founded by the Spanish in 1582, Salta provides at least two exceptional places to stay apart from Finca Valentina. One is the out-of-town, hacienda-like House of Jasmines, owned by the Fenestraz family (also of El Colibri in Córdoba) and a divine example of French high-end hotelkeeping at its best; the other is the Legado Mítico, a smartened-up 1920s colonial mansion that makes you wish more of the world’s town-house hotels did this kind of muted retro elegance just as well. Elsewhere in the province, meanwhile, the choice is between whitewashed faux-colonial charm – viz La Merced del Alto in Cachi and the Patios in Cafayate (plus Hotel El Manantial del Silencio in Purmamarca, over in Jujuy) – and a number of cute boutiques, although a spectacular new five-star called Grace Cafayate may soon change the game entirely.
Conventional attractions in Salta are few. There is always the famous Train to the Clouds, a rolling tourist trap that climbs to a height of 4,200m (one of the highest lines in the world) for some mind-altering views before chuntering back down again. Of far greater interest, to me at least, are the Children of Llullaillaco, the three mummified victims of an Incan sacrifice, discovered in 1999 during excavations at the world’s highest archaeological site and displayed at Salta’s Museum of High Altitude Archaeology (MAAM). The bodies, perfectly preserved by the cold, bone-dry Andean climate at 6,739m, are fascinating, if disturbing, to behold (hair and clothes uncannily intact, little toes curled behind the glass). You could easily spend a morning at the MAAM before admiring Salta’s pink-fronted colonial cathedral and the original Spanish town hall (said to be the best conserved in Argentina). Lunch thereafter might consist, as mine does, of empanadas and a bottle of the local black beer at one of the several charming outdoor cafés on the central square.
So far, so rewarding. But in Salta, the real adventures begin when you head out of town. With Fabrizio at the wheel, I set off northwards in a big VW pickup, watching the landscape change from lush greenery to semi-desert scrub and red rock. As we drive, Fabrizio tells me about his former life as an economist in Milan and his escape with Valentina, a London-based architect, to build a new life in Argentina’s northwest. As the profile of this region has risen, so has that of Fabrizio’s clientele. I try to picture Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli – recent visitors to this neck of the woods – bumping over the dirt tracks as I am now. Up here, life is measured in metres above sea level. At 2,900m, we cross into Los Cardones National Park, where the monstrous forms of giant cardón cacti crowd the plain like some weird sculpture garden.
Payogasta, Molinos, San Carlos: these are tiny desert towns of adobe houses in mind-bogglingly dramatic settings. I keep thinking of Morocco, but with free WiFi everywhere, fine wines and no rubbish. In Cachi, locals with glossy black hair sell ponchos woven from llama wool. This is a place I’d have liked to stay for a while – preferably in La Merced del Alto, a fine hotel that could be a colonial convent but isn’t, with a whitewashed tower and views of the snow-capped Nevado de Cachi, which shears up to 6,380m.
Cafayate marks the end of my journey along this road. But in another sense, it might be a beginning. This busy little town of tree-lined streets and colonial houses is now a major tourist gateway to the northwest after Salta, and a place that more and more wised-up westerners have heard of. Until a few years ago, intrepid visitors came down from Salta and perhaps stopped over at the Patios or Viñas de Cafayate, its two pleasant, if a little frayed round the edges, colonial-style hotels. Now they’re travelling independently and hanging out a little longer, visiting the Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Vine and Wine), founded in 2011, taking in the bodegas that are increasingly geared up for tourism, and soaking up Cafayate’s congenial atmosphere.
Wines have been made here ever since the Spanish brought vines on their progress south from Peru. The Calchaquí Valleys’ exceptional climate and altitude (creating a temperature difference of as much as 15 or 20 degrees between day and night) are now attracting the attention of both winemakers and international investors, and there’s an excited sense that the vineyards of Cafayate might just be the last major discovery in the world of wine, a Napa Valley for the 21st century.
One of the most important wine properties in the region, Bodega Colomé, is owned by the visionary Swiss businessman Donald Hess. Sited in a desert landscape of indescribable scale and emptiness, this is surely one of the most remarkable, as well as remotest, wineries in the world. At Colomé I tasted a range of delicious, aromatic wines produced by young French vintner Thibaut Delmotte, from grapes grown at up to 3,100m above sea level. There is, of course, the added draw of the museum Hess has built at Colomé to house a number of works by James Turrell, the Californian maker of “light art” – each piece contained in its own gallery room, and each more bewitching than the last.
The days in Cafayate go by in a blur of wine tastings, vineyard visits and meals taken at sunny terrace tables. Many of the newest vineyards are open for business as restaurants and wine boutiques, in the Californian style. At one such, Piattelli Vineyards’ winery, which commenced operations in 2011 and opened to visitors in 2013, owner Jon Malinski (a Minnesota businessman who made his money in office-equipment distribution) tells me how tourism had always been part of the plan for this property and that, in addition to Piattelli’s outstanding restaurant, some kind of high-end accommodation (probably a series of vineyard villas) is also on the cards for the site.
But it’s Grace Cafayate – part of a huge estate, La Estancia de Cafayate, offering villas for sale in a gated community with fabulous amenities – that shows most clearly the potential of both Cafayate and of northwest Argentina in general as a top-notch destination. Grace Cafayate, part of a family-owned hotel group based in England, is classy and supremely comfortable, steering clear of colonial clichés in favour of a sleek, contemporary style. There have been mutterings locally that the new hotel has nothing to say about salteño culture. This is not strictly true: the menu at the in-house restaurant (helmed from a distance by Brit Jonathan Cartwright) is clearly influenced by local practices – think llama carpaccio and ravioli stuffed with goat.
In any case, as I can testify, after a long and dusty journey in a pickup truck on some of the continent’s most challenging “roads”, it’s a relief to arrive at a hotel that speaks so fluently the international language of coddling sybaritism. The bath zone in my own huge Grace Suite, where I shower off the dust, has a view of vineyards stretching from just below my feet to the foothills of the Andes. At the back of the property stands a series of villas, a spa and a clubhouse, indications that La Estancia de Cafayate’s real-estate operation is now in full and successful swing.
Two primary routes lead out of Salta. One takes you southwest into the Calchaquí Valleys, Cachi and Cafayate. The other takes you north towards the Bolivian border. Back in the pickup, we head up to Jujuy province and into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a mountain valley of wondrous beauty and kaleidoscopic colours. Here, the sun is intensely strong, the sky a piercing, bird’s-egg blue. Down on the valley floor, a donkey pulls a plough through the maize.
If Purmamarca, the valley’s little “capital”, feels somewhat overtouristed, I can understand what those visitors see in this picturesque village, where the low houses seem to emerge directly from the dusty-pink rock of the surrounding countryside. One of the delights of the northwest is its sensational climate – desert‑dry yet perpetually fresh and bright, with an annual rainfall of just a few hundred millimetres, most of it in January and February, the Argentine high summer. Above Purmamarca are meadows where water trickles through sunlit Alpine valleys.
But there is more, better, higher. “Now I’m going to take you to another planet,” declares Fabrizio. By daybreak we reach the salt flats of Salinas Grandes, on the fringe of the high Andean puna at some 3,500m. It’s here that I have one of those solid-gold, not-to-be-forgotten moments that are the reason some of us are still travelling. The sun comes up, and as it clears the horizon in a growing crescent, it floods the surface of this white-on-white wilderness with the eerie, pinkish-yellow tones of early dawn. For minutes, I stand open‑mouthed at the silent grandeur of the spectacle. As we drive away across the salt, a pair of lonely goalposts cast long shadows on the whiteness. The image remains in my mind as asymbol of this northwest frontier and itsmultiple surprises. This is certainly Argentina, football pitch and all. Argentina –but not as we know it.