Salta's cathedral (Dreamstime)
Article 17 January

First 24 hours: Salta, Argentina

The Andean highlands are home to huge peaks, sweeping Puna and fine food, but it's the colonial city of Salta that will leave you truly breathless, says Daniel Neilson

Before you arrive

Salta la Linda’ (‘Salta the Beautiful’) is the charming and entirely accurate sobriquet given to this charismatic city in north-western Argentina. The colonial buildings around its sizeable central plaza set the scene for one of the most interesting and, yes, joyfully aesthetic cities in Argentina.

Despite its somewhat Andalucían appearance, Salta is the heart of Andean Argentina, a region characterised by its mountain culture, which has more in common with Bolivia or Peru than cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. This spirit is summed up in its food, in particular a hearty stew called locro, typically made with meat, corn and Andean potatoes, found throughout this region.

But it is perhaps music that defines Salta more than any other aspect, and it is heard everywhere. A visit to a peña, an evening of music, food and wine, is an essential part of any visit. Brush up on your Salteña folklore by searching out tracks by groups such as Los Chalchaleros, Los Nocheros and ‘Chango’ Spasiuk beforehand.

Be sure to also bag a window seat when flying in. From the air, you’ll be able to see the 50 shades of red that paint the Andean foothills that surround Salta. Beyond – out of the left-hand-side of the plane, looking west – you’ll be able to view the 6,000m-high snow-capped peaks of the Andes proper, and the arid Puna, the beautifully remote, high-altitude plateau that rises up to meet them.

Salta's town hall (Dreamstime)

Salta's town hall (Dreamstime)

At the airport

Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport is about 8km south-west of the city. All flights from Europe and the USA go via Buenos Aires (BA) which is a two-hour flight away. Note that most domestic connections arrive via the capital’s Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, just over 40km from BA’s main Ministro Pistarini International Airport (known as Ezeiza), so factor in a couple of hours’ transit. Salta’s airport is small, so delays and large queues are rare, and there are plenty of ATMs.

Getting into town

If taking a taxi to the city centre, book one from a kiosk at the airport rather than hail one from outside. Transfer Salta (transfersalta.com; in Spanish) has a shuttle service, while the Corredor 8A bus goes from outside the airport (stops 108/109).

Other ways to arrive

Buses in Argentina are excellent. There is an extensive network across the country, and services on board are very good, often offering a full meal with wine, a nightcap, a tablet with entertainment on it and, if you’re lucky, bingo. A full cama (bed) or cama ejecutivo (executive bed) service has almost horizontal beds; book with Flechabus (flechabus.com.ar; in Spanish).

Aerial view of Salta from the teleférico (Dreamstime)

Aerial view of Salta from the teleférico (Dreamstime)

Essential info

Population: 619,000

Language: Spanish, Quechua

Timezone: GMT-3

International dialling code: +54

Visas: Not required by UK nationals for stays of up to 90 days.

Currency: Argentine Pesos (ARS)

Highest viewpoint: For panoramic views out over the city, be sure to make the trek up Cerro San Bernardo – though it’s best to start early, to avoid the heat. The path starts at Monumento a Guemes and takes around 30 minutes to reach the top, or you can take the quick route instead, hitching a ride on the teleférico (cable car) that begins at Parque San Martin. Once at the summit, treat yourself to a coffee on the terrace of the cafe, which rewards with some commanding views out over the city and beyond to the mountains.

Health issues: Salta is a modern city, but general advice for South America prevails, so drink bottled water and watch for signs of altitude sickness if travelling high into the Andes. Argentina has been categorised as having a moderate risk of Zika virus transmission. Take precautions to avoid mosquito bites that carry dengue fever. There is a low risk of malaria.

Recommended guidebooks: The Rough Guide to Argentina (2016). Web resources: The official guide to the area is turismosalta.gov.ar.

Climate: Salta’s summers are warm (26-28ºC) with cooler evenings. In winter, nighttime temps can be as cool as 3ºC, but there are thunderstorms almost daily between December and March.

Central Plaza, Salta (Dreamstime)

Central Plaza, Salta (Dreamstime)

First day’s tour

Having made your morning trek up Cerro San Bernardo (see ‘Essential info’), breakfast at the top then stroll down to the central 9 de Julio Plaza, passing Iglesia San Francisco church on the corner of Cordoba and Caseros. Completed in 1872, its red, gold and white facade makes for one of the city’s most photogenic sights.

From here, walk the final block to the large, leafy Plaza 9 de Julio, where you can grab a few empanadas and spy the city’s colonial legacy. On one side, the neoclassical Cathedral of Salta, completed in 1882, is the city’s grandest building. Across from it lies the cabildo (town hall); this is home to Histórico Del Norte Museum, which gives a good overview of the history of the Argentinian north.

Lastly, the plaza’s Arqueología de Alta Montaña Museum is unmissable and has exhibits on high-mountain archeology. Inside is one of the region’s most curious finds: the preserved bodies of three child sacrifices from the Inca era. Only one is on display at a time and it is a powerful sight.

If that hasn’t put you off dinner, don’t miss Doña Salta (Cordoba 46) for authentic Andean food – the locro (Andean stew) is amazing. Finally, finish the night listening to some of the best folk music in Salta at La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1).

Where to stay

Top end: As with a lot of Argentina, it’s the boutique hotels that offer the best experience. An excellent choice is Legado Mitico Salta (legadomitico.com) on Bartolome Mitre 647. This 11-room boutique hotel is in a converted townhouse and is only a block away from the central plaza.

Mid-range: If you want something reasonably swanky and downtown, Design Suites Salta (designsuites.com) on Avenue Belgrano 770 is a good option, with some bargains to be had. The view from the rooftop pool over the city and mountains is worth it alone.

Budget: There are plenty of budget hostels in Salta, too, and most are very good. Hostel All Norte (387 471 2960) on Balcarce 1353 is located north of the centre and has a rustic charm and a reputation for being a friendly escape.

Quebrada de Cafayate (Dreamstime)

Quebrada de Cafayate (Dreamstime)

Stay or go

A couple of days in Salta is enough, and you don’t want to miss the otherworldly landscapes around the province.

Cafayate is a three-hour drive from Salta and is one of the picks of northern Argentina. The journey threads the Quebrada de Cafayate, home to some natural wonders. Another reason to visit is its wineries; some of the best Argentinian wines, including the white torrontés, are made from the high-altitude grapes of the Valles Calchaquíes.

The famous Tren de las Nubes (Train of the Clouds; trenalasnubes.com.ar) is a tourist train that runs up to 4,200m above sea level to the Polvorilla viaduct. It leaves a couple of times a week, and as well as being a true feat of engineering, the train provides a condor’s-eye view of the vast Puna – the high Andean plateau. Much of the route from Salta is now on a bus, with only the final section (from San Antonio de los Cobres) to the viaduct on the train.