I know this is going to sound stupid, but I am going to say it anyway… What really surprised me about flying into Salta was that the Andes mountains were on both sides of the plane windows! As a consistently disorientated person who relies on the mountain range as a point of reference in navigating Mendoza, this was a real mind blower that you could stand on flat land and have the mountains all around you. It’s a lovely place to fly into.
As you arrive at the airport you may well think that you are being singled out as a tourist as the taxi drivers approach you dressed as gauchos, but actually it’s more a case of being the other way around- the gauchos are pretending to be taxi drivers. Perhaps surprising in the rather homogenously westernised 21st century, but locals actually choose to still wear their gaucho get ups. It actually feels like you are in a foreign country for once.
The road to Cafayate
The wine heartland, Cafayate, is almost 200km south of Salta, which might seem like a pain after a flight, or worse, a 12 hr bus journey. But do not despair – the journey there is totally worth it. Leaving the rather green Saltanese landscape you pass tabacco fields and agricultural crops before moving into the desert landscape of white sands, pastel hued mountain sides and great juts of burning red rock. You could be forgiven for thinking that some of these spears of rock have only just erupted from the earth’s crust, they look very youthful for their 65 million years.
The whole journey takes about three hours by car but there are loads of stop offs which will inevitably make you want to spend a bit longer ‘en route’. Adrenaline junkies might want to stop off at the Cabra Corral dam to partake in some kayaking, diving to see underwater petrified forests or taking off on the 700m canopy line. But for those more on a gastronomy and wine mission the ‘Puesta de Cabras’ is the original halfway house. Run by Porteno Adrian and his partner Mercedes, here you can dig into a picada with their homemade goat’s cheese, or get a coffee and indulge in one of their cakes or desserts (make sure to try the goat’s cheese dulce de leche!) If you fall in love, there are some rustic cabins with a swimming pool for overnight guests.
If you are already eager to crack open some of the local wine, there is a small artisanal winery about twenty minutes up the road. Turn off onto a dirt track for Finca Las Curtiembres, a quaint family winery set against a stunning red backdrop, here you can try Nestor’s artisanal wines and soak up the gorgeous scenery. Finca Las Curtiembres, Ruta Nacional 68km, tel 0387 155 736655
Further up the Ruta Nacional there is an interesting rock formation named La Garganta del Diablo (the devil’s throat) because of its scarily concave shape which looks like a devils throat thrown back in evil laughter. Bring your trainers and climb as far back as you dare. Around the corner is a similar formation although this time much narrower and cylindrical – the amphitheatre. With great acoustics, this is the place to try out your best Freddie Mercury impression!
Along the rest of the route there are no shortage of outstanding rock formations to get a geologist sweaty and the rest of us awestruck or amused. Unusual rocks include what look like castles, a monk and doppelganger image of a large toad – completely weathered down by the sun, rain and wind, one day this will certainly slim down to be a prince of some sort.
Arriving into Cafayate from such a wild landscape feels like a different world – neat vines and Spanish architecture line the wide streets. Although the small city of Cafayate is pretty much your average rural Argentine town, what stands out are the colonial style houses with attractive balconies and arcades around the main plaza. The plaza is a hub of restaurants, tourist shops and a small artisan market, but the big orange church is probably the most iconic building in the town. The funniest building in town however is on the corner of the plaza, the local bank. Looking completely out of place and with good reason, this bank was designed to withstand heavy snowfall – surprising as Cafayate barely receives a thimbleful a year. But this was a fatal communication error at some point between architects and delivery man – the bank was supposed to be for snowy El Calafate some 2700 kms further south. So there it stands, an expensive spelling mistake in all its glory.
Another notable building in the centre of Cafayate is the llama shaped house of a local artisan, half-finished it sits directly opposite the new new Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of Life and Wine). The biggest wine museum of its type in Latin America, this interactive museum was opened earlier this year and has walk though exhibitions on the extreme conditions of Cafayate, the climate, geography, soil, history and wine making process – complete with non-stop sound effects, lighting shows and sensual poetic descriptions of the plants that are sure to make even the more liberal gardener blush. For info on visiting wineries in the region, visit the information centre around the corner.
In the city centre one of the most cultural experiences is to go to the last remaining ‘pulperia’ in Cafayate. Here you can get natural remedies for impotence (by chewing a stinky hard root), lots of spices and dried herbs, llama wool, broken ceramics, a mug of wine and a bit of salami with the locals and best of all, you can buy coca!
There are only a few places in the world where you can talk about taking coke without anyone batting an eyelid – and Salta is one of them. Saying ‘Anoche coci’ (I got coked last night) is perfectly acceptable in any conversation, of course ‘getting coked’ in Salta is referring to sucking coca leaves and not any illegal white powder. Being an ever clichéd tourist, I obviously wanted to try some. Locals suck on the leaves to help with headaches from altitude sickness, aid digestion and to keep them awake during long nights. Stock piling it in one cheek like a hamster, a good ‘bola’ (coca ball in your cheek) can build up over a few hours and when you get to the point that you can no longer open your mouth to put any more in, that’s when you spit it out and start again. To be honest it tastes a bit like sucking tea leaves although it does give you a bit of a wakeup, especially if you chew it my mistake. And yes, it does help a ‘resaca’ (hangover)!
The wineries of Cafayate
Before numbing your mouth on coca though, taking in the wineries in Cafayate is on the top of anyone’s agenda. The great thing about Cafayate town is its size and proximity to wineries, you can easily walk or cycle between the wineries in Cafayate (though there are many in different valleys which require a car or even a 4×4).
Probably one of the oldest and most touristic is Vasija Secreta. Busloads of tourists get dropped off at this 1857 winery which is just out of the city centre with green vines stretching far up towards the mountains. Golden oldies all toast each other and natter in the courtyard while waiting to jump on the next tour circuit and then later haul case loads of the cheapest wine to their tour buses, making it quite an entertaining if slightly claustrophobic place to visit. A small wine history museum, quaint tasting room and shabby historical decadence make it a nice visit along with the restaurant serving simple, local dishes including tomales and stew. Antigua Bodega Vasija Secreta, Ruta 40, tel 3868 421850
One of the most well-known families making wine in Salta is Etchart. They really put torrontes on the map and the Etchart family have numerous projects in the area including one of the critics’ favourite – San Pedro de Yacochuya. This is a much more boutique production of wines which the family started making with, at that time unknown, French oenologist Michel Rolland. Their small production of Malbec and Torrontes have risen greatly in stature and these wines regularly score over 91 points in famous international competitions. Located at the heights of Yacochuya, the winery has a sweeping view over the entire Cafayate basin and mountain range – this would make an incredible postcard.
At 2035m, the 80 year old vines have a more challenging terroir and climate with less sunshine and slower ripening then further below, resulting in wines with lots of tannins, colour and structure. Following the Rolland style, these wines have a good amount of time in French oak and are certainly keepers. But don’t let all the points and hype mislead you though, this is actually quite a quaint visit as the winery is an unimposing small warehouse with all the latest technology, local artwork and stunning views. If you get to meet owner Marcos Etchart, you are in for a treat with his refreshingly bohemian approach that gives a visit to this winery a really personal touch. Reservations required for wine tasting. San Pedro de Yacachuya, Ruta Prov No2 km6, tel 03868 15 400 890.
Coming back down to earth, another winery worth a visit is El Esteco. One of the landmark whitewashed colonial style wineries in the city, this is another of the most historical wineries in Argentina and has quite a legacy from its founders, the famed Michel Torino brothers, in 1892. The beautiful bodega has relics of its long wine making history throughout, from its fireplaces to heat fermenting wine in pools, to the enormous vats from its mass production heyday. Nowadays it’s a smaller operation although still pulls in enormous figures as the sixth exporter in Argentine wine. You can pick from a hundred different tours, activities and tastings, but we especially recommend trying the Finca Notables Cabernet Sauvignon and their icon blends. El Esteco, Ruta 40 y Ruta 68, tel 03868 421139
To get a feel of a more boutique production in Cafayate, Pena Veyret Durbex is a perfect visit. 20kms out of town back on the route to Salta, this is a charmingly rustic boutique hotel and winery in another stunning landscape. Feeling completely away from it all in the middle of the valley with nothing more than a few goats around you, this is a really attractive detour. The winemaker can take you around the single small production room in no time and show you all the processes in a few square meters. They make a delicate and subtle torrontes, an elegant Malbec and a lightly peppered Cabernet Sauvignon, all great value for money. This is also a nice spot for lunch in their restaurant and if you can’t tear yourself away, the hotel is just upstairs. Pena Veyret Durbex, Ruta Nacional Km 18,5, tel 03868 421555
Although you probably won’t want to leave gorgeous Cafayate, do save some time for Salta city. A bit shabby all over, this faded colonial glamour gives it quite an atmosphere and the lively Saltenos certainly make it a fun visit. During the day there are a handful of museums to take a look around, including the MAAM which houses three Inca mummies found in the Andes and shown on rotation. All around the main plaza there are attractive buildings and most of all of course the postcard churches. The pale pink Cathedral on the plaza is the iconic church most photographed here, but around the corner the malbec red San Francisco is perhaps more striking tsarist Russia style building.
Salta has a really traditional feel to it and that’s reflected in the products and cuisine. This is the ideal place for shopping for artisan products and there are countless artisan stores in the city but the best place to burn a few pesos is at the Mercado Artisanal just out of the city centre. An indoor market with bonafide craftsmanship here you can find lots of silverwork, wood carving and the ubiquitous llama wool jumpers. Across the road is a Bolivian street market with a much tackier feel.
You’ll find lots of traditional street food in Salta city – with tomales and humita being served up by native women on every other street corner, make sure to try some. Restaurants range from good to standard but if you want to do a spot of wine tasting with your dinner, check out the vinoteca-cum-winebar-cum-restaurant Fuiste Uva. A popular and trendy (for Salta) wine bar with a good range of Saltenese and other Argentine wines which you can try by the glass or bottle and slurp away on while nibbling on a picada or their gastro pub style dishes. Nightlife in Salta shouldn’t be missed either and the of course the famous pena is a must for any visit.
Wines to try
Yacachuya, Malbec: Quite an intense wine with lots of black fruit, red pepper, violet and vanilla. A very meaty wine with great aging potential but already drinkable with a smooth and rounded finish. This was one of the more interesting wines at our Wine Republic Annual Tasting 2011 and shows a completely different character of Malbec.
Amalaya, Gran Corte: A really easy drinking blend from a new winery with lots of fresh fruit and a bit of spice behind. Malbec led, with 10% Cabernet Franc and 10% Tannat from this new winery.
Finca Notables Cabernet Sauvignon, El Esteco: The Cabernet Sauvignons from the region are really interesting and this one has lots of spice and ripe fruit to really hit the spot.
VOS Torrontes, Vasija Secreta: A bright yellow torrontes with classic banana, melon and coconut but a nice creaminess from being finished in oak.
Alta Vista Premium Torrontes: One of our favourite Torrontes being made in Salta by the Mendoza winery. Well balanced with good fruit, acidity and minerality. Another top scorer from our 2011 Tasting.
**For information on all the wineries and wine regions in Argentina, Bodegas de Argentina should be on the top of your contact list. The organisation promotes wine tourism in the country and can provide information for the different wine routes, including Salta and Cafayate www.bodegasdeargentina.org
By Amanda Barnes