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Salta, Argentina: Revisiting a Once-Loved City

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Catedral Basílica de Salta; One of Salta’s Photogenic Streets; Salta Street Art

For years, I have been telling people that they must visit, Salta, Argentina, my favorite city in the world, set amongst some of Argentina’s most impressive scenery. I first visited Salta in 2001 after a two-week long cultural and language immersion in Tafí del Valle, Tucumán with my study abroad program. We were bussed through the amazingly beautiful Quebrada de Cafayate and spent a day in Salta before flying back to Buenos Aires. I liked it enough that I returned in 2002 at the end of my year abroad, and spent a week there, taking in the northwest Argentine atmosphere and culture. I made a point of returning in 2007 while I was doing research for my Master’s thesis, and found that Salta had blossomed into a vibrant, modern city.

Sometime in the last few years, Argentina started to require a $160 tourist visa for Americans hoping to visit the beautiful country. That was a significant chunk of my traveling budget, and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. Coupled with the winter storms complicating the border crossing, I reconsidered visiting Argentina at all.  I emailed my mom with my doubts: “I’m trying to decide if I should head south to see more of Chile or head back to Peru if I can’t get to Argentina. Part of me feels like I don’t really need to recover all the places I enjoyed again, for some reason.”  She, wisely, responded, “I would pass on Argentina.  You have been there, done that.  There is too much other stuff to see.”

However, the border opened and I bought my ticket to Salta anyway, all the while reminding myself that this trip would be focused on seeing places I had missed during my previous trips to Argentina.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Cabildo de Salta; Plaza Principal de Salta

The thing is, my mom was right. I had been there, done that, many times, and the expression “You can never go home again” applied to my visit to Argentina. In fact, this is why I have struggled to write this post; my trip was so overwhelmingly positive and magical otherwise. However, this is the reality of revisiting your former home: Time passes, you change, cities change, and your perspective on places you called home changes.

Argentina has changed so much since 2001 due to its ongoing economic crisis, and yet the Argentine people struggle to adapt to their new reality.  Argentines are not Peruvians, they are not Chileans, they are not Ecuadorians, and they are certainly not Brazilians or Colombians.  They have reacted in a distinctly Argentine way to the most recent economic crisis, and I say this as someone who truly has truly loved and appreciated Argentine culture for many years.

Since the peso was devalued in 2001, foreign tourists have flooded Argentina to explore its truly unique scenery and culture.  However, Argentines remain distant, cold, and unfriendly to foreigners, as if they are resentful of this intrusion even as they need the dollars tourists bring.  Instead of embracing tourism as a revenue-generating national industry as Peru has, Argentina reluctantly facilitates tourism and misses opportunity after opportunity to market and highlight its special culture, people, and landscapes.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Murals and Street Art in Salta, Argentina

Salta was no exception.  Around the main plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio, with its distinctive, well-preserved colonial buildings, including the historical Cabildo, and the nearby Catedral Basílica de Salta, Salta maintains its charm.  Venture more than a few blocks away, and the city is very obviously in decay.  I stayed outside the main tourist areas and explored the city on foot and was shocked by the change in Salta la Linda (Salta the Beautiful).  Argentines have always been excellent at expressing themselves through art, and the plentiful murals throughout the city reflect the struggle of the hardworking Argentines.

Always curious, always a cultural researcher at heart, I chatted with business owners when doing my laundry, buying bottled water, and booking hostel stays and tours, trying to learn more about this change in Salta.  The country is in crisis, and it breaks my heart because there seems to be no way out.  When I moved to Argentina in July 2001, 100 pesos was equal to 100 dollars and the 100 peso bill was hard to change anywhere but the supermarket.  Now, 100 pesos has the value of a $20 bill, and small change is hard to find, as coins are not often minted nor small bills printed in quantity since they have lost so much value.  The bills are disintegrating and taped together, and they are nearly impossible to change outside of the country.  Frankly, it’s depressing.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Homemade Humita Filling in Stuffed Squash and Peppers; Sign for Argentine Pastries, Salta

But at the end of the day, Argentina is not my country and I have been gone for far too long to really know about and understand the challenges my friends face.  All I can do is be an outside observer of these changes, a witness who tries to see and listen with compassion. So instead of trying to relive the glory of my past experiences in Salta, I focused on building relationships and connecting with people, and this made my time much better. When I think of my time in Argentina in 2013, I remember the people I met and the moments we shared.

For example, I quickly befriended one of the guys working at Hostal Salta Por Siempre, where I really enjoyed staying. An experienced regional chef, he was making and selling empanadas but none of them were vegetarian, so he sent me to the local grocery with a list of ingredients and taught me to make the above dish, local squash and bell peppers filled with a creamy corn custard, or humita.  Argentina has an ideal climate for agriculture, and the corn was so sweet you could eat the kernels off the cob.  The tomatoes were so flavorful that they needed nothing but a sprinkling of oregano to shine.  A few days later, my new friend made vegetarian empanadas and taught me how to fill them and seal them, a skill I used again in Tucumán and Mendoza.

Merienda on the Plaza, Salta
Merienda on the Plaza, Salta

In my dorm room, I also happened to meet an Argentine who had just finished a lengthy volunteer term working with kids in the hot, barren city of Rivadavia in northern Salta province.  He had given up his life in the corporate world to manage a volunteer program and, like me, became very attached to the kids.  He had left Rivadavia only days before and was struggling to process this loss, while also having trouble adapting to the busy, congested city of Salta after living in an isolated community for nearly a year.

As you can imagine, we talked for hours over Argentine wine about our relationships with the kids we worked with, showed each other pictures of our volunteer experiences, and emphasized how blessed we felt after taking this kind of risk and building these connections with our students within our host communities.  This was another example of life happening as it should; I needed time and space to process leaving Huaycán, and the universe threw someone going through the same thing as me right into my path.

Beyond getting to know these awesome men, I also decided to appreciate classic Salta culture.  I chose one of the many cafes on the plaza and sat in the warm sun to enjoy a merienda, or traditional Argentine afternoon coffee/snack with medialunas (Argentine-style croissants) and tostados (toast), served with jam, butter, and dulce de leche (caramel), a little orange juice, tonic water, and black tea for me instead of coffee.

During my visit, I also decided to visit the Museo Pajcha, a private museum which attempts to celebrate most of the cultures of South America in an eclectic, artistic way, taking the visitor on a carefully curated journey.  In retrospect, this museum was quite refreshing and inspired.  It may not have been the most informative, but it was memorable, interesting, and not as overwhelming as the larger museums often are.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina; Views of the Farmland around Chicoana

After a couple of days in Salta, I decided that I wanted to go horseback riding again.  In 2007, I had learned how to ride with Sayta Cabalgatas, which inspired my love for horses.  I decided to go back, and this time spend a night on the estancia (horse ranch) to really get the full experience away from the city.  As it turned out, I was the only one riding that day, so I got a private lesson.  I also learned all about Chicoana from my guide, who grew up there and for whom riding horses was as natural as breathing.

Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

After a delicious lunch with the owner, Enrique, and his family, we set off again for the afternoon’s ride, this time with Enrique’s adorable, intelligent grandson.  This ride was similar to the first and gave me the chance to appreciate the pleasant, bucolic landscape of the farmlands around Chicoana a little more.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Scenes from Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

That night, I enjoyed more empanadas with some newly arrived guests and got my relaxing night’s sleep in a private cabin on the ranch.  It was weird to be so disconnected from the world, but after so much riding, I fell asleep quickly.  Before heading back to Salta the next morning, I helped the large, newly arrived group of mostly British tourists get settled on their horses, since most of them didn’t speak much Spanish.  This led Enrique to tell me about the volunteers he usually has working on the ranch, who basically socialize with guests and translate for the gauchos, who don’t usually speak much English.  I was tempted by the idea of staying here a little longer, but I had had enough of volunteering and was antsy to continue my journey.

Back in Salta, I had lunch at Chirimoya, a highly regarded vegetarian restaurant, before planning my departure for Cafayate the next day.  I ended up making the most of my time in Salta and learned a lot about how the city and the country have changed in the process.  Most importantly, I realized how much I have changed since 2001 and now see clearly how my perspective can color my perceptions, a lesson that never ceases to be valuable when traveling.

Recommendations for Salta, Argentina:

  • Stay at Hostal Salta Por Siempre (English)!  I had the misfortune of booking my first night at a different hostel, but was immediately welcomed at Hostal Salta Por Siempre.  They almost always have space, although they do fill up during busy travel seasons.  They have a large kitchen for cooking, a gorgeous outdoor garden and patio (the best place for wi-fi), and a small indoor bar where they also sell housemade empanadas.  Everyone who works there is super friendly and the hostal is popular with Argentines of all ages so you’ll definitely get to practice your Spanish.
  • Consider going horseback riding with Sayta Cabalgatas in Chicoana.  Enrique and his staff have perfected the art of hosting foreigners who want to ride horses around the pretty roads and fields around Chicoana and leave with good memories of the wine, food, and people.  It was so memorable in 2007 that I returned in 2013.
  • Check out the Museo Pajcha if you’re interested in having a different type of museum experience.
  • If you’re a vegetarian, eat at Chirimoya for flavorful vegan soups, other dishes, and smoothies.
[Salta, Argentina: July 12-July 15, 2013]

Border Crossing Stories: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Salta, Argentina

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Leaving San Pedro En Route to Salta; Snow on the Road Leaving Chile

In the summer, crossing the border between Chile and Argentina is uncomplicated; however, the winter provides its own challenges.  Paso Jama is located at an elevation of 4,320 meters (about 14,120 feet); this high altitude means that it’s particularly susceptible to snowstorms.  When I arrived to San Pedro de Atacama, I learned that the border had been closed for several days after heavy storms, and no one could predict when it would be open again.  I wanted to visit Salta, Argentina, formerly my favorite city in South America, but I had to start thinking about alternative plans.

That said, it all worked out in the end.  🙂  The border opened again and I booked a ticket on the first bus leaving San Pedro de Atacama.  The buses alternate driving between Salta and San Pedro, which means drivers (and potential passengers) could be stranded for days on either side of the border after a snowstorm.

The weather had been touch-and-go for a few days, which meant that the Chile immigration officers were reluctant to give any advance notice about their plans to open the border.  The bus had originally been scheduled to leave at 7AM in order to give us sufficient time for slow driving along the highway due to one lane traffic, as you see above.  However, after waiting for an hour at the immigration post the night before, they decided not to give us our exit stamps and told us to return at 7AM the next day to see if we really could leave.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Mountains and Lakes En Route to Paso Jama

A long line formed at the immigration control, starting around 6AM that morning.  There are no other towns between San Pedro and the Paso Jama, so you have to go through immigration before leaving.  Truck drivers, people driving their personal cars, and bus passengers such as myself waited patiently and not-so-patiently to hear whether the border was open.  Rumors floated around that the San Pedro immigration office liked to show us their power by making us wait for our exit stamp.  Many people had been waiting to leave San Pedro for days.

Border crossings are situations when it always pays to find a buddy.  Luckily, the night before I’d chatted with a few people in line, and they remembered me and helped me find the group leaving on the Andesmar bus.  Our bus was packed with a large group of mostly American backpackers who were traveling together with a Chilean guide.  I also met up with two of my companions from the Valle Arcoiris tour, a Swiss woman and her son.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Mountains of the Atacama; Entering Argentina

As it turned out, the Swiss woman and her son and I became good friends over the course of our day together, one of those one-day friendships that enriches your travels and ends when you part ways at your destination.  I wish I could remember their names.  She was originally from Switzerland, yet spoke Spanish fluently as she had married an Ecuadorian.  Their 12-year-old son was growing up bi-cultural, as they had spent most of his childhood in Colombia, where she worked.  As it turned out, her husband preferred living and working in Switzerland, and he was there with their daughter while she was traveling with her son, backpacking through different parts of South America before returning to Colombia.  Her son was entering a challenging age, so this trip was a way to bring them closer together.  He was an extremely bright, energetic kid, and helped me out immediately by finding a place to store my backpack in the stuffed luggage compartment of our bus.

We waited in line for an hour and a half, waiting for the immigration officers to declare the border open and begin to stamp our passports.  Finally, our group moved forward with our bus drivers.  Suddenly, my Swiss friend realized she’d accidentally discarded their entry/exit cards.  She asked me to hold her purse, containing their passports and perhaps other valuables, as she raced back to their hostal to check the trash can.  I marveled at the trust she put in a fellow traveler; I had become a lot more suspicious over my year in Peru!  Luckily, she found them in record time and we were all able to get stamped out of Chile.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Views from the Argentine Northwest En Route to Salta

We piled on the bus.  As it turned out, no one was sitting next to me in the very front seat with the 360 degree window.  Most South Americans do not like sitting at the very front as it is vulnerable in case of an accident.  I had plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the ride.  My Swiss companions had also chosen to sit at the front of the bus, so we continued chatting in a mix of Spanish and English throughout the ride.

As you see from these photos, the ride between San Pedro and Salta is absolutely gorgeous.  I laughed when I saw how little snow appeared to be on the ground; being from New England, we see worse snow accumulation every year and often several times in one season!  However, Paso Jama does not get as much snow as the border crossings farther south (and farther from the equator), so they do not have the heavy equipment that Paso Internacional Los Libertadores (the border crossing between Mendoza and Santiago) does.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Views from the Argentine Northwest En Route to Salta

The route between San Pedro and Paso Jama was like revisiting the sights I saw over the past few days, albeit at a distance!  I admired the gorgeous mountains and hills and snapped lots of photos of the blue lakes as we passed by them.  The snow had limited the road to one lane in some points, and alternative routes had been cleared.  However, the ride was uneventful and we finally reached the Argentine border around noon.  The Argentine immigration complex is modern and surprisingly efficient; they are happy to collect your receipts for the $160 tourist visa.  Within 30 minutes, we continued on our way on the very, very long route to Salta.

The scenery on the Argentine side of the Andes is impressive and notably different from the Chilean side, with a lot more high altitude vegetation as we descended along Argentine Route 52.  The highway winds through colorful hills cut through with reddish rivers, topped by clear, cloudless blue skies.  This was why I returned to Argentina; I wanted to see these landscapes again.  I had fallen in love with this region on my first visit in 2002, after finishing my study abroad year in Buenos Aires.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Salinas Grandes, Argentina, En Route to Salta

As we continued along our way, I began to doze off, as a result of having woken up super early to wait in line at immigration and the changing altitude.  I woke up, startled by the fact that we were passing through Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s white salt flats which provide a mini version of those found in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.  I remembered my trip out to Salinas Grandes with my friend Mona all those years before, posing for funny pictures and appreciating the contrast of blue, white, and purple.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Multicolored Hills in Jujuy Province, Argentina

And the road continued on, with the mountains changing to hills.  These were the Argentine Andes I remembered, rolling hills that looked like a watercolor painting.  When I saw the first extremely variegated hills, I knew we were approaching Purmamarca, the home of the Cerro de los Siete Colores.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Route through Jujuy; El Cerro de los Siete Colores, Purmamarca, Argentina

One of the travelers in the big American group decided to move up front to my empty seat, where the view of these colors was that much better.  Although the sun began to set behind the hills, the colors still peeked out from the hills in muted shades.  When other passengers got off in Purmamarca, I was tempted to join them and spend some time in this quiet town.  I was so happy to be in the Argentine northwest.

As the sun set, the American and I struck up one of those long, honest conversations that only happen when you never expect to talk to the person again, when you are open to sharing and listening because you are traveling and away from your normal life.  He told me about his life in the Midwest; he worked as a teacher and had the summers free to travel.  He often went on this packaged adventure tours where you were sure to meet other travelers.  He had married young and loved his wife and family, but I sensed his wanderlust behind his words.  He was very curious about my experience volunteering and was surprised that I was backpacking on my own, something he had not considered doing himself.  In the end, he gave me a great compliment, calling me one of his idols for living a non-traditional life and going with the flow.

Views from the Bus Ride Between San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and Salta, Argentina
Sunset in the Argentine Northwest

As night fell, we continued rolling along the highway, stopping in Jujuy before continuing on to Salta.  At this point, we had been on this journey for nearly 12 hours and we were tired and ready to finally arrive.  At the bus station, I said goodbye to my Swiss friends.  After so many amazing days in Chile, my expectations were high.  I hadn’t been back to Argentina since 2007, and I was curious to learn how it had changed.  What I found surprised me.

[San Pedro de Atacama, Chile -> Salta, Argentina: July 11, 2013]

Six Weeks on the Road in Chile and Argentina!

How time flies when you’re on the road!

I’m currently revisiting Arica, Chile, after a 32-hour bus ride from Santiago. In a few hours, I’ll leave for the Peruvian border once again, crossing over to Tacna to begin another 21-hour ride back to Lima. From Lima, I’ll leave for the part of my journey I’m most excited about: exploring central and northern Peru, regions I have yet to visit!

I thought I’d be able to keep up with my blog and upload photos on a much more regular basis, but the truth is, when you’re traveling, you’re focused on the moment. Access to the internet is plentiful, but a lot of hostels I’ve stayed in only have a good signal in open courtyards, and since it’s winter, I usually don’t have the stamina to sit outside for a long time. Even when I’ve had good access to the internet, I’ve spent my time looking for hostels and deciding on my next destination; it feels like a waste to spend too much time on the internet! On top of that, I take so many pictures that I’m still behind in selecting the best, though I’ve been using these long bus rides to catch up as best I can!

In the last six weeks, I’ve covered a lot of ground! I started with a few days in Arica to get to know the area and visit Parque Nacional Lauca. From there, I headed to San Pedro de Atacama, a place I’ve wanted to visit for over 10 years. And it is still the highlight of my trip; there are so many gorgeous things to see in the Atacama. After San Pedro, I crossed the border to Argentina, heading directly to Salta, Argentina, historically my favorite city in the world. I spent a few days in Salta enjoying the ambiance and people, and then I headed to Cafayate, known for its wineries and amazing scenery. Most people spend a day or two there, so it was nice to take a couple more days to get to know it better. It’s changed a lot since I visited in 2002.

From Cafayate, I headed south again to Tucumán, a city I’d never visited, and the birthplace of Argentine independence. Tucumán is known for its nightlife, and I took advantage of this, heading out to a super-club almost as soon as I arrived with the awesome people at my hostel. I saw some of the sights and then headed on to La Rioja, another small city I’d never visited. I lucked out and managed to join a group to visit Parque Nacional Talampaya in La Rioja province and Parque Nacional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) in neighboring San Juan, two interesting and scenic parks which are not frequently visited by foreign tourists. Then I headed to Mendoza, where I spent a lovely week recovering from so much travel, tasting all kinds of wine, riding horses, relaxing in thermal baths, and meeting wonderful travelers.

After much internal debate, I decided to skip Buenos Aires on this trip, since it is just too far away from Peru, therefore too expensive to fly from. Instead, I headed back to Chile to spend nearly a week in Santiago visiting former students turned friends! Santiago was fascinating to me, as it has a lot in common with both New York and various Californian cities, especially when you take into consideration the neighboring cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso! I loved my time in Valparaíso, especially, and have to spend more time there at another moment. I still love capital cities, though most travelers prefer to skip them, so I am a fan of Santiago.

And today I’m en route back to Peru. I definitely feel like six weeks won’t be enough to see everything I want to see in this amazing country, but I’m going to do the best I can! 🙂

Below are quite a few selected pictures from my trip so far, with more details and more information to come, all in due time, of course. 😉

Sunset in Arica, Chile
Sunset in Arica, Chile

Laguna Chungará and Volcán Parinacota, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile
Laguna Chungará, Parque Nacional Lauca, Chile

Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Muerte, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset from Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Chaxa/Salar de Atacama
Salar de Atacama/Laguna Chaxa, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Salar de Tara/Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama
Posing at Aguas Calientes, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Miscanti, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama
Laguna Cejar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Ojos de Salar, San Pedro de Atacama
Ojos del Salar, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama
Sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Merienda on the Plaza, Salta
Merienda on the Plaza, Salta, Argentina

Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

Near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate
Hiking near Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina

Neblina (Cloud Cover) on the Road to Tafí del Valle
Sea of Clouds, near Tafí del Valle, Tucumán, Argentina

Sunset in Tucumán, Argentina
Sunset near Tucumán, Argentina

El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, San Juan
Valle de la Luna, San Juan, Argentina

Wine Tasting at Clos de Chakras
Wine Tasting, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Posing at Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza
Termas de Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

View from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

Flowers Near Santiago, Chile
Flowers near Santiago, Chile

Posing at Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar, Chile

Posing on top of Cerro Santa Lucia
Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile