During our trip to Chile and Argentina, we stayed 3 separate nights in the city if Salta, in Argentina’s North West. We didn’t stay for 3 consecutive days but used Salta as a “stop-over” in between other destinations during our road trip in the region.
Salta and Jujuy are the most north-westerly provinces in Argentina, situated very close to the Andes and Bolivia. This area has a prevailing indigenous and rural culture and it feels very different from the rest of Argentina, which is much more “European” (and even “Italian” in many aspects). Before the Spanish arrival, Argentina’s northwest was a hotbed for indigenous groups, most notably the Diaguita-Calchaquí people. In fact, still, today when traveling around the region, you can encounter communities of Quechan people.
There is a lot to do in this region of Argentina and it’s also one of the cheaper areas to travel. Visit the picturesque towns of Humahuaca, Purmamarca, and Tilcara to see how Andean cultures continue to thrive. Rent a car and take a road trip through two of the country’s most dramatic and scenic routes: the Quebrada de Cafayate and Quebrada de Humahuaca. Tour the bodegas (wineries) of the Calchaquíes Valleys in Cafayate, which are famous for growing the Torrontés grape. Admire colonial architecture in Salta city, and then catch El Tren a las Nubes, a train that trundles through the mountains to a plateau some 4,220 meters (13,845 feet) above sea level.
To be precise, this post will be about the city of Salta only. I will write separate posts for the surrounding areas we visited because they all deserve a detailed guide.
WHEN TO GO
The region is great to visit at any time of the year and Salta city is particularly famous for possessing an agreeable year-round climate. If there was an ideal time to go, then it would be in spring and the beginning of summer (September to December). During this period daytime temperatures fluctuate between 23°C and 30°C (74°F and 84°F), with lows rarely falling below 10°C (50°F). Spring is also the dry season.
At the height of summer temperatures can hit the 40°C (104°F) mark and flash thunderstorms occur. Autumn is another great time to visit as the summer rain gives life to the mountainous landscape and creates a sweeping panorama of greenery.
We visited in June, which is just the beginning of winter. It was starting to get cold (freezing at night!), but we had amazing blue skies and it was sunny every day, apart from one day, when it was rather cloudy. All things considered, it was still a great time to visit.
The best part about travelling in winter is the lack of crowds. In fact, that was probably what I loved the most: being able to wander around almost alone. In the Salta area, we only saw a few local tourists and only once we heard someone speak English. I got the impression that the area is still not as popular abroad as it is in Argentina and I am very glad we got to visit before its charms are discovered by a wider crowd. It felt genuine and unspoilt.
Founded in 1582, Salta la Linda (the beautiful), as it is known, is a truly beautiful colonial town with cobblestone streets. It is very different than the other places we had just visited on this trip (Santiago de Chile and Iguazu), and architecturally speaking, it reminded me more of some towns we had visited in Central America, like San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, or Antigua in Guatemala.
Tradition runs deep here, most notably during Carnival when locals hit the streets to pay homage to the Pachamama, the Incan goddess of fertility. The city’s name originates from the word sagta, which means beautiful in the language of the Aymara indigenous people.
From architecture and museums, to artisanal markets and lookouts, there is plenty to see and do in Salta.
PLAZA 9 DE JULIO
Plaza 9 de Julio is the city’s main square. I loved the orange trees all around it! It’s always full of people chatting and meeting up.
On the north side of Plaza 9 de Julio is the beautiful Salta Cathedral. It houses the ashes of General Martin Miguel de Güemes, an important figure of the wars of independence.
Apparently, the interior of blue, green and gold is very pretty, as is the impressive cathedral organ. There’s also a small museum that holds religious relics. Unfortunately, they were both closed when we visited.
Always, in Plaza 9 de Julio, opposite the Cathedral, is the town hall, in a beautiful colonial building.
It houses the Museo Histórico del Norte and it contains displays of Salta’s Indian and colonial history, in addition to art exhibits.
IGLESIA SAN FRANCISCO
Walk east along Caseros until you reach Córdoba. Here, you’ll find the Iglesia San Francisco, a striking reddish church with an impressive tower and terracotta exterior.
Inside, a small museum displays religious images from the 1600s and 1700s.
CONVENTO DE SAN BERNARDO
Continue along Caseros to Santa Fe, where you will see the Convento de San Bernardo. Access is for Carmelite nuns only (it is a cloistered convent) but it’s worth passing by to see the striking wooden door of the main entrance.
The nuns also sell sweets from a wooden revolving door/window, as they can’t have contacts with the outside world. This reminded me of Spain and Italy so much! My kids were stunned, and it wasn’t easy to explain the concept to them. Another huge difference between a child raised in Australian and a child raised in Italy, I suppose.
OTHER PLACES WORTH VISITING
In my opinion, other places worth visiting would be the following.
Museo Arqueologiá de Alta Montaña – If you only visit one museum in Salta then make it this one, which dedicates itself to the preservation of Andean culture and anthropology. The highlight is the Llullaillaco Children, three mummified and perfectly-preserved Inca children discovered at Llullaillaco Volcano in 1999. Historians believe the children were sacrificed in a fertility ceremony or as an offering to the Incan gods, around the year 1490. To maintain the preservation, only one is on display at any one time.
Cerro San Bernardo – For panoramic views of Salta, and the city’s surroundings take the teleférico (cable car) to Cerro San Bernardo. The teleférico leaves from Parque San Martín, a 15-minute walk from Plaza 9 de Julio. At the hilltop are various balconies and lookout points, and terraced gardens. The hilltop is a good spot for a picnic and to watch the sunset. You can also walk up via the route that starts behind Güemes Monument (Paseo Güemes and Av. Uruguay).
Mercado Artesanal – Salta is a great place to shop for leather, ceramic and textile goods, and you will find things much cheaper here than in other parts of Argentina. The best place to shop is at the Mercado Artesanal (San Martín 2555), located in an old millhouse about 25 blocks from Plaza 9 de Julio.
Feria Artesanal – On Sunday mornings, head to Balcarce, for the Feria Artesanal. Here you will find everything from homemade honey and jams to clothing and locally-made souvenirs.
If you need to do some groceries for your road trip, head to Carrefour on 20 de Febrero (see map below). It has a decent selection of food.
The cuisine of this area of Argentina is very different from the rest of the country. Be sure to try the empanadas, which many say are the finest in Argentina. Other local fare includes locro, a thick stew of corn, beans, and potato; tamales, corn flour wraps filled with meat and/or potatoes and steamed in a leaf wrapper; and humitas, steamed corn husks filled with mashed corn and cheese.
A huge shout-out for Garrapiñada de Mani, basically caramelised peanuts. They sell it everywhere in Argentina (and I have seen it is Santiago too) and it is so so so good!
We heard great things about El Patio de la Empanada (cnr San Martín and Esteco) where apparently the empanadas are to die for. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it this time!
We ate twice in town and once in our last accommodation, which was near the airport.
The first dinner we had in Salta was at El Charrúa (Caseros 221, between Iglesia San Francisco and Convento San Bernardo). The people of our hotel recommended this as the perfect place to have both great steaks and tasty local food.
The meat empanadas were delicious!
My husband tried the Locro, which was very good too and it came with spicy oil and green onions.
The kids shared a big steak and chips, and I had the most amazing (and the biggest ever) fillet I have ever eaten. It was tasty, juicy and cooked to perfection. It was undoubtedly the best steak I have ever had!
When ordering, keep in mind that the portions are huge. I highly recommend El Charrúa!
The second time, we wanted to eat at a peña, an experience not to be missed! A peña is both a restaurant and a folkloric music venue. You can enjoy local food while watching music and dance performances. There are many such places on Balcarce.
We were undecided on where to go. We also considered Peña Balderrama (San Martín 1126) and La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1). However, in the end, we followed the recommendation of our hotel stuff and went to La Vieja Estación (Balcarce 875), where they have traditional Salteño dishes and live music on most nights of the week. Whatever you choose, make sure to reserve in advance.
We walked all the way from the hotel, at night. If you are concerned about safety, I can’t assure you that nothing will happen, but I can tell you that I have always felt quite safe in Salta. Even walking back from the peña, well after midnight, there were many people walking around and the streets were well lit up. The thing that bothered me the most was the cold!! It was freezing!
Also be advised that peñas open late (not before 9 pm) and the shows will start at about 10:15 pm. Having kids, we made sure to rest a bit in the afternoon so as to be able to enjoy the show later that night. To eat at La Vieja Estación, you pay 170 ARS per adult to see the show (kids younger than 12 are free) plus whatever you eat.
My husband had empanadas (beef and llama). And a Cazuela de Llama (llama stew) with beans, garlic, and potatoes.
The kids and I had steak (scotch fillet) and chips. To be honest, the steak was a bit hard and overcooked… The food, in general, was nothing special.
The show, however, was nice. There were folkloric dancers (including gauchos) who were really good.
And a live band performing local (and not so local) music. They were quite good and the audience was singing along most of the time (check out my video of the performance).
We all liked the experience and I highly recommend you visit a peña during your stay in Salta.
The last night, we had dinner at our accommodation – Finca Valentina (see below for the review of this place). We did that because we had already returned our rental car and we were too far from the centre to be bothered about cabbing it at night. Besides, we were quite cold and tired and we just wanted to rest.
Anyhow, the food was yummy. We were also served a complimentary glass of wine (which you could have before dinner or with it).
We agreed on the menu with the lady who made our dinner, so we had something we all liked.
We had a tasty steak with a Malbec reduction and local potatoes.
And a delicious chocolate mousse.
No complaints there!
In Salta, we stayed in 2 different places: Balcon de la Plaza and Finca Valentina.
Balcon de la Plaza
We spent 2 nights (the night we arrived, before visiting Purmamarca, and the night before we left for Cafayate) at Balcon de la Plaza, right next to the main square. It was literally a 1-minute walk to the Cathedral!
It is a small boutique hotel in a colonial style building.
The common areas are nicely appointed.
There are also beautiful small patios throughout the building.
The rooms are cute too and the nicely furnished, with comfortable beds. They have a safe and free Wi-fi that works pretty well. There are a desk, a TV, and a little fridge. The attached bathroom has all you need too.
We stayed in 2 different rooms.
The only problem was the size of the rooms. They were very small, especially Lilium. There was barely enough space to walk out of bed and we had a triple room for 4 people. It seemed like we were back in Japan!! However, we were barely in the room, so it did not matter too much. Also, the rooms would be absolutely perfect for a couple.
We also asked for an extra heater as it was very cold, and we had 2 pleasant nights.
Breakfast wasn’t a huge affair, but we all found something yummy to eat – even me, with all the restrictions of my low fodmap diet. They even got some fresh pineapple just for me! And made me scrambled eggs without dairy.
Otherwise, there were all the usual treats: jams, dulce de leche, bread, pastries, juice, fruits, ham, cheese, etc.
Another absolute plus for us was the friendly and outstanding service from the people at the reception desk. They were always very attentive and helped us out with reservations, gave us great food/restaurant suggestions, and helped out when we found out we had a flat tyre!
The attached covered parking lot (not owned by the hotel) is very convenient to keep your rented car. It’s a paid parking.
I highly recommend Balcon de la Plaza for its friendly service, reasonable price, beautifully appointed building, and for its perfect location! We’ll definitely be back!
On our last night in the Salta area, we chose to stay at Finca Valentina, a rural house/bed and breakfast close to the airport. We thought it would be easy to drop our rental car at the airport and go to Finca by cab, especially since we had an early flight the next morning to Buenos Aires.
We were right. Finca Valentina is a 10-minute drive (partially on gravel roads) from the airport. The house is beautiful.
When we arrived, we were greeted with some home-made lemonade, which I thought was a nice touch! It tasted so good!
The garden is very pretty and well maintained and there is also a little swimming pool that would be great in summer.
The house is also beautifully furnished. I loved all the little details. You can tell it is a very loved place.
I especially liked the fireplace area, with books and comfortable sofas and chairs where you could sit and rest. That’s where we enjoyed our dessert and a little family time after dinner.
The room was huge. It was actually made up of 2 interconnected rooms with a bathroom. The beds were very comfortable and we had a lot of space to keep our luggage.
There were also some board games and the girls were thrilled to play with them.
The owners are Italian, but they were not around when we visited (apparently they were in Italy?). Not just that… we were the only guests. It was ok, I guess… but it did feel a bit odd. It’s not like in a hotel… it felt like being a guest in someone else’s house when the owners were not around. I sometimes felt like an intruder. There was always at least one person from the staff in the house, but because the place is so big, we almost never saw anyone and had no idea how to contact them if we needed anything. That was fine during the day, but after dinner, it became a bit creepy.
In fact, at night the lights of the whole house went off! We were in a rural area which we assumed to be safe (but had no idea whether it was or not!), with nowhere to go, and no idea on how to solve the problem. We went around the house in the dark, looking for someone… but we could not find anyone!! So, we stayed without lights (which also meant with no heater!) all night! Suffice it to say, I barely slept.
Breakfast was a bit overwhelming. There was so much food and I felt pretty bad thinking that it had been prepared just for the 4 of us…
We simply couldn’t do it justice! However, everything we could try was delicious!
Would I recommend Finca Valentina? To be honest, I don’t know. The place is beautiful, the food is good, the beds are comfortable. There is really nothing “wrong” with it. However, our experience was not ideal because of the fact that we were alone and the lights went out, etc. If you must stay close to the airport to catch an early flight or you arrive with a late flight, I guess it’s a good place for a night.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN SALTA
The town is not very big and the centre can be easily visited on foot, especially since the majority of its touristic attractions are located in a small central area. Salta was built on a “grid”, so it’s easy to get oriented… just count the “cuadras” (block), and you won’t get lost.
Salta is the only place where we used a “normal taxi” and not a remis in Argentina. We had someone from Finca Valentina call a cab to take us to the airport (150 ARS).
This short 10-minute ride was one of the most emotional experiences of the trip (and we had many). The cab driver was in his 60’s and he was of Italian origins. We managed to talk quite a bit for such a short time… we spoke of many things and of what we had in common: we were both Italian migrants after all. I could feel a special connection with this man and I understood many things without him having to spell them out. The most emotional thing he told me, just before arriving at the airport was that he had lost a son, Franco, who was 23 years old. He didn’t tell me how or when, but I somehow felt privileged that he chose to tell me, a complete stranger. This will remain one of those meetings that I will remember forever.
I highly recommend you rent a car when in Salta to explore the towns and villages of Quebrada de Cafayate and Quebrada de Humahuaca (I will post separate guides for those areas). Major rental companies have offices at the airport and in the city, such as Hertz (Caseros 374) and Europcar (Córdoba 20).
We rented a car for a week to have the freedom to travel around at our own pace. My husband does not drive a manual car, so we were restricted in our choice of rental company and type of car, but if you drive a manual car, then you can have your pick. We went with Localiza, which was the only company we knew had automatic vehicles available.
The car we rented was a Chevrolet Prisma sedan. It was comfortable enough for the four of us and all our luggage (3 medium trolleys and a small one). Having said that, after finding out the condition of some of the roads we drove on, we wished we could have rented a pick-up or an SUV… anything with bigger wheels! The risk of a flat tyre is very high, so be prepared to know how to change a tyre.
Luckily, it did not happen to us, but I think that was pure luck and the fact that the people at Localiza had already given us the car with a hole in one of the tyres. Yep, you read that right. We had noticed that one of the tyres was not as full as the others, but we were told that the car had been thoroughly checked and that it was best to have lower pressure on the gravel roads we were going to drive on. Well, the next morning, just before leaving Salta to start our road trip, the tyre was completely flat! We had to find a gomeria (mark this term which means tyre workshop, in case you need it!) to have the tyre fixed. Luckily I speak Spanish, so we had no problems and 30 minutes later (and 150 ARS lighter), we were on our way.
The car cost 11,000 ARS for 7 days, including the extra driver, and the insurance was another 160 ARS per day with the lowest excess/deductible possible. Gas was about 30 ARS per litre.
All things considered, if I could choose another rental, I would. But finding an automatic car is really hard, so I am not sure that would be an option.
HOW TO GET TO SALTA
Being in the far north of Argentina, reaching Salta requires time: the bus journey from Buenos Aires is around 20 hours. Salta’s bus terminal is on the edge of Parque San Martín, southeast of the city centre. In addition to Buenos Aires, cross-country bus services connect with Catamarca (7 hours), Mendoza (18 hours), Rosario (16 hours) and Tucumán (4 hours).
That said, the city has very good transport links and regular flights arrive from Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Puerto Iguazú and Santa Cruz, the latter in Bolivia. We arrived with a direct flight on Austral (Aerolineas Argentinas) from Puerto Iguazu.
The main airport for this area is in Salta, so if you are heading to the Puna area, Quebrada de Humahuaca, or Cachi/Cafayate area, you will need to fly to Salta. In this case, I strongly recommend you stay at least 2 nights and a full day in the city to visit it.
Salta has a lot to offer: beautiful colonial architecture, interesting museums, and good food! We will be back!
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