“Around 12 years ago I got bored of city life, and grabbed my horse and rode out into the wilderness. I spent 8 months riding and eventually ended up here and I haven’t looked back.”
It was quite a unique answer to the question what brought you here, but looking at the Gaucho or Argentine Cowboy, who was sat opposite me it didn’t really come as a surprise. It was midnight and we were sat with the manager of the only hotel in Molinos’ backyard. Earlier in the day we had asked the manager if he had a recommendation of where to eat that evening and his response and been to drive to the butchers and invite us to his house. We had enjoyed some steaks slow cooked over the traditional Argentine Barbecue and we were about to head out into the desert to do some stargazing. The Gaucho was the head of the company that ran horse-riding tours in the area, and two of my friends had spent the afternoon out on horseback with him. As much as it sounded idyllic I hadn’t regretted my decision to stay by the hotel pool and drink the local Malbec too much! As I reflected on the day I had just experienced and the evening we were enjoying it really dawned on me that this had been one of my favourite experiences in all South America.
This was my 4th trip to Argentina, I had a friend living in Buenos Aires and along with two other friends we had gone to visit him. We had all travelled to Argentina before, in fact all 4 of us were Latin America specialists for different companies, yet none of us had been to North-western Argentina and so it was decided that this would be the ideal destination. We would hire a 4x4 and drive off to explore the scenery, the small towns and almost certainly some of the vineyards. It proved to be one of the best holidays I had ever been on.
North-western Argentina is a large term, that in a tourist sense refers to the area surrounding the city of Salta. This whole area is quite unique in geographical terms, quite dry almost desert like climate, it is home to startling rock formations, incredible gorges and blinding white salt flats, perhaps think of it as a mini version of the US national parks around Las Vegas. Argentina in general is a very European country, but in the Northwest you are very much in the territory of the Andean people, it feels much more like Peru or Bolivia than Portugal or Belgium. The pretty little city of Salta is the gateway to the region, it offers fascinating museums, colonial architecture, and a lively music scene. The local peñas are restaurants which include live bands playing traditional music – think pan-pipes, guitars and drums – which serenades your consumption of delicious stews, roasted meats and local vegetables.
Salta sits as the central point in a figure of 8 trail which beats a path around the region. To the north is the small Andean town of Purmamarca, and its famed hill of seven colours, which as the name suggests is a hill which has numerous coloured rock within it. This geological kaleidoscope continues in the nearby Quebrada de Humahuaca. Finally the northern plateaus are home to the bright white salt flats of Salinas Grandes, where you can experience a smaller version of the famed Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
South of Salta are the real highlights of the region. The road snakes through the stunningly beautiful Cresta del Obispo Pass to the small town of Cachi, where the delightful Merced de Alto hotel provides a relaxing escape from the drive. South of Cachi is Molinos the aforementioned flyspeck town that sits amongst the cacti and vineyards of the region. Indeed, the whole journey between Cachi and the southernmost town of Cafayate is dotted with vineyards. These claim to be the highest altitude vineyards in the world, producing unique tasting wines. The classic Argentine Malbec is a staple, will the fragrant Torrontes is a less well-known grape almost unique to Argentina. These vineyards are not on the scale of the famed Mendoza wine region, but tastings are much more intimate, often with the family that has been producing the wine for generations. The journey from Molinos to Cafayate and back to Salta takes in the incredible Quebrada de las Flechas and the Quebrada de las Conchas for a final dose of unique Geology.
This is a very traditional part of Argentina, off the beaten track and offering something unique. It is also home to some of the most welcoming Argentines you will meet, which means that North-western Argentina, can be perhaps described as the True Argentina.