Have mum, will travel Part 3: From the ranch to the desert

In many ways this trip with my mum has been a repeat of the places and sights that I enjoyed last year. Not a bad strategy on the whole, even with 3 weeks to play with Argentina is HUGE, and it makes no sense to be constantly flitting around trying to see everything. All the sights.

We flew direct to Salta from Iguazu, it’s a pricey flight since it’s the only direct connection, but the alternative is 24hrs on a bus, or going indirect via Buenos Aires which doesn’t turn out much cheaper and is a lot more hassle. It was more-or-less on time, our bags turned up and we got a free snack on board. Aerolineas Argentinas, I take it all back.

Salta is a really pleasant colonial city in the North West, the capital of Salta province and home to the various varieties of Salta beer, one of my favourites in Argentina. There’s not really much to do in the city beyond a couple of days, however that’s not always a problem.

We stayed at Solar de La Plaza, a plush colonial house on one of the main Plazas in the city. This was the subject of a particularly cracking Internet deal after the exchange rates changed dramatically. Mother approved too! There is a rooftop pool but definitely not one to pin your hopes on/get excited about- Booking.com’s photography is VERY generous in the size it portrays.

Room at the Plaza

Outside of the hotel

That night it was time to hit the streets in search of food. We were close to the business end of Balcarce, which holds most of the city’s Pena music bars. This street really comes alive in the evenings at the weekend, when it is closed to cars and becomes a pedestrian street with a big artisan market at the top. 

Unfortunately the restaurants are a bit hit and miss, catering largely for the tourist market- Argentine as well as foreign. We did have a couple of decent meals during our time in Salta, although mainly from places ‘off the strip’. Still, the atmosphere is great in the evening and it’s outside dining in the best sense of the word, with plenty of life and music.

The next morning we decided to do some sightseeing proper, catching a lift up the San Fernando teleferico (cable car) up to the top of the eponymous hill. Great views from the top and reassuring on the ride up that the place has recently been closed for a fortnight to change the main cables!

Up the hill…

Great views from the top across to the Andes

Not quite “El Cristo Redentor” but impressive all the same

Cactus flower bee getting amongst it

There’s not much afoot at the top, the main attraction for the locals seems to be the huge open air gym with various weight machines and a rather enthusiastic Spin class going on whilst we were there. It seems to be a bit of a focal point for the local fitness freaks as when I came a year ago it was similarly occupied!

After seeing the delights of the Cerro we headed back into town for a wander around the shopping streets- Along, it seemed, with the rest of Salta city’s population. There are a few good museums dotted around the main Plaza, possibly the most interesting being the MAAM, which translates as the Andean high mountain archaeology museum and deals with aspects of Inca life including the slightly macabre subject of child sacrifice. The museum explains in detail about the rituals and culture leading to this phenomenon and also contains the frozen bodies of several of the excavated children. It’s a very eerie experience in parts but worth visiting.

The plaza itself is a great place to be, with plenty of pavement cafes and lots of life including markets in the evening selling, to be fair, mainly tat. Contrary to my own belief, not all of the Plaza cafes are ripoff joints. We had an excellent Menu Del Dia at Van Gogh at one corner of the square and also a great couple of baguettes for lunch from the sandwich place near the cathedral. It’s not like Venice where main plaza=daylight robbery!

Random dog monument.

El Papa

Salta’s cathedral

Salta’s main square

Pavement dining in style

So, from Salta we decided to head out into the countryside for a night at a ranch. I’d visited Sayta ranch last year and had really enjoyed it, the Jefe Enrique is a larger-than-life character with an impressively offensive range of jokes in English and a generous attitude towards guest wine consumption. His somewhat enthusiastic pursuit of all women at the ranch has dimmed, but not disappeared, now he has a new partner present!

As with everything in Argentina, prices can change rapidly, and they had increased by about 40% since my last visit a year ago, however a day at the ranch, all meals and overnight accommodation, plus horse riding and transfers still came in at around £75pppn, which isn’t horrendous. Particularly if you crack into the unlimited wine!

Ready for the off…

Heading into the hills

The riding this time was rather more tame than my last visit- Not straight up into the hills, I think because the ranch was seriously busy. However it wasn’t long before I remembered exactly how unpleasant being bounced around the countryside on a nag really is! Bumpbumpbumpbump. I’m definitely not cut out for the gaucho life.

We headed back to the ranch for lunch- I was initially put out that we weren’t having the full asado (barbecue) in the hills experience however the cooking soon made up for that, with Enrique’s friend expertly charring some humongous chunks of steak over the wood. Definitely about the best steak I’d ever had. And unusually for Argentina, loads of salad too!

Lunch on the ranch

After a long, large and wine-infused lunch, I very unwisely opted to get back on the horse. Mum declined, sensibly- I was very impressed at how quickly she’d picked horse riding back up though! Apparently it never leaves you…

…like searing back pain caused by riding a horse like a sack of potatoes. I thought I was getting the hang of it in Mongolia, but obviously not. Ibuprofen me up, landlord.

Horses at rest. Phew!

A late evening meal allowed us to both enjoy some more great food, and also marvel at the variety of insect life divebombing us. Plus, to meet a family of toads living on the ranch including this monster, which was bigger than my hand, not that I got it close enough to have a true comparison… He’s called Pepe, apparently.

Pepe the monster toad

After a somewhat sleepless night owing to both the heat and the ever-present GIANT INSECT FEAR we were picked up and shuttled to the next village down from Chicoana in order to catch the bus to our next destination Cafayate. The journey itself is no hardship, under 4hrs from Salta and the bus is big and comfortable. It’s also perfect because the road follows the best of the local Quebradas (rock formations) along the way. A fare of about £7 and a free tour. Ideal!

Lush green hills leaving Chicoana

Climbing into the mountain pass

The start of the amazing Quebradas

 

Vineyard coming into Cafayate village

I love Cafayate. It’s the first place on my last tour of Argentina where I genuinely started to relax, and is a classical South American high Sierra town, with a picturesque main square and a fantastic, relaxed pace of life that you can really get used to. Last time I stayed in Rusty K Hostal, and I’d strongly recommend it. This time our accommodation options were severely limited due to it being the height of holiday season. We ended up staying at the 4 star Hotel Asturias just off the plaza which, whilst pleasant, didn’t really justify its price tag and couldn’t manage the basics such as consistent hot water or wifi (Although I believe the latter was a village-wide problem so I’ll let them off that!)

Hotel Asturias’ pool, and the wide vistas beyond

It was a place not without its benefits, though. The pool in the back garden was fantastic! And the views from everywhere in Cafayate are simply stunning. It’s that kind of place, nestled in amongst the mountains and sierras, surrounded by vineyards and semi-desert.

View from the hotel balcony towards the cathedral

Cafayate is a kind of do nothing, eat drink and relax-type destination, particularly over the New Year’s break, when everything closes down. I’m more than happy with this for a few days, and mum was getting into the swing of it. It was intensely frustrating though, trying to book onward flights, which were dwindling by the minute, with a barely functional wifi connection and no mobile Internet- Argentina is very well connected with mobile masts however apparently the data link from the village was down!

Sleepy streets

Plaza San Martin and cathedral

 

Pavement dining on the plaza

New Year’s Eve was a good event. Families get together across the village and enjoy a pre-midnight feast. You can tell the success of the night by the complete absence of anywhere open, or indeed anyone alive, the next morning. Mum was still working to a European timetable so we ate earlier and I then went out for a wander. Seeing a crowd around the cathedral I decided to investigate, and was treated to a spectacular performance of the Nativity. Featuring Angel Gabriel in his cowboy hat, no less. And also the local Police’s “Blue Christmas” display!

Cathedral by night

 

Nativity spectacular- Angel Gabriel is the one with the torch!

Packed Plaza… Excuse the naff iPhone photos!

Navidad Azul: Blue Christmas

Once the village had started to reopen slightly, we caught a cab out to Bodega Piattelli, around 5km out of town. Cafayate is surrounded by wineries, with a number in town too, all of whom offer tours and tastings, which tend to be pretty inexpensive. We’d been recommended to try Piattelli by a Swiss couple from Sayta ranch, so gave it a go.

Piattelli has been fairly recently built and is a joint venture between local and overseas companies, with vineyards in both Cafayate and Mendoza. The tour was around 80 ARS (£4) each, including a pretty generous tasting at the end. The guide was a lovely guy who conducted it in Spanish, along with tips for, and questions from, my mum in English.

 

Wine malarkey

The tour was actually one of the most interesting I’ve been on, with detailed descriptions about the processes and the different oaking methods, etc. Afterwards the restaurant looked very inviting, so we enquired about tables… No joy, but the option to wait a couple of hours. If you visit I’d definitely recommend booking. It’s popular for a reason, with fairly priced, fantastic dishes and a big range of wines, overlooking the vineyard and hills. Buon Provecho!

Before long, it was time to leave Cafayate. I had really wanted to go south, via the beautiful village of Tafi del Valle and onwards to Tucuman, however since it was a Sunday the bus times really didn’t work out. Instead, we headed back North to Salta, along the same incredible road for a second look at the Quebradas de Cafayate and about 48,000 more photos. The Flechabus booking office is near the centre of Cafayate and you can buy tickets the day before departure, after lunch. If you have a chance, book seats 1-4 since they are at the front of the top deck and give you a panoramic view (as well as clearer windows for photographic purposes!)

Back into the valley

Valley looking lush due to a big thunderstorm overnight…

…Rainfall isn’t always helpful!

Tobacco fields coming back into Salta

So then, in the manner of Groundhog Day, it was back to Salta. This time in the Hotel Delvino. Well recommended, apart from trying to stiff us with a smaller room than we’d paid for, right on the ground floor and clearly very noisy! They moved us to our originally booked place with good grace though. Definitely go for a higher floor room, they are much nicer.

Wandering around the markets, enjoying the night air and then back with our new friends Aerolineas Argentinas to Buenos Aires, for mum to catch her flight and for me, hopefully, to be able to get some cash due to NONE of the cajeros from Cafayate onwards accepting foreign cards. Eek!

Next instalment: Back on the road North again, buses and budget digs.

Buen Viajes!
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