“Wonderful, don't you think? It's no coincidence that they call it "La Linda!"
Roberto – a native who leads guided tours of the historic center of Salta – brags like this when he realizes that we photograph every corner with renewed interest. “Buenos Aires could be the capital, Córdoba has all its old Missions, but you can't find a South American Andalusia there like we have here”.
A simple walk through the historic center reveals the building of the council (the old building), the cathedral and several houses from the time of the viceroys, with their majestic facades and balconies.
In the streets, one can feel the weight of the religiosity imposed by the churches. From time to time, groups of nuns pass by on their way to the convents.
Beyond the homonymous capital, the province of Salta is a patchwork of landscape. It comprises a panoply of environments, reliefs and climates difficult to find in other parts of Argentina.
from the savanna chaco (the area closest to Paraguay) to the Andean plateaus, deserts and oases, mountains covered by lush jungle and arid mountain ranges succeed one another.
As in the neighboring southern province, Mendoza, in the extreme west of the region, the remote snowy peaks exceed 6.000 meters in altitude.
National Argentina 68 In. From Salta to Cafayate
From Salta towards the south, the national 68 winds through increasingly dry and reddish valleys and gorges.
They remind us of the scenarios of Indian West and US Cowboy. As soon as we arrived in Cafayate, colonial Argentina claims and regains its leading role.
These days, Cafayate is home to a dedicated population of silver, fabric and fur artisans but is best known for its reputable production of torrontés, a fruity white wine that is said to accompany, in perfection, the beloved empanadas in Salta.
We found them from time to time in bars lost in the vast road that we continued to travel.
National Route 40. Valles Calchaquies towards the Quebrada del Toro
The next morning, we left for Ruta Nacional 40. Gradually, we got closer to the Andes. The Valles Calchaquíes open onto the gravel road in Chicoana and extend along the Cuesta del Obispo.
Unveiled alienated rural hamlets surrounded by hillside pastures where cattle feed in a dizzying way.
And through deep agricultural fields, filled with small farms painted in shades of green and yellow.
Shortly thereafter, we passed through Cachi. Always gaining altitude, we enter Los Cardones National Park.
We can see their thresholds clearly demarcated by a profusion of cacti with different shapes that the native population is used to imagining as guards of hills, herds of vicuñas, guanacos, pumas, wild cats and other species with eccentric local names.
To the north, the even wider Quebrada del Toro dominates the map. According to the prevailing belief, the ex-libris of the province of Salta received its name for having been, for many years, a route for muleteers heading for Chile.
And because the cowboys used these low, green areas of the valley to fatten up the animals they were driving.
But the theory is contested by a minority faction that defends that the word toro has an indigenous origin (probably Aymara) and means “muddy water”.
On the Train Route to Las Nubes
Whatever the correct explanation, the most popular way to discover the region is to hop aboard the Tren a Las Nubes. As we explored these stops, however, the train remained disabled for an urgent renovation.
when everything goes on rails, the composition departs from Gare General Belgrano, in Salta. It advances along 217km, along a winding path that penetrates the mountains and visits some more small ones people Andeans with great historical significance.
After reaching the Saltine plateau, the Tren de las Nubes stops at San Antonio de los Cobres. Even by car, this village appears to us as a surreal vision of adobe and tin lost in the inhospitable immensity.
San Antonio de los Cobres grew up as an outpost on the mule caravan circuits that linked Peru to Argentina. And, later, the country from the pampas to Chile's nitrate mines, the same chemical compound that fertilized Portuguese agricultural soil for decades.
These days, San Antonio is the penultimate station before the La Polvorilla viaduct, which we find at an altitude of 4220 meters.
The Endless Salt Flats of the Andean Highlands
From there, we continue along the makeshift dirt, gravel and sand roads of the Andean puña, alongside herds of wild mules, chased by gusts of wind and other barometric whims.
After a few dozen more kilometers, we glimpse the real mirage of Salinas Grandes. Confirm a set of salt pans flat and visually endless in which only the distant activity of some workers loading a truck seems to break the white uniformity of the scenery.
We left the demarcated trail. On a crunchy surface, we reach its surroundings just as the truck is about to depart. We stayed in conversation with the indigenous farm guard.
He soon confesses to us the loneliness his job has voted him into: “Friends, weeks go by when I see nothing but salt… From time to time, desperate coyotes appear around, attracted by the smell of that I'm cooking. Sometimes, not even that…"
Finally, in Lands of Jujuy. The Quebrada de Humahuaca
With the Chilean border announcing itself one last time, we reversed to the east. When we enter Jujuy territory, we are ordered to stop two law enforcement officers waiting by the roadside. “We have an urgent case to solve in Humahuaca, we need them to take us there”, shoots guard Rodriguez uncomfortably.
We start by hesitating. Surrendered to the sympathetic expression of the second policeman and the lack of viable alternatives, we ended up giving in without resistance.
The distrust having been overcome, for more than two hours, the conversation unfolded happily. It touches on diverse themes with obvious highlights for Argentine and Portuguese football and for the often problematic state of finances in both nations.
As it flows, the dialogue also allows us to realize that that forced ride was actually due to the long Argentine crisis. In particular, the lack of funds from the police stations in the north of the country to ensure transport for their agents.
Still on the way to the Bolivian border, we started to explore the Pampa Azul. There, for their almost urban dimension, Abra Pampa, Trés Cruces, Casabindo and La Quiaca stand out.
La Quiaca. Argentina's Northwest Threshold
We pay minimal attention to the first three. Argentina's northern boundary status and the suspected profile of Quiaca arouses our curiosity.
There we explore the local market, installed, for convenience, just a few hundred meters from customs.
Until nightfall, we watched with delight the smuggling and dubious deals of Bolivian and Argentinean visitors. Between casual conversations, we turn down irresistible profit offers.
The next day, we return to National Route 9 back to Jujuy and Salta, always through the Andean ends of South America.