Sinking Our Teeth Into Salta & Cafayete

Visiting Buenos Aires is an easy decision. But one of the toughest decisions when visiting Argentina is figuring out where to go when you are ready to venture outside of Buenos Aires and experience the rest of this fascinating country.

You can do as we did and take easy day trips to neighboring towns Tigre and San Antonio de Areco, but to really get a feel for this country, you need to travel further outside the capital city where nearly half of the country’s inhabitants live.

There are so many choices. You can head to the edge of the Amazon to take in the incredible Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil; Or take in the beautiful lakes and natural wonders of San Carlos de Bariloche; or head down to the end of the world to the incredible Patagonia region; or if you are craving to soak up some vitamin D and it’s summer, how about the beaches of nearby Mar Del Plata? Don’t forget the wine region of Mendoza! Unless you are visiting for 3 months or longer, you’ll have to make some hard choices.

On the way from Salta to Cafayate

Even if you have a 6 to 8 weeks, you can probably get to most of these wonderful spots without feeling like you are rushing through them.

But alas, like most people, we were on a bit tighter schedule (10 days) and an even tighter budget. So little time, so many places. We had to pick one destination, so we turned to our trusty friend, part time resident and  Argentina travel expert and writer, Michael Luongo. Michael admitted these were all tough choices but recommended the Salta Province.

Historic Churches in Salta

We took Michael’s advice and man are we glad we did. By traveling to the Salta Province we got a more indigenous take on Argentina. The city of Salta itself is beautiful with historical buildings and beautiful old churches and the pace of the city is worlds apart from bustling Buenos Aires. You can get a great view of the city really quickly by taking a ride on the city’s metro cable overlooking the surrounding area.

We arrived around 4 in the afternoon which was siesta time. We were amazed at the quietness and tranquility in the streets. But that all changed when the sun began to set, the city began to cool down and people came out to resume their day/evening.  Historic downtown Salta suddenly became a beehive of bustling activity.

We were there during Carnival month so we were able to take in some indigenous dancing on the main square each night, a type of dancing that you may have a tough time finding in Buenos Aires with all the Tango parlors and modern discos pumping salsa and electronica music.

The other great thing about Salta is you can take a very scenic and easy drive to wine country Cafayate, which is just a few hours away by car and most importantly, has some of the most stunning desert landscapes known to man. If you make the drive you want to definitely schedule some time to stop along the way and take photographs. The scenery is absolutely stunning and the traffic when we went at least, was very, very light on the winding roads.

Grapes of Bodega El Esteco

When we arrived, our first clue that this was probably the tranquil little town that had been described in the guidebooks, was when we spotted a donkey roaming the streets.

The altitude in the Calchaquí Valley mixed with the desert weather helps this region grow some of the best grapes for wine in the world. So after spending the night in Cafayate, we visited one of the many wineries around town, Bodega El Esteco.

El Esteco was founded in 1892 and distributes millions of bottles of wines a year. Andres Hoy from El Esteco toured us through the winery and took us through the process of growing the grapes all the way to bottling. After the tour we did the customary wine tasting. My favorite was the organic white wine but it turns out even non organic Argentine wine is the closest thing to “organic” in the world, with very little pesticide spraying going on compared to other wine producing nations like the U.S. or France.

Carnival Time in Salta

Also, since the weather is very consistent, almost any year is as good as the next. This is is very different from wines grown in the U.S. or Europe, which may have one outstanding year out of five or ten years, so you need to really know your stuff when ordering those wines.

Wide Open Spaces on the Way to Quilmes

Just a short drive out from Cafayate are the fascinating Quilmes Ruins, where the Diaguita people lived between 800 and 1665 AD. At one time over 6,000 people from the tribe of Quilmes lived in this stunning city on a hill, now know as Quilmes. The ruins were discovered in the early 1900s and restored in the late 1970s.

Quilmes Ruins


The Quilmes Ruins are the only remaining, fully restored ruins in all of Argentina today. The descendents from these original settlers still live in the city today and if you go, you’ll find them selling their crafts and conducting tours a to the smattering of off the beaten path daily travelers. While Quilmes is indeed slightly off the beaten path it’s well worth the relatively short drive from Cafayate in my opinion.

If you have the time, take the drive north of Salta towards the town of San Salvador de Jujuy. On the drive there it’s the direct opposite of Cafayate’s desert climate, with lush, green hills and chilled, mountain air. We were limited on time, so essentially we made it to San Salvador de Jujuy for lunch and had to turn around and head back to Salta to get ready for our trip home, but not before witnessing a very cool little Carnival street parade which resulted in the crew getting doused with flour, which is evidently part of the tradition and definitely part of the fun.

Carnival Procession in San Salvador de Jujuy

Salta Province was a good call. We were able to experience a different side of Argentina that you could easily miss if you remained in the more populated areas surrounding Buenos Aires. Most people don’t realize the influence the indigenous people have had and are still having on the culture of Argentina. Salta is a good place to visit to gain a perspective often given short shrift in some guidebooks and many travel blogs.




Amazon – Hell Hike to San Martin

The Amazon – Day 2

Today we woke up early to prepare for a hell hike of 3 hours to the isolated, indigenous pueblo of San Martin. We hoofed it over to Porto Nariño from our Cabañas, about a 15 minute hike compared to a 3 or 4 minute boat ride. All 3 of use were dressed a little ridiculously and stereotypically for safari with cargo pants, long sleeved safari shirts and safari hats. I’m sure we looked like we’re headed to an expedition in the outer, unexplored regions of Africa.

Amazon "Road Crew"

Our guide showed up in tank top, shorts and mud boots and you can feel the locals stare as we passed by…Turistas!!

We were toting camera gear so I’d worked up a sweat and was exhausted already by the time we hit town.

At breakfast I saw a man, looks like a local, being toted in a stretcher to the infirmary. He’s not moving and his hand is over his head in what looks like severe pain. “The last person who hiked the trail” I joke. No one laughed.

After breakfast we stocked up on water and to our dismay, no food. There is not a sandwich to be bought anywhere in town to take for the 6 hour round trip journey so we buy raw fruit and bread, hoping that will get us through the brutal hike and back.

Starting off it was cool, lots of foot traffic along the path as it gradually gives way from a concrete sidewalk to dirt path. I noticed everyone on the path, be they young kids or old grandmothers are toting machetes. Luckily our guide, Witman had his own machete in hand.

We were carrying camera gear and though we tried to lighten our loads as much as possible, I realized too late that my trusty laptop was secured in the camera bag, so we’re carrying around needless 3 or 4 additional pounds,  and risking a computer in the Amazon. Agghhh!

The hike was pretty uneventful at first; we met a volunteer machete road crew clearing the path around the road. They offered us some kind of alcoholic refreshment from a 2 litter coke bottle and I am the only one who decided to brave a swig. It was tart, not too bad though. They ask for a donation and I threw them one before we all head on again.

Mystery Drink with the Road Crew

We encountered a small, poisonous snake, a couple of frogs, a tarantula, a few lizards and hosts of wild ass sounding birds along the way. About half way to San Martin we encounter a beautiful clearing where a small finca had been built and some people were gathering water and going about their daily lives.

After that, things got much more intense. The trail began to disappear before our very eyes and we are balancing ourselves as we crossed creeks and ditches on top of felled trees. This might work fine if your barefoot but if you are wearing work boots with equipment strapped to your back, the algae acts like a lubricant and we came very, very close to dumping ourselves as well as some valuable equipment (including this computer) into swamps and creeks along the way.

The final hour of the hike was absolute hell. Renzo, still recovering from back to back illnesses was bringing up the rear. We were going through water like crazy (15 bottles among 4 people) and yet no one has to relieve themselves.  We were soaking wet top and bottom so we were sweating out fluids as soon as we put them in.

With the kids of San Martin

One hassle that could have made life worse that didn’t were hordes of mosquitoes. Thankfully, the combo of our external repellents and the oral repellent seemed to be doing the trick.

FINALLY we come to a large clearing and a steep bank overlooking a creek with kids swimming and homemade wooden canoes docked on the side. It was San Martin! We were so tired we didn’t really feel like celebrating… instead I’m sure we were all thinking  “there is no way I’m making that hike back” (I know I was).

It was 12 noon and we would have to start hiking back by 1pm if we were to beat the darkness and no one, especially our guide, wanted to be out on that path in the middle of the Amazon in anything approaching darkness. There was no way that would be an option.

Hiding from our camera

Hiking back in less than an hour seemed like a horrifying idea. We went ahead and shot some video diary footage overlooking the river and then one little girl of 6 or 7 paddled a canoe over for us to use. The kids were all swimming and soaking wet. They were shy but eager to pose for the camera. They were incredibly cute, with one little boy completely naked and his hair bleached blond by the constant exposure to the sun.

As we crossed over I noticed a boat with an outboard motor docked. I ask our guide if there is any chance we could take a boat back instead of hike. He seemed to think that was a realistic idea and said he’d ask the owner.

The owner was a solar panel installer who had made the trip to San Martin to replace the town’s solar panels, which need replacing every 15 years or so!

Solar Panel Installer Saves Our A**

Turns out San Martin was not exactly what we expected. We expected indigenous people, some in traditional garb and living in huts. Instead everyone was dressed in t-shirts, jeans, shorts or work pants and either barefoot, boots or chancletas. There was a school, electricity, a church and even a store that sold soda (but no water, they use rainwater).

We toured the city, pick up b-roll with our cameras and do a few stand-ups though I can barely think straight and I’m pretty sure I look like hell, but I was so tired, I just didn’t care. We ate our fruit and bread, polished off our last bit of water and to our collective delight were told we could catch a 40 minute ride in the boat for just 40,000 pesos (about $20).

Let’s see a 3 hour hell hike back with no water, no food and darkness approaching or a 40 minute boat ride back for $20?! Yep, I am not ashamed to say we took the boat ride.  Luckily for us we hit San Martin on the one day in 15 years that solar panels were being replaced I guess!

We made it back to Puerto Nariño in time to have a very late lunch. Incredible. The cold shower at the cabaña never felt so good and we all drifted off for naps before a big rainstorm hit and we waited it out before heading to Puerto Nariño for dinner. There would be no night out on the town this night. Just the sleep of the dead.