Salta Beats to a Different Drum in Argentina’s Northwest

Iglesia y Convento San Francisco Salta Argentina

h3. A Different Drum

Salta beats to a different drum, figuratively and literally. Gone is the incessant Tango of Buenos Aires, and gone are the frenetic rhythms of cumbia. In the dramatic north-western province of Salta, it is the resonant thud of a bombo legüero, the chiming mandolin-like charango and guitar that provide the soundtrack. Its lolling rhythms, deeply rooted in the Andean cultures of northern Argentina, Peru and Bolivia (which it borders), reflect the lonely, arid plains that dominate the area and the slow pace of life.

Iglesia y Convento San Francisco Salta Argentina
Image courtesy of Kevin Jones via Flickr

Salta couldn’t be more different from Buenos Aires. Up here, some 870 miles (1,400 km) north west of Buenos Aires, among the red rock formations of the Calchaquí Valley, houses made in the adobe style from mud can still be seen. Farmers, wearing dress they would have 100 years ago, whip goats along the road, occasionally pausing to spit out some coca leaves they chew as a mild stimulant. It is dry, hot, dusty, windswept and beautiful. Outside the capital city, the province of Salta is without a doubt my favorite area in Argentina. And at the heart of the province is its namesake city that uniquely threads Andean culture with Spanish colonialism.

h3. Salta la Linda

The tourist brochures call it Salta la Linda – Salta the Fair, which at risk of being dammed by faint praise, understates the well-preserved Cabildo government house and the cathedral around the shady Plaza 9 de Julio. It is much nicer than ‘fair’. Although beyond its quiet and amiable charm, the city is also a vibrant cultural centre, with the world class Museo de Alqueología de Alta Montaña (Plaza 9 de Julio) which hit headlines around the world, and a National Geographic front page, with the first display of the Llullaillaco children, Andeans found frozen and perfectly mummified atop Volcán Llullaillaco. (The little girl’s hair was found still braided and coca leaves were found on her lip some 500 years after they were thought to have lived). And the Museo de Arte Contemporanea (Plaza 9 de Julio) has a fine collection with a regional focus.

View The Real Argentina: Travel in a larger map

It was late one evening – it is always late evening in Salta – and my wife and I were in the courtyard of La Casona del Molino (Caseros 2500) drinking cheap wine with ice and eating empanadas when the guitar finally struck up. Three old guys, wobbly after the wine, began their song to the rhythmic strum of the guitar, the off beat of the bombo legüero and ‘clip clip, clip clip’ of the hands of the audience. Between drags on a cigarette and mouthfuls of wine, the three men sang their zambas, chacareras and chamamés for hours. Sometimes the locals would join in a well-known carnival folk tune – one of which we had heard across Bolivia – to a rousing finale. It was as atmospheric an introduction to Salta as we could have had – a peña.

h3. The Peña

The peña is to northern Argentina what the milonga is to Buenos Aires – although some great peñas can be found in BA. These spirited meeting places for musicians show Andean culture laid bare: wine, song and dance. Other good peñas in Salta include La Casa de Güemes (España 720) or Boliche de Balderrama (San Martín 1126).

Salta Cerveza Beer and Cabildo Plaza 9 de Julio Argentina
Image courtesy of Michele Molinari via Flickr

The next day, fuzzy headed, we wandered Salta. The aforementioned museums are around the main square as is Salta’s most famous building, the glorious red, gold and white Iglesia y Convento San Francisco. What must be Salta’s most photographed building, the church remembers the days of colonialism, its well-preserved architectural heritage is part of what makes Salta so lovely. In hindsight the trip up the funicular in our delicate state may not have been the best idea, climbing even higher into the blue sky – Salta already sits at 3,780 feet (1,152 m) above sea level. But there were fabulous views over the Valle de Lerma and its surrounding mountains.

h3. The Local Cuisine

Food was in order, as it always should be in the north west. The local cuisine is a welcome respite from the red meat around Buenos Aires. Although the parrilla is still ubiquitous, Andean dishes such as empanadas, tamales and humitas (stuffed corn-meal dough pasties steamed in husks) fill tables, while a hearty stews such as the corn and meat locro are perfect winter warmers. On several evenings here we headed to Doña Salta (Cordoba 46), which serves high end traditional cuisine. Their locro is stunning. One celebrity who has been famously spotted here is movie star Matt Damon, who married a waitress from Salta.

From the restaurant we stroll on to Calle Balcarce, north of Calle Entre Ríos, where we listen at the doors of the many bars in the area, seeking out again the ‘bum, bum bum’ of the bombo legüero.

The following two tabs change content below.
Daniel Neilson

Daniel Neilson

Daniel Neilson is a freelance writer and photographer, and lived in Buenos Aires for five years eating too much meat, going hoarse at football games and thoroughly failing to learn a step of tango. He edited Time Out’s Buenos Aires guidebook and has contributed words and photos to a variety of publications about Argentina for Four Four Two, The Wire, CNN Traveller, Real Travel, Adventure Travel and the Observer among others. He now spends his days drinking imported mate and planning his return journey.
Daniel Neilson

Latest posts by Daniel Neilson (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *