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Founded in 1582, Salta in northern Argentina is an urban paradise. Historic hotels line the big town square and, at night, the city’s many grand churches are lit up in modern fashion. They are lit so perfectly that even amateur photographers can achieve a professional shot without a tripod.
That’s just one of the reasons why Salta is a photographer’s playground. Large plazas fill with people on the weekends, and those plazas spill onto smaller plazuelas. Parks boast statutes of military heroes atop rising horses made of bronze. Ornate stone columns adorn the public buildings. The mansions of the wealthy are within walking distance of Plaza 9 de Julio, the town’s main square. Nearby on Caseros Street is the striking red-and-gold Baroque San Francisco Church, built in 1625.
Rising above the city is the teleferico (cable car) that offers visitors a grand view of the city. Salta, which has a population of about 600,000 people, spreads over the high Andean Lerma Valley.
Salta developed because it was the midway point between Lima and Buenos Aires. Gold and silver were being extracted from the Andes and moved via wagon train to Salta before shipment south to Buenos Aires. Unlike cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, Salta is mainly influenced by Andean traditions and people.
Salta is perhaps the best-preserved colonial city in the country, with a good climate and a moderate altitude of 3,780 feet above sea level. The city is becoming a major travel destination in Argentina. It is said that the Argentinian people hold a special place in their heart for Salta, which they refer to as “Salta la Linda” (Salta the beautiful).
Students even take 20-hour bus rides to get here from Buenos Aires during school breaks, though a modern airport with two-hour flights from Buenos Aires is located just three miles from town.
Salta is a provincial town, where traditional customs are still practiced. I saw many parents and children out together on Balcarce Street, which is becoming the new hub of nightlife. Balcarce Street has sprung up organically in the old industrial area close to the old train station. Beginning about seven years ago, these warehouses were converted into bars and penas folkloricas, restaurants that feature entertainment. The performers dress up in traditional colonial clothing — women don risque outfits and young men are dressed as gauchos, complete with swords across their chests. The performers willingly pose for pictures on the street.
Los Cardones, located at 876 Balcarce Street, always draws a lively crowd for its regional food specialties and free floor shows of Andean music and dance. Nightlife in Argentina springs into action at about 11 p.m.
On Sunday, Balcarce Street is closed to traffic all day long for Feria de la Balcarce, an arts and crafts fair featuring the work of local artists and craftsmen.
Another place for people-watching is atop San Bernardo Hill. One can take the teleferico up 1,400 feet for just a few dollars.
I took the ride up but walked down the 1,070 steps which took about 25 minutes. The view of the city is stunning, while the landscaping makes it a tranquil space as well. A small cafe at the top offers beer and food.
Those who want to get to know the region beyond Salta may rent a car and set out on a 330-mile loop: over an alpine pass to the small pueblo of Cachi; onward to the hamlet of Seclantas and the glorious horse ranch and wine estate of Colome; then south to the vineyards of Cafayate, the second largest wine-growing region in the country.
Just outside Cafayate, the limestone hills morph into the Quebrada de Cafayate, a spectacular swirl of rust-colored arches and canyons that, like Salta, is also quite beautiful.
When to Go: During the months of July, August and September, there is no rain and daily temperatures average about 70 degrees with sunny days and pleasant evenings.
Getting There: American Airlines flies to Buenos Aires out of Dallas. LAN Airlines flies from LAX. Once in Buenos Aires, connect to LAN or Aerolineas Argentinas. Both airlines fly to Salta daily.
Where to Stay: Several boutique hotels have popped up in town, but a perennial favorite is the Hotel Colonial. Located at the heart of the city, in front of Plaza 9 de Julio, it is one of Salta’s most traditional hotels and a good option for U.S. visitors. Breakfast and Wi-Fi access are included. www.saltahotelcolonial.com.ar
Don’t Miss: The Museum of High Altitude Archaeology. In 1999, an Argentine-Peruvian expedition found the perfectly preserved bodies of three Inca mummies on the summit of the of 22,110 foot-high Llullaillaco volcano. Even though the children had been sacrificed more than 500 years ago, their frozen, rather than embalmed, bodies are among the best preserved mummies ever found. Now known as the Children of Llullaillaco, they are believed to have been sacrificed in an Incan ceremony to enter the realm of the gods. The museum is located on the west side of the Plaza 9 de Julio. www.maam.gob.ar