By Monty Style
Day 11 – Lares de Chacras to Salta City
Scrabble by the pool, simple, good lunch in the garden of Bodega Pulmary a few blocks from the lovely Lares de Chacras, then off to the airport heading for Salta City.
Landed in light rain surrounded by green hills and fields. An exemplary car rental chap called Daniel handed over our Renault Duster which is spacious and serves us well.
Salta City is not as lovely as the Rough Guide (which is generally very good) makes out. But our hotel, Legado Mitico, is elegant and has the best bathroom so far! On their advice we walk a couple of blocks to Andalina and have a very good supper of tamales and humitas (fresh corn) both very reminiscent of Mexico, followed by bife in various forms and a marvellous blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon made by Marco Etchart, whom we are visiting later, near Cafayate. Our waiter was rather a star – noticed we are into wine and solved our dilemma by putting 4 or 5 bottles on the table for a general debate, label examination etc. His local knowledge and sensitive approach led us to a really good decision at a fair price. He also recommended a place to eat in Cafayate!
Day 12 – Salta City to Purmamarca
Duster-ed comfortably up to Purmamarca on good roads in 90 minutes with a short excursion to San Salvador de Jujuy looking for picnic ingredients. Very busy place and nowhere to park. Drove mainly thru farmland (maize, some cattle) passing many warnings signs: “beware of stray animals, report them to the police on tel. no. xyz”.
Approaching Purmamarca we enter a new world, green hills morph to ever larger rocky mountains, totally dry riverbeds 100-200 metres across testify to the prevailing arid conditions and to violent spates in the short rainy season. Entering P. we are faced by multicoloured, multistrata mountains of almost bare rock. Giant eroded gullies plunge down to dry riverbeds. Deep-pink rock eroded into hundreds of narrow, vertical, organ pipe-like slits remind us instantly of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.
After check-in at Manantial del Silencio (Spring of Silence) – a white, colonial style ex-monastery with an uncluttered garden, on the edge of Purmamarca – and a quick empanada in the village, we embark on the drive up to Salinas Grandes, rising in 90 minutes from 2200 m to 4200 m.
This is a journey of only 70 kms – initially massive mountains overlooking our road winding along beside a dry riverbed, which is soon left behind as the climb begins. Then quite suddenly Simon drops to first gear, we’re on a well-made but unpaved road, we see a wall of mountain reaching for the blue sky, almost hanging over us, the outline of a thousand hairpin bends just visible.
Suddenly, some way ahead and below, a shimmering white strip of salt flat catches the eye – this is what we came to see. Around us the recent rain has left behind little brown rivulets, which come together on the road leaving behind gravel which slows down the already slow – moving buses and long trucks heading for Chile.
On the salt flats the sun is shining. We stop half way across the Salinas Grandes, walk on the salt, shield eyes from the glare, marvel at the salt lake to left and right stretching to the horizon.
The height (4200 m at the top) and the drive back down to Purmamarca on the same vertiginous road can[and DID!!] cause acute headache and vertigo, which disappear around 2500 m.
Excellent dinner at the Manantial with local – style dishes, cool fruity Torrontes and a local Chardonnay round off a memorable day.
All the people of Salta we have met in the last 24 hours have been competent, friendly, smiling and helpful, without exception.
Day 13 – Tilcara and Pulcarà, north of Purmamarca, settlements of indigenous people
A quiet day after the Salinas Grandes excursion. Visit Tilcara, 30 minutes north of Purmamarca. A peaceful little town with a mainly indigenous population. Exquisite handmade boxes et al. Following some backpackers, we walk mistakenly some way up a track into the hills looking for Pulcará, a 14th century Inca settlement. In due course we find it on top of a hill outside Tilcara. Dry stone buildings better than air conditioning inside. Great site for photography. Lunch in cosmos-bedecked garden restaurant. Decide to give Humahuaca (further up the valley) a miss and spend a rainy afternoon at the Manantial spa.
Day 14 – Back to Salta City
Sad to leave the Alta Montaña and the tranquil Manantial del Silencio. Since they offered 11 pesos to the US $ (cf 8 pesos the official rate) I paid our modest bill for two decent dinners and some spa work in dollars. Rivers running with small volume of red-brown water after the rain. Took the cornisa route 9 thru El Carmen and La Caldera – cattle grazing, thick wooded hills, one or two lakes.
Salta City on revisiting is prettier than we thought. At the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montaña, we see an extraordinary display of the ‘mummified’ bodies of three children aged 7 to 15 from around 1490AD. In an Inca sacrificial ritual, these children of local community or tribal leaders are supposed to have been given the soporific chicha, then were stunned and buried [still alive] at the top of Llullallaico mountain, thus preserved at sub-zero temperature. They were controversially exhumed in the 1990s by archaeologists and put on display in Salta. Visited home of President Ururibu, an early colonist.
TO BE CONTINUED