I’ve lived in Argentina for quite a few years now, travel for a living, but am always surprised by how little of the country I still know. As the 8th largest country in the world, let’s just say that it’s huge. 20 hour bus trips seem to cover barely any ground on the map.
One region that had been on my radar for quite some time has been the Northwest of the country, namely the provinces of Salta and Jujuy which are tucked in next to Chile and Bolivia. Argentines are known for their strong, unapologetic opinions about pretty much everything, but there always seems to be one consensus – they all rave about the northwest with a poetic longing and a huge amount of national pride. From the gorgeously warm year-round weather, the wine (namely a yummy white varietal called Torrontes), the folkloric music, to the jagged picturesque rock faces that are colored in seven distinct rock colors, the region promised to hit all of the senses pretty hard. So when I was already going to be close by, finishing up a trip in Bolivia, and Destino Argentina, www.destinationargentina.com put me in contact with some of their clients in the area, it was all of the motivation I needed to check the place out for myself once and for all.
I began crossing the border from Villazon, Bolivia, and made my way directly to a tiny town called Yavi (population a whopping 271). I hear that at different times of the year it can get busier, but it was pretty much a ghost town. I fell in love with it. Founded in the 1600’s, it boasts a couple of hostels, a public campground, some indigenous rock paintings, a church that features notable sculptures of angels and some fabulous hiking along the coast of a river. That’s it. Not exactly a tourist hot spot, but the perfect place to shut off your cell phone (come to think of it, I don’t think there was even any signal), unwind, and slow time waaaay down.
From Yavi, I meandered (there is no doing anything fast in this part of the country) my way south to the well-known pueblo of Purmamarca, famous for a hike that offers jaw-dropping views of a mountain range naturally painted in seven hues, from smoky violets to raging reds to amber yellow. Gorgeous. I stayed at La Comarca, www.lacomarcahotel.com.ar, by far the best option that Purmamarca offers. Set up more as luxurious apartments than hotel rooms, some rooms have fireplaces and large balconies, while others have kitchenettes. An easy ten minute walk from the downtown center, don’t leave town before taking in a nightly peña (traditional folkloric music show), buy a bottle of Torrontes for the road, and slowly walk back to the hotel appreciating the fact that there are still places on earth where the air is so pure and clear that you can see the stars perfectly. Years of stress will melt off of you, and you may very well never want to leave.
From Purmamarca I backtracked a little to the north to Huacalera. Kind of like Yavi, there is not much in Huacalera – which, for me, is a plus. I’m not the type of person who likes tourist traps or shopping. Give me good access to nature and a handful of locals, (at least one who can cook well), and I am a happy girl. Huacalera has a few of things to offer – some decent hiking and a colorful historical cemetery. The other is a surprisingly magnificent hotel, the Hotel Huacalera. This place caught me completely off-guard with how good it was. I think that it offers literally the only accommodations in humble Huacalera, yet for only one choice, it is fabulous. Filled with artwork, color, and just the right amount of quirk, it is easy to feel right at home. Rooms are spacious, and the restaurant is top-notch – it is mandatory for meat eaters to at least sample the local llama meat (local as in running around the front of the hotel). Pair that with some empanadas, a dulce de leche flan, and a glass of Torrontes, and you have the perfect northwestern Argentina meal. Huacalera, while not requiring more than a night or two, is a great spot to stop and rest while traveling through the area, and is a good base to check out other more bustling pueblos nearby such as Tilcara.
While I had regretted falling asleep at an embarrassingly early hour the night before when I was supposed to go to a folkloric music show in a nearby town, the universe had something even better in mind for me. By chance, I heard that a few miles outside of Huacalera there was a large music festival that day to celebrate Pachamama (basically the Spanish term for Mother Earth). That happened to be music to the hippie-in-me’s ears. A sunny day (although they all see
med to be sunny days in this part of the country) spent listening to Argentine music legends Chango Spasuik and Louis Salinas? While munching on local street food? Perfection.
It was time to hit the big city of Salta, and I was not sure if I was ready. I usually avoid big cities like the plague if I can. The noise, the number of people, the lights at night getting in the way of my stargazing tendencies – it’s just not for me. But Salta is a huge expat hotspot of Argentina, along with Mendoza and Buenos Aires, and I wanted to see what the attraction was. I left enchanted. A colonial town dating back to 1535, it has big city amenities such as fabulous restaurants (I ate at www.macuisineresto.com.ar), museums (in the central plaza there is a decent contemporary art museum www.macsaltamuseo.org and a not-to-be-missed archeological museum www.maam.gob.ar where three of the world’s best maintained mummies are displayed. While having big city offerings, Salta still has not lost a small city feel. In one day I felt like I knew how to get around the entire city, could work the bus system, and found a few local street food vendors that I went back to time and time again. Even though I usually despise bigger cities, I could actually imagine living in Salta, drinking mate in the park and taking in local art shows or live folkloric music at night.
I stayed at Kkala hotel, which impressed me enough to nominate it for one of the coziest hotels in Argentina (one of my many jobs is working as a hotel reviewer). Ecclectic and artsy, it’s a fabulous boutique hotel owned by a woman who obviously loves art and architecture, and who has trained her staff well to make every guest feel at home. I also checked out Legado Mitico, which is more formal than Kkala. They also have a hotel in Buenos Aires. It is perfect for history/ culture lovers who want to learn more about Argentina. Each room is decorated in homage to either an important player in Argentine history, such as writer Juana Gorriti, or the rooms make reference to more cultural aspects such as the Wichi inidigenous tribe, or the gaucho tradition. Much more than just a standard hotel room, it’s a way to feel more connected to Argentina.
A day trip to the suburb San Lorenzo left me with deja-vu. It reminded me exactly of the privileged city I lived in in Michigan years ago, just that San Lorenzo has year-round sun and cheaper gelato. But for those expats looking for a gated community feel, with great private schools and Mercedes-driving soccer moms, San Lorenzo offers a standard of living much higher than other Salta suburbs, and has just enough Argentine quirk to make you feel as though you actually did leave the US. Prices don’t exactly come cheap – you would be hard pressed to find anything for less than a couple hundred grand.
No self-respecting editor of an expat magazine could possibly pass though the general area without checking out legendary Doug Casey’s expat oasis, La Estancia de Cafayate. I have to be honest – I went into the situation with huge preconceptions and expected to find the place almost cult-like, full of stuffy, rich American Doug Casey worshippers. On the contrary. I liked the place so much the first day that I changed my plans to be able to spend a second day there. Not just full of Americans, Estancias has attracted homeowners from all parts of the world, (30 countries are represented by homeowners), offering more diversity in one place than I have found in Argentina outside of Buenos Aires. Everything that the Estancia does, it does well. Mediocrity has no place here. Golf? They didn’t just put a course in, they put in a Bob Cupp course. The gym for the homeowners is better than the gym I paid close to $200 a month for in the US. There is a polo field, tennis courts, a spa that rivals anything at any luxury hotel, and access to a dune reserve for great hiking, or to just watch the sunlight change colors. Of the 360 lots originally available, 60% have already been sold. But my favorite part of the place is that they have pulled this off without any pretentiousness. I was completely relaxed and felt very accepted, no matter my income, profession, or thoughts on the US and the economy. This place has momentum. And its own wine. And a price tag lower than what I thought it would be (lots start at $150,000US). If standard of living is what you are looking for, this place in Cafayate, right on the wine trail, definitely deserves to be checked out.
In late 2013, Grace Hotel will be opening at the Estancias for guests who want to enjoy the region or who come to look into buying real estate. While it was not finished yet when I visited, it looks to be up to the same high standard as the Estancia – every detail seemed to be in line. This time, I stayed at Cafayate Wine Estates, which provides great accommodation in a vineyard setting. My favorite part was the location – it is a couple of miles outside of town, right on the wine route, and within walking distance to some great canyon hiking. They also have mountain bikes available for use – perfect for taking in nearby vineyard wine tastings. I also stayed a night at Patios de Cafayate, which has a more formal ambience and a colonial structure. It is connected to El Esteco vineyard, which hosts tastings and tours.
All in all, my trip to the Northwest completely sold me on the Northwest. With a dry weather like Arizona (but without the insupportable heat of the summers there), gorgeous nature on all sides, a heavy tradition of great wine, and a heartfelt celebration of its folkloric music and art, I get it now. I see why the Salta/Jujuy region has consistently attracted expats. While I am personally quite content where I am living in Patagonia, I am already planning my next visit to Salta next winter, where I hope to spend more time even closer to the border of Chile, checking out pueblos in the province of Catamarca.
Have you been to the North west of Argentina? Where did you go, what was your experience like? Could you live there? Why or why not? Leave a comment telling us your thoughts.