My Top 5 Experiences in Argentina’s Salta Province

From an epic bungee jump to an eerie ancient ritual, nomad Máté shares the parts of the Northwest that impressed him the most.

Photo © Máté Földi

The Food – But Mainly the Llama Meat

For a foodie like me, with the Georgian word shemometchama – “I wasn’t hungry but I accidentally ate the whole thing anyway and it was delicious” (yes, that’s all in one word) – tattooed on his hand, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Before landing in Salta, I’m not sure if I had ever tried quinoa, or knew what it was for that matter, dismissing it as some crazy, expensive, green leafy s*** that vegans ate. In Northwest Argentina, there’s an absolute abundance of it, and it turns out that it’s quite tasty and not scary, green, or leafy.

The humitas (corn dough and fresh corn with sautéed onions, regional spices and usually – though not always – diced goat cheese) and tamales (steamed corn flour wrapped in corn husks, and filled with shredded boiled lamb or pork for salteños, or minced meat, corn and red peppers for jujeños) were also a real treat, as they exposed me to a whole new range of textures and flavors.

But the crown jewel has to be llama. There’s something inexorably exciting about trying a new kind of meat, and I was giddy as I waited for my first order to arrive on my second day up North. Given the appearance of the animal itself, I suppose there’s little surprise that it should also taste like the lovechild of beef and lamb – or, as one article I read put it, a llama’s “flavor is more rustic and earthier than beef”.

Argentinian beef and the country’s legendary asado may indeed be in a league of its own, but, if you ever find yourself in and around the Andes where camelids reign supreme, you’d be a fool not to opt for this tasty alternative.

Llama crossing. Photo credit: Máté Földi

Padre Chifri and Alfarcito

Alfarcito is a tiny hamlet in Salta Province, at an altitude of 9,187ft (2,800m). It’s in the middle of nowhere and isn’t much to look at. As we pulled up to this settlement in an otherwise desolate, cacti-filled, rocky mountain wilderness, I struggled to fathom how anything – never mind anyone – could live here. I initially dismissed our stop as a shameless bit of poverty tourism, but I’m glad I gave our guide the benefit of the doubt and listened to what he had to say, because the story of Alfarcito is truly inspirational.

A decade ago, the local community was teetering on the abyss of extinction as inhabitants emigrated en masse to nearby cities and towns in search of a better life. Then came Padre Chifri, a priest with a plan to save them by creating the necessary conditions and opportunities for locals to stay there. However, before he could even get to work, Chifri was paralyzed from the waist down in a freak paragliding accident.

While he may have lost the use of his legs, his unwavering determination remained. Padre Chifi overcame his personal trauma to deliver on his promise. Under his direction, a pipeline system was set up to bring down water from the mountains, transforming Alfarcito into an integrated welfare center for the people of the surrounding Quebrada del Toro. Today, the hamlet boasts a primary and high school along with a medical center, and encourages the socio-economic development of the region by providing local pupils with grants and scholarships and promoting the technical, artisan, and tourism training of the local communities.

For someone used to the abundance and fast pace of city life, this pitstop in a random corner of the Argentinian Andes left a lasting impression. It proved to be a heartwarming story of the good human beings are capable of when they combine forces. I can only hope that it continues to be, in the words of the late Padre Chifri, “a watershed that is a source of life, a source of good.”

Bungee Jumping at Lago Cabra Corral

Sometimes, you crave a hit of adrenaline.

Named for its former purpose, goat paddocks, the manmade Lago Cabra Corral is the place into which all the rivers in the Calchaquí Valley region flow. An hour or so outside of Salta, this enormous lake is the perfect getaway from city life, offering a variety of adventure and leisure sports.

At just 98ft (30m), what the bungee jump lacks in height, it makes up for in pure thrill. That feeling of weightlessness and terror as I fell into the abyss was amplified by a shot of fear as I began to second-guess the local safety standards, swearing that I had a more secure harness that time I jumped in Europe.

The lake’s shimmering blue-green waters and forested banks offer a serene and calming backdrop to the sheer absurdity of bungee jumping. After all, if you’re set on needlessly terrorizing your body and mind by jumping off a bridge for fun, you ought to at least do it somewhere beautiful. Lago Cabra Corral is just the place to do it – there's even a restaurant right across the road where you can restore your heart rate with a nice, cold beer.

A high point (literally) of the trip, somewhere in Jujuy Province. Photo credit: Máté Földi

The Great Salt Flats

Picture a stupid gringo on the verge of tears as he tries to take a selfie, squinting against the blinding reflections off the flats, having left his sunglasses on the other side of the world fearing that they’d get snatched off his face.

Hi! Cue a moment of introspection.

Las Salinas Grandes is a true marvel, an almost extraterrestrial and completely surreal experience. Standing there, 10,827ft (3,300m) above sea level, surrounded by a sea of white, nestled between the imposing Andean peaks, it’s already hard to breathe at this altitude. But this…this is simply breathtaking.

Las Salinas Grandes. Photo credit: Máté Földi

Museo de Arquelogia de Alta Montana de Salta (MAAM)

I never did attend a peña (folk music venue), so the awe, shock, and horror that was the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology was the most worthwhile part of the city of Salta for me. Discovered in 1999 by archaeologist Johan Reinhard atop the 22,100ft (6,723m) Llullaillaco volcano, the frozen, mummified bodies of three Incan children are the museum’s star attraction.

Travel exposes us to the beauties and horrors of the many cultures of humanity, and while it’s not my place nor intention to philosophize the ethics of Inca culture, it’s safe to say that this exhibit offers profound insight into the human condition and the ways in which we engage, through belief and practice, with the supernatural.

The children, ranging from six to 15 years old, were the objects of a capacocha ritual: human sacrifices buried alive for the glory of the empire, among the highest honors in Inca culture. While it was, admittedly, a haunting experience for someone like me with little to no knowledge of Inca history (unless binge-watching The Emperor’s New Groove counts), it was also a useful lesson on the traditions of an ancient civilization. It’s a shame that the museum doesn’t allow photography — it would have been much more educational had I not been stopped by a no-nonsense security guard from taking photos of the explanatory museum texts for further study.

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