The Biddington's Bentley Takes to the Road

Tucumán, Salta & Cafayate
Geography, Anthropology & Art

Editor's Note: Jake Biddington takes over for this South American installment of The Bentley--originally published in September 2006. His tour takes a circular route: Tucumán, Salta, Cafayate, Tucumán. Updated August 2007.

Salteño gauchos with red ponchosThe northwestern provinces of Salta, Tucumán and Jujuy are to Argentina what the Four Corners region of the Southwest is to the US: a sun-washed zone of remarkable geography and indigenous cultures. Because this region of the Andean Pre-Cordillera was near to the rich mineral deposits in Bolivia, much of Argentina's early history occurred here. On July 9, Independence Day, Argentineans eat locro, the traditional beef stew from Tucumán.

The provincial capital, San Miguel de Tucumán is a tough, working-class town adjacent to thousands of acres of sugar cane fields and citrus groves. Over the past decade, Tucumán's local economy has ridden a merciless roller coaster driven by closing sugar plants and EU fruit import restrictions. At present, Brazil's transforming of sugar cane into fuel has supported a worldwide increase in sugar prices; so, that portion of the local agricultural economy is once again on the rise. Perhaps due the special soils in the region, Tucumán sugar tastes more cleanly sweet than other sugars. Having enjoyed its lush flavor as simple syrup for preserved fruits or just in a cup of coffee, my wishlist of gourmet products now includes top grade Tucumán sugar.

Salteño Horseman in Traditional Attire

Salta La Linda

In this region of northern Argentina, the distances are vast, and the roads mountainous and twisting. The drive from industrial Tucumán through high passes and agricultural valleys to the lovely Spanish colonial city of Salta takes nearly 4 hours.

Eolo Pons landscape painting Potosi During the 17th century, Potosí (in present day Bolivia) was the largest city in the western hemisphere. As the Spanish extracted silver from the rich Potosí mines, Salta grew into a thriving city by selling pack animals and provisions to the miners.

"In the 1950's, a train ran all the way from Buenos Aires up to the Bolivian border. At the international crossing, the passenger cars would be uncoupled then reconnected to a Bolivian engine.

I was told that there are 3000 kilometers of mine tunnels beneath Potosi. There is concern that another earthquake or even a severe storm might collapse the city. "--Eolo Pons

"Dolores" (Potosí)
Eolo Pons, 1982

While the strong economic ties to Bolivia no longer exist, the quality of Salteño equine stock and horsemen, (striking in their broad black hats and red capes riding horses bedecked with great winged chaps), continues to be recognized throughout South America. Despite several earthquakes, many Spanish colonial buildings still grace the city referred to as lovely Salta, "Salta la linda".

Folk Music & Dance in Salta

To imagine contemporary Salta without its traditional music and dance would be impossible. At night, the streets teem with tourists, most of whom hail from within Argentina. The streets resound with a cacophony of tunes wafting from competing peñas--the specific name for restaurants/clubs featuring folk music. In Salta, these spots vary from extremely touristy ones with set "shows", to more typical peñas where the musical groups (comprised of locals with day jobs) change every hour or so. In these casual venues, many of the clients already know the forms, but anyone who is willing to learn a few steps can dance a sprightly chacarera or a twirl a suggestive hanky in a romantic zamba.

Anthropology in Salta

Located on Plaza 9 de Julio, the archeology museum Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña chronicles the 1999 discovery of the mummified bodies of three children at the summit of the Llullaillaco volcano, 6700 meters above sea level. The museum houses many of the 500-year-old artifacts excavated from this sacrificial Incan site as well as showing photos and films of the expedition. (The mummies themselves are kept in a temperature-controlled environment at the Catholic University in Salta.) The museum presentations address, with some sensitivity, the question of whether unearthing and transporting these poignant remains from the holy site was a proper activity for the good of humankind, or simply a sacrilege by the scientific community against the indigenous people who still inhabit the region.

Contemporary Art in Salta

In August 2007, Museum of Contemporary Art located at Zuviria 90 on Plaza 9 de Julio hosted the IV Salon of the Province of Salta. Seven well-credentialed jurors from across Argentina narrowed down the 386 painting submissions to 124 final selections. Their conscientious efforts resulted in a painting show with a broad stylistic range of work representing both the regional and national art scenes.

Daytrips & Excursions

Since so much of what is interesting in the Argentine Pre-Cordillera and Puna involves its geography and early inhabitants, excursions and day trips form an essential part of travel in this region. Whether in bus, van or rover, these guided trips make an excellent first introduction to the region. Because of the distances covered, most of these trips begin in the chill of early morning. Because of the high altitude, daytime temperatures are usually moderate, but the sun is intense--even in wintertime, so layers of clothing and sunblock are indispensable. The more intrepid traveler seeking local color might also try using the local bus system where fares are extremely low and the pace extremely slow.

Quebrada de Cafayate


Heading southwest on Rt. 68, the road from Salta toward Cafayate crosses through several small, meticulously clean towns each of which has a specific reason for existing: e.g. growing nuts or housing vineyard workers. About 80 kilometers from Salta, the road begins to enter the Quebrada de Cafayate a spectacular multi-colored rock canyon with gorges and hollows that bring to mind the wind-sculpted formations in southern Utah.

Quebrada de Cafayate

Valle de Cafayate Vineyards

Leaving the rugged canyon, the terrain becomes flatter and, in a surprising transition, vineyards begin to appear. This upper portion of the extensive Calchaqui Valley is home to wines designated with the appellation "Valle de Cafayate". The zone stretches for some distance both north and south of the town of Cafayate. With its unspoiled landscape organized by vineyards, Cafayate brings to mind the Sonoma or Napa Valley of many years ago.

In the past, production consisted primarily of white wines from the torrontes grape. A charming wine for drinking young, torrontes offers a fresh burst of fruit on the nose but is dry on the palate. To meet increasing demands from domestic and export markets for red wines, growers are producing fewer torrontes wines; even table grapes in the region have been uprooted and replaced by malbec and cabernet vines. (Since Argentina imports very little food, it is nearly impossible to buy table grapes in Buenos Aires.) As in Napa or Sonoma, the Cafayate wineries welcome visitors with free tours and tastings. The wineries are usually located on the valley floor, so bicycles provide an amusing way of exploring the vineyards.

Nanni, one of the region's oldest producers, has a winery in the town of Cafayate itself. The small-production Nanni wines are exceptional in being entirely organic. The grapes are grown several kilometers to the west of Cafayate where the rainfall is low enough for grapes to grow without the usual problem with mold. During the winemaking process, the Nanny vintners clarify their wines the old fashioned French way: using egg whites. Just south of Cafayate, the large Bodega Etchart turns out tasty, amazingly inexpensive wines (sold in Argentine stores for under $2US) using standard vinification methods.

Cafayate Shopping & Nightlife

The crafts markets in the small, serene town of Cafayate offers well-made, local items: Hand-woven shawls, vests and scarves made from sheep, or sumptuous llama, wool are among the loveliest clothing items. Baskets woven from tall grasses and picture frames made from cactus are also typical of the region. On the more elegant end of spectrum, "alpaca" (a silver-colored metal alloy of nickel, zinc and copper) is used in combination with horn to make pitchers, candlesticks and grand-scale trays evocative of Spanish colonial times.

Employing the traditional weaving skills and fine wools of the area, artist Miguel Nanni creates tapestries with narratives of the life of the region. Custom dying the wools, the artist is able to produce subtle tonal gradations. His weavers are so skillful that there is no sense of the design having been restricted by the grid of the loom, rather they seem to have been drawn in a fine, free hand.

By night, especially on the weekends, Cafayate's restaurants and peñas come to life. Musicians arrive late-ish and begin playing more or less when they want; the playing continues as long as they have an interested audience--which can make the time between the last guitar chords and the first bells for mass a short interval.

The Quilmes Ruins

Stretching from Bolivia to Patagonia, Route 40 through Cafayate is Argentina's longest road. Going south from Cafayate it leads to an important historical site: the ruins of Quilmes.

The indigenous inhabitants of 17th century Quilmes were a thriving people who had used their own knowledge of animal husbandry and farming and also adapted Incan crops to support a comfortable livelihood at the southern end of the Calchaqui Valley. (The Incas were proficient in this sort of cultural conquest.) The Spanish came to the valley greedy for the gold the expected to find there. The gold turned out to be fools' gold--contemporary artisans now us it to burnish earthenware vases. So the Spanish decided to harvest another crop. When they attempted to subjugate the Quilmes tribe for slaves, a long, vicious battle ensued. Eventually, the Quilmes defenses fell. For the infuriated Spanish conquistadores, victory was insufficient. They marched the starving Quilmes survivors 1500 miles--their own "Trail of Tears"--from the high Andes to the swampy outskirts of Buenos Aires where the tribe was essentially extinguished.

In all respects, the Spanish tried to bury Quilmes; the ruins were not unearthed until the late 18th century. And it was only in the 1970's that the unusual stone terraced site began to be restored.

Hector Cruz Sculpture

Museo Pachamama

Just 18 kilometers from the Quilmes ruins toward Amaicha del Valle, the Museo Pachamama rises as an unexpected presence at the roadside. The museum and art gallery dedicated to the important mother-earth deity is entirely the vision of self-taught artist Héctor Cruz. The artist employed 70 workers for 6 years to construct this large courtyard, museum and gallery complex in black and white native stones. Such stonework is typical of this micro-region, still Cruz' use of the stone is so organic and consistent that it is hard to consider him an "outsider" artist. Rather, it seems that this shepherds son is a cultivated artist who deeply understands the region's traditional imagery and employs it to make an environment of sculpture and tapestry that effectively reflects his contemporary worldview and his cultural heritage.
Héctor Cruz Sculpture
Courtyard of His Museo Pachamama

The roughly paved road over the summit followed by the descent from the Valle de Tafi down to the plain west of Tucumán presents so winding a climb and precipitous a drop that many local drivers refuse to make the trip. The canyon road, through a misty rain forest, is reminiscent of the drive from Flagstaff to Sedona, Arizona via Oak Creek Canyon--but much longer and much steeper. Built in the 1940's, this switchback road was the first route to connect the town of Valle de Tafi directly to the city of Tucumán and to the great pampas of Argentina.

Tucumán, Salta and Cafayate Museum, Restaurant, Shopping & Hotel Suggestions:

Museo de Bellas Artes Timoteo Navarro--This small museum houses works by 19th & 20th century Tucumán artists, Argentine masters and hosts changing contemporary shows. The trick is finding it open. 9 de Julio, Centro, Tucumán. 0381 4223700
Ajwenchey Artesanias--shop for locally made small leather goods, earrings and other artisan items run by young women with much knowledge on the objects they sell. Laprida 137, Tucumán.
Servando Restaurante--Tucumán seems an unlikely spot for an ambitious autor-chef, but this Spanish-trained owner returned to his native city with major league talents and skills. The quality dining ranges from locally based favorites to fish flown in fresh. Rivadavia 885, Barrio Norte, Tucumán. Phone: 0381 4312630
Criolla Resto Arte--dinner service is paused briefly each evening while the owner makes a short presentation about the artworks (and history) of the region. Laprida 181, Tucumán.
Tucumán still seems to breed idealists.

Hotel Solar de la Plaza--an elegant, medium size hotel in a colonial residence on a quiet plaza. Moderately expensive. Juan Leguizamón 669, Salta.
Leguizamon Museo de Antropoligía--with exhibits tools, pots and ceramics from the immediate Andean region. Organized chronologically beginning in 11,000 BCE and ending with the Spanish invasion in 1536 CE. Located behind the monument to General Güemes, Salta.
Casa de Arias Rengel Museo de Bellas Artes--in a colonial house, this small museum exhibits works by local artists (both historic and contemporary) as well as traveling shows from around Argentina. Florida 20, Salta.
Mercado Artesanal--on the western edge of the city, a 19th century Jesuit monastery has been converted into a marketplace for quality artisan items shown by many, many vendors. San Martin 2555, Salta.

Lodging in Cafayate varies from the charming hotels in the town, to more secluded rooms in local wineries.

Hotel Killa--Each uniquely beautiful room in this intimate, expertly managed hotel is furnished with hand-made items and artworks by local artists and craftspeople. In 2007, new guest rooms and a handsome breakfast room were added, all stunningly designed using stones, woods and art from the region. A truly delightful place to stay. Colón 47, Cafayate.

Tourism notes for the region: US citizens are warmly welcomed here, however, residents of this Andean region are profoundly concerned about climate change; so, visitors should be prepared to respond to questions--polite, but insistent--regarding US policies on the environment. Because of neighboring border, authorities patrol northern Argentine roads to control drug trafficking. Visitors need to be aware that they might be stopped, their passports examined and luggage searched.

Archived Bentley Destinations South America:
Restaurant Guide to Buenos Aires--2007
Tigre, Argentina--Day Trip from Buenos Aires
San Antonio de Areco, Argentina--Weekend Trip from Buenos Aires
Touring Santiago & Valparaiso, Chile
Colonia, Uruguay--Weekend Trip from Buenos Aires
Montevideo, Uruguay
Buenos Aires--Basic Guide

Other Archived Bentley Destinations:
New Haven, Connecticut
Visiting New York City 2006
Cultural Touring along Spain's Costa del Sol
Touring in Lisbon
Touring in Milan
Touring in Antwerp
Touring in Barcelona
I-80 Park City to New York City
Tourism New York City 2003 Update
Tourism New York City 2002
Hudson, New York (Columbia County)
Tourism Rome 2002 Update
Hartford & Wilton, Connecticut
San Francisco Jackson Square
New Hampshire Route 1A
Morris County, New Jersey


Here at BIDDINGTON'S, our work is also our play. When we're not exhibiting and discussing art online, we're learning about wonderful objects in shops, at great shows and in museums all over the world. In this article, Jake Biddington offers tourist information and descriptions of this interesting destination.

Contact Jake Biddington about His Travels

COPYRIGHT: Images and information within are Copyright Biddington's, Inc.--except where preceded by individual copyrights of the artists.
Downloading or printing for online or print reproduction of any materials without specific written permission from Biddington's, Inc. is prohibited.