Jan, 2016: Unlike the european sophistication of Buenos Aires or Mendoza, the far northern region of Argentina is more akin to the remote Andean reaches of Bolivia where pulsating metropolises and lush vineyards are replaced by tiny, mud brick villages and plunging desert mountain ranges. Ancient Incan paths criss cross cactus covered hillsides and indigenous goat herders push their flocks across near vertical, wind swept slopes. It’s breathtaking and peaceful and for us was almost completely devoid of western travellers. We loved it.
From Salta we took the road north to the picturesque little village of Tilcara which is surrounded by blazing red hills and filled with a simple, friendly vibe which we hadn’t really experienced in the rest of Argentina. We had our first delicious experience with eating llama and enjoyed a few nights of strolling around the buzzing central square filled with students on their university break from Salta. Usually I wouldn’t consider the andean areas of south america to be culinary hot spots but the awesome meal we had at a cosy little garden restaurant called El Patio changed that overnight. A fairly nondescript street frontage gave way to a lovely candle lit garden where a friendly waitress sorted us out with seared chunks of llama fillet served with little roasted andean potatoes all with a delicate mushroom based sauce. Our waitress nailed it with her second choice of budin de broccoli which came as a kind of twice baked broccoli soufflé with grilled vegetables. I’m probably not doing either dish justice but in the gentle candle light with a few carafes of robust yet well balanced house red, we were highly satisfied.
The hills of Iruya
From Tilcara we pushed further north until our diesel belching bus swung suddenly off the highway. We plunged onto a corrugated dirt road which climbed further into the mountains and then down suddenly to a town which is literally at the end of the road. Iruya is a tiny little place filled with steep, cobblestone streets, little old ladies selling delicious empanadas and humitas (delicious meat and corn flour parcels baked in corn husks) and crispy mountain air. Once again we were surprised by some delicious food in the form of hearty goat stews and crispy llama milanesas not to mention big chunks of buttery zucchini pies from a little family run cafeteria. We stayed for nearly a week with a beautiful old couple who had created some very basic but comfy enough guest rooms in their home. Their little terrace/courtyard provided cracking views of the surrounding mountains and the perfect spot for a sunset churrasco on Australia day.
One afternoon we hiked out the other side of town from the road and continued up valley to the even smaller village of San Isidro where the only access is by foot or donkey and where time seems to have stopped at least 300 years ago. We lay in the sun in what seemed to be the town square / football field and pondered the contrast in pace of life between such a place and our home in Brixton, London. We were grateful that the two places couldn’t have been more different.
The Serrania de Hornocal
South of Iruya and 45 minutes drive east of the town of Humahuaca is the stunning Serrania de Hornocal or Mountains of 14 Colours. We had stopped in at Humahuaca to break up the journey back to Salta but also because we had heard about this beautiful freak of nature where exposed limestone formations extend across the mountain range to create a horizon wide, zig-zagging layer cake of 14 earthy colours. While we nearly froze in the back of the truck on the way out there, and struggled to catch our breath in the thin mountain air, the views were totally worth it. At around 4000m and on an afternoon where the sun came and went behind a cover of light cloud, it was magic to sit on the steep hillside and watch the colour of the mountains change back and forth. As usual photos didn’t really do nature’s majesty justice, so we just sat in silence and enjoyed taking it all in.
Back to Salta
After nearly a week in the beautiful mountains of northern Argentina we returned to Salta. While we loved strolling the beautiful streets of the old colonial city and enjoyed taking time out for an espresso on the Plaza 9 de Julio, for me the highlight came on our final afternoon when we headed to Jovi Dos for one of the best steaks of my life. Packed with locals having Sunday lunch, we waited a while for a table but were then taken into the main dining room where we had the great pleasure of being looked after by one of those increasingly rare beasts (at least in Australia anyway), the elderly, career waiter. This legend had attitude but also took care to ensure that we ordered well and felt well and truly at home. The result was that I ordered the most glorious 450gm, medium rare picaña (rump cap), Fi had an equally glorious lemon roasted chicken, our compadre Amanda had a medium fillet steak and we washed the lot down with plenty of house red served up in a random penguin shaped carafe. Up until that point the much talked about Argentinean beef had failed to impress but those 450gm of perfectly cooked, meaty deliciousness more than made up for it. It was so juicy, so perfectly salty and oh so tasty that even now, nearly a year later I can almost taste it. It was the perfect end to our time in Argentina.
Northern Argentina travel and feasting tips:
- Getting there and away: If you’re in that part of the world, the bus trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile across the border to Salta, Argentina (or even just to the cross-roads town of Purmamarca) is SO worth it. A lonely paved road winds it’s way up through flamingo flecked salt flats of the Chilean altiplano, across an infuriatingly slow border crossing and then back down through soaring mountain passes towards Salta. It’s a stunning 8-12 hour journey depending on breakdowns and the slowness of the border crossing but without doubt it is one of the most breathtaking road trips we have ever been on. We potentially wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much in winter given the altitudes and wind swept plains, but other than that it was truly epic.
- In Tilcara, we loved our meal at Restaurant El Patio (352 Gral Lavalle, Tilcara) and reckon it’s a great eye opener to some pretty imaginative and super tasty, northern Argentinean / andean inspired food.
- In Iruya we stayed in the lovely Alojiamento Velasquez run by the Velasquez family. There is no website, email address or phone number we could find but if you ask around when you get there, you’ll find it (~USD13/night/2 people in a 3 bed ‘dorm’).
- Despite the cold and shortness of breath the Serrania de Hornocal outside of Humahuaca were amazing. From the Plaza Dr. Ernesto Padilla, head two blocks north and then turn right and head four blocks east towards the river where you should find collectivos which will take you up there. Pack warm if you intend on riding in the back!
- Jovi Dos (601 Balcarce, Salta) was the sight of my unforgettable picaña in Salta. I really can’t recommend it strongly enough!
- The Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña on the western side of the Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta had some fascinating exhibits tracing the indigenous history of northern Argentina including some perfectly preserved mummies of young sacrifices. (77 Bartolomé Mitre, Salta)