Our firsts impressions of Salta, the provincial capital in Argentina’s mountainous northwest, were far from what we were expecting. Rather than the quaint, colonial city we had in our minds – not really sure where that image came from – we encountered a manic, throbbing regional city choked with traffic. Despite its population of less than 1 million, the people traffic felt almost as intense as the fume-spewing vehicular traffic.
Not that it was like this everywhere we went, but once the craziness wore off, or became more tolerable, we began to appreciate the city for what it is.
The heart of the city is Plaza 9 de Julio, a block-sized space filled with mature trees and flanked by fruiting orange trees. Could anyone pick the oranges? Not sure, really, as we never saw anyone do it. It was tempting, though.
On the plazas peripheries are some of the city’s most stunning buildings, many of which have outdoor cafés and restaurants to enjoy. The most imposing building has to be La Catedral Basílica de Salta.
It’s pale pink and yellow Neo-Baroque exterior is enough to make you tilt your head and gawk in open-mouthed wonder, but step inside and it impresses even more.
The building we see today has only been around since 1858, a replacement of its less fortunate predecessor that was destroyed by earthquake a couple of years prior.
Equally impressive is Iglesia San Francisco, merely a couple of blocks from the cathedral. This church shared a similar unfortunate history, but rather than being destroyed by earthquake, it suffered a major fire in 1761, then another scorching 11 years later.
After several remodels and refurbishments, this is what we can see today. And that 53 metre bell tower – it’s the tallest in South America.
Find the church and its adjoining convent at Córdoba 33.
Other notable buildings around the plaza include the multi-arched Salta Cabildo & Museum – filled with items from pre-Inca times through to the days of Independence – and the Museum of Contemporary Art on the northeast corner.
Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña is located on the west side of the plaza in a stunning yellow and white arched building. It’s here that you can see one of the three sacrificed Incan children that were found frozen and mummified on Llullaillaco volcano.
Now here’s a place that I consider to be just as exciting as the cathedral and mummified Incan children. No, it wasn’t built in any memorable architectural style, but it does attract people that worship a very different entity.
Take a ten minute walk from Plaza 9 de Julio, along bus-choked Avenida San Martín, and you end up at a nondescript, mission-style patio which houses seven stalls that sell pretty much the same thing.
Step into the front door and you have to deal with being accosted by every stall holder. They shout, they shove menus into your hands and they all want your business.
The most diplomatic thing to do is order something from each one of them, but let’s be real, who’s going to bother with that?
Over the two times we visited the ‘patio’ we tried empanadas, humitas and tamales from Stall 3 and empanadas and queso con miel de caña from Stall 7. Order your snacks, sip on your beer or bottle of soft drink and await the delivery.
The empanada salteña is much smaller than those in, say, Buenos Aires. The pastry even seems lighter than any we’d tried outside of Salta. Though they can be ordered fried, which I think I prefer, the traditional way to have them is baked in a clay oven. We saw no clay ovens at El Patio de la Empanada, but we were far from disappointed with the salteñas we ate there.
Our favourites came from Stall 3 – namely the carne empanadas (10 pesos each) which are filled with meat, potato, a little onion and cumin. The empanada de queso (9 pesos) contains cheese, small cubes of potato and oregano. Can’t go wrong there.
Aside from empanadas, humita (50) is worth a try – a steamed maize leaf parcel filled with fresh ground corn mixed with cheese and seasonings. Or the tamales (25), which are similar, but contain spiced mince, potatoes and onion.
For something a little sweet and unique to the region, quesillo con miel de caña (55) is definitely worth a try. It’s basically a slice of firm cheese topped with honey, which is exactly like the golden syrup (sugarcane syrup) we get at home in Australia. Even better with walnuts.
El Patio de la Empanada, corner Esteco & San Martín
So, what else is there to do in Salta? Well, there’s always Cerro San Bernardo, a hill that rises almost 300 metres above the city. For some very nice views over the city, there are two ways of getting up there.
The first is walking up a series of stairs (about 1000 of them) that start behind the equestrian statue of Martín Miguel de Güemes and zigzagging through the scrub – which takes about 20 minutes and some significant panting. Or there’s the kilometre-long teleférico from Plaza Anfiteatro which costs 150 pesos for the round trip.
At the top of the cerro expect to see some nice manicured gardens, a cafe and some souvenir stalls.
It doesn’t take long to notice the abundance of fruit carts on the city streets. They’re well priced and each cart only seems to sell one or two types of fruit. The most eye-catching stalls have to be the ones that sell strawberries; all of which you can smell from half a block away. The sweet smell of these berries is hard to ignore.
Be warned, though, as the best berries are placed at the front of the arrangement. Look behind and they’re all bruised from the guys using a dustpan tray to roughly scoop them out when you make your purchase; something we learned after having to pay for 1 kg of strawberries that were virtually turned to mush by the seller.
Street food isn’t as abundant in Salta as I thought it would be. The most I saw was near the main street next to Mercado San Miguel, where you can find things like churros, jelly cups, popcorn, enormous crustless sandwiches, alfajores and wafer cones filled with luce de leche.
It may be more fast food than street food, but walk along pedestrianised Peatonal Alberdi near Plaza 9 de Julio and you notice several places selling panchos – DIY hotdogs where you load whatever topping you want over the sausage.
Mercado San Miguel.
A city’s market tends to be a hotspot for any tourist that drops into town, but the few times we visited Mercado San Miguel, we didn’t see a single gringo. This could be because the market isn’t right in the centre of town or that it’s geared more for the locals, not tourists.
That suits us just fine.
From the many ladies selling exotic herbs outside the market, to all the fresh produce, meats, breads, spices, regional sweets, artisan cheese and household goods inside; it’s a feast for the eyes and nose.
The historic market building takes up almost one city block and is best visited in the morning or around midday when you can take a seat at one of the few eateries in the centre of the building and tuck into a local meal.
Mercado San Miguel, Avenida San Martín 678; open Mon-Sat 7am-9pm
More often than not, some form of breakfast will be included in the rate of your hotel or hostel. If not, there are places in town that can take care of that for you. Although, your typical Argentine breakfast (or desayuno Argentino) consists of little more than a coffee, juice and couple of medialunas or crouton-like tostadas (toast).
No such thing as “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” in Argentina.
Head to Mónaco Café on Plaza 9 de Julio and you can have your desayuno Argentino for 36 pesos. The coffee is lip-burning hot, the juice is freshly squeezed and those sticky medialunas are warm and crispy.
Mónaco Café, España 512
If you’re anything like me, a piddly breakfast like that just doesn’t qualify. I need more food in my stomach otherwise I don’t function, so a top-up is mandatory.
Head around the corner to Pastelería y Panadería Covi and they can take care of top-ups. Each morning their window is filled with glorious pastries and empanadas, plus many breads inside. Their custard-topped medialunas are the best!
You can even drop in for a cheap lunch.
Pastelería y Panadería Covi, Zuviría 145
For a breakfast spread that’s more geared towards Western tastes, the 7am breakfast buffet at Bixi Coffee House is the place to be. Alternatively, you can order things like granola or eggs separately.
Aside from breakfast, simply sitting here with a coffee, hot chocolate or tea is perfectly fine; or you can go all out and order a sandwich, nachos, salad or pasta for lunch.
It’s a great place to escape the bustle outside, take advantage of the free wifi and settle into a comfy seat upstairs or down.
Bixi Coffee House, Balcarce 96
One cafe that’s definitely worth checking out can be found in a quieter, more residential part of town. Logros Café is clearly a favourite with the locals dropping in for breakfast, lunch or work meeting. They’re friendly, helpful and instantly make you feel at home; even if you don’t speak much Spanish or they know no English.
Not only is the espresso pretty good, but all of the breads, cakes and pastries you see on the counter are made in-house. What a treat to have a regular toasted sandwich!
These guys make the best ricotta cheesecake we’ve had for many years, so a visit to Logros wouldn’t be complete without trying it. Also, be sure to try their torta Rogel – Argentina’s version of the Napolean. Thin layers of pastry and dulce de leche, topped with meringue.
Logros Café, Vicente López 423
It may be a little touristy, but the best place to sit, have a drink and people watch in Salta is on Plaza 9 de Julio. There are plenty of options on all side of the plaza, so take your pick, take a seat and order something cold.
And why not drink the local brew? Salta Cerveza Rubia in the middle of Salta. It has to be done, as we did at Bar MAC which is at the entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Be prepared to be approached by shoe-shiners or others wanting to sell you something. It all comes with the experience.
Bar MAC, Zuviría 90
For a good dose of typical Argentine food, this is one place worth visiting. It’s a bit of a locals favourite and doesn’t really kick off until after 9 pm when friends and families with young kids drop by for dinner.
The pizza is a drawcard here, as is that flaming parrilla in the corner. No steaks for us, though, as we went for the delicious suprema pollo (grilled chicken, 67.9) and an enormous milanesa complete (185).
Admittedly the milanesa was sized for two people, but they wouldn’t do it just for one. That’s one 30 cm long milanesa topped with two fried eggs and french fries. Surprisingly, I ate 90% of it, sipped down with some house red.
Bread and several condiments are complimentary.
La Monumental, Avenida Entre Ríos 202
The main attraction here are the empanadas, which is evident in the signage and the paper placemats. Yes, we tried them and enjoyed them, but our favourites are still the ones from Stall 3 at Patio de la Empanada.
Aside from the empanadas salteñas, the menu at La Criollita is filled with regional dishes. Things like mondongo (tripe stew), pacu (local fish) and guaschalocro (vegetarian version of loco).
The sopa de gallina (80) is a deliciously brothy affair with vegetables, a big chunk of potato and tender piece of slow-cooked chicken. Seriously heart-warming, even on a warm Salteñan day.
This was my chance to sample the local Andean specialty of locro (110). This hearty stew of hominy, lima beans, bits of pork trotter, nubs of beef and a few rings of intestine completely blew me away with its deliciousness. Yes, two of the ingredients may sound a little scary, but if you can get past those, this could well be one of the best stews of your life.
In fact, any locro I had since this one paled in comparison.
From regional savouries to regional sweets – we couldn’t pass on these two. I tried the cheese and honey combo at Patio de la Empanada, so now I needed to try the higos (55) version. Same kind of thinly sliced firm cheese, yet this one is topped with preserved figs (higos) in syrup. Absolutely divine.
Our other dessert was the good old budín de pan (45) – a delicious bread pudding laced with quince, lemon zest, nuts and runny caramel.
La Criollita, Avenida Zuvindría 306
How we got to Salta from Buenos Aires.
There are buses from BA to Salta, but rather than spend a couple of days getting there, it was a plane for us.
Once at Salta Airport, grab a minibus transfer to the city centre for 50 pesos pp. There is a local bus that costs around 5 pesos, but you need a prepaid pass to use it. You can’t buy the prepaid passes at the airport.