Salta, Argentina has all the makings of a charming city – so what was missing?

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Our trip to Salta was a case of inflated expectations. Most people we had met raved about Salta and for a long time we even considered finding an apartment and really soaking up the city for a month. We needed the rest. So much non-stop long-distance travel had been wearing us out and even though we loved Buenos Aires (population 3 million) and Rosario (population 1 million), we had built Salta up to be our ultimate relief and recovery.

Laid-back, colonial, small – the description made it sound like just the kind of city we love in Latin America. When we arrived after a 20-hour overnight bus from Puerto Iguazu, we had high expectations about this northern city.

salta iron signSalta ArgentinaOur posada (guesthouse), Casa de Borgoña, was only a few blocks from Salta’s central plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio. We put our bags down and headed straight there for a cup of coffee and some people watching.

salta alfajoresMany memories of Salta, in fact, involve spending time whiling away in cafes, working on our laptops and enjoying the sugary, delicious sweets served alongside our cafe con leche.

salta colonialAfter we caffeinated our way out of our foggy haze, we toured the streets of Salta, taking in the colonial architecture and its colorful neo-classical churches. But neither of us clicked with the city. We liked it enough, but there was no excitement for it the way we had unexpectedly fallen for  Rosario a couple weeks earlier.

salta streetSalta san francisco iglesiaAlthough half the size of Rosario and a fraction of Buenos Aires, somehow Salta felt really congested and overpopulated in parts of town. Especially during rush hour, cars stop and go at snail’s pace and pedestrians are forced to choke down fumes between sidestepping hordes of people in no hurry along the sidewalks. And yet, somehow, at other times of day, the city feels downright sleepy.

salta colonial architecturevintage car saltaIn our experience, you can easily pick up the vibe of a city by its street art and in Salta, even though we spent hours padding the pavement far and wide, we just didn’t come across much that had much of an edge to it at all.

salta street artSalta street art argentina

Salta Highlight 

We decided to take the 1,000 step challenge, and hiked up to the top of Cerro San Bernardo. This is one of the peaks surrounding the city and offers magnificent views out over town. Most tourists opt to take the cable car ride up the mountain, but we wanted to sweat out the challenge.

salta view and cable carAnd we weren’t the only ones! Salteños of all ages use the 1,000 steps as a workout track. Some people sprinted up, down and passed us again in the relatively quick time it took us to ascend to the top of the peak. Once at the top, there is space to continue your workout – like these spinning bikes used for a class right after we arrived. We opted to head back down on foot instead.

salta workout machinessalta viewSalta was the first place we noticed coca leaves becoming more present, and it only becomes legal in this province. It increases in popularity the further north in the Andes regions of South America you go. Any further south, and it’s frowned upon and technically illegal. Shops all around town sell coca leaves and tea, and people chew it everywhere. When we first got off the bus, we noticed the big piles of chewed up green leaves all down the taxi queue, as the drivers chew it up and spit it out between passengers. Coca leaves help reduce high altitude sickness, but is popular for its effects of enhanced energy and reduced hunger – to a far lesser degree than its white powdery cousin.

salta coca storeWe passed this street vendor every day who sells coca along with popular fruits like chimoya, peaches and papaya.  You might see Viagra on his sign as well, though he doesn’t not have any to sell you – Viagra no, Mani (peanuts) si.

salta fruit vendorThe reason for the colonial style of the city is that Salta was founded by Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. It was an important supply station for the Spanish silver mines in Bolivia, just a few hundred kilometers north of Salta. The vibe of the city, today, however, is a balance between Spanish colonial and the indigenous spirit of the Andes, visible in beautifully carved wooden doors, llama wool on sale in the markets and the abundance of native Andean foods like quinoa – which we ate in everything from Empanadas to salads and pasta.

salta monasterySalta ArgentinaAs in any colonial city, the Plaza de 9 Julio is anchored by a stunning cathedral on the north side, and lined by restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating to take in the grandeur of Salta’s most attractive square.

Salta plaza 9 de juliosalta cathedralA few times we snacked at restaurants on the plaza to take it all in, but we also made sure to explore far outside of the tourist center as well to get a true overall feeling of the city.

Overall, it was….fine. On paper, we should have loved everything about it according to our travel style and tastes. But restaurants here do not impress, especially for vegetarians, museums didn’t feel spectacular, and much of the charm we might have felt was numbed by the congestion and busy streets. We didn’t dislike it, but we weren’t impressed either. Was this a case of our expectations being too high?Salta ArgentinaBut we definitely recommend you visit the city – if only as a starting point to escape two different areas we fell over heels in love with: the charming village of Cafayate in the stunning wine country two hours south of Salta and the villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca a few hours to the north.

Argentina Quebrada de las conchas

Travel Notes on Salta:

The cable car up to Cerro Bernardo runs every day from 10am to 7pm and takes 8 minutes. It is AR$25 each way, or 45AR$ return trip. The 1,000 steps take about 45 minutes and are free.

Our favorite spots included Cafe Balcarce (Balcarce 1) and Cafe Teuco (corner of 20 De Febrero and Santiago Del Estero) for good coffee, alfajores and wi-fi and El Patio de Empanadas (corner of San Martin and Las Malvinas) and El Buen Gusto Empanadas (O’Higgins 575) for empanadas.

We stayed at Casa de Borgoña on España 916, which we recommend. Read our full Salta hotel review here.

Have you been to Salta? What were your impressions? Share in the comments below.

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Tags : Argentinasalta


  1. I know just what you mean. We neither loved nor hated Salta too: it was fine. We mostly used it as a place to get some work done and get ready for our four day tour of Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit. There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just not comparable to other Argentine cities (especially Buenos Aires). I think you captured its essence really well!
    Sam recently posted..Vegetarian Quito: La Cuchara de San Marcos

    1. Glad to hear we’re not the only ones who felt a bit ‘meh’ about Salta 🙂 Like you say- it’s fine 😀 For your purpose of getting some work done before going offline for a few days it’s definitely a good place though – good wi-fi and some nice cafes 🙂 And so much cheaper than Buenos Aires!

    1. I am an architecture geek, so I was definitely happy th the looks of Salta 🙂 Food-wise we were disappointed though, being vegetarians. The only vegetarian restaurant in town had closed down and we found the veggie options in most of the places we ate at pretty bland. Argentine food in general doesn’t do much for us, I have to admit – you can only eat so many empanadas before you get bored 😉

  2. We had high hopes for Buenos Aires considering all of the hype I have had over the many years as a Tango dancer but found it meh. I love cities and architecture. Not much to write home about.

    Interesting how different people feel about the cities. I expect we will really like Salta when we get there.
    Arlene recently posted..Highlights of Iguazu Falls

    1. Arlene – sorry to hear that Buenos Aires didn’t do much for you 🙁 I hope you’ll enjoy Salta, you’ll have to let us know how you like it! Maybe our paths will cross in Bolivia if that’s on your itinerary?

  3. Yes, sometimes high expectations don’t play well while travelling … it happened to me with Paris …

    Did you managed to visit neighboring Tucuman? The capital of that provicen has a colonial charm as well and is definitively less touristy, but pretty still. In the province, Museo de la Pachamama I consider it a must see!

    1. If you make it to Salta, you’ll have to let us know how you like it 🙂 I still think the region is lovely and it would be a shame not to go there on a trip to Argentina – we just had other places that we enjoyed more than Salta, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the city itself.

  4. High expectations have ruined a few places for me also, such as New York and Buenos Aires, I liked them but wasn’t overly impressed. I really enjoyed Salta but I think the main reason for that was because after travelling from Mexico City to Argentina overland (and sea) for over 6 months, Salta was the first really Cosmopolitan City that we had been to in a long time and was in stark contrast to Bolivia!

    1. Oh, two of our favorite cities in the world and you weren’t impressed with them 🙁 But different people have different tastes 🙂 I can see that coming from Bolivia, you saw Salta in a completely different light than we did. We can’t wait to see how we feel about Bolivia when we get there next week (we do have high expectations 😉 )

    1. Thanks, Rachel 🙂 Salta is actually very photogenic, but you are right that it might have been the wrong time for us to visit and we just didn’t have the right mindset at the time to fully appreciate it.

  5. From our travel blog in 2010…..happy days indeed. Salta and its surrounds were a definite hi- light. I want to go back.

    We arrived in Salta and immediately loved the place. The weather was much like Cordoba except it was a bit warmer and drier. Our accommodation at a B & B was perfect and the town was great to explore and easy too. The locals were really friendly and laid back, and demonstrated an overt dislike to their big city Argentinian relatives. A large proportion of the population was made up of the indigenous Argentinians and it definitely Gaucho country, traditional cowboys were everywhere. But that still doesn’t explain why electrical stores which sell white goods and TV´s also sell motorcycles, or why bedding stores supplement their income by selling legit C.D´s. and musical instruments. Strange.Salta is also the first city that we have encountered on this adventure that has a mid afternoon siesta. At 1.30pm all the stores shut down and don´t re-open until 5.00pm, much like they do in Spain

    Whilst the shops were closed we took the really old looking dodgy cable car up the local mountain which was approx 1500m up. When we bought the tickets the lady asked us did we want a return ticket. We both thought that was a bit weird, what did she know that we didn´t ??. Once inside the cable car Dom had a heart attack every time it slowed or moved from side to side. I remained cool and calm though on the inside I wasn´t feeling too confident either. But the views as we rose to the top were spectacular. At the top we found a path to walk back down, so that was why the lady asked if we wanted a return ticket. As it was so hot we took the rickety old cable car back down and breathed a sigh of relief when we made it back safely.

    The following day we hopped on a bus and visited a town approx 10km away named San Lorenzo. We were amazed at how the scenery and the temperature changed compared to Salta. We were now at the edge of the jungle, (pronounced ´younglay´ by our host at our B & B) and the temperature had dropped at least 5 degrees. I discovered the joys of eating a Lomito, which is a steak roll, stuffed with everything, and a healthy portion of fries for under $6.00 AUS. It was soooo good.

    We booked a 4WD day tour for Saturday, which turned into a 14 hour trip, but had a fantastic time. We undertook a round trip to visit the Salt Flats (Salinas Grandes), but on the way saw some of the most amazing scenery of the trip so far. We drove down sealed and dirt roads and the Sierra mountains surrounded us. The mountains changed shape and colour every couple of KM. On each side of the road the mountains were different shapes and colours to the opposing side. It so different from what we see in Australia. Then we reached an area which had cactuses just like you would expect to see in Texas or Arizona, and they were just everywhere, as to be expected really when the area was so dry and arid. We took heaps of photos along the way, but none of them can really do justice to how amazing the scenery actually was. En route to the Salt flats we had to pass through the Eastern Andes. We reached heights of over 4100m and then drove along a plateau at 3700m again surrounded by these towering Andes mountains either side of us. On the way we saw wild Llama´s, Vicuna´s, Donkeys, and we had to dodge the occasional stray cow, there was even a random cemetery in the middle of no-where.

    We eventually made it to the salt flats and they were huge, there was flat white salt for as far as the eye can see and this is in the middle of the Andes. The temperature was 40 degrees at this stage. On the way back we descended through clouds covering switchback roads like a fog, with just a thin metal barrier between us and certain death. At this point the temperature had plummeted 20 degrees. We eventually made it to Purmamaca and saw the famous rock with 7 colours, though because the weather was becoming dark and overcast we could only really see about 5 colours. Though it was still pretty impressive. We made it back to Salta by 9.30pm, only after our driver had successfully managed to navigate us through pouring rain and drunken Argentinians driving on the road.

    The following day it was pouring with rain. We had already booked our day trip to an Estancia (local ranch) for some horse riding and, of course, an the requisite Assado for lunch. We thought about cancelling but in the end, we bit the bullet and went anyway. A good decision in retrospect. On the way we picked up 2 other fellow intrepid travellers and made it to the Estancia which was located about 45 minutes out of Salta. It was run by 57 year old named Enrique, who is a third generation Gaucho. I knew I was going to like him when he introduced himself and said ,¨I hope you speak Spanish because my English is shit.¨

    He provided us with our leather chaps, and also what was described as water proof ponchos and caps to protect us from the rain, which at this point was practically pouring. I had a bit of a giggle looking at the first horse I saw because it had crazy looking eyes and looked the sort that was ready to buck it’s potential rider off. So guess who got him…….me. Not happy. But he was good apart from wanting to frequently stop and eat the grass, branches and anything else that looked remotely green. We had a guide who led us through the rain and along remote laneways, passing farms and children yelling out hello to us, he led us along dry river banks, into fields of crops (crazy eyes loved that) and around the general countryside. All in all we rode for 3 hours and by the time we finished, the water proof ponchos proved only to be semi waterproof as we were pretty much soaked. I was pretty sore too. But we all rode like professionals and it made up for the disastrous Peruvian experience.

    Enrique prepared a late lunch for us complete with the home made Argentinian red wine which was excellent. Dom was onto her second glass when she began calling Enrique the name of Rodriguez, yes the wine had taken effect. The meats he prepared were the best we have tasted on the entire trip, cooked just right, thick and juicy without a hint of fat, and he kept filling our plates and glasses too. He was a very funny man and loved interacting with us in broken English and us in our limited Spanish. He took us inside his house and displayed his collection of guns, pistols, knives, knuckle dusters, and even missiles. Evidentially all part of a collection passed down to him by his late father. We left about 4.30pm full of food and wine and really happy that we didn´t cancel.

    The following day we hopped on our coach back to B.A. This time it was a 20hr trip back, so we opted for the cama suite style of coach. This one provided us with leather seats that reclined fully back into a bed……..sooo comfortable and it guaranteed a good nights sleep. Plus we were served hot meals, champagne, wine and even whiskey if we wanted, we were even shown 4 decent movies for the trip back to the big city. Life is good.. welcome to life of first class coach travel.

    1. Hi Gary, thanks so much for sharing your experience in Salta! Glad to hear that you had such a good time there, and even made it to the Salt Flats!! They truly are one of the most stunning places we’ve seen in Argentina. P.S. I miss Argentina’s 1st class coach service!!

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