Nothing says ‘back on the road’ more than a 21 hour bus journey. It’s a long way from Buenos Aires to Salta but after a short and sad farewell to our home for the past two months, we’re on our way.
Buses in Argentina are legendary amongst backpackers. Although they are expensive compared to other countries in South America, they are by far the most luxurious. Ticket prices appear to be fixed between different companies, with exactly the same rates no matter who you travel with. There are several classes you can choose from, depending on the journey:
- Commune Air – basic bus, cheap and cheerful, not recommended for long travel
- Semi-cama – better than most buses back in the UK, long trips will come with food and drink, movies, and sometimes even a game of bingo (Andesmar only)
- Cama or Executivo – the seats in these buses recline to make sleeping almost comfortable, buses usually come with a hot meal, wine and maybe even a glass of whiskey or champagne before bedtime – really!
- Cama VIP/1st Class –think business class airplane seats (flatbed); steaks, wine and personal movies are standard
We got used to using the cheapest buses for short journeys, semi-cama for daytime trips, cama for overnight travel. For this, our longest bus trip to date, we chose a company called Flecha. Unfortunately this turned out to be a bad choice. Although the seats were up to scratch, the rest was not so great. We picked Flecha as the lunchtime arrival time in Salta suited us, however there was no food on board and the DVD skipped and restarted the whole night. We stopped at midnight at a roadside café for a dodgy pizza and beer which we had to pay for. No steaks and free vino. Lesson learnt and duly shouted about on the internet. Move on. If you’re interested, the best buses in Argentina we think are Andesmar, Cata and Via Bariloche.
Salta is more like Bolivia than Argentina, which we loved. Although it’s a reasonable sized city it has a small town attitude and, at last, sunshine. It sits at the foothills of the Andes at around 1900m high, and in August days are hot and nights freezing. Settling into our hostel, a short walk from the town square, with our temporary backpacker friend, we quickly discover there is loads to do here and the local beer is not half bad either.
Leah and I agreed early on we were never going to hunt down each and every museum in every town we visited as truthfully, most museums bore us to tears. We think religion got in the way of previous generations’ chances to make cool stuff and paint great paintings of what went on at that time. Instead you get endless corridors of solid gold crosses with a guy nailed to them and almost identical religious pictures with a slight local twist. Yawn.
So instead, for something a bit more exciting to show Alexis, we book a couple of tours for the next two days, then find a nice parrilla, eat meat and pass out.
Tour 1 – Cafayate
Now, it may seem like all we do is eat meat and drink wine and beer. This is partially true, I’m not going to try and hide it. Other times we are doing lots of backpacker-type-exciting-stuff. Today we are going on a tour to a local town called Cafayate, with a small tour of some wineries along the way. Only a few miles out of Salta and the landscape changes to vast valleys and desert landscapes, already the 6:30am start seems worth it. Plate tectonics have carved up this once sea bed into a multi-coloured patchwork of rock formations. Camera at the ready, we jump out of the minivan at various points to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the surroundings. It’s a stunning morning; we really didn’t expect to see stuff like this.
Cafayate is a prolific wine region; it’s small but pumps out a whole lot of plonk. The local speciality is Torrontes – I don’t generally like white wine but this stuff is drinkable – if you see it on your shelf in Tesco, give it a shot. Apparently the hot days and cold nights make the grape skins thicker, which gives a more intense flavour and also a higher alcohol content than the stuff you get in Europe! We spend about an hour around some wineries sampling different wines followed by some time in town having lunch and exploring the main plaza.
On the way back to Salta we stop off again at some more natural formations cut from ancient waterfalls, which were created when the ocean receded, including a natural amphitheatre carved into the side of the mountains.
Tour 2 – Salinas Grandes
We have already been to the salt flats in Bolivia, but as we we’re here with our friend Alexis it seems a great idea to head to the Argentinian equivalent for another look, this time with blue skies and another attempt to take some novelty photos. Heading out to the flats means we have to climb over 4300 metres in a little over 30km, which is a little punishing to say the least, although the coca leaves help a little with nausea and the headaches.
The journey is stunning. Starting in desert planes, we quickly drive into winding roads through pine forests. In a few minutes we’re in proper jungle, before descending again into desert. In the two hours it takes us to get to the salt flats we’ve ticked off about four different environments. We’re all either suffering from headaches or are feeling a little dizzy; others on the tour are revisiting their breakfast. Overall, it’s a great day, the scenery being some of the best we have seen around this area and a real bargain for what we paid.
Both the tours we went on were booked through the hostel – in our experience you usually get a good rate and they’re rarely disappointing – the last thing a hostel wants is some unhappy campers coming back at the end of the day moaning about a rubbish tour.
Later, it’s BBQ night at the hostel (Salta Por Siempre if you’re interested). We stuff ourselves with Argie cow, chat to fellow carnivores and pass out (again).
The next day is the last with our temporary backpacker, and after sorting out buses (back to Buenos Aires for Alexis and onward into Chile for us) we decide on one last night out, and as per usual (this being Argentina)the bars are empty until 2am, about the same time we decide to head home.
Salta is a great little town, and like I’ve already said, more Bolivian than Argentinean, which is a good thing. White washed and low rise buildings, with a population far more indigenous than the very European-looking Buenos Aires, local dishes are starting to appear again, including locro, an Andean meat and corn stew. We’re already starting to feel like we’re travelling again.
It’s a real shame to say goodbye to Alexis as it was my brother. I’d love to have everybody join us for the whole trip, but they sensibly have jobs and stuff (bah!), although I’m thinking I might be able to convince some people to visit us in Mexico when we get there next year.
Luckily, the weather’s been great the last few days so the roads over the Andes to Chile are now reopen (they were closed due to snow when we arrived) and we head off on another overnight journey for San Pedro in the middle of the Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth.