Salta lies in a wide valley, in Argentina's far northwest. This is a land of transitions, shifting from crimson sandstone cliffs to golden pastureland. In some respects, the landscape is a metaphor for Salta's role as a bridge between its ancient and modern inhabitants. This region was part of the Inca Empire, and several local cultures pre-dated the Inca by more than five centuries. In the 16th century, Spanish interests reshaped the area into a key military and commercial link between coastal Argentina and El Gran Peru.
Likewise, Salta's historic center is a mélange of the indigenous and the European—the Andean and the Andalusian. Ornate churches and sidewalk cafes line the plazas, poncho-clad troubadours serenade from the street corners, and Wichi handcrafts fill the markets. A typical meal might consist of roasted potatoes, gaucho-style asado and locally-produced sherry.
One of Salta's newest attractions, the Andean Archeological Museum (MAAM), is located in a restored colonial building. Inside the museum's temperature-controlled cabinets rest the mummies of three Inca-era children, whose remains were recovered from Mount Llullaillaco in a 1999 expedition. Artifacts found with the mummies are also on display, as are Inca textiles and gold.
Another symbol of ancient and modern is Salta's Train to the Clouds, which offers a 15-hour roundtrip journey through Toro Canyon. The train operates between March and October, passing rustic settlements, sparkling salt flats and lonely peaks. En route, the train negotiates 29 bridges and 13 viaducts. The highlight is the spindly steel viaduct of La Polvorilla. Passengers gasp as their cars glide over the valley at 13,850 feet above sea level.
Southwest of Salta are the ochre-hued Calchaquí Valleys. Here, the pueblo of Cachi is centered around 16th-century church constructed of cactus wood and adobe. The town's archeological museum and handcraft market are well worth visiting, as are the local bakeries. An hour's drive south of Cachi, the resort town of Cafayate is surrounded by vineyards and orchards. Due to its altitude, sunny climate and dry air, Cafayate is ideal for wine production. Its signature wine is a fruity, aromatic white known at Torrontés, although fine Malbec and Merlot are also produced here.
Salta can be reached by air from Buenos Aires in 2½ hours. The climate is generally sunny year-round. The summer months (November through March) have highs above 90° and lows near 60°, although temperatures can vary significantly with altitude and cloud cover. The winter months (June through August) have highs near 70° and lows near 30°.
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