Salta – beyond the beaten track (Elle)

Despite earlier assurances to the contrary, it was very obvious that we weren’t going to be driving any further today. We’d had an elegant lunch at Estancia Colomé while waiting for the all clear, driven for an hour, and then… Where once there was road, there was river: vast, fast-flowing, mud-brown. So wild, it created its own surf. ‘This hasn’t happened in six years,’ said someone with a walkie-talkie. ‘We’ll tow you through in about an hour with a tractor.’ My partner and four other not-quite-departing Colomé guests looked sceptical, and well and truly adjacent to their comfort zone. An hour later half a tree floated past at high speed, as if towards a waterfall’s edge, and we drove back to the vineyard, defeated and largely stranded for the foreseeable. But I had a plan…

The journey around Salta in Argentina had, so far, been merely mildly adventurous. Harry at PlanBA – our tour operator, fixer and ‘man in Buenos Aires’ – had warned us that the drive might, on occasion, be hairy: some of the roads aren’t really roads, many come with vertiginous mountain aspects and unexpected rain can cause havoc. A few days earlier we’d been towed out of a ravine next to an alligator sanctuary. I’d never before been in a car whose wheels churned up mud across the windscreen rather than moving. I thought it only happened in films.

And yet, misadventures aside, Salta – which borders Bolivia to the north and Chile to the west – remained the most beautiful place I’d ever set eyes on. You have to forgive its capricious tantrums. I’d never experienced so many dramatically different, wild and alien landscapes in such a short period of time, while bedding down in serious luxury night after night. One minute there were lush, velvet-green Hebridean hills; a mile later, Wile E. Coyote red-earth desert with thousands of seven-foot cacti spread out as far as the eye could see, like some vast, static army in thorny camouflage.

After several days of 85 degree, blue-sky poolside lazing at the whitewashed-elegant House of Jasmines (previously actor Robert Duvall’s private residence), we moved to Estancia El Bordo, a rich, dark, colonial, antique-filled estancia that’s still a family home. It’s the embodiment of genteel Argentina estancia life – every mealtime calls for fine ornate china and silver cutlery, there’s sunset horse riding before rounds of gin and tonic, and every night is a dinner party.

From El Bordo we took Route 9 up towards Jujuy, stopping at the tiny clay-coloured adobe market town of Purmamarca for a lunch of steak washed down with Cerveza Salta Negra, a kind of effervescent, sweet stout that’s more Coca Cola than Guinness. We drove onwards and upwards, upwards and upwards, to an altitude of 4,200 metres – where we felt light headed and, most bizarrely, couldn’t whistle because of the thin air – then down again to the Salinas Grandes. Black clouds streaked across an otherwise blindingly bright blue sky and we took pictures of each other leaping into the distance and lying flat on the dazzling, crystalline white earth. Within the salt flats, it’s difficult to establish from sight alone what is solid, liquid or air. The salt resembles the crust of a frozen lake, or clouds that have become heavy and descended below the level of the horizon.

On our journey, it was the cemeteries I found most incredible. They were as beautiful as they were moving: simple stick crucifixes that had succumbed to the weather and come awry, standing next to ornate colonial-style iron crosses, gleaming white gravestones and mounds of pebbles. There was one huge graveyard at the foot of a lush green mountain on the way to Purmamarca and another on the desert road from Cafayate to Colomé, just past a ghost town with an abandoned post office and rusted petrol pumps. Its prosaic headstones stood within sculptural boulders in the dusty earth, covered in brightly coloured garlands of flowers that had been hung during a festival a few days before. The place felt so remote, it seemed inconceivable that anyone would ever visit. But the flowers were vibrant signs of life, memory and tribute.

Much of our trip took the form of an elongated loop. First, down from Salta to Cafayate, with one pit stop for rather too many delicious empanadas (yes, they’re essentially mini Cornish pasties) at the rustic but wonderful El Papabuelo in El Carril, and several more to take in the sights around Quebrada las Conchas. The Devil’s Throat was the most mesmerising and disorientating of the attractions; a cave full of distorted, rippled red stone with a vast back wall that looked like the bottom of a valley tipped up on its side, trees growing towards you, as if defying the laws of gravity.

After a stay at the swank, ranch-like Patios de Cafayate, and a night out at the riotous local folk festival that coincided with our visit, we began our drive up Route 40 towards Colomé, prepared for the worst. ‘You’ll see a sign for a short cut, but don’t take it!’ warned someone at Cafayate. ‘The Dakar Rally drove through last week and destroyed it.’ Why, of course it had! The first hour or so was plain sailing. Then the asphalt road ended, and we began driving through sand and over rocks, entranced by the ever-weirder and more spectacular boulder formations, ghost towns and frequent sightings of condors gliding overhead. Just after the village of Molinos – whose tiny church is hung with the most charming Andean, woven, stations of the cross – we were towed through a small river by a tractor. Then for an hour, we wondered if we hadn’t actually taken a wrong turn and were off-roading further into the desert. Surely nothing could be out here… Surely this can’t qualify as an actual route on a map? Then we came to a sign for Bodega Colomé.

Colomé is the incredible, impossible, Fitzcarraldo of organic wine resorts, built and planted by tycoon Donald Hess – with no expense spared – in the middle of a high-altitude nowhere. One of the most luxurious bodegas in Argentina, it takes up the whole village, produces well respected wines (the Syrah is a stand-out), and, most bizarrely, has an architecturally phenomenal museum devoted to the contemporary art of James Turrell. It’s a curious and delightful experience to go from off-roading through hell to walking into one of several vast, disorienting, pristine light installations by one of the world’s foremost conceptual artists.

Colomé was bliss. Until it came time to leave of course, and that tiny river we’d expressed only mild alarm at being towed through a few days before had turned into an impassable force of nature. But as I said earlier, I had a plan…

I called Harry in Buenos Aires. ‘So… a helicopter is nearly $3,000 so that’s out, but I saw a Caterpillar make it most of the way through the river when it was moving trees to try to stop the town flooding. I see no reason why we can’t abandon the car and get in that!’ And so, after another night of enforced luxury at the estancia, with a little palm-greasing for the driver in the form of crates of vintage Colomé wines, we dressed in swimwear and vests, sealed our Mandarina Duck luggage in bin liners, and climbed aboard a juddering piece of very heavy machinery to plough our way to the other side of the river. Once there, we made our way to the Hacienda de Molinos for empanadas, humitas and some restorative Malbec, while we waited for Santi, the guide Harry had arranged to drive us to Salta City for a flight to Buenos Aires.

‘It’s going to be a tough drive,’ warned Santi, on arrival. ‘And you won’t make your flight.’ It was, and we didn’t, but Santi would prove to be the most all-action Indiana Jones of guides and our experience was as amazing as the scenery we drove through. The rains in Salta had done much more than swell the river at Molinos: an hour after leaving the Hacienda, we hit a landslide several thousand metres up a mountain, on a hairpin bend. I had visions of us on the Caterpillar, heading back to Colomé – but instead, Santi jumped out, waded through gushing water over perilous freshly fallen rocks, hurled what he had identified as the most troublesome boulders over the cliff, and drove us over it and through. It was something he would repeat time and time again until we got back to the city where we checked in to the Legado Mitico hotel, changed out of our mud-covered swimwear and headed to the bar for cheese and wine. ‘So, how was your journey in?’ asked the waitress.

WHERE TO STAY

House of Jasmines, Salta. Dreamy, plush, rural grandeur. Doubles from around £215, B&B. Enq 00 54 387 4972002 ; houseofjasmines.com.

Legado Mitico, Salta City. Super-chic boutique hotel designed by Francis Ford Coppola’s favourite interior designers. Doubles from around £115, B&B. Enq 00 54 387 4228786; legadomitico.com.

Estancia Colomé, Colomé. Remote and resolutely luxe. Doubles from around £211, B&B. Enq 00 54 3868 494200; bodegacolome.com.

Estancia El Bordo de las Lanzas, El Bordo. High-ceilinged, grand quarters in a historic family home. Doubles from around £224, all inclusive. Enq 00 54 387 155041310; turismoelbordo.com.ar.

Patios de Cafayate, Cafayate. Plush wine, spa and golfing estate. Doubles from around £145, B&B. Enq 00 54 3868 422229; patiosdecafayate.com.

NEED TO KNOW/GETTING THERE

A car is essential, and if you’re driving on unpaved Route 40, it should be a 4×4. The driving can still be tough, depending on the weather, and hiring a driver and guide (through tour operator PlanBA, from £400 extra on a seven day itinerary) is a good option for the wary. Check on the availability of the petrol specific to your hire car, and refuel at every opportunity. Expect very little English to be spoken away from the main hotels, but the local people are very friendly and helpful. Plan BA offer seven nights in the best estancias in the area, including airport transfers and 24/7 concierge service from £1,787 p/person. There are regular short-hop flights between Buenos Aires and Salta, and Air France fly daily from London to Buenos Aires via Paris, from £806 return. Enq 0871 66 337777; airfrance.co.uk. Long haul flights are considerably cheaper booked from Europe than via tour operators in Argentina.

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