The Backpacker's Guide to Salta, Argentina
I was in the home stretch of my journey spanning the entire length of the South American continent. Argentina was my final country, and Salta my first stop. I was still a long way away from the southern tip of Argentina, but hey, it was a start. I arrived in Salta after a long bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama. After a 6 AM wake-up call and a border crossing that seemingly took forever, I was wiped out. I crashed as soon as I got to my hostel, exhausted but excited. I was in a strange new land where the women no longer sported the Quechua attire that I’d become accustomed to in the last five months in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The streets were filled with music and tango and I was eager to immerse myself back in the Argentine culture that I’d fallen in love with on my first trip here five years prior.
Is Salta Worth Visiting?
I spent about a week in Salta, and it honestly took me a while to warm up to the city. My time in the city itself was forgettable, but that’s more because I didn’t take advantage of everything it had to offer. I had McDonald’s more times than I cared to admit, and as The Partying Traveler, I definitely didn’t take enough advantage of the vibrant nightlife. Argentina would eventually become one of my favorite countries in the world. However, I played a little hard to get at the beginning. Salta had the misfortune of being home to my adjustment period, where I spent most of my time wondering how Western Union worked and not enough time at the boliches.
I’ll be blunt, I didn’t adore Salta as a city. My other backpacker friends had hyped it up so much to me, which may have led my expectations to be a little high. Outside of a three-block radius near the colonial city center, there isn’t much from a traveler’s standpoint. There were beautiful churches and stunning colonial architecture, but the real treasures of Salta lay outside of the city. A day trip to Cafayate, to Salinas Grandes, San Salvador de Jujuy, or any of the other astounding natural scenery is how to best allocate your time in Salta.
However, as a home base, Salta was more than satisfactory. I did love roaming around the city and finding new places for a late afternoon coffee. A week might be too long, but I’d recommend no less than three days in Salta. That gives you enough time to get your feet set on the ground in Argentina as well as do the must-do day trip to Cafayate and another day to roam around town.
How To Get To Salta
One of the things that originally attracted me to Salta was the fact that it was the only big city for miles and miles and miles. A bus ride to Cordoba or Buenos Aires from Chile or Bolivia would have been absolutely grueling, so why not make a rest stop in Salta? If you’re crossing over from Bolivia, Salta is about seven hours away from the Bolivian border. If you’re coming from San Pedro de Atacama, it’s a smooth eight hour ride from the border, although it is one hell of a beautiful drive. You’ll pass through salt flats and the rainbow mountains of Jujuy, among other breathtaking sights on the Chilean side of the Altiplano.
Regardless of where you’re coming from, bus travel is the most reliable and common way to get to Salta. Buses are more expensive in Argentina than elsewhere in South America, so you’ll likely have to pay around $50. Make that money worth your while and take it slow in Salta for a bit. Salta is a very cheap city, especially with Western Union exchange rates that often give you 30% more money than the official government exchange rate.
Where To Stay in Salta For Backpackers
Salta is home to a lot of hostels, ranging widely in price. I opted for one of the cheaper hostels, and was still surprised at how nice it was. I stayed at Salta Por Siempre (shows up as Hostel in Salta on Hostelworld) and loved it. It had a common kitchen, a beautiful outdoor courtyard, and decent Wi-Fi so it had all I needed. The only downside was that its location felt a bit sketchy, and the five block walk into the city center always felt way longer than just five blocks. They had a really cute cat that was the closest thing to a real-life Garfield that I’d ever seen, so that was pretty much a trump card.
Other places to stay in Salta seemed nicer, but were also more expensive. While Salta Por Siempre was about $15 a night, the nicer hostels I saw could run up to about $30. The other two I looked at were Prisamata and La Casa de los Poetas. Both seemed amazing but my budget did not approve at the time.. From what I saw on Hostelworld, you’ll have about a half-dozen or so decent hostels to choose from.
The Best Things To Do in Salta, Argentina
Looking back, I actually did quite a lot with my limited time in Salta. It felt like I did nothing, initially, because most of the things to see or do in Salta are relatively forgettable. It’s not home to any one-of-a-kind attractions, although its fair share of gorgeous churches and unique museums will surely fill up your time and your camera roll.
Here are some of the highlights of my time in Salta, from my many aimless wanderings to the cool day trips.
Plaza 9 de Julio
This is the main plaza of Salta. It’s home to a beautiful pink cathedral among other beautiful colonial architecture. The park in the middle is a great place to hang out and watch life go by, and since we’re in Argentina, there’s bound to be a tango show happening at any given time. The plaza is lined with cafes, restaurants, kiosks, museums, and art galleries. It’s got a very Parisian vibe to it, although once you step outside of the confines of the plaza, it loses that vibe entirely.
Cerro San Bernardo
For an epic view of Salta, one can hike or take the cable car up Cerro San Bernardo. A roundtrip ticket costs about $10, but you can just get a one-way and walk back down. Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed, but the gloomy weather may have played a part in that. The view is okay, but I’m definitely glad that I took the cable car up instead of hiking all that way to be disappointed.
Visit the Cathedrals and Iglesias
Outside of the central squares, Salta is quite an average-looking city. And then you’ll stumble into an obscenely extravagant church that makes your jaw drop. There are plenty of these scattered throughout the city. The interiors are just as beautiful as the exteriors, so make sure to walk in, as well.
Chow Down on Salteñas
One of my biggest regrets about Salta was not eating Salteñas sooner. I developed an addiction to them while I was in Argentina. You won’t find any better place to chow down on Salteñas than in the birthplace itself. These are basically empanadas but like, better.
Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montaña (Museum of High Altitude Archaeology)
I realize that I’ve been a bit condescending towards Salta in this post, but I genuinely have nothing bad to say about this particular museum. It is one of the most unique museums I’ve been to. The main attraction are the child mummies that they have on display. It’s quite morbid, but like I said, one of the most memorable things I did in Salta.
Take A Day Trip To Cafayate
This was my favorite day trip that I took from Salta. It was the nature that I was yearning to see. Oh, and a lot of wine. The wine definitely was a big draw. When I Googled Salta before arriving, these were the photos that caught my eye and convinced me to come. The ride from Salta will take you through some stunning scenery, like the Quebrada de Conchas pictured below.
Quebrada de Conchas
Nightlife in Salta, Argentina
The thing about siesta culture in Argentina is that it leads to a big fiesta culture. Everyone’s in bed all day, then decides to have a few birras with their late, late dinner, and all of a sudden, the boliches start to fill up.
No trip to Salta is complete without taking advantage of the Argentinian nightlife, which is arguably my favorite in the world. Why? Because they love to dance, more than anything. As a backpacker, I’ve admittedly had enough of the gringo mindset of getting as drunk as possible and still refusing to dance. In Argentina, everyone’s always dancing, drunk or not. The beers are more to keep hydrated than to loosen up. The party will usually be concentrated in Balcarce, their nightlife street lined with bars and boliches.
And of course, you’ll want to hit up one of the peñas for a spot of live music and pure Argentine culture. Salta still maintains a rural, northern Argentine feel. It’ll be much harder to find this vibe in the larger, more modern cities of Argentina.
Final Thoughts on Salta
Salta is a guaranteed good time, no matter your taste. At the very least, it’s a great stop to break up the lengthy emptiness of the region and kick back for a few days. It’s a great city for all types of travelers. The more outdoorsy can take in the otherworldly views of Cafayate, Quebrado de las Conchas, and Salinas Grandes. The foodies can fill their stomachs with salteñas and feast at asados. You’ll also have more than enough museums, galleries, parks, and cafes to fill up your time in Salta. Of course, no trip here is complete without experiencing the local nightlife, one that mixes the traditions of rural northern Argentina with the variety of a bigger city.