Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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Mompos, Colombia

Ceiba Tree, Mompos, Colombia

I had long been intrigued by Mompos. A fabled Colombian city of exquisitely preserved colonial architecture, Mompos is perhaps best defined by its obscure location. The city sits on an island, shrouded by a maze of marshes on the Magdalena River, several hours inland from the Caribbean Coast. To this day, no road connects Mompos to the mainland.

However, Mompos’ location was not always remote. During the colonial era, Mompos achieved preeminence as one of Colombia’s key commercial ports, precisely because of its position on the Magdalena River. At the time, the Magdalena served as the region’s central thoroughfare, funneling goods from the interior of the continent to the Caribbean port of Cartagena and onward to Spain. In the 19th century, following the wars of independence, traffic along the Magdalena declined. Mompos’ location lost its strategic value and many of its residents abandoned it for new opportunities in the burgeoning industrial city of Barranquilla. Gradually, Mompos faded into obscurity.

Mompos’ fall into oblivion is what drew me. Unlike other colonial cities that have been forced to adapt to a changing society, Mompos was left entirely alone, its plazas, churches and houses untouched by the modern world. I envisioned Mompos as a relic of an earlier, quieter Colombia, a rare haven not yet bombarded by the blaring stereo systems and roaring motorcycles that have become ubiquitous across the Caribbean region. A forgotten city with nearly empty streets and glorious mansions and plazas, where only the faint gurgle of the passing Magdalena would be heard. A place, that I hoped, might still contain the magic of its colonial past.

Raft on Magdalena River, Mompos, Colombia

Outer Marshes, Mompos, Colombia

When I finally visited Mompos earlier this year, the main challenge was getting there. Jorge and I began our journey in Bogota, where we boarded an hour-long flight to Corozal, a marginal town in the Caribbean department of Sucre best known for its bird-infested trash dump. A loquacious taxi driver, Carlos, met us at the airport and entertained us with stories of his jealous wife, as we inched past wide-eyed bulls saddled on pick up trucks and jubilant families on horseback on their way to the annual bullfighting festival in the neighboring city of Sincelejo.

Two hours later, we arrived in Magangue, a lively, but crumbling port city on the Magdalena, pungent with the air of fish and sewage. There, we boarded a chalupa, a rickety motorboat, with twelve other passengers, crammed with life vests, babies bobbing on their mothers’ laps and green bunches of unripe bananas to be sold at island markets. As we hurtled into the river, we rushed past tiny islands bursting with the jagged oversized green palms from which plantains grow. From their shores, children in their underwear waved at us excitedly before flinging themselves into the river on rope swings.

In only ten minutes, we had arrived in Bodega, home of the wobbly dock and patch of mud that is the principal port for the series of islands on the Magdalena. A mob of colectivo taxi drivers accosted us, each insisting that we pay him for passage to Mompos. We selected one quickly and boarded his car along with a tight-lipped momposina in a knit cap who refused to share in the payment of the empty seat that had to be filled before we could depart.

During the final hour of our journey, we traversed the marshes that separate Bodega from Mompos, via a series of precarious mud bridges. The road buzzed with the chaos characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Motorcycles, overloaded with passengers, barefoot and helmetless, weaved dangerously in an out of lanes and whizzed past us. Roadside pit stops advertised patacones and fried fish in garish hand-painted signs. Boom boxes blared a cacophonous mixture of traditional vallenato and hip-hop-inspired reggaeton outside cement houses, where entire families weighed down by heat and boredom, sat idly in plastic chairs, watching the traffic pass.

Yet, beyond the road, a tropical stillness reigned. Here, there were only marshes and high grasses, blanketed by a light mist. Where the land was firm, ceiba trees rose dramatically, dominating the landscape with their enormous trunks and broad, decisive canopies. A haunting primordial beauty pervaded this place, a hint of what I had hoped to find.

Houses, Mompos, Colombia

 

Motorbike, Mompos, Colombia

With dusk fast approaching, we reached Mompos. At first I saw only dusty streets and motorbikes and decaying one-story buildings, all painted in the same faded white with large wooden doors and iron wrought windows. The thump of reggaeton reverberated from a storefront. It did not look so different from any other modern Colombian town graced with the vestiges of colonial architecture. I braced myself for disappointment.

Then, as the taxi turned onto a riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the Magdalena—flowing quickly and vigorously, dragging with it tassels of bright green foliage ablaze in the late afternoon light. Alongside the river, the city and its surroundings were suddenly infused with a glowing and magical force. On the opposite shore, the same giant ceiba trees I had seen from the road set the stage, reaching, like dancers, wildly into the sky. The city they faced gleamed with a serene elegance. Waterfront mansions boasted tall pillars and proud doorways, alongside open plazas and ornate churches, all carefully displayed to impress the visitors that had once arrived in droves along the Magdalena.

When the driver reached our hotel, I leapt from the taxi and scurried towards an empty park that bordered the river. I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, I imagined a pair of dainty young women strolling beneath white lace parasols. A lovesick man appeared too, serenading one of the señoritas with a violin. A crowd gathered around me and we all eagerly awaiting the latest shipment of gold that would soon arrive from a faraway mine. Alone with my trance, I savored the lost majesty of Mompos.

Contemplating the Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

 

Ceiba Trees, Mompos, Colombia

How to get there
From Bogotá, fly to Corozal via Satena Airlines. Then, take a taxi or bus to Magangue, board a chalupa to Bodega and finally a colectivo taxi to Mompos. Alternatively, travel from Cartagena, where you can arrange for a door-to-door van (Toto Express 310 707 0838) to pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you by land and ferry to Mompos. The total travel time, from either Bogotá or Cartagena following the routes suggested above, is about five to six hours.

Where to stay
Portal de la Marquesa: This beautifully renovated colonial mansion originally served as the residence of the Marquis of Valde Hoyos. Its location—directly facing the river, but removed from the nightly parties near Iglesia Santa Barbara– is ideal. Address: Cra 1, No. 15-27, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6221, + 57 (5) 685 6781

Where to eat
El Fuerte: This restaurant, owned by Austrian chef and furniture-maker Walter Maria Gurth, features delicate and flavorful wood-fired pizzas in a whimsical garden setting complete with outlandish wooden tables and lush palms. The classical music playing in the background provides a welcome respite from the dueling boom box parties in the nearby plaza. Address: Cra 1, No. 12-163, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6762

Trees on Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

Bicycle taxi, Mompos, Colombia

 

Southeast Turkey: Planning Your Trip

Deyrul Zafaran, Turkey

When To Go

Southeast Turkey is dry and hot with mild winters and scorching summers. Avoid the summer months (June – August) at all costs. For ideal temperatures, visit in April or October.

Suggested Itineraries

Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the cradle of Western civilization, the southeast corner of Turkey contains a plethora of ancient cities, each distinguished by its unique cultural, culinary and linguistic heritage. It also boasts extraordinary ruins from the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, to the colossal head statues of Nemrut Dagi to the dazzling mosaics of the Roman ruins at Zeugma.

With so many important sites, the region requires time to appreciate. For trips of a week or less, I recommend choosing to make either Mardin or Sanliurfa your base and limiting your travels to the immediate vicinity of each. With two weeks, you will have time to visit all of the important sites in the region.

Below I have outlined two recommended itineraries of five days each.  If you have more than five days, simply select your favorites from each itinerary or combine the two.

Five Days: Mardin, Midyat, Hasankeyf

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Mardin. Stay at Gazi Konagi or Reyhani Kasri. For dinner, go to the rooftop terrace at Seyr-i-Merdin, where you can take in breathtaking views of the Syrian plains below. Order the Kaburga Dolmasi, slow-cooked leg of lamb shredded and served with rice, fried almonds, and spices.

Day 2: Wander the narrow, sloping streets of Mardin, exploring its bazaar, mosques, courtyards and caravanserais. Visit the Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum for a fascinating introduction to Mardin’s history and culture. If you have time for excursions beyond the city, arrange for a driver or guide to take you to the extensive Roman ruins at Dara or the former seat of the Syriac Christian Church, Deyrul Zafaran Monastery.

Day 3: Travel by bus or taxi to Midyat, an ancient Syriac city about an hour from Mardin where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. Stay at the exquisitely remodeled Kasr-i-Newroz, our favorite hotel in all of Southeast Turkey. Discover the city’s Syriac Christian churches and beautifully preserved honey-colored homes.   When you have finished exploring Midyat’s historical center, visit Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, set among the olive groves and rolling green hills beyond the city.

Day 4: Take a 30-minute bus or taxi-ride to Hasankeyf, a bewitching city on the Tigris River that will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam.  The only drawback to visiting Hasankeyf is that hotel options are very limited.  If you are not concerned about comfort, stay at the Hasbahce Guesthouse, which offers basic rooms at inflated prices.  Alternatively, you could visit Hasankeyf as a day trip from Midyat, though be warned that if you plan to travel by bus you will miss the late afternoon and early morning light that is ideal for photography.

Once in Hasankeyf, walk to the bazaar and ask for the rug dealer, Arif. He speaks perfect English and can help you find a guide to take you to the expansive cave city and castle above the city, where residents of Hasankeyf lived until the 1960’s. At sunset, stop for tea at one of the many teahouses perched above the Tigris River and enjoy views of the ancient stone bridge, minaret and Zeynel Bey mausoleum beyond. For dinner, eat fresh fish from the Tigris at Ramazan restaurant and chat with the friendly English-speaking owner, Rustem.

 Day 5: Return to Mardin (1.5 hours from Hasankeyf) for your flight home.

Five Days: Sanliurfa, Homestay in Kurdish Village, Nemrut Dagi/Gaziantep

Manici Hotel, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Sanliurfa. Stay at Manici Hotel or Cevahir Konuk Evi. Walk to Urfa Castle at sunset for stunning views of the Great Mosque and city below.

Day 2: Stroll along the tree-lined canals of Gölbaşı gardens and visit the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where pilgrims flock to pay homage to the site where God intervened to save Abraham from his death. Explore the complex web of shops that comprise Urfa’s ancient bazaar. Within the bazaar, stop for coffee at Gümrük Hani, a courtyard filled with men in purple headscarves smoking from water pipes and playing backgammon. About 30 minutes beyond the city, visit Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site dating back to 9500 BC, which is believed to be the world’s oldest place of worship.

Day 3: Arrange to spend a night with a Kurdish family in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa through a local tour company called Nomad Tours. The family will spoil you with their gracious hospitality and fabulous home-cooked meals and you will acquire a first-hand look at life in a Kurdish village.

Day 4: Continue your cultural tour of the region with Nomad Tours by requesting the Sunset and Nomads tour. This tour includes a visit to an animal market in Siverek, tea with nomads, a boat trip across the Euphrates and finally a sunset hike to the head statues at Nemrut Dagi.

Day 4 Option 2: From the Kurdish village, travel about two hours by bus or taxi to Gaziantep, the largest city in the region. The main attraction here is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which recreates the ancient Roman city of Zeugma and showcases its exquisite mosaics. Gaziantep is also celebrated for its cuisine, especially its baklava which is considered the best in Turkey.

 Day 5: Fly home from either Sanliurfa or Gazientep.

Nemrut Dagi, Turkey

 

 

 

California: Mendocino Hotel Recommendation

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

Glendeven Inn, Little River, California

My dear friend, Jenny Kern, visited the Glendeven Inn in December and raved about her stay.  Here she describes in her own words what dazzled her about this small historic hotel on the Mendocino Coast:

The Glendeven Inn is a historic property on the Mendocino Coast that creates an atmosphere with a certain magic.  When we pulled into the inn, a herd of six llamas all turned to greet us from their pasture. The inn attends to the details — when you arrive you notice a parking space reserved for you, greeting you by name.

Our room contained beautiful historic furniture, while maintaining a luxury feel.  We stayed in the Bayview Suite, which looks out on the ocean over the llama pasture. It was a splurge, but when we read that Bill and Hillary Clinton stayed there, we sprung for it and were happy we did.

Each room has a fireplace and is stocked with firewood.  In the evening, we picnicked in our room by the fire, enjoying a bottle of wine and delicious sausage we bought downstairs. Upon request, the innkeepers provide a picnic basket with utensils, napkins and wine glasses.  In the morning, a breakfast spread is brought on a tray to your room, with eggs sourced from their own chickens. This is a real perk for me, as the one drawback of B&Bs is the need to dress and socialize over breakfast.

The inn provides many other great touches — a bag of chicken feed is left in each room so you can enjoy feeding their beautiful chickens. You can also observe the friendly bees buzzing about their beehives.  There is an endless supply of free cookies downstairs and a complementary wine hour, pouring a local wine and serving an appetizer each day from 5:30pm – 6:30pm.

There are a number of hikes you can take without needing to get into your car. We walked for about five miles along the beach and bluffs near the property.

The owners John & Mike are attentive and friendly – and spent a great deal of time chatting with us as they guided us through a flight of Mendocino wines. Part of the charm of the place, as with all great B&Bs, is feeling you are a part of the innkeeper’s vision by staying there.  We overhead a couple was checking in for their fourth stay there, which is now a tradition. We will be sure to be back, and start a tradition of our own!

Little River, California

Chile: Santiago Hotel Recommendation

Casa Moro, Corte Suprema 177, Santiago de Chile

Casa Moro, Santiago, Chile

In the heart of Santiago just two blocks from the presidential palace, this funky bed and breakfast has garnered a large and enthusiastic following on Tripadvisor thanks to its stylish décor and welcoming hosts.  The hotel revolves around a lush, open-air courtyard of bright plants, colorful folk art and the soothing trickle of a fountain, an ideal place to relax after a long day of sight seeing.  Guests also have access to a communal kitchen and a gallery that features jewelry, woven tapestries and crocheted garments from the south of Chile.

Innkeepers Marcelo and Walter are adored for their warmth and attentive service.  They also serve an exceptional breakfast of homemade scones, eggs and fruit.  At $130 for a double room, Casa Moro’s rates are on par with hostels in pricey Santiago.  However, staying at this delightful inn feels more like visiting the home of a dear friend.

Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

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Photo by Paul & Paveena McKensie from Wild Encounters 

For many years, I dreamed of visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia.  At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, it is a the largest salt flat on earth, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see.  During the rainy season (December – March), it transforms into an immense mirror, producing an astounding reflection of the sky and clouds above.

When it came time to plan my trip, however, I found the process of selecting a tour operator so perplexing that I almost chose to skip Bolivia altogether.  Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is essential to ensuring you remain safe.  Dozens of tour operators based in Uyuni offer tours of the Salar, but the challenge lies in identifying one that is both reasonably priced and responsible.

Two types of tours are offered: private tours, which are reliable but pricey and group tours, which are cheap but potentially unsafe.  The price difference between the two is significant.  While a four-day private tour costs about $1000 per person, the standard three-day group tour costs about $150 per person.  Many budget travelers opt for group tours and emerge satisfied with their experiences.  Others, however, return with horror stories.

In 2008, ten tourists died after two jeeps from competing agencies crashed into each other on the Salar and the gasoline each vehicle carried on its roof exploded.  Though no one is certain how this collision occurred, it is common knowledge that many tour drivers come to work drunk or deliberately fall asleep while traversing the Salar.  During my own trip to the Salar, I was alarmed to hear a rumor that some budget operators serve as fronts for drug trafficking gangs.  By posing as tour operators, these gangs are able to both launder their money and deliver drugs in the same jeeps used to transport tourists.  Not surprisingly, they often offer the best prices since they do not actually rely on tourism to finance their operations.

Given the risks that come with booking a group tour, and the fact that even the most reputable budget operators fail their clients on occasion, it is advisable to pay more and opt for a private tour.  This is undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable choice.  By booking a private tour with a reputable company, you will stay in the best hotels, eat well and be able to stop whenever you like for photos or bathroom breaks.  In contrast, even on the best budget tour, you will be crammed into a jeep with up to eight tourists and sleep in dorm style barracks with an outhouse.  If comfort is important to you, the private tour is the way to go.

If, however, you are on a tight budget and don’t mind sacrificing creature comforts, booking a group tour should be safe as long as you select a reputable company.  During my visit to Uyuni in December 2013, I heard consistently positive reports for two budget operators in particular: Cordillera Traveler and Red Planet.  Below I have included a list of reputable companies, recommended to me during my time in Uyuni, that offer both group and private tours.

Group Tours

Cordillera Traveler

Red Planet

Licancabur Tours

Private Tours

Fremen

Ruta Verde 

Hidalgo Tours

Northwest Argentina: Planning Your Trip

Cactus, Tilcara, Argentina

When To Go

The best time of year to visit Northwest Argentina is in April and May, when the heavy rains and intense heat of the summer months (December – March) have subsided and the foliage is at its finest.  April is also the month when red peppers are harvested and laid out to dry in the lovely mountain village of Cachi.  Do not despair if visiting during these months is not feasible.  Northwest Argentina enjoys a mild climate year round and can be visited comfortably at any time.

Suggested Itineraries

The distances in Northwest Argentina are immense.  To visit the three most important sub-regions– the Calchaqui Valley, the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the Puna— you need at least two weeks.  If you have less than a week, you will need to select only one of these places to visit.  In that case, I would suggest limiting your trip to the Calchaqui Valley, which has both spectacular scenery that can be enjoyed while driving and hiking and world-class vineyards and spas for relaxing.

Below I have included two sample itineraries.  They are deliberately brief with links to prior entries for you to obtain more detailed information about each place.

Five Days

Road from Cachi to Cafayate, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 3: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 4: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 5: Return to Salta (3 hours from Cafayate) and board flight home.

Two Weeks

Red and Silver Mountains, Puna, Argentina

Day 1: Arrive in Salta.  Stay at Finca Valentina.

Day 2: Explore Salta.

Day 3: Depart Salta for a road trip through the Calchaqui Valley.  Drive to Cachi and stay at Finca la Paya.

Day 4: Drive from Cachi to Cafayate.  Stay at Patios de Cafayate or Casa de la Bodega.

Day 5: Enjoy a relaxing day of wine tasting, hiking or massages in Cafayate.

Day 6: Arrange for a local guide to pick you up from Cafayate and drive you to El Peñon in the Puna.  Though the drive from Cafayate to El Peñon can be done on your own, once in the Puna you will need to be accompanied by a professional guide in order to explore this region safely.  We had a fantastic experience with our guide, Pompon, from Socompa.

Day 7: Day trip from El Peñon to Campo de Piedra Pomez and Laguna Grande.

Day 8: Drive from El Peñon to Tolar Grande.

Day 9: Day trip from Tolar Grande to Mina La Casualidad or Desierto del Laberinto.

Day 10: Drive from Tolar Grande to Salta.

Day 11: Depart for Quebrada de Humahuaca.  Stop in Purmamarca for photos in the late morning and then continue to Tilcara to spend the night at Las Terrazas.

Day 12: Visit the Pucara (indigenous ruins) of Tilcara in the morning and return to Salta in the afternoon.  Stay at Selva Montana in the suburb of San Lorenzo.

Day 13: Enjoy a relaxing day of hiking and lounging by the pool in San Lorenzo.

Day 14: Fly home.

Northwest Argentina: Food and Nightlife in Tilcara

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

Tilcara is one of several sleepy colonial villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow, arid ravine 155 km long in the extreme northwest of Argentina, bordering Bolivia.  Travelers flock to the Quebrada for its breathtaking views of orange, pink and purple tinted mountains and to explore indigenous ruins and a rural way of life.  During my recent visit to Tilcara, I discovered that this particular village offers an unexpected surprise for such a remote corner of Argentina: quirky restaurants, cafes and live music venues with delicious and creative food.  Tilcara’s food and nightlife make it an ideal base for visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Here are my favorite Tilcara food and nightlife discoveries:

1) La Casa de Champa, Belgrano 249, Tilcara

In an old colonial style house with a cozy interior adorned with clay tea pots, religious icons and hand-woven ponchos, this tea shop is the perfect place to experience my favorite Argentina custom, the afternoon tea ritual known as merienda.  Here you will find a wide selection of loose-leaf teas mixed with local herbs (my favorite “Yungas” is named for a nearby jungle), as well as exquisite homemade desserts, like the heavenly torta alemana made with fluffy layers of meringue, cake and chocolate.  An absolute must for lovers of tea and cake!

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

2) El Nuevo Progreso, Lavalle 351, Tilcara

This stylish restaurant owned by a hip young couple from Buenos Aires functions as an art gallery as well as a restaurant.  Contemporary artwork illuminated by candles hangs from the walls, while the high ceilings and elegant façade provide a reminder of Tilcara’s colonial heritage.  The menu takes a creative twist on local cuisine with many excellent options for vegetarians, like the quinoa salad with mushrooms, sesame and grilled vegetables.  The highlight of the meal was the dessert (I ordered the chocolate mousse), which was out of this world.

El Nuevo Progreso, Tilcara, Argentina

3) La Peña de Carlitos, Lavalle 397, Tilcara

The most famous peña in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, this is a wonderful place to come for a drink after dinner to listen to lively stories and music by local performers.   Here you will appreciate the distinct cultural heritage of Northwest Argentina.

La Peña de Carlitos, Tilcara, Argentina

Northwest Argentina: Best Empanadas

Empanadas, Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

The empanada salteña, from the northwest province of Salta, is the most beloved of empanadas in Argentina, a country obsessed with these small and savory pastries.  Empanadas originated in Salta and are made differently in this province than in other parts of Argentina.  They are miniature in size and typically filled with finely chopped steak, potato, egg and chili pepper.  Though they can be ordered fried, the traditional version is baked in a mud oven.

I have always loved empanadas and part of what attracted me to Salta was its reputation for empanadas.  During my two weeks in Northwest Argentina, I embarked on a search for the best empanadas, constantly hounding locals for recommendations and sampling as many as I could.  What I found surprised me: the most popular spot among tourists and locals alike, the Patio de la Empanada in Salta City, disappointed me.  However, near the end of my trip, while stopping in the remote mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an empanada so sublime that I will never forget it.

Here is my list of favorite empanadas spots in Salta Province ranked from best to worst:

1) El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta Province, Argentina    

In a sad and dusty mining town in the heart of the Argentine Puna, I found my favorite empanada in all of Salta Province.  Rich in flavor, with a soft, delicate dough that will melt in your mouth, they can be ordered fried or baked and with a variety of fillings.  This is a perfect place to stop and have lunch on the road between Salta City and Tolar Grande.

El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Argentina

2) Doña Salta, Salta City, Argentina 

A block from the central plaza of Salta City, this large and affordable restaurant featuring an extensive menu of regional specialties serves excellent empanadas.  The empanada de charqui, filled with salted dried meat, is particularly tasty.  However, the empanadas, though delicious, are overshadowed by the fabulous carbonada, a thick pumpkin soup with veal, potato and spices, possibly my favorite dish in all of Northern Argentina.

3) El Papabuelo, El Carril, Salta Province, Argentina

This rustic roadside eatery, about 45 minutes south of Salta City, is a convenient place to stop for lunch when traveling to either Cachi or Cafayate.  Meals are served at outdoor wooden tables in a patio surrounding the traditional mud oven used for baking empanadas.  The empanadas are decent, as are the corn-based humitas and tamales.

El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

4) El Patio de la Empanada, Salta City, Argentina

Ask almost anyone who has lived in or visited Salta where to go for the best empanada and you will likely be told to come here.  Every blog I read and every taxi driver I asked insisted that this was the place where I would taste the best empanada of my life.  With such high expectations, it is perhaps not surprising that the empanadas I had here disappointed me.

Still, I would recommend that anyone visiting Salta stop here at least once for a quick empanada run.  The setting, a collection of colorful empanada stands clustered around a sunny courtyard, will appeal to anyone with a penchant for street food.  The prices, too, are hard to beat.  And, though I found the empanadas to be bland and generic, keep in mind I only sampled empanadas from two of the stands and there were several more options I could have tried.  To avoid a similarly disappointing experience, I recommend ordering a single empanada from each stand until you find the one you like best.

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

Northwest Argentina: Road Trip Through Calchaqui Valley

Calchaqui Valley, Argentina

The Calchaqui Valley is situated high in the mountains of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina.  A river cuts across this long and arid valley that is defined by its stunning variety of landscapes: lush oases, strange and colorful rock formations, snowy peaks and vast plains dotted by sand and flowering cacti.

The best way to see the Calchaqui Valley is by renting a car and exploring it on your own.  The starting point for this road trip is Salta, a busting city of 650,000 inhabitants and the capital of Salta province.  From Salta, drive to Cachi, a tiny mountain village with cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings in the shadow of a snow-covered mountain, the Nevado de Cachi.  The final stop is Cafayate, a larger town encircled by vineyards and red rock mountains, which is an ideal place to rest for a day or two before returning to Salta.

Car rental tip: Rent your car from Federico Ochoa at Marina Semisa Rent A Car near Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta.  I had read horror stories before my trip from travelers who rented cars from other local car rental agencies, but Federico came highly recommended to us by our hotel and was indeed extremely reliable and professional.

Recommended Itinerary:

Day One: Salta to Cachi

Distance: 98 miles on both paved and unpaved roads, allow up to six hours including stops for lunch and photos

From Salta, drive south along Route 68 for about 45 minutes and stop for lunch at the wonderfully rustic El Papabuelo in El Carril, a small roadside eatery specializing in empanadas made in a traditional wood-burning oven, as well as other regional favorites like corn-based humitas and tamales.

Tamal, El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

From El Carril, turn west onto Route 33 and brace yourself for one of the most bizarre and spectacular drives of your life.  Past the grand estancias and tobacco fields of Chicoana, you will enter the Quebrada de Escoipe, a verdant ravine bordered by steep and winding cliffs with rock faces shaped like Venetian masks that will startle you unexpectedly at every turn.  From there, the road begins to ascend the famed Cuesta del Obispo.  The green vegetation slowly fades and gives way to arid rocks and parched mountains dotted with flowering cacti, known as candelabra for being shaped like antique candlestick holders with multiple arms.  After reaching the summit, Piedra de Molino at an elevation of 3348 meters (10,984 feet), you will descend onto a wide-open plain crowded with even more cacti, the heart of Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a park with informative signs and well-marked trails for seeing the cacti.

Oasis near Cachi

Your final stop for the day is Cachi, a village high in the mountains with cobblestone streets and white colonial buildings with green doors.  You will want to stop in Cachi for a walk around the village with your camera, before heading to your hotel, Finca La Paya (see previous entry), a nineteenth century farmhouse situated in a river valley about fifteen minutes south of Cachi with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

Finca La Paya, Cachi, Argentina

Day Two: Cachi to Cafayate

Distance: 102 miles on an unpaved road, allow eight hours including stops for shopping, lunch and photos

From Finca La Paya, drive south along Route 40.  Take a detour between El Colte and Seclantes to visit the Camino de Artesanos, a country road that runs parallel to Route 40.  This road is home to Argentina’s finest poncho makers.  Here you can watch the artisans at work and buy ponchos and other textiles.  The road ends in Seclantes, a lovely village with colonial architecture and lush vegetation, an oasis in the desert that is the Calchaqui Valley.

Seclantes, Argentina

Stop for lunch at Hacienda De Molinos, the beautifully preserved home of the last governor of Salta Province under Spanish rule.  Dine under the shade of an enormous leafy pepper tree in the main courtyard of the hacienda and then take a stroll through the surrounding village of Molinos, another colonial gem along Route 40.

Molinos, Argentina

South of Molinos virtually all traces of vegetation and water disappear.  The road turns to sand and curves through a narrow maze of jagged rocks piercing upward like arrows, the aptly named Quebrada de las Flechas.  Be warned that the landscape here is so bizarre that you will want to stop every few minutes to take photos.

Quebrada de las Flechas, Salta Province, Argentina

Finally, you will reach the red rock mountains and vineyards of your destination, Cafayate.  Here there are many fantastic places to stay, including the ultra luxurious Patios de Cafayate and more affordable but highly recommended Casa de la Bodega.

Day Three: Cafayate

Take a break from the long days of driving and indulge in the vineyards, spas and incredible landscapes of Cafayate.  There are many fashionable and costly vineyards to choose from including Esteco of Cafayate, but those seeking a less pretentious experience will prefer San Pedro de Yacochuya or Bodega Nanni.  Spas can be found at the high-end hotels, including Patios de Cafayate.

Vineyard near Cafayate

At sunset, take a drive with your camera through the terracotta colored rocks of Quebrada de las Conchas, the third in a series of stunning ravines you will have encountered by now in the Calchaqui Valley.  Those staying at Casa de la Bodega can hike to the Quebrada from their hotel.

Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Argentina

Day Four: Cafayate to Salta

Distance: 115 miles on a good paved road, allow four hours including stops for lunch and photos

Return to Salta along Route 68, a good paved road, which will get you back to Salta in less than three hours if you make no stops.  The main attraction along this road is Quebrada de las Conchas, which I recommend those interested in photography visit separately the day before so that you can enjoy the intense colors of the rocks at sunset.

Quebrada de las Conchas

Just past the town of Alemania, stop for lunch at La Posta de las Cabras, a dairy farm with a delightful restaurant specializing in homemade goat cheese, sumptuous olives, salads and desserts.

Goat cheese, La Posta de las Cabras, Alemania, Salta, Argentina

End your trip in Salta.  For hotel recommendations in Salta, see previous entry.