From the tundra to the desert

We flew into Salta from El Calafete via Bueons Aires (no direct flights as all domestic argentine flights go via the capital). As the closest airport to the Altiplaino.

Upon landing at the not-so-flashy airport (compared to Ezezia in Buenos Aires) we were greeted by a humid atmosphere that contrasted with cold & bone-dry Patagonia. Salta has a sub-tropical climate (including a population of mosquitos with Zika warning all over the arrivals lounge) but we found it more pleasant than the sticky humidity of Singapore.

Orange trees along the central plaza

We checked in to another comfortable hotel. And took a short sleep in preparation for the long day ahead.

Salta is the 3rd largest city in Argentina and the closest airport we could find close to the Chilean border. I didn’t intend to spend more than a day in Salta as it was primarily a transit point for us. It was only later on that we realised that Salta held many natural wonders in the surrounding sub-tropical desert surrounding it.

Cerro de los Siete Colores

The 7 coloured hills are an natural wonder worth a visit if you can spare the time to drive out to it. Credit: atlasofwonder

Anfiteatro Natural

An Impressive Ampthiteature with excellent acoustics formed purely by geological erosion. Credits: aldebaran

However given we only had 24 hours in the city before our 9 hour bus ride to the Atacama Desert, we stuck to the city sights.

The road to Cuzco

Courtesy of historyofinformation

Salta marked the start of our entry into former Inca Empire territory. The old Inca roads started in this region and finally terminated at Cuzco (which incidentally was the apex of this trip).

MAAM Mummies

One of the first sites on our list was the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana de Salta (Museum of High-Altitude Archaeology) and the its collection of Incan mummy artefacts recovered on a site from the nearby Andean mountain peak.

No Photography was allowed within the museum but I can affirm that its collection of artefacts and use of modern technical aids gave a very descriptive view of Incan life in Northern Argentina and the sacrifice rituals that ended at the summit of the 6000m mountain.

MAAM takes turns in alternating the Ninã & Ninõ mummies (girl & boy) and the Ninõ was on display at the time of our visit. The state of preservation of the 500 year old mummy was quite remarkable (probably owing to the low oxygen, low temperatures and dry air of the high mountain).

Apart from the actual mummies, artefacts and other display on Incan life. MAAM also showcases the Argentine-Chilean climbing efforts and mountain explorers that excavated the sites high in the Andes, along with all their equipment. Audio-Visual clips of the preservation techniques used by the lab are also presented.

Overall I’d say its probably the best organized and most modern museum in Salta and definitely worth a visit.

Colonial Architecture

Salta is well known for having the best preserved Colonial-era architecture in Argentina. With many buildings dating from its founding by Spanish explorers in the 1500s.

Salta Cabildo

The 2nd museum on our list was not as fancy as the high-tech MAAM. It was an old colonial building built in the Spanish Mission-style with a courtyard adorned by flowering creepers and stuffed with colonial era artefacts from the city’s founding in 1582 by Conquistadors to the independence wars of 1800s Argentina.

The dusty museum could probably be better reorganized but was a good example of Colonial Architecture.

Ornate Cathedrals

An audio tour

We took a guided audio-tour of the largest of the Cathedrals Museo Sacro del Convento San Francisco. It started in the central garden and then proceeded to the various rooms and inner sanctums.

Although a very large complex of church buildings all in a fine state of maintenance, I was somewhat bored by the end of the tour and it would probably only appeal to those with a deeper religious interest. Most would probably be content to take photos within the grand hall (to which entry is free I believe).

The peak

The highest point in Salta is a Cerro San Bernardo. You could hike up the hill but owing to time limitations we decided to take the Teleférico up to get a better view of the city an the surrounding desert.

A small park and cafe was located at the peak summit and was filled with local tourists.

The view itself was not overwhelming and given the urban sprawl of Salta, I wasn’t able to take in the surrounding desert landscape as well as I’d originally hoped.

Pesos for Bolivanos

We had trouble finding any cambios dealing with Bolivian or Peruvian currency. Chilean pesos were easily changed though we picked the more official-looking exchanges instead of the dodgy backstreet options (mostly on security grounds). Argentina shares a border with Bolivia but apparently it wasn’t a popular currency here.

Salta by Night

Salta’s colonial sights come alive by night as the city lights up their buildings around the town centre much to the delight of tourists.

The Bus ride

After a busy day walking about the city sights we returned to the hotel to re-pack and head out to the bus terminal at 1am. According to google maps, the city had 2 bus terminals (and the bus company website was a bit vague on the pickup point) so we were a bit nervous on the short taxi-ride up until we got to the terminal (though the hotel staff assured us that all Atacama-bound buses leave from just one terminal).

The bus terminal was a dingy one with trash littered about the hall and some dodgy characters strolling about the doors. after some haste we located the departure slots of Andesmar.

The order of boarding was a fairly chaotic process in his terminal and our lack of Spanish didn’t help much either.

Once aboard we got comfy in our semi-cama seats. To date I can’t quite distinguish between cama and semi-cama seats but our seats were very comfy padded-leather 120-degree reclining seats with blankets and a pack of snacks. Given our bus ride was 10 hours long we thought it wise to splurge on some comfort.


We had started taking our Diamox pills the night before to help adjust for the rapid ascent our bus would be making into the Altiplaino. Our destination, San Pedro de Atacalama was at an elevation of 2000m, but the bus would ascend up a mountain-range of apparently 5000m before descending.

My first experience of the thin air was when i woke up gasping for air. my breathing was laboured for a while. My co-traveller had to deflate a neck cushion to avoid it exploding due to the drop in cabin pressure.

The border

the road got a bit bumpier at day break and the desert landscape came into view.

We reached the Argentine-Chilean border post at around 9am. We had to carry all our luggage along for customs inspection. Both Argentina & Chile have stiff penalties for carrying in agricultural products across their borders.

The Argentina & Chilean immigration counters were side by side in one building so there wasn’t much running about at this border post (unlike the on-off-on immigration formalities involved when crossing the Singapore-Malaysia border). So make sure you trash such food items before entering the border post.

We re-boarded our bus and proceeded onwards to the dusty pueblo of San Pedro de Atacama.