After the scruffy energy of Buenos Aires, Salta, a remote colonial city in Argentina’s top left-hand corner, strikes you with the sedate, former-glory inertia of a town from the pages of a Latin American novel. Standing in the central square, flanked on all sides by the rococo flourishes of oversized churches and grand houses, you can almost hear the dying strains of the military band on Saint’s Day, serenading the ghosts of moustachioed and brightly sashed town elders. ‘Very Magic Realist’, says Mr Smith with an equally flamboyant twirl of the hand.
We are in Salta for two reasons, but we discover a multitude more as our short stay unfolds. For us, as for many, it’s a staging post from which to conquer some of Latin America’s most majestic settings: the alto-plano deserts and high-altitude vineyards to the south, and the lunar landscape of the ‘Tren a las Nubes’ (or cloud train) to the north. But ever the hotel pilgrims, we’re also here to sample the delights of Finca Valentina, a small auberge outside town. If we can find it, we think, as our sardine-can hire car struggles with the potholes and pampas grass of the ever-narrowing track to the homestead…
The high-grass-lined farm track gets more and more overgrown and there’s no sign on a slightly unhinged front gate. But manicured lawns, wooden-decked swimming pool and bright white walls of the homestead give it away as a chic rural retreat. Finca Valentina faces in two directions at once: backwards into one of Argentina’s best-preserved colonial cities and front into the harsh high country of the northwestern Andes. It is the labour of love of its Italian and eponymous mistress. She’s not in residence when we stay, but her touch is everywhere and her charming and suave husband Fabrizio is more than up to the task of hosting in her absence, ably supported by local housekeepers Dina and Julia.
The ranch mixes pared-back, whitewash minimalism with a veneration for the crafted artefacts of life in this rugged region of gauchos and native Indians. Quaint two-sided, leather-strapped occasional chairs sit opposite a Conranesque sofa around a roaring open fire; brightly coloured and finely woven ponchos adorn the walls, stuck through with ornate silver brooches; roughly carved wooden bowls overflow with dry red chillies. Our bedroom is simple luxury incarnate – a huge, firm bed dripping with lavender-infused white linens; a beautifully carved rocking chair with a soft woollen blanket for the chilly winter evenings, and picture-perfect views out to the garden and mountains beyond.
Our novelistic adventures behind us, we toast our arrival with a dry sherry and picadas on the veranda, petting resident labradors Bianca, Nera and Lolo and marvelling at the expansive yellow light of the late afternoon on the already awe-inspiring foothills across the farmlands behind the house. It’s hard to think of anything better to do; dusk falls, the valley is filled with the chirruping of crickets and the odd, lonely bark of neighbouring dogs, and the sky is slowly showered with stars. The call to dinner is barely registered.
Eating at Finca Valentina is generally a convivial affair, enjoyed around a rustic communal table, and by candlelight at night. This evening, the other house guests are in town, so Fabrizio provides the company directly, sharing a fine bottle of local malbec and joining us for a steak so succulent it would melt under the bluntest of knives. He brings tales of even more outlandish landscapes, if such a thing were possible; he is still involved with a small tour company, taking travellers out to the blinding salt lakes of nearby Bolivia. Fact and fiction blur further.
After an expansive breakfast of cereals, bread, croissants and even the odd slice of almond cake, the lore of high-altitude life inspires us the next day to visit the unique Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montna back in the town centre. It’s home to the extraordinarily well-preserved remains of three children sacrificed to Incan gods over five hundred years ago at the peak of Mount Llullaillacao. The mummified bodies were found only in 1999, surrounded by a miniature objects designed to accompany them to the heavens, tiny dolls and pots and silver animals and intricately embroidered textiles. It’s immediately the third, and almost most compelling, reason to visit Salta (others include ‘cocina altura’ gem, Jose Balcarce, various chocolateries, and exquisite textile emporium Rio Del Valle Luracatao). We leave genuinely moved; the small, huddled form, at once agonised and serene, haunting us gently throughout our trip to Argentina, another fantastical creature, barely believable.
The rest of our stay in Salta is a relaxed shuttle between the distractions of town and the easy delights of our tranquil Finca. Mr Smith, ever the equestrian, makes desultory enquiries about the horses that can brought to the farm for local outings; I sniff around the kitchen and contemplate acquiring the art of Salteno cuisine; it almost gets warm enough during our winter visit to think about a swim in the unheated pool.
But nothing really beat lazing around the ranch, taking in the view, reading books and chatting in a mongrel mix of English, Spanish and Italian with Fabrizio and his demur team of helpers. At night, small wooden windows frame a million stars and the sounds of solitary dogs and croaking crickets roll in across the campo. In this environment, a hundred years of solitude seems a very easy and attractive proposition.