Petite and perfectly formed, Finca Valentina hotel is a rustic, refined ranch just outside Salta in the grape-strewn foothills of the northwestern Andes. Play pampered patrón as your eponymous hostess and her Andean staff saddle up the steeds and prepare the parilla. Or just enjoy the white-linened, warm-wooded interiors and chill out with a glass of fruity Argentine red.
Noon, but flexible for 50 per cent of the daily rate. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £78.50 ($99).
Rates usually include breakfast.
Lovable labs Bianca, Nera and Lolo are mobile soft furnishings in their own right and every bit as hospitable as their owners. Ask Valentina to explain the provenance of the antique textiles and fixing pins hung decoratively in the hallway; they are the spoils of many fascinating trips across the Andean region. The hotel has two bikes to borrow for free if you fancy getting up close and personal with the jaw-dropping terrain.
At the hotel
Library of books, CDs and DVDs, in-room spa and beauty treatments, lounge and free WiFi throughout. In rooms, free bottled water and handmade local bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The Superior Suite up its own staircase on the first floor offers extra privacy and an expansive terrace overlooking the mountains. Cowhide rugs, age-worn wooden benches, and hefty woven ponchos and blankets offset whitewash walls and linens. The wooden-shuttered garden room underneath has the same views and comes with a wicker rocking chair for languid sundowners.
An unheated pool commands majestic mountain views in the finca’s gardens, complete with big-cushioned recliners and wooden decks.
Rockstar cowboy boots and mud-flecked moleskins.
In-room massages and beauty treatments can be arranged on request; cooking classes take place in the finca’s cosy kitchen.
Kids staying here will get plenty of fresh air, and the hotel has footballs and badminton rackets to use on their gorgeous grounds. Meals can be adapted for kids, and rooms 4 and 5 interconnect into a family room. Baby cots can be added for free.
In summer, ask for a garden dinner a deux for your very own specially prepared parilla.
Neutral linens to match the colour scheme; native shawls with big brooches for Mrs Smith.
Meals are mostly taken at the large wooden table in the finca’s living room, a serene, intimate space of deep white sofas, hide-strapped chairs, and carefully placed gaucho artefacts. Candlelit at night and open-fired in winter, this is sophisticated country eating at its best. Breakfast is a cornucopia of cereals, croissants and, rather disconcertingly, absolutely scrumptious sponge cakes.
Valentina and Fabrizio are Italian, so their love of wine equals their passion for food. The bar itself is ‘pop-up’; at the table with cigars, in front of the fire, out on the veranda counting the stars.
Folk turn in early in the country, so plan to eat before 9pm.
Valentina and her staff are happy to bring anything to the rooms, except perhaps in the dead of night.
Finca Valentina is about 25 minutes south-west of Salta, one of Argentina’s most interesting and beautifully preserved colonial cities.
Salta is really only serviced reliably by Aerolineas Argentinas (www.aerolineas.com.ar) and LAN Chile (www.lan.com).
There are no longer regular train services into Salta, but it is the hopping on point for one of the world’s most spectacular high-altitude rides – the stomach-clenching Tren a las Nubes to mining town San Antonio de los Cobres in the Puna desert.
Having a car – preferably a four-wheel drive – will greatly enhance any stay at Finca Valentina. Most of the reputable companies are represented at Salta airport. Everything you’ve heard about Argentine drivers is true, so keep alert.
Worth getting out of bed for
Your hosts can arrange excursions to Salta Province's prettiest parts. See Cachi's multi-coloured mountains, Cafayate's ochre-hued vistas, painterly views over the Calchaquí Valleys, and the scenic stratified rock formations of Humahuaca Gorge; head on a road-trip through desert-set village Tolar Grande; and trek through the dunes of arid plateau Puna de Atacama. El Peñón is an open-air museum of curious volcano-sculpted monoliths, and the Salinas Grandes (salt flats) should be ticked off every traveller's must-see list. Salta's old town has grand colonial buildings and churches to explore too.
Head into Salta and to the quiet corner of Neocochea and Bartolome Mitre for new Argentine ‘cocina altura’ at Jose Balcarce (+54 (0)38 7421 1628) and eat amongst wrought-iron chandeliers and brightly painted cow-head skeletons. Dona Salta (Cordoba 46) is a bit more film-set tex-mex but serves the best empanadas in town.
Café Havanna on the corner of Santiago del Estero and Dean Funes is one of several downtown Salta chocolateries. Sit outside on the pavement to people-watch or inside to ogle the tall shelves of home-brand biscuits and truffles.
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.