A fresh mood of optimism seems to have taken hold in Argentina. The new president has started to tackle the corruption plaguing the government and to repair the economic damage inflicted by the previous administration. Despite these positive changes, the peso has yet to recover its value after last December’s 30 percent fall, which makes Argentina remarkably inexpensive for American travelers. With the country’s fortunes changing for the better and the peso still weak, it seemed an opportune moment to return.
After my delightful stay in Mendoza's wine region last year, I was keen to revisit Salta, a northern province known for its high-altitude vineyards and stupendous landscape of rugged mountains and dramatic quebradas (canyons), centerpieced by the unspoiled colonial city of Salta. There, the grand neoclassical façades of 18th-century buildings decorate the pedestrian-friendly historical center. Tourists certainly visit this part of Argentina, but nowhere does it feel that the economy entirely depends on tourism, which gives Salta (both the city and the province as a whole) a refreshingly authentic atmosphere.
On a previous trip several years ago, wine seemed a peripheral part of the experience. The Torrontés, Salta’s aromatic white wine, was often too floral for my taste, and the local Malbec lacked the grace of the best Mendoza examples. How things have changed. After several days spent trying various wines with meals and visiting two wineries, I left with no doubt that Salta’s wines will soon be among the most coveted in Argentina. Each Torrontés I tried exhibited impressive balance, and all the Malbecs had admirable concentration. Bordeaux-style blends incorporating Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat also proved memorable. And yet it was rare to encounter a bottle that cost more than $20. Most of the best wineries cluster around Cafayate in the Calchaquí Valleys, a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of Salta through the sensationally scenic Quebrada de Cafayate.
The best base for exploring the mountain-backed vineyards, as well as sights such as the ruins of Quilmes and the Quebrada de las Flechas, is the new Grace Cafayate. Opened in 2013, this property comprises 20 two-suite villas arrayed around a main building with an additional 12 hotel-style accommodations, set on a 1,360-acre real estate development. Vacation houses occupy some of the site, but native woodlands, a golf course, polo grounds and vineyards cover the rest.
Vines grew right up to our Villa Master Suite’s broad patio, which was appointed with cushioned loungers, a dining table for four and even a barbecue with a rotisserie. However, I was surprised to see that the patio’s hot tub had patches of missing tiles, rendering it useless. I pointed this out to a manager, who offered to switch us to another villa or a Grace Suite in the main building. Since the Grace Suite lacked our woodburning fireplace, we stayed put.
Inside, our accommodations proved to be thoroughly comfortable, with a double-height great room crowned by a vaulted wood-beamed ceiling, a full semicircular kitchen with black granite counters, a spacious bedroom and a tiled bath with polished gray plaster walls, square vessel sinks on a wood countertop and a wide soaking tub. Each evening, we had a staffer build us a fire, which we enjoyed as we sipped glasses of Malbec made from grapes grown right outside.
The main building contains comfortable lounges, a wine bar and a cheerful restaurant. The latter is an airy space with an open kitchen serving elevated renditions of local recipes. I especially liked the baked empanadas filled with rabbit, the pollo a la olla (a lightly spicy stew of chicken and vegetables) and the lomo Salteño, a dish of charred beef with chimichurri, crispy diced bacon and Andean potatoes. We also had a pleasant lunch of local trout in the estate’s Clubhouse Restaurant, set on an 18-hole golf course, about 15 minutes away by complimentary buggy. Nearby, we found a surprisingly large and well-equipped fitness center with an indoor pool and spa, where I had a professional yet inexpensive sports massage. Grace Cafayate may have one or two problems, but overall it is an impressive property in a convenient location.
The beautiful setting amid mountain-backed vineyards and fragrant gardens; the unfailingly warm staff; the spacious and attractive accommodations; the value for the money.
The maintenance issues in our suite; the lack of signing privileges in the spa and Clubhouse Restaurant; the small by-the-glass selection in the wine bar and restaurant; the lack of turndown service.
Request villas 1-6 and 14-21 for the best views. Grace Suites are a good alternative to Villa Master Suites. Other room categories not recommended.
I had also looked forward to returning to my recommendation just outside the city of Salta, the 14-room House of Jasmines. French hoteliers Raoul and Stephanie Fenestraz acquired this 240-acre estancia from actor Robert Duvall in 2008. Alas, the service proved to be relentlessly clumsy and thoughtless.
The driver we had confirmed with the hotel did not meet us at the airport, and we had to take a taxi to the property. Mrs. Harper had a treatment in the spa, where plaster was falling off the wall near the steam room. During her massage, the therapist’s cell phone buzzed no fewer than six times. Meanwhile, I went to the pool where the three tables were topped by a giant rust stain, a dirty rag and the aged remains of a lunch, respectively. When I ordered a glass of Torrontés in the restaurant, the waiter produced a bottle that had stood open for a week (the date was written on the label). The Wi-Fi in our suite also failed to work, which the front desk offered to fix three days hence. When I calmly enumerated our complaints, the staff did nothing to try to salvage the situation. We checked out early, forced to pay for the entire stay.
The idyllic location amid lawns and mature trees backdropped by mountains.
The missing airport transfer; the broken Wi-Fi; the unprofessional spa treatment; the stale wine served by the glass; several burnt-out lights in the restaurant; the misconceived layout of our suite; the staff’s generally poor communication.
The hotel is currently a member of Relais & Chateaux, but the restaurant does not rise to that level.
We had a much more pleasant time at a less expensive boutique hotel in the center of Salta, the 11-room Legado Mítico. The owners, two architects from Buenos Aires, thoroughly renovated the historical building and designed the fashionable interior. Even though we stayed in the smallest category of room (the last available), it was stylishly decorated, mixing antique furniture and contemporary accents, and surprisingly spacious, with high ceilings, wood floors, a thronelike armchair and an immaculate dark-tile bath with a striking white quartz countertop. Though we felt comfortable, I recommend reserving one of the junior suite-like Luxury Rooms. “El Caudillo” and “El Músico” exchange some interior space for terraces that face the leafy central courtyard.
Aside from a massage room upstairs, the only other public spaces are two inviting library lounges full of travel and art books, and a breakfast room. Service there was inattentive and brusque, but aside from our poorly trained waiter, the staff were immensely helpful, notably with making last-minute dinner reservations in town. Legado Mítico is not a true luxury hotel, but as we sat in the stylish lounge with our complimentary glasses of local Malbec, I found myself wishing that our stay were just a little bit longer.
The convenient location in the heart of old Salta; the stylish, warm and locally influenced interior design; the high ceilings; the very helpful front desk; the garden courtyard.
The inattentive breakfast service; the traffic noise permeating rooms facing the street.
Many of the best restaurants in Salta, like BARTZ and José Balcarce, are closed on Sunday evenings.