Every now and again on a long trip like this, you come across a real treasure find. It may be some beautiful scenery, impressive architecture or a stunning road on the bike, but now and again it comes in the form of a special accommodation, an oasis on the road where you can rest in luxury, in beautiful surroundings, enjoying excellent food and the company of fellow travellers. We were now nearing the end of our stay in Argentina and such a place would be ideal to recharge our batteries and allow us to prepare for the next stage of the trip. The bikes too needed some fresh oil and new tyres and Salta offered the last major opportunity to do this before heading into the altiplano of northern Chile, Bolivia & Peru. Peter had told us a story of some friends of his who ran a wonderful hotel-restaurant set in an old Italianate Castle in the peaceful little valley town of San Lorenzo, near the city of Salta. He was currently in residence, recuperating following some surgery after his bike spill and we agreed to meet up.
‘El Castillo’ was built some 100 years ago by an Italian gunsmith called Don Luigi Bartoletti as an extravagant summer holiday home. He acquired the site by means of marriage to a rich Saltanian lady. It was an expensive undertaking – an architect was brought in especially from northern Italy to direct the work. Stones had to be brought in by mule for the construction and dynamite was used for the first time in Salta to excavate the foundations. In the end it nearly ruined Bartoletti and sadly in the early part of the 20th Century, the house was abandoned and became derelict. 20 years ago, John Johnston was a backpacker from Alabama, mooching around South America with half an eye open for a haven that he could refurbish as a stylish lodge & restaurant. Whilst in Salta he heard about the old ‘Italian castle’ in San Lorenzo a few kilometres outside town. John duly acquired the property and with his Chilean partner Maria renovated the place, first as a restaurant and later refurbishing the bedrooms to open as a hotel.
We reached Salta at midday on a Saturday and found it a hectic place to drive through. We both felt like Luke Skywalker doing a bomb run on the Dark Star in the first ‘Star Wars’ movie – running through narrow streets, dodging maniac taxi drivers and motorists, trying to decide who has right of way at crazy road junctions and in the end doing chicken runs just to get through! Eventually we emerged from the chaos onto a lovely 4-lane highway that took us out of the madness and up into the nearby hills to the delightful tree lined streets of San Lorenzo. Everyone there knows ‘El Castillo’ so directions were quick and easily obtained. Before long we were pulled up outside and exchanging hugs with Peter, who had hobbled out on his crutches to greet us.
What an utterly stunning place we had arrived at! The location is high up in the Quebrada (gorge / canyon) de San Lorenzo, surrounded by lush exotic flowering trees, from which protruded the red tiled campanello of the castle. We shouldn’t really use the English word ‘castle’ to describe El Castillo as this suggests some imposing stone walled fortress designed to keep people either in or out. True, the walls of El Castillo are railed with old Remington rifle barrels – leftovers from the War of the Triple Alliance, which presumably old Don Luigi bought up as a cheap job lot – but they now have tasteful little knobs on top such that you would never guess their original purpose. A palm shaded patio leads on to the grandiose arched doorway inviting the visitor to enter the lofty main dining area, where a crew of excellent waiters are on standby to answer your every need (service at El Castillo was second to none!). Throughout the building, the stone structure is wonderfully warm and open – soft red brickwork lines the arches and the stones themselves are selections from a palette of softer hues. Where the original idea and the business strategy comes from John, Maria’s touch is very much evident in the day to day running and in the attention to detail in the provisioning and furnishing of the place. Oh, we mustn’t forget to mention ‘the Beast’, which every good castle must surely have… In El Castillo, his name is ‘Beckham’ and he is a huge one-year-old St Bernard dog, daft as a brush, whose aim in life is to befriend everyone who visits the castle.
We planned to spend a few days at El Castillo, but in the end stayed for 9 nights! Part of this was due to the fact that no tyres were available locally in Salta for the bikes and we had to order some from BMW in Cordoba, so they took a few days to arrive. But we readily welcomed these delays as it gave us more time to soak up the hospitality and atmosphere of the Castillo. Usually accommodation comes in the form of a simple business transaction – you pay money and in return receive a service – a maintained room & bed, food, drinks etc. But at El Castillo we were absorbed into the lives of John and Maria who both went out of their way to look after all of their guests. Evening meals became dinner parties with other guests lasting long into the evenings with excellent cuisine (it is far and away the best in Salta) and mouth-watering local Cafayate wines. Peter is another American who works for the UN Refugee Agency and has been all over the world, mostly to trouble spots like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Liberia. In between missions, he takes off on his bike and was touring South America when he broke his hip. We also enjoyed the company of Kevin & Teresa from Maine, currently on a 2-week vacation in Argentina and as delighted with life at El Castillo as we were. Such an ensemble made for excellent company and with John and Maria at the table and whoever else was around, we had long nights of travellers yarns, tall tales and good banter.
Another benefit of staying at the Castillo was its location. Since reaching Salta, we have felt for the first time on the trip that we really are in South America. Everything south of here has a distinctly European flavour with Spanish, Italian, German and even Welsh influences to it. The local Indians have been mostly wiped out or are very small minorities occupying small-secluded areas. Even the scenery, awesome as it is, is more alpine than altiplano. But it was in Salta that we began to feel and hear the Andean influence strongly for the first time. Salta is a beautiful province in northern Argentina and the city is sited on a vast plain, ringed by awesome mountains wherever you care to lay your eye. Take any road out of town and you are in mountain wonderland. We spent a day on a 100-mile trip out on the Ruta 68, which runs from Salta to Cafayate. The last 40 miles runs though the Quebrada de Cafayate, an amazing twisty hardtop road that follows a riverbed through a multi-coloured landscape of mountains, gorges and valleys, which we dubbed the ‘Road of Many Colours’. It wasn’t just the colours of the rocks, but the textures and shapes too that were so impressive. It was another photographer’s nightmare with too many subjects begging to be snapped.
More locally, San Lorenzo had a lot to offer as well – we went trekking on up the Quebrada (5 minutes from El Castillo) following the little gorge up into the trees for views back over San Lorenzo. We also spent an afternoon horse riding out on the ‘Lomo Balcon’, a vast grassland just outside town with stunning views of the mountains and over the city of Salta. It was famous as the location for a Yul Brynner movie called ‘Taras Bulba’, in which thousands of locals appeared as extras on their horses dressed as Cossacks.
Sadly it all had to end as the road once again beckoned. The tyres arrived and were fitted, the bikes had an oil change and we needed to move on, to leave Argentina and head on, on our way north. Still time for one more treat! On our last Saturday night, John & Maria took us to a music bar called ‘La Caserna’ down in Salta. It was a big old single story house, with spacious rooms set around a tree-shaded courtyard and local artists simply turned up to play in each room with beer, wine & simple food on offer. Music ranged from typical Andean fare to simple but haunting folk melodies. We were invited to hear a young lad with his guitar and you could have heard a pin drop in the room such was the magic of his music, totally captivating every one of us. He sang some folk songs, and then an Andrea Boccelli operatic but our favourite was a tragic song about a beautiful old tree that was cut down to make firewood for a rich landowner.
At La Caserna, we also met an Englishman who has become a bit of a local legend. Sammy is a straight talking Yorkshireman, who arrived a few years ago, took a room and never left as he had been totally captivated by the wonderful atmosphere in this place. Legend has it that he also ran up a huge beer tab that he was never asked to pay! He sported a slouch hat from which two lively piercing eyes illuminated a slightly hooked nose. The rest of his form was indeterminate as he was draped in an old grey blanket poncho to keep out the chill of the night. Sammy sang a local folk song for us with the young lad on the guitar – he was a very passable vocalist – and later on I asked him if he had ever written any music. His one song was about La Caserna when it was closed down for a while a few years ago by a temporary owner who had no interest in the music. Sammy wrote about the bronze bust in the courtyard of the club’s founder and how it stood guardian over the vacant club, which now served only as the playground of the ‘Duende’ – the local ‘little people’ (pixies, fairies, leprechauns as they are known in other parts of the world), tending it carefully until one day it’s doors would re-open to the musicians of Salta. We left the club at 5:30am; the worse for wear with drink and lack of sleep but totally sated first from a week in El Castillo and then this wonderful music to send us on our way. Waking on the Sunday afternoon, I lay in bed trying to recollect the past evening and in particular this character Sammy. What a wonderful life – bed, beer and beautiful music, but it was strange, as I cannot swear that I actually met the man – was he a real person or was he really the Duende of La Caserna?