Amid a quiet, mountainous corridor in Argentina’s northwest, locals combine traditional dance and Spanish folk music to celebrate the heritage of their ancestors.

Under the dark and star-scattered skies of Argentina’s Lerma Valley, the beat of a bombo leguero (a wooden, sheepskin drum) breaks the silence of night. Pithy Spanish guitar riffs and flirtatious violin notes erupt to accompany the rhythm, and gauchos (Argentinean cowboys) draped in regional red and black ponchos spring from their chairs to dance, the clack of their boots on the wooden floor echoing around the surrounding multi-coloured canyons. Patrons clap and stomp, adding high-pitched yodels to the rhythm. Someone shouts, “esta noche, hay peña!” (tonight there will be dancing!), and the folk music and dance races on until first light.

Amid a quiet, mountainous corridor nestled in the northwestern province of Salta, nearly 370km south of the Bolivian border, local Salteños (the people of Salta, which is also the capital city of the province) gather at peñas (folk concerts) to celebrate the capital’s cultural heritage through traditional song and dance. Originating in the Spanish colonial era of the 1500s, the music scene of Salta is often referred to as criolla: a melding of Spanish and indigenous ancestry. Stylistically, it combines elements of Spanish folk music and dance – such as the Fandango – with lyrics that discuss the importance of territory and rural life in Argentina. But unlike milongas, the tango dance parlours that are so popular in Buenos Aires, nearly 1,500km to the south, the peñas in Argentina’s north feel like an integral part of life, not just an entertaining performance.

“First and foremost Salteños identify with their music, the rhythms of national folklore and with the dances that accompany this music,” said Salta native Daniel Plaza, who added that the gaucho is often idolised as a folk hero. “It’s because of this that people from here always set aside time on the weekends to go to rodeos and festivals with the sole intention to feel like a gaucho time and time again.”

After sunset, gauchos and other locals flock to establishments like La Casona del Molino (Luis Burela 1; 0387-434-2835), a hilltop peña on the outskirts of the capital. Here, musicians often perform impromptu jam sessions while couples dance either the chacarera or zamba.

The popular chacarera, a lively partner dance, incorporates flashy zapateo (quick stomps of the feet). During the dance, partners move through a series of passes and turns in a star formation, pivoting around each other before meeting in the centre for a final bow. During zamba, the national dance of Argentina, couples circle each other waving white handkerchiefs – choreography that originated from zamacueca, a Peruvian dance from the mid-1800s. Another cherished dance is malambo, where a solo male gaucho performs his best steps to show off boldness of character and upstage other male competitors.  

During the 1950s, a folklore revival movement spread throughout the country, spurred by famous folk musicians like Andrés Chazarreta who publicised the music on the radio despite strict government censorship from then president Juan Perón. Today, stepping into a peña is like stepping back in time, where even young patrons decked out in the fashions of today sing along to the classic songs of their people’s past. It is clear that the appreciation of local heritage runs through multiple generations and has not been overshadowed by modern music trends like rock and roll from the US and cumbia from Colombia.

“Our generation was born between zambas and chacareras, and like all familial customs, folklore has been passed down from generation to generation,” said 27-year-old Plaza. “It becomes part of our lives from the time we are born, and when we are young we are desperate to learn how to dance. When we get older, we feel proud to dance these steps at every festival and peña we go to. We know that it’s something special that belongs to us and always will.”

Where to dance
To experience the region’s folk music at its best, visit Salta in mid-June when the city hosts La Guardia Bajo las Estrellas, a two-day celebration that commemorates the life and duty of General Martín Miguel de Guemes, a military leader who allied with Salta’s gauchos during Argentina’s War of Independence in 1810. During the celebration, around 3,000 gauchos pour into Salta city from the surrounding towns for an evening of dance and music around campfires at the base of San Bernardo Hill, a peak that overlooks the capital. The following day, the gauchos lead a multiple-hour parade through town – a must-see for travellers who want to witness the region’s proud gaucho culture on a grand scale. It is a breathtaking display of equestrian skill and local heritage as the gauchos prance around on horseback while suited in their best traditional clothing, such as bombachas (riding pants), black leather sombreros and boots to match.

Should you not arrive in June, there are also several locales that play folk music year-round.

La Casona del Molino
This is the most authentic peña experience in town, so expect simplicity. There is no stage or flashy costumes, locals play music while sitting among the other patrons at the tables and people dance when inspired. Sit back and enjoy a glass of malbec with a few empanadas (baked meat-filled pastries), or join the locals at what they do best. Fair warning, someone may invite you to dance, even if you do not know the steps.

Casa de Cultura
While most peñas feel like intimate restaurants or bars, this venue hosts a wide range of daily performances – from folkloric dance shows to symphony orchestra concerts – in a formal, theatre setting. As part of the local government’s cultural ministry and tourism board, the Casa de Cultura also organises performances in towns throughout Salta province. For this summer’s schedule visit Turismo.salta.gov.ar.

La Vieja Estación
A Salta city fixture since its opening in 2000, this late-night restaurant is an ideal place to sample regional dishes such as humitas (steamed corn mash filled with cheese) and enjoy a late-night show. Some locals, however, argue the performance is a tourist attraction since stage performers prompt members of a mostly foreign audience to dance on stage. In most other peñas, locals casually dance about the room. 

La Peña de Balderrama
One of the most popular venues in town, La Peña Balderrama serves up hit folkloric sounds and tasty local desserts such as dulce de cayote con nuez (sweetened local melon served with nuts). It attracts renowned musical performers like Los Nocheros and Charly García, who get patrons on their feet to dance and sing.

Panadería del Chuña
Panadería del Chuña’s company slogan refers to folklore music as, “Our daily bread”. Highly recommended by locals, this peña is known as much for its performances as for its charitable deeds – the owners often contribute to local community organisations, such as CloudheadART, an arts education group. The venue showcases a variety of folkloric dance and music styles and offers tasty traditional meals, such as locro, a squash-based pork stew.