The province of Salta, in Northwest Argentina, is a place of wildly dramatic and divergent landscapes. The stunning, crazy-quilt scenery has always been the region’s primary draw, but Salta has much more to offer visitors.
Salta is a place of proud, hard-working people, creative Andean cuisine, lively folk music, and picturesque adobe villages. Oh, and then there is the wine: robust, flavorful reds and torrontes, the yield of ‘traumatized’ grapes, uniquely thick-skinned as a result of the temperature swings attendant with high-altitude vineyards.
The best way to truly savor the many delights of Salta is on a road trip. You will need at least five days to fully relish the 323-mile Calchaqui Valleys circuit. You will also need good, sturdy rented wheels and an adventuresome spirit.
Beginning in Salta, the first leg to Cachi is a deceptive 98 miles. Deceptive, because covering those 98 miles will take about 4 hours, and redefine driving as an adrenaline sport. After passing the pastoral towns surrounding Salta, the road becomes increasingly narrow, steep and serpentine. The intrepid trek culminates with an 11,000 foot pass on a switchback, one lane, unpaved trail that literally transports you into the clouds. After clearing the summit — and the clouds — keep your eyes open for the Andean Condors which favor the far side of the range. The fleeting vision of the giant birds signals the descent to the cactus-studded plain below. You are now on final approach to the village of Cachi.
Cachi is the perfect antidote to the cardiac-arresting drive from Salta. It is a peaceful, traditional hamlet where children play and elders idle in the leafy village square under the watchful eye of an adobe church bell tower. Horsemen and pushcart vendors are as at home on the cobbled streets as your rented car. Tranquil and enchanting, it is not surprising that Cachi is the adopted home of many in-the-know Buenos Aires expats, yet, thankfully, remains below most tourist radar screens.
After recovering your road legs in Cachi, it is time cast off on the 102 mile drive to Cafayate. You were a fool to think the road conditions would improve. This winding, dusty route is little more than a graded gravel track punctuated by low water crossings. You bump along without seeing other vehicles for miles, but you are not alone. The road is a free range barnyard, populated with pigs, goats, cattle, chickens, mules, dogs, ducks, and the occasional llama, all of whom stare insolently as you pass. The highlight of the day’s drive is the journey through the Quebrada de las Flechas (Gorge of Arrows), where colorful striated rock walls reach obliquely to the endless blue sky, as if shot from a bow.
When the gravel road finally turns to pavement, and the barren landscape gives way to verdant vineyards, you will know are approaching Cafayate. Nestled in a valley surrounded by jagged-peaked mountains, Cafayate is the kind of place you must to take the time to absorb: on foot, bike, or horse, but most of all, by the glass. The wineries in Cafayate run the gamut from primitive to palatial, but the product is uniformly rewarding and enticingly inexpensive.
When you sober up enough to return to the road for the three-hour drive back to Salta, you will soon find yourself once again intoxicated. But now, it is the madcap topography that makes your head spin. Mercifully, the road is paved and actually wide enough for two cars to pass. You are free to rubberneck at the otherworldly and aptly named rock formations you pass, such as El Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), El Obelisco (The Obelisk) and the El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheater).
As you approach Salta, and detour to the north, toward Jujuy Province, you are entering gaucho country. Don’t be surprised to find yourself waiving to the traditionally dressed vaqueros you pass on the road, or clapping along with the rowdy, folk music that springs forth in the local watering holes. You are just savoring Salta.
A road trip in Northwest Argentina is a wild, and wildly rewarding, ride. Oh, did I mention the wine?
Salta Province: When You Go:
La Merced del Alto, Cachi, a subtlely sophisticated refuge with lavender-scented sheets and a Monet-worthy setting; Viñas de Cafayate, a simple, welcoming hacienda where the mountain-framed vineyard views take center stage; Finca Valentina, near Salta, an Italian take on an Argentine country home, where the details speak volumes and the kitchen rules; El Bordo de las Lanzas, northeast of Salta, a 400-year old estancia offering guests a chance to sample the privileged country life of Argentine aristocracy.
Ashpamanta, Cachi, a tiny, Zen, artisan food den, owned by the local yoga instructor and her talented husband/chef; Quilla Huasi, Cafayate, contemporary interpretations of regional classics at astoundingly gentle prices; La Casona del Molino, Salta, a folk music club where gauchos and gringos gather to sup and sway to traditional tunes
Casa Moderno, Salta, a cozy bodega where the region’s best wines and accompaniments can be purchased; Piattelli Winery, Cafayate, the American-owned upstart, a lavish, state-of-the-art facility that doubles as an art museum and congenial noshery, all in a drop dead gorgeous setting; James Turrell Museum, Colomé Estate, a showcase for one of the most important light and space artists, set in Argentina’s oldest, and highest, working winery.