Cachi back to Salta capital – the ‘Parque Nacional Los Cardones’
Cachi to Salta: 160km –5.5 hours
Probably my favourite day of the roadtrip – the opportunity to discover the Cardones Cactus National Park – Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a little north east of Cachi.
We’d ‘lucked out’ again with our accommodation. Last night’s bed was in a charming B&B called ‘Villa Cardona’ in the village of Cachi. A simple period 19th century house renovated with style and taste. Authentic cactus wood, with its distinctive texture and perforations lined the ceilings, and the rough plastered walls were painted brilliant white. Furniture was rustic, with a contemporary twist, painted in bright Mediterranean colours.
The village is peaceful, and not overrun by visitors. Heading out after breakfast, the bright sunlight filled the streets and the sky was clear – perfect for a day exploring the vast forest of cactus in Argentina’s National Park of Cardones.
Passing modest convenience stores (selling two types of ‘coke’ – coca leaves, as well as, sadly, the increasingly prevalent US brand of sugared water that is invading every corner of the continent), and shepherds herding their sheep, we were soon out on the open road. Behind us snow covered the peaks of the mountains whilst ahead was desert.
…two types of ‘Coke’ for sale – coca leaves and sugared water…
…the landscape ignited with flame yellow flowers…
We were driving into the morning sun, so not ideal to photograph the cactus. As we approached the national park, the landscape ignited with flame yellow flowers that reminded me of the sea daffodils that cover the sand dunes along parts of Andalucía’s western coast.
The perfect time to see the cactus is in the afternoon with the sun low, illuminating the architectural plants with a warm glow – well, that’s what I’d seen in the coffee table books in the B&B. However, we had to make do with enjoying the view in the late morning, with the sun high in the sky, but even so it was impressive.
It’s remarkable to consider that some of these cactus are well into their second century! They grow just a centimetre or so a year and for a little bit more nature trivia, I learnt that the single towering cactus are male and the classic candelabra style cactus are female.
…huge spines burning yellow and orange in the sunlight…
It was a great feeling to walk amongst these prickly specimens, their huge spines burning yellow and orange in the sunlight. Finches and other birds have made the cactus their homes and most of the rugged plants had untidy nests of twigs and grass balancing precariously amongst their bulbous arms.
Further on beyond the valley of cactus was an outcrop of rock, called the ‘Ojo Del Cóndor’ – the Eye of the Condor. It certainly lived up to its name, as from this vantage point one could get a bird’s eye view of the entire valley. Then perfectly on cue, a majestic Condor flew overhead, inky black, with a broad white mark across its back and wings, like the snow-capped Andes – a beautiful sight. (Click on the iphone panorama below to see it enlarged).
…bird’s eye view of the entire valley…
To get down to the other side of the mountain range and back into Salta capital you have to negotiate the steep hairpins of the Bishop’s Pass, or ‘Cuesta del Obispo’. We stopped to survey the route down, the sign said we were at a staggering 3,457 metres! You could feel the odd sensation you get at this kind of altitude, a slight pressure in the forehead, and a tightness of breath – it reminded me of Peru.
…blind hairpin corners with little room to manoeuvre…
We were on our way back to Salta, our penultimate day of this road trip. Some suggest doing this itinerary in reverse, travelling from Salta to Cachi first and then returning via Cafayate. The trouble with is that when you reach the highly precipitous Bishop’s Pass, ‘Cuesta del Obispo’ you are obliged to climb the steep, stony road on the right, on the very edge, taking blind hairpin corners with little room to manoeuvre. By going in our chosen direction were able to descend this famous, meandering mountain pass taking it easy in lower gears, rather than pumping the gas to get up – believe me, it’s much easier. Descent can take about 30 minutes or more, so it’s a significant moment of intense concentration!
Once down in the valley, the ‘Quebrada de Escoipe’ the greenery returned, and the cactus were plump, bulbous and flowering, very different from the desert, just the other side of the mountain range.
…the cactus were plump, bulbous and flowering…
Tomorrow we go north to the expanisve salt flats of the ‘Salinas Grandes’ and the village of Purmamaca, in the shadow of the Seven Coloured Mountain.