From Cafayate to Cachi – travelling in space
Highway 40 – 165 km – 5.5 hours (not including stops)
Wilderness is something truly special; the sensation of space, the feeling of freedom and the sounds of silence. For me there is something so compelling, so nurturing about being surrounded by nature. I admit to often being seduced by the finer things in life, but it’s when I out in nature that I really feel joy. So as this road trip progressed, the more I fell in love with Salta Province.
This second day on the road was another of vast vistas that went on for kilometres, and extraordinary rocky landscapes where in places the narrow stony track was carved directly through the hillside. We took plenty of opportunities to stop and attempt to take in the huge open spaces, and big skies punctuated by textured clouds. We were to pass through a region that is rich not only in natural history, but culture too, a cross roads of civilisations dating back from the Incas to the colonial Spanish, a meeting point of nations, including Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
Breakfast was simple; rustic bread, small cakes, butter, jam and of course, the ubiquitous ‘Dulce de leche’. This is caramelised condensed milk, and it is served with most meals in Argentina, either as a breakfast spread, a sweetener to stir into yoghurt or with puddings and fruit later in the day. It’s like the caramel one has with banoffee pie, sickly sweet and at first quite appealing, one feels like a child indulging in something you know you are not allowed. But after almost 3 weeks in Argentina it was easy for me to leave it this morning.
Before loading our bags and leaving Cafayate we took one last walk around the town’s square and took a peek inside the colonial cathedral, Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Last night we stayed in a small B&B right on the square, so were able to enjoy the atmosphere of music and laughter till late into the night.
With the influx of Dakar Rally stop over personnel in the area, and the normal high occupancy of the festive summer holidays here, getting a fairly priced room was difficult. Some of the fancy places I had my eye on were booked up or out of our rapidly diminishing budget, so we stayed last night in a hostel. Yes, I was in a hostel. Hitting 45 years old and sleeping in a property that doesn’t even have a star rating! Joking apart, in rural areas I quite enjoy staying in really simply guest houses and B&Bs. It’s a lot easier to get chatting to fellow travellers, hosts know the local area better than any tourist information officer, and overall it just feels more ‘authentic’ in a weird way.
Our host was super helpful and confirmed our route for the day which was to take us up through the foothills of the Andes. I was excited about today; day two of our road trip, taking us up to the small, high altitude village of Cachi. The ‘road’ we wanted to take was in fact little more than a stony track. With the seasonal summer cloudbursts and storms, roads often get covered in rock fall or silt, or rivers simply wash sections away, so it seems the easiest way to maintain a route is to keep it as a track that is regularly restored with heavy machinery. Luckily for us the road had just been cleared, so once we left town and headed up in the hills the route was pretty clear. I have to admit though that looking out across the mountainous setting, taking in just how much ground we had to cover in a day, I was slightly apprehensive.
At first I drove slowly, slightly paranoid of the stones as they flew up and bounced off the wheel arches, but after a few hours I was in my stride, using gears to slow down on bends and even getting up some speed on the straights – by the end of the day I felt like one of the Toyota 4×4-driving locals, who would occasionally overtake us at high speed in a cloud of dust and stones.
…scenes of daily life glimpsed as we passed along the road…
No sooner had we left and we were stuck behind an old truck, with a woman crouching down on the pickup platform, diesel smoke billowing out the back. The woman’s dark face and tied-back glossy black hair was typical of the local people. We certainly felt as if we were in South America. In the south of Argentina, the country has a very European feel, but here in the extreme north, close to Bolivia, one touches upon the indigenous cultures and people. In the small towns it’s not uncommon to see people wearing traditional clothes like coloured, multi-layered pleated skirts and the European style bowler hat usually seen throughout Bolivia. (The jauntily placed bowler hat supposedly dates back to Spanish colonial times).
Once again, the landscape quickly changed from the spring like greens along the dry river beds to dry, dusty and arid scenes, with the odd church or small holding along the way. The small hamlets and villages, each with a modest church, looked like sets from Western style movies. An empty filling station, a Catholic Cross, buildings with dust stained, cracked plaster walls, surrounded by tall flowering agave plants – everything appeared lost in time. People living simple, humble lives; herding goats, tending llamas, baking bread for the market…scenes of daily life glimpsed as we passed along the road.
…everything appeared lost in time…
There is a small valley between Cafayate and Cachi where wine is successfully grown, and the upscale Colomé winery is part of the Hess Family Estate, so here you can expect art as well as vino.
Then the most spectacular part of the journey unfolds; the unearthly ‘Quebrada de las Flechas’ or Arrow Gorge. The earth crust appears to have been crumpled like paper, huge, jagged rocks thrust up at angles, creating unforgettable views. The track narrowed and steepened as it passed amongst these spooky outcrops. The area is famous for ‘Los Colorados’, the coloured mountains that surround this amazing gorge, close to the village of Angastaco.
This part of our 10 week South American trip was made with little preparation, yet things just seemed to fall into place. No sooner were we feeling hungry and I was desperately trying to ‘manifest’ a gourmet restaurant from amongst the barren landscape, than there appeared a small village, Molinos. Parking up by the church, we discovered an 18th Century aristocratic Hacienda, now a boutique hotel Hacienda de Molinos.
…with dappled sunlight falling between the branches of an ancient willow tree…
Its beautiful patio, with dappled sunlight falling between the branches of an ancient willow tree was the place for lunch! I ordered quinoa, (it’s a staple from Peru and popular across this whole region), accompanied by a sneaky glass of chilled Torrontes wine, and a chocolate pud with espresso to follow.
…it was time to seek refuge and relaxation in Cachi..
So I was ready for the final stage of the adventure, towards Cachi, through lands of ancient cactus and dry scrub. A summer storm was brewing, and dark clouds gathered over the mountains; it was time to seek refuge and relaxation in Cachi.
We did this drive in January, but the other way round.
It's truly spectacular as you say and I'm doing the same again at the end of this month, but this time on my motorbike.
Excellent article, thanks!
Thanks 🙂 Yeah, spectacular. Good luck with the motorbike adventure. You planning on sharing pics on social media?
Hmmm, going to be doing this trip with an 18month old this October. We start in Salta and drive to Cafayate then on to Cachi and back to Salta. Looks amazing but I’m slightly nervous of that unpaved road!! Having travelled around Western Oz I’m used to the bumps but she might not be!
Hi Annabel. How exciting! The road was is good condition when we used it and people were navigating it in normal front wheel cars. However after storms, heavy rain etc the road does become damaged, so check the forecast. The secret is not to go to fast, as the problem is not so bumps, but the fact that the road is mainly loose aggregate, gravel etc, so normal car typres can lose traction sometimes so driving at a modest speed is important – it just makes for a long journey, but the scenery is amazing.
About to do the same late november. I’ll be going with the family including 3 very young kids. Rented a proper car (even its maybe not necessary – it nice with some space). My concern is two things; how often do you pass gasstations along the way, and are there other small town where you can buy drinks and lunch? or are we bringing all from the start?
As far as I can see there are hardly any places between Cachi and Salinas Grandes.
We rented a car and did the classic itinerary of Salta, Cafayate & Cachi. The open road distances were no problem – so long as you filled up at each stop it was fine.
With regards to Salinas Grandes we took a driver – it was much much further than we anticipated and there’s pretty much nothing on the way. So we took refreshments.
Good luck and enjoy.