From Salta capital to Cafayate – certainly a road less travelled
Highway 68 – 180 km – 4 hours (not including stops)
After spending almost a week on an Argentine cattle ranch, I was certainly in the mood for a bit ‘Wild West’ style adventure. We arrived in Argentina’s far north western province of Salta (which borders Chile to the west and Bolivia to the north) with few expectations; but once out exploring we were truly ‘wowed’ by its lush valleys, vast landscapes and arresting, weather-sculpted mountains.
…lush valleys, vast landscapes and weather-sculpted mountains
Our time in Salta coincided with the Dakar Rally’s rest days in the province, so it was more than appropriate for us to get behind the wheel and discover the stunning, semi-arid landscape.
Many of the roads in this sparsely populated, mountainous region are stony tracks, ‘caminos de ripio’ which is sometimes very tiring to drive over, with their ruts and ridges. What’s more there is a high risk of swerving and turning over the vehicle if you don’t have the right tyres.
Having said all that it is well worth the freedom of hiring your own car, and luckily, from the capital Salta south to the wine country of Cafayate it is almost all paved road. It’s a gently winding highway that takes you through some of Argentina’s most spectacular scenery, unearthly landscapes of coloured rocks; jagged mountains, and dry river beds bordered by blossoming scrub.
…unearthly landscapes of coloured rocks and jagged mountains
This is ‘Valles Calchaquies’ within the Salta low valleys, a region with unique micro climates that make it possible to grow wine, especially the white grape ‘Torrontes’ that is so distinctively Argentinian. Cafayate, in the heart of torrontes wine country makes for a realistic destination after a day on the road, and the trip of five or more hours is breath taking.
January is summer of course here, and this is when thunderstorms bring most of the year’s rain to this desert-like region, so the striking countryside has a spring-like lushness. The journey starts through verdant valleys with ancient cactus punctuating the landscape. As you head further south the green hillsides turn to dry, and barren rocks capes of dark reds and browns. Extraordinary geological features are found along the way, like the Devil’s Throat, ‘Garganta del Diablo’, a wild canyon forged through the rocks.
There are practically no cars on the road; one might pass the odd commercial truck or other visitor in a rental, but most of the time the open road is yours. There are few places to stop to eat, and pretty much nowhere to fill up, so make sure you take water and snacks and you fill up with petrol in Salta. Even when you do find a filling station, don’t expect it to have fuel, as many sell out quickly and if you are lucky enough to find some, there is unofficial rationing, so filling the tank is not normally allowed.
As the freshly sprouting trees are left behind, the cactus and scrub dominate. The road passes through valleys known as ‘quebradas’ and at every turn there is a vista worthy of a postcard.
Enjoying the freedom of my car is one of the very few things I miss when travelling, so I was feeling good about getting my own 4 wheels for a few days, but my initial excitement of renting a car was somewhat dampened by the exhaustive warnings and mountains of paperwork presented by the team at the Hertz office in Salta. In a nutshell, renting a car in Argentina is a palaver. Firstly there is no way to insure against the typical car rental excesses, and what’s more the excesses are high. If the car is stolen for example (statistically more likely than you might think in urban areas of Argentina) the bill can be over 6,000 euro. Write the car off by turning it and that’s another fistful of money. Hertz insists you sign an open credit card slip (yes those pieces of paper which they slide over your card still exist in Argentina and much of South America) and they pressured me to sign a form admitting full liability in advance, in the event of an accident or theft even before I left the office! (Needless to say I didn’t sign). Then finally there is the cost – renting in Argentina even with an internet rate secured online in your home country can be easily three times more than the comparable price in Europe; and if renting a 4 x 4 or truck then expect to pay even more.
Cafayate is the place to stay for the night. There are a few wineries around town, so if you get there before around 7pm you can take in a tasting. The most popular is Esteco winery, a striking estate with some great wines.
In the evening take in live music at one or more of the many bars in town offering traditional music; emotive songs called ‘peñas’. Order the typical food of Salta, which is fried or baked empanadas (like mini Cornish pasties) or Humitas, which is a corn based recipe of tomatoes and onions wrapped in a corn husk; while a jug of Torrones wine is cheap!
There is of course the ubiquitous mate tea, here in the north made with coca. It’s a sort of bitter green tea made with coca leaves, the plant from whcih cocaine is made, (it’s a local variant of the popular mate tea found all across Argentina and Uruguay). Don’t worry, you won’t feel like you can fly, the amount of alkaloid is very low in the leaves. It supposedly helps with the high altitud and is good for digestion….
To sign off, here are two of the many murals that decorated a wall on the edge of town – a cool community project celebrating local culture, the people, and the local scenery.