This beguiling valley is only 190 kilometers southeast of Salta, capitol of the province, and that drive is surely one of the panoramic expanses of landscape in all of Argentina. The route on Highway 68 passes through the fertile pastures of the Lema Valley before crossing into the remarkably rugged mountains surrounding the Calchique valleys. Once past the last real settlement at La Vina, the highway twists through steep, amole, aka, ‘shin dagger’cactus covered ridges before entering the eroded spectacle of the jaw dropping Quebrada de las Conchas, the Gorge of the Shells. This gave me a profound Utah flashback, with every shade of red earth carved into extraordinary forms, evoking the usual impulse of ‘let’s get in there’.
Passing through this region at sunset really puts the proper shade on these hills, and the reflection on the small yet stunning Rio de las Conchas is mesmerizing. There are several signed rock formations, including the Devil’s Throat, the Obelisk, and the Toad, and thousands more further away from the highway. It reminded me of the Canyonlands in Utah, with fluted walls of petrified mud, and hollowed out grottos and slot canyons like the Pariah Plateau. It’s the kind of place where your hiking boots are waiting like a dog at the door.
So the method is to get into Cafayate, get a place to base out of, and then get back up to this quebrada. I was able to get some excellent tips from Juan, the owner of Muna bikes, about how to get up to a sublime 8k loop. From the terminal, take any Salta bound bus to km 24, El Paso, just past the Obelisk at km 22. There is no sign other than a barrier blocking entry into this wash, and this is the entrance. Follow the abundant horse and footprints to the east, as this wash begins to tighten up and close in. Plenty of side ravines drop into this one, providing heaps of opportunities to explore more, but continuing on in the main one is the idea. The sandy bottom eventually runs out and an easy slick rock climb emerges onto a Martian red mesa which overlooks another vast high desert delta, beyond which lie cloud topped peaks, a dazzling sight.
It’s all downhill from here, treading the well worn path across the vermillion scape past some curious rock figures and down into the jumbo wash. This marks a solid left turn, and this drainage is followed all the way back to the highway just a flat half hour away. The end intersects the highway at a site known as ”La Yesera’, where fossilized fish are the remnants of the last ocean to cover the Americas 15 million years ago. The stone layers surrounding the area are visual evidence of the array of minerals found here, with gypsum, borax, cobalt, copper and sulfur all lending their tint to the terracotta scape.
The river on the other side of the highway is easy to get down to and offers a fine place to cool off and splash. I startled a flock of parrots that were ensconced in a bushy tree and other than that the only sound for hours was the wind. There’s a roadside store called El Zorrito that is visible a quarter mile away and that’s where I hung in the shade until the Cafa bound bus rolled by again. 50 pesos going out, and 58 from 4k further away on the return. This theme can be repeated at any number of attractions farther into the quebrada, such as the Garganta del Diablo and Anfiteatro 20 k up the road, both of which attract plenty of visitors. There is no lack of shade in the recesses of the canyon I walked up, but none the rest of the way, so adequate water and a hat are essential, and some grub is a fine idea.
This entire panorama is utterly astounding, with loads of other named formations such as the Friars, and the Castles, and several good long days could be spent investigating the area. Depending on the amount of sun and the time of day, the earth changes colors here much like sections of the Grandest Canyon, in Arizona. Visually, it’s a treat, and easy to access, as the busses from Salta are running at regular intervals. The chalky white hills called the Medanos are found at km 6 on the way back towards town, another inviting place to walk through the sand dunes.
The town of Cafayate is a unique locale, sitting in the middle of these spectacular canyons to the east and the hulking cordillera to the west and much closer. Surrounded by 30 something bodegas, many quite celebrated, in some respects it’s like a much smaller Mendoza. It’s certainly on the tourist circuit, judging from the quantity of long distance motorcyclist groups which roll through here, and obviously a favorite stay over location. The central plaza is one of the best in Argentina, loaded with trees and birds, grassy and shady, and the locals hang out here for hours. This unsullied square is fronted by businesses on all sides, primarily sidewalk cafes, shops, and wine stores. The foremost church here is resplendent yellow on the north and is next door to an exceptionally helpful tourist office, providing details on accomodations and all things vital to travelers.
I rented a bike from Juan at Muna twice and tooled around town, first heading west out through the vineyards, towards the mountain range which was usually capped with clouds. Passing by the Quara vineyards, I pulled in for a free tour but the place was closed during siesta time in the early afternoon. This is the rule around these parts, similar to the hot parts of Mexico, but that’s when I tend to be most active. I’ve taken plenty of tours in Mendoza, California, and New Zealand, so although I enjoy them, it’s not a priority. One km further on is Etchart Vineyards, and much of this stretch features a paved bike path which parallels the road and provides a safe buffer zone from the motorized parade. When I crossed over 3 meters of brushy dirt to get on it, my tires picked up a few dozen ‘goathead’ sticker thorns, which took me a few minutes to remove but fortunately none punctured the tubes, which can happen easily.
Directly across the highway from Quara is the renowned Estancia de Cafayate, a well financed development that includes a posh hotel and villas, golf course, homesites, and its’ own 70 year old vineyards. I was curious to see what the spread looked like, but the gate guard informed me that I could neither ride nor walk in, but I was welcome to return in an automobile. I wasn’t that curious, and never made it back. I did wheel around for long enough to get hot and tired, and a significant portion of the residents use bikes for transportation. It’s a fine community to ride in, as traffic isn’t too excessive or manic, and most of that is in the center.
The next day I biked towards the east, crossing the bone dry Rio Chusche and rolled north on Route 2 beneath rows of Poplar trees and through miles of grapevines similar to the westward ruta del vino. The Piatelli Vineyards are 3 km up the road on the right, and this path can be followed for many more across high desert to Domingo Molina. I explored the northern limits of Cafayate on my return, and there’s much more to the northern residential section than the southern part.
All the blocks are laid out on a grid, but not all the roads go through and almost all are dirt. I managed to get a little lost and turned around as I was searching for a different way to get back to the town centro. There is also another excellent route to roll on, by taking 25 de Mayo north off Hwy 40 on the west edge of town and heading towards the Rio Colorado. This will lead to Cueva del Sur, an archeological site with caves and petroglyphs, and just up the road a small bodega named Finca las Nubes, the Farm of Clouds. The small town of Divisadero is a kilometer away, with ruins of an ancient setlement and more intriguing geography, at the edge of the mountains where the Colorado and Lorohuasi rivers converge. There are more choice hiking and biking options here, winding through boulders, and across creeks to scattered small waterfalls, reminiscent of the lush Catalina mountains in my old homeland.
I spent my downtime roaming the streets of Cafa, looking for new places to check out, relax, and refuel. There is a range of choices for food and drink, especially on the plaza, but I returned to the reliable as often as not. These were El Hornito, with its’ trademark empanada oven out front, and El Chelo, where the locals converge for hearty, cheap sandwiches. Both are on the same street, Rivadavia, a quick walk from the plaza. The former serves excellent grilled meals and empanadas and a sidewalk table is a terrific vantage point to watch the locals on the move. I met several travelers here from Europe and North America and we traded information and ideas over fine wine and cold beers. El Chelo was where I started each morning with first class coffee accompanied by a sandwich to go, to munch on later.
Cafayate lived up to its reputation and I plan to return to the area soon, along with some time in the very different Tafi del Valle on the way towards Tucuman. Passing through here on the bus back south gave me a glimpse of countryside that evoked Switzerland, pastoral and beyond pretty, and the wet cloud forest dropping off this high plateau is a drive not to be missed in any weather conditions. The more of northern Argentina I visit, the more motivated I am to get back.
Muna Bikes, where I rented my metal steed, is also a casual cafe and tavern, serving homemade meals, snacks, and ice cold beers. Juan is a wealth of information about biking and hiking options in the area, and his place is located on the street directly behind the cathedral on the plaza. This is a good place to start any outdoor adventure in the area, and the bikes come with helmet, pump, repair kit, lock and map. Very handy, and very economical. Calchaqui 70 +54 291 418 2122
Hostal ‘El Portal de las Vinas’, is located on the same street as the cathedral, Nuestra Senora del Rosario 165. All private rooms, very cool and quiet due to thick adobe walls, with a nice courtyard and good wifi. Air conditioning, cable TV, and budget friendly. +54 3868 42 1098