This seductive village sits between mountain and lake, Tahoe style, an hour north of Bariloche but a world apart. It lies on the famed Seven Lakes route, which is actually more like seventeen, And this arm of mammoth lake #1, Nahuel huapi is among the prettiest rendezvous of land and water on the continent. Cerro Bajo is the peak which looms two miles away, featuring a compact but legitimate 16 lift ski mountain with an excellent reputation. The gigantic expanse of crystal blue water on three sides of the hamlet seems infinite, and for kayakers, bikers, hikers, skiers and such, the Villa is exceptional.
One of the places that draws people is the isolated Parque Nacional Arrayanes, situated on the far end of Victoria peninsula, a long stretch of verdant woods twelve kilometers long. This isthmus is so narrow that realistically Victoria peninsula is much more so than actual islands Phuket, and Skye, to name a famous couple. Thus, absolutely undeveloped besides the 12 km trail, open to hike or bike, period.
It’s a superb walk in the woods out to the massive stand of orange Arrayanes trees, by far the largest and oldest left anywhere. Most people visit the park via boats from the town docks, or across the big lake from Bariloche. The 45 minute long slow ride from the Villa is dazzling, with postcard views in every direction, and it can be done round trip, or one way, with a sporty hike there or back, take your pick. We took the catamaran Futaleufu which departs from the mansa(calm) side of the isthmus. The tariff was ARS$2600, a bargain at about US$40 for two, plus another seven dollars for the actual park admission.
That’s for non Argentians, who get in for less than half of that. Regardless, it’s worth twice the money, and we were fortunate to have Carlos as a guide and fountain of vital information. He led us around the super sturdy wooden boardwalk through the Arrayanes grove, which boasts loads of massive, gnarled trees, some over 450 years old. There are likely more of the distinctive orange trunks here than the rest of the planet combined, and since they’ve been spared any frivolous development or culling there are plenty that have collapsed from centuries of living. It’s a guided walk that could take a lot longer than the scheduled half hour, before arriving at the century old tea house back near the dock. There’s no camping on the peninsula, so it’s made for a first rate day hike, but the boat ride alone is something I highly recommend. A couple of eye popping viewpoints can be reached in a half hour from the port as well, and these are likewise worth every step and minute. Two round trips every day, take your time and your camera.
We didn’t make it four kilometers up to the ski area, but did take the hourly bus to the drop dead gorgeous Bahia Manzano. This has to be heaven for anybody fortunate enough to own an aquatic vessel. Million dollar pads line the forested shore and harbor here and if this ain’t good enough, it ain’t. A huge bay front hotel takes up most of the middle, but wanderers can enjoy plenty of eye candy from the fringes. Worth a stop, at least, and maybe a tour of the shore from a sailboat with food and drinks. Stand up paddle boards, kayaks and assorted other craft are available for hire, and I can envision a superlative day, or many, spent here, gliding on the blue ribbon water, no question.
The Villa has a handful of neighborhoods all reachable via the public bus, and the main departure point is the same parking lot the long distance busses arrive at. Rental bikes are abundant and cheap, so some human energy here can eliminate any ‘need’ for a motorized vehicle. The main street is packed with shops and cafes, and the town, like many, fills up in January when the summer break starts. Still, the Villa is worth a few days any other time of the year, and a wide range of ecosystems are within minutes of each other. It’s a stunning location that I will return to repeatedly for further study and recreation.
There are literally hundreds of accommodation options in town, bunk beds to four star fat city, but I made a wise choice by staying at Tierra de los Mestizos. We were toting full backpacks, so distance from the bus station was a big factor, having a limited time here. Tito is the owner, a very affable and helpful hombre, and his funky rustic pad has perhaps 3 rooms. But the breakfast is fine, the ambiance plenty good, and the 2 minute walk to the station and main street is ace. The double room with shared bathroom was a bargain at US$15 a night, breakfast included. Tell Tito I sent you, and stay longer than our two nights if you’ve got it to spare.
Tito recommended two restaurants on Main street, named Avenida Arrayanes, and he was spot on. La Nevada and El Esquiador are on the same block, owned by the same dude, and this is where the locals and lucky tourists dine. Good hearty local fare, as in cordero and trout, reasonably priced, busy as hell but tremendous service and value. Worth the wait, but the avenue has perhaps 20 possible plan B’s. Maybe even one better than Nevada.
I seek to stay in hostels everywhere I go, not just to save money and maintain on the cheap, but to meet other travelers in a more social setting than a hotel. The communal habitat promotes more interaction and communication, and the exchange of vital information, pointers and tips can be priceless. I’ve met some terrific folks on the road, and many of us prefer places such as these. Keep in mind, however, people move, places change and sell, get worse or improve, so nothing lasts forever. So this compilation will be dynamic, and always changing, and definitely not static. An example is a hostel I would include on this list, if only it hadn’t gone out of business. RIP 41 Below in Bariloche, may you rise again like a Phoenix. So dig, if you will, and may the hall expand and extend……
The Buddha, Laureles, Medellin, Colombia
I was lucky enough to find and book this place before landing there, and even after I later moved to Medellin and got an apartment nearby, continued to frequent the place for a beer and meeting other wanderers. Spacious interior and stellar garden with a lot of places to relax, and a location that provides easy access to the dining and entertainment stretch of Carrera 70 towards the stadium. Super cool staff with lots of ideas and a collective feel to the big casa.
There are very few cities that have as vibrant a zone of restaurants and assorted entertainment as bodacious as Cordoba, and so proximity to that Guemes neighborhood is always a factor for me. The Terraza is located in a favorable part of the center, with everything close, and the vibe is friendly as all hell. Once again, it’s the people who make the difference, and the staff here are about as good as it gets, in all categories. The digs are snug and clean. and the rooftop patio and parilla is a congenial spot to watch the sunset and toast your new friends. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance, and one of South America’s best bar scenes is an easy15 minute stroll away. The only real negative is tied to its’ ‘close to everything good’ location, so traffic noise outside makes earplugs almost compulsory. Never the less, I won’t stay anywhere else in Cordoba, one of my favorite cities in Argentina. https://www.booking.com/hotel/ar/hostel-la-terraza-del-centro.es-ar.html
La Humahuacasa, Humahuasca, Argentina
I stayed two nights here exploring the vast quebrada and it is cozy, convenient, everything works, and the hosts, Paola and Juan, are ultra helpful and generous with their time and suggestions. Breakfast is tasty, the wifi solid, and the fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill are ready to go. The casa feels like it grew out of the ground here, rustico, autentico, and truly relaxing. Two blocks from the plaza, and three from the bus station, it’s a fine base for exploring the supernatural far north of the country. http://www.humahuacasa.com.ar/
La Casa del Viajero El Bolson, Argentina
Agustin Aporro built the first hostel in El Bolson, a couple of kilometers from the town center but much closer to great hiking trails, such as the stellar Catarata Escondida. His funky compound of private and communal cabins is on a big lot with a trout pond, organic garden, and greenhouse, a little slice of heaven on the other side of the river. He is likewise a wealth of vital info regarding the entire region not to mention El Bolson itself. It’s a cheap taxi or a leisurely walk to town, and it’s my base whenever I get to Patagonia, which isn’t often enough. http://www.lacasadelviajero.com.ar/
Hostel del Gualicho Puerto Madryn, Argentina
Four blocks from the beach, and five from the bus terminal, a prime location isn’t the only thing Gualicho has going for it. Sparkling clean, organized and spacious common areas inside and out, along with an excellent breakfast buffet. But again it’s the people that make the difference, and the staff here is a great example. Always friendly and ready to share the ‘inside’ information, the Gualicho gang puts guest service into the A+ category. Individual reading lights in each bunk bed is indicative of doing the little things that add up big. http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/
Secret Garden, Cotopaxi, Ecuador
The Secret Garden is one of those places that I found out about through the grapevine and it lived up to the hype 100%. A couple of hours outside of Quito, it’s actually closest to the small town of Machachi, but the imposing legendary volcano is front and center, offering a sensational view. The Garden offers a bunch of different lodging options, from trippy Hobbit Homes, to birdhouses in the trees, to small cabins with wood stoves. The prices include 3 meals a day, free coffee and tea, a wood heated hot tub, free maps and picnic lunches, and a complimentary two hour hike to a beautiful waterfall right out the backdoor. There are lots of tours offered at very reasonable prices, including a hike to the snow line on Cotopaxi at 5000+ meters altitude, which is $ very well spent. The food on offer is healthful, nutritious, and delicious, and the international staff is super cool, always accommodating, and fun loving. The Secret Garden makes for a tremendous stop for travelers looking for the absolute best of Ecuador. http://secretgardencotopaxi.com/blog3/
Punto Verde Eco Hostel, Montanitas, Ecuador
This was another surprise that exceeded expectations after arriving on the Ecuador coast during the mayhem of New Years. This hilltop hacienda is the creation of Joos, a dynamo from Holland who traded her houseboat for this property sight unseen, an amazing leap of faith. She built several new additions to the original cabin, and completely created an astonishing oasis just a 15 minute walk into the heart of party central. She really learned by doing, using local materials and indeed constructed an outstanding lodge at the end of a dirt road just a short walk up off the highway. The beach is closer, and the distance from the nocturnal commotion is a blessing in terms of peace and quiet. Solid bunk beds, lockers and hammocks, a couple of sensational sunset patios and a setting that just puts you at ease. With a place this unique, the visitors likewise are uncommonly cool.
The capitol and only major city of Uruguay doesn’t get the acclaim of some neighbors, notably Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, but it’s a vibrant and fascinating place, and if time is short, it’s good to have a plan. Since most international flights arrive early in the morning, let’s map out the best use of that two days and nights.
After that early arrival, getting down to the city center and the old ciudad vieja is on the docket. The old barrio has some rough edges, but three splendid plazas, all totally different, and close enough to walk. Plaza Independencia is more open and less shady than the others, and affords a grand view of the classic Salvo Tower, looking like an Atlas rocket ready for launch. When it was built it was the tallest skyscraper in South America. The plaza is at the portal into the old city, and the pedestrian walkway Sarandi is loaded with street vendors, shops, and food options galore.
Two blocks away is lovely Plaza Matriz, with big leafy trees and the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral, built here in 1790 and the site of many big weddings and such. An easy three blocks west of matriz, also know as constitucion, lies my favorite, Plaza Zabala. Inaugurated in 1890, this square was designed by Parisian Eduardo Andre, and it definitely has a French flair. Covered with a collection of trees including Magnolias, Zabala is an easy place to spend lots of relaxing time. Directly across the street is the stately Taranco Palace, a national historical site and art gallery also worth some precious time.
Turning north onto Perez Castellano, this pedestrian street leads to the quirky and bustling Puerto Mercado, where a dozen or so restaurants offer meat on the grill with all the trimmings. After wandering a bit, get on the Montevideo hop on, hop off double decker tourist bus which hits 10 notable sites, including Estadio Centenario, where Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup.
An hour and a half after boarding, hop off at Punta Carretas to check out one of the finest hoods and a hot bed of food, drink, and retail shops with the latest and coolest. And I know that real travelers never want to get on an actual tourist bus, but this is a pretty efficient use of 2 hours.
Perhaps a break is in order after this campaign, and for the evening shift, we head to Palermo for dinner and drinks, and if we’re lucky, live Candombe on the streets. This particular variation of music was born here centuries ago, and features an avalanche of drums and accompanying dancers and followers. The troupe, sometimes numbering triple digits, shuffle through the streets at a very casual pace and are easy to catch up with anytime. They can be heard a kilometer away, at least, and if your timing is right, these energetic musical displays can be downright invigorating.
Whether Candombe is happening or not, a worthy stop on the road to utopia is El Mingus, a restobar at the corner of San Salvador and Jackson. Food, drinks, music and clientele are all first rate, and this leisurely stop will fill the tank for the rest. Which is live music in the classic basement of Emigrantes, another luminary in the local music scene. The bands play late, the crowds congregate and everybody goes home, or hotel, happy.
Day two begins with renting a bike and covering some beauteous ground, as the plan is to ride as much of the sublime Montevideo rambla as possible. The rambla is a wide sidewalk that parallels the mighty Rio de la Plata for over ten miles, starting in the old city and ending in the swank suburb of Carrasco. The vast majority of coastline in Uruguay is open to the public, a huge difference from many other developed countries. So there’s a ton to see and it’s not very demanding as the path stays flat with just two small hills. There are dozens of places to stop for some sustenance, especially in the neighborhood surrounding the elegant Carrasco Hotel and Casino.
Passing through the fetching beach communities of Malvin and Punta Gorda, the quantity of architectural marvels is stunning, and there’s a lot to see besides beach and buildings. The rambla offers a birds eye view of a range of development from decades past to yesterday and is the best method to learning the lay of the city.
Upon arriving in Carrasco, wander the streets immediately surrounding the casino and behold some very unique dwellings. Arocena Avenue is the main business artery here and home to dozens of refreshment selections. The most celebrated is the venerable Bar Arocena, open 24/7 and boasting one of the finest chivitos in the land. This is the national icon, a variation of the gringo steak sandwich, and if the stomach needs fuel, fill it up here. Afterwards, an easy return back into the city center or home base will be the perfect lead in to a siesta.
Tonight we experience the prized culinary tradition of the barbeque, known as asado in these parts. The venue is La Pulperia, a hallowed spot worshipped by carnivores for its’ merit and nothing fancy setting and service. The go to dish on the menu is the Ojo de Bife, a Rib eye steak, but they whip up all the cuts of meat and several side dishes, along with the finest local red wines. It’s a neon meat dream that will be relished for moons and recalled eternally.
Once again tonight we seek a sotano, a basement with live music, so the next stop is just a five minute walk away. Bar Tabare has it’s own highly regarded kitchen, but we’re here for drinks and music, and both are delivered with gusto. Much like the culture of cooking on a fire here, many establishments sport a basement bar where live music is the draw, and Tabare, like Emigrantes, has a beauty. Sit and savor the sounds of a culture in full bloom, and raise a glass to your good fortune in getting to such a metro gem.
I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.
It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.
Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.
Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.
This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.
Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame. A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.
The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.
It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.
Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.
There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.
The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.
For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.
It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.
The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy. The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.
I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.
My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine. This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.
When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.
Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/
El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station. Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/
I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.
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
I traveled to this region earlier in the year, spending my time in Tilcara, 45 kilometers to the south in this massive quebrada. I was focused on learning a new area, so I came to Humahuaca, a much larger village, and that much closer to my real objective of the otherworldly settlement of Iruya.
Humahuaca is situated at 1100 feet altitude, much like Tilacara and Purmamarca, its closest neighbors. Tourism seems to be the economic driver here, and there are a few features that visitors can access, such as the giant salt flats to the west, Valle Grande and Calilegua National Park to the southeast, and the celebrated multicolored hills throughout this immense gorge. The town itself has a historic center with narrow cobblestone streets, a clean traditional plaza with lots of shade trees, and all sorts of monuments. Chief among these is the very prominent memorial to the ‘Heroes of the Independence’ two blocks west of the plaza, with a promenade of steps leading up to a towering statue of the heroes, sitting atop the municipal museum of archeology. The views from the top are splendid, and it’s obvious a lot of work was devoted to this site. Colonial style street lamps lend a lovely light, and this is a worthy place to witness the dusk settle over the big valley.
As in many of these isolated towns, there are a number of renowned old cathedrals and cultural centers, along with open air markets, a clock tower, and souvenir shops galore.
Several outfitters can transport travelers to other points of interest outside of town, and there are ample opportunities for biking, hiking, and long distance trekking. I stayed two nights en route to a planned circuit of southern Bolivia, but my main purpose here was to get to Iruya, a place I had been inspired to visit by many who already had.
The turnoff to Iruya is 19 km north of Humahuaca on Hwy. 9, and from then on it’s 54 km of dusty, bumpy, serpentine and steep pitches into the valley where the village sits perched on a mountain shelf at 2800 meters. Even a mountain dweller is likely to feel the altitude here which is deceiving, as this is the bottom of a valley, but there are 5000 meter mountains both north and south of here. 150 Argentine pesos was the fare, and while the destination is quite the payoff, scenic splendor wise, the actual road there is an engineering marvel. The first part climbs steadily through a number of tiny settlements and grazing animals until it reaches the crest of a high ridge. The abundant cactus is in full bloom in early December, and several familiar Arizona cousins are blended with odd altiplano plants.
The landscape becomes more dramatic and steep with the distance until it falls off that pronounced ridge into a series of switchbacks where large white rocks mark the edges. Which is a good thing, as fog or rain could render visibility near zero here, and competent drivers in a solid 4wd could feel spooked and compelled to crawl along at 5 mph white knuckling this entire stretch. Our driver, piloting a creaky old 40 passenger bus, handled it all like a maestro, no doubt due to his prolific mileage on this king’s camino.
There is a religious shrine tucked into the big rocks at the top of this pass, and a crowd of locals were congregated here to mark some holy moment. Here it was downhill all the way into the bottom of a broad valley bordered by vertical cliffs and sheer bluffs. Finally the fabled pueblo comes into view, a postcard perched on the bottom of a precipitous mountain. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and although some of the desert on the way in is stark and daunting, the living beauty is something else altogether. As John Muir or Ed Abbey might say, life affirming, at the very least.
I complimented the driver on his road skill getting off, and he told me would be departing at 2:30, about 3 hours away. My foot ramble commenced with a search for something to eat, wandering narrow stone streets up through the mostly adobe buildings. It was Sunday, and there was a crowd of folks in and around the striking yellow church, with the sermon broadcast via loudspeakers outside. Built in 1690, this structure is the most prominent of all here and has held up quite well. Stopping into a store with a sign advertising empanadas and such, a crusty old guy answered my query with, ‘No quedan nada, hippie’, ‘there’s nothing left’, which cracked me up, not so easy to do. I was sporting a daypack and no doubt looked like a vagrant of sorts, but this response surprised me. I do imagine that some of the locals get weary of the tourist day trippers, if only because this place is so isolated that everybody is an ‘us or them’ to some degree, and as many resist the changes as embrace them. And change used to be much slower here, for sure.
Continuing my climb up to the limits of the center, I arrived at a locked up cemetery with million dollar views. Looping back down a lane which could be skied with enough snow brought me back down to the people’s church, where I knocked out 3 small empanadas, carne and goat cheese at 15 pesos a piece.
This was enough fuel to do the trick and get me across the much newer, and solid as a rock pedestrian bridge which spans the broad and usually dry Iruya river, which must be a wild sight when it actually flows. I wandered through this other half of the village, mostly residential, with a jumbo dirt soccer field where first a boy’s team, and then the girl’s, each played a game.
It doesn’t take much time to see most of what’s here, and one more leisurely stroll delivered me to the most commercial block with a few hostels, cafes, and small stores surrounded a tiny covered plaza. The pace of life is slow in Iruya, sporadically interrupted by the tourist bus arrivals, and I killed the rest of my allotted time before returning to the idling bus at 2:15. Which was fortuitous, as after I paid my 150 for the return fare we took off at 2:19, with just a handful of riders and nobody I could recall from the ride in. So maybe all those visitors were staying the night, but if not they missed the ‘boats’ early launch.
The ride out was as pretty as the ride in, with a new appreciation for the pitch, curviness and route of the mighty road, and the worshippers were all still up around the shrine when we passed over the top. A couple of pick ups and drop offs later, and a quick pull in at the only real village on the way, San Isidro. The 73 kms between Humahuaca and Iruya takes almost 3 hours in good conditions, so a day trip definitely uses up a day. It is an amazing destination and worth the time, but plenty of peeps would enjoy an overnight stay to further absorb the glacial pace of the place. There are trails heading out in all directions, most going straight up, and mountain biking is likewise an option for fun. Don’t miss it if the opportunity presents itself.
I stayed at the excellent La Humahuacasa hostel, 2 blocks from the central plaza at Buenos Aires 740. Paola and Juan are exceptional hosts, providing a tasty basic breakfast and super useful local knowledge on the area’s delights. Shared and private rooms are very economical, the wifi is good, and a fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill is ready to go. It makes for a fine base while exploring the area.
There is no shortage of places to eat, ranging from swank tourist cafes to ultra local eateries offering everything from humitas to llama burgers. Just on the other side of Belgrano avenida is a sizable outdoor market where the locals buy everything from clothes and appliances to produce. This is the right place to stretch a peso to the limit.
There are a bunch of outfitters catering to vacationers looking to explore the countryside, trekking or biking, and excursions of all time frames and costs. The Bolivian border at La Quiaca is 160 km north, the appealing Tilcara 42 k to the south, with San Salvador de Jujuy, capitol city of the province and a major hub, another 84 k down Highway 9.