Somehow or other it’s easy to forget how big a country Argentina is. When we’d arrived in Mendoza I sort of thought, “okay we’re up north now,” even if just on the edge of the north. But from Mendoza we took a 16 hour bus ride to San Miguel de Tucuman and still weren’t anywhere near the northern borders of the country. There was lots more travel (33 hours on buses!) and exploration to do before we arrived there.
Tucuman was just a transit point for us. We spent a couple of hours in the bus station before departing. As far as bus stations go it was actually kind of interesting: open air because of the low latitude and altitude of San Miguel and had coin operated TVs in the waiting areas.
Our next destination was NOT low altitude. The 3 hour bus ride to Tafi del Valle spent pretty much all of its time climbing up endless hills and swtichbacks into the Andes. Though unlike many visions of that range, the hills and mountains around Tafi (2000m ASL) were verdant and fertile. It’s a major dairy farming area and is noted for its cheese production (which is actually kind of what drew us there… we’re pretty easy to entice, aren’t we?)
The wild (north) west of Argentina
We stayed at a lovely family run hostel which included dinner and breakfast in your stay, and had a good walk around the small town and the greenery outside it. Part of this was spent searching for a cheesery, which we discovered were all a ways out of town, so we had to settle for a stop at an artisan cheese shop where we picked up some chili flavoured goats cheese (queso de cabra con aji… our Spanish is getting better, at least when it comes to food ) Its goaty-ness and chili-ness were both mild, but it was still yummy.
We’d seen “show” llamas before. We’d seen guanacos. But these were our first 100% genuine llamas.
And being so they certainly deserve a second photo
Cheesy cheesy goodness
Perhaps it was just because of the cloudy weather but, while not unpleasant, Tafi didn’t have much in the way of attractive power, so we left the next day around noon, this time headed further north and further uphill, leaving the
valley for the pass up and over the mountains to the town of Cafayate.
Part of the route north to Cafayate was on the famous Ruta Quarente (RN 40), the (mostly unpaved) road that runs the length of wild western Argentina from north to south. We’d visited the south end of it near Ushuaia and were now not TOO far away from the north end
At first glance Cafayate didn’t seem that fabulous. Its centre had lots of tourist restaurants and hostels. And it’s not that big a town, so having lots meant they were pretty densely packed. Added to this was the fact that we’d unnecessarily (due to our experiences in Patagonia) pre-booked three nights at a hostel that was a half hour walk on a dusty road out of town. And even the wine that the region was famous for was a touch expensive in the shops in town.
All of this changed the following day, and by the time we left, four days later, Cafayte had become probably our favourite place in Argentina.
Though it was far away, we no longer had to do the walk to the hostel with our bags, it was away from all the tourist buzz, and the views of the town and mountains were fabulous. Sitting out on the porch with a bottle of wine and some simple food watching the sun set over the fiery red mountains to the west was the wonderful way that we ended every day in Cafayate.
Dinner time on the porch
Sarah going for a swim at Hostal Paris Texas
The Catedral de Cafayate
I love the simplicity of these “lab coat” school uniforms. Clearly the primary goal is just to save on laundry
And during the days there was plenty to keep us busy, and despite appearances to the contrary, it was far from overrun with tourists that we had to share it with (in late February at least.) And in any case, most of the other tourists there were Argentinian. As in China, the presence of hordes of other visitors to a town, city or sight is much less objectionable when they are interesting and/or interested in you themselves.
On our first day we went on a walking tour of the town’s wineries. To me at least, Cafayate is the second best known wine region in Argentina. And unlike Mendoza, where the wineries are spread over the vast plains that surround the city, in Cafayate many of the wineries are a short walk away and still others are inside the city itself.
We managed to visit a total of six wineries over two days (five on the first day, one on the second.) The first, Domingo Hermanos (or “Sunday Brothers”) was one of the most memorable. Not so much because of the wine (Domingo Hermanos produces primarily adequate but cheap “vino de mesa”) but because of the winery itself. Surprisingly it was my first visit to a winery at harvest time, so the place was all action. And unlike pretty much any winery in NZ, Canada or the US, you were taken right into the heart of the action by the guide, free to poke around and watch the grapes being fed into the de-stemmer and thence the press, or to have a close up look at the bottling line.
Pressed grape skins at Domingo Hermanos being loaded up to be taken away for animal feeds
Grape vines (complete with signs reading “no good for eating” in Spanish) and rose bushes at Domingo Hermanos
Cheesy cheesy goodness
While the other wineries were nice (often offering free tastings, and friendly discussion with the staff) our other favourite was probably Etchart, the most distant from town that we visited, about 3km walk away. Here, while the tour was fun (most especially because of a group of five fifty-ish Kiwis who went on it with us) the wine was the highlight. Where Mendoza is famous for its dark purple malbec, Cafayate’s most famous product is white: wine made from the Torrontes grape. Torrontes is a truly Argentinian variety, a cross between Muscat and a wild native variety. Its heritage is clearly identifiable, a soft, spicy, phenolic flavour that makes it seem as though it’s going to be very sweet. But where most muscats I’ve had ARE on the sweet side Torrontes is usually quite dry, making for a delicious and refreshing contrast between aroma and taste. Etchart is one of the largest and oldest producers in Cafayate, and in addition to the great Torrontes (we got to try some of their Gran Reserva, which has at various times been called the best Torrontes in the world) we also had some lovely Cabernet Sauvignon (which the guide said he actually believed to be the best grape of all for Cafayate’s hot, dry, high altitude [at almost 3000m some vineyards nearby are the highest major producers in the world] environment.)
And (unlike in Canada or NZ) the wineries themselves were by a fair margin the cheapest places to buy the wine made there. Every day we’d pick up a bottle or two, most usually of Torrontes, and enjoy it with bread, tomatoes, cheese (goat cheese like that we’d had in Tafi del Valle is the classic accompaniment for Torrontoes) or other fresh local produce (though it was surprisingly difficult to find good fruits and vegetables… shops were often closed and often had limited, limp-looking stock, and the central market just never seemed to be open at all.) One night we had it with Torrontes grapes, which are actually very tasty eating grapes. On another occasion in town we had a Torrontes ice cream. Yum!
A field of lavender outside a new golf/wine themed resort development just outside Cafayate. One of our fellow guests at the hostel had bought a lot here some years ago. He explained that most of the original buyers were foreigners, but lately more and more Argentinians were buying. Possibly because it was a way to spend Argentine pesos on something that promised to have value in hard foreign currency.
Sarah with one of the old oak tuns at the Etchart winery
Vines and fire-red mountains on the walk home from Etchart
Aside from the wineries the other major attraction of the Cafayate area was the Quebrada de Concha. The Quebrada are a series of multi-hued canyonlands and rock formations to the north of Cafayate. There isn’t really any such thing as a trail or route through the Quebrada except for the road, so we decided to explore them by the simple/cheap method of taking a Salta-bound bus out to a section where there were several sites near one another and then go for a walk along the road between them before catching the return bus for the trip home.
Our first stop was El Gargante del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat) which was probably the most visited of the lot. It came complete with lots of Argentinian families scrambling up the rocks to the head of the box canyon, as well as signs warning you to not write on the rocks and to wear appropriate footwear when climbing (these would have been useful in any number of spots we’d previously visited, most especially in China where women struggling along icy mountain trails in high heels was a common sight.)
A kilometre down the heat-refracted road was La Amfiteatro (the amphitheatre) which lived up to its name, with a well concealed busker playing the pan flute inside, his notes echoing on, off and all around the vast sandstone theatre.
Still further down the road were a series of miradors that looked out over the broad spread of the valley and the multi-hued mountains in the background.
Me at the mouth of the throat of the devil
I love this photo. A cool/confusing panorama looking up and over the top of the Garganta del Diablo box canyon
Tiny looking Sarah at the base of el Antifeatro
Another photo I like: a few cases of sparkling wine that must have fallen off a truck as it wound its way along the road through the Quebrada
There wasn’t any water around while we were there (it was dry and fiercely hot) but its clear that when rain comes it COMES
The Quebrada de Concha were very reminiscent of parts of Arizona or southern Utah in the US
On our way home we popped into one final winery and picked up a special treat, a bottle of sparkling Torrontes to go with our charcoal cooked cheesy-breads (I’m pretty sure that’s not the actual Argentinian name for them…) from a street stand for dinner.
Next day we re-visited the Quebrada (and the llamas we saw out the bus window as well!) on the bus on our way north to Salta, Argentina’s northernmost large city.
In Salta we deposited our bags at the bus station’s left luggage office. We’d allowed ourselves just enough time (and just enough Argentinian pesos!) to spend the afternoon and evening having a look around. We walked into town past a large and lovely park that was thrumming with Saturday afternoon activity. The city was filled with lovely churches and a bright white colonial monastery. And a very busy central square where we saw arguments and fights between schoolboys, couples canoodling and the clock bell tower in the cathedral ringing.
Salta’s Convento San Bernardo
The incredible, colourful Iglesia San Francisco
Slightly blurry interior of the cathedral. But as many Argentinian churches don’t like photos inside, I thought this one might be worth including
We’d also planned to have one more Argentinian Asado/Parrilla (grilled meat) meal, and had dug up a recommendation for a superb parrilla restaurant. Unfortunately we came up against two problems: first, it only opened at 21:00 and our bus left at 22:45, leaving little time for dinner and a walk back to the station. Second, even when the proprietor very kindly offered to open 15 minutes early for us, we realized we’d underestimated the price of a first class parrilla meal (or perhaps I’d just been fooled by my memories of prices on my last visit to Argentina 6 years previous.) So we were 40 or 50 pesos short. In the end we had to settle for a second class restaurant. And while it was fun, and very, very meaty, I think we made the wrong choice. The meat was okay, but often a bit tough, and the offal was, well, offally. Though it did at least leave us very, very full and in fine shape to drift off to sleep on our night bus, yet another 10 hours further north.
Me and the meat. That’s a lot of meat, even for two… Chicken, two kinds of chorizo (sausage), intestine, black pudding, ribs, and steak.
Looking across from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazon, Bolivia in the very early morning
We woke from our final Argentinian bus ride well rested if a little groggy, but final at the northern frontier, ready to begin our long anticipated adventure in Bolivia.
A dandy (and very photo friendly) grasshopper we spotted on our walk from our Cafayate hostel into town</strong
I believe this architectural oddity was a restaurant