This page may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
Our Silver Stag bounded down Highway 68, the sun glistening off the reflective hood. Salmon rocks surrounded us in great shoals, rising up high to the edge of the road before falling back into great wide expanses while all the time backed by a vast ocean of blue.
Every few minutes we were compelled to stop by the scenery that beckoned us with it’s jagged beauty and try to capture some of this natural wonder with our woefully pathetic equipment*. Giant cacti dotted the landscape, looking like two men, one standing on the other’s shoulders, holding their arms held up to the sky.
If those men were also dressed in green outfits and had spikes coming out of them.
And no heads.
‘This,’ we thought. ‘Is going to make for some truly hyperbolic writing.’
Day 1: Salta – Cafayate
- 3.5 hours
We left Salta and took Ruta 68 south towards the Valles Calchaquíes. The drive starts innocuously enough but after an hour or so we left the cowardly clouds and green countryside behind and bravely entered the imposing rock formations of the Quebrada de Cafayate.
These giant red mountains and two-men-dressed-in-green-sized cacti feel like some crazily enlarged version of the Wild West and each turn of the corner brings in amazing new views. We took time to enter the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat – this is the devil when he has a dry throat – there are others) and tickle his tonsils before the extreme angles of some of the slabs forced us to turn back rather unheroically.
No devil conquering here.
After the heady rush of being swallowed by a demon, Cafayate is a blissful, laid-back haven. It’s a small, touristy town but as we were here in the depths of winter it wasn’t too busy.
The central plaza is overlooked by mountains and surrounded by vineyards and there are plenty of bodegas to get bottles of the best booze this side of Buenos Aires (pick up a map from the tourist information hut on the main square). Many of these rather swanky Wine Factories offer tours and tastings and are easily reached on foot or by bike (but not by car, OK?).
We paid A$5 (taken off any purchase) for a tour of the Nanni bodega, right in the centre of town, where we sniffed and swished and tried to pretend we knew what we were talking about. Although our sommelier skills are sadly lacking, we were able to tell that we were tasting some fine wines (i.e. they didn’t have the throaty, vinegar twang) and walked away with a decent bottle of Rose.
We also tried the free but less extensive tasting at El Transito across the road but we didn’t like those wines as much as
they didn’t let us try as many we found them a little harsher than the silky smoothness of Nanni’s selection.
Whether it was the warm, sunny weather, mountain views or wine (possibly the wine) we loved Cafayate and stayed three nights in the area.
Where To Eat
Thanks to a recommendation from Audrey at Uncornered Market we ate lunch everyday at La Casa de Las Empanadas (Mitre 24, just off the main plaza). Usually these pastries come in three flavours: beef, chicken and cheese so we were pleased to find a huge range of options including plenty of vegetarian flavours.
Our favourites were the Vegetariano (squash, aubergine, goats cheese and the local torrontes white wine) and La Griega (olives, goats cheese and tomato). At 2 pesos each you can fill yourself up for US$1.50. It’s a simple place with rickety wooden tables and walls covered in graffiti from happy previous customers.
You can also sample wine flavoured ice cream at Heladería Miranda (Guemes Norte 170). It’s more like sorbet, and is rather strong but if you like wine it’s worth a try.
Where To Stay
We treated ourselves as we had heard about a great deal at Altalaluna, a boutique hotel just outside Tolombon 14 km from Cafayate. It’s a beautiful Spanish style building set on a vineyard with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. There’s a pool, spa, comfy lounge area with open fire (and wifi) and large gardens. Our comfortable, spacious room had its own balcony overlooking the vineyard with gorgeous sunset views. Best of all, it was utterly tranquil. At 468 pesos ($120) for two nights including breakfast and three course dinner it was totally worth it.
Day 3: Cafayate – Quilmes – Cafayate
- 55km (each way along Ruta 40)
- 1 hour (each way)
- Tarmac (gravel for the 10 minute drive to the ruins)
On our last day in Cafayate we took a half day trip to Quilmes. These indigenous, pre-Incan ruins set into a hill feel like they are in the middle of nowhere and only a few tourists make it out here.
Like many archaeological sites, a series of low stone walls is all that is left of the citadel but the setting amongst the cacti is atmospheric and the views from the top of the hill are spectacular – you can see for miles into the vast desert landscape.
Entry to the ruins was 10 pesos each. There is a hotel right by the hill but it was as abandoned as the ruins, so we ate our meals and stayed the night in Cafayate.
Day 4: Cafayate – Cachi
- 5 hours
- Gravel for most of the way
The road to Cachi is paved with…well, not much really. It mostly consists of gravel, but that’s not telling you anything because, after driving on it for two hours, you begin to notice that there is actually a wide variety of different gravels.
There’s the rocky gravel with the larger stones that make worrying thunks as they bounce off your bodywork.
There is the sandy gravel, smooth but slightly slippy. The temptation to grab the handbrake as you go around corners on this surface is huge but is not (entirely) recommended.
Then there is the bitty, rutted gravel. We’re not sure if the ruts are caused by trucks or by the weather, but you’ll quickly find out if you have any loose fillings.
Unfortunately, it seems that this is the gravel that is most common along this road.
Despite the conditions (or perhaps because of – my teeth are falling out, this must be an ADVENTURE!), the drive is actually really enjoyable as it feels very isolated – we didn’t see any other cars for hours – and the scenery is spectacular.
Driving through the Quebrada de Las Flechas you pass small hamlets made tiny by the huge gorges and ginormous jagged red rocks that surround them where men on horses herd tribes of goats past simple one-roomed churches.
Of course, with cinematic scenery like this, you’ll need cinematic snacks. But be warned, there aren’t many places to stop along the way so, if you have an appetite like Simon, bring plenty with you. Also, lots of water might be an idea too.
We did take a break at Molinos, a sleepy village with a pretty whitewashed church, to buy more hard candy (Simon was getting grouchy).
Cachi felt more desolate than Cafayate. The exotic red mountains changed to a more muted brown, the temperature dropped and the trees had a wintry bareness. The small town is pretty though, with low colonial-style buildings encased by mountains – some reaching as high as 6000m.
We attempted a walk to Cachi Adentro but ended up on the World’s Bleakest Runway™. There was no control tower or hangers or, you know, flying machines, just this mile-long stretch of wide tarmac marked with a giant 02 and set into an wind-swept plain. A lone windsock helpfully told us which way the icy gale was heading (naturally, it was right into our uncovered faces).
We considered, briefly, hiking to the nearest mountain to Make The Most Of It like the English we are, but distances are deceptive on terrain so flat and after 10 minutes we had barely cleared the airplane turning circle and the hill was still a long way away.
We gave up. We’re not that English.
On our return, we had a chat to the hotel receptionist and he recommended what he described as a ‘muy bonita‘ drive. The plan was to head towards Al Algarrobal and loop around back via Cachi Adentro and we were promised beautiful scenery along the road with the added bonus of protection from the typhoon-strength winds.
We found the beautiful scenery easily enough, it was just the road we had trouble with.
After we had driven through our second river(!) and the sandy goat track, that was never really that wide to begin with, got even narrower, we finally figured we’d gone the wrong way.
To the left of this road of sand was one of the aforementioned rivers, dotted with huge, car-breaking rocks. On the right was a large, car-rolling hill.
‘Best turn around.’ Erin said calmly from the comfort of her passenger seat.
Through a magical feat of maneuvering and at least two decidedly unnerving moments involving boulders and spinning tires, we managed to get the Silver Stag turned around and we drove back through the two rivers, rental car unscathed, to the relative safety and solidity of the gravel track.
Where To Stay
We continued our extravagance by staying at Hostaria ACA and bargaining a 277 peso room down to 193. Our room was comfortable and bright and the garden had lovely views. They had wifi in the lounge (and in our room if you sat by the bathroom, had the front door open and the wind was blowing in the right direction).
Part 2 of Road Trippin’ – Northwest Argentina continues with our journey as we leave the Valles Calchaquíes and head up to the Quebrada de Humahuaca. You can also have a look at our photos from the trip and follow our route on our map.
*We mean human-built image capturing equipment in general – we’re not travelling the world with a disposable Kodak or anything.
Have you road-tripped around northwest Argentina? Leave a comment and share your tips.
Are you planning a trip? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.
Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter and free ebook South America Highlights.