Along spectacular, winding roads, pass through postcard-like villages. Between valleys find delicious high-altitude wines, local traditions and crafts.
My partner Alejandro and I decided to take a trip to Salta at the beginning of November. Because we only had a week, we chose to travel south via the wine route. We arrived at the airport after lunch on a Thursday and rented a car so that we’d be able to stop and go as we pleased.
We had already booked a hotel in San Lorenzo, 15 kms from Salta. It was a great choice because, although we were just 15 minutes away from the capital, we were able to enjoy a quiet, residential area with country houses and restaurants. There we ate our first Salteño empanadas and tamales, and tried the delicious high altitude wines that the region is known for.
The next day we went to the city center. We visited the Church of San Francisco, with its rich and colorful facade; the 9 de Julio square; the Cabildo and the High Mountain Archeology Museum.
This museum is dedicated to the conservation, dissemination and research of the Inca culture and its funerary rituals, through the discoveries made in the Llullaillaco volcano. In a cold room, you can see one of three mummies (they are rotated every six months): La Doncella, La Niña del Rayo and El Niño. We got to see El Niño and were impressed by its impeccable preservation.
The next morning, we headed for Cachi along Route 33. The road becomes increasingly winding and spectacular as we drive through the many colored mountains. Various kinds of cacti appear along the route, some huge and towering and others more diminutive. The final section of the road before Cachi is gravel (route 40).
Cachi is a charming little town in the Calchaquí Valleys that retains its colonial character, from the cobblestones to the street lights. We stayed for just one night at the ACA Hotel, which we highly recommend – it’s comfortable, has a great location and panoramic views. At 2,350 meters above sea level, we certainly felt the altitude.
From Cachi, we continued along Route 40 to Cafayate. The route is unpaved except for the last 20 or 25 km, through landscapes with amazing rock formations and colorful mountains. The route curves through foothills west of the Calchaquí River – it’s a beautiful drive, but go slow and be careful because on certain parts it’s quite narrow. We stopped to get gas in a small town called Molinos (less than 2,000 inhabitants) that felt frozen in time. Across the street from the gas station we happened across a gem – the beautiful San Pedro de Nolasco de los Molinos church, made of adobe in the second half of the 1700s using Cuzco models.
We tried to take a shortcut 18 km from Molinos that goes to Estancia Colomé (owned by Swiss magnate Donald Hess), but the winery was fully booked. This is supposedly the oldest grapevine in Argentina as well as the highest altitude vineyard in the world, at 3,111 meters. We got a recommendation to visit the James Turrell museum, which is dedicated to the perception of light and space, and is supposed to be great, but also needs to be booked (far) in advance. We’ll leave it for our next visit.
We took our time en route to our next destination, Tolombón (14 km south of Cafayate), stopping to take in the incredible landscapes around us. Tolombón, nearly on the border of Tucumán province, is where we’d reserved a hotel located in the middle of a vineyard. We spent three nights there – it was wonderful to wake up and watch from the balcony how the sun filtered through the vines, and later to see it set behind the colored hills.
While there we visited two wineries, one small and family-run (Finca Las Nubes) and one much larger (Piatelli), owned by an American businessman. In both cases we had lunch right next to the vineyards and went on tours that walked us through the winemaking process from planting and harvesting to production. In Finca Las Nubes we tasted a delicious Malbec and an excellent Torrontés. At Piatelli, we tried an amazing Cabernet Sauvignon, which was different from the wines from Mendoza that we’re used to drinking.
The Calchaquí Valleys are home to the world’s highest-altitude vineyards. The difference in temperature between day and night is a key element that allows the grapes to mature and deepens the complexity of the wines.
We learned a lot about wine at the Museum of Wine and the Grapevine in Cafayate. An interactive, audiovisual tour provided information about the soil and the area’s particularities that make it ideal for vineyards, as well as the winemaking process. The museum had a lovely text on display: “Every day in Cafayate, the sun comes out and hides among the grapes. Perhaps that is why, at dawn and twilight, the hills light up with the color of the vines: golden yellows, topazes, garnets, purple carmines and violets. Flanked by its rivers and surrounded by its vineyards, Cafayate knows what it means to be close to heaven.”
Before leaving Cafayate we bought some local crafts. Since much of what is sold in the stores is not traditional, we wanted to visit the official markets and the artisans’ workshops. The city and its surroundings are full of these workshops: pottery, silverware, textiles, tapestries, woodwork and paintings. The traditional barracán fabrics are a must-see.
Finally we left Cafayate and began our return to Salta via Route 68. This is a bit more comfortable than Route 40, as it is paved, and also is filled with amazing views and rock formations. We stopped at the Quebrada de Las Conchas to get a better look at the beautiful reddish tones and the effects of erosion on the rocks. The Garganta del Diablo and the Amphitheater are the most iconic spots, where you’ll see massive, cavernous rock formations created by water erosion. La Yesería is also breathtaking with its yellow coloring caused by exposure to lake sediments.
At the suggestion of a friend, rather than go directly back to Salta, we took a detour in Coronel Moldes and arrived at the Cabra Corral dam and reservoir, the “inner sea” of Salta. We spent the night and part of the next day at the Hotel del Dique. It was very comfortable, with beautiful panoramic views from all of the rooms, the pool and the restaurant. For us it was the highest point of the trip and a real oasis before heading back to the airport.
It was a wonderful trip, a chance to reconnect with the northern part of our country. We were left wanting to see more, so next time we’ll head from Salta capital to the north, towards Puna. And for now, we’ll keep the colors, aromas and flavors of the Calchaquí Valleys on our minds.
Susana Gatto was a United Nations official for 35 years. Today she does voluntary social work and dedicates herself to other activities that she postponed throughout her career. Travelling is one of her greatesr pleasures. Together with Alejandro Rausch, an economist, they made this week-long trip through Salta.