Salta and North West Argentina

Trip Start May 05, 2013
Trip End Nov 06, 2013

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Flag of Argentina  , Salta Province,
Thursday, September 5, 2013

We have enjoyed Bolivia immensely but it is time to head on south to Argentina and Salta, a place we loved the last time around. would it be the same?? It is a long journey so we decide that rather than waiting for a bus, to jump in a taxi and get a head start to the border some two hours away. Thankfully, the road to Argentina is one of the few in Bolivia that is halfway decent. We hit the Bolivian border town of Villazòn ( not the complete dump we had been told,) where we change what left of our Bolivanos into Argentine pesos and then cross the bridge on the border.

We queue for ages as we watch the hundreds of traders carrying all manner of large sacks across the border from Argentina and get chatting to a German couple who seem a bit lost as to where to go next. Eventually we all get to the immigration window and get our exit papers stamped by the Bolivian police. All very straightforward but where to go next for our Argentine paperwork. Everyone else starts to walk off across the bridge towards the Argentine border town of El Quiaca, but, out of the corner of my eye I catch another policeman in a different uniform behind a glass counter, tucked away around a corner next door to the Bolivian guy. No signs or other indications but this is indeed the Argentina immigration office so I call everyone back to get there stamps. We met an Irish couple in Bolivia who were worried sick that coming the other way, they forgot to get their Bolivian stamp. We were all taking the mickey, but so easy to see how that could happen!!

We walk the mile or so to the bus station to get the bus to Salta. At the station there is the usual bunch of con men all trying to persuade us that their bus was the best/quickest/ cheapest. Eventually we select a "direct" bus to Salta. Five hours later and of course it is not direct and stops in Juyjuy where we have about two minutes to change buses for the next leg to Salta where we will spend a couple of nights sorting out car hire etc. before heading off on a trip to Cafayate and Cachi etc.

Salta does not seem to have changed much at all. Still one of our favourite cities in South America. Our first job is to change some US$ at the "blue dollar" rate which is some 60% better than the official rate. All highly illegal of course but, given the state of Argentinas economy, all the locals are busy exchanging their pesos into hard currency to protect their cash from yet another catastrophic devaluation that wiped out their savings a few years ago.

An Argentinian friend had recommended a money exchanger to me so we went to visit him in the back room of a coffee shop to change some $$$ all very easy and much better rates than from an ATM or bank. It makes Argentina an affordable destination. Having said this, we did find out later that the police and security services had organised a crackdown in this area a few weeks ago and were arresting the money exchangers and their customers and carting them of to jail in a fleet of vans!

Having had a couple of not very good meals in Salta we decided for our last night in town to cook ourselves at the hostal. We went to the supermarket and bought a very large chunk of fillet steak for an absurdly low price of around £5 the same piece back home would have costa round £30! It was superb!

In the Morning collect our rental car from Hertz and head off to Cachi. The journey takes around 4 -5 hours and the scenery gets more and more interesting as we wind our way into the mountains, stopping along the way to admire the views that so impressed us the last time we visited. Unfortunately, although the skies are blue,everywhere is very hazy due, we think to dust storms blown up by the stronger than usual wind which seems to be affecting the region.
Parque Nacional los Cardones, a semiarid landscape filled with cacti, sage, and limestone
Cachi is a small town/large village which has a very pretty plaza surrounded by white buildings including a small church which is standing room only on Sunday morning. We stop for a quick lunch of empanadas before heading of in search of a place to stay. We drive about 10 kms out of town to Finca la Paya, a beautiful place we stayed at on our last visit. Unfortunately it was closed. Worse, although it still seemed to be operating as a hotel, it did seem to have decline somewhat and now looked a bit down at heel. The swimming pool was dirty and the place generally looked a bit scruffy. Not at all how we remembered it. We head back to town and look at a few places before settling on a small hospedaje,Don Arturo. As son as we walk through the door I realise that we had stayed here before! Cachi is more touristy than we remember but we still struggle to find a place to eat. It is not high season and some places are closed. We settle upon Oliver's on the main square and have a really great pizza and a bottle of Malbec. One of the few places in the world I suspect where a great bottle of wine is half the price of the pizza!

In the morning we decide to head on down Ruta 40 but not before we have visited the cemetery atop the hill outside of town. The road winds around the hill all the way to the top. Along the way there are signs depicting Christ on his way to the crucifixion which gradually get more gruesome as you ascend. Once at the top the views of the town and the quedabra are spectacular, or at least they would be if not for the dust haze.

The cemetery itself in pretty impressive covering most of the flat top of the hill. Lots of ornate family crypts, some in a good state of repair, some have fallen down exposing the contents!!! Definitely worth a visit but it doesn't always pay to look too closely!

We leave Cachi on Ruta 40 which is the longest road in Argentina and runs from El Quiaca on the Bolivian border to Ushaia at the southern tip of South America. This is one of one of the greatest drives in the world and we will cover only a small section as we head off towards Cafayate, one of the premier wine growing areas in Argentina.

The road out of Cachi is just dirt and gravel but in pretty good condition. Nevertheless I am happy we got the additional insurance for the car as stones are flying up and taking chunks out of the paintwork! All good fun pretending to be a driver on the Dakar rally which follows this route along the Valles Calchaquies (even if the car is only a Chevrolet Corsa, at 1400cc, hardly the most powerful car on the road!). An hour or so on we stop off at Molinos, a one horse town if ever there was one, just to admire the church and the Hostal opposite. The church is very pretty and, as it is Sunday,is packed out with people standing outside the doors but as the church only holds about twelve people! it is hardly surprising.

Continuing on along the winding road, we stop at various places along the way to admire the views which are amazing. Eventually we reach arguably the most scenic part of the route the Quebrada de las Flechas ( the ravine of arrows) where the rocks have been formed by erosion into arrowhead shapes. We climb up to a mirador to take in the views and take some photographs of this incredibly beautiful but barren landscape.

It is now late afternoon so we press on to Cafayate to find a place to stay for the night. Eventually we leave Ruta 40 and get back onto Tarmac roads. The drive has been fun but it is such a relief not being shaken to bits!

We decide to spend a couple of days in Cafayate to chill out and sample some of the fantastic wines in the vineyards for which the areas are famous. We find a nice Hostal, La Penable in the corner of the main plaza, dump our bags and head off to a bodega to sample some wines.

Unfortunately, we have hit Cafayate on a Sunday and Monday when not too many of the bodegas are open. We start off with a small bodega in town, Nanni. One of the cheaper vineyards we sample a number of their wines including a Torrontes, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec. All are pretty good, especially the Torrontes so we buy a bottle for later!

Over the two days in town we check out a few bodegas and vineyards including;

El Transito - organic but not great wine
Dos Hermanos - hugely impressive vineyard and hotel complex out of town, sadly the vineyard was closed!
El Porvenir - the nicest of the wines we tasted and the most friendly, entertaining guy to show us around.

Favourite wines? Torrontes reserva and Tannat reserva, both from. El Porvenir

The next day we decide to walk to a goat farm out of town have a look around. We arrive too early for the tour but they kindly let us have a look around on our own. I am not sure whether there is a breeding season for goats but there are hundreds of baby goats all over the place! In amongst the goat pens there are lots of chickens and ducks as well. The baby goats, some only a few days old, are really cute. Afterwards we spend half an hour chatting to the woman in the shop and sampling some of the numerous varieties of cheese on sale. They are all delicious and quite unlike the goat cheeses we have had back home.

The last time we stayed in Cafayate, I can recall not being that impressed but this time we really did enjoy it. Not often that the second visit improves ones opinion of a place.

From Cafayate we return to Salta along RN 68 heading north through the Río Calchaquíes Valley and on to the Quebrada del Río de las Conchas (Canyon of the River of Shells). Lots of interesting crimson covered rock formations, the most interesting are Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), El Anfiteatro (the Amphitheatre), and Los Castillos (the Castles) all are a lot busier than the last time we were here as we seem to have hit them as the tour groups from Salta arrived.The scenery on this section of the route is particularly impressive.

Heading back to Salta we have decided to stay with Alex and Rejike at Casa Hernadez in Salta. We stayed with them on our first trip to the region five years ago shortly after they opened and loved the place. We were welcomed like long lost friends and had a really great time staying with them.

We had one of our best meals on this trip so far at a restaurant recommended by Alex, Tosca, a new parrillada restaurant in San Lorenzo. Highly recommended is their Bife de Chorizo (tasty, tender and enormous!) and their degustation menu, a normal argentine parrilla or mixed grill but delivered piece by delicious piece!

Returning our rental car, we book our bus tickets to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Thankfully, the mountain passes which had been blocked by snow the previous week have now reopened and we are able to get a bus out early the next morning.
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