Day 78: October 31, 2007 Salta to Cafayate

Trip Start Aug 15, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2008

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day 78: October 31, 2007 Salta to Cafayate

I got up at 7:15, showered, and got breakfast after getting Elena going. We packed for an overnight and then took the bus down to 20 de Febrero and Entre Ríos where we walked the final block and a half to Lisa's hotel. She was all set to go and excited about the opportunity to get to see some of the countryside.

We took a cab out to the airport and found the Localiza car rental office. Renting cars is extremely expensive in Argentina. I was given a rate of $300 + $.90/km after the first 400 km for a new Chevrolet Astra. It's outrageous but all of the companies are in collusion with each other to make a killing. Anti-trust has no meaning here.

We pulled out of the airport and headed south on Ruta 68. We filled our tank about 30 km south of the airport at El Carril and then turned west to follow the road up the Río Escoipe canyon into the Cordillera Oriental. I've made this trip six times, now. It has never ceases to impress me. The lower part of the canyon is very picturesque. I was surprised to see that the road is now mostly paved. The pavement changes to gravel when it starts climbing into the mountains. As we climbed, we stopped several times to take pictures of the scenery and the gravel road snaking up the mountain. The incipient landslides on the far side do not seem to have moved but they are so far away, it is hard to tell for sure. They are just awaiting the next big earthquake. We stopped at the top, at the Cuesta del Obispo and fotografed the Valle Encantado.

Once we crossed the top, at an elevation of ~11,500', we started descending the long, straight road to the north through the Parque Nacional de los Cardones. Cardones are big Saguarro-like cacti. We stopped to shoot some shots of the Sierra de Tintin, a beautiful, doubly plunging anticline. It is a classic geological structure that rivals Wyoming's Sheep Mountain Anticline.

It took us about an hour to get to Cachi, a picturesque village at the north end of the Valle Calchaquí. We ate a late lunch of milanesas, Lisa's first ever, at a sidewalk restaurant. It was hot but pleasant under the shade of the umbrellas. The Argentine penchant for keeping travelers in the dark about which road is which got the better of us for about 20 minutes as we left town the wrong way and then just completely lost the highway when we returned. I asked a guy on the central square how to get to Cafayate. He pointed to a narrow, unmarked road through a quaint residential area. Sure enough, it took us back to the "highway" Ruta 40. I put "highway" in quotes because the next 150 km are dusty, gravel road until just north of San Carlos.

The drive is extremely scenic but must be done mostly in second and third gears. This apparently caused the engine to heat up enough to allow some coolant to drip onto the engine. This sent a distinct organic odor back into the cabin. We stopped at a YPF station in Seclantas to look under the hood but could not for the life of us find the latch to open the hood. We bought some water and sodas and continued on. Unfortunately, I pulled onto the wrong road. We were all so focused on the smell and latch problems that none of us noticed that we were traveling west into the mountains instead of following the river. I can't believe I didn't notice! It dawned on me that we were going the wrong way after nearly 20 km so we turned around and drove back to the valley and got back on the main road.

We had only gone a few kilometers when we were flagged down by two young European-looking women. They turned out to be Spaniards. They had also taken a wrong turn, due to a lack of signs, and ended up getting their rental car stuck in the river. Our map made it look like we were halfway between Seclantas and Molinos. I hadn't noticed a tow truck in Seclantas so I decided to take them to Molinos which might have one, being a bigger town. It turned out to be 15-20 km away. We left them at the YPF station in Molinos and wished them luck. As we continued south, the sun was getting low in the sky, just above the mountains. The low-angle light made our drive through the Angastaco area absolutely spectacular. We stopped several times to take more pictures.

After the sun went down behind the mountains, large thunderheads rising over the mountains on the east side of the valley took on various hues, making a colorful display. We continued on the gravel road toward San Carlos. It was dark by the time we reached the pavement a few kilometers north of town. Elena and Lisa kept commenting on the lightning display over the mountains to the east. I joked that they were just trying to make me take my eyes off the road. When the road jogged east for a bit, I got to see what they were talking about. There was a steady stream of lightning flashes.

We pulled into Cafayate around 8:30 and drove to the Hotel Asturias where I have stayed twice before. It is a very nice 3-star hotel. In true Argentine cybercommerce, the hotel never received my email through their website that requested room reservations. Fortunately, they had the two rooms we needed. Lisa went to hers and Elena and I fired up the air conditioner in ours. We all took much-needed showers after our long, dusty ride. I was surprised at how far it was and groaned at the overkilometerage charge we were going to get.

Elena wasn't hungry so she decided to stay at the hotel. Lisa and I weren't really hungry either so walked down to the central plaza and sat at a sidewalk café where we ordered a bottle of Cafayate red wine from the Etchart bodega. After awhile, I asked the waiter if we could order some empanadas. He said they didn't serve them. In mock surprise, I jokingly chewed him out for not having the provincial specialty and asked if he could get us some. He walked away and we assumed that was the end of the story but he came back half an hour later with a dozen steaming empanadas which tasted great. The cook had made them just for us. We made sure he got a good tip!

Satiated and tired, we returned to the hotel, said good night. Elena was sound asleep but for some reason the air conditioning was off and the room was hot. I turned it back on, went to bed, and fell asleep immediately.
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Where I stayed
Hotel Astúrias
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